It was too early to get up, so most of the house was still asleep.
Tifa wasn't asleep. She had woken up from a dream she couldn't recall. Something told her it was important, but she had no idea why. She just knew she had to remember, somehow.
She had slipped into the washroom, careful not to wake the others. It wouldn't be good if they knew she was up. But there was nothing for it, she couldn't have gone back to sleep. So she prepared herself to begin the day, the same way she would have if she'd gotten up later.
Tifa avoided the mirror.
She hated herself for it. There wasn't anything there, nothing but herself. But try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to look. Not for months, since autumn at least. Something kept her from it. Something that terrified her.
Tifa didn't understand why she was afraid. She told herself every day that she could face it, the same way she faced all her fears. She had been through some terrible things, unbelievable things sometimes, and came out the other side. How could this be worse?
Tifa didn't know. But when she left the washroom, she still hadn't looked in the mirror.
Last summer she had gone to Corel to visit Barrett. Marlene had invited her, but it was Barrett she wanted to visit.
She was angry when Marlene came to pick her up at Costa del Sol. In Junon, it was easy to forget how long it had been since Barrett had invited her to visit, and how many times he had sent reasons not to come this season. Barrett had always welcomed her before.
But in Costa del Sol, she had time to think about it, and she was upset. Surely Barrett couldn't have turned away from her, so it had to be something else. The only person who could influence Barrett that much was Marlene. She tried not to believe it, but she believed it anyway.
When Marlene arrived to drive her back to Corel, Tifa didn't ask why she came instead of Barrett. She didn't ask anything at all. She just climbed into the cab and they drove off in silence.
Tifa was the one to speak first. "You didn't need to come. I know the way by now."
"I wanted to come," said Marlene. "I haven't seen you for a long time."
Tifa shifted in her seat. It seemed unusually hard, especially on the old track past the Gold Saucer. These days, people wanted to travel the rail line past the ruins of the Corel Reactor. Tifa liked the old way better. But the seat was still uncomfortable.
Eventually, Tifa spoke again. "How is everyone," she asked.
"They're fine. Everyone misses you."
"I should have brought Ellis and Keilee. They could have gone to the Saucer."
"You can bring them next time."
"I should have brought them this time."
They didn't speak again until they reached Corel.
The stairs creaked. They had always creaked, and Tifa had always promised herself that they'd be fixed one day. But they never got fixed, and Tifa was happy, a little, that they hadn't.
She tried her best to be quiet. Shayla would be upset if she knew Tifa was up this early, but it wasn't possible to avoid all the creaks. The best she could do was make quiet creaks. So she tread softly and quickly, doing her best to be quiet.
Creak, creak, creak...
The stairs to Barrett's house had creaked, too. He liked it that way. No one could climb those stairs without him knowing, and he usually knew who it was. Barrett always liked to know who was visiting.
Tifa had forgotten about the creaks, and they surprised her a little. The most important man in town, the Manager, shouldn't have steps that creak. But she climbed the stairs anyway, creaking her way inside.
Marlene came with her. "Papa, there's someone here to see you."
The room was dark, darker than she expected it to be. Barrett had always liked it that way. Ever since that time in Midgar, he had always mistrusted brightly lit rooms. Said they reminded him of Shinra, the bastards. Killing the planet and wasting what they took just to light their buildings. Even after Shinra was long gone and Corel was thriving again, Marlene had never been able to convince him they could light their homes honestly.
This was darker than it should have been, though. Even Barrett usually kept a small light somewhere.
"It's good to see you, Teef," came his voice from somewhere. There was something wrong with that voice, but Tifa didn't know what it was. She wanted her eyes to adjust faster so she could see her friend again..
"It's good to see you, too. How have you been?"
"Me? I'm ready to take on those Shinra bastards again, I'll tell you that. Damn, Teef, I feel like beatin' the bad guys again."
"There's no one left to beat."
She could see him by now. She tried to keep her voice steady.
After a moment, the voice came again. Tifa knew what was wrong with it now. "Yeah, I know. But there'll be another Shinra someday, you watch. An' you an' me'll start Avalanche all over again and really hand their asses to them." The voice sounded hollow, like someone had sucked all the strength out of it. Maybe someone had.
Tifa turned away. She was glad the room was dark. She tried to keep the tears out of her voice. "Sure, it'll be just like the old days."
Tifa knew better. Barrett would never leave Corel again.
The impact nearly knocked her down, but Zangan's training and her own long experience saved her. She steadied herself and looked down, little arms circling her legs.
She knelt before the child and tried to look stern. She didn't feel stern. She felt love. But this was part of the ritual and could not be changed, no matter how much Tifa wanted to hug the child tight and not let go.
"Keilee Marie Palmer-Lockheart," she said, drawing out the name with mock severity. She tried not to laugh at the child's attempt to look contrite. There was a giggle that wanted out. "You should not be up this early. What would your mother say?"
The child beamed. A little bit of the giggle got free. "Mummy's still asleep, silly. It's just you and me, Gran."
Tifa smiled. It felt good to smile. "All right then. You stay with me, that's a good girl."
They really were good girls, all of them.
Tifa's mood brightened even more while she made coffee, her fingers plucking the filters and coffee scoop automatically while her eyes paid more attention to Keilee. Shayla wasn't nearly the morning person she was, and it was always good to have something ready for her. Keilee buttered toast.
Tifa remembered one morning in the summer, she had come down the stairs to find Keilee already up, sitting in the morning sun with the biggest smile Tifa had ever seen. Tifa had asked her why she was so happy.
"It's the sunshine, Gran," she had said. "The Ancient made it sunny just for us."
Tifa had to leave her there. She didn't want Keilee to see her cry.
She had cried when she finally left Barrett's house. Marlene had given them some time alone but was back again, understanding and consoling. It took a long time for Tifa to compose herself.
She looked at Marlene while trying to find her voice again. It was like seeing her for the first time. She was tall now, her hair starting to gray at the edges. Little lines ran by her eyes, probably from managing the whole town after Barrett could no longer handle the strain.
"When did it happen?" Tifa asked.
Marlene thought Tifa meant Barrett. She didn't. Tifa wanted to know when Marlene had become old.
Shayla sat at the head of the table, as always. She held her cup tightly and stared into it. The right words might have been in there, but she couldn't find them.
Tifa turned to her daughter. "What is it?"
A deep breath. "Mom, I've been thinking."
Another breath. "Ancient's Day."
Tifa stiffened a little. She had always been uncomfortable about Ancient's Day, although she had never really talked about it with her family. She fought to stay in her seat, not to run from it. She wanted to tell Shayla that she wasn't interested, that she wouldn't listen. She sat still and waited.
Shayla continued. "Listen, Mom, I know you're not fond of it, but it's happening soon. And we've got to talk about it."
"Because we've got to get ready, that's why. And we want you to be there."
"I don't want to be there."
"Mom, you have to. It's the anniversary."
Tifa had forgotten it was the anniversary. What she wanted to say was that she didn't care about anniversaries. Or Ancients. Or anything. What she wanted to do was run away.
Instead she said, "I'll think about it."
She avoided Shayla for most of the morning. It wasn't a matter of being upset; she simply knew her daughter. If Shayla wanted something, she'd keep asking until she got her own way. Tifa usually gave in. She didn't want to give in this time, so she kept her distance.
There were chores to be done, so Tifa kept herself busy with those and tried to stay away from everyone else. It wasn't until later she remembered the dream.
She had dreamt about Barrett, that much she remembered. But there was something strange about him. Barrett had been trying to tell her something important, something that needed to be done. But she had no idea what it was. She wished she could remember. She could almost remember what was strange. Something about his hands.
Then Ellis touched her arm, and it was gone.
"Grandmother, we need to talk." She sounded like Shayla.
"That's what your mother said."
Ellis sighed. Tifa understood. Ellis always hated being caught between the two of them, but never learned how to avoid it. So when Shayla prompted her - which Tifa was sure she did - Ellis felt uncomfortable but went anyway. Tifa felt uncomfortable, too.
"Look," Tifa said. "I know what you're going to ask me, and I really don't know if I want to." It was a lie. Tifa knew she didn't want to. But she didn't want to hurt her granddaughter's feelings even more.
"But it would mean so much to Keilee. You know how much she loves the Ancient."
"I know," said Tifa. "I liked her too."
Fifty years ago, none of them could have imagined something like Ancient's Day. Sometimes, it had seemed like would never be a tomorrow. And once, only once, she hadn't wanted one. The day he died. But that was later, after it was all over.
Sephiroth had been the easy part, as it turned out. They had fought, and they had won. It was very clear and clean, and they thought their job was done. After all, they had saved the planet.
But it wasn't done. Everything had changed for them, for the whole world. A world without Shinra. Without materia. Without Aeris. They needed to rebuild the world they had saved.
Midgar was the worst. Tifa would never forget those days, searching through the remains, trying to find survivors. They weren't sure how anyone could have made it through what Meteor had done.
But there were survivors, a surprising number considering the destruction. They all told the same story, someone had come and saved them.
"A girl with long hair," a child had told them, cheerful despite losing the only home she had ever known. All the survivors agreed with her. A girl with long hair had saved them all. Tifa knew who the girl with long hair was. Her name was Aeris. Everyone else called her the Ancient.
Soon everyone knew about the Ancient. Mostly because of Yuffie. The others kept quiet, locked the memory of their friend away in their hearts. Not Yuffie. And her stories got further out of hand the more she told them.
Tifa finally had taken her aside. "Yuffie, this Ancient business has got to stop."
"But the Ancient saved us," she had said. She had seemed genuinely surprised. "She is the holy one who saved the world."
Tifa didn't press the issue after that. She could see that Yuffie believed what she was saying, despite having seen the truth. She never spoke to Yuffie again.
After lunch, Ellis played a game with Keilee. Tifa didn't understand the game very well, but it didn't matter. Watching them made her feel happier. It involved a lot of hand-clapping and giggling, and some little rhyme that she thought Ellis had made up. It was enough. Tifa was content to sit and watch.
It was only after they had been playing for a while that Tifa became aware of her hands. She had been running her fingers through her hair over and over again, toying with the ends. It felt soft and strange, shining as she held a few strands up before her.
What the hell was she scared of, anyway?
Tifa knew what she was scared of. Tifa was scared of her hair.
She hadn't realized it until after she returned from Corel. Marlene had been a shock, and that made her realize that something wasn't right.
By any standard, Tifa had earned the right to be an old woman. She had been through a lot over fifty years, watched a world pick up the pieces and move on, saw changes that she had never imagined. And she had aged.
Not poorly, she was happy to say. Old habits, all the way back to when Zangan had taught her, had kept her fit, and she had been careful to maintain her appearance where she could. But she had changed. She was often complimented, but no one would ever mistake her for the young woman who ran a seedy little bar in the slums of Sector 7.
Except her hair. Even now her hair had not changed in the slightest. A woman of seventy with twenty-year-old hair, it was ridiculous. Long, black hair that had not changed in colour or texture in five decades. Holy, perhaps? Or something to do with the Lifestream? Tifa didn't know. She only knew how disturbing it was..
That kept her from the mirror, something she barely noticed for months after seeing Marlene. But that wasn't all of her fear. She was afraid of her hair, but she was more afraid that one day her age would catch up with her and whatever magic kept it young would be gone and it would become suddenly old like the rest of her.
Shayla kept quiet at dinner, but Tifa heard what she was trying not to say. She knew that Shayla wanted to ask her again to become involved with Ancient's Day somehow, and she wouldn't rest until Tifa saw things her way. A stubborn child. But she was stubborn too. She would wait it out.
Ellis wasn't so patient. "Grandmother, I wish you'd reconsider. Everyone knows you knew the Ancient, but you never talk about her."
"I can't talk about her. You know that."
"No, I don't know that. You always change the subject when someone wants to ask you about the Ancient. And we always let you get away with it. But this is important, Grandmother, why can't you see that?"
Tifa was silent. She could see perfectly well. She saw her friend, who had done a brave and courageous thing, changed into something she never was. The world had taken her and made her into what it wanted. And Tifa hadn't been able to stop it.
She looked from Ellis to Shayla, who was still quiet. Shayla was sitting very still waiting for Tifa to speak. All of them were. Even Keilee, who rarely saw her great-grandmother upset. Tifa looked down at her hands.
"Excuse me," she said. "I've got something to do."
Her hands were the answer, thought Tifa as she balanced at the top of the ladder. That was what she had been trying to remember. She felt unsteady, but the feeling might have come from the ladder as much as the memory.
She knew it wasn't her hands that were important, but Barrett's. Not the real Barrett. Barrett in the dream.
Tifa stretched as far as she could, reaching along the top of the shelves until she found something solid. She pulled it out and carefully descended the steps.
That was the strange thing about Barrett in her dream. His hands. They were like Shayla's. They weren't the hands she had always known, one strong real hand, the other replaced by the weapon he needed for vengeance. They weren't the hands he had last summer, shaking uncontrollably as his body began finally to fail him. They were whole, strong and steady. They knew what they wanted, and they were able to take it. Tifa felt the same fear creep over her as when she looked into the mirror.
That was what he had been trying to tell her, she thought as she looked at the object in her own hands. The PHS hadn't changed either.
"Call me," Barrett had said. After all, she had promised.
It must have been thirty years since she had hidden the device at the top of the storeroom. Thirty years since anyone had seen it. Since she had thought of using it again.
Thirty years since she lost Cloud.
It was by chance she was in Nibelheim when the rockslide took him. They had carried him back to town somehow, over the dangerous chasms that led down the mountain. Tifa hadn't gone with them, scared of what she might find.
As it was, there was really no other way it could end. He had been hurt too badly, there were no cure materia left. He hardly looked like the man who had carrried the hope of a world against Sephiroth. She stayed until the end, never letting go of his hand.
"Take the PHS," he had said. She knew better than to argue.
"It's funny how we never got together. Why is that?"
Tifa knew why. After everything had been finished, they were too different. They had been close, and in the heat of the final battle they thought they might be lovers. But that wasn't the truth, and although they had tried to make it work, they both realized it couldn't continue. What Cloud needed was someone to understand, not someone to build a life with. So Tifa understood and they separated, visiting each other often. She had never imagined a friend could be so close.
"It's too late now," she said.
After the battle with Sephiroth, they had gone their separate ways. She and Cloud stayed, of course. Like Reeve, neither of them had any home left but Midgar, so they tried to recover something from the ruins.
The others had all gone to their homes, the places they knew they were needed. Maybe it was Aeris who made them go back. Tifa didn't think so. She wanted to believe they all had their own reasons for going back.
She didn't want to believe Yuffie could be right.
The PHS was Cloud's idea. There, amidst the wreckage, he had shown it to them all.
"Fifty years," he had said. "Fifty years from the day she died, we'll all get together. I'll call all of you and we'll go to 7th Heaven, the whole lot of us. We'll all have a drink to remember her by." He hadn't known he wouldn't be there.
Tifa smiled at the memory all the same. Well, 7th Heaven was there, or at least its namesake. But Cloud wasn't there. Or Barrett. Neither of them could come, not any more. Neither would the rest. They had families, responsibilities. Life had gone on for them, they couldn't simply drop that because of something that happened half a century ago.
She and Yuffie hadn't spoken in years. Cid was off somewhere with Vincent, still as hard to deal with as ever and having adventures at eighty. And who knew about Nanaki? No one had seen him for so long that it was hard to remember his voice.
And Cait Sith would never return. She had broken it with her own hands, after Reeve died. She couldn't bear to have it around to remind her of what she had lost.
She had wished it were her. He gave her a family. For him, she would have given her life.
She was still sitting, looking at the device, when Shayla came to her.
"I knew you'd be here."
"They're gone, you know."
"Yes, mother. I know. They all went a long time ago."
"I should have gone with them."
Tifa put her hand to her hair again, feeling her fingers against her scalp. It felt good. She looked around the room.
"Shayla, could you get the hand mirror from the shelf over there?"
Shayla brought it, not certain what it was for. Tifa looked at herself. She saw her hair, the same lustrous shade it always was. But there was something different about it. It was good. Good to see, good to feel. Good in ways she couldn't explain. Just ... good. She wanted to laugh.
"This Ancient's Day. What did you have in mind?"
She left the PHS on the table. In the end, it wasn't really that important.