Carnival Lights

By Wallwalker

Strung out below a necklace of carnival lights
Cold moan, held on the crest of the night...
I'm too tired to fight.

So now we're passing strangers at single tables
Still trying to get over
Still trying to write love songs for passing strangers
All those passing strangers

And the twinkling lies...
All those twinkling lies
Sparkle with the wet ink on the paper....

"Passing Strangers"

The Gold Saucer was quiet at night, when most of the children were asleep. Few people wandered the halls; most of them had found a destination already. It was unusual to see many people out there at night.

The steps that led to the Chocobo stadium were naturally empty, save for two people - a blond, spiky-haired man and a long-haired brunette. They would've looked like a perfectly normal couple, if it hadn't been for the anger and sadness on their faces; even the cheery music that constantly played in the Gold Saucer couldn't raise their spirits.

Tifa stared up at the sky, where the helicopter had been only a short time ago. Their key to the Temple of the Ancients was gone, stolen by a spy. Who would've thought that a goofy little cat-mog thing with no coordination and no common sense would turn out to be a calculating ShinRa spy? Now that sweet little girl that Tifa had cared for so often when Barret had been gone was in his hands... "Marlene..."

"That little bastard...!" Cloud had his hands both clenched into fists, looking as if he was about ready to punch someone in the face. He probably was; he'd been inclined to fight for as long as Tifa had known him. "If I ever find out who he is...!"

I doubt we ever will. He's not stupid enough to tell us who he is... we all thought he was an idiot, but it looks like he's not like that at all, if he was smart enough to get into our party without making us suspect him.... But she said nothing; she doubted that he'd want to hear it. She remembered hearing him say before that he trusted everyone... voicing her doubts out loud would be rubbing his mistake in his face.

Cloud finally stopped raging and shook his head. "We've got to head back. The others have gotta know about this."

"Yeah, go ahead," Tifa said quietly. She started to walk away.

"Tifa? What..? Where are you going??"

"For a walk. I need some time to myself..."

"No," Cloud said quickly. "There's a spy in our own party; who knows what else might be out here now? I can't let you go out alone!"

"I'll be fine, Cloud," she said quietly. "I don't think that there's going to be another big surprise tonight."

"And if there is?"

She looked back at him over her shoulder, desperately wanting to tell him that she was afraid, but worried that he would never be able to understand. "I can fight now," she answered. "If anything comes, I can take care of myself."

Cloud stared at her for a long moment. He seemed about to ask her something more, but then it all faded and flickered away. "Ok. Just try to come back soon."

"I will." Without another word she turned away again, sighing softly.

She didn't need to be protected. Part of her was starting to think that reminding Cloud of that promise he'd made her so long ago was a mistake; now he was acting like he wanted to make sure she'd never be in any trouble. That little girl that had made him promise to protect her if she ever needed it, that girl in the blue dress, had been a totally different person, nothing like the woman she'd become. She'd been weaker, still scared that the spirits that had come to her mother to take her away were going to take her too. But after that... she'd trained for so long, trying to learn how to defend herself, to stand on her own....

But what else could she have done? It was the only thing she could think of to keep him there. She'd been so desperate to keep him from leaving AVALANCHE, mostly because of her own curiosity; why would he claim to have seen her five years ago when it had really been seven?

I thought he'd gotten a knock on the head, she thought, shaking her head slowly. I thought that once I reminded him of everything, it'd be ok... I thought that everything was ok, when he told me he remembered that promise.

She didn't want to go back to the hotel. Not then. She didn't want to see Barret's reaction when he found out that Marlene had been kidnapped; she didn't want to admit that she hadn't been able to stop the spy from stealing the Keystone right from under their noses. Too much, it was all too much. And she was afraid that they'd think she was growing weaker...

Maybe she was. She'd been feeling so strange since Cloud had returned. Fright didn't seem like quite the right emotion, but it came close... and she was starting to rely on him, to take fewer risks when he wasn't around. She'd started to act the part that she'd given to him, that night in Sector 7. The sector's destruction - a tragedy that she'd been responsible for, that she'd triggered when she'd tried to disarm the bomb, much to the Turks' amusement - had sealed it, had made her even more afraid to act on her own. If I'd waited, and listened to him then... maybe they'd all still be alive...?

Too much.

Tossing her long black hair back, she started to run to one of the transport slides, to the same place that she and Cloud had just emerged from to see the traitor holding his prize. Round Square. Another ride around the park would give her time to think, at least. She leaped inside, bracing herself for the trip...

How did he make these things, anyway? The slide whirled her around and around, finally depositing her at the station for Round Square, the cable-car ride.

The attendant looked up in surprise as she approached. "You're back again! What happened to that young man?"

"He... had to go back," she said after a pause, deciding to tell the truth. "I just wanted to take another ride. I wanted to see the sights again."

That got her an understanding smile, although it was anyone's guess as to what the attendant understood. "Ah, of course! But... I'm afraid I'm going to have to charge you this time. That's 5 GP, for you."

Tifa nodded and pulled five of the little golden-plastic coins out of her pocket, then dropped them on the attendant's desk; the kindly old attendant nodded and gestured her onto the ride. "Ok, have fun, young lady."

"Thanks," Tifa replied absently before climbing into the car again. It seemed so much emptier without him....

The car shuddered as it started to move, slowly along the cable. The young woman just stared out the window at first, trying unsuccessfully to clear her mind.

I don't want to go back now... poor Marlene... Barret's going to be really upset, especially after watching that... Dyne, that man whom he said was his friend, go insane and kill himself... Everything's happening so fast!

The Gold Saucer was beautiful. But it didn't take her mind off of anything. Barret, Marlene - the poor little girl, Planet only knew what was going to happen to her now that she was caught in that spy's clutches - and Cloud. Especially not Cloud.

He'd promised to tell them all the truth in Kalm; he'd done the same thing just a few hours ago, for the people who hadn't been with them the first time. But he hadn't told them the truth. Tifa was the only one who had been there; she was the only one who knew, and she was too scared to say it, even to him.

Cloud hadn't been in Nibelheim five years ago. She couldn't explain how he'd known so much about what had happened, but she knew that he hadn't been there since that day she'd reminded him of, the day that she'd forced him to make that promise. A starry night... her sitting on the well in her blue dress, talking to him - such a little boy, so much smaller than he was now. She'd been so surprised when he'd called her; he'd never talked to her before, had only stood some ways off and stared...

She wanted to tell him how scared she was; she wanted to hear him say something that would make it make sense. But the words just wouldn't come.

Why can't I just say it? I was right before... Aeris wouldn't have any trouble in my place. She'd straighten him out in no time, and with a smile on her face... she'd want to help him....

Aeris was a lot more talkative than she had ever been, and a lot less embarrassed to admit her feelings. She'd told Tifa about the time they'd first met, and then the time that he'd fallen from the Reactor and landed practically in her arms. They'd laughed together as Aeris repeated what Cloud had called her - the "slum drunk" - and talked about how angry she'd been at him at first, how she'd taken so long to forgive him, even if it had been a joke.

It was no secret that she cared about him. Tifa had half-expected to find Cloud's room empty, and Cloud himself out with Aeris. She knew that he was infatuated with her too; it was obvious, written in the look in his eyes. She'd even waited, so that if her friend had wanted to go out with him, she'd get there first; there was no reason that Tifa couldn't have said what she wanted to say to Cloud at some other place, some other time. But apparently she hadn't...

I guess she was tired. After that whole mess in Wutai, and fighting that monster without any magic... she probably fell asleep as soon as she got to her room.

If Aeris was capable of falling in love with him... well, she was happy for the flower girl. She at least had the luxury of not knowing everything about the past - everything that was wrong about it. She didn't have to know that Cloud was lying...

Or half-lying. But the gist of what he'd said had all been true! She had been Sephiroth's guide - she'd even worn that ridiculous hat. She'd seen her father dying in front of the reactor, with the Masamune in front of him; she'd tried to attack Sephiroth with his own sword... and had been hurt for it, badly. She still had the scars; someone had been able to heal her in time to prevent the worst scars from forming, but not all of them.

And yet... how could he know any of that? He hadn't been there! It had been those two troopers, and Sephiroth, and that dark-haired man - what was his name? Zax? Zak? She didn't quite remember. But she did know that Cloud, SOLDIER 1st Class, had not come to Nibelheim that day. The fact that he seemed to know so much about it just made her feel even worse.

How could she trust him when she knew that everything he'd said in Kalm was a lie? How could she even begin to think that he cared about her, or try to start any kind of relationship - even friendship - with him? It wasn't like a fairy tale; things weren't going to magically work out.

She wasn't even sure if that was the same Cloud that she had known all those years ago, the boy that had asked her to come to the well and promised to protect her if she ever needed protection. She'd heard legends about things called doppelgangers, monsters that could steal men's memories and take their forms...

No, that was ridiculous... but if this was the Cloud she knew, what then? He'd somehow lost all of his childhood, and with it all of the things that made him Cloud, that scrappy little boy that she remembered from Nibelheim. How had it happened? How could someone convince themselves so sincerely that the delusions that he seemed to have built for himself were true - and how could they be delusions? She knew how Cloud had been in Nibelheim - he'd been rather small and... well, weak, to be honest. There was no way that he could've grown so strong and fast in just seven years - not unless he'd told the truth, and actually had been in SOLDIER. That was the only thing that could possibly explain his new-found strength.

But how could that be possible? And if that was the truth, how much of the rest of his story was true? How much was a lie?

She had to know, somehow. She had to find some way to learn the truth - but she had to find some way of doing it without snatching his delusions away from him too abruptly. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt him.

She sighed, staring out of the window, watching the lights of the Gold Saucer whiz by; the view seemed less dramatic, now that she was alone. She'd always wondered why he didn't speak to her when they were children, she mused. Now she was wondering why she had never spoken to him. She'd been so stuck-up and cold to him when all he seemed to want was to be part of her little clique... and he'd been so shy....

Now she felt like the tables had been turned.

Strangers, she thought as the cable car started to slow, very gently. We're strangers now, is that it? Just two people who happened to meet in a bar one day... trying to remember things about the past that don't seem to be there, not for him. I'm trying to force him into something that I remember... but that he doesn't seem to be....

"Miss? You okay?"

Tifa jumped to see the ride attendant staring at her, with the kind of concern that always seemed to come naturally to every grandparent she'd ever seen before. "Yes, I'm fine!" she replied hastily. "Just thinking..."

"Ah, ok. It's not my business, then... Do you want another ride? It's on me."

"No, thanks." I really have to get back... Barret might be mad at me anyway for skipping out like this.

The attendant nodded and stepped aside to let the girl pass. "All right, miss. Have a good night."

Tifa nodded as she jumped out of the car and started off to the tubes, but couldn't bring herself to answer; "good" was probably not a word that would describe the rest of that night. She had a feeling that she knew what the rest of the night was going to be; Barret ranting and raving and threatening Cait Sith for hours on end, Aeris trying to calm everyone down, Cloud just standing there brooding... It wasn't something she was looking forward to.

She jumped into the Ghost Town slide tube. She'd had enough time to herself, she supposed; the others would be waiting for her. Maybe Cloud is even waiting outside for me... I doubt it, though. I told him I'd be alright by myself...

I wonder if he believed me...

The slide carried her along, forcing her up at the end through the ground that opened above her. She landed in the little mock-up cemetery, staring up the path to the hotel.

Cloud wasn't there.

She wasn't sure if she should be relieved or disappointed.

Wallwalker's Fanfiction