hello [ where i belong ]

where are you going?
with the long face pulling down
don't hide away like the ocean
that you can't see
but you can smell

Sunlight broke over the rooftops of Wutai, lighting the profile of one Cloud Strife. He sat perfectly still as the sun rose, gleaming on the water and casting shadows on the ground. Once upon a time, he'd counted his days by Aerith's death. One day later, two days later.
And then one day, as the sun broke, he realized he didn't know how many days ago Aerith had died. He'd just forgotten.
At first, he felt guilty, but that too faded as he'd travelled across water and land, across the bits of sky reflected in puddles and oceans. He travelled relentlessly, ruthless in his wandering. He never stayed in one place too long.
In Rocket Town, Cid had sworn at him.
In Corel, Barret had also sworn at him, but over his complacent shrug at being asked where Tifa was.
In Cosmo Canyon, Red XIII waxed philosophic about the nature of life and death. And love too, even when Cloud fell silent and stared at the stars.
In Junon, Reeve begged him to join a Cause and help rebuild Shinra into corporation worthy of its people.
He deliberately did not go to the ruins of Midgar, or Kalm, or Nibelheim.
Cloud came to Wutai not knowing the day. Yuffie met him at the edge of town and demanded presents. Instead, she got quiet brooding.

and the sound of waves crash down
He did many of the same things he'd done in Kalm, slaying insignificant creatures, kept his sword sharp and his skills honed. He stared at the sky until Yuffie threw up her hands in shrill exasperation and said it was his own damn fault if he went blind. He drank too much coffee and it made his stomach hurt sometimes.
And it wasn't the same as Kalm for two reasons.
He didn't think about Aerith.
Tifa wasn't there.
They seemed small, on the surface, but it took him several days to put his finger on them. It helped a little that Yuffie seemed to be dying from curiousity. And indeed, she cornered him one morning shortly after his discovery, and asked him point-blank.
"Okay, Cloud. I've been patient. You've been a lump. What happened?"
He'd raised an eyebrow at her slowly, taking his time. "What?"
Her hands had balled up, gone immediately to her hips. "You know, how you've been wandering to and fro with the wind or whatever, not a word about why to anyone, not even us."
"If I haven't told anyone else, what makes you think I'd tell you?"
"Because! You have to tell someone, don't you? I'm as good as anyone right now." But her eyes darkened, shaded themselves somewhat. "I know you'd usually tell Tifa or Aerith, but-"
"But what?" He wondered vaguely if he'd meant to be so sharp.
"But. . ." Yuffie waved her hands around, her cheeks turning pink. "Oh, I give up!" And it was as easy as that. She turned and fled, leaving him with a slightly unsettled feeling.

i am no superman
i have no reasons for you

At the moment, he wasn't sure how many days ago Yuffie'd tried to confront him. They slid through his fingers like sand now.
He couldn't see the ocean from any Wutai rooftops, though on very windy days, the scent caught and was carried to him. It was pleasant enough, if you weren't Cloud Strife and trying to forget something you couldn't quite wrap your mind around in the first place.
Like how Aeith was simply fading from his memory, how first he'd lost the feel of her dress under his fingertips and then the weight of her in the water, how she was fading from his senses first, and it was getting hard to remember everything she said.
Like how thoughts of her led to thoughts of Tifa, which was completely natural, since Tifa was his best friend. But not natural, because he loved Aerith in a way he didn't love Tifa. Except that when the smell of the ocean caught on the wind, it hit him hard, and he was kneeling in a small wooden boat with a warm, salty mouth under his.

i am no hero, oh that's for sure

He was pleased that he'd managed to shake off Tifa's strange idea of goodbye, pushed forward to find Aerith. He was less pleased that she eluded his grasp, to the point that he was losing her anew each day.
At first, he'd been able to feel her pulling at him, her voice in his bones as he moved towards the City of Ancients. He'd even rather gratefully chalked it up to Tifa's absence, that perhaps it was like fasting, and without company he could feel Aerith more strongly. After all, Tifa was so clearly troubled in a way that he couldn't name or fix. Which was what he told himself when water and air and anything brushed his lips and made them tingle.

but i do know one thing:
where you are is where I belong

It'd been easy to get into the City of Ancients, and just as easy to descend down to the temple of water, light and sacrifice. Easy to skip across the stones unburdened by anyone or anything.
It hadn't been so easy to just dive in and retrieve her body, which slept a perfect sleep underneath the water. She was undisturbed, untouched by the Planet's turmoil or her own heroism and sacrifice.
Cloud had lost none of the reverence he'd felt when he placed her to rest, none of the feverent devotion to her Cause. But even in the clear water, she was far enough away that the sweet features of her face were somewhat hard to see. He couldn't search the set of her eyes or the shape of her mouth or the bridge of her nose to see if it was alright for him to trespass and collect her.
So he sat on the crystal walkway and watched the sun filter through the water.

i do know, where you go
is where i wanna be

If he thought very hard about it, this was when he had lost track of the days.
And while at first, he'd been able to meditate solely on the purity of his love for her, and the various scraps of memory that involved her voice or face, time passed and he began to have a disturbing suspicion that he didn't know what he was doing here. He wanted to bring her back, but it wasn't as if he knew how.
He began to realize that he'd simply had faith that he would arrive at her side and she would open her eyes. That if he waited with perfect hope, she would rise from the waters and open her arms to him.
He would have felt very stupid, he thought mildly, had a certain haze not begun to envelope him. And then, fortunately, he didn't have to remember anything at all, and his feet would move, and he would go places where people asked him things but he didn't answer.

where are you going?
where do you go?
"So. Are you going to tell me yet?"
Cloud turned his head. Yuffie was balanced on the roof beside him, tucked into a crouch with her chin on her bare knees. She looked at him sideways, blushing furiously, but with focus.
"Tell you what?" He was genuinely confused, still caught in an almost medititative state.
"What the hell's going on! We know you went to the City of Ancients, and none of us can reach Tifa, and you keep popping up everywhere, without saying anything, or if you do, like you're some kind of. . .of. . .like you're Vincent, for godsakes!" The girl took a deep breath, and exhaled it noisily, with voicing something that sounded like an exasperated 'GOD'.
Couldn't reach Tifa?
Cloud frowned up at the sky, looking more as if he were contemplating the possiblity of rain than anything else.
"Cloud, are you even listening? I swear. . ."
Then she hadn't gone back to Kalm. Everyone had known they were staying there. She could be reached at Kalm. He glanced at Yuffie, still frowning. "Wait. Where's Tifa?"
The ninja's dark eyes sparked dangerously. "You haven't been listening. No one can find her. You're the one who's supposed to know where she is." The air around her relaxed a bit. "Barret's furious," she said, contemplatively, almost amused. "At you, anyway."
"Why? Tifa's the one who left without telling them."
"Because, dumbass," Yuffie said, "none of us thought she'd leave you!" The blush returned full force, and she looked away. "Did you fight?"
"Yes," he said slowly. "We did. She was angry, but then. . .she wasn't. She kissed me."
Yuffie's eyes rounded as she whipped her head back around. "She did? I'd have never thought she'd finally get the nerve!"
The nerve? That'd mean -
"No, I don't think you have it. . .right." The numb, thoughtful state was beginning to evaporate with the morning dampness and dew.
"Hey, you're the one who said she kissed you, not me. I'm just. . .hey, good for her, then." She appraised him shrewdly. "Not that it did either of you much good, huh?"
The words began to come out of Cloud's mouth, and he found himself listening, as amazed as Yuffie at the steady, constant stream. "I asked her to come with me to find Aerith. I was so happy when she said she would, that I wouldn't have to go alone. She's my best friend, and I wanted her with me. But then, she got upset when I was talking about how things would be when I found Aerith, and I didn't understand. She left me alone for the night, and then she came back and said goodbye, and I still didn't understand, and then she kissed me." His ribs began to contract around his heart, and his eyes moved along the horizon, the mountains, the village, the girl next to him, verging on frantic. "No, that's wrong. I did understand, I knew something was wrong before we left, even, but it was easier not to."
Yuffie was holding her breath, hugging her knees tight. "You were in denial! That's so. . .well, you. But it's romantic, too."
He closed his eyes, for the first time calling up the image of Tifa in the ocean, tiny strong hands braced on the edge of his boat, the rising sun gilding the top of her dark head. The glimmer on her eyelashes, the salt water soaking her skin, looking as if both rapture and pain were devouring her inside out.
"Shit," he said. "Where is she?"
"Cloud! Does this mean, um, does this mean you love her?" Yuffie had dropped her defensive posture, sat with her legs splayed under her, clasping her fists to her chest.
"I don't know. I don't know. But I think I need to find her."

are you looking for answers to questions under the stars
if along the way, you are growing weary
you can rest with me until a brighter day, and you're okay
It only took forty-five minutes to be ready to leave Wutai. It would have taken him less, but Yuffie insisted on loading him with provisions. "I swear to anyone who's listening, if you pass out of dehydration before you get to her, I will come find your desicated corpse and gut it open and hang it from a tree," she lectured, thrusting a antique looking canteen or something into his hands.
When they stood at the border of Wutai, he clapped her shoulder in goodbye. She smirked ruefully, and he surprised himself by giving her a tiny, but real smile, and ruffling her hair. She turned another alarming shade of pink, and kicked at the ground hard as he disappeared under the morning sun.
He visited all the places he hadn't gone yet.
Golden Saucer, Costa del Sol, and Gongaga were far shots, and held no clues.
But neither did Nibelheim or Kalm, much as they gave him butterflies in his stomach for the first time since he was a boy.
He stayed far from the Northern Continent, feeling it repel him as strongly as it had attracted him earlier. He still tried to remember little things about Aerith, to see if he could, to see if it hurt, like picking at a scab. And to his surprise, it didn't hurt. None of his memories really hurt anymore. It was just that those memories containing Tifa made him urgent.
So he didn't feel any remorse when he sat on the beach of Costa del Sol, smiling faintly at the waves, and Aerith smiled back at him, slightly transparent, but none the worse for the wear. He said hello, it was good to see her again.
She just smiled, very sweetly, and looked out at the ocean.
He said that he'd been looking for her, but that he was sorry. Because really, he was seeing now that he hadn't been looking for the right thing.
She smiled, pointed east, across the waters, and mouthed 'Midgar'.
The next morning, he set off for the ruins of the slums, not quite sure if it had been himself or Aerith who'd had the idea.
i am no superman
and i have no answers for you
i am no hero, oh that's for sure
The slums were lovely now, already the concrete and metal being replaced with greenery here and flowers there, tendrils snaking around breaks in the walls, trees growing out of trashcans. Those who lived there seemed to be experiencing the same kind of rejuvenation. Though not everyone was happy, they were hopeful.
Cloud picked his way through the remains of the sectors, along train tracks that were now being devoured by long grass. He kept his sword sheathed, and his water filled, because he did believe Yuffie would make good on her claim.
He found where the plate crashed down, and where what was left of Shin-ra had begun to make amends, spending great sums of money to remove the heavy pieces of plate and other wreckage. The residents were taking care of the rest, encouraging the growth of the vegetation under the now clear sky. Every once in awhile, he had to stop and just breathe for a few minutes, because he was sure that some part of him was expanding his chest, like some child's tale.
It wasn't until he'd reached the train station that he found Tifa, though. She was sitting on the platform, dangling her legs over the side where the trains used to run, watching the sun set.
His voice didn't work at first; he couldn't speak. He reached around himself, unbuckled his sword and let it fall to the station floor. It clattered loudly, and Tifa turned to look at him in one smooth movement.
The mouth that had slowly been consuming his memory dropped open. "Cloud."
"What are you. . .?"
He scratched his head, trained his eyes on the bleached wood grain for a moment. "I didn't know where you were. It took me a while to get here."

but i do know one thing

She stood, looking somewhat unsteady on her feet. "That was the point, that you didn't find me."
"Too late, too bad." Cloud smiled at her, which was far different than his usual distant ghost of a smile, because it was stronger and it was hers. "There's no point in trying to make it so that I can't find you. I can always find you. You draw me like a magnet, like my compass." He stumbled a bit over the words.
Tifa hugged her arms around herself, and looked away, down the train tracks. "I. . .why now? I mean, you love Aerith. Does this mean you didn't find her?" She twisted back around to face him, hitting the palm of her hand against the wooden step. "I don't want to be second best. I don't want to be your second choice."
He drew a breath. "I did look for her. And I found her. Well, I found her, but she was. . .dead. I couldn't bring myself to go down in the water after her at first. And then I could have, but I didn't. She's dead." He said it slowly, tasting the words and weighing them. "I could keep searching. There's ways. . .to bring her back. But I don't want to anymore. I sat there, and I stared at Aerith, and I thought about you, Tifa."
She looked at her hand, the grain of the wood. "I don't want to be your back-up girl."
"Tifa." He almost laughed, his voice warm, a catch in it. "You were first. You were always first. I mean, I loved you when we were kids, and then I loved you when I left. You know I left to make something of myself, to be good enough. For you." He rubbed at his arm. "It's been a long road, and I'm not telling you Aerith wasn't part of it. But that's it. And I don't even know how long it took me to get here, but I've made it. Back to you," Cloud finished softly, still rubbing at his right arm lamely, and was gratified to see her face clear of the confusion and hurt.
In fact, she looked much like she did when she had kissed him goodbye. This was familiar, and he thought that he knew what to do now.
Her eyes were full. With tears and grief and hope and desperation and him. She opened her mouth to speak, all of those things began to tumble from her lips.
Six full steps forward and he caught them before they hit the ground, held them between his and Tifa's bodies, and breathed them back into her. She accepted and shared these things, her mouth blossoming.
He decided that if she had kissed him goodbye, this was kissing her hello.
where you are, is where I belong
When the moon peaked over the train station roof, it marked a new day, and they would count from it for a very long time.

i do know, where you go
is where i wanna be

Notes: Hurrah for finishing! I'm a huge sucker for happy endings. "Where Are You Going" is by Dave Matthews Band, whom I normally don't listen to, but Cloud is apparently a fan. Go fig. "Angels Would Fall" belongs to Melissa Etheridge. Cloud and Tifa and company aren't mine either. Please review, let me know what you think!