"Your task is not to seek for love,
but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself
that you have built against it."
- Rumi


 

 

 

This train

A FFVII Fan Novella

By Seimei

 

 

 


Memory - she can't shake her memory, and she can't stop thinking what is wrong with me, what is wrong with me, but this man next to her - his ghost eyes open her up like the sky beyond the plate, the sky she sees stretching out before her with the sea, and she is afraid all over again.

She tastes salt.

She is afraid, but she isn't going to stop searching.

For answers.

For herself.

The window between them fractures just a little deeper.

When the glass inevitably breaks, and the green sea washes over them all, will he still be there, waiting for her?

Or will the reflection of him shiver and -



𖣘


"Do you think we might ever get to ride in an airship together, Cloud?"

Aeris leans over the guardrail, her shadow unable to reach the water far below. He watches the sunset burn red around the ribbon tied up in her hair. The sky and the sea let the deck of the cargo ship pass between smoothly, and for a moment he feels like they are sailing by the wind even though he can hear the constant drone of the Mako propulsion engine below the deck.

Her question seems childish, like the ribbon - bright, inappropriately hopeful, but - but here he is, the one feeling like a child. He hasn't felt this way since that time -

She speaks again, because he has been silent. "Like the one in Junon?"

He knows her well enough to hear the uncertainty she feels - something she normally doesn't show anyone. She bites her lip for one anxious moment, counting moments under a sweep of breath, but without fail she exhales. She looks peaceful then.

"It's something I've never done - never thought I would do, in the course of my life. But seeing the one in Junon filled my head with all sorts of possibilities."

He sees this often; a soft smile appears and her eyes ease into the distance, almost like she isn't standing there with him at all, chasing a black cape or a tattooed number or an intangible shadow from his own past. This time is no different, but maybe now he feels a little jealous.

"You want to ride an airship, Aeris?"

He doesn't know when, if, he'd ever be able to take her on one - the road they are walking doesn't lend itself to easy promises. Still, he wants to say yes; he's still feeling childish.

"Yeah. It's silly, I know." She lets go of the railing, wrists jingling in aluminum circlets. "But, can't you imagine it? Racing with the wind, everything below you so small. What would the sea smell like? The mountains? Maybe all you'd smell is fuel. But. Nothing can hurt you. Nothing can get between you and the horizon. The sky is open and endless."

When he finally says something, he regrets it almost instantly.

"I thought … you were afraid of the sky?"

He remembers her first steps beyond the walls of Midgar. That moment, when, blinking, she stepped into the burning sun of the wasteland beyond. She'd lingered at the edge of the city's shadow when all the others marched straight on, determined to make it to the village of Kalm as soon as possible.

But she had stopped, and looked back. Hesitated. Looked up. Grit her teeth. Hugged herself. And took a small step into the light.

He wants to know why.

"Afraid? I-" She stumbles, catches herself, then scratches behind her ear in embarrassment. "I'm no good at hiding things, I see. Yes."

She pauses, collecting her thoughts like she had once collected flowers - deliberately, carefully; and when she comes to a resolution, she holds her finger to the corner of her mouth.

"To be so free is terrifying. Anything is possible. Everything is open to you, and all your choices matter. You could hurt yourself. Hurt others. But. All that fear and uncertainty, well, isn't that what it is to be alive?"

A passing moment. Something painful is moving in Cloud's chest.

"Everyone dies eventually," she says, eyes lowering. "But…"

She leans forward in one swift motion and kisses him on the mouth.

When he finally looks into them, candles burn behind her eyes, like stars, full of little hopes and little dreads - and he realizes the sun has dipped into the sea, leaving behind a darkened sky, and the only thing in the black is her face. Her face, a face - he holds her close because he has nothing else to keep his legs steady, because she is warm, because she is sad. Because his head is muddled, and she makes it better and worse all the same, and her lips are soft.

She is the one who pulls away first, and the smile she gives him is forced. She taps her forehead, as if to say think about that, and leaves him by the ship's railing.

"Surely you can figure it out," she says.

He can't see her sadness as she goes away from him.



֎


"Everyone, thanks for everything. And… I'm sorry."

"I'm so sorry."

"Especially to you, Tifa."

Especially you.

When their bodies have enough, they zip up their wounds and smile into bathroom mirrors, in places where they are alone. For a moment, the image of his lips against hers wanders into her thoughts, but the pang in Tifa's gut chases away the sensation it brings.

Cloud is gone again.



֎


Tifa hates this feeling.

The counters are clean. The sink is empty. The cabinets are in order, the stools are set, the booths are ready for tomorrow.

The blinds.

She hasn't closed them yet. Like carrots through a grater in her mind, the light. A cold metallic glow. She methodically twists each shut and, with a housekeeper's sigh, slides into one of the seats. Her hip knocks against the table and jars her before she composes herself. She refuses to let her head sink into her hands.

Just look at me.

Cloud isn't back yet from his delivery run. This was becoming the norm, slowly but surely, and thoughts of him gnaw on her until she feels like a termite-riddled piece of wood. Later and later, day after day, the hours slip away from both of them, and unwanted thoughts pool in the empty places she saves for them.

Where is he? Is he okay?

Will he call me if something happens?

The last one is the killer, really. The phone isn't exactly the lifeline between the two of them that it should be; return calls are rare on his end, and he never - never - picks up anymore.

But you've got to have a phone if you're on the road. If you're taking jobs.

True, Cloud has always been on the move. The opening of the new Seventh Heaven had him venturing into the community every day to haggle for provisions for Tifa. As business grew, so did his territory, and so did his time on the road, but it wasn't until he obtained his own motorcycle and his own business that true distance starting growing between Cloud and Tifa.

What's yours is yours, mine is mine, but ours - hours - 

They'd been doing so well, Tifa had thought. Cloud had reassured her at every possible opportunity that she and he were in this together, that he intended to stay with her as long as she'd have him.

After the end of the world, he'd held her close, and she'd hidden her face in the hollow of his throat. He'd kissed her temple, her cheek, her lips.

It's going to be okay, Tifa. You have me. And I have you.

The memory of his gentle smile sinks in her chest, too heavy to hold.

It's different now.

These days, Tifa closes the bar once a week, but the motorbike keeps running and she keeps watching him drive away, standing in the doorway with the keys in her hands, thinking to herself but I closed us for a day, I took the hit in my pocket to make room for...

She has trouble finding true fault with him. After all, he simply can't turn down jobs, just as she really can't close down the bar as often as she'd like. Money is tight. And just as he had when he went out every day to fight over vegetables for her, he does his job now without complaint, and - she thinks she senses - that he does it largely for her. For their family.

Their family.

Her pain deepens.

Does he see them that way? Does he see her that way?

They'd fought recently, which was why he now avoided coming home. Two weeks ago, she'd come down from their room late one night, wondering why his side of the bed was cold, and she'd seen him bent over the bar counter, drink in hand. The night sky had been dull through the windows, and he'd looked so lonely.

Cloud wasn't the kind to drink alone - by his own admission, it made him feel out of control, like he'd keep drinking until he couldn't anymore, unless he was drinking with friends.

But Tifa knew something of what was happening.

Earlier that day, she'd been cleaning the half-empty coffee cups and food wrappers off his small office desk, and she'd seen something beneath a small stack of receipts that made her heart sink.

An envelope with pressed flowers inside. Beside it, a coiled piece of paper with a yellow ribbon wrapped around it.

On the outside of the envelope was written, in familiar handwriting: For Aeris.

Tifa had known instantly that Cloud was intending to take these items to the Forgotten City - to what end, now that, she wasn't sure.

Is he doing this for himself? Did someone ask him to do this?

Why didn't he ask me to come with him?

Maybe he was going to ask her, but he hadn't done so yet. After all, she can't be sure how long they've been there.

She'd wanted to read the note, but she felt that would have been wrong of her, so she'd tucked the items back under the pile of papers that had been clearly placed to hide them, and she'd closed the door to the office.

So, then, seeing him brooding at the bar counter, she had thought to ask him about it right there. Maybe she shouldn't tell him she was snooping - but surely, if she gave him the opportunity - maybe if she suggested they go together, independent of these items, he'd open up to her? Especially over a drink?

"Can I join you?" she'd asked, already reaching for a bottle to pour herself something.

"I want to drink alone," he'd answered flatly, not even looking up at her.

Drinking was supposed to be about sharing. That's what Barret had said. That's why the three of them rebuilt Seventh Heaven when they came to Edge - to connect people, to make them laugh, to give them enough wiggle room to hope for something more.

At hearing his dismissal, a rubber band had snapped in her chest, and heat had risen in her cheeks. He may as well have thrown the drink in her face.

"Then drink in your god damned room!"

The worst of it was the look he'd given her - one of bewilderment. And pain. But he'd gotten up and gone to his office and shut the door quietly, glass in hand.

She felt guilty afterward - still feels guilty about it, even now - but she'd never apologized, and he avoided her afterwards.

She feels heavy, sitting there in the booth with her memory, so she gets up to shake off the feeling, and the floorboards creak betrayal beneath her feet.

The worst thing is that Marlene can see everything, Tifa thinks.

She and Cloud have done their fair share of pretending to be okay for Marlene's sake, and the act lasted for awhile - brimming with fake smiles and conversations even when the room felt so quiet. Marlene saw through it, of course.

Tifa stands a little straighter. Before Cloud gets home, she has to put Marlene to bed. Tifa crosses the bar, making for the stairs.

The little girl is in her room, drawing on a piece of paper. Despite the silence, the floor is a maze of crayons, papers, and toys. Tifa hangs in the doorway and watches Marlene, and for a moment, she feels a little guilty that the room has gotten this messy - have I been ignoring Marlene, too? - but she lets the blame roll off her shoulders when Marlene shows her a goofy grin.

"Whatcha drawing, Marlene?"

"Ah, this? It's Daddy and Mog on a chocobo train!"

"Wow, Marlene." Tifa arcs an eyebrow. "What's a chocobo train?"

Marlene gives her a look. "A train made out of chocobos, duh."

Tifa laughs. "Oh, of course."

The young girl beams when Tifa comes over and crouches down next to her.

Barret looks like a monstrous potato, gloriously emblazoned at the rear of several yellow swirling blobs.

Wait - they have beaks. Beaked blobs, then.

Mog looks like a failed rendition of one of Tifa's cupcakes - and are those four eyes or two wings? Tifa tries to keep from chuckling.

"You'll have to put that one up somewhere special - how about over your desk?"

Marlene nods. "Once it's finished, sure! But I was going to add Cloud at the front of the train! I just thought of that." She indicates towards the very, very, front of the train with a confident poke.

Tifa lets herself laugh then - she wonders briefly how Marlene will visually distinguish Cloud from the rest of the chocobo train before she realizes that he will probably be the only blob with a ridiculously serious expression. She says, "I'm sure he'd like that. But, you'll have to add him tomorrow. It's time for you to be getting to bed."

Marlene pouts. "I know."

Tifa teasingly imitates the pout. "Oh, I know. I'm horrible."

After making a respectable pile out of the artistic experiment, Tifa and Marlene wash up. Soon after, Tifa tucks her in with a kiss. She is a little surprised when Marlene reaches firmly for her hand.

"Marlene, I…" she begins, but Tifa doesn't know what she wants to say. She glances over the side of Marlene's bed, at the floor, and pauses when her eyes go across the drawing, which rests on top of Marlene's neatly-piled art supplies; she lingers at the blank spot where Marlene intends to place Cloud.

"Tifa." Marlene's eyes are bright, even in the darkness.

"What's the matter, Mar?"

Marlene hesitates before she asks, "Is Cloud coming home tonight?"

Tifa squeezes Marlene's hand. "It will be late, if he does."

"I want him to tuck me in, too."

Tifa runs her free hand through Marlene's hair. "Well, I'm here, tonight." Her throat tightens as she speaks.

"I know." The answer is quiet, tiny. Tifa's eyes begin to burn when the expression on Marlene's face begins to emulate one that Cloud makes when he's deep in thought.

"Are you okay, Tifa?"

Pain sinks into Tifa's chest.

Little girls shouldn't worry about the adults in their lives.

Briefly, Tifa sees in her mind the reach of mountains through a windowsill, vacant shadows in a doorway, a little cowboy hat upside-down on an old rug. The images fade when she glances at Marlene's window and sees only the streaks of electrical wires.

Tifa leans over Marlene and searches carefully for her words.

"I'm okay, Mar. Please don't worry yourself. I've been tired. Running the bar is lots of work. We've - we've all been tired lately. Cloud especially."

"He's always tired, Tifa."

"Well, he works hard, too. You'd get tired if you drove all over the continent like that, I bet."

"I'm not tired." Marlene frowns, her face scrunching up as only a child can manage. "I just wish he'd look at my drawings. I get so sad when he doesn't listen to me. I was almost going to leave him out of this last drawing, 'cause he never cares anyway."

Tifa waits for a moment to pass as she clings to her breath. Her voice is rough when she speaks.

"He loves you, Marlene. He just has trouble showing it."

She tries to smile. Marlene doesn't say anything, and it breaks Tifa's heart.

"Marlene…"

"He's going to leave, like Daddy." Her voice is tiny, muffled by her blanket. "Isn't he?"

"Marlene -"

"At least Daddy calls me and talks to me for a long time and says he loves me. He loves my drawings. He says he's coming back soon, so he can see more of them."

Marlene's words leave pinpricks of pain in Tifa's chest.

"Cloud always comes home, Marlene," Tifa insists, feeling the corners of her eyes burn for a moment. "So does your Daddy. No one is going anywhere."

Marlene sleepily reaches out and hugs Tifa, and Tifa takes comfort in holding the little girl close.

"And even if your Daddy and Cloud are gone a lot, I'm always here, baby."

Marlene snuggles against Tifa's arms. "I love you," Marlene murmurs.

"I love you, too. I'll see you bright and early," Tifa says, kissing her cheek. "Have sweet dreams."

Marlene's grip has already started to soften. Tifa gets up from the bed, turning away quickly before Marlene can notice the tears burning resolutely in her eyes now.

"Night night, Mar."

"Night night, Mama."

At the door, Tifa turns, but Marlene is already soundly asleep.



֎


All that day, it rains above Midgar's plate. The people in the slums can always tell because the rain makes the pillars shudder and the drainpipes roar with black water from the upper streets. All the water collects in the middle of the slum pit, making the shortcuts between the Sectors impassible.

Tifa takes the long way around Sector Five because of the flooding, passing through the old train graveyard in order to get back to Sector Seven. Most people never pass this way, because the graveyard is contested turf between several of the slum gangs, and there's always somebody going missing. And the slum children speak of ghosts.

But, today, her journey can't be helped - Barret's little girl has been sick for the last few days, and her condition isn't improving.

Barret refused to leave his daughter's side. Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie were too deep in AVALANCHE business. So, Tifa had taken the day off to run to Wall Market, where she bartered some of Seventh Heaven's home brew for antibiotics and a cracked Cure materia. She hopes her efforts will pay off.

Ahead, Tifa can see the glow from Sector Seven's one living train station, which means she's almost home free. The old, familiar yearning to dart onto the train and let it carry her away from Midgar returns - but she knows there's nowhere she can go, nowhere she can return. Nothing has changed in the years since she came to Midgar. She keeps a protective grasp on the medicine in her pocket as she approaches.

The station is more crowded than normal - most likely because of the rain. She waits for the people to disperse before attempting to step out from behind some old wreckage and make her way past; old experience has taught her to be wary of packed crowds. She watches them stumble off the train - the haggard-looking drunks, the tired businessmen with cheap suits and thin hair, the whores and the peddlers.

And then, there is one more.

At first, she thinks he is one of the drunks. He is already slumped over by the station attendant when she spies him, his face hidden beneath a mop of dirty hair.

She pauses. Beside him lies a fearsome-looking sword, stained dark.

"Poor kid," murmurs the trainman. He bends over the man, carefully avoiding the marred sword. "What's the matter?"

Tifa remembers that sword.

The man groans, lifting his chin just enough so that Tifa can see a strange glow in his eyes.

Tifa remembers that otherworldly glow.

In her mind's eye, fire blazes and people scream. Someone is sobbing. She smells blood. Tastes blood.

The train doors close, and the lights from the windows cast a sickly weave across the ground, across the man's arms. His head rolls back.

Instead of one face, she sees another. She is stunned.

Cloud?

Five years, she's lived in this city. Not once has she ever looked across a crowd of strangers and known a face. But here he is - his face, seven years older, no longer matching the boy she remembers, and he's accompanied by an artifact from her nightmares - but oh my god, it has to be him-

Her legs move. The trainman steps aside. She kneels beside the man she thinks is Cloud and searches those eyes, lost again beneath his tangled hair. A lump forms in her throat. The first thing she can blurt out of her mouth is: "Are you all right?!"

Lost and delirious, drain pipes run dry and clanging. His eyes are empty. Maybe if he laughs it will sound like dry leaves - what is this she's looking at, a scarecrow?

It doesn't look like a man.

His hands twitch, ever so slightly, when she sweeps his hair back, and it seems like the response might be purely accidental. His freakish eyes lock with hers.

And then something in him clicks. His head rolls back again, snaps forward. He groans, and then her name tumbles from his mouth.

"T-Tifa?"

His shoulders and arms shake, and then he grabs her arms, pulling her closer, his gaze far away. His grip is tight.

"Tifa-"

The trainman gasps and tires to intervene, but Tifa silences him with a sideways glance before standing her ground against the scrambling, confused young man she knows as Cloud.

Their eyes finally meet again. He's in pain, she can see. He searches her face for something, his arms caked with wasteland and rainwater, eyes pleading.

Tifa finds it hard to answer a question she doesn't know is being asked. She stares at him dubiously before murmuring, "…oh, Cloud."

Stillness follows one last tremor through his thin body. His eyes close, open, and he looks at her with startling clarity. Then he is the one drawing her up with a cock-eyed grin. He releases her nonchalantly, ignoring the way she flexes her wrists. Her feelings of unease deepen.

"That's right. I'm Cloud," he says as if he is a gorilla in a man suit, patting at the dried blood and grime on his clothes as if it's only dust. She can't tell if it's his blood or not. She notices that despite the healthy-looking muscle on his limbs, most of his body looks malnourished and brittle.

"Is it really you, Cloud?"

The knot in her chest grows.

None of this is right, she thinks. Has he been in the city all along? Has he just arrived? Where has he been all this time? Why does he have that sword?

Behind them both, the train groans as it pulls away from the station. She hears herself saying, "I never thought I'd find you here."

"Yeah, it's been awhile."

He flicks a hand through his hair in what should have been a smug gesture, but she sees, for the first time, the underlying confusion poorly masked in his eyes.

"Cloud, are you... are you all right? You don't look well."

He tries to hide a flinch.

"… Yeah? It's nothing. I'm okay, Tifa. Just surprised to run into you as well. That's all."

"Oh," she says, trying to keep the look of alarm out of her eyes. She isn't sure if she's succeeding, but Cloud doesn't seem to notice.

He gives her a confident grin. "It's been awhile, yeah? Five years."

Tifa takes a step back. "Huh?"

He cants his head, perplexed. He noticed that.

"Tifa?"

She hesitates a moment too long.

"Cloud," she finally says, biting her lower lip, "It's good to see you."



𖣘


It's always dark under the plate. Dark with eyes open, even darker in the closing.

When he dreams, the black boils with sound and fury, swells with a palpable paroxysm of delirium, carves out the tunnels in his head and uproots the tree of his mind. A thousand whispers, rocking like the sea in his ears, and he is lost in the green fury.

"Where have you been all this time?"

"I've been in SOLDIER."

"You've been in … SOLDIER?"

Searing pain.

"Of course, Tifa. I told you I'd make it in, right?"

"Right, Cloud. That's right."

Sometimes, after he's listened to the water drain away, he finds himself in a basement, like an unwanted tool boxed up for storage - tucked behind crates and dust and cobwebs fragile. Dirt all around, dirt below, above - basement, or tomb?All the same now, if completely forgotten. Mud everywhere, mud in his hands, under his nails, in his eyes; mud like sin - mud that never washes clean.

"I'm an ex-SOLDIER now, though. I'm not in town for long. I'll be on the next train as soon as I've got some cash."

His eyes don't work - there's green all around, choking green, a verdant smog in his throat, his lungs. Waves of pain, relentless. Is the pain outside his body, or within?

A sneer with a man's face presses against the tank.

"This one is an abject failure," someone says.

And his entrails are wrung together and taken apart and it's everyone else who is laughing at this pain.

"Oh. Well. Actually, Cloud - I've got an idea. You see-"

Darkness, and then - and then, a roar, steady, from below and around, rhythmic, the sound of an automated weapon, no, a scream, a whistle - the wailing of brakes, of iron and the spitting of sparks, the beating fist of a train-

Tifa -

And now he is awake again, but there is hardly any difference.



֎


When Tifa first brings Cloud back to Seventh Heaven, Barret takes one look at him and sniffs. Just sniffs - and stares.

Barret's uncharacteristic silence lasts for several days, setting the whole crew on edge. It doesn't help that Marlene is still sick - Barret is a walking bundle of nerves whenever the little girl has anything more severe than a cough - but even after the antibiotics take effect, and the broken cure materia perks her up, Barret is still cold as can be.

Cloud ignores him for the most part, but Tifa wonders how long this standstill can last.

One morning, Barret goes behind the bar counter to scrounge up breakfast, not caring that Cloud is already back there, bleary-eyed, manually opening a can of black beans. He knocks into the ex- SOLDER, and Barret breaks his vow of silence.

"Dammit, Tifa, we're low on chow again."

Tifa is nearby, wiping down a stained chair.

"You sure you're not just throwing food away?" He clears his throat, rummaging through a cupboard above Cloud's head. "I mean, I know most of this shit is garbage, but c'mon."

She's mad, of course. Barret can be gruff, but he's rarely mean. She contemplates throwing her rag at him - but instead she freezes.

Tifa watches as Cloud grips the can of beans like he's clinging to a ledge, as he pulls off the jagged lid with unnecessary precision. He doesn't flinch when he cuts a finger on the mangled edge of the lid; he slowly inhales, watches his blood run into his hand. His eyes are dull. Tifa holds her breath. Even Barret side-eyes Cloud, though he seems to treat it like a dare.

Nothing else happens. Cloud wipes his hand on his shirt and fishes the beans out with a fork, and Barret shakes an expired box of cereal and then pours some into a dirty mug, and Tifa sticks the rag in her back pocket and storms outside.

She hears Cloud say, loudly and unapologetically, "These beans taste like shit."

She is sure, without having to have direct evidence, that Barret isn't the only one who doesn't like Cloud.

But she knows. Marlene darts between Barret's legs whenever Cloud is near, her little eyes sharp and suspicious. Biggs give him a wide berth, and Jessie studies him with an intense expression, though she never speaks to him. Wedge is the only one who says anything to Cloud - an awkward attempt at a joke here, a question about food preferences there - but his efforts are largely ignored. Tifa wonders if Cloud even knows their names.

One night, Tifa walks into the bathroom to wash her face - and nearly crashes into Cloud, bare chested and bracing himself against the small sink.

He smells like vomit.

He stands upright, jaw clenched. He wipes his mouth.

"Sorry, Tifa. I'm in the way, aren't I." His voice is flat.

He looks past her and starts to step around her, careful not to touch her in the tight space.

She can't help but spy it, then - on his body, just below his ribcage, is a mark. A birthmark, maybe? Something about it makes Tifa's skin crawl - it feels wrong.

It's not a birthmark, she realizes, when she sees it on his back, as well.

It's a scar.

Tifa dreads the nights the most. Everyone piles together beneath the bar, in the hidden room where they used to feel safest: Jessie, slumped over her computer keyboard; Biggs, stretched out on a thin but tidy blanket in one corner; Wedge, beside him in a messy heap; Barret, stretched across an old sofa; Marlene, in Barret's arms. Tifa always sleeps in a small cot at the foot of Barret's couch. Cloud curls up in the farthest corner, barely contained by a few old blankets. Even at that distance, his presence feels inescapable.

The night before they raid Mako Reactor One, Barret and Tifa are the only ones awake.

"I don't like him," Barret says, making a meaningful gesture with his gun-arm as he leans against the sofa. Marlene nuzzles her flattened pillow into his side, breathing deeply, but Tifa can only glare at him.

"Oh, really? You don't? I couldn't tell."

"He's a smug jackass, Tifa. Never speaks to nobody. And when he does, he acts like he owns the place."

"Well, you're giving him all the reason in the world to talk to us, aren't you?"

"I ain't got nothin' to say to a jackass, Tifa. A Shinra jackass, no less."

"Ex-Shinra."

"So he says."

"Barret." Tifa sighs. "You don't have to like him - he's here to support the mission."

"Yeah, yeah, that's what you said you were gonna pay him for."

"SOLDIERs - even ex-SOLDIERS - are the best of the best."

"They're dangerous, you mean."

Her voice sharpens. "You think I don't know that? You and I have experience dealing with Shinra, but the others - they're just kids."

Barret's frown curves into a smirk. "Heh, coming from a child herself."

"I'm not a child!" Tifa hisses a little childishly.

Barret allows himself a brief chuckle. His expression then hardens again, and this time, he gives Tifa an unabashed look of concern.

"Tifa. He ain't... right. There's a screw loose, or somethin'. Least of my worries is that he's Ex-Shinra, but you can't trust those bastards, and you know that."

"I know. I never said I trusted him."

"Thought you said he was an old friend."

She rolls her eyes.

Barret tucks a piece of Marlene's hair behind her ear, and the little girl sighs in her sleep.

"I'm worried 'bout you, too," Barret says to Tifa. "It's like … this jackass has you upside-down."

"What? Barret, I'm - I'm fine." She holds her breath so that her words come out as a whisper. "I'm just on edge - because -"

She can't bring herself to say it.

Barret reaches across the arm of the couch and pats her head affectionately. Normally, she'd bat him away, but she leans into the gesture and closes her eyes.

"It'll be okay, Tifa. We planned for this."

"I know. I just… I don't know." She bites her lip.

Barret gives her a long look. Finally, he says, "You should sit this first one out."

She flinches, and looks up at him from beneath his hand. "What? Why?"

Barret shifts Marlene in his arms. "Truth is, I'd focus better if I knew Marlene was with someone I trusted most in the world."

"But -"

"-And your head ain't on strait around this fella. Too risky, for the first mission. We gotta get this right. Or we're out."

She looks away, where Cloud is sleeping across the room. He looks cold, lying there in the dark.

"Don't worry, we'll get good use out of him, as you say." Barret continues, with an edge in his voice. "And I'll make sure he don't betray us."

Tifa slowly nods.



𖣘


Cloud listens as their voices end and the dark returns.

The train rolls in his mind still, the basement tomb rots away, and there is something missing from all of it.

He dreams, floats like driftwood, screams dead in his collapsing throat.

He can hear the words, over and over, and each one stings like a scab being pulled raw.

When the pain pours out of him, he feels hollow.

In the void, he turns over a word Tifa had stressed, over and over until everything else disappears.

"I never said I trusted him."



֎


She hears him dreaming again.

"Somebody shut him up, god," Biggs groans, shifting to his side. Wedge and Barret keep snoring, and Jessie's fingers twitch, but she doesn't raise her head.

Tifa lies there in the dark, hearing her name on Cloud's lips, again and again.

"Tifa."

It feels unbearable - beyond mortifying. Almost every night now, he's done this, she thinks. The worst of it is the looks everyone gives her in the morning - pity, confusion, condolences, smirks. Jessie wriggles her eyebrows suggestively, and Wedge pretends nothing is happening.

"Tifa, no, I - Tifa…"

The murmuring grows, rising like hot air, until she can't breathe. She throws off her covers and stalks across the room until the huddled form of Cloud curls at her feet like the skin of a peeled onion.

"Cloud," she says.

Barret and Wedge have stopped snoring.

"Hey, Cloud." She drops to her knees beside him. "Cloud, are you awake?"

He reaches for her, eyes clamped shut, arms trembling. His hand falls against her bare thigh, and she stares numbly at it, seeing a child's hands and mountain paths and scuffles in the grass, wondering what she'll see when he opens his eyes.

"You're dreaming, Cloud. Wake up."

His head twists to the side, and sweat beads down his cheek, but Tifa realizes she still hasn't reached him.

Gently, she touches his temple.

"What's wrong?"

Without opening his eyes, Cloud murmurs, "- failed."

Tifa exhales slowly, afraid to shift him out of this liminal space. "Failed?"

"Tifa, I'm so sorry."

She pulls her hand away in surprise, and his eyes snap open.

"Tifa?"

He sits up, nearly head-butting her. She yelps and jolts back from him. He rubs the sleep from his face and starts to reach for his equipment, lying next to him.

"Tifa, you okay? What's going on?" He's bleary-eyed and ready to act, and she realizes immediately he has no memory of whatever he was dreaming.

Tifa freezes, hands closed into fists at her knees.

"Nothing," she says with a wince. "Go back to sleep. Sorry I woke you."



𖣘


"Look. You can see the surface now. This city don't have no day or night. If that plate weren't there, we could see the sky."

"A floating city... Pretty unsettling scenery."

"Never expected to hear that out of someone like you."

"The upper world... a city on a plate… It's because of that fucking 'pizza' that people underneath are suffering!And the city below is full of polluted air. On top of that, the Reactor keeps draining up all the energy."

"Then why doesn't everyone move onto the Plate?"

"Dunno. Probably because they ain't got no money. Or, maybe… because they love their land, no matter how polluted it gets - and they remember it wasn't always like this."

"I know. No one lives in the slums because they want to.

It's like this train.

It can't run anywhere except where its rails take it."



֎


Tifa hears Barret's booming laugh out in the street before she sees his silhouette in the doorway of Seventh Heaven, and, immediately, she sags with relief against the back of her chair.

If Barret is laughing, then nobody died.

As soon as AVALANCHE had left for the Sector One Mako reactor, she'd switched the television in the bar to the news station. None of the customers complained, even though no one in the slums is fond of Shinra boot-licking, because she upped the strength of their drinks if they said anything.

For several hours, she'd paced the bar, watching Marlene color on an old scrap of cardboard, and listlessly prepping drinks for the few regulars still haunting the place. In the background, the news had remained as uneventful as normal - something about moving the Mayor's office, a brief update about a wanted fugitive being apprehended on the outskirts of Midgar a few weeks ago, an interview with a Shinra executive, promising tax rate stability for the next few months…

But then, some time shortly after midnight, she'd felt the plate above Sector Seven shudder, and almost immediately, the screen blared images of Reactor One burning.

A plume of smoke, coiling up into the dark sky. Fire in the streets. People jumping out of the windows of their homes.

Tifa's whole body shook at the sight.

Quickly, just as the regulars had started to take note of the change in programming, Tifa had knocked a glass against the bar counter and announced, "Okay, bar's closing! This isn't good. Everyone, time to go home!"

Then, she'd spent an hour in complete and utter dread, television on mute so as not to wake the now sleeping Marlene.

Barret's conspicuous, blustering laughter is absolutely welcome.

Marlene stirs in Tifa's lap and yawns.

"Daddy?"

Tifa squeezes her just a little. "Yeah, Daddy's back."

Marlene slides out of Tifa's arms, still half-asleep and stumbling, but wholly excited and eager. "Yay! Come on, come on, Tifa, let's go!"

Marlene races out the door before Tifa can stand. Outside, Tifa hears Barret bellow in joy as he scoops up Marlene.

"That's right! Daddy's home!"

Tifa takes a step forward but then pauses, a smile she'd been holding back spreading across her face.

Barret's tone abruptly changes from jolly to dark. "What's the rush? Not like your slow moving ass to be this quick. Oh, you wanna meet your little baby, don't you?"

And suddenly, Cloud pushes past the clamor on the porch and strides through the door. His face and arms are sooty, and his hair is even wilder than normal. Anxious energy rolls off him like a live wire. His eyes land immediately on Tifa.

Tifa's breath escapes her.

For one brief moment, Cloud stares at her with his too-bright eyes, and Tifa is utterly arrested.

They way he looks right now -I know this Cloud.

And then the others pile in around him - Barret, carrying Marlene on his arm, Biggs and Wedge with an arm around each other, and Jessie, with a bag of - presumably - explosives slung over her shoulder.

"Tifa!" Barret is beaming. "Break open the top shelf bottles! Our mission was a complete success!"

Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie fall into their usual seats around a card table, laughing and slapping each other on the back - though Jessie is a bit subdued and contemplative.

"You got any pizza left from this afternoon, Tifa?" Wedge asks her - and when she hesitates to answer, he folds his hands together in prayer. "Do you? Pleeeeease?"

Tifa does her best to accommodate AVALANCHE's requests - she has no more pizza, but she does fry up some eggs and hashbrowns, and she pours Barret a stout glass of her top-shelf bourbon, and Marlene gets some sweet, iced yogurt as a treat.

Cloud lurks at the periphery, at the end of the row of barstools, watching everything - watching Tifa herself most of all, she realizes. The back of her neck sings with energy, as if she'd brushed against something static.

Tifa then notices that he has something unusual tucked into the chest pocket of his shirt.

A small, fragile-looking yellow flower.

Tifa can't help herself - she leans over the counter, despite her nerves.

"Oh my god, Cloud - is that a lily? I haven't seen one since I came to Midgar. I didn't think anything could grow like that around here. How in the world did you get one?"

Cloud nods, a smirk at the corner of his mouth. "I have my ways."

Tifa chuckles nervously.

He untucks it from his pocket, and after a moment of deliberation, he lays it on the counter next to Marlene. The little girl gawks at it before snatching it up and leaning towards Barret to whisper in his ear.

Barret grumbles, casting a suspicious glare at Cloud, "What do you say, baby?"

"Thank you, Mr. Cloud," Marlene whispers shyly.

Tifa smiles brightly at Cloud. Maybe he's a normal person after all, she thinks with a small twist of something in her chest.

"How about something to drink?" Tifa asks him.

He glances at Barret's now half-empty glass, and says, "Something hard."

Tifa nods and reaches for the same bourbon. As she pours his glass, she says, "I'm glad you all made it back safely. When I saw the television images of the explosion… when I felt the explosion -"

Cloud takes the drink from her and sips it. "It wasn't that tough of a job."

Barret barks a dry, caustic laugh.

Biggs stands up from the table and strolls over to the bar counter.

"Tifa," he says, beaming, "You would not believe how well it went. And we couldn't have done it without Mr. Serious ex-SOLDIER here - seriously."

Biggs claps Cloud on the back with a good-natured chortle.

Cloud immediately recoils, bending away from Biggs's hand as if it had been on fire.

"Don't fucking touch me," he snaps at Biggs.

Everyone at the bar counter flinches, completely caught off guard by Cloud's response - even Cloud himself, who blinks and steps away from the counter. Barret raises off his seat, gun-arm glinting dangerously in challenge.

Cloud meet's Tifa's eyes, uncertain. He tightens his fists.

"I want to talk about my money," he declares. And then he storms outside.

Barret and Tifa glance at one another; Barret raises an eyebrow at her, as if to say, Told you he's a jack-ass.

Tifa sighs, fighting back a growing anxiety in her belly. "I'll handle him."

Barret nods once. Then, he stands brusquely. "All right, AVALANCHE! Time to wrap it up and head downstairs for a de-brief!"

As they pile onto the secret slot-machine lift, Tifa steels herself.

Time to go talk to Cloud.

He's standing at the bottom of the stoop, back rigid, his large sword hanging from his shoulders and reflecting the warm hues glowing within Seventh Heaven.

"Did you fight with the others?"

Some of the tension leaves Cloud's shoulders. He turns towards Tifa, a dark smile on his lips.

"Something like that."

Tifa moves down one step and then sits at the top of the stairs, curling her knees to her chest. "I don't blame you, exactly," she starts, and Cloud's expression softens ever so slightly. "Barret is, well, he's not always the easiest person to get along with."

She doesn't say: you also used to get into so many fights when we were children.

Cloud crosses his arms and says, "No kidding."

"And Jessie's bomb? I know she was worried it wouldn't work."

"Went off without a hitch." He rubs the side of his head. "I'm surprised that was her first time making one."

Tifa nods, frowning. "Yeah." She tries not to think about all the people leaping out of windows to escape the flames - she tries not to think about how she knows this is still happening at this very moment.

Fuck you, Shinra.

Cloud exhales. "Tifa. You guys owe me 1500 Gil for this job."

She nods, wringing her hands. "I know. Um. About that…"

He grimaces, bracing for her excuse.

"Here," she says, reaching into the pocket of her small apron. She hands him a small envelope with cash, which he retrieves from her and begins to count.

"This is only 800, Tifa," he says.

"I know, I know!" She bows apologetically. "Business has been real slow lately. But I expect to earn the difference in the next day or so."

Cloud stuffs the money into his pocket and digs the toe of his boot into the dirt. "Tifa," he says, "I don't work for charity."

Anger spikes in her chest. "Charity? Cloud, in the time that you've stayed with us, have we charged you rent? Charged you for food?"

For just a flash of half a moment, Cloud looks completely mortified - like a child who's just been told he's wrong about a very strongly held, but deeply naïve, belief. Quick as lightning, it's gone - replaced with indignation. He glowers at her.

"Fine then. You only owe me 600," he retorts.

Wow, you have greatly underestimated the cost of those things, Tifa thinks to herself.

"No, Cloud - we'll pay you what we agreed on, which is 1500 total." She hugs her legs tighter. "Are you in such a hurry to leave that you couldn't wait a few more days for the rest of it?"

Cloud's mouth is stretched thin. He looks at his feet. "Tifa, I… Don't worry, I'm not going to run back off to Shinra or SOLDIER, if that's what you're worried about."

She averts her eyes. "Oh, I …"

He was listening to us last night.

"Cloud, that's not something I was deeply worried about."

Cloud paces a step. Two. "Well, Barret wouldn't let me hear the end of it the entire mission."

Tifa smiles wanly.

Cloud continues, with an edge in his tone, "But don't get me wrong. I don't care about AVALANCHE or the Planet either."

Tifa hadn't been expecting the declaration, and it hits her like a slap in the face.

"I'm in this for myself," he says resolutely.

She wants to stand up and shake him. Or yell. Or take off down a dark alley and run until she's out of breath. But she does none of those things. Instead, she sucks in a lungful of air and slowly exhales, searching for something inside her that isn't spinning.

"How sad," she murmurs to herself.

"Hmm?"

"Nothing," she says tersely.

I don't have a right to be mad at him. He doesn't owe me anything. I don't know why I expected anything else.

"You know, Barret is going to have another job lined up by week's end," she says, unfurling her legs over the lower stairs.

Cloud chews a lip in thought. "Oh?"

"We'd be willing to pay you 2200, since you were so useful on this last mission."

Cloud nods slowly. "Hmm."

To Tifa's surprise, he comes up the stairs and takes a seat beside her. Not close-close, not touching - but on the same step. The side of her body that faces him crackles with their proximity; she wants to roll her eyes at herself.

"It's worth thinking about," he says.

For several moments, the two of them sit on the steps - not quite together, but breathing the same air at least. The Sector Seven slums are fairly quiet - only the sounds of feral cats hissing over garbage or yowling while mating can be heard in the distance. Tifa casts her gaze upward, at the plate. The countless twinkling, mechanical lights are an insult to the memory of a starry sky, but she thinks of one nonetheless.

Say it, Tifa.

"I was actually hoping…" Tifa begins, voice tiny.

Cloud turns slowly to look at her. His eyes on her makes the moment longer than it otherwise would be.

"I was hoping that you'd join our cause," Tifa spits out. "I know you don't care about it, but I thought that, well… maybe…"

Cloud remains obtusely obstinate. "Tifa, I told you-"

The inner stillness she'd been reaching for dissolves completely. "Yeah, I know, I know. But, Cloud - the planet is dying. Slowly but surely, it's dying. Someone has to do something."

"So? Let Barret and his buddies do something about it. It's got nothing to do with me."

"How can you say that it has nothing to do with you? You live on this Planet, do you not?" She grits her teeth. "Every day, Shinra chews up people and spits them out, like used up gum. They don't care about anyone - not us, not their pawns - and when they stop being useful, they just throw them away."

She registers that Cloud flinches, but she ignores him.

If that hurt, good.

"Shinra is going to keep burning everything until there's nothing but ashes left - and then they'll still find a way to sell us those ashes to make sure we choke on them. They've already sucked the earth dry here. You've seen the wasteland surrounding Midgar, right? You remember what the air near the Mako Reactor at home smelled like, right? Right?"

Cloud presses his knuckle against the crease in his brow. "Tifa, Shinra's going to do what they want to do, whether you guys blow up one reactor - or all of them."

She's suddenly seething. She stands up, arms shaking, and paces down the steps and several feet away from Cloud.

Why do I want to cry?

Nibelheim is burning in her minds eye. Five years have passed. Tifa is not the same little girl she'd been back then. Sometimes, Tifa thinks she isn't going to always be haunted by the things that happened to her that night.

Maybe, one day, she won't wake up gasping to breathe, afraid that the sweat soaking her blankets is actually her blood. Maybe she won't flinch every time someone in an alley is burning a heap of trash and she catches a whiff of the smoke. Maybe she won't desperately miss her own father every time she sees Barret kiss Marlene goodnight.

But not tonight, apparently.

"So, when the money runs out, you're really going to leave?"

She would normally feel embarrassed, but she's too angry to register her words before she says them. Which is why the next sentence escapes her like air whooshing out a popped balloon, and she can't suck them back in:

"You'd just walk out on your childhood friend?"

Behind her, she hears Cloud rise off the stairs. One step, two steps. He's treading towards her, and he stammers:

"What? No, I -"

He sounds utterly aghast - like he hadn't considered that his self-interest would make her feel like he didn't give a shit about her.

How can someone be so… so…

She takes in a long breath and wipes spittle from her mouth. Air in, air out.

He's behind her - just out of arm's reach, she'd wager.

Say it, Tifa.

She whispers, "… You forgot the promise, too."

She hears his breathing quicken. Then, he answers her, and she can't tell if he's turning the memory over and over in his mind, or if he's admitting that he'd truly forgotten.

"The promise…"

You can't be mad at him, Tifa. It was just a silly conversation between kids. You can't expect a grown man - a former SOLDIER, nonetheless - to remember or care about something as insipid as that.

"You did forget."

Cloud is silent, which she takes to mean that yes, he did, indeed, forget. She wants to laugh at herself for being an idiot - for being the one to hang onto this random piece of history between them, for being the one who remembered it first, for being the one who cared about it.

She turns around to look at him. He's wearing the same intense expression from earlier - wild hair framing his face, eery eyes gleaming in the darkness.

A chill rolls through her. He still hasn't said anything else.

She wraps her arms around herself. "We met at the water tower in the center of town. Seven years ago, before you left Nibelheim."

Finally, he slowly nods.

"… I remember." He smiles gently, and something in Tifa's chest softens as well. He continues, "Back then… I asked you to meet me there that night. I was afraid your dad wouldn't let you out of his sight, so I didn't go to your house." He chuckles once. "I thought you'd never come, and I was getting cold."

"That's right. It was autumn - not quite winter. You told me you were going away to Midgar, to join SOLDIER. To become a famous war hero, like Se-"

"Yeah, I remember," Cloud says, cutting her off. She arcs an eyebrow. He adds, with a smirk, "And you seemed unimpressed."

She laughs briefly and then smiles to herself, shaking her head at how she must have looked to him. "I made you promise that if I was ever in trouble, you'd come to my rescue."

He steps closer, head lowered, hands on his hips. He's hiding a grin when he looks up at her through the scrub of his hair. "Why did you ask that of me?"

Her cheeks are hot. She tucks her own hair behind her ear, but some of it is caught in her earring. She tugs. "Silly, I know. But maybe some girlish part of me just wanted to experience that kind of cliché once in my life."

Cloud scans the street leading away from them, still grinning slightly. A nearby light in a neighbor's window goes off, and it's even darker than before.

Cloud's voice surprises her. "I'll do the next job for 1800."

She feels the anxiety that had been crooning in her body instantly relent. She lets out a quiet sigh of relief.

"Only 1800? You sure?"

Unlike everything else from before, he's not going to disappear just yet.

"Yeah. You've been … more than fair."

"And after that mission?"

"… Well, even if there's other work to be had, work's still work, right?"

Tifa smiles.



𖣘


Tifa…

I didn't forget the promise we made.

I remember that night as clearly as I see you standing before me now.

The truth is…

I know that I joined SOLDIER, but…

I'm no hero, and I'm not famous.

I don't know if I can truly keep that promise.



𖣘


If everything's a dream, don't wake me.

It's no longer dark, but everything's awash in a thin green haze. A hand touches his forehead.

"Hey!" a voice breaks. "Are you okay? Can you stand?"

I remember this, he thinks. A child's doll falls carelessly off the bed. A little girl is crying. Back then, it was just skinned knees, but now-

He feels stiff. As soon as he opens his eyes, he can't remember what he had just been thinking. A woman is beside him, someone he thinks he's never seen before - though he isn't sure, because that's not quite right. He's suddenly sure he knows her. She wears a pink dress - an absurd color in the slums of Midgar. She tugs idly at the ribbon in her hair. His chest tightens when her face hovers close. Her eyes are green like the trees.

"You don't remember me, do you?"

He can't focus. He's not sure.

She checks him for injuries with uninterrupted focus. He's too sore to push her away.

"I guess I'll forgive you for not remembering me," she says. "You were walking around in a daze, after all. Can't blame you - it was after the explosion."

"Explosion?"

"The Mako Reactor. On the upper plate."

His elbows itch because they're being touched by weeds - flowers - a mess of overgrowth and green. Sitting there, he realizes he's in a church with a rotten floor; above him, he can see the beams that broke his fall, and the hole in the roof that welcomed him here. It's been a long time since he's been in a church, and the one in his memories is nothing like the one he's in now.

The woman smiles at his continued silence. "No, it's okay! Really! It's easy to forget a face, especially one as forgettable as mine. Hmm. Well, looks like you're not going to bleed to death on my flowers. That's a relief. Maybe you should try standing up?"

His body feels like water running down a drain when he meets her eyes. He says, "W-wait ... Who are you, uh, again?"

"Geez." She rolls her eyes and throws her hands on her hips, but she's grinning just a little bit. "Maybe you're not okay."

"Huh?"

"First, you come crashing down, giving me quite a scare! Then, you squish some of my flowers -"

Cloud scrambles to his feet, face burning red. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean-"

The woman laughs. "So he will live after all."

Cloud dusts himself off. "Sorry about the flowers."

"Oh, it's fine. They're quite resilient. They've survived being squished before. They'll be okay this time, too."

She briefly turns away from him, eyes on the ground. It's that moment when he recognizes her. His mind overlays her image in his memories - a flash of pink and red, strangely serene amidst the smoke on the streets in Sector Eight.

"You're the flower merchant, aren't you?"

She smiles. "He remembers."

"What's your name?"

She tucks a brown curl behind her ear. "I'm Aeris."

"Aeris. Well, I'm Cloud."

"Nice to meet you again," she says.

He frowns. "Right. What are you doing here?"

She covers her mouth with her hands, hiding a scoff; they're smeared with dirt. "Why, I'm working, you weirdo. And you can help me."

"Huh? How?"

"You can start by holding these."

Aeris abruptly hands him a basket full of flowers and darts off to one end of the flower bed, reaching into the crop of - what did Tifa call them? - lilies. He hugs the basket close to steady himself; he feels light- headed from the fall, or from the scent of the flowers. He tries to remember why he fell, but all he can conjure up is twisted metal and the smell of grease. His mind itches.

He watches Aeris tread her way through the flowerbed, soiled hands weeding out the unworthy and sweeping dirt off her dress as she goes. Finally, she picks up a few more flowers and marches back to him. Before he can speak, she reaches into her dress pocket and produces a small pair of shears. She clips the ends of the flowers and feathers them into his basket.

At his dubious expression, she says, "I'm not just a professional flower merchant, you know - I'm also a professional gardener."

Cloud can't help but grin at her declaration. Midgar isn't really a place in want of flower merchants or gardeners, let alone professionals. Tifa had explained to him that, because of the Mako reactors, almost nothing grows down here in the slums - not crops, trees, grass, or even flowers - and all fresh food is imported from elsewhere on the continent and is only really available to the elites on the upper plate; nearly everything else is processed or canned off site and shipped in.

"A professional gardener, huh? Are you sure you're not the slum drunk?"

He meant it as a light-handed tease, but he regrets saying this immediately - it had sounded funnier in his head.

Her cheek twitches, but her soft smile doesn't fade.

"At least I have enough sense to keep from falling off Midgar's upper plate."

It is then that he remembers how and why he fell. Tifa's face crashes into his mind's eye first, with Barret beside her; both reach for him as he lets go of the walkway that leads to the Sector Five Mako Reactor, just before the President's mechanical weapon explodes.

Immediately, his jaw clenches. My sword, where is it - He spies it at the edge of the flower bed. Aeris watches him with a furrowed brow as he carefully places her basket on the ground and then quickly moves to retrieve his sword.

She asks, "Leaving so soon?"

He nods. "I've got to go." He doesn't know how much time has passed. He needs to return to Sector Seven and tell Tifa that he's alright. He needs to make sure everyone made it back safely, that Shinra hasn't found them-

Aeris is suddenly standing in front of him, muddy hands raised. "Wait."

He quirks a brow in surprise.

She glances again up through the rafters of the church, and beyond, at the underside of the plate, where a faint ribbon of smoke trails out of a small scar in the metal.

"Just - wait. That was quite a fall you had."

"I've been through worse," he says without thinking of what he means, exactly.

Her eyes darken. "Still, you really shouldn't rush off. You need to take it easy for a moment."

"I'm fine. I need to -"

She puts a finger close to his nose. "Look. You're not going to make it back in one piece if you don't take care of yourself, at the very least. Do you even have any materia on you?"

He waves off her finger. "Of course I do. Everyone has materia these days." He wants to say, I'm ex-SOLDIER, who do you take me for? But he thinks better of it.

She folds her arms. "But is yours good for anything, at least?"

He scratches the back of his head. "Yes? What kind of mercenary would I be if they were worthless?"

Aeris exhales, blowing hair out of her face, looking duly chastened. "Oh. Well."

He leans in. "You have broken materia?"

"Yeah." She bends her head forward and points to the ribbon at the top of her braid, where she'd tucked a small materia into the pink fabric. "Mine's not good for anything at all."

"Maybe you just don't know how to use it."

Her eyes fall. "Maybe."

He thinks she wants to say more, but she doesn't.

He finds himself staring up at the smoke trail again, spinning his mind around the events leading up to the explosion. As Aeris turns away from him, he hesitates. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to lay low for a little while, he thinks.

"Well, if you're materia's no good, maybe I'll hang around for a bit. The slums are a dangerous place," he declares.

Aeris chuckles. "No kidding. I could use a bodyguard every once in awhile."

He spends the next hour regaining his strength. She talks, but she doesn't really talk about anything at all - just darts around something, some big fat thing, and he tries to figure out what that might be. She's careful with the flowers, despite her speed with the weeds.

"Just a little longer," she says to the lilies. "You've got just a little longer to go before it's your time."

He doesn't know it, but she's thinking of a memory of her own.




"You said you're a mercenary, right? Have you ever been a bodyguard?"

"You serious?"

"Yeah, I wasn't kidding earlier. Interested?"

"Sure. But it'll cost you."

"How about one date?"

"A date?"

"Don't tell me you've never -"

"No, of course I've been on dates. Fine. I agree. One date. And you're paying."

"Okay! It's a promise. Get me out of here, and I'll take you to the best spot in town. Now, get me home."



𖣘


In the fading light, Cloud escorts Aeris to the home she shares with her mother upon her insistence. He knows he ought to try to hurry her on, so that he can get back to the others as soon as he can, but he can't bring himself to verbalize this. This feeling he has being with her - like floating on his back in a pool - he doesn't want to let it go just yet.

Cloud stands in the road, marveling at the house. It's the nicest thing he's seen under the plate. Despite its peeling paint job and a few crooked shutters, the place maintains an undeniable charm - the roof is intact, and, most significantly, none of it is constructed from garbage, or scrap metal, or - or anything usual at all. It's a house, a real house.

It looks a whole lot like his childhood home, and, when he steps inside, he realizes it smells the same, like cedar and cinnamon and something savory on the stove. He wonders how they manage to keep it like this, how no one has forced them out of their home, or killed them over it.

There's a lot about Aeris that is strange, he thinks.

Inside, Cloud meets Aeris's mother, a woman in her forties named Elmyra.

Aeris insists that Cloud stay the night with them, just to be careful of his injuries - and that it's always better to travel through the slums in the daytime. Cloud wants to protest, but he finds himself nodding in agreement.

Elmyra is polite, but as soon as she has a moment alone with Cloud, she corners him.

"Judging by those eyes of yours, I'm guessing you're in SOLDIER?"

He steps back under her scrutiny. "I'm ex-SOLDIER."

She frowns, unimpressed by his admission. "I hate to ask," she starts, "but … would you mind leaving tonight, without telling Aeris?"

He crosses his arms and quirks an eyebrow. He'd been considering it, anyway - the more time he spent here, the more trouble Barret or Tifa could be getting into - but, to be honest, he's curious as to why Elmyra would ask this of him, especially since she'd seemed approving of Aeris's desire to have him stay the night.

She elaborates, "My daughter ... has been hurt in the past."

He frowns. "I don't intend to hurt her."

Elmyra's voice raises ever so slightly, though she's still speaking in low tones; she doesn't want Aeris to hear what she's saying.

"You boys made a trade - a normal life, for power. You can't have it both ways."

Cloud's arms drop. "Excuse me?"

Her words rattle between his ears.

"I'd appreciate if you nodded and said, 'Yes, ma'am.'"

He's irritated at her bluntness, and - at something she's implying. But, it is, after all, her house. And he is a guest. "If that's what you think is best."

"I do." She nods once, curtly. "Thank you."

Cloud scratches the back of his head, where a dull ache is beginning to bloom. Elmyra starts to pick up the dishes in the sink, but she pauses at the counter.

"In the mean time, to cover all bases… is there… anything you both need?" She clears her throat. "To be ... careful?"

It takes him a moment to realize what she's suggesting. He hopes his face isn't as red as it feels.

"Oh, we're not - we're not here for that. I'll be happy enough in the guest room you mentioned." He gulps. "Alone."

Elmyra seems relieved.

"Okay, then. It's at the end of the hall, upstairs."




Aeris, of course, has been listening to them from the top of the stairs, legs curled beneath her, braiding and un-braiding a lock of her hair.

She feels like she's a child again, listening to her mother tell strange men in uniforms to leave her alone, that she's just a normal little girl - that they've got the wrong person.

She can't shake the feeling that everyone is supposed to go away, that everything is better when she's supposed to be alone, but she doesn't really feel that way at all, even if she feels anything but normal.



𖣘


Cloud comes up the stairs and stops when he sees Aeris. Without saying anything, he sits by the railing and waits for Aeris to start talking. It takes her some time before she has anything to say.

"So, Cloud, home for you is in Sector Seven?"

"Yeah, I guess."

She sits up a little straighter. "You guess? If it's not your home, then what are you doing there?"

"I've got a job, working for Tifa at the bar in town."

"A job? One of your mercenary things?"

"Something like that."

Her expression sharpens ever so slightly. "Is Tifa a girl?"

"... Yeah?"

"A girlfriend?"

The back of his head itches, so he runs his hand through it. "She's an old friend of mine. She's been - we've been helping each other out lately."

"Oh, what, you come crashing down on her, too?" She keeps a straight face for all of one second, before grinning.

It's contagious. Cloud says, "Something like that."

That night, his dreams are strangely clear, and they revisit a gentle memory that is only painful if he peels the layers of it back. But, for once, his mind doesn't pick at that scab, and instead, he is allowed to revel in it.

Maybe it's because the bed he's in is soft, with an old quilt that smells like rosemary; maybe it's because the room is scattered with dozens of family portraits, and it's so quaint. Maybe, it's because he feels safe, for the first time in a long, long time.

The room is so very like his mother's room.

"Mom. I'm fine," he whines.

His mother is fawning over him, tugging at his sleeves, looking behind his ears. Behind her, Cloud spies a large cook pot on the stove, threatening to bubble over. The smell is divine.

"You know I'm going to worry about you, Cloud!"

She pulls him close into an embrace, and he could kick himself now for simply standing there, arms haughtily at his sides, refusing to hold her back. She shakes off his cool refusal, like mothers do.

"Even though you're all grown up now, you'll always be my baby boy."

He sighs. "Mom…"

She's peering into his eyes. "Are you eating right? You're losing your baby fat."

He takes that as a compliment and stands a little taller.

"Shinra takes good care of me," he says, "Their DFAC is actually not bad. Almost as good as Junon's."

"Is that so? Still… think you have any room for my famous stew?"

"Always, Mom." He's trying so hard not to crack a grin.

"I just knew I needed to make a batch of it when I woke up this morning. And now, here you are, on a surprise visit!"

"Well, you always did have superpowers."

She laughs - damn, why didn't he hug her then. "Eyes in the back of my head. Yes, I know."

She spies his sagging belt and then tugs at his waistband.

"Cloud, you really are losing weight. This uniform doesn't fit you very well. Is this what SOLDIERs wear?"

The dream shifts abruptly. He's lying on his bed, and his mother is doing the dishes.

"Cloud. I'm worried about you," she says, scrubbing a pan with some force. "There are a lot of temptations in the city… I'd feel better if you just settled down and had a nice girlfriend."

He wants to groan. "I'm all right."

"You should have … an older girl. Someone who will take care of you. I think that would be the perfect type for you."

He rolls over onto his side. "I'm not interested in anyone out in Midgar."

He hears her turn off the sink and wipe her hands. Then, she treads across the room and into the little alcove where his old bed is. After a pause, he feels her sit onto the mattress. She presses her hand against his back and softly rubs, like she used to do when he was young.

"Oh, Cloud," she sighs, half resigned. "I really wish you'd open yourself up to the possibility of love."

His throat tightens.

She continues, "I know I don't talk about your father very often, but I want you to know, in spite of, well, everything… that love is a beautiful thing. Sometimes, it's even worth all the suffering in the world. I know you think I'm just your corny old Mom, but … I just want you to be happy."

After a long pause, he remembers saying:

"Mom… let's talk about something else."

When he wakes up in Aeris's house, he's more than ready to leave.




Memory - she can't shake her memory, and she can't stop thinking what is wrong with me, what is wrong with me, but this man next to her - his eyes open her up like the sky beyond the plate, and she is afraid. His eyes, his sword, his uniform - he makes her feel hopeful, and angry, but most of all, she feels afraid.

Aeris can't let him walk out of her life - not without answers.

Not this time.

The thought of Cloud leaving is enough to keep her awake that night, listening for his footfalls on her mother's wood floor. That old memory visits her again as she lies there, bare feet stretched over her bedsheets. It curls up next to her in the dark, rests its head against hers, kisses her once just below her ear. She smells fabric, and skin, and steel - she tastes the sky.

After the memory leaves, she is lonely again.

It was nice to feel normal, if just for a moment.

When it's time, she finds her boots easily enough in the dark.



𖣘


Aeris cuts him off at the edge of Sector Six. He is surprised, especially when she insists that she accompany him to Sector Seven.

"No."

She pouts playfully. "No?"

"Aeris. I'm sure I can find the way from here. Thanks, but ... didn't your Mom want you home today?"

"My Mom? Cloud, she's fine. You're the one I'm worried about!"

"Me?"

"I'd be a terrible person if I didn't make sure you got back to Seventh Heaven safely. Maybe you're slowly bleeding internally after your treacherous fall? What if you were to suddenly pass out? Who knows what would happen to you! I mean, think of the rats! Did you know they eat people?"

None of that sounds great - especially the rats. He nods solemnly just because she looks so intense.

"Besides, I can tell you're about to insist on walking me home - don't deny it, I see it in your eyes - and, well, that'd be such a waste of time at this point!"

Before he can reply, she marches past him.

In spite of himself, he smirks.

They stop for a break on the outskirts of Sector Seven, near an old playground. Dawn is peeking through the cracks in the upper plate, casting bars of light across the rubble.

"Kids stopped coming here because they claim it's haunted," Aeris says as she climbs up a large slide, shaped whimsically like an animal.

"I've never seen any ghosts around, well, around this place, though, so I've always played here, growing up. Kids thought I was brave, at first - but then they just thought I was weird. Huh. Hey, Cloud, come up here, you can see into Wall Market."

Cloud follows her up. She's right - he can see the unsteady neon glow from the shops.

"You have ghost eyes," she says suddenly.

Cloud jolts. "I have what?"

She leans in, studying them openly. "From the Mako."

"I…"

"What rank were you?"

"Huh?"

"You know, in SOLDIER." When he doesn't respond, she adds, "The eyes, the uniform, the…" She glances at his sword. "All dead giveaways."

"Oh." He frowns. He feels his gut tightening.

His head aches. A familiar noise begins to take over, and from the static he salvages a string of words.

"Yeah, I was... First Class."

He feels her body sag, her hands knot. "Just the same as him."

More noise. The pounding of rain. "Same as who?"

"My... my first boyfriend." She is hesitant. Her smile is uncomfortable.

"You were... serious?" He sees her flinch ever so quickly, masked then by a smile.

"No." She shakes her head. "But we had fun while it lasted, I suppose."

He notices her knuckles are bunched so tight they are white, and she's barely breathing.

Cloud shifts his weight. "I probably knew him, then. What was his name?"

She doesn't flinch this time. She doesn't do anything strange, but she brushes fly-away strands of hair out of her face.

"It... it doesn't really matter. I haven't heard from him in years, so... it's not like it would've lasted, you know." She blinks slowly at him. "Nothing like that."

He can't stop himself - why can't he stop himself?

"You never know. You might run into him again," he says.

"Yeah, maybe."

Shut up while you're ahead, Cloud.

"Just saying."

She looks at him, sizing up what he's said. His thoughts distract him, and he doesn't meet her eyes.

Aeris giggles.

"Are you sure I won't... be in your way when we get to Sector Seven?"

"What do you mean... 'in the way'?" Cloud rebuffs her as she leans in, still grinning playfully.

"Nothing!" she chirps.



֎


The window outside Marlene's room lets a little light into the hallway, despite the glass being warped and dirty. Tifa pauses beside it. The streetlights hum with low light, but the view betrays nothing; the road is as dark as the hallway.

She goes into the bedroom she shares with Cloud. It's dark except for a small nightlight - a little 1/35 SOLDIER glowing in the outlet by the door. On an impulse, she turns it off. She's left with only moonlight.

She knows Cloud will be home soon. She checks their message thread on her phone; the message she'd sent him still sits on Delivered but not Read. Which means he's still driving. He hasn't stopped elsewhere for the night.

She sets the phone on her bedside table and then peels off her apron and her work clothes.

She feels something nervous and giddy fluttering in her chest.

I don't want to apologize, she thinks, but I want us to meet somewhere in the middle.

I don't want him to sleep in the office tonight.

She opens her dresser, bottom drawer, dipping beneath a frugal layer of additional bed sheets and a stray towel or two - there they are, hidden in the back corner. She had rolled them together to keep them from wrinkling, even though she had planned to ignore them. She shakes them out and holds them up and, after a moment, slides into them.

Her old skirt still fits well, she thinks to herself. True, it fits differently, but not as differently as she worried it might. The ratty white top is soft in a way that only old shirts can be. The suspenders bring familiar tension between her shoulders, and her gloves are snug and secure. The only things missing are her old boots, which hadn't survived long past the end of their notorious ordeal one year ago.

One year. Had it been that long? Time feels like nothing. Standing in front of the one salvageable full-length mirror Cloud and Barret had been able to turn up (and even that one is slightly warped and has a minor crack jutting into the side of it - intact items such as these are rarities in Edge), she feels a little bit like a carnival freak on display, run ragged as she hops from one enclosure to the next. Who has she been? Who is she now?

She's standing so still in the dark bedroom that she looks like a photograph in the mirror.

It has been a long time since I've looked like this.

After she had come to Edge, she'd put her old clothes away, wanting to feel something new. She isn't entirely comfortable with the person she sees in the mirror - that person she used to be - but she, at least, knows that woman.

I've wanted to escape her, but maybe… I need to borrow some of that old anger for a little bit.

The day the Planet stopped Meteor, Tifa had looked into the Lifestream and saw all of Midgar's ugliness devoured by light. It was hard not to feel like the very same thing was coming for her, coming for them all, and the Highwind had been cast adrift in a sky now filled with a river of souls. The ugliness they each carried for so long, well, here it was, being washed away - almost like it meant nothing at all.

For a moment, back then, Tifa had welcomed it.

That answer would have been the easiest.

She'd been so weary. Maybe death was the answer to all of that pain and uncertainty. If everything played out like Bugenhagen warned - the Planet deciding that humanity's time was over - well, then, maybe she was okay with that after all.

But then, Cloud had stood beside her, smiling. His hand had been on hers. She remembered how his smile made her feel. What his eyes had said so clearly, back then - that he was her family now, for better or worse.

A family is worth living for, she thought then. That's something she clings to, even now.

And of course, her family has grown to be more than just Cloud. She considers Barret a part of her family, and Elmyra, and of course, little Marlene.

Tifa doesn't hesitate to introduce Marlene as her daughter when people ask - or even if they don't.

But when customers nod towards Cloud and say things like, How's Dad hanging in there, with all this business you've got? Sometimes parents need a night off, if you know what I mean! Tifa finds herself blushing, feeling exposed - she usually laughs and tries to change the subject.

"We're all doing just fine, thank you! How are you?"

She can't just call Cloud Marlene's father. He's not. Barret is. Cloud isn't even a step father - and calling him Marlene's uncle would be more confusing than anything else.

It'd help if she knew what kind of relationship Cloud wanted with Marlene - maybe then, this question wouldn't give her such anxiety.

What the hell does he want?

Because, if he doesn't want to be a family with Marlene, then… can Tifa be sure that he wants to be a family with her?

And that's what she wants, more than anything. She wants to believe they're all family, now - she, Cloud, Marlene, Barret - but, even after all this time, the old doubts creep back.

She watches Cloud fumble with happiness, watches him treat it like he doesn't know what to do with it - even like he is afraid of it - all the while, moving farther and farther, all the while away from her.

Just like before.

She remembers that place of darkness, where a train roars. She never wants to go back there again.

Trains, doomed machines - only running where their rails take them, someone once said.

Seeing herself like this, she wonders if maybe they are doomed to repeat their mistakes over and over again.

"No," she whispers to herself.



𖣘


Nibelheim is in his eyes. At least, the last time the air smelled like this was when his hometown burned. But even the acrid stench of his childhood home in flames can't compare to the onslaught of molten fuel and twisted metal that pours down on him now from the ruins of Sector Seven. Cloud stands in awe and terror before the wreckage as his companions unravel.

Barret wails at the wall of rubble, not even sounding human, as he screams for his daughter. He pounds with his fist, with his gun-arm, and even slams his head into the crumpled gate.

"Barret, stop!" Tifa sobs, rushing towards him.

Barret shrugs her off, blood coursing down his face. "What the hell is it all for?!" His deep voice is strangled, gasping. "God damn it! God fucking damn it."

"Barret! Please!"

He fires several rounds off his arm, sparking wires overhead. None of them flinch when the sparks cascade down around them. His roaring slides into a hiss.

"I am gonna kill every last one of those fucking bastards. Or they're gonna wish they were dead when I'm through with them."

Cloud and Tifa remain motionless, waiting for Barret to roar and scream again. Instead, his shoulders sag.

"Marlene…"

Tifa reaches out and places a hand on his back. He freezes.

"Barret," she says tentatively, "I think Marlene is safe."

He spins on her, tears and blood in his eyes. "She is?!"

Cloud moves to stand beside her, nodding once. "It's possible that Aeris got her out before the plate fell."

The shift in Barret's expression is indescribable. For a moment, Cloud feels his own eyes burning. He blinks it away.

"Possible?" Barret croaks.

Tifa has to clear her own throat to make more words. "Right before they took Aeris, she said, 'don't worry, she's alright'. I think she was talking about Marlene," she says.

Barret staggers backwards, collapsing. For a moment, he stares at the ground, at Cloud and Tifa's feet. Then, he says, "But Biggs, Wedge, Jessie…"

Cloud says flatly, "All three were on the pillar."

Barret snaps. "You think I don't know that, you bastard? I was there! We all fought together."

Tifa's fists start to shake, and slowly she sinks to her knees in front of Barret. "And all the other people in Sector Seven."

"This is fucked up." Barret's fist slams into the ground. "Shinra wiped an entire village off the map, just to get to us."

Tifa bites her lip so hard that blood dribbles down. "This is our fault, isn't it?"

A heavy silence coils between them. Then, abruptly, Barret reaches out and takes her hands in his large one.

"No, Tifa. Hell no. It's the Shinra. It's been nobody but the damn Shinra. They pulled the trigger today. They're the ones with all the power. They make the rules. And they let this happen - no, they made this happen. And for what? To line their pockets with gil, to sit up on their thrones, fat and happy, while the rest of us suck on their fumes. Our fight ain't never gonna be over until we rid the Planet of them."

Tifa throws her head back, choking a sob. She whispers, "Barret, I … I don't know."

"What do you mean, you don't know?" Barret growls.

"I'm just…" She doesn't voice it, but Cloud can see how her throat spasms, how her jaw clenches. He can see the flash of her teeth, the sliver of her ruby eyes. The very center of her is rage.

For a moment, a memory flashes through Cloud's mind - a young girl, in the tall grass, with shaking fists and bloody knuckles - but it's gone before he can hold onto it.

Barret takes a deep breath. His voice is strangely calm when he next speaks. "Hold onto this… this anger. Okay?"

"I have," she whispers. "For so long."

Barret studies her solemnly, and finally he pulls her into an embrace. She collapses against him. "I know, girl," he murmurs into her hair.

Cloud watches them, waiting for their words to end. Listening to their grief is drowning him, like a chain tethering him to the bottom of a lake. His throat tightens. He has no air. Static in his head.

Shinra has Aeris.

Which means that one has Aeris.

That one.

A name bubbles up.

Hojo.

There are things attached to the name. His feet shift, like there's nothing but sand beneath him. A memory threatens to sink him, down, down where it's most dark - where a face peers behind heavy glass with a smile like a scar. A name, a number, but - but there's so much pain…

I know Hojo. He's the head of Shinra's Science Department. He tests the SOLDIERs for the SOLDIER program.

He will hurt Aeris.

He runs. He hears Tifa call out for him, but his eyes are locked on the silhouette of the Shinra building, bright against the, now visible, murky sky.



֎


Tifa clutches the lukewarm mug and stares so intently at the coffee that she is sure she could heat it with her will alone.

But that's not how anything works, she thinks.

Upstairs, she can hear Barret sobbing with joy as he reunites with Marlene. He'd burst through the front door of Aeris's house and practically screamed his daughter's name, blasting Elmyra off her chair in the kitchen. Elmyra had warned him not to wake the little girl, but he'd stared the older woman down and simply said, Ma'am. Respectfully. And darted up the stairs to his daughter.

Tifa had thought to herself, That's one tough old gal, who'd stand between Barret and his baby girl.

Cloud paces behind her, near the door. He's close, and his proximity burns her back. Between that, and Barret's cries, Tifa can't quiet her mind enough to parse what they need to do next, or how to do it.

Elmyra sits across from her at the kitchen table, her weathered face even more drawn.

Tifa finally asks, "What does Shinra want with Aeris?"

Elmyra has been waiting for this question for a long time, Tifa can tell. The older woman sighs, resigned to her answer. "She's an Ancient. Maybe even the last living."

Cloud startles Tifa when he speaks. "An Ancient…"

Elmyra nods.

Tifa frowns. She's heard Barret mention the Ancients before, but truthfully, she knows very little about them. She didn't even know they still existed until, well, this moment. "You aren't her mother?"

Elmyra answers, "Not by blood, no."

Cloud's pacing has ceased. He stands just over Tifa's shoulder. She casts him a sideways glance, but his eery eyes are fixed on Aeris's mother.

Elmyra picks up her own coffee mug and starts to take a sip; she immediately loses interest, and slides it away.

"Aeris came into my life fifteen years ago, when my husband was away at war," she begins. "He'd been shipped off to fight on the front lines in some far away place called Wutai. In a letter, he told me he was granted leave and would be home soon, so the day came, and I went to the train station to wait for him. That day came and went, but he never… he never came. But that's where I met her. Aeris, and … her biological mother."

She takes a deep breath; her eyes are haunted. "I thought, maybe they were runaways from Wall Market, or maybe were from the plate, but had fallen on hard times. Maybe they were war refugees. I used to see a lot of that during those days. Something was wrong with the mother, and she died as I bent down to tend to her. Her last words to me were to take Aeris somewhere safe."

Beside her shoulder, Tifa feels Cloud's fist clench tighter. Upstairs, she hears Marlene laughing.

Daddy, Daddy! Don't cry! Your whiskers hurt!

Elmyra continues, "My husband had been away for so long, and I was so lonely, so… I convinced myself the safest place for the little girl was with me. It took no time at all for her to start feeling like family. She was a real chatterbox - used to talk my ears off about everything. She told me strange stories… like how she and her mother had escaped from some sort of facility, and how she wasn't sad, because her mother had just 'returned to the Planet.'"

Tifa glances at Cloud. His gaze is on her now. A tiny splinter of pain twists in her chest. He looks away quickly; the corners of his eyes are pink.

"I didn't know what she meant at the time," Elmyra says. "I asked her if she meant a star in the sky, and she said, no, this Planet. I didn't know what to say. She was a mysterious child, in many ways."

Upstairs, Marlene shrieks with glee, and Barret belly laughs. Decorative hanging plates on the kitchen walls rattle.

Tifa smiles weakly, "Well, all kids are a bit strange."

Elmyra shakes her head. "Aeris was not like other children."

The older woman pauses for a moment, her eyes glassy. Tifa waits for the rest of the story, feeling dread blooming in her belly.

Elmyra whispers, "She… one day, she came up to me and said, 'mommy, please don't cry.' Just blurted that out. I was confused, and asked her what was wrong - 'Are you okay, baby girl?'" Elmyra wipes her nose on her sleeve. Her voice breaks. "She just looked at me and said, 'someone you love has died. His spirit came a long, long way to say goodbye, but he couldn't stay - he had to return to the Planet.'"

Tifa feels her own eyes burning.

Elmyra clears her throat, her stern facade falling back into place. "I was, of course, confused, but then… a few days later… I received word that my husband had been killed in action."

"That's … that's awful," Tifa murmurs.

"That's how it was. Life was strange, but… we were happy together. I accepted her for all her quirks, and she brought me so much comfort and joy." She casts a glance up at her ceiling, where Barret and Marlene have gotten quiet, and then Elmyra wipes a bold tear from her cheek.

"And the Shinra?" Cloud asks. "How did she become involved with the Shinra?"

"One day, there was a knock at the door. The Shinra. They'd been looking for Aeris, and here she was. That's when I learned she was an Ancient, and that they needed her. They wanted her to lead them to the 'Promised Land', whatever that is. I remember - she wanted them to go away and leave us alone. She told them she was not an Ancient. But… I knew that wasn't true. I knew she heard the whisperings. She saw things neither of us could always explain. So I knew."

"Why didn't the Shinra just take her from you?" Cloud is pacing again, just out of Tifa's sight. "Doesn't seem like them, to let her play house out here with you." Tifa wishes he would be still.

Elmyra's eyes follow him back and forth. "I don't know. I think they wanted her to come willingly. Or maybe, they didn't really need her… until now. And it was easier to keep tabs on her than to drag her back to wherever she ran from. I know she's been followed by the Shinra before. And… she's been involved with them to some extent."

Tifa finally takes a sip from her cold coffee mug. She nearly spits it out when she hears Cloud march towards the door and when Elmyra springs from her seat.

"You're going after her, aren't you?" Elmyra's coffee mug has spilled onto the floor.

"Of course I am," Cloud says, voice firm. Tifa watches him stand a little straighter, his otherworldly Mako eyes piercing. He looks every bit a SOLDIER First Class, and for a moment, the uncanny resemblance to a memory from her past does not bring her unease.

Elmyra opens her mouth - to agree, to protest, Tifa doesn't know, because a loud roar cuts her off.

"And I'm coming with you!" Barret booms from the top of the stars.

He thunders down to the kitchen with Marlene underfoot; her hair is washed clean and she wears a nightgown Tifa has never seen before - most likely, an old one of Aeris's. Marlene tugs on Barret's knee and he quickly sweeps her onto his arm until she can clutch him around his neck. When Marlene spies Tifa, she shrieks with glee.

"Tifa! You're here!"

As Barret marches across the room, Tifa leaps up from her seat and rushes to them. When she throws herself into their joint embrace, Tifa laughs.

Barret, your whiskers do hurt!

When they part, Barret turns to Elmyra and bows his head.

"Aeris saved my baby, ma'am. And you've kept her safe in her stead. I owe you both everything."

Elmyra reaches for his arm. "Aeris wouldn't want you feel that way."

Barret and Cloud exchange a Look, and Tifa feels her heart begin to pound.

"Still," Barret says, "I promise I will bring Aeris back to you. I couldn't live with myself otherwise."

Elmyra juts her jaw out, and Tifa can tell she's fighting back more tears. She doesn't say anything to Barret; she merely nods.

With a brief glance over his shoulder, he continues, "But, ma'am, you probably shouldn't stay here - I don't know how safe it is anymore. If Shinra is willin' to drop a plate on one sector, I don't know that any of them are safe."

Cloud's cold voice adds, "And if Aeris is the only reason this place is protected, but she's no longer here…"

Tifa steels herself against the dread that threatens to overwhelm her.

"We need to act. Quickly," she says.

Elmyra's voice is level, with no room for doubt. "I'll take Marlene to Kalm. Meet us there, when you are finished in Midgar."



𖣘


Standing outside of Shinra Headquarters, the three of them pause. The tower stands tall, imposing, against the night sky.

It looks impenetrable, but even the strongest things have vulnerabilities. Cloud feels certain they'll reach the top before the night is over.

"Well, it's like I always say," Barret says, half to himself, half to the others, "There ain't no getting offa dis train we on."

Cloud slowly turns his head. "You always say that?"

"Yep. Sure do."

"I've never heard you say it before."

Barret shakes a fist at Cloud, threatening to explode in frustration. "What the hell do you know?! Your spiky ass hasn't been around since the beginning."

Cloud is smug. "And it, what, is supposed to inspire hope in us?"

"Yeah, maybe."

Cloud folds his arms, voice flat. "I don't know. Being stuck on a train, with no choice in your destination, sounds like a boring nightmare to me."

Suddenly, Tifa throws up her hands and stomps past them both. He can tell she's too nervous for pre-battle chatter, and Cloud feels just a twinge of guilt for pushing her.

"Guys! Quit acting like morons and get ready to climb some stairs. We need to find Aeris," she hisses.

Barret laughs darkly and cocks his gun-arm.

Cloud reaches behind his shoulder, grasping the handle of his sword.

"You don't have to tell me twice, Tifa," he says.



𖣘


Whenever he closes his eyes, he sees her. She's like a virus, infecting every quiet moment in his mind.

He doesn't fight it like he knows he should.

In his memory, she is looking at a creature behind a glass wall - the rust colored lion-dog with a tail of fire. Her lithe body is stark against the glow of the glass, light bleeding bright around her. Tifa steps back, and her eyes shine red, but that's not right. Ruby eyes. Her eyes make him think of fire. Of blood. Of, of - many things.

"Hojo called it a 'precious specimen'... is it going to be used for a biological experiment?" Tifa asks. "Like what we overheard Hojo saying in the conference room, about Aeris and… SOLDIERs?"

He didn't know, didn't want to know, really, but it was hard to meet those fucking eyes of hers, and the memory stretches like gum between his ears until there is no face to seen.

"Hojo is a sick fuck," Barret growls.

Cloud hates to admit it, but every mention of Hojo presses something into him that feels a lot like shame. He unwraps his mind until there is something else to deal with.

His heart beats faster. He knows - he is close to something. His head pounds, his eyes ache.

Another chamber is beside him - a mechanical tank with a small round window - and he stands on his toes to look in.

Water. His mind floats without anchor. He's peering into a tunnel, a well, a grave caving in all around him like a decomposing cardboard box. Green, purple, blue. That's where he is now.

He tries to hang on to Tifa's image, but he can't.

"Jenova…" he whispers. The name sounds nonsensical until he's hissed it through his teeth.

A mouth opens in the back of his mind that sends his legs buckling out from beneath him; searing flash, searing flesh, and he scrambles to keep the thoughts from escaping, fingers entrenched in the sides of his head.

Memory Tifa runs to him, breaking his fall. She's touching him, and she's warm. She's an anchor.

"Cloud?"

Is that fear in Tifa's eyes?

He murmurs in her arms. "Jenova… He's... So they've brought it here…"

His head wags, shoulders quiver, blood throbs in his ears, and Tifa's grip on him intensifies.

"C-come on, Cloud," she says, "We've got to find Aeris."

He ignores her, and instead, his memory falls on the silhouette of Barret, back-lit by the grotesque chamber with the red creature. Cloud can't see his face, but he can tell Barret's pissed.

"Did you see it, too?" Cloud asks Barret.

"See what?" Barret all but growls, his eyes lost in the shadow of his brow.

Cloud whispers, "It's moving... still alive."

Gun-arm glinting dangerously, Barret walks over to Cloud and looks inside the second enclosure, into the tiny dark window. He lingers there for a moment before whirling around, his back rigid and eyes white stark.

"Where's its fucking head?"

Barret is afraid. Cloud feels it, too.

"This whole thing's full of shit. Let's keep moving."

Barret storms past Cloud and Tifa, moving towards the back of the lab. The shadows take him. Tifa nudges Cloud to his feet, and she hesitates before she finally speaks.

"Come on, Cloud - don't look in there again."

Cloud opens his eyes. The memory is a dream.

His back is cold from sitting against the wall. He listens for anything. But - nothing. No use even trying. He can't hear the others through the walls of his cell anymore - Shinra builds them thick. Reason dictates that sleep has taken them, that they've settled into their own cells, like he has, but he can't keep his heart from pounding with anxiety all the same. Maybe they're sleeping. Or maybe they're gone. Maybe Shinra came while he was asleep and took them all away. Or maybe they're all dead. Maybe.

But she's still here.

He looks at Tifa, who lies uncomfortably on the cell's single cot. Like a gentleman, Cloud had offered Tifa the bed and had settled against the far wall, but unlike a gentleman, he watches her off and on as she sleeps, when he can't. He sighs. He'd been surprised when Shinra had forced the two of them to share a cell; he knew Aeris was alone in hers, and Barret was with ... the creature they had come to know as Red XIII. Maybe they're being watched, and this is a part of Hojo's games.

Cloud knows he's made a mess of everything. March right into Shinra and retrieve a kidnapped Aeris, just like that? What sort of a fucking trip had he been on?

Though, for all of AVALANCHE to have followed me, maybe they're worse off, he thinks.

Of course, they'd needed to do something. He, Cloud Strife, has to do something, for Aeris. She'd given herself up in exchange for Marlene. And he was her bodyguard. He had said he would protect her. Maybe he'd even promised.

Your words don't mean a damn thing. Why don't you give up the charade?

No.

It's a lie.

But at least that's something.

What is so desirable about the truth?

The truth is-

Sometimes, the core of him itches because he has the sense that his very word is horseshit, no good, broken and unreliable. He can't even define the truth he is supposed to believe, let alone believe it. But it doesn't matter anyway.

That's why I'm only doing this for the money. I don't have the right to ask for anything else.

The air chills around him, and he breathes into a fist.

Nothing's changed?

His head is hurting, and he can't think clearly.

Tifa stirs, waking. The cot doesn't look comfortable enough to sleep on it for very long. When their eyes meet, she freezes, unnerved, muscles in her jaw taut. Her own expression is sharp, and he quickly diverts his eyes.

"Why are you looking at me like that?"

He frowns. "Like what?"

Pulling herself up, she warms her arms and tucks her hair behind her ears, still glowering. "Like... I dunno."

He shrugs. "I really have no idea then."

"Fine, then, my mistake." It doesn't sound like her mistake.

He lets his head rest backwards and peers at her through slitted eyes, a smirk worming across his face. He feels like an asshole, and he embraces that.

"Well, sorry, Tifa. I guess I could turn and face the wall."

"You might make the wall uncomfortable."

His smirk deepens. "I'm making you uncomfortable?"

Her back straightens, and she finally averts her eyes.

He leans forward just a little, adjusting his seat. "Tifa?"

She eases back down onto the cot, looking at the ceiling. "Come up with an escape plan yet?"

He hesitates. Before she'd gone to sleep, he had assured her he was going think up some ideas (he was, after all, the expert ex-SOLDIER), but in truth, he hadn't seen any possibility of escape.

"I'm still working on it."

She lets out a sigh. "You'd better think of something soon, Cloud, or I'll be trapped in here all night with you."

He tries not to sneer. "You make it sound like such a tragedy."

"I apologize if imprisonment sounds tragic to you." Her voice is thin and mirthless.

Something deep within him recoils - something ugly and twisted and painful. He can taste something chemical at the back of his throat.

"At least I gave you the bed," he whispers.

She closes her eyes. "My hero."

Her icy tone worms around in his chest, leaving cold coils of anger where it moves. A pit is opening up, a gaping mouth, a raw wound.

Tifa glances at him, and at his expression, her brow furrows. She backtracks. "Want me to help come up with ideas?"

He shakes his head, mouth clamped shut.

She sits up again and swings her legs over the side of the cot. "I suppose we're going to have to wait for a guard to come retrieve us, and hope that that moment gives us an opening. They'll send the most guards for you, which will make it difficult for us to act, but maybe they'll overlook the others. Maybe… Aeris? Do you think we could talk to her through that wall?"

Above his inner ugliness, the image of Aeris's mischievous grin rises.

"Aeris." Cloud sighs, sounding irate. "What do you expect her to be able to do?"

He watches as something in Tifa snaps. The old demure veneer vanishes, and her eyes blaze freely.

"Whatever she has to do."

Cloud leans back against the wall, and Tifa bunches her fists.

"Aeris has already given herself up for Marlene," she hisses. "She doesn't even know Marlene, but she put herself on the line. Aeris is more capable than you think. And Biggs, Wedge, Jessie - we're all -"

She catches herself. All the color drains from her face.

Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge are all very, very dead.

Cloud sees the horror on her face, that it has been so easy to forget this, with all that has happened. He presses a hand to his forehead to dull an ache that is forming.

Tifa's voice is tiny and hoarse. "I must be numb."

A moment passes. Tifa's fragility draws him in, like a well, and his insides spin chaos inward, outward. And then.

He is on his feet. He crosses the room faster than he can process what he is thinking. Cloud grabs Tifa by the arm and tugs her up. His voice is urgent, strained. He doesn't want to remember the dead.

"Get up, let's walk around."

She shakes him off. "Walk? Walk where?" She steps around him, putting distance between them. "We're in a cell."

His head is still hurting, and her tone stings him. "We can walk back and forth."

"You want me to pace in a cell?"

"No! I mean, yes. It's better than just sitting here, doing nothing!" He wants to grab her arms again, but she's standing too far away.

She sways. "It'd be better if we just sleep until we can do something about our situation."

He steps close to her, hands open. "Stop acting like that."

She stomps towards him suddenly, pushing him away at his chest. He grabs her arms as she snaps at him, "What am I acting like? You're the one who's not acting normal!"

Like a switch, the word 'normal' triggers in him the desire to freeze, and freeze he does.

He never wanted to be normal, unless being normal meant being with her. Whoever she is. The rest of it is static, nothing, a laundry list of mirrors and milk-carton posters. He can't even see their faces - the chain of shadows hanging in his home.

He was a child, once, and he still hurts like a child.

Hey, Cloud, make me a promise.

Promises are for people who can keep their word, whose inner core is a truth that doesn't crumble when handled, for people who aren't full of shit, aren't f -

Before him, Tifa deflates. Maybe she's afraid of him, and this is how she will placate him. Maybe he doesn't care. His hands are wrapped around her elbows, and he stares blankly into her face.

"I'm sorry, Cloud," Tifa says. "I guess I'm tired or something. And stressed." She laughs weakly. "Makes sense, considering."

His hands don't let go of her, and she squirms a little in his grasp. His mouth is close to hers. He can smell her sweat, her breath. In his hands, she is small.

"Um, Cloud? Hey? Let go - you're hurting me."

"Oh, uh." A shiver runs through him as his mind snaps back to the moment he's in. He can feel the back of his neck flushing with heat. That feeling attached to Hojo's name takes hold of him. He releases her.

"Tifa, I - I'm sorry."

She backs away and sinks into the cot, averting her rust-colored eyes. She wipes her face.

"It's fine, Cloud. Let's just … get some rest."

His mind dreams in a green haze, but there is no rest for him.



𖣘


"He's dead! The President of Shinra is dead."

"This sword…"

"Cloud, that sword belongs to…"

"How … how can this be?"



֎


Tifa stands up a little straighter. A familiar hum disturbs the quiet bedroom - it's Cloud's motorcycle, outside. Her stomach flutters.

The sound has, over time, become the beginning of the end of her day, the most comforting of routines. On a normal night, she will listen to the engine sputter off, her head on her pillow and her body buried beneath the quilt.

She will wait another minute until she hears Cloud coming in through the side doors near the laundry room, and then rummaging downstairs in the kitchen for leftovers, and then in the hallway checking on Marlene, and then in the bedroom with her, unbuckling and unclothing and moving quietly in the dark, breathing softly beside her.

He used touch her, to see if she was awake, and if she was, they'd talk for little while, or he'd kiss her sweetly - but not since he'd declined to drink with her.

The mirror catches a flash from his motorcycle's headlight as he parks it outside. Tifa's head turns.

Tonight, she doesn't feel anything remotely resembling comfort at the sound of the bike as it rolls up.

"Come on, Tifa," she whispers to herself, and moves into the hallway.

Marlene's door is still cracked open. Tifa pauses by it and gives the room one last peek. Quiet. Tifa closes it securely and makes her way down to the bar and situates herself against the patron side of the counter, arms folded. She waits.

The engine outside shifts into park and goes dead.

Silence.

Then footsteps, outside.




Aeris closes her eyes against the sky. She's warm, bright, and the road before her feet is long, like the pillar is tall above her home in Midgar. Her shadow, too, is long, stretching out from her feet like a scar on the earth. The late morning sun pours around her, reminding her that she needs to keep going.

Nothing is as she could have ever visualized it to be out here. The air smells like earth, instead of steel. The ground is soft, instead of hard. The voices she carries drift with the breeze, but maybe there will be answers yet in the wind. The sky opens up before her and the clouds spin through the blue, like chaos. She thinks about the stars hiding behind them, shining like the lights beneath the plate. She realizes with a pang that she misses the ceiling already.

That morning, she'd taken her first steps beyond Midgar. Her heart races. Each step since has propelled her further and further away from everything she has ever known.

She's afraid. And she doesn't like being afraid. But she isn't sad. Not about this, at least.

Beside her, Red XIII matches her stride. She's inwardly pleased; she knows he could easily out-pace all of them, and to this point, he's mostly kept to himself - but maybe, despite his outwardly cool demeanor, he's also just as uncertain as the rest of them, and maybe he likes being with in the company of others.

Shinra's labs are a lonely place, Aeris thinks. I wonder where a creature such as Red even comes from.

A breeze curls against her arms. She can hear them again, just for a moment. She listens, but like always, the noise is indistinct. A woman's voice rises above the rest, and Aeris feels calm.

A hand lightly presses against her elbow. Tifa gives her a smile.

"You okay?" She asks Aeris.

"Yeah," Aeris replies, only a little out of breath from the walk.

"Okay," Tifa says. Then, she passes Aeris, strong legs marching forward along the road with ease.

Aeris counts the footprints in her path. First Tifa's - then Cloud's. She catches sight of him, far ahead. His blonde head bobs over the rising hill, and then he and that sword he shouldn't have pass out of sight.

He's one she wants to keep near her. The same feelings she has under the sky, she has with him, and she had with -

Behind her, she hears Barret approach. She turns and acknowledges him. His face is hard, eyes fixed on the horizon, stubbornly refusing to look back at the city they're leaving behind. His expression softens when their eyes meet.

"I can't thank you enough," he says. "I don't know what I would have done if Marlene had been alone when the plate fell."

A pause.

"Well," he adds, darkly, "I don't like thinking about it, actually, but I do know what I'd have done."

Another pause.

"And then, your mom took her in without question, like she was her own…"

Aeris has known Barret less than two days, but she is already extremely fond of him.

"Marlene will be okay," she says. "My mom is tough. She'll take good care of her."

Barret chuckles. "Is that so?"

Aeris gleams. "She's managed to keep me out of trouble for years."

Barret's laugh comes out as a bark. Aeris ignores the tear that trickles down the side of his face.

"And Tifa said we'll see them in Kalm, right?" Aeris continues. She stifles a laugh. "My mom won't let me hear the end of it, once she gets her hands on me."

Barret is quiet for a moment.

"You don't know what love feels like," he says with a sniff, "Until you raise a child. Until you hold them in your arms, and you're all that's protecting them from this fucked up world. I know some people don't like hearing that, but it's true."

She smiles, but she feels a pinprick of pain in her chest.

He continues, "It's not even a feeling, really - it's just… you know you'd do anything to keep them safe. Anything."

Aeris says, softly, "Then, my mother is a person full of love." A warm wind gently runs through her hair, just over her right ear.

Barret nods. "That's why I'm fighting like I am. It ain't even a choice for me. I've got to save the Planet, for - for Marlene's sake. So she can have a future."

Aeris closes her distant expression and smiles brightly at Barret. "That's the spirit. So, let's do our best, Mr. Wallace."

He snorts. "Mr. Wallace? Oh, hell, don't call me that! I know y'all are all just a bunch of kids, but I ain't that old!"

Aeris laughs. "All right, then, Barret."

"That's more like it." He pats her on the back with vigor before he passes her on the path, swiftly moving ahead of her, like the others.



֎


At the gates of Kalm, Red XIII hesitates.

"I'll wait out here," he says. "When you secure lodging, come get me."

Kalm is larger than Nibelheim had ever been, but even still, it's not much more than a smudge on a map - there's a small square, some shops, a bar, and one modest inn, all encased in sturdy - if under serviced - outer walls.

Tifa is glad to be somewhere safe, if only for a short time. She's worried about Aeris, mostly - Aeris's constitution is a bit more delicate than the others, and she'd struggled to keep up as they trekked through the barren land encircling Midgar.

Finding Elmyra and Marlene isn't difficult; as soon as the party rounds the corner into the square, Barret spies a tiny flash of pink and yellow, playing hopscotch near the town's water supply.

"Marlene!" Barret bellows, unable to keep a low profile. Marlene screeches in delight, and the pair rush towards one another.

"Daddy! You made it!"

"'Course I did, baby - that's what I told you I'd do!"

Elmyra is sitting on a bench nearby. When she sees Aeris, standing sheepishly between Tifa and Cloud, she bolts from her seat and throws her arms around her daughter, nearly knocking Cloud over in the process.

Aeris laughs, letting her mother swing her around like a child. "Mom! I can't breathe! I didn't make it all this way for you to asphyxiate me here!"

"You little brat," Elmyra cries through joyful tears.

Suddenly, both Aeris and Elmyra shriek and laugh when Barret scoops both of them up in a boisterous, one-armed hug. Marlene giggles, and Tifa's heart glows.

Kalm is more crowded than usual - refugees from the collapse of Sector Seven line the town's streets in ramshackle tents and makeshift beds. Tifa searches them for familiar faces, but her hopes fail her when she realizes no one she knows - if they made it out alive at all - managed to make it here.

"Where have you been staying?" Barret asks Elmyra.

"I've got a small room at the inn. I have a cousin who lives in town, and she helped secure us one for now."

The room is small, and there is only one bed. The group decides not to displace Elmyra and Marlene, who've already spent three nights in it, though Aeris can't help herself and ends up under the covers with them. Tifa finds some spare blankets in a cupboard; she, Cloud, and Barret can make do easily with these.

When the sun sets, Tifa offers to return to the city gates, where Red XIII waits beneath a craggy outcropping.

"It should be dark enough to hide you now," she says. "Hopefully you won't alarm anyone."

Red XIII makes a grunt that sounds like a self-depreciating chuckle.

Before they enter the inn, Tifa spies Cloud, standing in one of the upper windows. Their eyes meet briefly.

Tifa hurries in with Red XIII.

Up in the room, Marlene is wound tight, but Barret knows exactly how to settle her. When Marlene drifts off, everyone leans in - Cloud, Tifa, and Barret against a wall, Aeris and Elmyra on the bed, and Red XIII, at its foot. The only light in the room flickers from a small bedside lamp, and the flame in Red's tail.

"Cloud," Barret says - attempting to whisper, but unable to contain his interest, "let's hear it. Your story, about the 'real' crisis for the Planet."

Tifa's throat is tight. She pulls her blanket around her shoulders.

Cloud nods once, but she can tell he's apprehensive as well.

"Right."

Cloud's story takes them through the events of five years ago, when Tifa's world was utterly destroyed. The deeper he goes, the more her own heart sinks - and not just because she doesn't want to remember that horrifying night.

This is not right.

The group hangs on Cloud's every word - his memories of his hometown, seeing his mother briefly, the long trek into the mountains to find the Mako Reactor. The open valve. The monsters found in the mechanical wombs. The hours and hours in the basement of Shinra's mansion.

The fire.

Tifa's father, dead on the steps of the Mako Reactor, sword planted through his chest.

Tifa's screams of rage.

A flash of blood. A fall.

Tifa listens with plunging dread. Her own memories of the past end here. Cloud leans forward, elbows on his knees. Not once, during his story, has he looked at her.

"I raced into the inner chamber," he says, jaw grimly set, "where Jenova was housed. And… He was there, sword in hand."

He pauses, absorbed in the memory.

"Tifa's blood was all over it."

Tifa unwittingly draws her hands to her chest.

"He… ripped the sarcophagus off Jenova's tank. And…" Cloud rubs his forehead, eyes shut. "… And that's the end of my story."

Tifa exhales.

"Now wait just a damn minute," Barret growls, "There's gotta be more."

Cloud presses his hand harder against his head, knuckles digging in between his brows. "I don't remember it."

Aeris sits forward on the bed; Marlene murmurs in her sleep, and Elmyra strokes the little girl's hair until she goes quiet again.

"What happened to Him?" Aeris asks slowly.

Cloud shakes his head. "In terms of skill, I couldn't have killed Him."

Tifa's throat feels dry when she finally speaks. "Official sources say He died. I read it in the newspapers when I first came to Midgar."

"Shinra owns the papers, so you can't rely on the information in them," Aeris says to her.

"Look, guys," Cloud says, clearly frustrated, "I want to know the truth, too. I challenged the greatest SOLDIER of our time, and I lived. Why didn't He kill me?"

Cloud still hasn't looked at Tifa. She wishes he would.

"… I'm alive, too," she adds. She rubs the center of her chest. "But I have a scar, where I was struck."

Aeris is studying both Cloud and Tifa, gaze intent. "Strange," she murmurs to herself.

Barret sighs and settles against he wall, his blanket rolled up as a makeshift pillow behind his neck.

"First, Shinra fucks everything up, building Mako Reactors, polluting the earth, and fucking over all the little people in their path. Now, you tell me there's some Lunatic out there who thinks He ought to, what, reclaim the Planet for His Mother? Je-whatsit?"

"Jenova," Cloud says.

"And what the hell is Jenova, exactly? Isn't it that damn headless spook living in the Shinra building?"

Aeris says, "Jenova … is very dangerous." She winces, suddenly. "I think Cloud is right to be worried about this."

The room falls into silence. There's so much Tifa wants to say, but her words die in her throat.

Elmyra speaks then. "Everyone of you looks exhausted. Why don't we get some rest?"

When no one protests, Elmyra turns off the lamp, and darkness settles in. Before long, Tifa hears Aeris and Elmyra, breathing deeply in sleep. Cloud is quiet. Tifa can't get comfortable, fidgeting against the wall.

Beside her, Barret finally pats his shoulder. "Here. I don't mind," he says. "I'm used to Marlene cuddling."

Gratefully, she leans against him.

"'Night, Tifa," he says.

"Good night, Barret," she answers.

She's more comfortable now, but she still can't sleep. Cloud's chin is tucked forward, arms wrapped around his drawn up knees. She can't tell if he's asleep yet - he's breathing deeply, but if he is, his sleep is dreamless.

She sighs, relieved. She isn't sure what she would do if he started murmuring her name here.

She has so many questions for him, but … what if she doesn't want the answers?

They say good-bye to Elmyra and Marlene the next morning just outside the town gates. Marlene is crying, and so is Barret, but he finally leaves her clutching Elmyra's skirt, lips quivering.

"I love you, baby," he croaks. "Be good for Auntie Myra, okay?"

"I will, Daddy! And you be good for Tifa and everyone!"

Barret chuckles, wiping the tears from his cheeks.

Red XIII has already started down the path, and Barret follows him with a surly stride. Tifa bends down and kisses Marlene's cheek.

"I love you, Mar," she says. "I'll see you soon."

She and Elmyra nod once to one another - and then Tifa walks away, in step with Cloud.

After several paces, they look over their shoulders at Aeris, who is the last to leave. She hugs Elmyra tightly, and Tifa can hear Elmyra sob once.

Elmyra murmurs something to her daughter, and Aeris kisses her on her forehead.

Cloud stops to wait for Aeris, so Tifa pauses as well. After a moment, Aeris steps out of her mother's embrace, gives Marlene a small wave, and then sets off down the path.

When she catches up to them, Tifa sees her eyes are red-rimmed, but dry. She's forcing a smile.

"Ready?" Cloud asks her.

Aeris answers, "Yeah."

Tifa feels Elmyra and Marlene's gazes on them until they disappear around the curve of the hill.

Tifa smells rain in the distance. Above, the sky is full of clouds, and all around, the grass is dotted with flowers.



𖣘


… That reminds me.

Five years ago. When you went to Mt. Nibel, Tifa was your guide, right?

Yeah, I was surprised.

But… where was she, other than that?

I don't know.

It was a great chance for you two to see each other again.

… You're right.

Why couldn't you see each other alone?

… I don't know. I can't remember clearly…

Ask her.

… I …

What are you? A coward? Ask her.



֎


"Tifa," Cloud says, taking hold of her arm. "Wait."

She startles just a little. She drops her hand from the door knob and lets Cloud turn her around to face him.

Outside the group's hostel room, through the one brittle glass window, she can hear the noise pouring over the side of Junon's upper wall, where crowds are gathering. Trumpets and drums - a parade? The others have already left to investigate. She and Cloud are alone.

"Tifa," Cloud says her name again, biting his lip. Conflicted. "Can… can I see your scar?"

She knows she can't hide the surprise that flashes in her face. Her cheeks, her chest, are immediately pink with heat.

"My scar?"

Cloud is also red-faced, looking anywhere but her eyes. "I know, I know. It's not … I just…"

Tifa looks down at their feet, standing too close together.

"You have one, too," she says.

He nods.

When she doesn't say anything more, Cloud continues, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."

"No, it's okay," she says. "Here."

She pulls a part of her bra and tank up - only three inches or so above her navel - to expose the bottom edge of the gash that runs down the center of her chest. She hopes that's enough to satisfy his curiosity.

He studies it for an uncomfortably long moment.

"You were bleeding so much," he says quietly. "I thought you were going to die."

The same old dread coils in her gut.

"When I came to Nibelheim five years ago," he begins, "Where were you? Other than the walk to the Reactor, that is. I remember you clearly on the path."

The question is almost as surprising as his request to see her scar. But, then again, some small part of her has been waiting for him to ask it. Hoping that he wouldn't. Or that she wouldn't have to be the one to give him the answer.

"What do you mean?" She deflects him. "I was around town."

"We didn't see each other before the walk, though. Why not?"

Tifa shifts her weight. "Cloud, it was five years ago. And so many awful things happened right after. I don't remember."

His shoulders sag just a little. "Oh."

Outside, a car honks a horn. There's traffic out on the street; people are starting to line up at the lift to upper Junon.

"Can I see your scar, too?" Tifa asks. She knows she sounds shy, uncertain. She doesn't really want to see it again, but …

"Of course," he answers her, without hesitation. Cloud shrugs his top over his head and clutches the bunched up fabric in his right hand.

She ignores the way that goosebumps appear up and down her arms and the way that warmth blooms in her chest, standing this close to him in such a manner. Instead, Tifa studies the scar below his sternum. It's not as ugly as she'd first thought, back when she glimpsed it in Seventh Heaven. Before she catches herself, she reaches out and gently touches it.

Cloud inhales sharply, but he doesn't pull away from her. He watches her reaction intently.

"So close to your spine," she murmurs. She steps to the side, to look at the matching scar on his mid back. "Did… He give this to you?"

When she looks at Cloud's face, his eyes are green and glassy.

"I don't know," he says, softly, sounding so, so lost. "I can't remember."

They both jump when the door opens. Aeris leans in, holding three very appealing corn dogs in one hand. She instantly freezes at a comically awkward angle when she sees them.

Cloud scrambles to pull his shirt back over his head, and Tifa immediately backs away from him, burning holes in the floor with her eyes.

"Wow," Aeris says with a confused laugh, "Guess I should have knocked." She pops one of the corn dogs into her mouth and then offers the other two to Cloud and Tifa. "Breakfast?"

Cloud marches past her, grabbing his gear off the wall. "No thanks. We need to be heading out, anyway."

After he's out the door, Aeris smiles impishly at Tifa. "Nice."

Tifa rolls her eyes, trying not to giggle nervously in embarrassment. "Stop. It's not what you think."

Aeris brings a finger to her lips, still chewing her breakfast.

"Shh. No need to lie to me, Tifa," she says with a wink. Then, she nods towards the two remaining corn dogs, and wriggles her eyebrows. "Wanna split the extra one?"



֎


"So… He is alive, after all. I wonder, then, if the Promised Land truly exists."

They'd found a monster in the cargo hold of the ship. Cloud, Barret, and Red XIII destroyed it - Red, landing the final blow by ripping out what appeared to be the creature's throat.

But the greater monster had evaded them then. Somehow, despite being trapped on the ship like the rest of them, their target was again two steps ahead.

When they make it to the other side of the sea, Tifa plants her feet in the ocean waves and stares into the horizon. The water is cold as it rushes over her legs, and when it rolls back into itself, she sinks into the sand just a little bit.

Tifa idly traces her scar. It's one of the only things she has from her past, before her time in Midgar. It reminds her of what she knows is real.

Dusk spreads in Costa del Sol. They will spend the night here resting, re-supplying, and gathering information, before moving on in search of their target.

She squints. The line between water and sky is hazy, almost invisible. Yet, the two halves of the world are far apart, in different realms entirely, each endless and unchanging.

The mountains are at her back, the path winding through them cast in shadow.

Today, she is rooted here.

Tomorrow, when she begins her march into the mountains, she will put this horizon behind her.




Cloud has taken off his boots and stuck his feet into the beach. Aeris is giggling. His toes protrude out of the sand when he flexes his legs, and they look like the grubs of Caesar beetles that thrived in the sewers under Midgar.

Costa del Sol is a welcome reprieve. The party had made the trek across the eastern continent primarily on foot, and Aeris had worn through two pairs of boots already. Her legs ached for a long time, but after Junon, they've felt a long stronger.

The others have gone inside the hotel already, except for Yuffie, who Aeris can still see scrambling to and fro behind the shopkeeper's truck.

That one is always hustling, Aeris thinks to herself with a smile. I could've used Yuffie back in Midgar. We'd have made a fortune selling flowers.

Tifa had been the last to turn in, but Aeris had urged her to go.

"You look so tired. You should get some rest. Did you have a good time visiting with your neighbor?"

"Johnny? Yes, I'm so glad we ran into him. It's … nice to see a face from Sector Seven, especially since…"

Aeris nods when Tifa is unable to finish her sentence.

"Go on, Tifa," she'd said, "I'll keep an eye on Cloud for you."

Aeris had chuckled when Tifa blushed, and Cloud (who'd been openly scrutinizing Tifa as she stood at the shore just moments earlier) cleared his throat almost sheepishly, but Tifa went away from the water's edge and disappeared into the beach grass, following the path that lead to the hotel.

Aeris yawns. Beside her, Cloud also yawns.

"I don't know why I'm so tired," Aeris says as she stretches. Her arms reach up and out, and then she plants her palms in the warm sand.

Cloud digs his feet deeper, and Aeris is momentarily disappointed. "We've been on the road a long time," he says with a shrug. "Even I'm getting tired - and, as an ex-SOLDIER, that's saying something."

She chuckles. "Wow, an ex-SOLDIER outlasting an Ancient. Shame on me!"

Overhead, several gulls caw and scatter. The sound of wings. The sea sprays.

His voice is contemplative. "What were you thinking about?" And maybe it's a sunburn, but his face seems flushed. "Earlier," he clarifies.

Aeris is honestly surprised at the question. Cloud isn't exactly the talkative type. Briefly, she recalls their quick kiss on the ship. He must be referring to that. The back of her neck feels warm, and something solid like a stone settles into her gut.

"There's so many things I don't understand," she says, not knowing where to begin. She can feel Cloud's eyes on her, but she keeps her head pointed away. "I feel uneasy."

Cloud nods, as if he understands.

She wants to scoff, but that feels cruel. If he doesn't know what she's really thinking about, is that really his fault?

"Cloud? What do you think of me?" she finally asks.

His eyebrows jump. "I don't know," he says with hesitance. Then, he adds, with a bit of darkness in his eyes, "Sometimes I don't even know what to think of myself."

"Hah, fair enough," she concedes. She flops onto her back, settling into the sand. It's warm, like her bed back home. Her body feels heavy. Her eyes close. The ocean roar is familiar - a shallow echo of the things she hears when everything else is quiet. It used to scare her, when she was really little, but now, it lulls her.

She whispers, "I wonder… what is an Ancient supposed to be like? What am I supposed to do, because I am the last one?"

She feels the sand shift beside her. She realizes, with a tiny smile, that Cloud is lying on his side, facing her. She holds that image against all the other ones she has of him, like a box of treasures.

"I think you've got to decide that for yourself," he says plainly.

If we lie here long enough, she thinks, the ocean tide will carry us off.

Maybe that's what I want.

She says, "I can always hear the Planet. Sometimes, it's very loud, like the waves. Sometimes, it's barely more than a whisper. It wants me to know something, but … I can't make out the words."

"And you've heard it your whole life?"

"Yes."

"It doesn't bother you?"

"No, not anymore. It's a part of me. One of my deepest parts, I think."

He sounds transfixed by her words. "What's it sound like?"

She opens her eyes and is met by the blue of the late afternoon sky. Empty, no sign of rain.

"It's like… a song," she says. "But, without a voice, or without music. And it's sad. I feel this pain. Right here." Her hand reaches up to her sternum and rests there. "Something sharp, in my heart. I don't know what I'm supposed to do."

Cloud pulls away from her, folding back into a seated position. Sand cakes the side of his clothes, and his hair looks crusty. Aeris smiles. Without hesitating, she reaches out and brushes it off him. He lets her.

"All you can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other, and take the days as they come," he says with resolution. "Maybe tomorrow will be easier."

"You know," she groans as she props herself back up, "I almost believe you believe that."

She watches his posture change. His shoulders go rigid, his arms tense.

"Huh?"

She isn't sorry she's said it, either. She has a little more.

"Cloud, I shouldn't have kissed you earlier. On the ship."

He isn't looking at her now.

"Oh. Uh. No need to apologize." His voice is flat. His mask is back. "I didn't mind, or anything."

"No, I do need to apologize. I'm … well, truth is…"

Before she can finish, she catches sight of a white figure at the edge of the beach. The heat makes the image shiver, but as it flaps in the wind, Aeris realizes it's a long coat - and, in growing horror, she immediately knows who it is.

She's on her feet in an instant. At her sudden change in demeanor, Cloud also scrambles up, but he hasn't noticed the professor yet.

"Aeris? What's-"

He spies him.

"Hojo." The word sounds like a curse. Even more so, because Cloud's voice drips with derision. His arm twitches; he's left his sword back at the hotel. "What the fuck is he doing here."

"Maybe's on the same trail as us," Aeris says, her own voice icy. "I'm surprised we haven't seen him sooner. What should we do, Cloud?"

"He's walking straight towards us," Cloud growls. "Can you run?"

Aeris scans the beach. The beach grass - and the firm ground - is farther away than she'd be able to cover before Hojo reached them. She studies his crooked silhouette further. One arm is draped over a svelte figure flashing a lot of skin. He's not alone.

"Hojo is … walking with a woman, but I don't see anyone else from Shinra," she says. "And… he's wearing nothing but shorts under his coat."

She makes a forced retching sound in the back of her throat, and if the situation had been different, maybe she and Cloud would have laughed.

She continues, "I don't think he wants to fight us, Cloud. He can't overpower you alone. Or if he's practically naked."

"Let him try," Cloud warns her.

Hojo waves, as if they're old friends meeting up for a predetermined date; the movement throws the woman he's with off balance. Hojo snakes his hand further around her waist, reaching almost around the front of her hips. Aeris wants to retch again.

The woman on Hojo's arm laughs a little too loudly. Her steps are uneven. She carries an empty bottle in her hand and a beach blanket under an arm.

"Well, well," Hojo says with a grin too wide for his face. "Long time no see, my friends."

"What are you doing here?" Cloud nearly spits at him.

Hojo stifles a menacing giggle. "You are one for stupid questions, aren't you?"

"Hojo." His tone is such that Aeris herself recoils just a little from Cloud.

"Now, now. Play nice. Sometimes one must do something like this."

Through gritted teeth, Cloud asks, "Like what?"

Hojo's tinted glasses slide down his gnarled nose as he tilts his head forward in incredulity. "It should be obvious. I'm getting a tan."

The woman up his armpit cackles obnoxiously. Hojo rolls his eyes, but when she buries her face in his chest, he does little to protest.

"Answer me directly, for once, Hojo," Cloud growls. "What are you doing out here?"

Hojo's expression narrows. "I believe we are both after the same goal."

Aeris almost wants to quip, A tan? But thinks better of it.

Both men stare each other down. All the warmth that Aeris previously felt lying there in the sand is gone; the wind off the sea bites as it rushes through them. She steps closer to Cloud and places a hand at his elbow.

Hojo smiles darkly. "You've seen Him, haven't you?"

At Cloud's silence, Hojo buries his face in his free arm - he's shrieking with laughter. The sound is like feral cats in an alley, and Aeris feels her entire abdomen go sour.

"You know, son, I just remembered a certain hypothesis. Haven't you ever had the feeling that something is calling to you?"

Aeris glances at Cloud's face, but his expression is unreadable. She can't help but think of the words for herself, however, and that awful feeling grows.

Hojo notices her reaction and he smacks his lips. "Oh, I've been rude. Hello to you, too, little last Ancient."

Cloud immediately steps between her and Hojo, which prompts the latter to snort.

"I'm not here for her. Not today." He takes a swig of his own drink. "I'm here to have fun. Maybe… you two should do the same."

"You could at least address me by my name," Aeris hisses.

Hojo raises both eyebrows.

"Your name, huh? I'll try. But there are so many names." He shoots a barbed glance back at Cloud. "Numbers are so much easier to remember."

For a moment, Hojo looks as though he's about to say something more, but then he pauses. He belches and tugs at the woman he's now practically carrying to stand on her own feet.

"Anyway," he says, stepping around the two of them, "If you don't mind, I'd eventually like to ditch the lab coat."

The woman on his arm screeches in delight. "For his - tan!"

He laughs at the look Aeris exchanges with Cloud.

"But don't worry," he says, as the couple staggers away, "I'll be seeing you both around, I'm sure."



𖣘


"Hey, Cloud, let me drive for a while?" Aeris makes it sound like a request.

"No."

Instant pout. "What?! Why not?"

In the driver's seat, Cloud rolls his eyes. Aeris sits, one leg folded over the other, haughty hands on her hips, next to him as he maneuvers the Buggy through the southern flat lands of the western continent. The instrument panel stretches out before them, all knobs and lights gleaming beneath the wide windows filled with the undulating landscape.

She had asked Cloud the other day if she could drive, and he'd said no, thinking that had been the end of it, only now to find the request emerging once again. And again. For the past hour or so.

Cloud slouches forward in an attempt to obstruct the line of sight he shares with her. Just the idea of anyone else besides himself driving this thing makes him oddly sick to his stomach.

"Aeris. Have you ever driven anything before? Like, in your whole life?"

She smiles broadly. "Well, no! As a matter of fact, I haven't! That's why I'm asking!"

A curt grin. "Then the answer's no."

Her feet come apart in a stomp and she gasps. "Cloud! Come on! Where's your sense of adventure?"

"Clearly, I don't have one," Cloud deadpans.

"Geez, you're boring."

"And you don't know how to drive."

Suddenly, she leans in close, elbows on her knees and hair cascading over her jacket. Upturning her brows ever so slightly, she gives him her most suggestive look.

"Why don't you teach me, then?"

He is completely taken aback; he feels like a sixteen year old dork in a grown man's shoes, for some reason.

"Teach me to drive the Buggy." She wriggles her eyebrows.

His cheeks are burning. "No!"

"Why not?" Pouting again. Aeris lets her head drop into her hands, exaggerating her quivering lips and watery eyes beyond the threshold of believability.

Cloud stares ahead with a death grip on the wheel.

"Hey, you're my bodyguard. You have to do as I say."

"No - if anything, you have to do what I say, if it's to prevent harm coming to you."

Impatiently, she groans, "Come on, for real. Why not?"

He sighs. "It's a delicate operation. There's a lot that you can mess up. This is an older model of what we drove in Shinra, and we trained on those for wee-"

And then Aeris erupts in front of him, a flurry of pink and red - "Cloud Strife, are you suggesting I am too stupid to drive this Buggy? Just because it took you smarty SOLDIER guys forever and a day to learn how to drive a vehicle - come on, it doesn't look that hard -"

"It's a tactical vehicle -"

She reaches over him for the wheel, even as he protests and catches her wrist, nearly jumping up in response. As a consequence, she falls over his lap before he can slip out of the way - both of them, eyes wide in surprise. She is laughing at this point as he holds her, until she slides back into her seat, rubbing at her eyes and mouthing sorry Cloud.

The Buggy's crawl slinks to a stop.

"Get a fuckin' room, you two," Barret mutters, half-asleep against Cait Sith's giant Mog. Barret is still raw from his recent encounter with Dyne beneath the Gold Saucer, so no one is surprised that he is angry. "I swear, it's like Shinra didn't just build a fuckin' theme park right over the graves of an entire town."

Aeris bites her lip, and Cloud sighs.

"But sure," Barret continues, icy, "Let's burn some Buggy rubber."

A pitiful voice pipes up, ignoring Barret. "No way we let Aeris drive. God, Cloud's driving is bad enough, urk-"

Yuffie, pallid and shaky, bends over her knees before dry-heaving into her recently acquired Large Vomit Bucket. (At Cloud's own urging, she had stolen it from a peddler outside of the Gold Saucer when she notified him of her acute and often-messy motion sickness.) She has spent the entirety of the Buggy ride clutching an immobile - and equally uncomfortable-looking - Cait Sith for 'emotional' support. The tiny robotic cat has been mostly goodhearted about it, though he squirms a little under her embrace and mumbles indiscernible things every time she squeezes too tight.

Yuffie gags, and Cait Sith squeaks. "This thing - ugh - they gave us - urk - sucks - no need to make it worse-"

Cait Sith adds, "Yer bum's out the windae if you let her drive!"

Aeris folds her arms and sighs. "Thanks for the votes of confidence, guys." She squints at Cait Sith. "No one forced you to come along, you know."

Yuffie squeezes him again, and he gasps for air. She growls, "Hey, my Comfort Animal Friend - urk - isn't goin' anywhere! Ugh-"

Cloud, whose spiky hair seems uncharacteristically out of alignment and whose cheeks look slightly balmy, sputters, "Aeris, I'm not saying you are a bad driver, I'm just saying you might be a - "

"Just let her drive."

Tifa speaks sharply from her seat along the navigation panel behind Aeris. Cloud jolts a little at her voice, unwittingly.

She adds, with a shrug, "What's the worst that could happen?"

"We could all die." The dry response comes from the creature at her feet; Red XIII cracks an eye, roused from his nap.

"Exactly," Tifa agrees. "It's not like we haven't risked that before."

She scratches the top of Red's head absently (he looks mildly offended, but doesn't object), offering Cloud only a sidelong glance.

Tifa continues, "And, with who we're chasing, we better not expect anything different."

The Buggy falls ominously silent. Cloud tries to meet Tifa's gaze but she won't look at him. Aeris follows his line of sight to the stiff form of Tifa before letting her gaze wander back to his face; after a moment, she turns to look out the window at the sky gently sloping overhead, her expression hidden from view.

"Way to be a downer, Tifa," mumbles Yuffie.

"Man, least Tifa's right - an' I'd go peacefully in my sleep if you did the honors, Aeris." Barret sniffs as he takes in a breath, pinching the bridge of his nose and scratching at the corners of his eyes. His voice is not as icy as it was before. "Just try and make it quick and all - head straight for a cliff, or sumthin, when you do."

With a resigned laugh, Aeris throws her hands up in the air, half-exasperated, half-amused.

"Well, if you so insist, guys, I'll be sure and crash the Buggy in the most efficient manner as possible - pinky promise. Do I have any takers? Going once-"

"Ain't no getting offa this Buggy we on," Barret says under his breath.

"All right…" Cloud rolls his eyes, but there is a smile hidden behind the feigned exasperation.

"-going twice-"

-just to make her point-

"All right, sit down, I'll teach you, I'll teach you."

She smiles brightly before offering him her pinky; surprisingly (or perhaps not so much), he takes it.

She says gravely, "Now the oath is sworn! I'm glad you so graciously offered to teach me. Prayer warriors, you are needed now. Where do I start?"

Cloud stands and lets her take the seat behind the wheel.

"First," he says, "Keep your eyes on the road ahead. If you start daydreaming at the wheel, you're going to end up in a ditch."

"Got it," Aeris says confidently.

"Second," he continues, "If this light -" -he motions at one of the instrument panel contraptions- "Or this light-" -he motions at another light- "-ever signal, then you've got multiple system failures and half your vehicle is probably on fire. So, you'll want to refer to your manual for the proper checklist on how to respond, which should be-" -he reaches overhead and, with great effort, pulls an enormous, ratty tome out from beneath a shutter- "-in here. Somewhere." He holds it proudly. "Hopefully."

Aeris stares doe-eyed at him. Then she places one dainty figure on a large switch.

"What's that one?" she asks.

"Self-destruct button," Cloud says flatly.

A moment later, they're both laughing.



֎


Tifa watches Cloud and Aeris when no one notices. Round and round, like a dance, they seem to circle one another. Moments where Cloud opens up are rare, but Tifa is seeing more and more of them as the weeks roll by. Tifa feels something painful tighten in her chest. Jealousy? Grief? Dread? She isn't sure.

Cloud is changing before her eyes, though - for the better, she hopes - and even little pieces of the boy Tifa had thought she had known are starting to resurface, here and there. He laughs, he cracks a bad joke, he even blushes now. It's not all emptiness and confusion and sadness, not all despair poorly hidden beneath a stiff-upper-lip anymore.

Still, underneath it all, she can't completely trust it. Her gut still feels like a roller coaster out of control, still sucked down the vacuum without a parachute, without an escape pod, because he isn't right, the story he remembers isn't right - something isn't right, and she isn't sure what to do about it but watch: bite her tongue and bide her time. The waiting is maddening. How long will this last? How long will she let it last?

She can't help but feel that she, Tifa Lockhart, will end up destroying it all in the end. His peace, his hope, wherever he keeps it. She knows it's coming.

Their world was destroyed before, after all, and she could do nothing to stop it.



֎


The front door to the bar opens, and Cloud steps unceremoniously into the room, locking the doors behind him.

Tifa waits.

A moment goes by before Cloud realizes he isn't alone. When his eyes suddenly freeze on Tifa, leaning against the bar counter with her arms folded, staring him down like some wild thing, he stops completely.

"Tifa."

He says nothing more. He looks away uncomfortably, hovering like a ghost at the door. The air prickles with silence, and Tifa's cheeks burn.

He finally asks, "Why are you wearing that?"

The question stings. She tries not to show it.

"Had to do laundry," she says, barely above a murmur. Her soft voice starkly contrasts with her expression. "Welcome home," she finishes.

He takes one step forward. Words tumble from him, his voice low. "Sorry I'm late. My third delivery gave me a bad address. And I had to pick up another one in Kalm, a last minute thing-"

She reads him carefully; as drained as he seems, he looks on edge, as sharp as the blade he carries on his shoulder.

"It's fine," she interjects. "Let me get you a drink."

His posture deflates. "No, really, tonight I'm not in the mood for-"

"Something hard, for your troubles."

No response. Maybe he doesn't feel like pushing her tonight, like he had last time. She hears his words in her head, sharp as splinters: Let me drink alone. Let me be alone.

He nods once.

She unwinds her arms and makes her way behind the counter, going straight to work, knowing full well where his eyes will fall and stretching a little more than necessary when reaching for a shot glass in order to put on a good show. She casts him one quick, enticing glance - an indication towards the counter - before returning to her task. With some hesitance, he takes a seat and watches her.

The whiskey in question is something close to a classic brew from Nibelheim - as close as Tifa could get it. She knows Cloud had a passing familiarity with it as a child (mostly on bitterly cold nights, or when he was sick - it was something all the mothers in their village used to give their kids during such times), but mostly, the miners sucked down this poison like babes at a teat. When she peeks at him, Cloud is watching her with doubt in his eyes.

She tops off his shot glass with an elegant knock of her wrist and leans against the counter with one hand - the other firmly on her hip. She inwardly smiles when she notices his gaze sliding down the curve of her body, lingering where her skin meets her skirt.

"You mind if I pour myself one, too?" she asks.

His eyes snap to her face and then to the shot glass. She watches his expression unfold as he realizes she is trying to start a conversation about their fight. For a moment, he looks abashed, like a kid who has been caught in the cookie jar.

But then, suddenly, his expression sharpens. He downs the shot in one gulp and then plunks the glass against the counter top with more force than he intends, meeting her eyes in a near challenge. Tifa flinches at the sound of the glass connecting with the counter.

"It's your bar." He shrugs. "It's your drink. Do what you want."

Then you can drink in your room for all I care.

The words slip out of her like water boiling in a kettle and they surprise them both:

"I am. I am doing what I want."

Her eyes are burning, and her voice is cracking with each following word.

"Every day I open this bar up - to put food on the table, to put away for our futures - even though, sometimes, it's hard, and my back hurts after long days standing here, listening to everyone else's problems - even though, sometimes, I have to throw customers out, because they pick fights with each other, or they get a little too fresh with me, or one of them freaks out Marlene - I'm raising Marlene, practically by my fucking self now - and I answer all her questions about Barret being gone, about you being gone - and every time she gets sick, I'm the one holding her hand - and I clean up the mess in our house that never seems to go away, and I make sure all the bills are paid on time, and that Marlene is learning her letters, all these little things that need to be done, like the never ending dishes in the sink, but -"

She's ranting now, and Cloud is watching her, his expression numb. His big, fucking, beautiful eyes are numb.

Her voice shatters.

"I do it all because I want to build a home with you, Cloud."

Her fists harden.

"But god damn it, I want what you want, too!"

Her breath hitches, holding back a sob.

"And, and it hurts, because I don't know what the hell you want! It's like I'm... I'm not allowed in. I'm standing outside, and you won't open the door. And I... I don't know…"

Do I know you, Cloud?

He's not looking at her anymore. He's glowering at his hands. Tifa wipes at her eyes.

Have I ever?

"I'm sorry. That's not... that's not how I wanted to talk to you tonight. I wanted to apologize - no, well, I wanted us to talk about our fight from two weeks ago. But here I am, yelling again. I don't even know what I'm saying. It's been a long day, I think, for both of us."

She scrolls through her memories of the day, stealing glances at Cloud to gauge his reaction.

"Two regulars almost got into a fight, and the neighbors wanted me to keep the noise down, and I thought I misplaced the ledger, but Marlene found it. Maybe we…"

He isn't looking at her still.

Her words trail off.

His hands fidget with the shot glass, rolling it back and forth across the counter; his eyes are hard, eerily reflective in the dim bar light.

What is he thinking? Feeling?

Well, that's her problem, isn't it? She can see anger strangled beneath the strain in his jaw, can see hard edges and ravines and tunnels that have no end. She is hesitant, so she bites her lip and wonders what to say next.

For a moment, she remembers all too well the Cloud Strife that shown up in Midgar - the cocky, defiant, intentionally-apathetic Cloud Strife; and, too, the angry one, and the confused one, and the one who didn't know himself, the one whose fever dreams invaded the dark - the failed experiment, the husk full of shame that gave away the Black Materia and hurt Aeris, and the thing in shambles - but who was this person sitting before her, now?

What had happened to her Cloud, the gentle one that had called out her name in a green sea of names?

The one that promised himself to her?

The one who held her and told her everything was going to be okay?

Where had he gone?

Maybe it had just been a mask, so Cloud could get something he wanted from her, and now that he doesn't want it anymore, there's no use pretending.

Maybe he had never been there at all, and she'd just been deluding herself after all.



𖣘


Here they are, at the ass end of nowhere. Mud huts with thatched roofs instead of proper houses, trailing smoke around the carcass of the Shinra scarab gone wrong. A lonely little place, cuddled up like a snake in the hillside. Cloud can feel something ready to bite.

Across from him, her green eyes fill themselves up with the doorway, faltering, one hand clutching her opposite arm.

"Aeris…" he starts to say.

Aeris shakes her head, bidding Cloud to keep his distance as she composes herself. From across the way by the sad little general store, the others watch - Tifa with concern - but no one approaches.

Why is all of this always left up to me, Cloud thinks.

Aeris finally starts speaking, slowly. "What a shock. I didn't know Zack was from this town."

Zack.

Every mention of the name aches in the base of his skull. Mud huts - appropriate that such a name should bring to his mind the mud, the rain.

No. Wait. Stop.

He doesn't know what he's thinking, but that old, familiar head pain is creeping back.

"Aeris, you knew ... this 'Zack' guy?"

The party had come to Gongaga village to stock up and refuel. While Barret and Tifa went to the shops, an older couple had approached Cloud regarding his SOLDIER attire, and Aeris hung off Cloud's arm and smiled at them. When the couple asked Cloud if he had known a certain Zack Fair, their son, he shook his head. To his surprise, though, Aeris let go of his arm and walked away, tense and trembling, a complete about- face.

"Our son, Zack? He was in SOLDIER. In Shinra. We haven't heard from him in over five years. His letters, you see? Stopped, completely. It's so unlike him, but the police around here can't do anything about it. He's an adult and all. Did you by chance happen to know him? Or know of him? Please… if you see him, please tell him to come home. Or write to us. Let us know he's okay."

He had no answer for them. He soon left them to their silence in order to follow Aeris.

She nods at Cloud now, and Cloud watches as forces a faint smile across her face. "Yes. I ... knew him. Zack. SOLDIER First Class." With a sharp glance towards him, the smile grows. "Same as you."

Cloud stumbles towards her. "Why didn't you say anything to those people? Shouldn't we go and tell them that you know him?"

What color left in her cheeks drains away. "No! No, no, it's... I have nothing to tell them! Please, Cloud, don't. I don't want to get their hopes up, only to crush them again. I ... don't want to be responsible for that kind of feeling." Unconsciously, she grips her the collar of her dress.

Uneasy under her sudden and stinging gaze, he scratches the back of his head; his fingers brush against the handle of the buster sword.

"Well... okay."

The churning coil of his intestines knots again and again, mud returning behind flashes.

"It's strange that I've never heard of him," he says. A concession. He pushes it away, growing angry at himself. "There aren't many who make it into First Class."

Far away, he can still see Tifa's dark head, now turned away from him.

Aeris lingers after his words end, searching still. Her shoulders sag after a moment, but she forces a smile.

"That's all right, Cloud. You don't have to get so torn up over it." She stands a little straighter, the smile quickly vanishing. "It's all in the past now, anyway. I was only worried because I'd heard he'd gone missing."

"Missing?" Cloud frowned.

"Five or so years ago, yes. He went out on a job and never came back."

There is thunder pouring out her throat, pounding through his ears, a trail of echoes over narrow tunnels buried within. Static, static. He tries to focus on her face, but it blurs away from him, out of his reach, and he has to shake his brain again and again to keep her standing.

"That's ... that's what you don't want to tell his parents?" he stammers through the noise. "That he's missing? B-but they…" The back of his neck is warm.

"But nothing, Cloud. And no, I don't want to say anything. That's all I know! I don't want to feed them something that ... that may not be true."

"Aeris…"

"You know, look, it's probably nothing, all right - he loved women, a real lady's man." Her throat is tight when she says it. "He most likely found somebody else. Someone less demanding than me, I bet. Someone, well. Normal."

Cloud freezes. Searches for words. "Normal is overrated."

She grits her teeth. "No. Stop saying that."

He frowns. "I only said it once?" He tries to catch her eyes, but she's looking into the distance. "Damn."

Why does he feel so angry? He thinks of this man's parents, their eyes pleading with him, asking, have you seen our son? Have you seen our Zack? He knows Aeris has the same thoughts. Neither Aeris nor Zack's parents believe he willfully disappeared, which is the most unsettling revelation of all.

"I really think you should go talk to his parents, Aeris," Cloud says slowly.

She is firm. "I have nothing to say. I heard he went missing. I don't remember where I got that information." She is lying, if he ever thought she was.

After a moment, she puts on her grin again, hands clasped at her stomach. He wonders if she'll ever freeze like that, always smiling, a picture in his mind under a banner of ribbon and sky. Strange to think that way of her, someone so full, someone so vibrant - but yet someone empty for the things that she pours out, for the things she has given up - someone left wanting, still waiting, always waiting.

"Well, if that's what you want," he hears himself saying.

The water is in her eyes, a mirror suspended. The pain won't go away.



֎


When Cloud finally looks up from the bar's counter, Tifa is still speaking. She says, "And maybe we should just call it a night-"

"-Right," he says suddenly, causing her to look at him with surprise. "I want another shot, and then I'll meet you upstairs when you're done down here."

She doesn't answer him at first, stunned and hopeful and suddenly nursing a tiny flame within her chest.

"A-alright," she stammers, complying clumsily with his request.

Cloud?

He downs the second shot and lands it with a plunk - still hard, but not as sharp as his first. It rings in the quiet, and Tifa feels vulnerable in her growing feelings.

He keeps his eyes averted from hers except when - to her even greater surprise and growing alarm - he asks for three more shots. He finishes off each with a plunk more tentative than the preceding, getting softer and softer.

"Cloud. Are you sure that's...?" she asks after his third, hesitant.

He answers quickly, his voice elevated, a little sloppy, accusatory. "You wanted this, right?"

He tries to look at her but redirects his gaze; she bears down on him, even after, steady like the mountains in which they'd been born, even though she trembles within.

After his last shot, the glass comes down so softly and so slowly it is as if he fears it will break simply by touching the surface. He pauses afterward, focusing on his hand.

She reaches for the glass and her hand covers his.

"That's enough, Cloud," she says.

He pulls himself up and finally meets her eyes; for a moment, his are disarmed, sad. She wonders if he will say something.

He turns and climbs the stairs, dragging his hand over the guardrail. She listens to his footsteps in the hallway checking on Marlene, and then in the bedroom where he rummages and unbuckles and goes silent - a dark room and a cold bed in her mind, but maybe something else entirely tonight.

Tifa doesn't know what to think. Again. Cloud is drunk and she is apologetic and both of them are angry and sad, but nobody is doing any talking. But, then again, communication between the two of them has never been easy - there is no denying that. How could it have ever been? When faced with the beginning and the ending of the world, the value of words doesn't add up to much, and in the scramble of the aftermath, it is easy for words to slip away while picking up the pieces, most of all in fragile moments.

Maybe one really doesn't need words for the crucial things, anyway, she thinks. She's said so before - under the stars, enveloped in him and he in her for the first tentative, awkward, but earnest time.

It was enough then; maybe it's enough, now.

She pours a shot for herself and finishes it quickly.

Let this be like that first time, she prays as she clears the counters and follows Cloud up to the second floor.

Let this be a fresh start for us both.

She passes Marlene's door, now cracked open thanks to Cloud, and Tifa closes it with a tiny grin on her way to their room. She thinks of the three of them, together, before clenching her fists.

For Marlene, too.

Maybe we can be a family again.



𖣘


"When it's time for this Planet to die, you'll understand that you know absolutely nothing."

"… When the Planet dies?"

"It may be tomorrow. It may be a hundred years from now. But it won't be long now."

"How do you know this?"

"… Like the Ancients, I can hear the cries of the Planet."



֎


Darkness. Tifa fastens the door behind her with a quiet click. Moonlight pours across the bed, where the quilt showcases idyllic scenery from the western continent, places that both Cloud and Tifa keep in their memories. (Cloud had bartered a week of his delivery wages for the quilt, though he didn't tell Tifa that; she knew this, however, because he was very bad at hiding his receipts.) Against the dresser, Cloud's newest sword leans over the leather puddle of his equipment.

"Cloud?"

He is standing in the corner of the room, the mirror corner, his back to her, his shoe-laces and his eyes undone. He's drunk. And angry. Her first thought is a curse for letting him drink so much, or for making him drink in the first place, and then her second thought is to go to him.

Her body stops. Hovers inches from pressing gently into his, feet apart and legs gleaming behind in the glass. He smells like oil, like sweat, like wind. Memories hum in her mind of Buggy rides under a bright sun, the steady pounding of their marching through the mountains, the roar of the sky when standing on the deck of the Highwind, gazing into a sea of ghosts. Good things and sad things, all things.

She repeats his name and watches him in the mirror, watches him spin from place to place; and he is on the move again, traveling, from the whirlwind maze to the lost city, and further to the holy forest to the tower of nothing to the light of the last train, from the lonely cliff to the table of blood, and to the inferno, and to a tower under the stars, to a bridge from life to death, and to a window where he looks at her across the vastest of distances - that window is where he is looking at her now, in the mirror, with the same eyes, from the same moment, and her hands travel from the emptiness of space to his own.

"Tifa," he says, finally traveling to her, the woman in the darkened room filled with moonlight. She tugs his hands towards her and he follows her gesture, turning; she pulls his arms around her hips and he takes hold of her, bodies together, his forehead resting against hers, one's breath on the other's lips. She can smell the five shots, and she knows he can feel her breasts against his chest.

"I shouldn't have let you drink that much," she says.

He cracks a rare grin, though his eyes are still thin with anger.

"Why not?"

As he bends forward, his hands run down the short length of her skirt before they slowly begin the process of sidling the leather upwards, exposing her underwear. He follows the motion with a kiss strangely tender for the antagonism in his eyes. She invites him to deepen it, and in between breaths, he mumbles, "Why are you wearing these clothes, Tifa?"

A groan escapes her as his hands trace the contours of the thin fabric. Her hands go up his chest and around his neck. "I told you - laundry day."

"There's a giant pile of dirty laundry right over there."

She pauses. They both turn towards the tiny basket at the foot of the bed. He's not wrong. "I-it's not what you think."

"It's not?" A smirk.

She tries to smile as she kisses him. "No, it's not." Not entirely. A little lie won't hurt, especially now.

"So, it's not too late to add to the dirty laundry pile?"

Behind his head, she begins to peel her gloves off and let them fall. He is kissing her again, now with more fervor, and her hands are in his hair, pulling him down. She gasps when his touch dips between her thighs. Against her hip, she can feel he's hard, and her entire body radiates with warmth.

"Oh, Cloud, I swear, if you don't stop talking-"

He chuckles, and his breath is sour. She doesn't care. She gives herself to the moment, seeing starlight flash behind her eyes.



𖣘


The old man's voice is rough with age, but his words cut through the space with ease.

"Everything dies in the end. All living things. Men, women - the trees, the animals. Everything that moves."

Bugenhagen gestures outward, but his hand stops to rest on his own frail chest.

"But what happens to them when they die? We know that the body decomposes, and thus, in essence, returns to the Planet, but so, too, does the spirit - the heart, the soul, the consciousness of all living creatures."

Cloud is listening, but the words seem to flow right through him.

Even in dim light of the Ancient Machine's interior, Cloud can see her. Her dark head of hair swings back and forth with each planetary body that soars past, eyes wide and gloved hands to her mouth in bunched concentration. Stars encircle her. She is beautiful.

Tifa is beautiful.

Something painful twists in Cloud's chest, some old feeling he can't quite name.

But - of course she beautiful. She's Tifa. Any grown man with a taste for women would notice that.

Bugenhagen continues, "The spirits that return to the Planet merge with one another. They roam, converge, and divide, like droplets of water coursing together to form a river. This swell of energy is called the Lifestream."

In the center of the room, the hologram of the Planet surges with green light.

So, why notice her now, Cloud?

The question sends his mind shifting, but like an anchor in the sea, the vision of her remains - as unreachable as ever, as beautiful, as contradictory, as distant as the stars over her head.

It isn't just now. A lie. An ink stain obscures the immaculate page.

Can't have, don't deserve, fucker.

Bugenhagen's machine is different than the water tower under the open sky had been, all those years ago when the two of them had made a promise, but he feels like he's taken a step back in time - as step back into the shoes of someone he recognizes.

"This is amazing." Tifa's words are mere breath.

It's these stars, this space.

"The Lifestream makes all things possible," Bugenhagen says. "Trees, birds… people. But not just living things - the Lifestream is the very consciousness of the Planet."

A zipping light, overhead. Tifa gasps and then turns to Cloud, unthinking, a smile spreading across her face, pointing like a child at the darkness where the streak of bright had been.

"Cloud! Look! Look, a shooting star!"

You remember the promise, don't you?

And for a moment, he thinks she will ask him that, but her words end, and she is lost in the now. He turns red and finds himself scratching the back of his head.

"Yeah, neat," he mutters, feeling immediately lame.

Fucking moron. 'Neat'?

Her expression falls, though the grin remains.

"Oh. Y-yeah."

When she looks away from him, he watches her openly, ignoring the other eyes in the room, hoping that his expression doesn't betray the sudden, inexplicable longing he feels for Tifa. His whole body feels it - his blood races, his hair stands on end, his face burns. He realizes, with a shameful sinking in his gut, that he's half-hard just standing there, watching her. Like some pre-pubescent kid.

You idiot.

Bugenhagen has been patiently waiting for their attention to return. With a gleam in his eye, he begins speaking.

"When spirit energy is forcefully extracted and manufactured, it can't accomplish its true purpose." The old man's voice cracks, as if he feels the very strain of the Planet. "All living things are being used up and thrown away."

Mud comes into Cloud's eyes with those words, but he blinks it away in a flash.

"This sound," Aeris says. "It's louder here."

Across the breadth of the machine, Cloud meets Aeris's gaze. He had forgotten she was there. Her face in the black is saturated in a green haze cast from the hologram of the Planet, her eyes glinting. Aeris watches him with a knowing, but sad, smile, and he wonders at the words she refuses to hear trembling all around her.

You and I, we both hear voices.

You and I, we are both so, so lonely.

But I know.

It's hard.

No one wants to hear voices forever.

She walks up to the faint hologram of the Planet, lonely in the emptiest stretch of space, and, after a hesitant moment, her hand traces something across the impalpable surface.

"Just ghosts," she whispers when her fingers push through the hologram. "Dreams."

Cloud hears her, even over the steady rumble of the machine, or over Bugenhagen's musings, or over the excited murmurings of Tifa. No one else hears Aeris, but he does. And something, something, deep within the tree of his mind, wakes up - like an engine revving, gears pumping, humming, and a sick twist drops into the pit of his gut. A little voice inside him insists that you've missed the last train.

Tifa takes a few tentative steps towards the hologram as well, just as the tendrils of green begin to brighten.

"So, if the spirit energy is lost, then our Planet…" she says.

Bugenhagen nods. "You understand."

Tifa turns, catching Cloud's eyes unintentionally. For a moment, she's surprised - he realizes his expression is frozen in a grim stare - before she, too, nods, determination rising up within her.

The water tower stretches into the dark below their feet, and she is radiant again, like she always has been.

I want a piece of your strength ... to be a part of your strength-

Beyond Tifa, Aeris smiles, obscured by the swirling particles of the Planet hologram. Those tiny pieces are green, like her eyes, like memory. Stars.




"I learned a lot. The elders here taught me many things. About the Ancients… about the Promised Land."

"Is it a real place, then?"

"I'm not sure I can explain it."

"Why not? Aeris? What's wrong?"

"I'm… truly alone now. I see that."

"… But I'm … we're here for you, right?"

"I know, I know. But it's not the same."

"Does that mean we can't help?"

"… Of course not. But, Cloud, it's late. Let me sit alone for a little while."



֎


"Cloud…

Bonfires are funny, aren't they?

They make you remember all sorts of things.

You know, Cloud. Five years ago…"

"Tifa?"

"… It's nothing."

"It's not nothing. You're shaking."

"Just forget I said anything."

"Tifa, what is it? You can trust me."

"I … It just feels like… it feels like you're going far away, Cloud…"

"I'm right here.

Tifa?

I've always been right here."



֎


Tifa moves them forward. The backs of Cloud's knees hit the edge of the quilt, and he braces against an insistent Tifa who goes to work unfastening him at the waist.

With equal dashes of mischief and inebriation, he snaps her suspenders and she squeaks, doing her best not to laugh out loud, before batting his hands away.

He shrugs out of his jacket and shirt just as she pulls off his belt; likewise, the buckles securing her suspenders soon find themselves as forgotten as his accessories - though not after a frustrated Cloud curses when they don't go willingly, which forces him to throw the stubborn things towards the nearest wall. He misses, but that doesn't keep Tifa - who can't decide whether to giggle or to glower - from shushing him.

Cheek to cheek, clinging tightly to his waist, she joins him - both in his quiet laughter and in his descent to the bed - before silencing him with her lips.

Beneath her, he stretches across their quilt, over the image of the sky and the Gongaga river; her hand partially covers the charming cut-out of a cloud that dances next to his right ear. She lets herself smile - cloud and Cloud - before using her lips to kiss a trail from his own to his throat.

This is how it's supposed to be.

His fingers skim her exposed back, from one end to the other and to the starting point again, before slipping under her shirt, peeling it over and casting it off; she smiles freely, and her earrings catch a flash of light.

This is how it should always be.

Her nipples are pert. She can feel his breath against them. She suspends herself over him with one hand, and with the other, she follows her own trail down the length of his body. She pauses at his scar, but then moves lower.

"Oh, god," she gasps when she feels him, hard and wanting against her palm.

He holds her head in his hands and runs his tongue over her lower lip.

"Beautiful," he murmurs against her mouth.

She pushes his pants out of the way, before taking him into her grasp. One of his hands leaves her face and reaches around the curve of her ass, beneath her old skirt. She shivers when he runs his fingers between her legs, searching in soft, deliberate caresses. Her underwear is already damp; he revels in it, tucking the fabric aside as he sinks his fingers into her folds.

"You're so wet," he whispers, throat raspy. "How long have you been waiting for me?"

She rocks her hips against his hand. "Too long, you jerk."

In between kisses, he chuckles darkly. His eyes flash, steely - always eerily bright.

She is crazy with longing.

"I want you now," she pants.

Cloud can't even be bothered to pull her underwear off - he pulls them to the side - and the skirt stays.

In everything, hear these words.

When she sinks down onto him, his breath catches, and his grip on her jaw tightens.

"Fuck," he groans.

Eyes flutter. She kisses his forehead softly.

The shadows cover them as the motion takes them, slowly at first. Moon light, lamp light, mirror light; he mumbles a curse with each intake of breath and she moans his name like it was the first time she'd ever dared - quiet, eager, yielding.

Stars, stars, a sky without clouds -

This is simple, it's so simple -



𖣘


The seats are close. They are close.

He watches her lips move in the dark as she chatters. He wants to ask her why she asked him to be her bodyguard so long ago. He wants to ask her if she understands the Planet at all any more than she had before. He wants to ask her why she stays.

He wants to ask her why - why she always sounds so happy on the outside if she really is so sad on the inside.

But he knows she'll have no answer for him - that she'll smile, wave it off, ask him about his own insides, and he is closed for business today, thank you very much.

She is talking about the fireworks, and then a man he doesn't remember, and then about the future and the past and the Planet and, in between, nothing at all; and it feels like things are moving beyond his control, words tumbling like clowns in a cascade of mirrors - all the while she swishes her brown hair over her shoulders and giggles nervously in the flickering light.

She searches him with her eyes. She is so, so lonely.

Cloud... I want to meet you.

He doesn't know anything about this girl. A beautiful stranger on a train, always waiting, shoulder at his side, frozen still like a statue without a face. What are they both waiting for? Who? He doesn't understand, doesn't understand-

The real you.

What is she saying? What happened to the fireworks?




"You look tired."

"Yeah, I am."

"Just hang in there. Someday, we'll look back on these hard times and laugh."



𖣘


- and so suddenly, it's not simple.

His mind races.

Like the tendrils of trees in his dreams, her hair covers his vision with threads that run to the moon and slither away, of the serpent and the wraith that fog up his brain. The roots wrap like sex around a tall slice of history - a blade that gives him his gut and takes it away in the same god's breath.

Warm and wet.

Her name rushes out of his mouth in a pleasurable hiss and his hands goad her hips, but his mind is moving elsewhere against his wishes.

Tifa.

The sensations within, below, internal and eternal, they burn him in ways that leave him torn, like pulling the ends of a fabric scrap, leaving threads to dangle and dangle. There is heat, everywhere, and it licks the stars and the tower and laughs, and the wetness is all around - on his clothes, on her clothes, bubbling at the core and at the mouth, and it pours out of the heart of love as it dies - it's in the mud and in the sky and in his eyes, always. Pleasure and pain, wrapped like sex, and he fucks her.

I don't remember the path I walked. Do you know where this window goes?

She is a child, dark hair swinging against her back, with pale, delicate skin. Tall grass, a fist full of blood. Fire in her eyes. This is how he remembers Tifa.

But on that day, the usual temerity is gone, and Tifa's cheeks are flushed red and wet with tears. She drops her doll off her bed. Yellow sunlight covers her naked arms, but she's shaking. Cold. She's crying. He stands in the doorway to her bedroom for the first time as an outsider. He doesn't belong there, he realizes with a pang. A storm grows in him as he watches them watch her like that, hanging on the edge, a stranger til the end, wind in a forest without leaves. He can do nothing but follow her when she runs past him like a bird, down the stairs and out the door and into the mountains like the rest of her nightmares.

I wonder if there's anything beyond that mountain. Did Mama pass through the mountains?

Someone moans.

He follows, and her footprints urge him on. Upward and over and around, he follows her at a distance, even after all the others go back to the village. He is the only one with her now, but she might as well be alone, for all he's been worth. The path is narrow, steep, but she keeps climbing, following thunder. The fabric of her blue dress is so fragile against the landscape, thin, but she is not afraid to be alone - only determined to find what she is looking for.

When their bridge breaks, they plummet into a gorge, thin legs banging against the hard Nibel cliffs. His last thought before blacking out is that the bridge broke because he added his weight.

Maybe, if she'd been alone, the rope wouldn't have snapped.

Tifa slides up and down his cock - she's so fucking wet, and nothing in the world has ever been sweeter. Her throat is under his teeth, and he can taste her little mewls. So wet, so tight. Clenches when he fucks her, like she's bracing herself against pain. Maybe she is.

I only skinned my knees, but...

But isn't he doing something now, yes? Yes, he rolls them over and pins Tifa onto her back in one clumsy motion - he is damn well doing something. She wraps her legs around him and her skin is so soft and her breasts so supple under his touch. Her nails dig into his back, she gasps, he buries his face in her shoulder, hair. She smells like soap and like cooking oil and just a little bit of laundry - the mundane which both soothed and seized him. He penetrates her again and revels in the cry she makes. Over and over and over again. The wheels go roaring, rolling, and his body takes him back, back, back-

"C-cloud…"

Cloud has an image in his head - that Tifa had gone into the mountains and had met death and returned with open eyes, undaunted, and she returned to the mountains again and again until she knew them like she knew the scales he heard her practice every night on her piano. That's how she'd become the village's best guide, and why she was the one who led the SOLDIERS to the Reactor on that day nine years ago.

What fears had she known then? How had she cast them aside? She'd fallen, and yet there she had appeared, climbing again, always climbing, with or without him to guard the bottom as a catch-all.

The thought frightens him - not being needed - but he flies to that strength like a moth to a flame. Hears the taunt in his head, and he hates it and needs it all the same.

Always have, always will, weakling.

Tifa ties up Marlene's hair with a pink ribbon now, and the first time she'd done so, Marlene bounded into Cloud's arms.

Cloud, do you like it? Do you!? Now I can be a flower girl, too!

How can he be happy, when it comes at the cost of so much grief? He had stolen the future from these people, from Zack, and Aeris, Biggs Jessie Wedge, Mom; stolen away happiness, leaving behind lonely places - where Elmyra remains, forever waiting for someone to come home to her, and those parents in Gongaga, asking about their son and never getting an answer -

- where he's left Tifa and Marlene, hand in hand, waiting for a wound in him to heal, so he can love them like he should -

"C-cloud-"

- how can he deserve any of them?

A tiny boy in his brain still whispers to this day: you were devastated, you were so pathetic, you called it love.

Back then, he was all tumultuous rage and empty posturing, a child consumed with an emptiness, a selfishness, a void to fill - a burning need for control but no power of his own - and it all amounted to shit. All those feelings, all those hopes - all shit.

It doesn't matter who I was, because it doesn't matter who I am. No wonder I forgot myself. No wonder I sometimes wish I could go back to forgetting.

All of it dissolves into the roar of the machines, all a scorched pile, all spinning out of time. He goes where his body hangs like a marionette, played off by the words of the undying worm in his head that burns forever and ever like a rampaging train. He smells fear, and piss, and blood, and rust.

Where is your control now? And, most of all, where is your love?

He wants to sink deeper and deeper into her flesh. Wants that warmth to envelope him, that pleasure to erase the pain.

"O-oh, oh-"

There are many things he knows he can't change and never could have changed, but the knowledge is meaningless and painful. He can't change the past because it's the past, but neither could he change the past when it had been the present, and that is because he has been - and most likely always will be - a weakling.

Failure.

He thinks again of the Shadow he used to chase - the man who consumed his mind for so many years.

All the anger and hatred I bore Him, it made it impossible for me to ever forget. That's what He gave me.

Time wipes away the space between the two of them, until the Shadow is the worm in Cloud's head, and he is the Shadow, and he realizes he's been chasing himself all this god damned time. It's hard not to laugh, hard not to curl up and want to die, hard not to hate everything and everyone.

I'm so sorry, Tifa.

The pieces that break and fall off still make his feet bleed as he walks. The world shakes. He steps backwards to knock out the shards of glass, like a cassette in rewind, down the stairs of Seventh Heaven and up the site of the Great Northern Crater, out of the city, out of the earth, leaving a trail of blood behind him. All the little pieces are stars, and they burn. Behind the broken glass, that expressionless head floats like disease.

"Cloud, w-wait-"

His own head bobs, spit dribbling down the corner of his mouth, and he has become the antithesis of all his aspirations. One hand grips the dirty street wall, train light impalpable but present, even as the rest of him slumps in a wheelchair - and now he can smell formaldehyde - all the while he grasps the sides of his blonde head, and it is just like that time in the green and nothing like it, all at once-

"Y-you're hurting me-"

The buzzards circle him as he marches, haze pouring out of his eyes wherever he looks. A thousand voices, thoughts that are not his own, but the ones that were his own left him wondering whether or not he wanted to lift another foot in defiance, but for a memory that he thought he'd lost-

- he just can't do this -



֎


"I see you finally understand."

The air around Tifa sizzles with static. The hair along her arms, her neck, stands erect, and the smell of burning flesh floods her nose.

It's not real, it's not real, she pleads with herself.

Between the flames, where the darkness lies, an imposing figure emerges. The way He moves is how shadows do, consuming without question, without hesitation - softly, surely, silently. The Shadow is coming for them.

Cloud stands just in front of her, legs frozen and back straight. He's summoning all the defiance in him, she can tell - trying to muster up the man he was in Midgar, when Aeris was stolen, when he seemed so sure of what he needed to do - but Tifa can see now how his arms tremble.

"You want to confuse me," Cloud says flatly, as the Shadow approaches him. "But, your visions don't affect me. I remember everything. The heat of the fire… the pain in my body… and my heart." His voice cracks just the slightest on his final word.

The Shadow's green eyes flash, glowing like materia. A smile reaches them, as sharp as the wicked blade He wields. Tifa's seen that smile before - before a slash of pain, a spray of blood - before she tumbled down, down, into oblivion. She wants to run.

"Oh, is that so?" The Shadow studies Cloud, bemused. "But you are just a blunt instrument, a puppet. You have no heart. You cannot feel anything. How can there be any meaning in the memory of such a being?"

He paces slowly around Cloud, passing between the two companions. The entirety of Tifa's guts are mangled with fear. And even though she's certain that the flames around them are an illusion, sweat pours down her back as if they were real. She can't see Cloud's expression from here, but the corner of his brow has folded into what looks like a frown.

The Shadow pauses, His back directly to Tifa, and leans in over Cloud's ear, tendrils of His long, silver hair falling over Cloud's shoulder. "What I have shown you is reality. What you remember - that is the illusion."

Without turning, Cloud whispers, "Why… why are you doing this to me?"

"Cloud-" Tifa tries to protest. Neither man responds.

Still speaking softly in Cloud's ear, the Shadow says, "I want to take you back to your true self. The one who gave me the Black Materia that day." He chuckles darkly. "Who would have ever thought a failed experiment would prove so useful? Hojo would die if he knew."

At the scientist's name, Cloud's head snaps up. "Hojo? What does he have to do with me?"

The Shadow straightens, slipping past Cloud. He stands at the edge of the flames - so close, that if any of this were real, He'd be burning.

"So, you acknowledge it, then. You are a failed experiment." The Shadow's voice sinks so low that it almost fades into the sounds of the fire. "You don't have to be alone anymore, Cloud. You don't have to hide from the truth."

The Shadow raises His left arm slightly, and the air cools so rapidly that tiny pieces of ice form in the air and drop to their feet. They sizzle has they connect with the burning ground. Spacetime around them shifts, and Tifa reaches out towards Cloud to keep her balance.

In her mind's eye, she sees a little boy. His face isn't clear - smudged, like the ink has bled, or maybe the features are nothing more than a suggestion.

An unmistakable laugh rings between her ears. Through their joined hands, Tifa feels Cloud flinch.

"Whether or not I directly contributed to your biological material is of little consequence to me, son. I made you. With more intentionality than either of your genetic donors, that is for certain. That makes me more your father than anyone else.

I can see you despise that, yes. You've only ever loved your Mother. You'd rather you have no father at all, if he doesn't live up to what you want him to be.

But it's the truth. Accept it or don't - it doesn't change objective reality.

You could always bury the knowledge deep down. Maybe, with the power of your will alone, you can forget. Maybe you can even change your reality."

The boy isn't a boy anymore - he isn't a person. He isn't any one person.

The Shadow says, "Five years ago, Cloud, you were… constructed by Hojo, piece by piece, right after Nibelheim was burnt. A tool made of vibrant Jenova cells, her knowledge, and the power of Mako. An incomplete clone of Myself - not even given a number. Cloud, that is your reality."

Something inside her snaps. Tifa throws off Cloud's hand and shoves her palms against her ears. A scream is building in her belly, but there's not enough air in her lungs anymore. Her chest folds in on itself; she can't breathe.

Cloud's voice shakes. "You're lying."

"On the contrary. I'm the only person here who has ever told you the truth."

Tifa gasps. "Cloud - don't listen to Him-"

Cloud arms his sword, raising it towards the Shadow. He hisses, "Don't worry, Tifa. I'm not buying His bullshit."

Blood pounds in her ears, like a pipe has burst in her head and all of her insides are pouring through it. She strangles a sob.

"All that talk of Hojo constructing you is a lie, Cloud! You're Cloud, my Cloud! Don't we have our memories together? Being kids together, starlit nights…"

For the first time, the Shadow casts His gaze on her. His expression is sickeningly tender.

"Tifa - why are you even more determined to hang onto the lie than Cloud is? Shall I show everyone here what's in your heart?" He threatens to raise a hand again, to bring forth another vision, but Tifa falls to her knees. He drops His hand and studies her, a faint smile at the edges of His mouth.

"You look like you've seen a ghost."

He silently pads towards her - only two strides, maybe - and stands over her. He's too close; her entire body is rigid with rank fear. Blood and bile in her mouth. Vomit bubbling in her gut. Sword of dread in her chest. She can't look up at Him. She clutches her head low, like she's bracing for the ceiling to come crashing down on her.

Slowly, she feels a single gloved hand encase both of hers. It tugs on her. He wants her to stand. She resists, gasping, No, but the grip is too firm. She rises, up and up, until she's no longer on the ground, and her entire body hangs like meat in a freeze locker.

Behind the Shadow, she sees Cloud, the whites of his own eyes bright, watching her like he watched Aeris at the Altar.

With His empty hand, the Shadow places a single, gloved finger on her chin. She gapes at it, terrified of what He's going to do, waiting for the blow to hit.

A pause. The Shadow gently drags His finger down her throat, down her collar bone, until He pauses at the top of her left breast.

My scar.

It's not visible, but He knows. Over her shirt, He traces the path cut by the old scar He left her. He ends just above her navel, where the only tiny bit of it can be seen.

He leans in. "Do you remember what happens next, Tifa?"

She squeezes her eyes shut, sobbing. "Please…"

And in an instant, He vanishes.

Tifa drops to the ground, folding in on herself. She finally can scream, and the sound pierces the illusion around them. The fire burns away, leaving only darkness. She wails.

Cloud doesn't come to her.

She cries for an eternity, and Cloud doesn't come to her.

After a long time, he whispers in a tiny voice, "…Tifa? Is He … right?"

She tries to calm herself, but she is still wracked with sobs.

"C-Cloud…"

Cloud's voice rises in pitch. Everything around them is black, but the glow of his freakish eyes pierces her.

"It's true … sometimes I'm not very sure of myself. There's a lot of things muddled up in my memories, and it's hard for me to sort through them."

Cloud looks away from her.

"But, Tifa… you recognized me, back at the train station in Midgar. You said, 'long time no see, Cloud,' right? Those words will always support me."

He takes one step towards her, but then backtracks.

"I'm the one you grew up with - I'm Cloud Strife, of Nibelheim. No matter how much I lose faith in myself, that is my truth."

He is trying so very, very hard to be strong. But Tifa knows. She knows now. And he knows it, too, though he's stubbornly refusing to believe.

His voice is on the verge of breaking. "No matter what anyone else says to me, Tifa, it's your words that count…"

She furiously wipes the tears and the snot from her face, her breath still coming out in gasps.

Then hold me, she wants to scream, but she doesn't.

"C-Cloud," she begins, "I - I really, really wanted to tell you this. But I…"

Like a deer in headlights, he freezes.

"Tifa…"

She gulps. Grits her teeth. Clenches her fists. She can't lie anymore. She closes her eyes, because she can't bear to watch his expression unravel when she destroys him.

"Five years ago, Cloud. It wasn't you. In Nibelheim. You … you were never there."

A pregnant silence.

She dares not open her eyes.

Like a warm breeze, the Shadow's voice caresses the both of them in the darkness.

"Don't blame Tifa, Cloud.

The ability to manipulate and obscure, to deceive and entrap - that is the power of Jenova. It looks like your dead mothers, your dead brothers, showing you spectres of your past. Its spreads itself into you, like a virus, until you fundamentally change, too.

Or maybe, just maybe - it burns the lies away until the monster at your core is all that remains."



𖣘


"The vision is an illusion. The truth is in my memory.

Five years ago, I came back to Nibelheim, to inspect the reactor. I was sixteen. The town hadn't changed at all. I saw my mom. My house. The people in town.

We went to the reactor the next morning. Tifa led the way. I was excited about going, because this was my first mission after becoming First Class in SOLDIER."

Pain.

"… SOLDIER, First Class?"

Searing pain.

"… SOLDIER? When did I enter SOLDIER?

How did I join SOLDIER?

Why… why can't I remember?

I'm...

I'm...



𖣘


He is cold, lying on his back - weak, and impotent. His head hurts. He can't even get this right anymore.

Tifa, with her breath heaving and her eyes wide, rolls over to face him.

"I'm sorry, Tifa," he pants, voice strained, eyes falling to the wall away from where she is. His skin is clammy. "I'm... it's the …"

He can't say it, can't make the excuse. - that he's shit-faced, that he's full of shit. His mind fills with excuses, and he doesn't know how many of them are true, how many of them aren't, and god damn, is he still just a fucking liar all along?

"It's - it's fine, Cloud," she says, still gasping. She pushes her hair behind her ear and swallows. "It's okay."

She is too accommodating, too easy in her answer, he thinks. She should be angry at him for failing her, for failing to fuck her, for fucking up something as simple as fucking. He let this die - you let everything die.

She reaches out for him and her fingers brush against his arm, but he makes no attempt to reciprocate, to accept. She has tears in her eyes.

Damn her. God damn her. Damn this, this, the drink or the dream, whatever the hell this is.

"Cloud. Are you... feeling okay?"

He wants to tell her to shut up, to just let him think. He says nothing.

Words always seem to fail him, especially when he needs them most. Oh sure, he thinks, let them come when the others are already convinced, when the idea has already been articulated, or when the truth is already known, or when they don't belong to him at all - words will come for me, then, when it matters little whether they come from my own mouth or from the fucking robotic cat.

But when he has to close the deal over a crate of vegetables, or when he has to offer constructive criticism for Marlene's drawings, or when he finds himself sleeping alone in an otherwise occupied bed - he has nothing to say.

It's not that you can't. You won't.

Can't let all of himself hang out, like an unwanted beer gut, like some fat slob unable to keep his lunch down because there's just too damn much of it. Fat old men - suddenly, Bugenhagen becomes an intruder in his thoughts.

Reaching up into the heavens, threatening to snatch the very stars from the great city of Midgar. You've seen it, haven't you?

He just never can get away from it, can he? Get away from it, get over it. That thing, those things he's done - or couldn't do? Like someone is pointing at him wherever he goes.

How long will he have to keep going on like this? (Don't answer that - don't answer.) But he wonders what people know about him and his little family, and just as much, he wonders what they don't know.

Will there ever come a day when a sideways glance - unusual eyes and spiky hair? That guy sounds like a member of that one terrorist organization - will morph into an outright accusation, a total declaration of every sin he'd ever committed in the name of the Planet?

You dropped the plate.

You called up the Weapons.

You destroyed Shinra, you destroyed Midgar, you destroyed everything - Mako energy and technological advancements and clean water and healthcare and the future for the children.

You couldn't save us from Meteor.

It's only because of a miracle that the Planet is even still here.

Worst of all, you couldn't save them. Any of them.

He knows there was nothing else to be done. But he has to live in a world that doesn't understand that.

It's only a matter of time, he thinks, only a matter of time till the past catches up with us.

He knows Tifa feels it, too - and Barret, and many of the others, though no one ever speaks on it.

We've done the best we can to start over, and I think we're doing the right thing, but none of us have to go far before we hear stories about AVALANCHE that make us shudder.

The word sounds like poison on these strangers' lips. Tifa, and now Marlene - now these things might, too, haunt them for all their days. Or, worse - might their lives together, this peace he is so close to having, be the high price he must pay to atone? Might they, too, like all he's ever known, disappear?

Elmyra's words from long ago still haunt him.

"You boys made a trade - a normal life, for power. You can't have it both ways."

Maybe she was right all along.

He's come this far. This far. He is alive, after so many dances with death, after so much pain and loss. But in some ways, he thinks, maybe he hasn't survived at all. He remembers a day he should have died. Maybe he did. Maybe his life doesn't belong to him anymore.

He's certainly not paid the price for his own life. He sees the soft glow of the white materia in his mind's eye, or feels the weight of a dead man's body in his arms, and he remembers that his answers and his actions have always come too late and were always far too little.

So, what is all of this? A charade? A fucking puppet show? A game? God forbid. But he can feel his heart pleading otherwise with him, wrenching, churning, rebelling.

No, no, you're wrong, Cloud, you know what this is, it's-

"Do you love me?"

Tifa asks the question so softly he almost doesn't hear it. She spins him from his thoughts. For a moment, he recalls the one dim memory he has of her at his bedside in Mideel - a flash of her face and her hands in his before the world had begun to quake and he had been lost again. He opens his eyes - when had he closed them, he wonders? - and looks at her across from him, tucked into her pillow, river-dark hair cascading over full, bare breasts. The pain in his chest deepens at the sadness in her eyes.

Her question takes him through time and space, and he understands now more than ever what it is to both know and not know the answer. What is the honest truth? She, more than anyone on the whole of the Planet, deserves that from him, but he is so tired of being a fuck up, of being someone else's burden, of being her burden, of being the reason for the weight in her eyes, that for a moment, he considers telling her a lie just to give her an answer. She's never needed words before now, and he catches himself before he says something he regrets.

What does it mean to love someone? Is he really capable of loving anyone? He doesn't love himself. He doesn't even know himself, even after all this time - how can he love something he doesn't know?

His silence worries her now, it looks like. Had he even heard her question? She bites her lip and changes her words. Tries again.

"Hey, Cloud. Do you love Marlene?"

His insides churn. He imagines Marlene sitting at the bar counter, her little legs swinging over her stool and her hands dutifully working over a silly drawing; her hopeful smiles and carefree babbling epitomize his own yearnings, but such a state of grace is hard to fathom for himself. Marlene's simple, stubborn desire to be happy is beautiful, but it is also alien, strange. He has always wanted to protect it.

He remembers Barret. Barret would do anything for Marlene, and … Cloud wants that for himself, too.

"Yeah," he finally answers, "I just don't always know how to show her, how ... how to act around her."

He's trying to be truthful, but he's afraid he's still lying.

Tifa frowns but instantly tries to hide it. "Even though the two of you have been together all this time?"

Somewhere in the dark, he is sitting the gondola again, watching the roar of the fireworks drown out the words that no one would have dared to say anyway. Aeris takes his face in her hands. Tifa turns away.

"I'm not sure that time alone is enough," he says softly, against the gold and the green and the red.

"Well, then, what about us?" Tifa says.

The room drops, the grass surrounds, licks the night sky, and she forces the words against his lips. He snaps into focus again, driven across pavement inscribed in chalk, the crowd obscuring him as she waits.

"Sorry. Weird question." She sighs into her pillow.

"Don't be. It's my problem." He says it as gently as he can. He keeps on hurting Tifa. The room is dark and cold and he is tired of everything.

"... Why can't it be ours?"

Tifa waits for his answer, but all she hears is silence. Afraid of what his answer might have been anyway, she closes her eyes and waits for the dawn instead. When it comes, there is mist upon the windows, and Cloud is gone again.



𖣘


You little bitch.

Cloud hadn't meant to make the other boy bleed - at least, not this badly - but his fist does the work for him. Busted nose, streaming red down into a gleaming white shirt - the kid's a mess. For his part, Cloud doesn't look too bad - scratches on a cheek and a ding on his arm, but nothing there's nothing like a nosebleed from a good pop, and the other kid's swollen face is a prize.

Now the two of them are scrambling in the tall grass, grunting and growling, drawing a small crowd into the field.

The other boy clutches his face, eyes wide in alarm. Cloud wipes saliva from the corners of his mouth.

"Now you're really pissin' me off, Cloud," the boy snarls.

Cloud sneers, thinking inwardly, You don't even know what those feelings really are.

Arrogant thoughts, he will later reflect. But his young heart holds them up like a marathon runner's torch, proud and righteous.

You want to know what anger is? Let me teach you.

He throws another punch at the boy's head. It misses and hits him in the neck, and the flesh makes a popping sound. The boy gurgles and falls on his ass, a strangled cry escaping his throat. Now the crowd is closing in. Three large boys come charging forward.

Someone is hissing, Leave him alone! And someone else, What the hell is your problem, Cloud! You're a freak!

His problem? He doesn't have a problem. It's the kid. The kid looks like he needs an excuse to wear that smug expression day in and day out. And when the kid had asked Cloud why he never played with the other children, and had suggested that it might have to do with the absence of Cloud's father, well, Cloud thought he'd finally give it to the little brat.

Now he'll have to explain himself to the rest of these goons, apparently.

Three other boys. Who they are, he will never remember in the long years afterward. Their home village hadn't been a large one, but Cloud doesn't care enough, even years later, to ask after what their names had been.

They circle him, one drawing in front of the fallen boy, the other two pacing along his sides. Cloud sniffs.

The one to his right jumps towards him, leg forward in a kick, which Cloud avoids. The second one also comes, fists swinging, and Cloud meets him by grabbing his arms and twisting. Both children snarl, struggling against one another, until Cloud puts the boy to the ground with a resounding gasp. The first boy throws his arm around Cloud's neck and jerks him backwards, giving his partner just enough time to trip Cloud and send him plummeting.

On the ground, a shoe connects solidly with Cloud's face. A heartbeat follows, and then blood pounds across flesh. It takes him longer to register the pain he feels.

The second boy is on his feet now, kicking as well. Maybe two yards away, the third boy is helping his fallen friend sit up, still clutching his nose; Cloud is sure those eyes are smugger than ever now. In the pit of his gut, he feels cold rage - rage, you understand rage, don't you?

It's the only thing you were born for, if rage means power, and if power means control, and if control means purpose, and if your purpose is to love-

And love is what you want, right?

And then she comes, Love comes down the field from the tree-line, calling out his name. Her dark hair swings through the tall grass like the shadow of a cloud moving across the earth.

The boys pause long enough to allow Cloud to dart to his feet.

She's here. You're here. Watch me this time.

He lunges for the nearest boy with an enraged shriek. His fist meets flesh, teeth, blood. Before the boy can retaliate, Cloud lands another blow, and another. His hands twist into the boy's hair, peeling it back like twisting a cap off a stubborn soda bottle, and the boy screams. His friend claws desperately at Cloud's back, but Cloud doesn't relent. The shrill cry waxes in a crescendo before the silence comes.

Someone throws one last punch, and it hits Cloud in the lip - and that someone also kicks Cloud out from between both boys and gives a shriek of her own.

"Stop it!"

He falls into the grass, and his eyes drink in the trembling form of Tifa. His blood is smeared over her knuckles, the color of her eyes, pounding.

"Cloud, stop! It's over."

All those days of watching her from a distance, peering through her window like a creep - now, when he is strong, when he is proud, when he is making her look at him, he isn't sure if he wants her to know who he actually is.

Who am I?

Bury that truth, deep, deep. Don't let her see. Don't let anyone know. Don't show a soul. It's better that way. You'll find a better way. You alone.

Tears stream down her face. He feels them on his own, too.



𖣘


He collapses at the bottom of the Temple of the Ancients. His whole body shakes. He feels like he has strangled someone to death, and phantom spasms rush through his arms. The last thing he sees through slit eyes is the blood on Aeris's face, and as much as he tries, he can't wipe the sight of it away.

Your face is all messed up, Aeris, he wants to say, why is your face so messed up, but darkness takes him.

Moments, hours, years later, her hand is on his forehead and her face is in his dreams, tired but unbloodied and smiling with grace.

She whispers his name, like his own mother had done once, whispers, can you hear me, Cloud?

There are trees, green and full, all around. Wind slips through leaves, softly, as if it dares not wake any that sleep, and moss beneath silences all other sounds. She is there, standing tall like a tree herself, dress aglow with light where the forest would one day end.

I can hear you. He reaches out to her. I'm- I'm sorry… about…

The hand on his face brushes back his hair, and the woman in the trees shushes him.

"Worry not," she says.

His eyes burn. I can't help but worry. You know what happened.

She retreats from him, lips pursed. Her voice comes in between the trees, and then her face is firm.

"I knew you'd be like that."

He has to worry, though. He gave away the Black Materia. He sold them all out. Maybe worst of all, he - he did something to Aeris. And he has no idea why he did it. He tries bending over the bed to vomit out the memory of his betrayal. He stops himself, because there's nothing in him to spit out. Someone is crying, saying don't be afraid. It's not Aeris, not Tifa. It's not anyone he knows.

Cloud, be strong.

Yes, that's right. Cloud Strife, SOLDIER First Class, would be strong, would fight, would protect the weak, would prove to everyone who doubted that he was different than the rest, would show he was made of something else, would show her, the girl behind the window, that he was better than those losers who could barely hold themselves together, could barely stand on two legs, let alone upright with any dignity, right - right? Right?

"Leave the rest in my hands," Aeris says.

She laughs, then, covering her mouth with a delicate hand, almost undercutting the edge in her tone. It makes him suddenly angry, that she can laugh at a time like this. She stifles her mirth and raises a finger in explanation.

"Some bodyguard you turned out to be." She smirks and leans against a trunk. "Even in your current state, I hope the irony isn't lost on you."

He can still feel the hand on his face, swimming through the trees and the light and the sound of the leaves, and her voice continues.

"That's ... not funny, Aeris." He knows what he did to her.

"I know." She touches a wicked bruise below her left eye that he just now sees.

"I'm ... I'm so sorry."

She stops him. "Stop apologizing. What's done is done. Instead… Cloud... you take care of yourself." She stands up straight, hands clasped tightly, knuckles white. "How are you supposed to make it out of here in one piece if you don't?"

Her words leave him addled, and he wishes his mind would go blank again. She is strange, he is strange, neither one of them is quite right. He has always been drawn to the part of her that he shares with her, and she him.

He remembers her words on the gondola. He now has an answer for her, but he now struggles to speak.

You've already met the real me, Aeris.

I've seen myself in you ever since I first met you.

I hope you've found whatever it is you've been looking for, in me or through me or apart from me.

The forest is silent, and she steps forward and into an open patch of light. The sky sails on above their heads, through the leaves, bright and blue and heavy with clouds.

"The secret is just ahead." She gestures over her shoulder. "In the City of the Ancients, beyond the sleeping forest."

What secret?

She bites her lip. "At least, it should be. ... but I feel it. Hah, let's hope my intuition is right." With a smile, she casts her eyes into the trees and beyond. "It feels as though I'm being led by something."

Hojo's ominous words come back to him. Haven't you ever had the feeling that something is calling you?

The hand on his face moves away, and lips meet his forehead, softly, and then the mattress where she has been sitting rises as she stands.

"I'll be going now."

The forest is gone. His eyes open long enough to see her, looking down at him, pack slung over her shoulder, her expression unreadable. Her small body is framed by the doorway of a dark room; her face is covered in bruises, and her arms, and the hand she had been touching him with, as well. The left side of her face is painfully swollen.

"Aeris…?" He is drowsy and lost. "W-why... are you... Where…?"

She grips her pack as best she can, her knuckles swollen.

"Cloud," she says gently, "When I said good-bye to my mother, in Kalm, she told me that all she ever wanted for me was to be happy. She asked me - begged me, in fact - not to follow you out the town gates. She was afraid that you - or that this journey - would hurt me."

She touches her face. Cloud feels his eyes burn - wetness brims at the edges.

"But, Cloud, you haven't hurt me. Not in any way that lasts."

Now there are tears in her eyes, too.

"And I regret nothing in all our time together. I want you to remember that. There is a lot I haven't been honest with you about, and it's because I haven't been honest with myself. I've been running. That's why... I have to do this."

"Do… do what? Where are you going, Aeris?"

"I'm… I'm going to find the Promised Land. And then…"

She closes her eyes.

"I'm going to stop Him."

He realizes then that she is saying good-bye. He is never going to take her flying on an airship, that she is making her peace with the hopes she'd laid to rest in him, and that this is an ending of one kind or another.

This is all I have to give you.

They had met, they had talked, they had laughed. He might have even loved her, and she him.

"Aeris. Wait…"

After a moment of deliberation, she kneels beside him once more. Her lips are close, and without thinking, he reaches for her face, for the marks he'd made, tender trails left now instead across the bruises. Another girl from another time passes through his mind, dark-haired and ruby-eyed, light from the last train spinning on the ground. Bruised faces, skinned knees. Blood, mud.

He pulls Aeris close and kisses her, and she kisses him back. Even though he is too weak to rise from the bed, he is careful when he touches the left side of her face. He feels something in him move as she does, as her breath lingers against his, as her hair slips across his skin, as her ribbon sways just out of reach. She kisses him like she's done it before, done it thousands of times, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Her hand traces his ear, and she pauses.

He lifts his arms for her, but she pulls away and goes to the door, face hidden from view, her body rigid.

"I'll come back when it's all over," she says, voice resolute.



𖣘


Always waiting. Cloud still floats in the void, tangled within an undying dream of stars and wordless whispering. There is no mother he trusts, no hope he wants to protect, no world in which he wants to be known - just sound of a train and the scream of a woman he's left behind on the stairs, a person crying, a cackle dressed in a lab coat, a pair of glasses catching the light off the green Mako tanks.

The last thing he wants to remember is this.

The buzzards are starting to gather, like unwanted flies on leftovers rotting in a sink. He smells death close to him.

He is not alone, though the Shinra grunts have all left. He sees something lying in the mud not twenty feet from him. Even though it's raining, he can smell blood. Something is dead. As he pulls himself closer, he sees the holes first - an abdomen blown to scraps, looking like something partially digested. It might even be that the rain is melting them.

It shouldn't be, but it's a man, lying there. Cloud knows this man's face, he knows that dark head of hair, those strange eyes.

But this man isn't dead - he flinches, still alive, still fighting.

"Fuck," Cloud whispers.

He musters all the strength he has to crawl through the mud and blood to be beside the body. The rain makes everything cold and dark - so many clouds - why did he have to be named after that which brings the rain?

Z-zack...

When Cloud draws close, the buzzards scatter.

They are already eating him, Cloud realizes.

With one last heave, Cloud pulls himself close to Zack. He can hear Zack's weak breath in his throat.

"Zack. I'm here."

Zack's vacant eyes twitch, and his mouth starts to move. Only air escapes.

Cloud rests his hand on Zack's cheek.

So much strength, whittled away - in the both of them, Cloud realizes in fear. He's not much better off than this dead man. Though is insides are where they belong, for now.

When I grow up, I'm going to join SOLDIER.

I'm going to be strong, and I'm going to fight in the war.

I'm gonna show everybody back home I can take care of them.

And they're all going to be so proud of me.

Cloud wants to take back everything good he has ever said about Shinra. There's no pride, no honor, no purpose in this.

Both he and Zack have simply been triggers, puppets, tools to be used, left to invent their own honor in order to keep from seeing moments like this. And there is nothing good or righteous in the sheer experience of death, no magnificent blazing moments of revelation, no finish line, nothing good or whole.

Only darkness - and then, nothing. Empty hands, empty eyes.

So Cloud has nothing, and Zack, even less.

Cloud can taste the coppery blood, smell the burning and the pain and the intangible but overwhelming odor of fear. All around him, all around, and through the rain and the dread and the murk in the sky he could almost hear someone asking why this? Why him? Why now?

Seeing the weary yearning in the other man's eyes - the look that said I was almost home - Cloud crumbles, even in his haze. Zack tried to protect him from Shinra, from Hojo, and it has been completely senseless. His death is senseless.

I wasn't worth this.

Zack coughs, and Cloud expects blood to come, but it's all used up. Instead, Zack reaches for Cloud, who struggles to pull him closer; he tries not to tug on any of Zack's intestines, which lie spilled along with other parts of him, all now at Cloud's elbows, knees. Cloud only hears the words because Zack is so near.

"Cloud... Cloud, you…"

The next word, Cloud isn't sure he understands; it's either leave, or live. Cloud shakes his head, ready to say no to either. Everything's a fog, everything's nothing, and it would be better to be nothing now, than to feel any of this.

"I w-won't leave you, Zack."

Cloud clings to Zack, his hands in blood, face to face, as the horizon beings to flatten. Little moments keep running up to Cloud, tugging on him -

Cloud is born from his chamber, wet with Mako, and falls, and Zack picks him up, clothes him, drags him away from that place. Cloud is trapped within himself, but he remembers when Zack feeds him, keeps him out of the rain and away from the wolves. He is safe, there, maybe, and warm - but the thing he remembers above all else is that Zack talks to him even when there can be no answer.

Zack has been Cloud's mother, his father, his brother, his comrade, his beloved, his friend - and he has kept his promise to protect Cloud at all costs, and it has earned Zack nothing.

What is a hero but a dead man?

"Zack, Zack-" Cloud mumbles, whimpers, losing himself in the sea of ghosts again, brain wrapped up in the tentacles of trees. For a moment, he sees Hojo standing off by the cliff side, watching the two of them together.

"Zack, I…I-"

Zack is louder, this time, more insistent.

"Cloud - s-she'll be t-there, in the c-city, waiting-g, a-and -"

Cloud only half-listening now. He keeps pushing forward, filling up with horror and green souls, face pressed into the dark of Zack's neck, trying not to look at the cat grin spreading across Hojo's face in the back of his head. A little pulse remains in Zack, like a person dangling from a cliff - a few more moments before the inevitable plummet.

Zack says that word again - leave, or live - and Cloud knows he means both, now. Zack tries to push him away, but he is too weak, and the strain makes him cry out. How did the buster sword get into Cloud's hands? And when Cloud looks into the other man's eyes, they are fading, black and dull like rocks, heavy curtains closing over a dark stage with one person left in attendance. Those eyes stay open, unable to close. Paper time folds up, crumples, too quickly gone.

I didn't ask for this, I didn't want this-

But Cloud has to go on living, doesn't he? Zack has something else, the greatest of all things, something that lives beyond death - and he has given it to Cloud. Now Cloud has been consecrated by love - an ugly mark for a beautiful thing. Death is always ugly, and love sometimes hurts more than death, and he tries so hard to hang onto his mother's words, that love is beautiful, that love is worth all the suffering in the world. It feels like a sick joke right now.

I can't, Zack. I can't do what you ask me.

He clings to the corpse like he clings to weakness, afraid to move, but knowing the choice has already been made for him.



𖣘


Aeris.

He is threadbare and gray, digging his fingers into whatever measure of control left to salvage, and she is still smiling, smiling until they drew out the winter from her breath.

I'll come back when it's all over.

He doesn't even know what she means by that anymore - is she hopeful? Resigned? Afraid? When what is over? All he feels is the rush of ghosts.

Aeris keeps her hands together, as if she has just been praying - as if she is continuing to pray. Whether there's been an answer or not, she has yet to say. Her eyes are sad.

Cloud feels his hands twitch towards his sword - Zack's sword, he thinks ever so briefly, before he loses the name again - but Aeris stays still, watching him carefully. He thinks she is about to speak.

Tifa's voice cries out and then dies in the noise from across the water - no interventions this time. Barret's roar, only a murmur. The others seem only like shadows caught in the fringe.

"Cloud, stop!"

Then, it happens.

Her eyes open wide, and she gasps. Blood immediately spurts from her mouth.

Cloud hears the others scream.

Sephiroth stands behind her, bearing down on His wicked sword. He smirks, pleased with himself, savoring it, and then He cruelly shoves the blade even further into Aeris' small body.

Her hands wrap around the blade, bracing against it. Her head bobs backwards, then forwards - and then the sword slides out of her. Cloud hears the crack of her spine as Sephiroth shatters her.

She falls forward, eyes dull and black.

Something small - pale and green - falls into the water, but it doesn't matter anymore.



𖣘


When the violence has ceased, they encircle her. Tifa strokes her cheek and holds her hand, shivering with grief. Barret puts his palm on Cloud's shoulder, once, before walking away. Nanaki studies her unmoving face for a moment, and then races off; later, from a distance, Cloud hears him howling. Yuffie holds back tears until she can no longer - and then she throws herself into Cloud's arms, who numbly holds her until she quiets. Cid, Vincent, and Cait Sith remain at a distance, like unwelcome visitors.

Cloud gathers her body to him. Her blood runs over his arms, down his chest, across his belly where his own wound became a scar.

This can't be real.

The cycle of nature and your stupid plans don't mean a thing.

Aeris is gone.

Aeris will no longer talk, no longer laugh, or cry… or get angry…

What about us? What are we supposed to do? What about my pain?

My fingers are tingling. My mouth is dry. My eyes are burning.

She's gone.

How can she be gone, but I am still here?



𖣘


I'm sorry, everyone.

Sorry.

Especially you, Tifa.

I'm really sorry.

I never lived up to being 'Cloud Strife'...

Tifa…

Maybe one day you'll meet the real Cloud.

I wish you nothing but happiness.



𖣘


After that night, Cloud sleeps in his office. He thinks that maybe Tifa would want that, instead of having to lie there night after night with a man that can't do a damn thing right, who can't be right for her when she needs him, who can't even tell her that he loves her.

Tifa lowers her head whenever he comes down in the mornings. She makes breakfast in silence, and wishes him well as he skirts out the door. If she would have called his phone, he would've watched it ring like he's done before - but she doesn't bother calling him anymore.

The absence of her numbs him. He wonders if this perspective is a new, problematic invention of his, or if he is finally seeing things clearly - but in a perverse sort of way, he is glad he feels so numb. The alternative is too painful.

Every night, sleep refuses him. That fucking little cot shrinks in on his thoughts, which fly up and out of himself in order to escape. So many things to think about, and nothing to feel about any of them.

Those intangible yearnings he pretends to deny swivel around the cracked door and slip down the hall in order to pull open another door, the door he's closed. They watch Tifa, eyes closed and breathing softly. The sight of her at peace is precious to him. To hold her against him, to make her feel, to make her say his name - he wants her, still, but everything is such a fucking mess and he can't pretend to fix it anymore.

I'm as ineffective as I've ever been, going in circles like a fucking hamster, a bad Gold Saucer game on repeat.

The only things he does right anymore are the jobs. Take shit from point A to point B.

Hah.

Anyone can do that. Ineffective, helpless, impotent, his mind rotates around these words. Buzzards circle him in the peripheries of his memory.

"…Tifa."

He says her name, and it sounds loud in the late hours. He flinches for a second, but when no one answers him, he relaxes.

God. How pathetic.

He is suddenly so heavy. He's going in circles, always. Trapped, again, by his own nature.

To distract himself from this sudden loss of numbness, he reaches below the top of his drawstring pants, takes his half-hard cock in his hands, and pictures Tifa.

Only, he and Tifa are living some other life. He has just come home from the war in Wutai, and they have just eaten at his mother's house - she makes stew, everyone's favorite - and Tifa is smiling because he has kept his promise. He's come back home a hero, and he's there to protect her, take care of her. He can make her happy.

She's been bragging on him to the whole village all day, and her old guy friends are both impressed and a little jealous. They don't dare say so, though - they know he is special.

In the evening, after supper, Tifa's father sits him down and talks with him for an hour about his adventures with Shinra, slapping him on the shoulder when the adventures are painfully funny.

Long after the sun has set, Tifa pries them apart and races up the stairs, to her old bedroom, pulling Cloud behind her by the wrist.

And now Tifa is there, on her bed, and she puts her arms around him, and they are busy, and he loves the sounds she makes, and they accidentally kick the side of her piano, and Tifa laughs into the sheets.

Inhale, exhale, his heart races.

He is free, even if it's not real.



𖣘


She's waiting for him on her porch when he pulls in, looking just a little bit older than when he last saw her. He could say the same about Kalm - the buildings are bit grayer, the stone walls softer, and many of the doorways need new paint. There are less refugees here these days, now that things are settling down. Dusk has fallen, and long shadows paint the warm glow from the sunken sun in dark stripes.

"Hi, Cloud," she says, leaning against her door frame, "It's been awhile."

She wipes her hands on her dirty apron and waves at him as he dismounts his bike and walks towards her. Her clothes are speckled in dirt, as if she'd been gardening all day, and her hair is pulled back under a rose-colored bandana.

"Hello, Elmyra."

He stops short of the stairs to her front door, but he nods in greeting.

She smiles, but she looks tired. "How have you been?" she asks.

"I'm okay. Just, you know. Working a lot."

"I know the feeling. I feel like the days just blur together, and nothing is ever finished." She steps towards him, folding her arms. "You almost done for the day?"

"Yeah. You're my last stop before I head back to Edge."

"Oh, that's good. I didn't want to keep you long."

She shifts weight from one leg to another, a little reserved.

Finally, she says, "I talked to Barret a few days ago. He said Marlene's been asking to come see me."

Cloud is a little suspicious - he's certain that she didn't ask him to drive to Kalm, in person, to get his permission for something like this, especially because, as far as Cloud is concerned, Marlene's custody is up to Barret and Tifa.

"Yeah, Tifa said something about that a few days ago," he says, voice neutral. "Barret's okay with it. I think that would make Marlene very happy, to see her Auntie Myra again."

She smiles, tucking her chin. "Aw, that's sweet. Yes, I would love to see her soon."

Cloud continues, "I can talk to Tifa about dropping her off with you for a weekend."

"That's perfect. I bet she'll love riding on your bike with you. And then you and Tifa can have some time together, yeah?"

He looks at his feet. "Yeah, maybe."

She takes another few steps forward, so that she's standing just at the top of her steps; she leans against one of her porch's supporting columns.

"You know… and I told Barret the same thing - she's welcome with me anytime, Cloud." Her expression is earnest, and a little sad. "Truth is, I miss her."

Cloud bounces a little on his heels. "Yeah, she's … Marlene is something else. And I know she misses you too."

Elmyra is studying him intently. "I know how difficult it can be - working, raising a child, so…"

What does she want?

She can tell he's getting anxious. She takes one more step. Her voice lowers. "Listen. The reason I asked you to come out here, is… I have a job for you. A small one. I, um. Here."

She fishes into the deep pocket of her apron. What she retrieves, she holds out for him to take.

He holds it carefully. It's an unsealed envelope. The wing is open, and Cloud sees the contents: gold, pink, purple - delicate, dry, like paper.

He is surprised. "Pressed flowers?"

Elmyra suddenly looks sheepish, which is something that doesn't suit her very much.

"I want you to take them, and … well." She hesitates. "Wherever it is that you laid my daughter to rest, I'd like you to leave them there, in whatever manner you deem best. I, well, I don't expect you to do it right, away, either - whenever you are able to make the journey. So, no rush. Oh. And… I have this note, for her, specifically. You, um, you can read it if you want, I don't mind, but here-"

She pulls a carefully rolled piece of paper out of her dress pocket, behind her apron. There's a small yellow ribbon wrapped around it.

Cloud hasn't dropped the hand that holds the envelope yet, so Elmyra easily adds the note to his grasp.

Cloud's lungs feel frozen. "I …"

"And here," she adds, fishing one last thing out of another pocket and into his hand before he can protest. "Here's payment."

Cloud immediately staggers back a step. "I can't take your money, Mrs. Gainsborough."

A severe frown settles on her features. "Cloud, I insist. Work's work. Buy Marlene something nice with it, if that'll sit better with you. Or maybe treat Tifa to a night out."

"Elmyra," he chokes out, "I … I can't."

"Sure you can. If you need gas money, in addition to payment for the service, I can give that to you, as well."

The sun has finally sunk so low that the stars are beginning to glisten in the dark sky. A light comes on in a window nearby - candlelight, flickering faintly. Cloud gulps, once. His throat is dry.

"No, I … I don't know if I can."

Elmyra's eyes soften as she registers his words. She looks up at the sky, blinks slowly, and then braces her hands on her hips.

"… Okay. Okay," she says, almost to herself, "I … I understand."

Cloud carefully places the envelope, note, and money on the railing that runs alongside her steps.

His arms are cold, and an ache is forming in his chest. He turns away from her, intending to walk to his bike without a look back.

This failure is one failure too many, the pain says. It's a simple request. You know you should do it.

There's no good reason not to do it.

He freezes in step. His shoulders shake, ever so slightly.

He says, suddenly, "Do you remember what you said to me when we first met?"

Elmyra hasn't touched the papers on the railing yet. "Not particularly. I'm sure it wasn't very nice."

"You told me that I traded a normal life for power, and that I couldn't have it both ways." His voice cracks. "I think you were right."

Behind him, he can hear Elmyra taking another step down the stairs. His hands become fists.

The confession tumbles out of him, and he realizes he's had these words buried so deep, for so long, and he wants them out.i

"I've been pretending to live a normal life, but the truth is, I don't think I deserve any of this happiness. I shouldn't be here, when … when Aeris… and Zack… with everything else I've done, or everything that I failed to do… the person that I am… damn, there's too much to even say…"

He furiously wipes his burning eyes like a child. Stupid, childish. Elmyra steps just out of arm's reach at his back. He can't turn to look at her.

When she finally speaks, her voice is gentle, motherly. "Cloud, none of us deserve any of the things that happen to us. Good or bad. The world isn't a just or fair place."

Her gentleness in the face of his failure fractures something in him - a piece of his caged agony erupts, and the torment fills his whole body. He finally asks, in voice he doesn't recognize:

"Then, why… why am I still in so much pain?"

Elmyra is in front of him immediately, hands on his shoulders. Her eyes are wide with shock, worry. He looks away from her, fighting back treacherous tears.

"Oh, honey," Elmyra says, "Because you're alive? Because you're still here? I don't have a good answer for that."

"I'm just, deep down - I'm so angry. I try to find the source, so maybe I can heal it, but I just end up in circles, and it keeps feeding into itself. It eats so much, that all that's left - I get to the bottom and it's this infinite, howling void. I fall and fall, and end up back at the beginning." Tears have started breaking across his cheeks. "And I don't know … how many more rounds of this I can take."

Elmyra looks like sharpened steel. "You may not believe me," she says, shaking her head, "but I have to live with that same anger - at the world, at myself."

He starts wiping the tears from his cheeks, but more come - one after the other after the other.

"How do you live with it?" Does it ever get better?

"The anger? Or the pain?"

"… Both."

She exhales, her own hands shaking as they grip his shoulders.

"That will be different for everyone, but, in my case - the older I've gotten, the more room I have to hold all that pain. Everything else grows and grows, and while the pain is still there, that's not all there is. And most days, it doesn't hurt me like it used to. I can put it away."

He isn't sure if that sounds like a solution for himself. Her concern deepens at his reaction - what must he look like, if she is gaping at him with such a look of worry?

"The anger is - different," she says, a little hurriedly, "In that it comes and goes. When it comes, I sit with it, or I share it - but I never turn it inward. If that happens, I reach out, to get perspective. To get help. Anger turned inward is a potent enemy."

I have been fighting for so long, his heart cries. This is the one battle I can't seem to escape.

He finally surrenders to his tears and reaches up to cover his face, gasping in a deep sob. Elmyra brushes some of his hair out of his face. He tries to step away, but she pushes back.

"And that's just the thing - we're all on this Planet together," she continues. "You, me, Marlene, Tifa, Barret -"

"I can't put this on Tifa," he gasps. "I can't do that to her."

"You absolutely can. She's strong enough to carry you when you need. You don't have to face yourself alone. Is that what you expect of her? That she not rely on you when she need you?"

"N-no." He chokes back a sob, "But she can't-"

Elmyra fiercely pulls him into an embrace, and he sinks his face against her shoulder and weeps. He knows he should feel ashamed at this display of weakness - he didn't come here expecting to unleash all this on Elmyra - but his mind won't stop crying out: Mom, Mom, Mom. And he misses her so much, and he's missed her all along.

Elmyra holds him close. In his ear, she murmurs, "We don't get to choose the things we struggle with, and we don't get to decide what hurts us. All we can do is decide what we truly want - from life, from others, from ourselves - and then do what we can with our borrowed time on this Planet."

He gasps once, twice. Feels more tears rush down his cheeks. His heart is hammering in his chest, and his pain arcs like a switch of electricity.

"What I want," he stammers, "What I want is … more than anything, forgiveness."

He meets Elmyra's eyes finally. She's looking at him with pink-rimmed ones of her own. And, he knows they don't share any blood, but for a moment, she looks so much like-

"Come here," Elmyra says firmly, pulling him into another hug. "Look. If that's all you want, then you have mine. You've had mine since -" -her voice cracks- "-since the day I watched Aeris walk away with you from Kalm, never looking back."

He clings to her. "I'm so, so sorry."

"I think, Cloud," she says, slowly, deliberately, sounding so much like her daughter, "At the heart of every person, there is something that needs to be made peace with. In your case, you may never find forgiveness from the dead. And the living, even less likely."

He shuts his eyes. She pulls away from him.

"So, Cloud, don't you think it's about time you did the forgiving?"



𖣘


They follow Barret; not because he knows where the fuck they are going, but because he is the easiest thing they can see in the blizzard. The blinding cold breaks across his dark form, and he staggers - it's hard, even for Barret, to rage against this storm.

The storm caught them unawares nearly half an hour ago. They are several miles from the mountains surrounding the Ancient capital - no turning back now. Cloud had hoped they'd find a village up somewhere, or an encampment, at the very least; he knew the north continent wasn't as settled as the other continents, but it wasn't entirely uninhabited until the Great Glacier - which they would not reach for weeks, if they kept moving at this pace.

If they managed to keep moving at all.

Maybe they should stop. Try to burrow down in the snow. But it's hard to think clearly - and maybe, they're all afraid: if they stop, the snow will eventually bury them.

"Don' fall behind now," Barret calls out hoarsely, his breath all but a gasp in the cold. With his gun arm, he digs a path through the deepening drift.

"We just finally getting somewhere…"

Cid and Vincent march behind him; Vincent's red cape is the only other visible thing in the white, and it flaps like a furious flag with every scream of the wind. All Cloud can think of is blood, so he stays focused on Barret.

Tifa and Yuffie plow behind the men, faces both resolved and empty, bodies sorely underdressed for the elements; both cling to Nanaki, his tail-flame a pitiful whisper, threatening to vanish. Following is the Mog, carrying a trembling Cait Sith, whimpering against the onslaught.

No matter how sophisticated the machine, it must be just as hard to keep moving for them as it is for us, Cloud thinks.

Cloud brings up the rear, hands gripping the buster sword so tight that he thinks he will bleed out his nails; squinting his eyes against the wind, he bites his tongue to remind himself he has one.

Numb.

His eyelashes are frozen, for fuck's sake.

He welcomes it.

Scratch open a scab, pour in this ice, and then there'll be nothing left to feel after the cold takes over.

He won't have to think about Aeris now.

It's easier this way.

Suddenly, Yuffie's pace halts and she breaks away from Nanaki and Tifa; with her shoulders drawn up to her chin and her arms wrapped around herself, she stands her ground. She tries to reach into the pocket of her shorts, but she stops when she can't work her hand into the small opening. Cait Sith gasps, Lassie, whatya doing, but the Mog keeps moving, unaffected.

As Cloud approaches her, one hand leaves his sword handle long enough to reach for her.

"K-keep mov-ving," Cloud manages to say.

"C-can't," she stutters. "C-c-cold."

"Yuffie." His voice is thin, on edge, his hand wringing around her arm, eyes icy as the storm. He looks like he can barely keep himself together, and yet there he is, holding her in a death grip, both of them acting stubborn.

"Just cold, C-Cloud." She bites her blue lips in protest. "M-man, Geez-z-z... "

She starts to kneel down, rooting herself in a snow drift.

Cloud's heart pounds. No. Not you, too.

"C-come on," he growls. "Keep m-moving."

After that, he goes on walking, pulling her right along with him, now hand in hand, but he lights a tiny Fire spell into the space between their palms, just enough for the heat, and she is able to move her fingers again. She eyes the gleaming materia on his gauntlet as it glows with the spell.

"W-why d-didn't I-I-I think of th-that?" she asks.

"You're p-pre-hypo-thermic," he grumbles.

She rolls her eyes. "S-s-says y-y-you."

Cloud can feel the warmth traveling up his own forearm. It's hard to sustain the spell long enough to benefit from the heat without forcing the flame to grow and burn them, but it's better than nothing, for now.

He can't sustain the spell much longer, though.

Yuffie has warmed up enough that she says, "I'm n-not sure that I've e-ever loved m-m-materia more than I d-do at this very m-m-moment."

"When we g-get out of this, you c-can have it, so long as y-you don't stop moving ag-g-gain."

Up ahead, Cloud hears Cid bitching to Vincent. "God damn it, we're goin' in fuckin' circles, aren't we?"

"It's plausible," says a gloomy Vincent. The cold doesn't seem to affect him to the same degree as the others. Lucky.

With chattering teeth, Cid groans - a discombobulated sound that would have been funny if not for the severity of the situation.

"Just shut your mouth! We on the right god damn track!" Barret shouts over the noise of the storm. He follows the outburst with an almost incoherent mumble. "We on the right track…"

"I've definitely seen that patch of snow before, mister," Cid grumbles.

"There ain't no way! Shut the hell up and keep walking, or you will freeze to death,. I ain't leading nobody in no circles."

Nanaki, too, is not nearly as crippled by the cold as the others, though a thin layer of ice covers his fur. "Maybe Cid's right."

"Not you, too, Red!" Barret moans. "Ya'll a bunch of ninnies-"

Suddenly, Cid erupts, with his arms flung out to either side like a scarecrow. His breath blows into frosty smoke. "You've got to be fuckin' kiddin' me! We're lost!"

Barret wastes no time in answering, a twitch singing in his gun-arm. "Cid, I'm gonna turn around and shoot you if you're so damn lost-"

Cid stomps as furiously as he can through the growing snow drift, shoulders quaking and feet sinking into the white, until he is a hand-reach from the dark silhouette of Barret.

"Great, why don'tcha, then?! You can start with my frozen ass! Better that than freezin' to death!"

"Guys, h-hold it together-" Cloud calls out.

Several things happen in the following moment. Barret turns towards Cid, open-mouthed and angry; Cloud releases Yuffie's hand and stalks towards the front; Tifa cries out, loses her grip on Nanaki, and plummets into the snow.

"Gah!"

The entire group turns inward, eyes on the dark puncture in the white where she had fallen. After a stunned pause, a chorus of her name follows:

"Tifa?!"

In a half-stitch of a second the static returns, and Cloud fights the irrational, hot fear that springs out of him.

After a weary groan, Tifa's head appears over the threshold of the snow.

"There's something…" she gasps, stealing her breath back from the wind. "Something here…"

"You alright?!"

Barret immediately forgets Cid and bolts to her side. Cloud and Nanaki are not long behind, both wide-eyed like children. Barret provides an adequate shield from the wind as Cloud bends over her, eyes doctoring.

She grips her lower leg, jaw clenched. "My leg... yeah... my foot's under something. Damn."

Cait Sith calls out from the distance ahead where Mog has carried him; Mog is still, in fact, moving. "Aye, what's that y'eve got goin' on?!"

"Is it - is your foot broken?" Nanaki asks. The notion sings dread through Cloud's veins.

"It's stuck, I can't move it. I don't know," Tifa says.

"Tifa." Cloud starts to reach for her, but the others rush in behind him in a circle.

Yuffie darts past Cloud, hands falling on Tifa's arm. "Help her u-up-"

"Her foot is caught underneath something, don't pull too hard!" Nanaki warns, the fire burning brighter at the tip of his tail.

Cid sweeps in and, with a nod from Tifa, begins to carve out the snow; instead of running into a layer of ice, he starts to turn up bits of rock.

"Here ya go - can ya pull your leg out yet, Teef?"

She tries. After a moment, she shakes her head, her lips chapped and bleeding as she speaks.

"N-no, I can't wrench it free. I think there's too much ice down below-"

"I got it, I got it-" With a strangled war cry, Barret slams his gun-arm into the ground, slinging bits of frozen condensation into the wind. Yuffie and Cait Sith shriek; Tifa flinches beneath a suddenly steaming Cid.

"F-fuck, Barret! Yeh coulda given me some warnin' when ya did that!" He raises a gravel-covered glove into the air. "Or are you just tryin' to break 'er legs?"

"You gonna break this ice with your puny little fingers?"

"Guys, we could just use a Fire spell and melt the snow off her-"

"No." Cloud's voice is sharp. "Water will re-freeze and m-make her colder." He steps forward. "Come on, keep digging. Barret, you with your actual hand, this time, please."

Barret, Nanaki, and even Vincent start digging, while Cid presides over their efforts. They scoop and throw snow over and out, exposing the ground - and something else - beneath.

"What the hell is this?" Barret asks.

Wood, and steel. A ladder of planks and metal lines and bolts meant to run into the horizon - only now covered in a layer of snow.

"Oh, it's…" Yuffie has forgotten she is cold. "It's... a railroad."

Tifa pulls her foot free of one of the boards, rubbing her ankle through the boot. With Yuffie's help, she stands and flexes her leg.

"I don't think I'm hurt. Though... to be honest... I'm kind of too n-numb to know for sure. Ha ha."

Cloud frowns but is silent. The rest of them survey the exhumed railroad. The trail is buried closest to them, but now that they know it's here, they can scan the horizon, and pieces of the path at the tops of hills are easy to discern.

"What the hell?" Cid rubs the back of his head, dusting off icicles caught in his hair.

"Oh wow…" Realization spreads in a crawl.

"Where there's one of these…" Nanaki begins.

"It's got to lead somewhere, right?" Yuffie nearly bounces.

Arms folded, Vincent steps in with a word. "Unless it leads nowhere, because it's old, out of use, discontinued-"

A vein pops out of Barret's forehead. "Now don't go thinking like that! What the hell's wrong with you? Morbid, that's what you are. Morbid! 'Course it leads somewhere!"

"A village?" Nanaki offers.

"Yes, like, a village with houses. Houses with beds and blankets and chimneys and fires and furnaces," Yuffie says, smiling and rubbing her hands together.

Cid clears his throat. "Fine. Let's get on with our celebratin' then. We jest found the slowest movin' train ride out of this shit hole."

Nobody says anything for a moment; even the wind begins to die down a little.

And then Nanaki says what everyone is thinking but no one wants to give words. "Which way should we pick? They both look the same to me."

Barret is forced to mumble a reply. "Now don't go thinkin' like that, or we'll pick the wrong one."

"So, Cloud, which way?"

Tifa catches Cloud's gaze. He speaks slowly, as much from the chill as from decisiveness. He thinks he sees Tifa's jaw tighten.

"... I was told to head north, so there's only one way for us." He gestures towards the north-westerly direction in which the tracks run. "We follow this as far as we can, as long as the snow permits. We only stop if we have no other choice, or if we lose the sunlight."

Or until we die. Hopefully we'll find civilization before then.

Cid sneers. "Well, Barret, I guess you were right. We were on the right 'god damn track'."

Barret slaps Cloud on the back, prompting him to cough and sputter before glaring at him. "Heh. So, Cloud. You know what I'm always sayin'."

"Barret, if you say it this time - this time, I think I may have to kill you."

A shit-eating grin spreads across Barret's face.

"Heh heh. All right, ladies! You heard the man! We're heading that way!"

And there ain't no getting offa dis train we on!



𖣘


"Cloud! What do you think?"

Marlene ambushes him outside of the bathroom. A new tactic in getting his attention - usually, if she's asking permission to sneak a cookie out of the pantry, or if she wants to borrow his phone and call Barret or Elmyra.

Something on paper crackles in his immediate field of vision; his initial impression is that she has somehow managed to accurately replicate the oddly golden droppings of the wild Bandersnatch - until he recognizes Barret in the mix and wonders why she's illustrated her own father amongst piles of yellow monster shit - an then suddenly -

She taps her foot. "Well?"

His eyes widen. Shit, those are chocobos.

"Oh. Oh, it's... uh…" His eyes go to one particularly somber looking yellow lump with a big gray meat-cleaver attached.

And is that… me… ?

Marlene is still left on her tip-toes, paper waving. The ribbon in her hair bounces with her. As the silence lingers, her hands fall.

Cloud isn't going to say anything, again - truth be told, he isn't sure what to say. He's never known what Marlene means when she draws these pictures of him - is she trying to be funny? Is she saying he never smiles, that he is always grumpy? Is she... comparing him to Barret? Is he reading too much into this?

She purses her lips, watching him think over his thoughts. She taps her foot one last time before her little nose flushes red and her eyes gloss over. Suddenly, she turns away, her shoulders quivering.

"Marlene-" he says, confused and guilty.

Oh great, Cloud, add this to your list of accomplishments - making little girls cry.

"I'm fine, okay-" She snaps at him, her face scrunched. "I'm fine! Just - just go away, then!"

She is as bad of a liar as Barret - with temper tantrums that rival Cloud's own as child, Cloud muses. Like fathers, like daughter.

Wait.

I think of her as my daughter.

She keeps marching away, paper in hand, crumpled on one end, ribbon bouncing, braid swinging.

"We don't get to choose the things we struggle with, and we don't get to decide what hurts us.

All we can do is decide what we truly want - from life, from others, from ourselves - and then do what we can with our borrowed time on this Planet."

In two strides he matches her pace. Without missing a beat, he puts a hand to her shoulder.

"Marlene."

She stops, and almost immediately she sags against him. The bottled up tears burst out of her. She rubs her eyes to hide the evidence. He plucks her off the ground, her face still red, and he holds her.

She protests initially - "I'm five, okay, I'm not little!" - before succumbing, hiding her face in his sweatshirt.

He doesn't remember his own father, and his mother only very rarely talked about him. It hurts too much, she'd say to him when he'd ask.

Maybe that's why the word father never held a lot of meaning for Cloud. At most, he might think of Tifa's father, but the association was never pleasant. Like all the other fathers in Nibelheim, Mr. Lockhart had ignored Cloud throughout most of his childhood, and then after Tifa's accident and week-long coma, he had actively ostracized Cloud.

Of course, then Cloud met Barret, and suddenly, there was a new definition of father to write. No one could deny that Barret loved Marlene (Barret himself would wax poetic for days if allowed). Barret had never thought twice about what that meant or what would happen because of it - Barret just did it, just acted on it, and he stayed true to that commitment.

He owned it.

I want this.

Cloud doesn't know if he's doing this right - the whole dad thing - but he realizes that he wants to try.

Marlene seems to want it, too, he thinks.

Maybe we both need it.

"I do like your drawing, Marlene," he says finally. "It's... very pretty. I can tell you spent a lot of time on it."

She holds onto him a little tighter.

"It's a present." She sniffs, still haughty. "It's a chocobo train. You're at the front of it!"

He smiles against her cheek. "It's just what I needed."

Her face is covered in snot, but he doesn't pull away.

Marlene chirps, "I was gonna draw one for Daddy, too - and Mama -" Shock registers in her little face, and she corrects herself. "I mean, Tifa."

A tiny shard of pain forms in Cloud's chest, but he doesn't exactly hate the feeling at the moment.

"It's okay, Marlene," he corrects her, "You can call her Mama. She would like that. You can call us whatever you feel like calling us."

He feels her exhale, tension dissolving in her arms. Then, she giggles.

"Can I call you 'Chocobo Poopy' then?"

Cloud stares at the wall. "I mean… technically, yes, you could."

What have I done?

"But maybe, Marlene, it might be nicer to pick something without the word 'Poop' in it," he offers.

She giggles hysterically, and he thinks, with a heavy internal sigh, that he's going to have to alter his name on all of his delivery service advertisements now.

She pulls away to study him. Then, she looks down the hallway once and, after making certain Tifa won't hear, whispers into his ear, eyes still red, "Are you done being mean, then?"

He gives her words serious consideration.

Isn't it about time you did the forgiving?

After he answers Marlene, she giggles - apparently satisfied - and kisses him on the cheek before he lets her down.

His own words ring in his head even after she hands off the drawing and goes downstairs to accompany Tifa, shouting, I gave it to him, Mama, and he liked it!

"I'm going to try my best."



֎


The stars move on above her head, like a mobile in a crib, like before, like every comfortable bedtime memory, but sleep evades Tifa. Behind her closed eyes, she can't shake the image of the glowing tendrils of green stretching across the earth. She thinks she never will.

The three of them - Tifa, Barret, and Cloud - still have a long journey until they reach Kalm. They had left North Corel three days ago, and it had been painful. The reconstructed Nibelheim had been just as bad. Neither of those places felt like home.

Cid had managed to successfully 'crash' the Highwind just outside the Forgotten City; the airship malfunctioned after the Lifestream surged out of the earth and was unable to be revived. Vincent had been the first to leave — there one moment, gone the next. The Highwind's crew also left soon after, eager to rejoin their families.

Because they were so close to that place, the rest of them walked together under the empty heavens until they came to the wellspring where Cloud set Aeris adrift. Tifa realized then that Aeris had never seen Meteor in her sky.

They'd all lined the edge of the water like statues, waiting for something to shift in their hearts. No one said anything. Cloud took Tifa's hand in his and didn't let go.

When they left, the decision was made to travel to Rocket Town. Cid reunited with Shera — who did two things in rapid succession: one, she'd shocked everyone by throwing her arms around Cid unapologetically, and two, she'd immediately begun puzzling over the description Cid gave her of the Highwind's failure. Everyone stayed in Rocket Town for a few days, but Barret had been eager to get on the road — their phones were not working, and he couldn't contact Elmyra and Marlene.

Yuffie and Cait Sith both stayed in Rocket Town, for all Tifa knew, but Nanaki came with them, for a time —until finally, they'd parted ways with him sometime after Nibelheim.

Tifa tries not to think too much about what they'd seen in Nibelheim, or Corel, or any number of paths that they've walked since Meteor fell into the Lifestream.

Think of what's right in front of you, Tifa.

She turns her head. Barret snores beside her, and she listens to him hack and sniff and drone on, but it does nothing for her sleepless condition. If anything, it makes her ears itch.

She rolls over, and across the camp, Cloud sits with his back to her, lit up by the campfire. She wonders what he is thinking.

Tifa gets to her feet and finds herself fraught with the impulse to lie back down, to not approach him. She knows that as soon as she has stood that he is listening to her, following her movements, aware of her. She clenches her fists and decides to excuse herself from the campsite momentarily, under the guise of undertaking some business in the bushes. She treads into the forest a ways and lets herself rest against a tree, gathering her thoughts.

She can see the camp through the underbrush, can see him in the light.

You're acting just like him, you know. Stop doing it. Everything will be all right this time.

She waits until the pounding in her chest subsides. With that, she returns to camp. He glances at her as she comes through the tree-line, but his eyes remain fixed on the fire.

"Hey," she says as she sits next to him. She lets her shoulder knock against him gently, and he cushions her.

"Hey," he says, "It's early for you. You should get as much sleep while you can, you know. We've got a long ways until we make it to another town."

"I know." She stretches, letting the firelight disturb her white blouse, letting Cloud notice all the same. "Couldn't sleep. How's the watch?"

"Boring as hell," he answers with a sigh, leaning forward. "Could be worse, though."

"True," she says.

She sees the stick he's been using to prod the fire resting between his legs, and she grabs it quickly to dig at the fire herself.

He raises his eyebrows at her touch. "Could be better."

She knocks a log into the glowing ashes. "Really."

He shifts beside her, scratching idly at an itch forming behind his ear.

"Well, uh, you know... if you're not going to sleep... then…"

"Cloud." She turns to him, slowly, her bangs falling into her eyes, hair over skin. "What are you suggesting?"

He shrugs. "...That I'm bored as hell."

"And?"

"And… you're pretty... uh... not boring."

His expression is mask-like, but his cheeks are pink.

Tifa's grip on the stick gets tighter. For such a little fire, everything sure is warm. She pretends she is surprised by his confession.

"Oh. Oh."

"Yeah."

He looks away, eyes on the sky. That is definitely a blush spreading across his face. A contagious thing, those - she feels it in her own skin, and she works the stick deeper into the fire.

"Not here, Cloud."

His response is playful. "Help keep me awake?"

She attempts to act as incredulous as possible, but it is hard not to grin herself.

"Cloud. Barret is right there."

"Yeah, but, he's got to be half-deaf, from that gun on his arm."

"I dunno…"

Barret gurgles in his sleep and rolls over; both Cloud and Tifa cringe, but then Tifa smiles, too, her whole face tingling.

"You have to be more specific, Cloud."

"Tifa."

She looks into his eyes, which is a mistake. "What?"

"We're not kids, Tifa. We can … do it when we want."

"You can't even say it," she says, a smile threatening to take over.

Cloud leans in close, exaggerating the beginning of each word with a smirk. "Copulation. Coitus. Fornication. Sex."

"No!" She's giggling now. What's gotten into him?

"Tifa…" And now Cloud is pouting. Pouting.

Something Aeris taught him, Tifa thinks, and I'm glad she did.

But Tifa isn't done teasing him yet. She points a finger at the sky, voice wavering.

"Oh, hey, look! Look at the stars! So many constellations…"

Cloud folds his arms, eyebrows raised; he has no interest in stargazing at the moment - truly, he refuses to remove his eyes from just below her collarbone.

"Uninteresting subject change."

Still gazing heavenward, she leans against him, drawing her knees to her chest to forcibly avert his eyes; the forgotten stick clatters against the fire circle.

"The night sky is a beautiful thing. I'm sometimes sad that we have to sleep through most of it."

"Sleep is an optional thing, you know." He casts her a leering sideways glance.

She dutifully ignores him - really, what has gotten into him?

"I wonder... do you think we could visit Cosmo Canyon again? Now that... everything's over... I want to see Bugenhagen's machine again. It was such an awesome thing. When you think about it, it was like... man and nature, working together. And through that partnership, we understood a little more of our world, of ourselves."

Cloud is finally quiet for a moment. "... That's out of our way, so I don't know. It may be awhile before we go back to visit Cosmo Canyon."

Her mood changes with his. "Yeah... that's reasonable."

Suddenly, he puts his arm around her. Tifa's heart sings at the contact, and she softens in his embrace.

"You're right, though," he says. "And I'd like to see it again someday, too." He leans against her. "We can go together."

"Cloud... "

She wonders how red her face is, or how foolish her grin. She finally can't help herself anymore. With a wrinkle of her nose, she laughs.

"Aw, Cloud. Unadulterated sentimentality? The stars must be aligned strangely." She turns her head, so that their noses are close. "Hmm… maybe you will get lucky tonight."

Through lidded eyes, Cloud murmurs, "I'm already lucky."

Nothing is said in response for several moments, and in the silence, her heart races. His grip on her side tightens. She unconsciously licks her lips.

When nothing else happens, her body stills; she worries that maybe she said something wrong.

He turns away and finally speaks into the fire. "For once in my life."

Her gut knots and she frowns. They're not talking about sex anymore.

He's pulling away again.

"You've been lucky a number of times throughout your life, Cloud Strife."

His expression changes abruptly at her words - from neutral to depreciating.

He says, "I seem to remember one night under the Highwind, a couple of quickies aboard the airship afterward, and one really nice one in a nondescript patch of woods near Rocket Town, but I wouldn't call that 'a number of times' and, well, it's not been throughout my life - we still have to work on that, I think-"

She shoves him. "Cloud, that's not what I'm talking about, because I know that's not what you were talking about just now!"

"Oh. Well."

He lets the smirk fade. She's not letting him hide.

"... Would you call it luck, then?" he asks darkly.

She sighs. "What else would you call it?"

"... I... well…" The fire is dying. She wrings her hands.

"I mean, I've been lucky too, I guess," she starts. "Or unlucky, however which way you want to look at it, but I guess I've always thought of it as luck, ultimately. I lost my home not once, but twice, and still kept my skin. There were a lot of times when things could have gone differently for me, like when I first arrived in Midgar, and I'm lucky they didn't."

She tosses her head back, flinging dark hair over her shoulder.

"I almost died, you know, if not for Zangan," she continues. "You remember him, right?"

"Your martial arts instructor. Yeah."

"He's the one who took me to Midgar, after... Nibelheim burned. I wanted to thank him, but he was gone as soon as my condition was stable. I... couldn't pay the doctors immediately, so I was lucky that they let me wait to find a job before I had to make payments. They waived most of the cost, actually.

"And I found a job, and it wasn't something undesirable or dirty, not like what a lot of folks in the slums had to do to get by - I've always managed to scrape by in any situation, whether I was a bartender, a member of AVALANCHE, or a terrorist on the run. And ... of course, I met you again."

Cloud reaches for the discarded stick and sends it into the flames.

"I think... I think they…Would they have called it luck?"

"Who?" She knows; she just wants him to say it.

"Zack... and Aeris."

She strokes the bottom of her chin, and silence follows. It would be so much easier to let the silence speak for them both, but a fist knots in her stomach, and it takes all her courage to ask.

"What kind of question is that, Cloud?"

"I don't know."

"Well, what do you think?"

"I don't think either of them believed in luck."

Tifa is quiet, and she almost doesn't say it. "I ... don't think either of them were very lucky."

She flinches at how cruel she sounds and wants to take back her words, worried that Cloud will recede from her.

Cloud, surprisingly, doesn't react in the way she thinks he will. He simply shakes his head.

"I ... that's definitely not what I mean." A pause. "Everyone dies eventually. It's just a matter of when. We're all equally unlucky in that regard. What I mean is... They didn't leave their choices in life up to luck. When something good, or bad, happened - they didn't treat it as meaningless chance."

"Okay, then. What do you think about that?"

"It's hard for me to completely agree. Sometimes, there's no reason to anything. You're just lucky, or unlucky. But…"

The stars again, just the two of them and the stars. Tifa reaches for him suddenly, hands falling over his.

"Cloud…" She wants to say she is sorry for pressing him about this.

He holds her gaze hostage, and when he speaks, it's with unintentional force.

"Tifa. I'm okay, I think. ... It's like I said before. I have you with me now."With a smile, his face softens, and her body uncoils. "That's my choice, for us."

She reaches up to brush strands of hair from his face; he covers her hand with his own he leans into her palm, his breath against her skin.

"You've seen the ugliest parts of me. But you're still here."

An old ache blooms in her chest. "I'm still here."

He closes his eyes.

"I used to wonder," he begins to say, while pressing a gentle kiss to the inside of her wrist.

She feels her toes curl in pleasure. "What?"

"What made you so strong."

She frowns, thinking suddenly of all her own darkest moments.

"Cloud, I'm not strong."

He laughs quietly. "No, you are. I know you. And you're strong. Stronger by far than me."

"Cloud…"

He continues, somberly: "I used to think... it was something that you had that I didn't. That I had to earn it, and show you that I was worthy of it. Which was both true and not true, I think. You knew something, belonged to something that I didn't - it was out of my reach because I kept it there, all these years, and-"

She pulls his face to hers in a tender kiss. Chaste, at first - but she can't help herself, and she quickly deepens the kiss and tastes him. When she releases him, she's grinning like a child with a hand in a cookie jar and he's already reaching greedily for the rest of her, eyes lidded and glassy with lust.

"Well." She kisses him again as his hands snake up her bare legs, skimming skin and leather in equal measure. "Whatever it is of mine that you're going on about, it's yours now, too. So you can stop moping about it."

His hands pause over her hips, fingers curling just so under the hem of her skirt. His bottom lip juts out. "I'm not moping."

She raises an eyebrow playfully, and he tugs her into his lap; she grazes his straining erection with her core, and he groans and keens against her. She pulls her bra and tank off, shivering in pleasure as the breeze meets flesh. Beneath her, Cloud feels warm and eager and alive.

"... So, I was thinking we need to finish this conversation somewhere else," he chuckles through his throat, teeth grazing her skin.

Tifa wraps her arms around him and laughs softly, stifling the sound in his hair so as not to wake Barret. He's already starting to kiss the trail of her old scar, winding between her breasts - each one a soft, gentle act of worship. His eyelashes flutter against her skin, and Tifa's heart is absolutely brimming.

"You were still wanting to finish the conversation?" she asks in a joyful whisper.

With his face buried, Cloud smiles.



𖣘


"Oh, Cloud, where did you find this strength?"

No one is going to fucking taunt him anymore. Least of all himself.

All along the crust of wasteland between the cliff and the steel bones, vapors of gravel blow in his face with the wind. Cloud refuses to cough. His footprints follow him like a long shadow, fading, into the past and into the future. Zack's sword burns in his hands.

The shadow in his mind purrs like an engine, like a train growling and whining and burning behind glass, warping like faces. A man with a gun on an arm lights up the dark with star-shaped bullets, dark suits file out of doors and disappear into ruins, someone reaches for him as he falls. A woman in red and pink is silent as she dies.

"Just like you." To be so weak.

This is not weakness.

A man moves down from the sky, silver like a sword, enshrined by the clouds, a blaspheme in the name of all that was ever holy, and into the hole of the earth, a scourge in the body, pestilence and plague. Cloud drives Zack's sword through that gasping flesh, watching blood spurt across pale teal glass. The head doesn't roll.

"Wake up!"

With a click of the tongue, a wicked blade runs him through, but instead of choking on his own blood, he pulls himself further onto the length of steel, seeing through the horizon of everything else, hanging onto the only thing he can.

There is pain, no death, no time or space for any other thought - everything is stripped away, and only one thing remains. He throws his enemy into the green abyss below them.

Three times, three times, three.

"Wake ... up!"

Afterward, he opens his eyes on a table, guts bare and breathing, hanging onto this thing he's found. A snarl with glasses is there - a name and a laugh that fills him with sickness and shame - and Hojo wrenches into him and moves through his insides and changes something in his body, over and over, and Cloud feels cyclically powerless. But he doesn't let go of his strength, even when it sleeps.

A secret lies on a sea bed beneath the dark. Someone puts his hands in fists, formed from clay on worn steps. A fog. He peers through space time, walking with ghosts. A ringing in his ears, like a phone unanswered, a plea for help ignored, and the scar on his body spreads like the years.

"So this is the one," Hojo says, flipping back the crusted fabric along Cloud's uniform to expose the gaping wound at his core.

"You killed my Son, did you? No mako enhancements or exposure to Jenova cells, it seems. Just a nobody."

Another voice says, "The dog-tags say PV2 Cloud Strife, Nibelheim. No religious affiliation. Age 16."

Hojo sinks a gloved finger into the blood and studies his its viscosity when he toys with it.

"Interesting. What is the secret to your strength, I wonder?"

Fuck you, Cloud hisses, just as his vision fades.

He hears Hojo's laugh. "You'll make a fine specimen, then. Take them both; let's get to work."

But even under the invasion of body and mind, under indescribable pain, even when all else is crowded out - through slitted eyes, he sees someone clasp his hands, shoulders trembling with tears, dark hair spilling over a lumpy bed, wheelchairs spinning, and he moves forward towards that voice and that hope and the fire in those eyes.

Rising beyond the desert track, Midgar casts a shadow over the outpost. Cloud collapses in front of the great iron beast, the whistle sounding; the trainman frowns with a wondering eye.

Static on the radio speaks about Shinra subduing an escaped madman and his accomplice. Cloud tries to drown it out with his own voice, another man's words merging with his own memory.

"-I - know a girl in the city, there's a girl there, a girl-"

A little old man from Kalm - a Shinra employee of one sort or another - takes pity on Cloud and gives him access to the train.

"Here, use my card, son, here, just take it and go on - you look like you need to get into that city more than I do."

For one moment, Cloud stands and looks at the man, one foot on the platform and the other foot on the train, before he finally turns into the car and staggers to a seat.

He rides in the belly of the train for miles and miles, out of the burning sun for the moment but still aflame all the same, only seeing footprints and mud and words as they use themselves up like clouds, 'cause this train he is riding is bound for glory, he knows, he just knows it - it just has to be - even if it looks like it's leading him into the heart of the poison pipe itself, only to dangle again in chains - it just has to be, because if he hangs on long enough, maybe it will carry him away from this place, to freedom, to - and then he'll -

He'll ride it until he dies and they have to throw his stinking body out the back and the Planet will have to eat his spirit again and again, because it had almost taken that in getting here, and fuck it if he was going to demand any less of himself now. This ticket has been bought with blood, so he'll just float on down the stream until he meets the river, where he'll see the faces that conquered death - rising out of the dark like a tremor from the beginning, green like memory, burning rust like all that is true, coming back with a promise to build a water tower all the way to the fucking stars.

Just keep riding it, following it, until the end of the line -



֎


He enters her dreams in the morning, he stands in the back of her head, framed by the doorway of her old room in Nibelheim, blue eyes lingering even after all else fades. Her eyes are puffy, and she almost misses him before he disappears. There are stairs - her stairs? No, steps of iron, a trail of blood into a burial chamber lined with evil faces - but he is there, too, just like he said he'd be, but his face becomes a reflection in a puddle of soot. And then he is no longer a boy, and they are no longer in Nibelheim - he's in their bed, beside her, looking at her with peace in his eyes.

She wakes before the light and can hear him downstairs already.

He's up early.

The bedsheets beside her are achingly cold, undisturbed. So he hadn't been in here, with her. Her heart sinks a little, and she curses dreams.

She stifles the desire to get up and make him some coffee.

It's quiet enough already; I don't need him throwing it in my face.

She buries her nose beneath the Gongaga quilt and waits for him to leave. She waits for a while, but eventually, she hears his bike pull away.

She can't sleep after that, even though she tries for an hour. Deciding that she might as well get something of a head start on the day herself, she plods down the hall. Marlene is still sound asleep, so she leaves her door cracked and goes downstairs. The bar is dim, still - customers won't be arriving for several hours, so she has plenty of time to clean, plenty of time to get things together.

Get it together.

Her eyes fall both on the immaculate sink and on the drying rack full of washed dishes next to it. Which is great, except that she had definitely left an enormous pile of dirty dishes in the sink last night - the bar had been exceptionally busy the previous evening, even into the late hours, and she had been too tired at the end of it to finish up the chores. Cloud himself had arrived home and found a few people milling around the tables, in fact.

Cloud.

A tiny smile creeps over her face as she approaches the sink. She gingerly picks up a cleaned dish. It's still wet.

He... did the dishes.

She turns the dish over in wonder.

He's never done the dishes before.

Not like this, not without prompting, without... assistance. The shy grin grows bolder.

And it shows. He's missed a spot on this one.

She picks up another. ...And this one, too.

And, oh, and this one.

Soon, she is picking up all the dishes and scouring them for evidence of his work, until she realizes with a pang that she's looked at all the dishes, and then with mounting intensity she looks at them again, desperate for something, anything now, and before she knows it, tears are streaming down her cheeks, and she puts the last one back on the counter and slumps against it, letting her head weep into her arms, her hair filling the sink, her sobs pouring into the drain.

Cloud-

And then the phone rings, wrenching her from tears. She staggers across the counter, fumbles for it, and answers.

"H-hello? Who is this?"



֎


"Do you remember the promise we made?"

The nurses tell her he can't hear her, let alone remember anything of his former life. They say he's in a persistent vegetative state - that he has no meaningful function in important higher regions of his brain - and that he has been in one ever since they found him, before Tifa came to Mideel.

"Our suspicion is it's due to severe Mako poisoning."

Tifa feels her heart twisting. He's awake - but he's not there. He can't make contact with her, and she can't make contact with him.

She can tell that the nurses feel sorry for her, that the doctor wants to help, but all the same, they're matter-of-fact about it. She can't blame them, though. They can't take their eyes off the swollen sky - there is more on their minds than the status of a doomed patient. Meteor is coming. It is the end of the world, maybe - so what if Cloud ever speaks again?

"The poor dears - he has no higher cognition."

Tifa closes her eyes and pretends she can't hear them.

"All that Mako - I'm surprised he's even breathing. She's sweet to stay here, with him, but really, she might as well move on. None of us have any time left…"

"Well, then again, where has she to go? Where can any of us go? You just have to keep going until you can't anymore. So! Come on, ladies, get back to work - unless any of you want to cut out of here. I won't hold it against you."

Tifa keeps talking to Cloud, however, and after awhile, the nurses stop talking about it, but her insides remain as infected as ever with their words.

When she'd decided not to return to the Highwind with the others, no one had anything to say. When they left her with Cloud, Yuffie had hugged her goodbye, and Nanaki and pushed his head under her hand. Cid looked at her with pity, with fear, probably thinking about Shera. Cait Sith whimpered, and Vincent shook his head.

The one she turns over in her mind is Barret. He didn't actually say anything to her, but when he stopped at the door on his way out, his eyes had been plenty loud.

What kind of person gives up on the whole damn Planet for someone who gave up on himself? He's as good as dead, Tifa. Maybe it's time to bury him.

She had felt like Barret was being cruel, but later, she doesn't think that way. She hadn't then, but later, she considers Marlene. Of course Barret was thinking about Marlene. She forgives him immediately, because all she was thinking about was Cloud.

Cloud's head lolls, eyes glazed like marbles, and a disconcerting smell comes and goes when he opens his mouth. The nurses tell her it's part of the Mako poisoning, an unpleasant side effect of the inflammation of the gods-knows-what-if-she-was-in-a-state-of-mind-to-remember-it. She simply checks the information under Cloud's gone.

They keep him plugged into a machine most of the time, sensors stuck to his brain and his body, monitoring him. His condition doesn't respond to Cure spells, or any other kind of Healing materia. It doesn't respond to conventional medicine. He can't swallow food, so they insert a long feeding tube into his mouth that Tifa helps maintain. He has trouble keeping it in, and if the world wasn't about to end and rend it all meaningless, they told Tifa they might consider the minor surgery necessary to insert it directly into his stomach, but Tifa begs them to wait on being that intrusive.

His fluid levels drop each day, and they put an IV in and out of him. Tifa is never hungry, never wants to eat what the nurses bring her, but she tries. She and a nurse help him from the bed to his wheelchair every couple of hours, trying to keep him from physically declining. The worst of it is the catheter, and the prevailing smell of urine that she can't escape, but eventually, everything becomes a routine for Tifa, a routine she practices like she had with her music as a child, or her martial arts training as a young woman - all under the turning of the sun.

Tifa waits for the nurses to give this all up - the world is ending, and yet, they stay, doing their jobs. Cloud's life is over, and yet, they keep maintaining it. Tifa tries to keep her upper lip as stiff as she can. She's often too tired for words, but she won't give them up.

The sun set an hour ago, but the glow from Meteor casts a red light through the windows of the clinic. Tifa leans in close to Cloud.

"Cloud... that night... I know you remember it. You promised you'd always come for me... whenever I was in trouble."

Ironically, she's never felt more vulnerable - never been more in need of saving - than she is at that very moment, tethered to a man drowning, a man the rest of the world has stopped seeing as a whole person. But, as vulnerable as she feels, he is far worse off, and he is not coming for her this time, not coming to save her.

She reaches for his hand; it's cold, so she breathes on it, and when that isn't sufficient, she lays her cheek against it.

"Well, I'm still holding you to that, you know."

She tries to smile for him, but she is too tired.

"Just because you're... like this... well, you're not getting out of this one, mister. I'm not going anywhere until you snap out of this."

He bows forward, his face inches from her, and mumbles nonsense. She can't look into his blank eyes. She has been constantly fighting her fear that the nurses are right, and for Cloud's sake, she won't believe such horror.

"But, you know, a promise works two ways. I was really thinking about that, about a lot of things. About... about what this, you, what you really are to me."

With those words, she looks up - not into his face, because she is afraid, but at his collarbone - something safe at which to direct her resolve.

"I don't think I really knew ... until... until, you'd left us - in the Northern Crater - I didn't know 'til then how much I'd come to depend on you."

His head drops beneath hers.

"Before you came along, I didn't really need anybody, you know? I mean, sure, okay, you need people in your life, but you know what I mean. I managed without needing one single person. I'd lost my parents, I'd lost my home, I'd lost my identity. I had nothing else to lose, and I was doing just fine. I had found Barret, and Marlene, and Biggs, Wedge, Jessie. I had Johnny, even - and many of the people in Sector Seven. I had the bar. AVALANCHE. And I had my rage against Shinra that kept me going.

"But then, here you are, one day, dropped off by a train, and suddenly, all those things I'd lost - I felt them coming back, through what I thought I knew of you. That person I used to be, that life I used to have... I gotta admit, I... I think I used you, in that way. When you came back, I started to see how consumed with revenge I'd become, and ... could I really live with myself, like that?

"To make it worse, none of what you said about our past made any sense. You were wrong about a lot of things, ... but even worse, you were right about so many wrong things. You really weren't the Cloud I once knew, not really, but I didn't want to believe that, because, well, who was I, then? How true were these fragments of my own memories, if I couldn't trust your own? Who are you? You never gave me an answer. And I never had one I could give to you, either.

"I'm... so sorry. After we lost you in the Crater, Barret kept telling me that I was crazy for falling apart like I did - that it's not how the Tifa he knows would act - and I'm thinking, 'yeah, of course it's not how the Tifa you know would act, Barret.' I'm crazy. I'm stupid. I made a little boy promise to come for me, to come back for me. And he did."

Her eyes darken.

"And he didn't."

Light cuts through the blinds, falling across Cloud's hair. As he rocks himself, the light moves over his form like a spring. His hands fall against her arms, loose and aimless. She cries openly in his lap.

"But you know what? I gave my heart to that boy."

She shakes her head and laughs through her tears.

"Maybe I know why, but maybe I don't. Either way, Tifa Lockhart, you're nuts. I feel nuts. But, Cloud, it's the truth. I gave it to you, of all people."

For just one moment, she thinks she feels his hands twitch, his breath hitch, but it's gone as quickly as it comes. She keeps speaking, hoping for another response.

"I ... Okay. So, it's official now. I'm giving my heart to you, to all of you. Cloud Strife. Vegetable or no. It doesn't matter to me."

The honest truth is that I cannot bear to parted from you, now that I've found you, whole or in pieces.

I don't care what that makes me - weak or strong, devoted or stupid - but I can't hide from this any longer. Let the others worry about the Planet. Let the others take care of the world.

How can I keep a promise to the world if I can't even honor the one we made to each other?

"It didn't happen all at once, okay, but... it happened. So, here I am, because of it."

Silence follows her words. Cloud's head snaps like a doll falling off a child's bed, and Tifa closes her eyes. She does something then she hasn't done since she was a child - since her mother died. She prays - but not to a higher power, or to the Planet. She prays to herself.

"… And ... if I can come save you this time, somehow, some way, then let it be."

In the other room, she can hear the nurses and the doctor rustling papers, peeking through blinds, speaking to one another, their voices growing in a steady drone. She looks away from Cloud, color draining from her cheeks.

"Listen to me gush," she says, wiping her eyes. "It's really silly, yeah. Maybe I'm beginning to believe that you can't hear me after all, Cloud."

Regardless of what she believes, she is there the next morning when they begin their routine anew, and the next morning, and the next. She is there until, weeks later, Weapon attacks. The sky bursts open like rotten fruit and the earth parts like hair beneath her feet and beckons her into the undying river where all things are opened up in full.

She doesn't know it then, but her prayer has been answered.



𖣘

|

֎


All these years, he's managed - against everything - to hold back the open mouth into his mind. But now the broken glass is coming together, the pieces in the water are floating up, and the conductor of the psyche is waiting as his orchestra tunes itself. Hands are brushing against his face, a gentle caress. A melody on the piano, wafting from the window.

A dark-haired girl, bruised knuckles and breath heaving, and a lonely little boy, skinned knees and bloodied lip, standing across the meadow.

A blue dress and a blonde head under the stars, water tower. A promise. Blood on the reactor floor, a caress of the face. Light from the last train, grinning blade.

Sad, green eyes, just beyond reach.

A dark head of hair, trying so, so hard to make one last right choice.

Every gleam of the that head, every graze of that body, a touch to light a hundred suns -

- he feels them.

And -

-he feels her.

Presence in the absence of all others, abandoned even by one's self - and still, possessing a will to love until the ending of days.

Standing affixed to the eye of his mind, he is filled with the intimate knowledge of a voice calling out his name. His name.

I know you.

He might not have known himself then, but she knew him. How could he have ever believed that he had been alone?

I know your voice. You are calling out my name.

The orchestra is in tune, and a song begins. As soon as it does, he realizes it's Tifa, playing the piano. The orchestra is one sound, one instrument, and it almost sounds like a voice.

I am calling out your name, too.

For this one last moment, the first moment they are truly alone with one another, all of that falls away, to shatter like the earth into the great stream of green and light.

I guess nothing's changed at all.

I want to say so much, but I don't know the words.

Tifa stands apart from Cloud, turned away. The night wind is cold, and she shivers.

"Cloud," she whispers, looking just over her shoulder. "No more words."

He doesn't wait long to close the distance. His arms are around her, she's turning around, and he's kissing her for the very first time. Soft, uncertain, hopeful. She touches him, and his heart bursts with joy.

Everything's changed.

We're not alone. We're together.

I have you, and you have me.

They're in the grass, and it's itchy and cold but they both don't care, and the water tower is in his mind, up and up through the window to the stars where she is, where they both are now. The past and the present are an illusion, and this moment lasts forever.

And for that moment, in that moment, they know-



𖣘


"Do you love me?"

Many suns bring him to the doors where he feels like knocking, but he knows that it wouldn't make any difference - there's no need to knock here. These doors are always heavy, always dark, but they greet him like old friends now. The pews behind them are always empty. Aeris's church. It is not a lonely place.

This is love.

Many suns, many footsteps, all to see light streaming over the lilies that grow here. He thinks of Tifa, her hand clasped firmly in his, her laughter alongside his own, her eyes as she meets his. He thinks of Marlene, her legs dangling over bar stools and chocobo trains scribbled on paper and bouncy pink ribbons. He thinks of Barret, zealous and eager to share - of Elmyra, jaw rigid with determination, shouldering her own pain, but still reaching out to others. He remembers his mother - her smile, the softness of her embrace.

And Zack, and Aeris -he carries them everywhere he goes, but they are strongest here, in this place. What memories they would have made here? He can see the sky here through the church rafters now, complete and uncompromising. No more plate. No more darkness, until the stars come.

Nothing is perfect, but maybe things can be all right. He is just one man among many, and the Planet keeps turning night to day, and the rain makes the flowers grow.

Love's nature is that it begets love, not that it begs for retribution or recompense - not that it worries it will disappear in a moment's notice; not that it submits to fear and despair.

When he returns to it, he finds a boy, collapsed here by his motorcycle. Cloud's phone lies just beyond the boy's outstretched hand. He's hurt, or sick, or starving - or all those things.

You choose it everyday, over and over, until your choices on this earth are done.

The boy should weigh more than Marlene, but he isn't anything more than scraps of cloth and grime and bony limbs with a heaving chest. He is unconscious now, but a moment ago, his eyes had fluttered open and he had clawed savagely a thick, oozing substance trailing from his forehead and into his vision and he had wept in open despair.

Cloud feels anxious to touch him, not knowing what ails the child, but he picks him up anyway; if he doesn't move him, the boy will surely die.

Love demands struggle, love commands submission.

Love is to outlast, to commit beyond question, to surrender and reveal the self, to join in communion, to defy death and live forever-

Before standing, before reaching for his fallen phone, he holds the boy to him, trying to keep him from struggling. He's afraid. The boy finally relents and the two of them crouch by Cloud's motorcycle. Cloud feels the sun warm the back of his head.

A tremor runs through the child and Cloud wipes away grime from the small, weary face.

Cloud looks from the boy to the open phone, whose screen is lit up by his feet. He hears a woman's voice, frantic, on the line.

Love let you live again.

Love saved you, guided you, even when you did not know its face, or its force.

It brought you back here.

Now, what will you do next?

The soft breath of the earth and sky rolls across them both as Cloud clutches the boy, as he reaches for the phone, as he slowly stands, as he answers, "Tifa-"

 

 

 

 

 

Fin

 

 

 

 

 

"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about."
―Rumi

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author's Note & Acknowledgements

Someone I love, upon reading an early draft of this fic, finished it and said only, "Why did you write this?" That first draft was a hot, confusing mess - emotionally raw and open in a way I wanted to hide but couldn't sufficiently obscure. The question stung at the time, but it was a meaningful one to me in the years that followed, because it kept me determined to work it to a place where the question was rendered meaningless.

I wrote this initially in 2009, during a time when I was suffering from a crescendo of mental illness, physical health problems, and financial insecurity. I was desperately seeking a way out, and this fic was one of many outlets. It is wholly and entirely self-indulgent in that regard.

Final Fantasy VII has been special to me since I first played it over twenty-two years ago. The inner struggles of the main characters resonated with me and I have continued to reflect back on them as the years pass. I wanted to pay homage to the game, and while I liked Case of Tifa (and tolerated Advent Children / AC:C), I felt both lacking in emotional relevance. So, this fic was born.

I sat on the first draft for several years before, having come to a place of some inner stability, I decided to rework it and post it online. That was in 2013. There it sat, on two different fan fiction sites, for nine years, until 2020, when I played the FFVII: Remake and decided I had horribly mixed feelings about it (very strong, horribly mixed feelings, to be specific). I eventually re-read this fic, thinking that I had nothing else to say, and that it was a complete work. I was wrong - I had room for a little more.

So, here it is. I've added 16,000+ words and reworked a lot of pieces that either felt incomplete or wrong. If you're an old reader revisiting this, I would like to that you for your time. The kudos, faves, and reviews I've received on the earlier version have all made me more happy than you can ever know.

I would also like to thank Yinza for their FFVII script, which has been a priceless tool in checking and re-checking story events for OG accuracy (and has been much easier to use than my own drafted-by-hand transcripts). (PS - I love your art/fic work!)

And lastly, I'd like to thank my husband, for basically telling me what the hell over a decade ago - and for being my steadfast best friend, confidante, and partner in life. There ain't no getting off this train we on!

Love, Seimei