Tifa peeked around the door into the house. "Elmira?" She stepped the rest of the way in. "Elmira, you home?"
Elmira descended the stairs and gave Tifa a sad smile. "Hello, Tifa. How are you today? Would you care for some coffee? Or tea?"
"Sure." Tifa rubbed her shoe against the back of her leg and stared down at the floor. She clasped her hands behind her back. "I'm looking for Cloud." She glanced at Aeris' 'mother' out of the corner of her eye. "You seen him?"
"He didn't stop by here, no." Elmira busied herself at the stove with the teapot. "He's probably at the church."
Tifa's shoulders sagged. She nodded as her hands dropped to her sides. "Yeah. I kind of figured that."
Elmira stared at the teapot. Then she turned, and her expression seemed almost haunted. "Give him time, dear. Aeris had a talent for working her way into a person's soul."
Tifa turned away as her own soul twisted with hurt. "I know," she whispered.
She closed the door behind her with a sigh. Her eyes narrowed against the bright afternoon sunshine of Midgar. It had been only a few weeks since Meteor, Holy, and the Lifestream had fought over the future of the planet. Now that future looked pretty bright.
"For the planet, anyway," she mumbled.
People from the slums had started migrating from Midgar to begin farms and ranches. Mako Reactors all over had been shut down. Materia had been gathered from around the world and returned to the Lifestream. And everyone had decided to treat the planet with a little more respect. In fact, Barret had done a lot to set the wheels in motion. And Nanaki – fondly known as Red – had brought his grandfather’s knowledge to anyone willing to listen. Cid was even holed up somewhere near Rocket Town designing new machinery to help the planet instead of hurt it. How else could they repay a planet that had saved the entire human race from a madman?
Everyone but Cloud seemed to be doing his or her part.
Tifa shook her head, heading in the direction of the old church outside Sector 5 where Aeris had grown her flowers. Cloud had been a vital role in the saving of the planet at first. But he’d changed so much since that final confrontation with Sephiroth. Oh, he’d help Red increase environmental awareness, and he’d lend a hand when Barret needed help starting another farming community, but his heart was never really in it. Cloud had always seemed to be somewhere else.
Tifa kicked a rock and pulled at the hem of her skirt. So, where is he and how do I get him here? That was the million – gil question. Every time she saw Cloud, which wasn't often, he seemed to avoid her. He'd say a brief ‘hello’ and make sure she was okay, but then he’d leave Nibelheim with a long look behind him at the well. The look always puzzled her. Maybe it had been the expression. Maybe it had been the way his hands had balled into fists when he’d looked at it.
"Maybe I'm paranoid."
Tifa paused outside the church with a grimace. She breathed in deeply and looked up at it. Aeris, I always got the feeling that you and Cloud had no problems talking about stuff. Deep stuff. How come I can never do that? You were so honest. I always flub it by chickening out just before I'm gonna confess all. But when we were in the Lifestream together...
Tifa shook her head and quietly opened the door. Cloud was there, sitting in the middle of the flower patch twirling a pale flower bloom in his fingers. He stared at it long and hard, and yet his expression was distinctly distant. Tifa watched him with a slowly growing smile. His blue eyes seemed to glow a little less than before, but his blonde hair was still as spiky as ever. And the memory of that hair had kept a smile on her face while he'd been away from Nibelheim trying to join SOLDIER.
It was so... so him.
Tifa took in a slow breath and stepped forward. "Hey, Cloud," she said quietly.
He looked up from the flower, and one side of his lips tilted briefly upward. "Hey."
She sat on the jagged edge of the floor near the flowerbed and wrapped her arms around her knees. "It always smells so pretty in here, doesn't it?"
He nodded absently and stared back down at the flower. The smile disappeared. "Smells like her."
Tears pricked at Tifa's eyes, and she tightened the grip around her knees. "Yeah."
She didn't know whether she was crying because she missed the friend Aeris had become, or because Cloud looked like he missed her more. Maybe it was because she knew he came here to remind himself of Aeris and their time together. That he'd rather be at the church where he’d met Aeris then at Nibelheim where they grew up. Oh, I don't know, she thought with an inward moan. Maybe I'm just crying because... But she didn't really know. Emotion hadn't ever really been her strong suit. Not since her mom died.
So, the silence fell like a suffocating blanket. It was only broken by the occasional hummingbird whizzing past their heads with a blur of wings and tail. Tifa glanced over at him every once in awhile, but couldn't get her mind to think of anything to say that would cut the tension. She simply wasn't that brave.
Cloud leaned back on an elbow and gently tossed the flower toward her. It landed in her lap. She stared down at it in surprise before picking it up and sending him a puzzled glance.
"You look like you need it," he said softly.
All Tifa could do was swallow. Her throat tightened around any kind of 'thank you'. One side of Cloud's lips tilted in another brief smile. He looked away, instinctively plucking another flower.
"I came here once... and thought I saw her right over there." Cloud gestured a few steps away, and then he turned his eyes back to the flower. "It was kind of nice. She shouldn't have died... but when I saw her, it was like she wasn't really dead. It was like she was saying 'I'm here, just different.' Then she faded and I got to thinking. Why did it have to be her? She never did anything to deserve it. Then again, that was the point. Who would have thought a flower girl would be a threat to the Sephiroth?" Cloud shook his head. "Of course, who would’ve thought a failed experiment would save the planet?"
His voice was quiet, and he moved to lay back in the flowers with closed eyes.
Words by the hundreds rose and died on Tifa's lips. "Cloud..."
"I know. I know. I escaped the experiment because of Zack." He sighed. "I just wish things could’ve been different. That I could be the real me. That I could’ve been the one to keep Sephiroth from getting the Black Materia. That I could’ve been a hero instead of a coward. I wish a lot of things."
"Do you really think you're all those things?"
"You heard Hojo, Tifa."
"I know, but... but you've moved past all that. You stood up to Sephiroth and proved you weren't a coward. Then, when we were in the Lifestream... all those memories... I don't care what anyone says. I still believe you’re you. At least, not anymore than any of us trying to be something we're not."
Cloud looked over at her briefly. "I guess I started to feel sorry for myself. It's easy to do when you're alone."
Don’t I know it? Tifa looked down at the flower she clutched in her trembling fingers. "Do you remember the last time you gave me a flower?"
"It was after you and AVALANCHE blew up that first Midgar Reactor. Remember?"
"Oh yeah. I got it from Aeris. Some guy had knocked her down, and I went over to help her up..."
Tifa pushed away the hurt that came with the realization that even this memory was coupled with Aeris. She forced herself to go on. "It made me feel so... so like a girl when you gave me that flower."
Cloud propped himself up on his elbows to send her a funny look. "What?"
"Because I can fight, the guys of AVALANCHE usually forgot that I wasn't 'one of the guys'. When you gave me that flower..." Tifa brushed at a tear, and then self-consciously sniffed the flower. "Did I ever tell you this is my favorite kind?"
Cloud sat up and looked at the pale pink flower in his fingers, then over at her. "No."
"Well, it is."
Silence fell over the two again and Tifa chewed her lip. This isn't going the way I wanted it to. She let out an exasperated breath. When she glanced at him, he was watching her with a strange look on his handsome face. Tifa flushed and looked away.
"Why do you come here so much, Cloud?" She had to change the subject.
"I can relax here."
The answer surprised her. She looked over at him. "What do you mean?"
He stood and came to sit beside her, careful not to trample any of the flowers. He gave her the other blossom. "Everyone always looks at me like I'm some kind of god or something. I can be me when I come here."
Tifa stared at the two flowers on her lap and took in a slow breath. "Why can't you do that at Nibelheim?"
"Not ready yet."
Tifa caught his eyes. "Because of your mom dying there?"
Cloud shook his head. His blonde spike bobbed. "No. I don't know why."
"Is that why you come here? You're trying to figure it out?"
He shrugged and leaned back on an elbow. The toe of his boot brushed her leg. "Sorry."
Cloud took in a deep breath. "I don't know if I'm trying to figure anything out. Maybe."
"So, it's not because you blame yourself for Aeris dying?" Cloud's lips tightened, but he only shrugged. "I remember her saying once that you were her bodyguard," Tifa continued.
"Yeah. That's how it started. That's how we really met. Right here. When I fell..."
Tifa nodded. Then she laid on her stomach beside him. Her ankles crossed in the air as she carefully displayed the flowers on the floorboards in front of her. "Did you ever think that she’d decide to be your bodyguard when Sephiroth started hurting you?" Cloud didn't say a word. "Think about it for a second. You'd been risking your life for her all that time. Then she got the chance to return the favor. I'd say she loved you a lot to go to all that trouble."
Cloud stayed quiet. Tifa sent him a quick glance and caught him watching her. She quickly looked back down at the flowers.
"Tifa, why'd you come all the way here from Nibelheim?"
Tifa rolled over onto her back to stare at the crumbling ceiling of the church. The sunlight filtered through the sparse patches. She put her hands behind her head. "I hadn't seen you for awhile. I guess I wanted to make sure you were okay."
Tifa risked a look at him. He was staring at the flowers she'd arranged on the floorboards. "You okay?"
He nodded and caught her gaze. "You want to go for a walk or something?"
Cloud stood before she could answer, scooping up her two flowers in one hand as he helped her up with the other. Tifa looked at him in surprise for a moment, and then lowered her eyes as she straightened her skirt. She met his eyes again when she felt a gentle grip take her hand.
"You okay with that?"
Tifa could only nod, not knowing if he was asking her if it was okay he held her hand or okay they took a walk. He smiled as he presented her with the flowers again. She took them and stared down at the pale pink petals for a long moment. Neither of them moved from the spot in the gentle and warm sunlight.
"I guess I come here to talk to her."
Tifa looked up. "What?"
Cloud turned to look at the flower patch. His grip tightened on hers. "I can figure things out better when I'm here. It's like she's here helping me think things through."
"What kind of things?"
"Life. Living." Cloud shrugged. "Love. Things like that."
Love... Tifa cringed. "Oh."
Cloud chuckled and made a funny face. "What do you say it like that for?"
"Nothing. Never mind." She tried to free her hand from his grasp, but he didn't let go. "Don't worry about it."
"I loved Aeris, Tifa. Did you know that?"
Tifa felt the blood drain from her face, but she concentrated on trying to pull her hand from his. "Everyone knew that."
"Did you know why?"
The pain of the tears she held back made her chest hurt. "Yeah."
"Okay. Tell me why."
Tifa stopped struggling and looked up at him with a frown. "Because she was pretty. Because she was nice. Because she was a damsel in distress and needed a knight in shining armor."
Cloud was quiet for a long time, and then he shook his head. "Nope."
"I said no. Those aren't the reasons why. Not even close."
I'm going to be sick... "Fine. Does it matter?"
Cloud nodded. "She seems to think it does."
Tifa dropped her gaze, already knowing the answer. "She?"
"Aeris." Cloud’s hand gently squeezed hers. "I liked her, sure. Didn't everybody? She was sweet, like you said, and I'd never met anyone quite like her before. Who knows? I might have loved her, too. She was the first girl who made me look deep inside myself without blinking. I’d never owned up to who I was before. But, you know…"
Cloud lowered his eyes, "I think that the part of me living Zack’s life was the part that was really in love with her, Tifa. I mean, Zack and Aeris had been dating before... before he took that last mission. He really cared about her, too. I could tell when he talked about her. And I think I remember her saying something about me and him being alike. Maybe loving her was because I really did. But, then again, maybe I was just trying to be him without knowing it. Our memories kind of got tangled, remember?"
Cloud squeezed her hand again, raising his gaze to search her face. "Does this make sense?"
Tifa looked up at him with a wary expression. She couldn't make herself say a word for fear of bursting into tears.
"I came to Midgar seven years ago to impress you, Tifa. To make you notice me. Then all that crap with Sephiroth happened, and I got a little sidetracked..." He grinned. "You've been great through this whole 'end of the world' thing. You’ve been a real friend when everyone else had given up on me. You didn't even let the thing between me and Aeris chase you away. You kept being a friend. Giving me strength and hope when I needed it. Only problem was, I never got a chance to say ‘thanks’."
"You’re welcome," she whispered.
Zack and Aeris. Cloud's lost memories. Zack's stories in Cloud's mutilated mind. Tifa frowned and looked away. It couldn't be as easy as that, could it? His feelings for Aeris couldn't be explained away as Zack's... Could they? Tifa turned away, but the grip on her hand tightened. Cloud pulled her into his arms. She looked up at him with a startled expression and her eyes widened. He'd never done this before.
"I've been in love with you since we were eight, Tifa," he said softly. "You and Aeris helped me remember that."
His blue eyes twinkled with his smile. Tifa realized, then, that she’d never seen him smile before. He'd always been distant and somber. He hadn’t ever found joy in the stuff going on around him. He’d never heard the laughter bubbling from the children playing in the gardens popping up all over Midgar. Cloud had been like Sephiroth and Vincent... Tortured to the very core.
"Tifa, why’d you come all the way over here just to make sure I was okay?"
"Because I was worried," she said slowly. "You always had this weird look on your face when you came and went. I thought..." Cloud's smile widened and Tifa felt the butterflies rise up into her throat. "What'd I say?"
"See? You're always thinking about how I am. How I'm feeling. How I'm handling all the stress. Meteor was about to wipe out the human race and all you could think about was finding me. Then you stayed by my side when you guys found me in Mideel. I was more a vegetable than a man, but you didn’t care."
He chuckled and it sounded very real. "Instead of getting out of there when Cid and the others did, you tried to get me out. Don't you realize that you could’ve died when you fell into the Lifestream?"
"I couldn't exactly leave you there," she whispered as she watched his smiling lips.
"The others did." He brushed a hair out of her eye and cleared his throat. "Then you helped me put my memories back together, just like a little while ago. You just never give up on me."
Tifa forced herself to catch his gaze. "What’re you saying?"
"I was hoping you'd tell me."
Tifa swallowed hard. "Tell you what?" she whispered. Aeris, you were always so much better at this...
Cloud stared down at her. His gaze traveled from her eyes to her lips several times before he pulled her a little closer. "I think you know that already."
"I..." Her eyes focused on his smiling lips again and her thoughts scattered.
"Yes?" Cloud bent closer. "Say it."
"You first," she whispered.
"Nope. I already did."
Tifa could feel his breath on her lips, and he was still smiling. She liked it when he smiled. "Cloud... I... I..."
She threw her arms around his neck and pressed her lips against his, forcing herself to act before she lost the nerve. Cloud's arms pulled her closer, and then he was gently and firmly pushing her away.
"No," he said in a strange voice. "No, Tifa. You're going to say it. I want to hear it. No more guessing. No more games. I need to hear this."
The voice burst through her brain, and she found her lips moving on their own. "I-I love you, Cloud."
He smiled down at her. And then he took hold of her hand again, picking the flowers up off the ground that she'd dropped when kissing him. "Thanks, Tifa. I really needed to hear that."
He put one of the flowers in her hair and the other in his. She stared up at him, and then laughed as she wrapped her arms around him and rested her head on his chest. Cloud kissed her hair and they stood there, surrounded by light and the soft fragrance of Aeris' flowers.