September 6th, 0010
It started as a whisper. A transient whisper. The kind that drifted up to him from behind. The kind that was heard an infinitesimal moment too late, and one that would have gotten caught and carried away by the wind by the time he turned around, looking at the horizon afar.
Too familiar. The soft voice that spoke. The way his name was sounded.
And even though he told himself it was just his mind playing tricks, emotions would still grip at his chest, and threaten to burn through the stolid façade he tried to put up around his friends. Nostalgia, emptiness, grief; the deep regret that came with twenty-twenty hindsight, but he’d come to terms with the fact that there had been nothing more he could have done. And then…the longing.
He missed her terribly. He missed the smile on her dainty lips, her eyes that reminded him of a verdant summer, her small little nose, and hair that softly framed everything together.
Most of the time, it was a solemn gloom at the back of his head, not quite nagging, but there nonetheless, as he talked and laughed with Tifa and the kids. It was a little more unbearable in solitude, like when he tore through the wasteland on Fenrir for a delivery, or when he drifted into sleep in a full house, yet still felt inexplicably alone and hollow.
He missed Aerith. But after everything that had happened, Cloud knew he could keep going with all of his friends at his back, and she, and Zack, would be watching over him. And they would be proud of him from now on, he’d make sure of that.
Today, again, her voice came to him. He still flinched and turned around, gazing into the distant sun sinking behind the rocky cliffs. The same sky he looked up to every day was dyed in warmth. The same emotions swelled heavy in his heart.
Surely they’d forgive the occasional backslide?
He led his motorcycle into the garage then headed into the bar, where Tifa was setting up a line of glasses with Marlene’s and Denzel’s help. The scene was routine for him after coming back from delivering, and the familial feelings he got from it soothed away the ache and wear of the day.
At the sound of his footsteps echoing on the tiled floor, his childhood friend looked up from the children and smiled at him, tucking a dark lock behind her ear. Her hair had grown longer, though nowhere near the length it had been before during Meteor.
He had honestly been surprised when he’d first brought Denzel home and found the obsidian fall half the length it had been, but never commented on it at the time, too caught up in himself. Now, more than one year after the day, he’d been lectured by Yuffie, of all people, of its significance.
“I’m home,” he announced, lightly mirroring her smile.
“Clooud!” The children ran up to greet him, and he accepted Marlene’s hug while ruffling Denzel’s bird nest of a head.
Soon after dinner, the bar was opened and the customers started shuffling in, by ones or by groups, until the small bar was packed and Tifa was forced to let him help with bussing.
“Remember,” she wagged a finger at him like a mother would her son, “Take the bill at least, if not the tip, before you throw them out for complimenting you. And don’t destroy our properties as you do so.” The last words were said in haste before she left him with the tray and hurried back behind the counter to mix more drinks.
Tifa’s worry was uncalled for. He knew better than to repeat past fumbles.
The bar was pretty much vacated by midnight, with only the handful of intoxicated grumps who couldn’t give more of a damn holing up in the corners. As their cook cleared away the broken chairs and mopped up the messy mix of beer and wine and vomit on the floor, he awkwardly scratched the back of his head in front of a cross-armed Tifa.
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
“…I got the tip.” He showed her the wad of gil. It wasn’t his fault he’d retaliated when the burly man grabbed his behind after he’d accepted the money.
After ushering the last few drunks out, calling them a taxi, and dismissing the cook with the night’s pay, they closed up early. He left Tifa alone to wash the glasses after she gave him a warning glare about touching them and went up to check on Denzel and Marlene. The kids had somehow slept through the commotion, but he supposed one would have to be capable of this much if they grew up sleeping directly above a bar with paper for walls.
Cloud came down the stairs to join Tifa as she was polishing the glassware. He seated himself on one of the bar stools in front of her.
“Hey,” he paused, trying to catch her eyes. When he couldn’t, he pushed on anyway. “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t look up from the tumbler in her hands right away, but when she did, a tired smile crossed her expression. “It’s okay. I don’t mean to be so mad, Cloud, but we really need all the money we can get.”
“I know. And I understand.” He leant his elbows against the counter and breathed a sigh. The children were growing, and along with that, their clothes size and appetite. And then there was schooling. Barret could take care of Marlene’s part, but they were on their own with Denzel. “I’ll do my best tomorrow.”
Tifa nodded, placing the last glass down next to the others. “If you’re talking about deliveries then I’m with you one-hundred percent. But I’ll have to sleep on it if it’s about letting you wait the bar again.” A playful glint was in her wine-colored eyes, and he chuckled along with it.
Her gaze softened as her smile widened, and she reached over the counter to brush her fingers across his cheek. They were cold from the water. “You finally laughed.”
It was as if he’d been caught red-handed, the humor dying in his throat.
What was he expecting? Tifa knew. No matter how hard he tried to hide his inner turmoil before his friends, Tifa always knew. She saw right through him, said that his eyes gave him away, and that she understood he needed time to heal. She told him that he was making progress—great progress.
Was he really? Wouldn’t hearing Aerith’s voice mean he was still stuck somewhere fairly early in the stages of grief?
But the way Tifa looked at him, he saw not a shred of doubt. So he, too, believed.
How dependent he was being. “Thanks, Tifa.” For always being there.
Lying in the silence of his room, her voice was even clearer, and he could almost hear urgency in it. Urgency that unsettled him to the point of restlessness.
He rolled over to his back and rubbed a thumb between his furrowed eyebrows. He hadn’t told Tifa about this, and perhaps he should. Perhaps talking about it would resolve whatever issues he was having to be hearing things. Or perhaps Tifa would get angry that he’d kept it from her and kick him hard enough that he’d snap out of it. Either way, talking to her would work.
Cloud smiled at the thought, his unease curbed by the knowledge of Tifa’s presence in his life. He spent a few more moments watching the familiar shadows imprinted onto his wall by the streetlight slicing through the curtains, before closing his eyes and allowing sleep to take him.
The darkness was thick, weighing down on him like drying tar, smothering him. His breathing became labored, heart quivered with bleary fear. He struggled, limbs flailing as though with enough force he could pull himself to the surface of this lightless, soundless ocean.
Then he heard it, the echo of a droplet hitting clear water. All around him, the world was painted in white, that single sound washing away all the umbra, and along with it his dread, releasing him onto an endless field of lilies.
He stumbled among the flowers but regained his balanced shortly.
He froze when he realized a small back was pressed up against his.
“Can you hear me now?”
He caught his breath, shoulders stiff, body taut, afraid to move.
“I’m sorry, Cloud.”
Before he could understand what her words meant, she yelped, and he felt her warmth disappear from his side. He shouted for her, but no sound came out.
Darkness took over his vision. No. Black. Black like the coattail trailing across raging fire. Hot. Scalding. Rippled pond in the luminous forest.
To the Forgotten Capital. For the forgotten one.
Mane of liquid moonlight. Like silver. Like madness. Chatoyant eyes of madness.
He’s coming back.
Cloud shot up from his bed, cold sweat rolling down his neck, heart banging for a way out of his ribcage. His eyes were a saccadic, glowing blue.
A crash startled Tifa out of her shallow sleep, and she kicked back her blanket, sprung to her feet and assumed a fighting pose, ready to take on any adversary through sheer reflex alone as her vision was still fuzzy.
When she sensed no incoming danger, her posture relaxed, and she allowed herself a few seconds to collect her muddled mind. As soon as she could think clearly enough to realize the kids might be the one being threatened instead, Tifa bolted out of her door, slamming her fist onto the switch out in the corridor and let light flood the narrow space.
To her momentary relief, the door to their room remained closed. However, Cloud’s were wide open.
Before she could think anything of it, clattering noises got her turning towards the stairwell. They were coming from below.
Tifa took a deep breath to calm herself and made her way down to the bar, careful not to make a sound just in case.
“Cloud?” she called from the threshold as she found him scrabbling around the place, stopping him in whatever he was doing. His back was to her, and he was wearing his travelling clothes. With growing alarm, she saw the heavy belt of holsters lining the length of his back. He rarely ever used that anymore, unless he was headed to a dangerous area. And that thought deepened her worry.
When he didn’t turn around, she called again. “Cloud, what’s wrong? Where are you going?” She hugged her pajamas to herself, the action having little to do with the chilly weather.
As though her question snapped him out of his stupor, Cloud resumed rummaging through the shelf he was facing. “I-I need to leave.”
“What? Why?” She walked fully into the bar, confusion laded her voice. She didn’t understand. Did something happen? This was too sudden. Was this about Aerith? Would the flower girl ever release her hold on him? He was doing fine. Why now? He was doing so well—Was it all in Tifa’s imagination? An illusion she’d woven around her wishful self, so that she may keep thinking Cloud would one day look her way?
“Aerith…” The name that escaped his lips wounded her. She’d expected it, but it still hurt more than she could bear—and almost every bone in her body had at some point been broken during their quest. “She called for me. She needs my help.”
“This again. Cloud, Aerith is dead!” The words came out more spiteful than intended, but she didn’t care right now. “She couldn’t have called for you.”
He shook his head, back still turned, and she was getting angrier the longer she spent looking at it. The least—the very least he could do was look her in the eye before leaving her stranded again. “You don’t understand. She’s been…I’ve heard her voice over the week. I thought it was just me, but it’s not.”
He’d been hearing voices! That explained his moody bum these past few days. “You are not thinking clearly. Look, let’s calm down. Go back to bed, and then we can figure things out in the morning, okay?”
Cloud ignored her and took out the emergency kit of materia and potions they hid behind all the miscellaneous jars, going through it in an impatient clip, but Tifa wouldn’t have this anymore. She strode up to him and grabbed a handful of his sleeve, forcing him to face her.
“Cloud, for Gaia—” The mako eyes that stared back at her startled her into silence. Did his irises just narrow into slits? Her grip on him faltered, and he freed himself with a shrug. The emergency kit closed and tucked under his arm, he gave her a look so determined she was almost convinced he was every bit as rational as he believed himself to be. Almost.
“Sorry, Tifa,” he had the decency to look guilty, eyes downcast as he muttered, “He’s coming back.”
“W-who?” she asked, but at the back of her mind, a voice already answered: Sephiroth.
“Take care of Denzel and Marlene. I promise I’ll be back as soon as possible.” Cloud sprinted past her, and she made to stumble after him, but her baggy pajamas had gotten caught by one of the sharper corners of a drawer. She hissed in frustration, dislodging the fabric, and chased Cloud to the garage, where he was already leading Fenrir out the door.
“Wait, Cloud!” She caught up to him, barefooted out in the street, as he mounted the bike and pulled his goggles down. “Wait until morning. I-I’ll come with you.” If he was having a manic episode then she just needed to bid her time.
“You can’t. It’s too dangerous. And who’ll watch the kids?” He pointed out with a raised brow like she was the one talking crazy.
“I can call someone.”
“I’ll be fine, Tifa. I’ll keep you updated.” He reached for her face, gloved thumb stroking her cheek, his warmth radiating through the leather ever so fleetingly. Liar! Or was he telling the truth? She couldn’t tell, couldn’t see his eyes. The goggles were obscuring his beautiful eyes.
It was only when the roar of engine faded around the corner of the dark street that Tifa allowed a hot tear to trickle down the side of her cold cheek. Even then, embarrassment still knotted in her throat. She didn’t want to be so weak. Once again, she couldn’t keep him from leaving, didn’t know how to, though intelligently she knew the tears freely rolling down her face right now would have been more than enough.
But she couldn’t, still too proud to resort to cheap feminine wiles. She supposed this was what set her apart from Aerith.
And she supposed, this was the reason why Cloud’s eyes would never linger on her.