Forward.
My ears rung with piercing disturbance as I flapped my tired legs and arms in the depths of the oceans. The salty waters invaded my eyes ever so easily, mixing them with my tears. I had no choice but to close my watery orbs. The deep wound on my head had gradually brought me my current state of dizziness. I dove my head into the waters once again, willing myself to shake the pain off. With a hand, I forcefully clutched onto a small plastic bag. As seconds, minutes passed, I felt my arms giving way, and then my legs. A sour, yet bitter feeling of pain lingered in my heart. I felt myself slowly floating – drifting in the vast oceans, instead of swimming. The plastic bag I had been clutching on earlier had begun to slip away. I was giving up on myself, on my life, on my abilities, on Clo-

"CLOUD! He's waiting, " I thought.

With that thought still residing in my mind, I quickly snatched the bag before it sunk into the waters. Using all of my energy, I pushed myself back up, taking a sharp, painful intake of air. Ignoring every stab of torture I possessed, I rushed onto shore.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in.
Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

"Cloud, Cloud, " I constantly reminded myself.

Upon reaching land, I surveyed and search the area, before finally seeing a black car. Leaning against the car, stood Cloud, staring straight at me, disbelief and worry evident his eyes.

Chapter o1. Living Hell

For the past week the skies had never stopped pouring us with rain, lightning, and thunderstorm. The streets were flooding, the sewers all clogged. The entire neighborhood was surrounded by the smell of sewage junk and dead grass. It had become so bad; most of the schools in our area were closed until further notice. Even in those extremely insane snow days, my school had never closed.
So here I am, sitting on the rocking chair, humming my 1-month-old baby brother to sleep. However, his big chestnut orbs stayed wide open. I stuck my tongue out at him foolishly. He wiggled, kicking his small feet before smiling his irresistible smile. I giggled at his adorable actions.

"Ayden, baby, you're going to be such a heart-stealer when you grow up. I can't imagine how many girls are going to fall for you," I laughed, closing my eyes, breathing the innocent aura of my brother's room.

"AERITH RUNNNN!" my mother shrieked from the living room.

My eyes shot open. What was happening? Why had Mama screamed for my older sister to run? Loud cries erupted from the bundle in my arms.

"Shhh, Sweetie, it's okay. I am here," I tried to soothe Ayden, rubbing his small back.

Just as his cries quieted, another scream was heard, this time from my Papa, "AERITH! TAKE TIFA AND AYDEN! RUN!"

A high-pitch scream was heard, frightening both Ayden and I. Hugging my baby brother in my arms securely, I stepped out of the room. Just as I reached the archway to the living room, I stopped breathing. Blood splatter all over the coffee table, floors, the sofa, curtains – over everything. My Mama and Papa both laid still on the floors, blood oozing out of every part of their bodies. I screamed in horror, falling backwards with my eyes closed. I could hear Ayden's cries again, but it was overpowered by the scream that resided in my mind.

"Aerie?! Onee-chan? Where are you?" I mumbled, knees shaking, tears streaming down my face.

I clutched onto Ayden tightly, kneeling down, clueless and lost. The smell of fresh blood crept up my nose and into my lungs, making me choke and cough restlessly.

"DON'T YOU DARE HURT MY SISTER AND BROTHER!" my sister's voice screamed from behind.

Turning around, I was met with a black clothed man holding a knife right above me. I screamed, falling backwards involuntarily, Ayden still in my arms crying. The man kicked his leg, trying to free it from a grasp – my sister's grasp.

"Aerie!" I hollered running forward to help her.

"RUN TIFA! GOD DAMN, TAKE AYDEN AND RUN!" she shouted to me.

Seeing that I had remained still, she continued, "NOW! RUN! STOP CRYING!"

With guilt, I cried harder, hugging my brother against my chest. I watched for a second, how my sister was struggling to hold the murderer down by his leg. She had blood seeping out of her wounds. All the crimson liquid of the place made me shutter with agony. My knees shook cowardly again.

"Aerie, I am scared," I crumpled emotionally.

With tears in her eyes, she whispered, "I know Sweetie but you have to leave right now! Ayden's only a baby, he needs you to take care of him," she closed her eyes tears cascading down her cheeks, then continued, " I am sorry, Teef, for eating your piece of cake on your birthday. And for lying to you that I'd get you that dress. Sorry."

"NO! NO! Stop apologizing!" I yelled, my voice shaking.

"Tell Cloud that I love him, for me, okay?" she smiled sadly.

"NO! You tell him yourself," I screamed back, shaking my head in disbelief of her words.

"Live a happy life, and take care of Ayden. NOW RUN!" with that she bit the murderer's leg so hard that blood oozed out instantly.

Finally giving in to my sister's words, I ran for the exit door, holding Ayden safely in my arms. Aerith's piercing scream drilled into my ears. I turned back for a quick look to witness blood splatter on my face. My sister had been stabbed right in her chest and now laid lifeless on the floors. My eyes were wide open in fear and I stood dumbfounded, not even noticing the fact that the murderer had slowly approached me. When I finally noticed, I guarded Ayden with my arms and raised my leg, kneeing him in the stomach. He stumbled back awkwardly. Seeing that he had blocked the exit, I ran for Ayden's room, which contained the ladder that was connected to the windows. Taking one hand, I wiped the tears from my face, only to realize that my hand was now blood stained with Aerith's blood. A feeling of disgust mixed with dread flowed in me, but I still ran into Ayden's room. Once in, I pushed the door to close. Halfway the door was stopped by a hand – a hand with bloody gloves – a mixture of Aerith, Mama, and Papa's blood. Hurriedly, I attempted to kick the door but the murderer was way too strong for me. With one skillful push, I was knocked backwards against Ayden's crib. Blood trickled down my scalp from where the hard steel had banged against my head. Dizziness and pain gathered together, paralyzing me in place.

"Ayden's only a baby, he needs you to take care of him…" my sister's words came back to me.

My eyes shot open, searching the area for my baby brother. Relief showed in my eyes when I sighted a small sobbing bundle on the floor. Immediately, I crawled my way to the little life, embracing him. Not a split second passed before the Ultimate Hell seeped into my life and began to control it. I watched uselessly as the murderer hooked his foot to my arms and kicked hard against Ayden small back, leaving him flying across the room. A sharp cry rung in my ears – the last cry I'll ever hear from my innocent, little, sweet baby brother. He hit hard against the rocking chair and dropped still on the cushion of the seat. My eyes stared still, begging to here another cry – a verification that he was alive, but it never came. My heart burned, then my lungs. They threatened to shatter. Unconsciously, I screamed, and screamed, and screamed, until I thought my eardrums would break, until my throat smoldered in pain.

"Sweetie…" I called out to my brother as I picked him up in my arms, "Don't leave me here. You're always such a good little boy. Now be good…" I smiled at the cherubic sleeping form, "You haven't even called me 'Onee-chan' yet! Baby! Get up!" I cried, tears escaping uncontrollably down my face.

Gently, I brought Ayden against my cheek, feeling his parting warmth. A hard kick thrust onto my spinal cord, making me fall forwards, blood seeping out of my lips. Setting Ayden back onto the rocking chair, I turned around, glaring at my attacker with hatred and agony.

"AYDEN IS ONLY ONE MONTH OLD. YOU SON OF A BASTARD! YOU WON'T EVEN GIVE MERCY TO A BABY! GO TO HELL!" I hollered with my coarse voice.

Foolishly, I charged at him, with no weapon in hand. A deep stab imbedded into my stomach. I held onto the knife painfully, trying to remove it from my body but no avail. Cruelly, he yanked the knife out and kicked me in the stomach, right where I was bleeding. Blood soaked the bottom of his black leather shoes. His face crumpled in disgust at my state. Fallen on the floor, I stared up at him, begging for the torture to end.

"I'll teach you to never DARE kick a man ever AGAIN!" he threatened, raising his foot and stepping right on my cheek. My blood dripped from his shoes down my cheeks. I held my stomach in pain. With another kick, I collided into the window, head first. Broken glass flew out the window. My head hung without strength. For that moment, I begged to die. A smile lit on my lips as I heard the man approach me again. Good, finish it. I closed my eyes in defeat. A gunshot was heard and I waited to feel the pain of it, but it never came. Opening my eyes back to reality, I realized that I was uselessly in someone's arms – Cloud's arms. In his right hand was a gun. I looked to the floor and noticed my murderer motionless on the floors. Yes, my murderer, because I died that day, with my family. I hugged Cloud tightly, coughing blood onto his shirt. He looked down, worriedly, but in no way was he able to ease the pain. This once innocent, pure room of my baby brother's had become my nightmare of living HELL.

-
I shot upright from my bed, shivering in terror and pain. Sweat gathered on my forehead and I clutched onto my blanket, breathing dangerously. My nightmare from seven years ago had never seemed to leave me alone. The smell of my sister's blood lingered in my nose. The screams and cries of my Mama and Papa rung in my ears. And the little sobs and watery eyes of my baby brother never left my mind. I clawed my scalp in confusion and unease. Breathe Tifa. Breathe. A knock was heard from the door. Quickly, I wiped my forehead dry from sweat and my cheeks from tears.

"Come in," I spoke, trying to hide my shaking voice.

A young man came in, dressed in a suit with slightly spiked hair. He stared at my state questionably, but didn't ask about it for it had become a routine to find me in a wreck.

"Cloud," I greeted.

"Meeting in 10," he said in a monotone and left.

With a sigh, I got out of bed, praying to never have the same nightmare haunting me ever again. When I was finished with my morning routine, I walked out of my room and down the stairs. Seeing that no one was present, I ambled towards the study room. With a wrist stroke, I casually slipped my identification on a slot. The nearby bookshelf spun to reveal an entrance leading downwards. Once I entered, the entrance automatically closed. I walked down the set of spiral stairs until I was in front of metal doors. Placing my hand on a screen, my fingerprints were scanned and the door opened. The room had a large table, where four people were sitting at. I wandered over to my usual seat across from Cloud.

"Now that everyone is finally here, we'll start the meeting," our leader, Gloria spoke. She was seated in the main chair located at the end of the table.

Sitting next to me was Yuffie. Next to Cloud was Vincent, Yuffie's crush. During the meeting, I couldn't get myself to stop thinking about my nightmare. It haunted me, leaving me with no oxygen to breathe in and shutting me away from the present time. My head was lowered and I stared aimlessly at the table. I shut my eyes as the screams and blood flooded my mind again.

"Tifa. Tifa…" Gloria called to me.

"Earth to Tifa," Yuffie waved her hand in front of me and finally I was brought back to reality.

I looked at Gloria guiltily, "Sorry, what did you say?"

There was a little annoyance present on her face but it only lasted a mere second then she said, "Tifa, is something the matter?"

"Um, I just didn't have a good sleep. Sorry," I apologized.

For a split second, I looked to Cloud's direction, catching him giving me his serious look. With a sigh, Gloria stated, "Well, then…I'll repeat that you are to assist Cloud with his next mission. Cloud will give you the details," she stared at me and I nodded so she continued, "Okay, if no questions then meeting closed."

We all watched as Gloria left the room before splitting up for our individual or partnered missions. I followed Cloud out of the meeting room and up the stairs into his room. Not a word came out of our lips. Truth was ever since that day, we both talked only to reply.

Sitting down on the floor, I watched as he opened a manila folder. He scattered the contents on the floors before arranging them in a row. There appeared to be several documents, then pictures, and lastly a key.

Cloud pointed at a picture of a man around his 30's and spoke, "He is Rubin Kung, 33. Owner of Jade's Splendid Jewelries," pointing to another picture he carried on, "Every night he goes to Happy Bar. Our client is interested in a key that he owns."

"What does the key open?" I questioned more to myself than Cloud.

However, Cloud replied, "That isn't important. What is important is that we get the key."

There was a document next to Cloud, which caught my attention. Quietly, I scooted over to it and picked it up. It had our target's basic information, including birthday, address, where he hung out at, where he worked at, and his interest. I cringed in disgust at his interest section. It read: Women, Money, and Sex. Rolling my eyes, I stood up and got ready to change for the mission.

"Tifa," Cloud called to me. I turned around notifying him that he had my attention. Hesitantly, he spoke, "You know what to do?"

"Yeah, take his key and switch it with the fake one," I responded bluntly, my hands in my pockets.

Hearing no response, I headed for the exit once again, but Cloud stopped me again. "Here," he said holding out a wad of cash.

Disappointment flooded my body. What did he not understand? I could feel the tears threatening to spill from the corners of my eyes. Quickly, I raised my head to stop them from falling. Holding my hands in fists, I looked straight into Cloud's eyes. Mentally, I questioned him. After all these years, why do you still not understand? Sighing, I relaxed my fists.

"You should know by now. Working for you, I don't need pay," I spoke seriously.

"It's the rules. Assistants get paid by leader," Cloud explained, taking my hand and stuffing the money in it.

Somehow my mixed emotions got the benefit of me and I crumpled. Gritting my teeth, I crushed the money in my hands and threw it back at Cloud. "Damn the rules," I cursed.

For the next few minutes silence engulfed us. It was like a battle, whomever couldn't handle the stillness lost. Sighing, I bent down and picked up the money, stuffing it in my pockets.

"I'll go get ready," I whispered, hiding my tears with my hair.

Another truth was that I and Cloud – Cloud and I, it wasn't just as simple as assistant and leader. Even before he and my sister started dating, I…I was uncontrollably in love with him. It was just that when I found out Aerith had possessed the same feelings for him I decided to give up. But "giving up" – easy to say, hard to do. So just like that I lived those years behind the shadows. I was sad for myself, but happy for them, up until that sinful night of murder. I knew that Cloud knew I loved him, but I also knew, he only loved Aerith – and will only love Aerith.

As I entered my room, I went over to my closet of clothes. I dug through my sets of clothes before pulling out a golden dress. Quickly, I changed into my outfit. The dress came up to my thighs with a sequined left strap. As uncomfortable as I felt, I knew I had to bear through it. Staring in the mirror, it felt as though something was missing. Taking out my jewelry box, I completed my look with a long black pearl necklace.

"Not slutty enough, my Dear. You need help, " Yuffie's cheerful voice came from the doorway. Let's curse myself for forgetting to lock the door.

I looked at Yuffie questionably, "This is not um…revealing enough? For serious girl, I can't even walk a step without fearing that I'll reveal too much."

She giggled and then walked up to me, a lipstick in hand, "Sweetie, your outfit is fine. You're face is not. Too innocent."

Not a second passed and I was pushed to sit down in front of my mirror. Yuffie held the lipstick near my lips and then BAM! The cold contact of makeup against smooth skin was made. I winced as Yuffie took out mascara and a bunch of other cosmetics. I closed my eyes and massaged my temples.

"Yuffie, don't you have a mission?" I asked her, trying to be patient as she almost poked my eyes.

"Close you eyes, " she commanded and I did so, "Vincent said he can handle our mission, 'cause it's too dangerous for me – he said. Isn't he sweet?"

There was a bit of sadness in me – or jealousy you could say. Cloud would never tell me that. Forcing a smile on, I nodded to Yuffie's question.

"All done! Open your eyes," she said triumphantly.

I opened my eyes to reveal a very different look – a look I couldn't even recognize. I had dark red lips that looked pouty – if that's a word. My eyes were darker than usual with longer eyelashes. Curled dark black hair replaced my normal straight ones. I was amazed at how make up could change my appearance so much. However, I knew this wasn't the real "me". Suppressing the urge to destroy the entire makeover, I quickly reminded myself of the mission. Throwing a pair of golden heels on, I waved bye to Yuffie and left to meet Cloud.

I found him outside, waiting in his black Mercedes. He was staring straight at a certain point in deep thought. Walking over to the car, I knocked on his window, bringing him back to reality. He looked at me – no he stared at me from head to toe, speechless. After awhile, the staring had become uncomfortable so I gestured for him to unlock the passenger door. Nervously, he looked away and leaned over to open the door. I got in and he started the car.

"Yo-you look different," he stuttered.

"I look like a slu-" I started.

"No, um just different," he interrupted.

Somehow, his comments had affected me. I turned away and looked out the window. A lonely teardrop crept down my eye, but I was afraid to ruin the eye shadow so I didn't dare wipe it away. I just allowed the evening breeze to dry it away. The reason for my sudden breakdown was questionable. However, it had something to do with my nightmare, my sudden makeover, and the fact that this makeover had cause Cloud to actually talk to me.

Cloud drove for about an hour and stopped in front of Happy Bar. The clock read 9:17 p.m. I looked up into the sky, smiling as the stars sparkled. Although the sky wasn't pitch black, the stars still shown with such radiance. Silently, I closed my eyes and prayed. I looked over to Cloud and smiled. He stared at me and then looked forwards, avoiding my eyes. His hands held onto the stirring wheels tightly.

"Is something the matter?" I inquired worriedly.

There was a brief silence but then he replied, "For…for a second…you looked like Aerith."

I was shock. My lips opened to speak but no words came out. I turned away, allowing my tears to fall. Damn it, Tifa, you weakling. My hands rose to cover my quivering lips so that my sobs wouldn't be heard. But a failure I was, even that wasn't successful. I could feel Cloud's stare burning the back of my head.

"Teef-," Cloud started in an apologetic tone but then stopped.

I looked the direction he was staring at and saw our target, Rubin Kung. He entered the bar, already looking a little drunk. I opened the car door and got out.

"Tifa…" Cloud spoke.

"Mission first," I replied coldly.

We both entered Happy Bar and sat down in a table to observe. Scanning the area, I finally found our target sitting with two girls, four tables away from us. I watched disgusted as he touched those girls. Turning to Cloud for instructions, I found him staring at the target with the same disgusted expression. Somehow this look didn't fit on Cloud's face and I unintentionally let out a giggle. Cloud turned to look at me with his brows raised.

"You want that?" I said pointing at the girls, resulting in a deadly glare from Cloud.

Laughing, I got up and headed for Rubin Kung. I sat down in a table right next to his. With a pout, I took out a nail filer and started filing my nails. To my surprise it didn't even take a minute before the target stepped into my trap. From the corners of my eyes, I saw him staring at me – okay, more like staring at my bare legs. About two seconds later, he ditched the two girls and walked over to me.

"What's a pretty girl doing all alone? Can I buy you a drink?" Rubin Kung sweet-talked.

"Can't say 'no' can I?" I purred.

He called over a waiter and ordered two Blue Curacaos. Mentally, I cursed at him for ordering such strong drinks. I knew he wanted to get me drunk, but he didn't even try to hide the fact. He scooted close to me – way to close for my comfort. One of his arms crawled it's way around my waist and he pulled me close to him until I was practically on his lap. Damn, what does he think I am? Okay, calm down. Think mission.

"What's your name, Gorgeous?" he asked.

"Candi," I randomly said the name of a passing waitress.

"Candi's a dazzling name," he said in a low voice against my ear. I shivered.

Chuckling, he questioned, "Haven't seen you here before. Is it your first time here?"

"Yeah. My boyfriend just dumped me for my best friend," I pretended to cry.

"Aww, Sugar, have a drink," he offered the Blue Curacaos that the waiter just placed on the table.

I stared at the drink, already wanting to throw up, but I reminded myself of the mission. With a fast stroke, I took the glass in my hands and drank the whole glass down. I coughed a little from the sudden intake of alcohol. Rubin Kung stroked my back, chuckling. Just then his phone rang so he got up to excuse himself for the phone call. I groaned as my head throbbed with dizziness.

"Tifa," someone shook me.

I looked up and saw Cloud. Shaking my head, I tried to concentrate on what he was saying. "Key is attached to his cell phone strap."

Immediately, I was emotionally awakened from my dizziness. I blushed as Cloud "fed" me glasses of water to help my dizziness.

"He's coming back!" I warned Cloud and so he walked off.

Our target came back and apologized for his phone call. I shook my head with a smile. He sat back down, asking how I liked the Blue Curacaos. I absolutely hate it.

"I loved it," I lied.

"Oh, we'll get you another one then," he laughed, calling for the waiter. Crap.

"Hey, isn't your phone the new Sony Ericsson model?" I attempted to sound curious.

"Oh, yes. You're very observant," he said, handing his phone for me to see.

I stared at the key. It was definitely the key we needed. Dang it, Tifa. Think of plan. As I played with the applications on his phone, a waitress walked pass. Skillfully, I straightened my legs right on time to trip her, causing the glasses of drinks she had to spill all over Rubin Kung. The waitress apologized to the angry man. However, once he saw how young and beautiful she was, he dismissed her.

"Um, I am going to go wash up in the restroom," he said leaving – leaving his phone behind too.

I smirked. Plan success! Hurriedly, I undid the key chain and switch the real key with the fake one. I placed the phone on the table, innocently. It didn't take long for the target to come back, probably after remembering that I had his phone. The first thing he did upon returning was check on his key. However, seeing it was still attached to the chain, he dismissed his worries. Once again he apologized for his departure. A waitress came by and placed another glass of Blue Curacaos on the table. Hesitantly, I hit his glass against mine, saying "Cheers". He watched me, pressuring me to drink the alcohol. With a sigh, I took a sip of the drink.

"Drink more, Sugar. These are expensive. Don't waste," he suggested.

I mentally cursed as I choked the liquid down my throat. He chuckled, stroking my legs perversely. Dizziness took over again and I had no control over my body anymore. He drugged the drink. In seconds, I was giggling over nothing. I felt him push me against the chair and started touching my face.

-Seems the only one who doesn't see your beauty
is the face in the mirror looking back at you
you walk around here thinking your not pretty
but that's not true, cause I know you...-
my cell phone rung

I sluggishly answered the phone.

"Tifa!" Cloud's voice hollered in the phone.

Shaking myself awake enough to push Rubin Kung off of me, I pretended to "tsk" at him, waving my pointer finger in front of him.

"Hey, it's getting late. I'll see you around," I winked, starting to walk off, but he held my hand.

"Can I get your number, Sugar?" he inquired.

I swear to God if he calls me "Sugar" one more time, he's going to get his teeth knocked into his brain. Smiling, I took a piece of paper and wrote down 7 random numbers that came to mind. As I handed him the piece of paper, he took my hand and kissed it.

"Bye," I waved and left.

Walking towards Cloud's table, I felt myself falling. The drug and alcohol was killing my body. Luckily, I was strong enough to stop in front of Cloud before falling. He caught me in his arms expertly. Carrying me in his arms, he took me out back to the car.

"My head hurts," I slurred.

"I know," he replied.

"Cold…so cold…" I murmured.

Just then I was placed into the passenger seat and then Cloud placed his jacket over me. As he got into his drivers seat, I began coughing hysterically. Stroking my back, he stared at me worriedly.

"This is so painful!" I screamed and then coughed again.

Not long after, I started shivering and then eventually, I fainted.