Well, it had felt like spring until the wind had hit her in the face. Wasn’t it time yet? She wandered down the dirt path in front of the house and up the wooden stairs into the garden, fully aware that she was outdoors in her pajamas and inside slippers, and not really caring. None of the neighbors were outside, and she did not care what they thought, anyway; was it really so strange to wear pajamas in the early morning? As for the dirt, well, she’d brush off her slippers when she got inside; and dirt was healthy, anyway. What was good for the flowers was fine with Alice too.
Here and there a crocus plant threatened to bloom; but the garden was still mostly full of dry and crumbled twigs, still asleep. A few premature dandelions by the edge of the pond delighted her. She knelt down to look at the slow orange fish wiggling through the icy water. Soon, perhaps, there would be frogs and bugs and all sorts of interesting things. The life would come.
Such a slow spring it was, still quiet and cold. Last week it had snowed. Sighing, she abandoned the speckled fish to their finny thrashing and stood up, shaking bits of dead leaves and clumps of dirt from her pajama legs. Had it been this way last year, or was it getting worse?
Almost unconsciously, she glanced up at the towering skyscraper that dominated the view to the north. It was probably the reactors. Here in the center of the city, she was cut off from true nature; killing spikes pierced the ground in a ring around her home, and drew the lifeblood of the planet from the very garden in her own backyard. Each year it grew colder, and the spring came slower, and little by little nature died all around her.
But what could she do?
Sighing, she hurried back towards the house, the biting wind suddenly too cold to bear anymore. She threw herself on the floor and plunged her arms and legs under the cover of the heated table, rubbing her dry hands furiously to keep them warm.
“Alice!” called a distant voice from above her head.
“Did you look for crocuses?”
“Yes; there aren’t any, though.”
“When there are, you’ll be the first to know.” Alice decided she would dig up a crocus and put it in a flowerpot for her mother’s room. It would be a lovely surprise. It was such a shame her mother couldn’t get up to see the garden. Perhaps when it was very warm and the chill would not endanger her health, Alice could take her out for a look; that would calm her. “You know I’ll be right here.”
“You aren’t going out dressed like that, I hope?”
Alice looked down at her dark patchwork skirt and olive green sweater. “I’m only going to church.”
Her mother sniffed. “Dowdy colors. You’ll never catch anyone’s eye if you dress like dirt. Come here, your braid is scruffy.”
Alice patiently stood by her mother’s fireside chair, allowing her to brush out Alice’s long wavy hair and re-plait it into a satisfyingly neat cord. “I like these colors, Mom. They remind me of the garden.”
“It’s not very bright or cheerful,” complained her mother. “You should wear something eye-popping to get more attention from nice gentlemen.”
“Mom, I’m not really sure—I mean, I don’t want a boyfriend who likes only smiley cheerful things. A guy like that would be boring.”
“Picky, picky! So who do you want to take up with? Some no-good soldier from the south more likely to get killed than to be there for you?”
Alice gritted her teeth, and refrained from disagreeing again. Her mother knew how she felt about Zack. The more time that went by with no letters from him… it was easier for her mother to crow, “I told you so!” and harder for Alice to insist that he was safe. He would be fine, he would… keep his promise.
“Why,” snapped Alice, “can’t I love whomever I love?”
Her mother looked up at her with tear-softened eyes, her face suddenly seeming pale against the glowing fire. “Alice. All the gentlemen will be married, and you’ll end up alone.” Her hands trembled, pulling up the blanket on her lap. “I don’t want you to be alone. If you could just find a nice, local man, someone who will always be there…”
“I don’t want to be alone, either,” said Alice, her breath catching urgently in her throat. Zack had, after all, never said he loved her… she had had only hope and friendship to string herself along. Was it her fault, after all, that no one ever asked her on a date? “Mom, I don’t know what to do.”
Her mother nodded grimly. “Go put on the white lace blouse you got for your birthday, and the pink-and-blue skirt. And for heaven’s sake, smile. You’re a sweet little maiden. Milk it for all it’s worth.”
Alice turned up the corners of her mouth in a convincingly bright smile, though her eyes remained serene and mysterious, which she simply couldn’t help. “Okay.”
When Alice first saw the man falling through the roof, she was too shocked even to jump back. She heard wood splintering and stone cracking on impact; and with the sudden loudness of it all, her shoulders jolted up to frame her cheeks, and she barely looked upwards in time to see it happen. His clothing was familiar, and for a moment she thought she knew him; but of course, it was only the clothes that looked familiar, not the man himself. He lay on his side, curled up in her lily bed.
The blonde man was a pretty stranger. His face was delicate—refined, not weak; but as she stared, she realized he was stronger than he looked at first glance. Of course he was; he must be, to wield the giant sword that had fallen with him. Most likely he was a soldier. She felt awkward for staring and not rushing about trying to help, but she had no idea what to do. Was he safe? Did he need medical attention, and if so, what kind? Was he even alive? The thought of a dead soldier in her flowers was gruesomely poetic; but it would be inconvenient. She might be blamed—oh, he moved an arm; he was alive after all.
He muttered something nonsensical to himself; he was talking in his sleep. Alice, somewhat embarrassed, tried to make him aware of her presence. “Hello, hello,” she called.
The beautiful young man—likely younger than she was, she realized with a small shock, and the poor guy must have been through hell—turned over onto his back with a groan. Alice knelt down beside him. “Wake up. Hello, hello!”
He opened his eyes and focused them on her. She could not help noticing the glassy, almost glowing green rim around the edges of his irises—the sign of mako infusion. So he really was in the army. Exactly, she thought with a mental chuckle, the kind of man her mother was always warning her about.
But he was pretty…
The soldier stared wildly around him, then opened his mouth and bestowed upon the anxious Alice his first eloquent speech. “Ugh.”
Well, she would give him time. He’d probably just had a concussion. “You fell through my roof. Do you remember that happening?”
He shook his head no.
“Okay. Uh, we’ll take it from there.” She pulled up a few stray weeds, waiting for him to sit up and regain some more of his bearings.
The idea of a pretty soldier was not new. Hadn’t she just been thinking about it recently? A small, sweet-faced young man, who nevertheless looked like he could cut through a behemoth… where had she just seen someone like that?
Last night outside of the theatre. She’d seen—wait. Wasn’t this the same soldier? She dropped her spade into the earth as the thought hit her. Could it really be him?
Well, it could…
She studied him closely. What if he remembered her and she acted like she didn’t remember him? That could be embarrassing… Tentatively she asked, “Do you remember me?”
“Of course I do,” he said hastily, obviously lying.
She looked at him expectantly.
Stuck, he turned to her a jesting smile. “You’re the slum drunk.”
She laughed at his joke, and put her hands on her hips with a mock-scowl. “No, really,” she said. “I’m not sure if I’ve got the wrong guy. Did you buy a flower from me last night at the theatre?”
He closed his eyes as though replaying a memory. “It’s you! The girl who fell down!”
“Yeah, that was me.” She tilted her head, looking at him quizzically. “Are you really a soldier?”
The man put a hand behind his head and looked up at her with an expression of utter embarrassment. “I, uh… I do a little bit of everything. I’m Claude, by the way.”
Claude. He wasn’t really in the army. She glanced again from him to the sword and back, taking in his slightly frayed clothes, his scuffed boots. A soldier… but freelance. He could do what he wanted… he could stay if he needed to…
“I’m Alice. …Bodyguard, huh? Well, I could use one.”
He gave her a skeptical look.
“I can’t pay you,” she admitted. She thought desperately for a way to keep him near her just a bit longer. He was just a random guy plunging through her roof, but he had been in the outside world. His eyes showed that he must have been in the army at one point; maybe he even knew Zack. He could tell her stories… or something. Truthfully, his sudden appearance had been the most exciting thing that had happened to her dull routine of a life for longer than she cared to remember. She wanted to prolong that adventure, to hold on to it… She couldn’t let him just walk away.
“I really do need someone to walk me home,” she said, half-truthfully. “I’ll do something for you. I’ll…” What did she have?
Well, he was handsome…
“How about if I go out with you once?” She gave him a big smile, hoping that he wouldn’t think her too forward. Mom always tells me to be passive… oh, dear lord, I hope he doesn’t take it the wrong way…how do you flirt, anyway?
Claude was shaking his head no. “Actually, I…”
“Just a friendly date,” she insisted. “No pressure on either of us.”
“So it’s a promise?”
He sighed, shrugging. “All right. I’ll walk you home.”
Alice scrambled up through the jagged hole in the roof, trying not to tear her skirt on the splintered wood. She clattered onto the slate tiles, scuffing her boots wildly and getting insulation lint on her skirt, but that was fine. As Claude climbed up to sit beside her, she picked the lint gingerly off the hem of her skirt.
“My mom always told me not to touch fiberglass insulation,” she said. “Apparently it gives you splinters or something… Mom only said it was dangerous, and I was afraid I would get hurt if I even got near it.”
Claude grinned. “Not unless you rub the stuff on your hand. Or breathe it in.”
“I didn’t know that, back then.” She looked off along the debris-strewn alley--the trail she would have to take home. The late sun slanted in at a skewed angle, illuminating secret corners and recesses in the junk heaps. “I just knew it was dangerous in some way. So I avoided it entirely.”
She sat up straighter and, for the first time, really noticed the trash pile across the street, and thought about the fact that the view from the church doors was a trash pile. “I guess that’s how you have to live in the slums. Everything that might be dangerous, probably is.”
“Sucks for you.”
“Yeah. But it’s not like I’m poor or anything,” she added hastily, afraid he would think she had deceived him when he saw her home. “My mom takes care of me. We have a nice house, a garden, money to live on… I’m really lucky and all that.” She sighed.
“Right about now,” smirked Claude, “some people I know would have given you a rousing speech about the evils of Shin-ra. How they cause all the poverty and hardship and stuff.”
Alice gazed at the late afternoon sky, the clear air pierced by the towering Shin-ra building. “Well, I do think they’re killing the planet. That much I resent. And if they’re not enough to kill the planet per se, they’re at least killing the area here.” She scowled. “Messes with my gardening, and I really hate that.”
Claude shrugged. “Hey, I’m not saying I like them, either. You don’t see me working for them anymore.” He jerked a thumb behind him. “Hey, who was that guy, anyway?”
“Reno of the Turks. They’ve been chasing me lately.”
Alice was not about to tell him why. He was, for all his apparent benevolence, a strange, armed man with eyes that hinted at Shin-ra training. She stared blankly for a moment, frozen in panic, and then said the only thing she could think of, goofy as it was. “I think they, ah, think I have what it takes to be a soldier.” She cracked a grin.
Claude laughed. “No, really.”
“Really…” She sobered. “I don’t know.”
He let that go.
Alice wondered with a new intensity where this stranger had come from. He was from outside Midgar, and involved in fighting Shin-ra. He could tell her so many things, take her so many places, if only she could bring up the subject without sounding nosy or desperate. He could give her some of his adventure to share… if only she knew more about who he was. “Who do you work for?”
“Well, it’s… an anti-Shin-ra group.”
Her hope plummeted. “Erm. Someone like Avalanche?” Hopefully, he didn’t work on promised pay for one of the no-name, hopelessly disorganized and lazy rebel groups that did nothing—a bunch of guys sitting on couches eating leftover pizza and jawing about their big ideas. Alice had a friend who claimed membership in one of those groups; she noticed they were full of pride in all the plans that they hadn’t yet started on.
“It is Avalanche.”
“Oh. I didn’t know.” Well, now she had more respect for him.
A nearby vehicle chugged audibly into action. Alice and Claude watched, hunkering down behind the pointed line of the roof, as a truck with a Shin-ra logo rumbled through the alley and turned right, disappearing down the trail.
“That’d be Reno,” said Claude. “He’s gone.”
A moment later, they were too.
"Wait!" gasped Alice, trying to pretend she was not breathing heavily as she leapt over wide gaps between roofs and pulled herself over high walled barriers. She looked dubiously at the fallen beam, barely the width of her heavy gardening boots, which Claude had just darted nimbly across. "Slow down! Don't leave me..."
Claude paused, his hair haloed by a beam of light, and gave her an impudent cherubic grin. "I thought you said you were cut out to be a soldier?" he teased.
Alice rolled her eyes, laughing at the in-joke she had accidentally made. "You're terrible." Had she been within arm's reach, she might have lightly messed up his hair-- not that it would much affect that spiky jumble. She wondered as she stepped onto the beam why she'd had the sudden impulse to mess up his hair, as it was not a normal gesture of hers.
That fine golden hair looked as soft as down. She wanted to touch it; that was why.
Stop it, she told herself, remember he's a fighter. He'll go off and get killed while you wait at home.
Or would he? How committed was he to his cause? After all, he was no actual soldier, though he had the distinct look of one. Perhaps he had deserted or been kicked out, which would account for his reluctance to talk about the army-- ex-soldiers were supposed to be proud.
"Hey, Claude. Were you ever a soldier?" she questioned as she reached the section of red-tiled roof where he stood.
He put a hand at the back of his neck, pulling lightly at his tufted hair, and let out a puff of breath. "Used to be," he admitted. "How did you know that?"
"Your eyes," she said, equally reluctant to divulge her secrets but equally curious. "They have a strange glow..."
"Oh, that... that's the sign of those who have been infused with mako... the mark of a soldier." He shot her a quizzical glance. "But how would you know?"
"Oh--" She floundered for another alibi. "Nothing. Um." Wonderful, now she sounded suspicious. She struggled for the nearest explanation, something, anything, as long as it was far from the truth. "My mother says--"
"Your mother says, your mother says." Claude said it softly, jesting. "Do you know anything that your mother doesn't say?"
Alice turned away so he would not see the tears in her eyes. It was a joke, but like all teasing it had an element of truth. "Yeah, I know I listen to her a lot." She tilted her head so her dripping bangs would further conceal her expression, unable to face him. "I guess it's just... she's the only family I've got. And she's sick and stuff. So." She shrugged, trying to blow it off.
"Your mother's sick?" His tone dropped instantly into sympathy. "I'm sorry. I didn't know..."
"Yeah, she's sick. So, um. I listen to her. I take care of her. I obey her. Is that a problem?"
“No, it's not a problem..."
"It's not like I have no will of my own. It's just that I owe her." Alice forced down the rising edge of pain in her voice. "She wanted to see the crocus... I promised her I'd show her the crocus. I owe her that." She scrubbed at her damp eyes with the back of her hand. "I'm sorry, I... god, why am I telling you all this? I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I'll listen if you want me to."
"T-thanks." She sniffled.
After a moment, she sat down on the roof, head propped up in her hands. It wasn't easy to just start talking, and she'd already said as much as she could have thought of to say, but Claude seemed to be waiting for more-- and it still hurt. "I just feel... this immense debt to her. I mean, she isn't even my real mother. She didn't have to take me in. But she took care of me for all those years, and now it's like it's my turn."
"Not if it destroys your life," said Claude. "She didn't have to take you in. She chose to."
"But I owe her," said Alice. "All these years, and she's still trying to help me, even though she thinks I'm hopeless. And I'm trying to listen to her, to be what she wants. Some of it's simple enough, but some of it... it's not altogether me." Her mother was a proper mother, who wanted to raise a little lady. Alice wanted to be that lady worthy of respect, but every prescribed choice seemed to constrict her inclinations with shackles of lace.
"You didn't ask to owe her, did you? It wasn't a willing bargain."
"No," said Alice, gazing absently at the color-streaked sky, "that's true."
"So stand up for yourself. Be yourself. You have to live your own life, even if it means you have to get away."
"Do you really think so?"
"Yeah," said Claude. "I did the same."
They looked like a young couple hurrying down the street, late perhaps for some dinner reservation, some concert in the dark basement of a neon-suffused bar. Alice was keenly aware of this as she led the sweet-faced soldier through the grimy alleys of the central lower city. Was it simply the happiness implied by couplehood, or was it some warm Claude-centric vibration of her heart that made her bask so blissfully in the idea?
She could already see what her mother would think-- the moment she brought Claude home, she knew, such suspicions would fall on her head. He looked every inch a soldier, and a pretty, beguiling soldier at that; he would flash red danger signs at her mother. Claude was safe for her; she knew that now; but her mother would hardly believe. She had set her heart firmly against all things manly and uniformed in response to pain, and pain never listens to reason.
Not that Alice was in love or anything, she reminded herself. It was just nice to know that she would be safe with Claude if she did. The defense was necessary in case her mother got upset over his mere presence. That was all. Really truly. Honest.
She led him down a narrow street and under the accidental roof of a fallen sheet of corrugated metal, stepping around the pile of excrement-- human or canine, she did not want to know-- mired near the filthy graffiti-covered concrete wall. "Watch your step," she said. "It gets nasty under here."
Claude's carefully neutral expression melted away as they rounded a corner and came upon a huge garden surrounded by a wooden fence. Vines of tiny white wildflowers just beginning to bloom wound their way over dry wintry lawn and around beds of more traditional shoots, barely poking out of the hard wintry ground, waiting to unfurl their secret colors until true spring. Framed by a dirt path was a small, but blissfully clean, cottage. The soldier stared at it with visible relief.
"Where did you think I lived?" teased Alice. "In a run-down low-rent apartment with a leaky roof?"
"Something like that. It's that sort of town..."
She put her hands on her hips in mock indignation. "Oh, and I suppose I'm 'that' sort of girl?"
"No! I didn't mean..."
"Suuuure. Does your foot taste good, Mr. Claude?" She smiled to make sure he knew it had been a joke as they walked in the door. "I'm home, Mom!"
Alice's mother paused at the foot of the staircase, a quilt wrapped around her shoulders like a blanket; when she saw her guest, her eyes turned the hardness of diamond, and her lips curved upwards in an equally chiseled smile.
"This is Claude-- my bodyguard," Alice stressed as she bent to unlace her boots.
The smile escaped instantly. "Bodyguard...? Were you followed again? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine. I had Claude with me," she pointed out, glad to turn criticism into advantage.
Her eyes softening a little, Alice's mother nodded and thanked him. "Just excuse me one moment-- I'll be right back."
While her mother was upstairs, Alice shot Claude a nervous glance. "I'm sorry if she seems a bit cold..." If only she could explain the family paranoia, she thought-- she had said nothing about it earlier, not wanting her new friend to think he was unwelcome. It had put off the awkwardness, but now she realized that he might feel more unwelcome with no explanation at all.
"It's no problem."
She nodded, grateful, and bit her lip. "Um. So. What are you going to do now?"
"Well..." He let out a low filtered sigh, and scrubbed his fingers through his messy hair. "Is Sector 7 far from here? I want to go to Tiffany's bar..."
Alice felt for one instant as though a board had been yanked from beneath her feet, releasing her into icy water. Then it was all right; the water was fine; she had never expected anything else but this. So he has a girlfriend. No problem. I guess nothing romantic will happen, after all. I'll just be his friend-- that's all I wanted anyway, right?
Unless, of course... "Is Tiffany... you know, a girl?" She realized after she said this how moronic it sounded-- obviously Tiffany was a girl; she had meant "a girl worthy of consideration as such"-- a girl whose very girlness was not just incidental, but of dire importance to Claude's relationship with her. She thought she might amend her statement, but anything she now might say would probably sound even sillier.
"A girl... friend?"
Claude's ears turned delicate pink, and he shook his head violently. "No way!"
She could not suppress a laugh, both amused and delighted. "You don't have to get that upset." This ex-soldier was so young, so sweet, an authentically naive boy-- exactly the opposite of what her mother must surmise. The very thought of a girlfriend made him blush. How had that innocence even survived boot camp, she wondered, let alone taken him through the ranks? She might have been expected to blush herself-- after all, she was a lady-- but from Claude it was a surprise. "Well, that's... nice."
He was too wonderful to simply walk away. She made her decision. "Let's see... Sector 7? I'll show you the way."
"You gotta be kidding. Put yourself in danger again? After I just got you out of it?"
"Sorry to crumple your accomplishments." She shrugged, trying to hide her nervousness, and wondered how much she could get away with telling him and yet keep her secret. "I'm used to danger."
"Used to it?" He stared for a moment, then, seeming to read the truth of this in the mysteries of her eyes, his expression changed to one of slow, sly acceptance. "Well, I don't know," he taunted, "getting help from a girl..."
"A girl! What do you mean by that?" she scoffed, angrily tossing back her beribboned braid with the edge of a lace-dripped sleeve. "You expect me to just sit by and listen, after hearing you say something like that? Is that how it is, huh?"
"Yeah, that's how it is."
"Now you're never getting rid of me."
"Mom!" called Alice. "I'm taking Claude to Sector 7. I'll be back in a while."
The floorboards creaked under her mother's approach and descent. "But, dear..."
She was met by two pairs of determined glowing eyes.
Alice's mother sighed. "I give up. You never listen once you've made up your mind." She shook her head as if to warn Alice that she'd never be a lady if she carried on so. "But if you must go, why don't you go tomorrow? It's getting late now."
She wanted to say no, to insist on leaving immediately; she felt a fear-- almost a certainty-- that if she did not leave with Claude now, she would never get out of that house. The morning would bring different moods, different inhibitions; she would not be emboldened by Claude's company; she would wimp out and accede to her mother's demand, or worse. There had to be some confidence in her mother's tolerant face; otherwise she would never have yielded to Alice's request so easily. But her mother stood there, implacably fixing her with that expression that would tolerate no dissent-- that confidence that said she knew she was right, was entitled to be right through hard experience and pain, and that if Alice was a good daughter, a grateful daughter, she would nod and say, half-believing, "Yeah, you're right, Mom," which she found herself doing before she could find the heart to defy.
Her mother nodded, satisfied. "Alice, please go and make the bed."
Something was most certainly wrong, she thought as she shuffled dutifully up the stairs to tidy up the guest room.
When she met Claude at the top of the staircase, he had the look of distance in his eyes. He was going to betray her, but it wasn't his fault; it was her subversive mother who would wreck everything. Her mother didn't know Claude, didn't understand him the way Alice did. Alice had... well, she had spent the day with him; and it didn't sound like much but it was everything in truth. She watched him walk past her down the hallway, and wondered whether she should say anything-- but to drag him into the struggle between herself and her mother was unfair. Not here, not now. He needed rest. But-- but--
He turned to look at her.
Hoping she would see him again, she murmured, "Good night."
Downstairs, her mother was waiting for her with frustration steaming from her ears and nose like an unattended kettle. "Alice."
"What?" She tried to sound surprised. Who, me?
"I don't want you going with him."
"Mom, it's just for the day. I'll be safe with him, obviously, and he'll walk me home. He just needs a guide-- he's from Nibelheim--"
"I know where he's from: Trouble."
"He's not trouble," she hissed, verging on hysteria; yet she could not speak too loud. "You don't know him."
"I might as well: I know what he's like. Oh, he's nice enough. He doesn't know what he'll do to you, Alice."
"He won't hurt me--"
"A boy like that will hurt you without realizing it. He doesn't know what it does to a wife and family, to go off and leave them alone and get killed."
With that statement, Mrs. Elmyra Gainsborough lost her case. For she was wrong, crucially and completely wrong, and Alice knew it. The wall of fear and seclusion she had tried to build around her daughter crumbled to the ground, irreparably broken: like so much dust, signifying only the past.
"That isn't true." Alice splayed her hands at her sides with the welling emotion of her triumph and insistence. "He knows that more than anything else. He spent the whole afternoon telling me about his family-- how his father left him and his mother for the army, simply deserted them and never came back-- how crushed he was-- how he's spent his whole life trying to do over what his father did, but to do it right." She leaned forward as she spoke, pinning her mother to the wall with truth like darts. "If Claude did ride off into the sunset with me-- which isn't even what's happening, mind-- he would drop everything for his family. You know nothing. You simply cannot pass judgment on someone when you simply do not know."
Alice's mother looked suddenly tired and frail-- and shrewish. "What are you accusing me of?" she whined. "Alice Rose Gainsborough, don't you dare go up those steps! Don't you dare--!"
From the upstairs hallway, Alice could hear her mother quietly weeping.
Alice bolted awake just as dawn began to wanly heat the sky. Curled into a ball of tension, she had lain there till early morning, unable to fall asleep in the first place; she had slept poorly all night; now it was time for her to get up-- weary or not-- to finally embark on this crazy, terrifying, half-rational plan. She would go through with it-- she had promised herself the night before not to change her mind in the morning, no matter what.
She cast a longing look at her bed. It would be so much easier to change her mind anyway-- to collapse back into sleep, to wake to her own life, having missed all the strain and terror and trauma-- but it would be the same life forever, and without that cherubic smile which had, briefly, promised something she had always wanted-- love for her real self, desire to throw away her charade. Anyway, she could not face her mother's anger and paranoia again. Oh, she would go through with it, but her hands trembled as she opened her closet doors.
Automatically she reached towards the pink dress she'd thought to wear, the petal-like button-down silk with the tailored red jacket that constricted her shoulders but looked feminine and cute. You'll never catch anyone's eye if you dress like dirt... You're a sweet little maiden, her mother's voice echoed in her mind. She wanted to impress Claude-- more than she had ever wanted to impress anyone before. She liked him and, miracle of miracles, he also seemed to like her.
But he liked who she really was, not what she might pretend to be.
That's it. What she pulled from the closet was a gathered brown skirt and a loose dark green shirt. If I'm going, I'm going all the way. From now on she would wear what she liked and go where she pleased; she would state her own opinion as loudly as she could; and if someone made a dirty joke, she was damned well going to laugh at it. People might think whatever they liked of her; they were not the ones who had to live as the lady they wanted to admire. The difficult part, she knew, would be trying not to pass her mother's judgment on herself. She stuffed a backpack with a toothbrush, a few changes of clothes, her money and as many of her notebooks and sketches as she could gather. Hopefully she would never see this room again.
She stole out of her room, clutching a small crumple of fabric. Silently she crept to the door of her mother's room, sliding along the board that generally did not creak. For once she was thankful that she knew this prison so well-- and Claude would still be asleep, as she had not heard him try to leave. She pressed her ear to the door and, hearing only soft, sleep-heavy breathing, she turned the doorknob and crept in.
Her mother looked surprisingly peaceful in her sleep. Sick and angry and bitter during the day, all of her icy misery seemed to have melted into so much mist. What did she dream of? The long-dead husband who had left her perpetually lonely? The empty childhood which had never taught her to find friends? Perhaps it was her daughter's own youth, when Alice was obedient and wise, when she knew no other way but following orders and all she wanted was a mother to love, to hold her and fill her-- the days when that had been enough.
I wish I could have been that forever, thought Alice as she laid her silk burden on the windowsill. I wish I hadn't disappointed you by growing up. She had, after all, only wanted what she thought was best for her daughter. But Alice was a real bloom, not a false one, and this was her time to live. I'm sorry about change. But you will always be my mother.
She blew the sleeping woman a kiss, wishing she could give her a real one without waking her; but urgency says goodbye the best it can. It was time to leave.
On her mother's windowsill, the rising sun threw beams of light on a silk crocus.
The purpose of this fic is to coax the reader to overcome those long-held stereotypes about the FFVII characters, and try to view them in a different light. The benefit of using changed names is that it helps break out of the preconceived ideas everyone has of the characters. After reading a billion FFVII fics, it all starts to sound the same: Cloud and Aeris, mako and SOLDIER-- we've seen it before, so it's hard to come to a fic with an open mind. Reading about Alice and Claude, however, is a little different: it doesn't feel quite like the-old-FFVII-song-and-dance-as-always. The characters are not "misnamed," but rechristened in order to help eliminate the fixed ideas attached to their traditional names.