Tifa peeked into the house before stepping the rest of the way in. "Elmira? You home?"
Elmira came down the stairs and gave Tifa a sad smile. "Hello, Tifa. How are you today?"
"Im " Tifa rubbed her shoe against the back of her leg and stared down at the floor as she clasped her hands behind her back. "Well, Im looking for Cloud." She glanced at Aeris mother out of the corner of her eye. "You seen him?"
"He didnt stop by here, no." Elmira busied herself at the stove with the teapot. "Hes probably at the church again."
Tifas shoulders sagged as she nodded and her hands dropped to her sides. "Yeah. I kinda figured that."
Elmira was silent for several moments before she turned with a haunted expression. "Give him time, dear. Aeris had a talent for working her way into a persons soul."
Tifa nodded again and turned for the door. "I know."
Tifa 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. That future looked pretty bright.
"For the planet, anyway," she mumbled.
People from the slums had begun leaving Midgar to begin farms, ranches, and vast forests in order to help nurture the planet back to health. After all, how else could they repay a planet that had saved the entire human race from a madman? 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.
Barret had done a lot to set the wheels in motion, in fact. And Nanaki, fondly known as Red, had brought the knowledge of his grandfather to all that were willing to listen. While Vincent and Yuffie had disappeared as abruptly as they had joined, Cid was holed up somewhere near Rocket Town designing new farming techniques that would use machinery to help the planet instead of damage it. Everyone seemed to be doing his or her part.
Tifa shook her head and headed in the direction of the old church outside
Sector 5 where Aeris had grown her flowers. She knew that Cloud had been
a vital role in the saving of the planet, so in a way he had done more than
his share. But he had changed so much since the final confrontation with
Sephiroth. Oh, he would help Red increase environmental awareness, and lend
a hand when Barret needed help starting another farming community, but his
heart was never truly there.
Cloud was 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? And that was the million-gil question. Every time she saw Cloud, which wasnt often, he seemed to avoid her. Hed say a brief hello and make sure she was okay, but then he would leave Nibelheim with a long look behind him at the well. A look that often puzzled her. Maybe it was the type of expression. Maybe it was the way his hands were balled into fists when he looked at it.
"Maybe I'm paranoid."
Tifa grimaced as she paused outside the church. She looked up at it with a deep breath. 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 always so honest. I always flub it by chickening out just before Im gonna confess all. Although, 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 bloom in his fingers. He stared at it long and hard, yet with a distinctly distant expression on his face. Tifa watched him for a long moment. His blue eyes seemed to glow a little less than before, but his blonde hair was still as spiky as ever. The memory of that hair had kept a smile on her face while hed 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 whispered.
He looked up from the flower. "Hey."
She came to sit on the broken flooring by the edge of the flowerbed and wrapped her arms around her knees. "It always smells so pretty in here, doesnt it?"
He nodded absently and stared back down at the flower. "Smells like her."
Tears pricked at Tifas eyes and she tightened the grip around her knees. She didnt know whether she was crying because she missed her friend, or because Cloud looked like he missed her more than all of them. Except maybe Elmira.
The silence that fell over the two was broken only by the occasional hummingbird whizzing past their heads with a blur of wings and tail. Cloud leaned back on an elbow and gently tossed the flower toward Tifa. It landed in her lap and she stared down at it in surprise before picking it up and sending him a puzzled glance.
"You look like you need it."
All Tifa could do was swallow hard, her throat tightening around any kind
of thank you.
One side of Clouds lips tilted in a brief smile and then he looked away, instinctively plucking another flower.
"I came here once and thought I saw her right over there." He gestured a few steps away and then turned his eyes to the flower. "Who would have thought a flower girl would be a threat to the Sephiroth?" Cloud shook his head. "Who would have thought a failed experiment would save the planet?" His voice was quiet and he moved to lay back in the flowers, his eyes closed.
Words by the hundreds rose and died on Tifas lips. "Cloud "
"I know. I know. I escaped the experiment because of Zack and wasnt ever a failure "
Tifa nodded and then looked down at the flower she clutched in her trembling fingers. "Do you remember the last time you gave me a flower?" she whispered.
"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. "It made me feel so so much like a girl when you gave me that flower."
Cloud propped himself up on his elbows and sent her a funny look. "What?"
"Because I can fight, the guys of AVALANCHE usually forgot that I wasnt 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 isnt going the way I wanted it to. She let out an exasperated breath and glanced over at him to catch him 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 and she looked over at him. "What do you mean?"
He stood, careful not to trample any of the flowers, and made his way to her side. He sat beside her and gave her the other blossom. "Everyone always looks at me like Im some kind of god or something. When I come here I can be me."
"Why cant you do that at Nibelheim?" Tifa stared at the two flowers on her lap and took in a slow breath.
"Not ready yet."
Tifa caught his eyes. "Because of your mom dying there?"
He shook his head, his blonde spike bobbing with the movement. "No. I dont know why yet."
"Is that why you come here? Youre trying to figure it out?"
He shrugged and leaned back on an elbow, the toe of his boot brushing her leg as he did. "Sorry."
"I dont know if Im trying to figure anything out. Maybe."
"So, its not because you blame yourself for Aeris dying?" Clouds lips tightened, but he only shrugged. "I remember her saying once that you were her bodyguard," Tifa continued.
"Yeah. Thats how it started. Thats how we really met. Right here. When I fell "
Tifa nodded and then laid on her stomach beside him, her ankles crossed in the air as she gently displayed the flowers on the floorboards in front of her. "Did you ever think that when Sephiroth started hurting you she decided to be your bodyguard?" Cloud didnt say a word. "Think about it for a second. Youd been risking your life for her all that time Then she got the chance to return the favor. Id say she loved you a lot to go to all that trouble."
Cloud was still quiet and Tifa sent him a quick glance only to catch him watching her. She quickly looked back down at the flowers.
"Tifa, whyd you come all the way here from Nibelheim?"
Tifa shrugged and then rolled over onto her back to stare at the crumbling ceiling of the church, the sunlight filtering through in sparse patches. She put her hands behind her head. "I hadnt 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 shed arranged on the floorboards. "You okay?"
He nodded and then caught her eyes. "You wanna go for a walk or something?"
Cloud stood before she could answer, scooping the two flowers in one hand as he helped her up with the other. Tifa looked at him in surprise for a moment and then dropped her eyes as she straightened her skirt. When she felt a gentle grip take her hand, she met his eyes again.
"You okay with that?"
Tifa could only nod and 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 moving from the spot in the sunlight.
"I guess I come here to talk to her."
Tifa looked up. "What?"
Cloud turned to look at the flower patch and his grip tightened on Tifas. "When Im here I can figure things out better. Its like shes there, helping me think things through."
"What kind of things?"
"Life. Living." Cloud shrugged. "Love. Things like that."
Love Tifa cringed. "Oh."
Cloud looked at her and then chuckled as he 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 didnt let go. "Dont 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 made her chest hurt. "Yeah."
Tifa stopped trying to free her hand 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 shook his head. "Nope."
"I said no. Those arent why. Not even close."
Im gonna be sick "Fine. Does it matter?"
Cloud nodded. "She seems to think it does."
"She?" Tifa dropped her eyes, already knowing the answer.
"Aeris." Cloud paused. "The part of me that was living like Zack was the part that was 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. I could tell when he talked about her. And I think I remember her saying something about me and him being alike I liked her, sure. Didnt everybody? But loving her was because I was trying to be him without knowing it." He paused again and squeezed her hand. "Does this make sense?"
Tifa let her mind absorb the information and then looked up at him with a wary expression. She couldnt make herself say a word for fear of bursting into tears.
"I came to Midgar seven years ago to impress YOU, Tifa. Then all that crap with Sephiroth happened and I got a little sidetracked " He grinned. "Youve been great through this whole end of the world thing. A real friend when everyone else had given up on me. You didnt even let the thing between me an 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 thank-you."
"Your welcome," she whispered.
Zack and Aeris. Clouds lost memories. Zacks stories in Clouds mutilated mind. Tifa frowned and looked away. It couldnt be as easy as that, could it? His feelings for Aeris couldnt be explained away as a residual emotion of Zack Could they? Tifa turned away, but the grip on her hand tightened and Cloud pulled her into his arms. She looked up at him with wide eyes.
"Ive been in love with you since we were eight years old, Tifa," he said softly. "You and Aeris helped me remember that."
His blue eyes twinkled with his smile and Tifa realized that she had never seen him smile before. Hed always been distant and somber. Never finding joy in the activity around him. Never hearing the laughter that bubbled from the children that now played in the gardens popping up all over Midgar.
"Tifa, why did you come all the way over here from Nibelheim 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 " Clouds smile widened. "Whatd I say?"
"See? Youre always thinking about how I am. How Im feeling. How Im doing under 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, more vegetable than man."
He chuckled and it sounded very real.
"Tifa, you could have died when you fell into the Lifestream. Instead of getting out of there when Cid and the others did, you tried to get me out. Then you helped me put my memories back together."
"I couldnt exactly leave you there," she whispered as she watched his smiling lips.
"The others did."
Tifa forced herself to catch his gaze. "What are you saying?"
"I was hoping youd tell me."
Tifa swallowed hard. "Tell you what?" she whispered. Aeris, you were always so much better at this
Cloud stared down at her for several moments, his gaze traveling from her eyes to her lips several times before he pulled her a little closer. "I think you know."
"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. Clouds arms pulled her closer and then he was pushing her away.
"No," he said in a strange voice. "No, Tifa. Youre 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 of their own will. "I-I love you, Cloud."
He smiled down at her and then took hold of her hand again, picking the flowers up off the ground that shed dropped when kissing him. "Thanks, Tifa."
He put one of the flowers in her hair and the other in his. She stared up at him a moment and then laughed, wrapping her arms around him to rest her head on his chest. Cloud kissed her hair and they stood there, surrounded by light and the soft fragrance of Aeris flowers.