Tifa walked in the door and swung it closed with her foot, holding the packages tightly in her hands. There were so many she still nearly lost her grip on them. She walked over to the coffee table and spilled them down on it. It had taken nearly all day, but she had finally found the last of the Christmas presents she had been hunting. She couldn't believe it had taken her until Christmas eve to find everything, but she had done it!
She lifted her head, looking around as she pulled off her coat.
She slid open the closet and hung up her coat, thankful to be out of the cold. She really didn't mind the cold so much, especially now during the holiday season. Still, it would be nice to get a little snow for Christmas, but the forecast had been for clear skies.
"Cloud?" she said again, turning back toward the presents. She was hoping to get him to give her a hand wrapping them.
She stopped, listening, but heard nothing but the quiet hum of the refrigerator drifting to her from the kitchen. Where was he? He hadn't said he'd be going out.
She walked to the bottom of the stairs that led up to the bedrooms.
"Cloud, are you up there?" she shouted.
She stood there for a moment, then shrugged. He hadn't told her he'd be going out, but maybe he remembered something himself at the last minute. She returned to the table and began emptying her bags.
It was then she saw the note. It was underneath her gifts, but a part of it stuck out. For a moment she hesitated, then pulled it out from under them.
I'm not really sure how to say this. I guess there's no easy way. I can't stay here any longer. There's a part of me that seems to be missing. I've tried, but this just isn't working. I don't know where I'm going or if I'll be back. I didn't mean to hurt you. I'm sorry.
Tifa stared at the note for what seemed like forever, reading it again and again, hoping somehow she was mistaken, that it didn't say what it clearly did. Slowly silent tears started falling from her eyes. Now, of all times, now he had decided to do this? It was Christmas eve for chrissake! She'd known, she'd known he hadn't been happy these past months. She'd done everything she could to try to help him, help him get over the loss of Aeris, help him get on with his life. Apparently it just wasn't enough.
"Why Cloud? Why now?" she said miserably.
"I guess it's just more dramatic this way."
Tifa jumped at the sound of the voice. She spun around, her tears forgotten as she saw a man standing in the room only a few steps away from her, a man she had never seen before in her life. Her eyes darkened as she brought up her fists.
"Who are you and how did you get in here?" she demanded.
The man just stood there looking at her for a moment, a wan smile on his face. He seemed perfectly at ease, his hands at his sides, and he made no threatening movement. He had dark hair and was looking at her with a serious but not unsympathetic expression.
"It doesn't really matter who I am," he replied. "I guess you could call me your guardian angel."
Tifa's eyes narrowed, but she felt her hands relaxing slightly. She wasn't sure why. Whoever this person was, for some reason she felt like she was in no danger.
"Guardian angel?" she said skeptically. "Forgive me if I find that a bit hard to believe."
"Understandable," he replied. "I suppose I would feel the same way if I were you."
Tifa just looked at him for a moment. Did he really expect her to buy that?
"C'mon, who are you really?"
The man looked around the room for a moment, then nodded toward the sofa.
"If you really want to know I can tell you, but it might take some time. Why don't we have a seat?"
"I don't usually sit down with strange men who mysteriously appear in my house you know," she replied tartly. "Maybe I should just kick you out of here instead."
"You won't do that."
"Oh, why not?"
"Because you want answers, and I can give them to you."
She frowned. Everything sentence the man spoke seemed stranger than the last. He didn't seem like a threat but she still thought she should throw him out. If he wanted to talk, why couldn't he have met her on the street instead of invading her home? She should toss him out and ask questions later.
"You're not the type to do anything rash," he continued. "You're willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt."
"What makes you say that?" she questioned. "I've never met you before."
"I told you, I'm your guardian angel, even if you don't believe it. I know everything about you."
"Can we sit?"
She hesitated a moment. She didn't believe a word of this, but she had to admit, he had her attention.
She nodded. He walked over and sat down on the couch, leaning forward and folding his hands in front of him. Tifa sat down on the opposite end of it, still eyeing him warily.
"I guess the easiest way to explain this is to say that I created this universe. Well, not originally, but I'm the creator of this one at this particular time."
She just looked at him. That made even less sense than anything he had said earlier.
"What do you mean, you created this universe? Are you saying you're God?"
"Well, I suppose that's one way of looking at it. Though I'm not really comfortable with that."
"I don't know, it seems a bit presumptuous."
"So what are you saying, you made this universe? You control it, can do anything you want? You can like, change my coffee table into, oh, I don't know..a hippopotamus?"
He looked down at the coffee table in front of them.
"Do you really want a hippopotamus wandering around in your house?"
"Well, I suppose not, but..."
"I may have made this universe, but I can't do anything I want. I can't make you take off your clothes and dance naked on the top of the coffee table, for instance."
"Good thing, but why not, if you really did create all this?"
"Because you wouldn't do something like that."
"You got that right!"
"You might think that when you create something you have full control over everything that happens but that's not really true. The people in the universe develop their own personalities, or are given their own personalities by the original creator, and you have to follow that. Beyond that, sometimes the people do things that you don't expect or plan for. I know that seems strange but it's true. Like, in one of the alternate universes I created, Aeris ends up with Reeve, although I really didn't plan on that happening at all."
"Aeris and Reeve?" Tifa said in surprise. "But...Aeris is dead."
"Not in that particular universe," he replied. "You all brought her back."
"And she ended up with Reeve?"
"I know, strange choice eh? But like I said, I didn't plan it out that way. It just sort of happened."
Tifa just shook her head. She could see now that the conversation had devolved into sheer fantasy. The man in front of her was obviously deranged, but he seemed harmless enough, and she had to admit the story was entertaining. There didn't seem to be any harm in playing along.
"But wait a minute," she spoke up. "You said, in one universe. What's that mean, there are more than one?"
"Oh yes," he replied. "I've created a number of alternate universes. Some of them you've even been killed in."
"Killed? And you call yourself my guardian angel?"
"Yeah, well, most of the time it's for a good cause."
"And that's supposed to make me feel better?"
"I suppose not. It's not only me though. There are others like me who also create alternate universes."
"Not only you? So just how many of these alternate universes are there?"
"I don't know. Too many to count, I suppose."
"And in each one, I lead a different life?"
"So which one is the real one then? Which one is the real me?"
The man shrugged.
"No one can say. Each one of them is just as real as the other," he replied. "Although there is one universe I've created that I think of as 'the' real one. But that's only by choice. There's no way to prove it's any more valid than any other universe I've made, or anyone else has made."
"So, if you've created this entire universe, or are creating it now, rather, then you control all of us. You're everyone's guardian angel, not just mine."
"Well, in a sense that's true, but in every universe I create, or anyone creates, there's always someone that they focus on, that's the main person in that universe, if you will. That person is the hero, or heroine as the case may be, and most of the story revolves around them."
"The story of that universe."
"And you picked me?"
"That's hard to say sometimes. Usually it's because that person personifies the creator. You're the person I can most identify with. It's like I'm putting myself in the story, or the me I'd like to be. I'm not as brave as you, or as determined. In this universe you're the me I wish I was."
"But you're a guy. Does that mean you wish you were a girl?"
"Outward appearance has little to do with the essence of a person, and that's what I'm talking about."
Tifa nodded. He seemed surprising rational for a lunatic.
"But what made you pick me? What's so special about me? I certainly don't feel special."
"There are a lot of reasons. I guess part of it had to do with the fact that you are a much maligned person, at least by some people, and I didn't think you deserve that."
"Much maligned?" She didn't like the sound of that at all, even if she didn't believe anything he was saying.
"Yeah," he continued. "I suppose there is some justification, if they just focus on the superficial. Some people take one look at that short skirt and large breasts and look no farther. To them, you're a slut and that's all there is to it."
Tifa glared at him. Suddenly the conversation didn't seem so amusing.
"How dare you!"
"I'm just telling you what some others think about you. I can understand the large breasts, if that's the card you're dealt you have no choice but to play it. The skimpy outfit is a little harder to justify."
Tifa glared at him.
"Did you come here to insult me?"
"No, I'm merely stating the truth."
"That's what all the girls wore in the slums of Midgar," she defended herself, not even sure why. What did she care what this guy thought anyway? "If you didn't wear something like that all the other girls ragged on you. I just wanted to fit in."
"Aeris didn't wear that," he pointed out.
"Aeris didn't live in Sector Seven," she answered. "Besides, Aeris was...different. She always marched to the beat of her own drummer. I don't think she ever cared much what other people thought. I did, to some extent anyway. I wanted to fit in. I don't know, maybe I'm weaker than she was."
"There's nothing wrong with wanting to fit in. Besides, you don't have to justify yourself to me, but there are other people who can't see past that."
"So, you're telling me I'm a much maligned person, and you see yourself in me. What does that tell us about you?"
"Much maligned by some is what I said," he replied. "Not everyone. Besides, the very fact that you are makes you a sympathetic character, especially if one thinks its unjustified."
Tifa nodded, somewhat mollified. At least that made her sound a little better.
"Besides, that's not all there is to it. The tension between you and Aeris, and the way you handled it made me like you as well. Even when you saw that Cloud and Aeris were attracted to one another, you never tried to get between them."
"Why would I do that?" she questioned innocently.
"You don't have to try to hide it from me. I'm well aware of your feelings for Cloud, even before he met Aeris."
Her brow furrowed. How could he possibly know that? She assumed this guy was some nut off the street, but if so, how could he know so many details about her? He was absolutely right, she did have feelings for Cloud, but she had never admitted that to anyone. He seemed harmless but now she wasn't so sure. Was he some kind of stalker?
Whatever the explanation, it certainly couldn't be because he was who he claimed to be.
"You're brave, strong, loyal and almost painfully shy," he went on. "I don't know, for some reason I can relate to a person like that. I guess because I admire those qualities myself."
"You admire people who are painfully shy?"
"Well, not so much admire as feel for them. It just makes you seem more like a real person."
"I am a real person."
"You know what I mean," he said quickly. "You're not fake, as in, you don't, umm, pretend to be what you're not."
"I see," she replied. He didn't really seem like the stalker type, but then again, what exactly was the stalker type like? Still, he didn't seem like he was going to jump her or anything. In fact she felt a bit better now. If nothing else he had successfully distracted her from the fact that Cloud had left. Did he really think she was brave, strong and loyal?
"So wait a minute. If you're my guardian angel, if you're looking out for me, then why do all these bad things happen to me?"
She grabbed hold of the note and held it in front of him.
"Why did Cloud leave me?"
"Again, it makes you a sympathetic figure," he replied. "People can relate to someone who is a good person and bad things happen to them. It makes everyone feel for you."
"Everyone? Who are you talking about?"
"Oh, just everyone in general," he replied. "Besides that, living through adversity just makes it that much sweeter when it all works out for you in the end."
"Works out for me in the end? What does that mean, that I'm going to have a happy ending? Does that mean that Cloud will come back?"
"It's possible, but not necessarily. Maybe he's just not right for you. Maybe you'll find someone else that will make you happier. Maybe your better off without him. That's happened, in some of the alternate universes."
She lowered her arm, dropping the note back down on the table.
"I sure don't feel like I'd be better off without him," she said sadly.
"Well, if that's really true, then maybe you should get the door."
She turned to look at the door. Why was he talking about that all of a sudden?
She turned back toward him, or rather, where he had been seated.
There was no one there.
She stood up, looking around wildly. She had only taken her eyes off him for a second. He couldn't possibly have disappeared in that time. Feeling silly, she looked behind the couch, but there was no sign of him.
Frowning she walked over to the door. What the hell had that been all about? If she had been drinking she would swear off the stuff for the rest of her life, but she hadn't. Had it been some kind of hallucination?
She pulled open the door, then stopped, staring at the young blonde haired man who stood there.
"Tifa, I'm sorry. I didn't mean what I said in the note. I was wrong. I'm just messed up. I got out of town and I just started thinking about you, thinking about all the time we've spent together and I don't know, I just couldn't leave. I just thought it was..."
She put a hand on his arm to stop him. They stood there staring at each other for a moment, then Tifa looked past him, out into the night, to see snowflakes slowly falling down onto the street, outlined by the halo of a streetlight. A man stood there, at the edge of the light. He waved to her, then turned and faded into the darkness.
"You don't have to say anything Cloud," she said softly. "You don't have to apologize. You're back and that's all that matters. Come inside. Come inside where it's warm."
She took him by the hand and drew him inside, closing the door, leaving the cold and darkness behind. Perhaps it wasn't going to be such a bad Christmas after all.