What Comes After

December 2019

It was late when Tifa ended her shift at the bar, but the Midgar slums lacked any true sense of time. She'd heard people call it a constant night, with the plate above blocking out the daylight, but the ubiquitous street lamps and neon signs weren't like any night Tifa had ever known growing up. This wasn't day or night, but some artificial in-between. She hated it.

But even that was progress, in its own way, to have the space to hate it. To have a few months of relative stability under her belt, a regular job that paid for someplace to live, meagre though it was. Her place was around the corner from the bar, a tiny room above the weapons shop. It wasn't even its own room, but part of a larger one divided up by heavy curtains.

The owner was usually asleep by now, but as Tifa climbed the stairs, she heard a man's voice speaking softly. On reaching the upper landing, she realized it was coming from the room across the hall. It was little bigger than a closet, with a door that wouldn't shut completely, and when she'd first come here, it would've astounded her that Nick was asking money for it, much less that anyone would agree to pay. Now she understood: at least it was a bed.

Tifa could have waited until morning to satisfy her curiosity, but she caught the sound of a baby fussing, and she stopped outside the door to peer through the crack. A big man sat cross-legged on the bed, illuminated by the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, murmuring a bedtime story to the child in his arms.

It was rare to see this kind of tenderness and vulnerability in the slums. Not because it didn't exist, but because people guarded it carefully. It was something you shared only with your family, and Tifa didn't have one, not by blood and not by choice.

She hadn't recognized the story at first, but the longer she listened, the more she realized that parts of it were familiar. Some regional variation of one her father had told her about a woman cursed to be a monster, and saved by the love of a brave knight. Or maybe she just didn't remember the details anymore. How long had it been since he'd tucked her in with that story?

No way to ask him about it now.

The floor creaked as her weight shifted, and the man looked up, pausing mid-sentence. "Hello?"

She'd been caught. Tifa considered disappearing to her room without answering, but she'd probably see him later, and she didn't want him to think she'd been spying on him. She opened the door a little wider.

"Sorry. I didn't mean to eavesdrop."

The man shook his head. "Didn't mean to wake anybody."

His clothes and his accent said country, small town. He wasn't just new to Sector 7, he was new to Midgar. That had been Tifa, not more than a year ago.

"You didn't. I just got in." He glanced at the wall as if looking for a clock, and she elaborated, "I tend bar."

"Seem a little young for that," he observed.

Tifa shrugged. "The owner's never asked. This isn't the kind of place where people care."

He frowned at that and offered, "Anyway we'll try to be quieter. She's been havin' some trouble sleepin' since we came here is all."

"I get it. Don't worry about it. I just didn't realize Nick had let the room."

"Oh... Yeah, we just took it this afternoon."

"Well, seeing as we're gonna be neighbors... I'm Tifa," she said, holding out her hand.

He started to extend his arm, but he must have forgotten for an instant, and Tifa hadn't noticed: it stopped short just past the elbow, ending in a metal cap with ports for some sort of prosthetic. Carefully, he shifted the baby into the crook of that arm, and held out his left hand instead.

"Barret," he said. "And this here's Marlene."

"She's adorable," Tifa said, feeling a smile come to her face. The little girl was somewhere around the middle of her first year, all pudgy cheeks and wispy hair. One of her tiny hands found its way into Barret's beard and held fast.

"Yeah. Little miracle." Barret smiled, too, and there was something bittersweet about it, but Tifa didn't ask for the story of how these two had come together. It wasn't so uncommon in the slums. People could seem uncaring, but at the same time, everyone was struggling, and you helped who you could, claimed family where you found it.

"Did you come here... hoping to give her a better life?" Tifa wondered. Somehow it remained Midgar's biggest draw, though she had yet to meet anyone who'd succeeded at it.

"...in a manner o' speakin,'" Barret said carefully. He glanced around the room, big enough only for the bed and a few shelves affixed to the wall above it. "Thought folks here'd be angrier," he added, "'bout the way they're livin.'"

Tifa frowned, trying to put her finger on why that sounded so strange to her. Usually, the disillusionment of the people who came to Midgar was with Midgar itself; it wasn't the city of prosperity and opportunity they'd been promised. But Barret spoke like this shitty room was something he'd expected, and his disappointment was with the people who just... accepted it.

Had Tifa just accepted it? She didn't like it, but it was better than where she'd been. It was something.

"...maybe they're just not sure what to do about it," she said.

Barret nodded. "Still workin' on figurin' that out myself," he said, but she didn't think he was chasing the usual path--better job, better house, the goal of one day living on the plate. That wasn't his idea of 'better.'

"Well," Tifa faltered. "It was nice meeting you."

"Yeah. G'night."

"Good night."

Tifa closed the door as best she could and crossed the short distance to her own room. She settled on her bed in the pitch dark and stared up in the direction of the ceiling.

Where had her fury gone? Crushed under the weight of grief as she finally processed the enormity of her loss. Buried deeper under the weeks and months where her only thought had to be for her own survival.

Not gone, though. She remembered it, the rage at the sight of her village in flames, her father's lifeless body, the back of the man who'd taken everything from her. And at Shinra, who'd allowed it to happen.

Tifa had read paper after paper in the hospital, only to find no acknowledgment of the massacre. The only evidence outside of herself that it had happened, the front page article announcing that Sephiroth had been killed in action--the details vague. A huge memorial service, broadcast on TV and radio, that had made her blood boil when she overheard it from a neighboring room.

Her fingers traced the path of the scar across her chest. What came after loss? If Sephiroth was dead, she couldn't seek revenge against him.

But Shinra was a different story.

Shinra and their Mako reactors and their soldiers, the war that had brought Sephiroth his accolades and led them to welcome him as some kind of hero. Nibelheim could have gotten by without Shinra; they would have been better off. Was it any different for Midgar, where she found herself now?

The sleep that found her at last was fitful, but she woke in the morning feeling stronger somehow. She listened to the sounds of the building, heard footsteps heavier than Nick's descending the stairs. She got up to follow, and caught up to Barret in the shop below.

He carried Marlene in his good arm, and to his right he'd attached not a prosthetic hand, but a heavy machine gun. It made for a stark contrast, but not an ironic one. This was a man who meant to fight, and there was his reason.

"I want in," said Tifa, without preamble.

Barret looked at her, startled. "...don't know what you're talkin' about," he said, but it was wariness in his eye, not confusion. It was too soon for him to trust her. Too soon to trust each other.

"That's all right," she said. "I just needed to say it."

Maybe she was reading too much into a few words and looks, but even so, it didn't change her resolve. Changing the world could start with the small things, couldn't it?

"Anyway," Tifa went on, "you're new to Sector 7, right? You need someone to show you the ropes?"

Barret eyed her, weighing the offer, sizing her up in a way he hadn't the night before. At last, he nodded. "Sure. How 'bout we start with that bar you work at?"

Show him where she worked. Tell him about her. Small things.

That was how friendships started, too.

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