All the way home, Cloud had been thinking about who should get to Tifa first -- who should explain things to her, so she wouldn't hurt, wouldn't cry.
He should have thought, he acknowledged wryly, of what he'd do when she failed to stay at the bar and play sitting duck when she knew they had a potential enemy in town. Tifa liked to think the best of people -- she thought the best of every single one of her customers, even the creepy drunks. But she still bartended with a shotgun under the sink.
And the narrow street was perfect for an ambush.
A crack of thunder erupted in the street, rattling the windows. Cloud had a barrier up to deflect the blast almost instantly. Not instantly enough; his body seized briefly, electricity crawling over his arms.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Sephiroth dodging to the side -- but the lightning strike caught his leg, throwing him to the pavement and making his back arch with the shock. Zack had hit the ground in the other direction, tackling Aeris; Cloud cast a magic-repelling shield over the two of them first, and scanned the roofs wildly to find the assailant.
She didn't answer, except in the form of a second blast at Sephiroth. Cloud would have loved nothing more than to let it hit; but he'd given his word to protect the man as long as he couldn't protect himself, and he didn't want to test how long Sephiroth's promise not to counterattack would hold in the face of a determined enemy. He jumped in front of the silver-haired man, his sword up in an overhead block, still crackling with electricity.
There she was, behind that chimney, looking tense and determined in the fading lights of her spell. She was staring at Sephiroth. From where she was, she couldn't see Zack, and Cloud saw him straighten up and do a hand signal Cloud hadn't seen in years, but that he still remembered. 'Sneak behind enemy.'
"Zack, no," he snapped, hands still holding up the sword to attract any other lightning attack. Zack was a SOLDIER First Class with several years of combat experience, yes. He was also weaponless. Tifa was a hand-to-hand specialist who could punch holes through concrete, and she had Materia equipped on top of that. Zack would try to pin her nicely until they could reason her; she would try to get rid of him by any means necessary. Things would get nasty.
Well, nastier, Cloud amended as he threw up another shield to block a sudden gust of fire that blackened the road all around. Sephiroth had moved to stand in his shield radius -- not even two steps behind him -- and it made his skin crawl.
"Tifa, damn it, stop a minute!"
Once again, she didn't answer. Cloud sighed in frustration.
"I know it looks bad, but --"
"It looks like you got possessed again," she retorted tightly.
Cloud made a show of tilting his blade down toward the ground, away from her. "If I am, I can't tell," he replied honestly. Behind him, Sephiroth snorted, and he resisted the urge to throw him a warning glare.
"He's standing behind you!"
The urgency in her voice actually made Cloud flinch halfway around, expecting to see Sephiroth about to skewer him with the Masamune. The man was there, two steps behind, but his hands were still empty. Sephiroth crossed his arms over his bare chest as he gave Tifa a narrow-eyed weighing look. Cloud realized she'd probably hoped Sephiroth had messed with his mind so Cloud wouldn't notice him.
"...I know. Tifa..."
Cloud fell silent, not knowing what to do. How was he ever going to get her off this roof? Sephiroth had murdered her father, for god's sake, and destroyed their hometown and messed with Cloud's mind until he would have killed all his friends and not even noticed. How was he to get her to trust his word, when the man was standing there, clearly under Cloud's protection?
And then Aeris stepped away from the wall and looked up at the roof overhead.
Tifa froze; even from the middle of the street, Cloud saw her face pale and her eyes widen painfully. For the longest time, there was silence; out of sight, Zack sighed and mouthed a 'thank you' to the skies.
Neck craned to look up, Aeris gave her a rueful smile. "Yes. Ah... It's a long story. Would you be willing to listen to it? I suppose you won't come down, but I could climb up --"
"Aeris -- if you're really Aeris," Tifa corrected herself, with a voice that barely trembled. "If you're really Aeris, you will go to the bar at the end of the street, and call the first three numbers on the emergency contact list. And then you will hide. I'll stop them."
"I'll stop them!" she repeated stubbornly, her furious eyes still fixed on Sephiroth's face. Cloud thought they might have been a little too bright, glistening a little too much. "I'll stop them, I won't let him kill you again. I promise, I promise I'll save you this time so just go and hide already!"
... Oh. Oh, Tifa.
Tifa's chest heaved as she took in a deep, shuddering breath; her clenched fists didn't tremble. She moved to the edge of the roof, spared a quick glance for Zack; she clearly hadn't forgotten his presence, but her main target was still Sephiroth, and Cloud by association. Cloud was kind of proud, in a 'how the hell am I going to keep this from degenerating' way.
And then one of the thick metal blinds on the house she was facing was thrown open so hard it bounced, and Cloud and Sephiroth were getting targeted by a shotgun held by an aged, squinting neighbor.
"What the devil is going on!? Bandits again?"
Cloud swore, and whirled to place himself and his sword between Sephiroth and the bullets headed their way.
"We done told you we weren't gonna let you get our town!" the old man yelled furiously, shooting again. "You go and fry 'em good, Lockhart!"
All around them, drawing courage from the old man's stance -- and from not being the first to peer out -- a few more windows opened, more voices wondering what was happening in the street in the middle of the night. Damn it, damn it. Cloud knew for a fact that no Edge home was complete without a weapon rack or two.
"Mister Zeller!" he called, blocking another bullet with the flat of his sword. "It's Strife -- HEY!" A strong hand caught his upper arm and jerked him aside as someone else shot a handgun at them; the bullet whizzed past his temple. He shook himself free and glared at Sephiroth, who wasn't even looking at him. The man had his side to Cloud, in a low, ready crouch, with his long hair trailing all over the place, tinted yellow by the lampposts.
Strange clothes and awkward light aside, Cloud was pretty sure there would be some people who'd recognize the subject of so many a motivational poster, back around the time of the Wutai war. No more time to dither.
He didn't know who, he or Sephiroth, first noticed the old truck parked on the sidewalk some twenty feet away; but they dashed toward it in unison, Cloud swinging his sword over their heads to shield them both. They ducked behind the truck, in time to feel it shudder under a bullet impact. A woman screamed overhead. "My truck! That's it, Zeller, this is war!"
There were more insults, more demands to know what the hell was going on. A dog started howling.
"Get back inside your houses," Tifa yelled urgently, but no one was listening.
Cloud made himself as small as possible behind the truck, scanning the woman's house suspiciously. From the angle of the windows, it wasn't totally impossible they'd be shot from above, but it would be difficult.
"Well," Sephiroth commented with biting sarcasm. "This is entertaining."
Cloud threw him an irritated glare. "It's going to be even funnier if they recognize you. Do something with your hair."
Sephiroth arched an eyebrow, but after a few seconds of consideration, tied the mass into a knot at the base of his neck. Cloud didn't even want to know how he managed to keep it looking smooth and well-combed when they were in the middle of a shooting. Though the old man had stopped peppering them, but he was probably just reloading, Cloud thought tiredly.
"May I come out now?" he called; he got a startled shriek and some woman throwing a -- thankfully rather weak -- Ice spell toward his head. Sighing, he dodged behind the truck again, giving his frosted hair spikes an exhausted look.
"He's your neighbor, you blind old bats!" From behind a dumpster, Zack shook his fist at the people at their windows. "He's Cloud Strife, damn it, do you know anyone else who lugs around huge swords like that?"
Apart from Zack himself? Behind Cloud, Sephiroth snorted quietly, and Cloud felt a second of unease, wondering if they'd had the same thought.
"... Mister Strife? 'zat you?"
"Yes," he called back, and waved from behind the truck's hood. "I'm sorry for the scare; there was a misunderstanding."
Tense, he waited for Tifa's scream of denial; nothing came. He pulled himself up and stepped out slowly, looking at his neighbors in turn.
"Sorry for the disturbance. Come by the bar tomorrow and have one on the house."
Aeris took Zack by the wrist and joined him in the middle of the street, and Sephiroth slowly followed, giving the people at the windows long measuring looks. Cloud didn't like it much, a part of him wondering if Sephiroth was memorizing their faces for his next killing spree, but it wasn't like he could order him to keep his eyes on the ground; that would look too suspicious. Cloud nodded politely at the onlookers, wished them goodnight, and started toward the bar before they could ask for details, swinging his sword in place on his back.
The whole time he kept expecting another lightning strike, but when they reached the bar there was still no sign of Tifa. There hadn't been any since she'd tried to yell the watchers back in their homes. The bar was closed and empty, and when he peered inside he couldn't even see Denzel waiting up. But then if Tifa had enough foresight to wait for them away from where they thought she was going to be, Cloud was pretty sure she would have enough foresight to send Denzel to sleep over at some friend's where the boy couldn't be found.
He left the rest of the floor in darkness, only turned on one light over the bar; Tifa would see them through the large windows, if she was still out there. "Seventh Heaven the third," he commented to Zack, who was looking around with interest.
"Nice place. All yours?"
"No, it's Tifa's. I just help out from time to time."
He gave Sephiroth a wary look, but the man seemed content to lean against a pillar and watch his surroundings, arms crossed over his bare chest.
Aeris sighed, and laughed a little, though she didn't seem very amused. "That was unexpected. Poor Tifa, she must have been so shocked."
Cloud remembered the raw intensity, the grim determination in Tifa's promise that she wouldn't let Aeris die again, and didn't feel all that amused either. He had never realized that Tifa felt personally responsible for that, felt she had failed Aeris just as much as he did. When she learned that Aeris had brought her murderer back to life...
Zack gave Cloud a hopeful look. "Say, do you think she'd mind if..."
"Help yourself," Cloud replied, gingerly perching on one of the stools and turning so he would be able to keep an eye both on the dimly lit room and on the window to the street.
Zack ducked behind the bar and started rooting around. He gave a little "aha!" of triumph when he found the beer cans, and popped up over the counter. "Aeris, you want anything? Cloud? Seph?"
"Just water, please," Aeris replied. Sephiroth just shook his head imperceptibly.
"I'm fine," Cloud said, propping up his sword against the counter. It was too hard to still believe that Sephiroth would attack right now. He'd had access to Cloud's unguarded back too many times during the fight.
Cloud kept the sword in easy reach regardless.
It was only five minutes before Tifa pushed the door open and walked in, but they were the five longest minutes in recent history. She stood there, outside of the puddle of light by the bar, not moving any closer.
"Tifa..." Cloud and Aeris spoke almost in synch, by accident. Tifa glanced back and forth at them both, and her red-brown eyes skimmed over Zack; but once they met Sephiroth's green, they didn't move again.
It seemed surreal to her -- Sephiroth standing in her bar, propped up against one of the wooden pillars, with his imposing frame and his cold, aristocratic face, and his unnatural hair. Not unreal, though -- unreal would have been a vision from the past, complete with the black leather outfit and the sword, and his hair floating freely behind him like a banner to his arrogance. Instead there were a mane tied in a rough and rather strange-looking knot, and Cloud's slightly-too-small pants, ending mid-calf, and bare, dusty -- and bleeding? -- feet, lit by the cheap yellow glow of the lone light bulb. Surreal, definitely -- because it was way too much reality for one scene.
And he was still watching her, and his eyes still glowed Mako-green around those inhuman pupils. Off to the left, Cloud sat slumped on a barstool, looking weary and watchful.
Not mindlessly adoring, though. Not vacant-eyed.
"Does anyone mind telling me what is going on?" she asked, remarkably calmly.
It was the black-haired man who started first, circling the end of the bar to take a few steps toward her. He didn't come any closer than the first table, though; that was good, because Tifa would have hated to break it on his head to keep him at bay.
"Evening, miss Lockhart. It's been a while. Do you recognize me?"
Well-defined cheekbones, long locks of hair that gathered in spiky clumps, body that tended just a little bit toward lean -- hips from which her own sweatpants were threatening to fall off... She did at that. She had only known him a couple of weeks, ten years ago, but the swagger was -- she'd been thinking 'inimitable', but Cloud had done such a good job mimicking it that this was how it clicked in her mind. She still remembered it as 'how Cloud used to walk, when he was still pretending to be Zack.'
Cloud didn't have black hair, and she wasn't sure where he would have found a wig in the old slums, but that would have been doable. Unlikely, but doable.
The purple glow of his eyes, not so much.
Tifa stared at them all in turn and then back at the black-haired man, still trying to figure out why they were there and what kind of catastrophe was falling on their heads now. The way he grinned -- it seemed real enough. But only the bad guys ever seemed to come back from the Lifestream for a visit... Case in point.
"Zack, isn't it?"
"Ayup. Zack Fair, at your service."
"You were the one who met Denzel in the church?" she confirmed.
"Yep. Smart kid, that one. Got character too."
Tifa desperately tried not to think too hard that all the time Denzel had spent chatting in the church with Zack, Sephiroth had been lurking around, probably listening in.
"Thank you. Now would you please--" Her voice went a bit strangled, and she fell silent to breathe in, and out, like Zangan had taught her all those years ago. She was calm. She was very calm. She was going to stay calm until it was time to fight again -- she would just be ready.
"Yeah... I'd tell you it's a long story, but in layman's terms it isn't. So. Condensed version, er. Aeris was done working on the Lifestream -- it can run itself now -- so we decided to come back." Zack grinned, hopeful and somewhat sheepish -- a lot like Denzel when he hoped she wouldn't notice he'd only done the first page of his homework or eaten only the meat and then artistically spread the vegetables on his plate to make it look like some were missing. Maybe a smidgen more nervous, but then again, not a lot.
"That's the really, really condensed version, though. For one thing, it was a lot more complicated than just making the decision. It was more like, 'okay, we're done with Jenova and everything, I guess it's time to fade away -- oh, look, a loophole.' And, er, about Sephiroth -- well, he's kind of a prickly bastard, but he's not insane anymore, so...?"
Tifa stopped staring at Sephiroth, whose eyebrows had vaguely twitched downward at the announcement, and stared at Zack instead. What was she supposed to answer? 'Oh, that's nice' perhaps?
This time it was Aeris who moved to meet her, and she didn't stop at the edge of the light.
Lost in Tifa's largest t-shirt, hair unbound so that wavy locks cascaded all over the place, shawl wound around her hips like a fancy skirt -- unmistakable. It didn't feel surreal or unreal anymore, it just felt true, and suddenly Tifa couldn't breathe, because if she did Aeris might fray and disappear.
Tenderness and compassion on her face, in her eyes -- a hint of a wince, shared pain, a rueful little smile...
They reached out at the same time, hands gripping each other.
Aeris's hand was warm, but what convinced even Tifa's rational mind was that she had dust on her cheek, tangles in her hair, and a shiny piece of chewing-gum wrapper caught in the fringe of her shawl. Tifa was startled when she heard herself laugh. She choked on something; she didn't know if it was a giggle or a sob. Proof by chewing-gum wrapper. How was that for a miracle?
Oh, how she wanted to cling and ask a million things, but the cold, inhuman eyes behind them -- she couldn't help it, she shifted Aeris bodily aside, edged forward so she could shield her in case anything happened. Cloud's face tightened in pain, and Zack ruffled his own hair with tired embarrassment. She waited for Sephiroth to do something -- give her a disdainful look, a smirk, a sneer maybe; he didn't. He didn't taunt her, he didn't pretend to be polite, he didn't say anything. She told herself it was good. She didn't know if the sound of his voice might perhaps be the thing to snap her calm. He just watched her right back, and that was it.
At her side, Aeris sighed quietly and squeezed her hand, even as she looked straight at the man with a strange sort of quiet seriousness -- strange because there was no wariness in it at all.
"Sephiroth... It might be time you slept. Cloud?"
Sephiroth looked at the blond, expressionless. Cloud frowned faintly and then nodded. "It's getting late."
Tifa frowned, confused and still on edge. "Cloud?"
"He's going to be under a Sleep spell until the rest of the gang gets there and we all decide what to do," Cloud replied calmly, with a touch of gentleness in his voice like he knew exactly what she feared; she felt a little reassured.
"Mmh. Far from me to delay your bedtime," Sephiroth commented silkily.
The sound of his low voice made her shudder; she had been starting to think he would not speak at all. Cloud glared at him, hostility flashing through his weariness; Tifa was reassured. The world wasn't completely crazy yet.
"For someone asking for favors, you're bad at staying on my good side," he snapped.
Sephiroth's eyes narrowed, and Tifa tensed, but then he let out a tiny sigh and nodded as if conceding a minor, technical point. "I... do lack the habit."
"Yeah well, if you're smart," Cloud replied without breaking eye contact with Sephiroth, "you'll learn faster."
Sephiroth's eyes went even more narrow, but after a second he breathed out slowly and his expression smoothened, emptied out. "My apologies."
Cloud was still scowling, but in the end he just shrugged it off with a quick, irritated twitch of his shoulders. He slipped off the stool, swung his sword back in its sheath. "Staircase in the backroom. Second floor. There's a mattress in the attic."
"An attic." Sephiroth was watching him with those narrowed, coldly predatory eyes again in which she could read absolutely nothing.
"It locks from the outside," Cloud said, a confirmation to a question that hadn't be asked, and lifted a hand to cut off an answer Tifa hadn't been aware would be coming. "It's not to keep you in. It's to keep people out. There are children living here."
Tifa wondered briefly whether she was crazy or whether this explanation could have been construed as a -- weak, insincere, irritated -- form of apology. Surely she was reading too much into it.
Sephiroth relaxed slowly nonetheless. "I did offer my cooperation, Strife."
They just stared wordlessly at each other, and Tifa barely dared look away; she glanced at Aeris, and at Zack too, to see if they had any idea what was going on in their loud silences. Aeris looked sad; Zack looked worried. Neither of them offered any explanation.
"Well! Let's see it," Aeris commented with false cheer as she tugged Tifa toward the backroom, urging everyone to start moving. "Say, Cloud, do you have a Seal Materia? I'll cast."
"Several. Tifa? You know where they are; would you mind?"
Tifa hesitated -- she didn't want to leave Cloud and Aeris alone with Sephiroth, and she still didn't know if she wanted to really rely on Zack to cover them. But someone needed to get the Materia, and the other two didn't know where Cloud kept them.
Tifa hurried up the stairs and walked fast into Cloud's bedroom, going straight for the drawer. Her hand closed on several Seal orbs; she released them all until she found the strongest, and then she held it against her chest and went to join them upstairs. She paused and got fresh sheets for the mattress on her way, though. She berated herself all along, but she got fresh sheets, and even a blanket. She would have cheerfully -- well, not cheerfully, but determinedly -- broken the man's neck, but making him sleep in the dust just seemed too petty.
Zack was outside the attic door, with his back to the wall, as if standing guard; he smiled at her, friendly as always but with a distracted, worried edge that took away from the reassurance.
There were stacked chairs and high stools in there that she ought to repair for the bar, a crate of books and one of mismatched shot glasses, a voluminous wooden wardrobe, Marlene's old toys, and a chest of drawers Tifa kept with the vague thought that Denzel would need it when he moved out. She briefly wondered about how fast the clutter had piled up, about how amazing it was that she could afford to keep said clutter now, instead of paring down to the necessities of the road, or fearing that one day everything she owned would burn, be gone without a trace.
The man who had burned down her hometown, and sent her to the slums, and then on the road, stood there amongst her amassed belongings, looking down at the bare mattress. Cloud watched him without a word; but there was a tension between them Tifa could feel from the other end of the room, even though she could only see Sephiroth's back and had no clue what his expression was like.
"Ah, Tifa -- thank you, I didn't think of that."
Aeris stood in front of the skylight in the sloped roof, breathing in the cool night air. She moved to meet Tifa at the door, and held out her arms for the sheets and blanket; Tifa let her have them, and the Materia with it. She didn't want to come any closer if she didn't have to.
Sephiroth watched the green-eyed girl with a lack of expression that made Tifa shudder. She told herself that if he struck again, Cloud was close enough, ready to stop him.
"Look, you even have a blanket, isn't that nice?" Aeris chuckled, kneeling on the floor to make the bed. "Now move over, I need a little space."
Tifa's fingers whitened on the doorjamb. She didn't understand how it was that Aeris wasn't afraid, that she could turn her back onto the man who had murdered her so easily, shoo him with such a cheerful air.
"Hey..." Zack whispered, and his hand touched her shoulder lightly; Tifa jerked and glanced at him, though she couldn't take her eyes away from the scene too long. "It's going to be fine. He'll lie down, she'll get him asleep --"
"He doesn't want to." Even she could see it, and she didn't even know the man.
"He'll do it anyway. He doesn't like it, but he'll do it anyway -- see?"
For a tense handful of seconds, Sephiroth stood like a statue, tension gathering in his limbs -- Tifa could read it, that coiled-spring feeling which so often ended in violence. But just as she was about to step inside, the man closed his eyes, sighed, and sank down gracefully. Then he was out of sight, hidden by the chest of drawers. Cloud still stood, watching without a word as Aeris knelt and cast her spell, but the matching tension in his body had seeped out, leaving him looking weary, jaded.
Tifa pulled her eyes away from the lights dancing on the wall and looked at Zack.
"... I'm fine. Just -- this is..." She shook her head, bit her lip. "I don't get what's going on. Don't get -- you came back. That's good, but he came back -- and why?"
Zack sighed, rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, the condensed version's not gonna cut it. "
Aeris muttered something vaguely miffed from her corner, pulling Tifa's attention back. Sephiroth's comeback rang like a vocal eye-roll. "Perhaps you would have more luck if you clubbed me instead."
"Ooh, you're trying to tempt me, aren't you."
There was no verbal reply, but Cloud snorted.
"You keep that eyebrow down, mister, or I'll do much worse than club you. I'll tuck you in."
Aeris cast again before Sephiroth could answer, which was good because Tifa didn't know how long she could take listening to the light, friendly banter between them.
This time there was no answer; Aeris cast a third time, to be sure it took, and then accepted Cloud's offered hand and let him pull her back up on her feet. Cloud cast a barrier around the bed; they weren't all that resilient from the inside, but Tifa knew he would notice it breaking. She watched them navigate the attic, feeling like she'd end up sitting rather hard if she let go of the doorjamb.
"Tifa?" Cloud asked, frowning. "Are you okay?"
"Ah -- yes, yes. It's just a little..." she said, doing her best to smile at him. It had to be even worse for Cloud; he'd suffered so much more personally at Sephiroth's hands. "You know -- in a way it would be easier if we just had to fight."
Cloud looked at her and nodded like he knew what she meant. "Mmh. Uncertainty gets old."
Zack sighed, and Cloud gave him a narrow-eyed look, but the black-haired man didn't explain it.
"I have to tell Denzel," Tifa muttered. "I bet he's still up waiting..."
Cloud handed her his PHS without a word; Tifa typed out the number quickly. The message itself, she hesitated over. She wanted to tell him everything was all right, but then he would want to come home. He was safe where he was, and mature enough not to need her to pretend everything was dandy.
Actually, he probably wouldn't believe her if she told him everything was. In the end she went with 'no injurd., situatn. stable fr now, talkn. will call u back tmrw. go to bed!' He would understand he needed to wait.
Zack waited until she had hit Send and handed the PHS back to Cloud to speak again. "I guess it's time for the long explanation. Let's go back downstairs and we can talk as much as you guys need."
Tifa bit her lip. "I'd rather we used one of the bedrooms. The bar is too far down to hear anything..."
"In case he wakes up? Resilient or not, he won't wake up for a while," Aeris assured her gently. "A normal person wouldn't come out of it on their own for at least a week, and I don't think anything could wake him up that wouldn't get our attention also."
Cloud shrugged. "Bedroom's more comfortable."
Zack sighed again, probably because Cloud's reply sounded a lot like an excuse, but in the end he shook his head ruefully and chuckled. "Bedroom it is."
When they walked down the stairs, Cloud took Tifa's hand and gave it a quick squeeze, and she felt a little better.
There was more space in Tifa's bedroom -- not a lot, but still more than what Cloud's weapons racks left in his own, so that was where she led them. Cloud propped his sword against the wall and sat at the head of her bed, leaning a shoulder against the headboard and crossing his arms loosely over his chest. Unable to settle down, Tifa kept standing, watching as Aeris curled up in her armchair and Zack straddled a stool.
"Where to start..." Zack mused.
"How about you tell us why he's with you first." Cloud's body language was relaxed enough, but his tired eyes weren't.
Zack pressed a hand to his heart and winced, not entirely playfully. "Ouch. That hurts, man. That's your first question?"
Cloud's expression only grew more weary. "It's not that I'm not glad to see you, Zack. But you've been dead six years. Between seeing you again and having him back in the genocide business, it's not even a choice."
Zack flinched and his smile melted into a more subdued expression that Tifa couldn't read.
"You're lucky he's not gonna be killing people then."
Cloud sucked in an irritated, hissing breath. "But how can you tell? He could be playing a game for all we know. If he needed Aeris to bring him back to life..."
"He did agree to be put under, right?" Aeris countered, voice soft. "He stayed, he allowed us to make him sleep. Do you really think he would let anyone make him so vulnerable if he wasn't sincere?"
Tifa bit her lip. That was a good argument. She really didn't want to admit it, but it was. It seemed too tortuous and ... low for the proud, arrogant man she remembered.
Sephiroth -- granted, she hadn't known him much, only that trip in the mountains and then his madness, and the details of the past that Cloud let slip sometimes -- but she thought, even when he was sane, that he would be more likely to tell them what he wanted, and if they said no, he'd skewer them and go get it himself. He wouldn't bother trying such a complicated, risky scheme when kidnapping and torturing them might work faster, more efficiently, and without having him lose control of the situation.
"Maybe he was counting on us thinking that," Cloud replied, looking away from Zack.
Zack snorted and made an unconvinced grimace. "Seph? Counting on people to have common human decency? That'd be the day."
"He's been in my head enough to guess what I would do by now."
Zack gave him a disappointed look. "You don't even believe that, Cloud. You're just looking for excuses to disagree."
Cloud glared at the man, eyes flashing with irritation. "What do you know about what I believe?"
Zack's teeth ground together and he jumped to his feet, startling Tifa. "I believe I can't fucking stand it when you lie to my face! What's your problem? Since when am I the enemy?"
Tifa knew what she expected Cloud to answer, what she would have answered -- 'you were the enemy from the moment you sided with the enemy.' It wasn't what came out of Cloud's mouth.
"What the hell makes him worth it?!"
It wasn't a rejection, line in the sand, you're with us or against us. It was 'Did you abandon me? It hurts.' It took the wind out of Zack's sails; he slumped back on his stool, eyes full of sorrow.
Cloud had risen too; he crossed his arms and sat back down, looked away. There wasn't a lot to look at, apart from the wall and the corner of Tifa's big armchair, where Aeris coiled. Tifa bit her lip and sneaked a pleading look at her -- surely she would find the words to end this argument. But Aeris glanced back at her and then, meaningfully, at Zack, who seemed to be ruminating something.
"Oh hell," the man groaned. "I think after we came back from the dead it's not unmanly at all to have a goddamn group hug." And with that, Zack slipped off his stool, marched to the bed, and threw himself at Cloud's side with such determination the wooden frame groaned.
Tifa winced a little as Cloud startled under the rough, one-armed hug he was subjected to; watching them, she missed Aeris getting up until the woman caught her hand and tugged. "Come on! Let's join them."
"Aeris--" Tifa tried to protest, to no avail.
"Come on," Zack repeated, "Your presence is the only thing that stands between a heartwarming group hug and two dudes man-touching on a bed."
Cloud rolled his eyes. "Right. Your arm on my shoulders, it's practically gay porn."
Aeris gave a dreamy sigh. "If only."
Ignoring Cloud's reaction, she sat at Zack's side and poked him in the ribs, making him squeak. "Move over, mister Hotshot." Cloud tried to move to the head of the bed, but she reached for his sleeve around Zack's back and held him back. "No, not you. I want my hug too."
Cloud glowered a little, but was just embarrassed enough that by the time he opened his mouth to protest, Zack had already switched to his other side and was worming his way between his flank and the headboard. Aeris sat down where Zack had been, leaned her head on Cloud's shoulder.
Tifa felt the curious urge to excuse herself. The three of them -- Zack and his strong hands and regretful eyes, Aeris with her soft, contented little smile, both of them leaning on Cloud who sat stiff and straight, eyes closed, pained. Cloud's best, most steadfast friend and his... Tifa didn't have words for what Aeris had been to him. A friend, a support, a loved one -- someone else who'd gone and died on him. Tifa wasn't sure she should be there if Cloud started to cry. Wasn't sure she shouldn't be elsewhere, before the knot in her throat choked her and she cried, too, for things too complicated to name.
But Aeris still held her hand, tugging gently, stubbornly, until Tifa was on the bed, too, sitting with her shoulder to Aeris's. Aeris slid her hand over, shifted her grip, palm to palm, soothing and warm.
"... No fair, we can't hug miss Lockhart. You're monopolizing her, babe."
Tifa blushed a little, more out of nerves than out of embarrassment, and Aeris stuck out her tongue at Zack over Cloud's bowed head. "There are only so many places in the middle, you know."
"Should have piled up."
Cloud sighed wearily; Zack and Aeris instantly sobered up.
"You two sound like this is all such a big joke at times..."
Zack growled and wrapped an arm around Cloud's back, stubborn. "Oh, shaddap, it wasn't a walk in the park to come back, you know."
"Really?" Cloud asked, a bit too tense under the neutral tone. "It doesn't sound like it, with how much you seem to care."
"Well sorry if I'd rather be happy to be alive again than mope and complain about the trip! It wasn't easy, okay? It wasn't easy at all."
Cloud snuck a peek at Zack from under his bangs, head still hanging, shoulders slumped. Tifa felt compassion well up again. Cloud was so much more confident nowadays, it was strange to see him revert to mannerisms from his darkest hours. She didn't like it. And Cloud was right, it was a little hurtful to see how easily Zack and Aeris tried to smile away their concerns, as if they didn't deserve a serious response. But then she supposed she could see how Zack and Aeris would have a lot to be glad for...
"It was even harder than keeping you from joining us. And while we're on that topic, we're not your personal 'return to life' service, you know."
Tifa didn't get what he meant, but Cloud obviously did. His lips parted as if trying to talk, but it took him a few seconds before anything came out.
"You were really there. In the church." His voice was soft, almost reverent.
Aeris answered just as quietly, "Of course we were there."
"I saw you, but I kind of thought..." Cloud twirled his finger against his temple meaningfully, looking from Aeris to Zack and back to Aeris again.
"That you were seeing things again?" Aeris chuckled softly, and her hand covered Cloud's. "We just wanted to make sure you were... Feeling better."
"From what?" Tifa asked, a little tired of being the only one not to get it. She regretted asking at all when the three of them exchanged looks heavy with a meaning that she once again didn't get.
"Ah... Geostigma," Cloud answered, before she could tell them never mind.
She looked down at her lap. "Oh."
"And -- and that ... depression, I guess it was, and leaving you and Marlene and Denzel alone like an idiot because I thought you guys would be better off if I didn't burden you." He sighed, shoulders slumping.
Tifa managed to smile.
"Stupid is the word," Aeris teased gently, taking the words out of her mouth.
Cloud had told Tifa he'd seen Aeris's ghost, once, quietly, in confidence -- and she'd believed him, because they'd seen enough weird things, and Aeris had been the kind of special that made such strangeness unsurprising; but Tifa herself -- never. Perhaps because she never put herself in the kind of danger that required intervention from Beyond. And Cloud was -- special. She knew that. She acknowledged it.
To Tifa, the last she'd seen her friend had been the day she died before their shocked eyes -- a flash of silver, protruding where cold metal had no business being, and a surprisingly small amount of blood, the chaos of a battle where they desperately tried to stop the monster from trampling her still form, and after that, a lifeless body sinking in a bottomless pool because they'd been too slow, too late.
While it helped to know that Aeris's spirit was still present in some way, still watching over them... It had hurt a bit that Tifa wasn't special enough.
It hurt now, that she still wasn't. She looked down at her foot, swinging it absently back and forth over the wooden floor.
"... I thought you were saying goodbye," Cloud whispered to them, pained.
Cloud closed his eyes; Aeris rubbed her cheek against his shoulder, interlaced their fingers, gave him another kind, rueful smile.
"We never expected to be able to come back at all. Dead is dead, right? We'd accepted that. We just thought... We'd watch over the lot of you, as long as we could, and then... But Jenova seemed to be entirely gone and the troubles that cropped up afterwards weren't anything you needed us for. Or anything we could have done anything about, anyway."
Zack chuckled softly and ruffled Cloud's hair. "Seriously where do you come off, making mundane enemies who'd rather gun you down than summon rocks from outer space."
"Sorry," Cloud said dryly. "I'll stop antagonizing highwaymen now."
"Sounds like a good idea. 'Cause after the last time you went and got yourself shot like an idiot..."
Cloud made a little grimace at the reminder. It was the same face Denzel made when his awesome acrobatics on the neighbor's wooden fence ended up with said neighbor politely handing him a hammer and nails to fix the mess. The similarity made Tifa clench her hands; Aeris shot her a curious look, but Tifa pretended not to notice. It was a Zack expression, she realized that now.
She kept watching the three of them from the corner of her eye, trying not to intrude. Cloud fit so well with them.
"There are tides in the Lifestream, did you know that?"
Cloud arched an eyebrow at Aeris at the non sequitur. "...No?"
"It's more like a sea than like a stream, in the end... The energy swirls and pools and moves in waves, it's beautiful..." Aeris looked thoughtful for a moment. "I didn't realize back then, when I was alive, because Jenova had been disturbing the natural rhythms, but after she was gone... It's like, sometimes, when the Lifestream swells, it brushes the living world, and then when the biggest tide comes there's only just one more step to take to cross over."
Cloud looked away from her.
Aeris sounded a little pained. "It wasn't like we wanted to make you believe we were gone for good... But there was the flow of the Lifestream to stabilize and Jenova's remains to erase, and I didn't even know it was possible. No one ever told me..."
"And that was all you three needed to come back?" Tifa asked with a puzzled frown. "Then -- how come there aren't more? Even if only Cetra can take that last step, surely..."
"Well... There are other conditions as well. There needs to be a body, and I need to have a strong personal connection with the person, and --"
"And what kind of strong connection would you have with Sephiroth?" Cloud interrupted, incredulous.
Aeris's hand clenched on Tifa's fingers, though her voice stayed perfectly friendly. "Well gee, he killed me. How much more personal can you get?"
There was silence then, Cloud going pale and Zack clenching his jaw and Aeris herself with her Cloud-side hand clenched into a fist on her lap. Tifa hadn't expected her to lose patience like this, and she stared, a little shocked.
She hadn't expected Aeris to show any real emotion at all, because so far all she'd shown was controlled gentleness and motherly patience and nothing else.
It felt... distant. Like Aeris was still watching over them all from above, not really part of it, not really there with them.
"Aeris?" she asked quietly. "Are you alright?"
Aeris let out a tired sigh and smoothed her shawl-skirt across her thighs mechanically, shoulders slumping. "... I'm fine. I'm sorry, Cloud. I didn't mean to be flippant, it's just -- when we came back... I was so happy. We were in the pool -- the water was so cold it almost hurt, and it was the most marvelous feeling in the world. And the columns were so solid and graceful, and the sunset through the windows..." She bit her lip. "...And I knew we'd see all of you soon... Aren't you glad to see us at all?"
Cloud looked away, as if the wooden floor suddenly seemed interesting. "Of course I'm glad."
"I'm sorry I snapped." Aeris took in a deep breath, glanced down at Tifa's hand in hers with faint surprise and squeezed a little, comfortingly. "I'm being unfair. I've been in Sephiroth's mind and I just can't be scared of him anymore, but it's not fair to expect you two to take us at our word."
Cloud nodded, and Tifa squeezed her hand, encouraging her to continue.
"Make no mistake, he's still a mess. Jenova worked him over, and he was raised as a human guinea pig by Hojo; it's a miracle he didn't snap earlier..."
"He's still not fine, so why...?" Cloud said.
"He's not, but now he wants to be."
Tifa made a doubtful frown. "So... What you are saying is that he was insane and none of it was really his fault."
"Oh hell no," Zack retorted. "He'll be the first to tell you at length why everything he ever did was his own damn choice and his own damn responsibility. And yeah, a lot of it was," he added quietly. "But being crazy isn't like being unconscious. It's more like lucid dreaming -- everything makes perfect sense at the time. You're the one who makes all the decisions. But the consequences -- it doesn't seem fully real either. And then you wake up and you realize how fucked up the rules you were going by were."
Cloud sighed. "That's a pretty metaphor, but it still tells me jack shit about how he's going to behave and whether I should forget my promise and just put him down in his sleep."
Tifa watched as Zack and Aeris exchanged a look that said volumes. "If we thought he'd need killing again, we wouldn't have helped him back," Zack said gently, and patted Cloud's back. Cloud exhaled slowly, eyes closed.
Tifa looked down at her feet. "But does he deserve to be alive again?" She swallowed; it was a little painful. "After everyone he's killed, all the suffering he's caused -- he didn't seem like a very different person to me. He was all ... aggressive and sarcastic and... Why is he -- why did you two...?"
Aeris sounded surprised, as if she hadn't expected that, and it hurt. Tifa's head snapped up; and she knew she looked a little accusing but she couldn't stop it. It was like she didn't even remember he'd killed Tifa's father, left him bleeding out on the ground for Tifa to trip over. "Why does he deserve to be alive again, when all those innocents he's killed don't?"
Zack and Aeris didn't have an answer for her. Zack chuckled without humor, and Aeris watched her with sad eyes that bothered Tifa. It was almost as if Aeris was disappointed in her. Cloud's back was stiff, his head low, face hidden behind his hair.
"It's not about the most deserving, Tifa," Aeris said softly.
Tifa's voice sharpened with frustration. "Then what is it about?"
"I had to know the person to bring them back. I had to know the exact shape of their mind. And I'm not even sure it could have worked with ... say, Cid, or Vincent. We didn't have time to get very close. Sephiroth... I touched his mind, and it almost wasn't enough."
Tifa left the bed, standing in front of them, too agitated to keep sitting at the end of the line. She didn't care about the technicalities. "But why bother?"
Zack shrugged and gave her a smile that looked fake to her. "Hey, stubborn as he is, he'd have found a way. He didn't want to die, and -- well, Jenova or not, he still has a hell of a lot of raw power. Like that it's less traumatic for everyone, right?"
Tifa pulled her hand free from Aeris's hold and clenched it at her side. "That's not a reason, that's an excuse."
They both stared at her, fake, distancing smiles gone.
"I'm curious," Aeris said eventually. Her tone was a calm, measured kind that aimed to explain, but didn't apologize one inch. "I want to see how he grows, what he will become. What he does with his potential, this time around."
Tifa's back stiffened. "... Curious?"
Zack took over; though this time he didn't insult Tifa by trying to placate her with a smile. He was deadly serious as he answered, looking her straight in the eye. "I'm selfish. I want him here because I love him."
"But -- he turned on you. Tried to kill you," Tifa reminded him, utterly baffled. He hadn't even changed his mind at the last second; if Cloud hadn't stopped it he would have gone through with it right there. And he was the reason Zack and Cloud had been captured and experimented on, the reason they became fugitives, the reason Zack ended up getting gunned down. She didn't get it, how Zack could really mean it even now.
Zack nodded soberly. "Yeah. Pissed me off. I still loved him. Hated him for a good long while, mind -- but even then I still loved him."
Cloud's back hunched a little more. Zack gave him a sad look, and rubbed gently between his shoulder blades.
"Sorry, blondie. I'm not happy with dumping this mess on your lap."
Cloud's voice came muffled, less by his position than by all those emotions he wasn't letting through. "Didn't stop you doing it."
"Yeah," Zack said quietly. "Yeah. Like I said, I'm a selfish bastard. I don't like to let go of my people."
They all sat in silence for a minute, everyone watching Cloud's bowed head. Tifa thought briefly that it was unfair, the way everyone kept pinning everything on him.
But it had to be him, she knew. As equal as they all professed to be, he had been the driving force of Avalanche, the keystone without which nothing would hold up. This time around didn't seem like it would be different.
"Let's sleep on it." Cloud didn't straighten up. "We're all tired. We'll call the others and see what they think tomorrow."
He climbed on his feet; Zack's hand fell off his back, Aeris didn't move to hold him. Just like Tifa, they could tell that he wouldn't have welcomed it.
"Denzel's bed is too small, so you two can have mine. Mind sharing?"
Sighing, Aeris got up too, and smiled, though it seemed sad to Tifa. "It's fine. We'll see you in the morning then?"
Tifa stepped aside and watched them as Cloud walked them through the short distance to his own bedroom door, on the other side of the corridor. She met Zack's eyes briefly as he murmured his goodnights, and then their door closed, and Cloud came back to her room. He closed that door too, and then they were alone in a silence so heavy she sank back on the bed under its weight.
There were things she wanted to ask him about, things she and Cloud should probably discuss now, without the two of them. She couldn't formulate a single one properly.
"...Let's sleep, Tifa."
Biting her lip, she nodded without looking at him. She toed off her shoes and crawled across the bed to the far side. The lights went off.
When he followed her under the covers, she wished it could have been one of those times he knocked at her door and joined her to make love. She felt around for his hand and squeezed.
She could still feel the warmth of Aeris's fingers, but she didn't know if that was a comfort anymore.
Cloud had been asleep for a grand total of three hours when his cell phone rang. Frowning fuzzily, he grabbed for it, already trying to word a way to explain he wasn't taking jobs right now that wouldn't alienate the customer forever. Customer management was the kind of skill that needed his concentration, so he almost asked the other man to repeat.
And then it clicked and the words made sense.
"Cloud, it's Reeve. We need you and Tifa in Wutai. Yuffie's father died."
<[Chapter 2]< - >[Chapter 4 >]