BEGINNING AUTHOR'S NOTE: Holy crap guys, I'm alive and here's a HUGE chapter after a year's hiatus. Yes, it's huge. Over 32k words. THIS IS NOT THE FINAL CHAPTER. However! If you've been here from the beginning for the Cloud x Tifa shipping, then this chapter should nicely wrap up that aspect of the story. This is an IMPORTANT SHIPPING CHAPTER 3 Like, -the- most important one lol. There is a LOT going on in this chapter! Scenes on scenes on scenes of all kinds of different stuff happening! I hope this helps to make up for the ridiculously long wait, and I do sincerely apologize for taking so long! l If you're ready for this, and okay with knowing the story isn't -quite- done (we're very close!), then strap in, cause this is gonna be one hell of a ride! THANK YOU AGAIN for your views/follows/favorites/reviews! YOU GUYS ARE WHY I'M STILL DEDICATED TO FINISHING THIS STORY, AFTER ALMOST THREE YEARS OF WRITING! 3 Please see the ending author's note at the bottom, as well :-) Alright, guys. Let's do this! - SummonerStrife

•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Tifa was drifting. Floating. Swimming, perhaps... But she certainly wasn't on solid ground. The black, watery essence surrounding her was simultaneously comforting and incredibly terrifying. Am I dead? she wondered. There was nothing here. No sights. No scents. The only sound that emerged from the darkness was the increasingly loud ringing in her ears. It sounded like a million yelling voices inside of her mind.

I'm definitely dead.

She awoke someplace familiar. The Sector 7 train station, she realized. She wasn't sure why she was there, or where she was even going. Maybe she had just been passing through to get to another sector. Maybe she had intentions to board the train. She looked over her shoulder at the empty space behind her, feeling cold from the loneliness of the barren, soulless place. Or, maybe she was just literally cold. It was unusual; she hadn't felt much for quite some time. It was easier to suppress and ignore the painful emotions that always tried to bubble up when they were least needed. It was easier to fake happiness that way. Her team needed her perpetual optimism to keep their morale high.

Tifa noticed that she wasn't entirely alone, after all. A single train worker seemed to be kneeling down, tending to someone. She walked closer, wondering if she could help, and then she stopped in her tracks. For the first time in a long time, her heart jumped in her chest at the sight that was laid before her.

It can't be…

Blonde hair, a bit shorter and spikier than she remembered, but undoubtedly his. Different clothes… Were they?... Yes, a SOLDIER's uniform. A giant sword lying on the ground near him. She called his name uncertainly, but he didn't respond. Why was he kneeling on the ground? Clutching at his head? Was he okay? She walked closer, completely ignoring the train attendant, and realized that he was incoherently mumbling to himself. He raked his hands through his hair, shaking his head as if he were arguing with himself.

"Cloud?" she called again, reaching out tentatively and touching his shoulder.

The scene disappeared and she wasn't at the station anymore. This place was familiar too, though it was decidedly less lonely – yes, much less lonely, because Tifa was surrounded by her ragtag group of comrades in a small, cozy inn. In place of that lonesome feeling, a certain sense of unease seeped into Tifa's mind as she listened to Cloud recount the story of his past. It didn't add up, but she kept her mouth closed and her expression as neutral as she could. The temptation to say something had been building stronger and stronger, but what good would that do? Maybe he was lying for a reason. Or maybe… Maybe… He really believed in what he was saying…

She wasn't going crazy, was she?

Everything was suddenly very quiet, and her vision had melted and returned a scene that struck her heart like a sledgehammer and cracked deep fractures into it. The hospital she seemed to be in was so small, it almost shouldn't have even been called such a thing. And just there, right before her eyes, he sat, immobilized. Only, he wasn't there. The physical body of Cloud Strife was sitting in the wheelchair before her, but his mind had left that body. What remained was an empty shell of a man. Tifa was overcome with a hurricane of emotion, and the tears came down fast and hard. She reached out and caressed his almost unfamiliar face, stroking her hand down the cheek she had never had the chance to touch before. "I know you're in there," she whispered. She was desperate to believe in those words, and she'd give anything for them to be true. Something deep and dark told her that that wasn't possible, though. It was over for him… She shook her head, stubborn and uncaring about any 'truths' her mind might be trying to tell her. She wasn't going to give up on him. She wasn't going to ever give up on him, even if everyone else would. She grabbed a handkerchief off the nearby table and, with great care, wiped away the drool that was dripping down his chin.

She had only closed her eyes for a moment before time jumped again. Or, perhaps, time hadn't jumped, but her location had definitely changed. Cloud was sitting there on Denzel's bed, as real and as present as ever. She furrowed her brows as a devastating realization hit her. "You have Geostigma… Don't you?" she questioned. His stoic face was enough of an answer for her. An unvoiced confirmation. She put the pieces together instantly, realizing that that's why he had left, that's why he had made no effort to speak to her, and that's why he had regressed so hard from how far he had come. "You're just gonna give up and die," she stated plainly. "Is that it?" She should have realized it before. Maybe, somewhere deep down, she had known all along. Cloud was strong – very, very strong – but he had a penchant for getting sick. And when he got sick, he had a tendency to run away. Like a wounded animal. And after everything they had been through together… After Cloud said something weak-minded, Tifa shook her head, muttering a silly phrase that her dad had taught her many years ago: 'dilly dally, shilly shally'. It meant something along the lines of 'oh well' or 'it can't be helped'. It meant that giving up wasn't ever an option, but looking in the face of your adversity was all you could do. She had walked through the fires of pain and strife many times in her life, and she had pulled Cloud back from the effects of illness before. She was not going to let him give up on himself this time.

The scene fell away like raindrops rushing down from the heavens, and with it, her frustrations washed away, too. She was standing someplace else, and Cloud was looking at her. Not through her, not past her, but truly looking right into her eyes. It felt like it was the first time in forever. There were children surrounding him in a healing well of holy water, and they danced and played as the rain came down and washed away the illness that the Lifestream had stricken them with. Something seemed different; nostalgic, even, as his eyes softened and a small smile spread across his face. A smile she hadn't seen in so damn long. She could look into those smiling eyes of his for the rest of her days, she realized. She could look into those eyes forever.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Tifa slowly woke up from her fragmented dreams to a welcomed sense of weight against her body. She was surrounded by warmth and love that she hadn't truly felt in ages. To one side of her, her unofficially adopted son lay curled up like a snoozing cat, hopefully full of dreams and wonder that only little boys could imagine. To her other side, he lied there, seemingly released from his tortuous nightmares, for now. In the room across the hall, her daughter slept soundly with her Papa, certainly tranquil for the first time in a while. Downstairs, her friend slumbered deeply, perhaps dreaming visions of having children of his own. Maybe, just this once, at this one, quiet moment in the very early morning, they were all at peace, all full of soft dreams and comfort, without fear or anger in their hearts.

She felt him shift slightly behind her, pulling her body ever closer to his. He wasn't awake; she was sure of it, so the action must have been subconscious. It felt like he never wanted to let her go. Like he wanted her to be as close to him as possible. She sighed softly, letting her back mold to his torso and relishing in the feeling of being cuddled close. This was something she wasn't used to. No longer were the mornings cold and lonely. No longer was she tortured by visions of the past and stresses of the future. Not for the past few days. Not right now.

When had she started loving him? It certainly couldn't have been when they were kids, could it? No, that was impossible… She had hardly even taken notice of him back then. It wasn't until the years passed by, long and dreary, and she looked for his name in the newspapers, but found no word of the blonde-haired boy who had unknowingly made an impact on her life. He had made her so many promises, and somehow, he had kept every one of them. Even if he might have thought they were broken, she knew otherwise. Memories played like old movie reels in her mind of every time he had come to save her. So many times, he had come. He saved everyone, in the end. He was such a hero, and he never even seemed to realize it.

He had his faults, though. But hell, Tifa was just as flawed as he was. For every time he wanted to give up, Tifa had felt just the same. She wasn't sure what kept her going. All she knew, was that as long as she was by his side, she wasn't afraid to take on her problems. Sure, she worried, every day and every night, but he always managed to quell her fears just with the touch of his hand or the gentle, reassuring nature of his voice. She sighed softly again, frowning at the sad little thought that entered her mind: Cloud was asleep. It didn't mean much if he pulled her close now, when in reality, she was never really sure why he touched her in the first place.

She was surprised to feel herself ruminating on those thoughts now, of all times, just when she had felt peace only moments before. She wondered if she was taking things the wrong way. But how could she be? How could she interpret his actions in any other way? It felt wrong, so wrong to love him. To wretch him away from Aerith, when she had never truly cared for him before. Admittedly, though, she had thought about him for years, never forgetting the promise he had made that night… Maybe she had built him up too much in her mind. Placed him on a pedestal. Made him out to be some romantic knight in shining armor, ready to come save her whenever she was in distress. But her knight was broken, his armor built stronger around his heart than on his body. She never thought she'd have to be the one to save him.

And time and time again, she did save him. Maybe she hadn't realized it before, but she had pulled him from the brink of death in her own ways. Cloud was a sick individual, with a strong body and a fragile mind. Really, who was taking advantage of whom? Still… She couldn't help but enjoy this feeling. Such contentment wasn't something she had often, and she soaked it up, the little guilty feelings tugging at her despite her efforts to ignore them. She was here now, and Cloud was here, and her family and her friends were here, and she was wrapped up tight by the man she loved, the man she vowed to save as many times as he'd ever need. Just this moment… Just this one, important, tender moment… It was hers.

They stayed that way for a while, and Tifa drifted in and out of gentle slumber as the minutes ticked by. She instinctually felt her daily wake-up time approaching, far before the sun could cast its light over the dim colors of the room, and she wondered vaguely if she could ignore that as well and stay just where she was for the rest of her days.

It couldn't be ignored, though. Cloud stirred as Tifa's alarm began to blare in the other room. She was sure that everyone else would sleep through it, as she could barely hear it herself, but she also knew that Cloud's sensitive sense of hearing amplified everything around him.

"…Mornin', Teef," he whispered. "Stay here." He slid out of bed, disappearing through the doorway, and a moment later, the alarm went silent. Cloud slipped back in, walking quietly and making brief eye contact with Tifa before crawling back into bed. "Too early," he mumbled, burrowing his face in Tifa's hair and saying nothing else.

The brunette shifted away from Denzel and rolled to face Cloud, trying her best not to disturb the little boy from his slumber. She cuddled close against his chest, soaking in the blissful sensation of feeling his fingers trace patterns into her back. She pushed the little nagging thoughts further to the back of her mind, until they were almost completely out of reach. None of that mattered when she had these little moments with him. None of that mattered at all.

"Is this a dream?" she eventually heard him murmur.

"A dream?"

"My sleep is filled with terror and rage… How can I dream of something so wonderful?"

Tifa blushed, and Cloud's hand slipped up into her hair, gently rubbing at the nape of her neck as he rested his chin atop the crown of her head. "It's not a dream," she assured him, her voice still soft and tired. "This is real..."

"But it all seems too good to be true…"

"Is it?" Tifa questioned.

Cloud didn't respond, opting to lazily stroke Tifa's hair until they both fell back asleep.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

"Wake up, lovebirds," a gruff voice echoed through the hallway. Tifa's eyes snapped open, and she was surprised to see that the sun was clearly shining, Denzel was gone, and there were quiet sounds coming from downstairs.

"Everyone's up," Cloud's voice came from somewhere behind her, his tone tinged lightly with disappointment. His arm was still wrapped loosely around her torso, and he hugged Tifa tighter before sitting up and sighing. "Guess we should get up, too." Tifa sat up and looked at him, feeling slightly embarrassed under his gaze. His eyes looked less sunken in this morning, and his lips were quirked up ever-so-slightly in amusement. Tifa tucked her mildly disheveled hair behind her ears shyly, taking one final, long look into Cloud's eyes before realizing, with a slight panic, that she had slept in far too late again.

"I'm sorry, I gotta hurry and get ready!" she apologized, rushing to grab clean clothes from her room and leaving her little time to ruminate on what that sly little smirk of Cloud's meant. She showered quickly and efficiently, and was back down in the bar in fifteen minutes' time. Cloud had opted to take her place in the bathroom once she had finished, but everyone else was already downstairs and sitting down for breakfast.

"Well good morning, sleepy head," Barret greeted with a slight chuckle. "Marlene and Denzel treated us to breakfast this morning."

"Again?" she asked, surprised.

"Again!" Marlene replied with a smile. "It's not 'Be Extra Good" day or anything… Just 'Be Regular Good' day."

Tifa chuckled lightly, along with Barret, and gave the little girl a kiss on the cheek as she sat down at the table beside Denzel.

"You feeling okay, Denzel?" she asked.

He nodded and smiled. "A lot better."

"I'm glad to hear that." She gave the boy a quick kiss on the crown of his head and helped Marlene pour drinks for everyone. She made Cloud a plate, too.

Cid was having a rougher time waking up than anyone else, and he wandered in from the living room area groggily. "Coffee…" he mumbled, making his way outside for a morning smoke.

Cloud came downstairs not too long after everyone had begun to eat, smelling of fresh soap and sporting adorably messy hair. Tifa blushed, opting not to say anything and shoving a bite of eggs into her mouth instead.

Their conversational and decidedly normalmorning was enough to keep Tifa's mind from wandering to places it shouldn't go; however, she did become quite curious about the fact that Barret had asked Cloud to speak with him in the kitchen after finishing his breakfast. Once Cloud had popped his head out of the doorway and asked Cid to join them, Tifa couldn't help but ask what they were doing.

"Don't worry about it!" Cid huffed from the other room.

"You three can't just have some secret meeting without me and Marlene and Denzel!" she replied. Or at least without me, she corrected herself. She was beginning to worry.

"Fine, fine!" Cid yelled, coming out of the kitchen with his hands stuffed in his pockets. "Go talk to them," he said, motioning back towards the kitchen after Tifa gave him a pointed look.

Tifa took note of the kids' confused expressions as they finished up their meal and Cid went out for his after-breakfast smoke. "What's the big idea, guys?" she asked, watching Barret and Cloud clean their dishes side-by-side upon entering the kitchen.

Now that's an interesting sight.

"It's no cause for concern," Cloud said casually.

Tifa placed her hands on her hips, harkening back to a slightly younger, slightly sassier version of herself. "You three have a secret meeting in the kitchen, refuse to let me in on the conversation, and now you're working together, side-by-side, without bickering? Something's up, and I say you're both in cahoots." She smiled, satisfied with the looks on both of their faces.

"Actually, Cloud wanted to ask you something," Barret grunted, rinsing off his now-clean dishes. Tifa cocked her head.

"Well…" Cloud shrugged, scratching at the back of his neck. "…Cid has to fly home, but… We both thought it would fun to take the kids to the Gold Saucer today." He jerked his head in Barret's direction. "Mostly his idea, but since I'm not making deliveries today…"

Tifa dropped her hands from her hips and laughed quietly. "That's what your secret meeting was about?" She shook her head. "I forgot how silly you guys can be when you get together." Tifa giggled again when the two men simply grunted in response. Her smile fell from her face, though, almost as quickly as it had come. "I can't shut down the bar, though. It's not Sunday, the kids have school, and I'll have to shut down early for the party we're going to have…"

"Told you," Barret murmured, quietly laughing at Cloud. He patted the blonde man on the shoulder and left the kitchen, ignoring Tifa's quiet sound of indignation.

"It was really Barret's idea?" Tifa asked, once they were left alone.

Cloud nodded. "Yeah, but he asked me to convince you. And then we asked Cid if he would take us there and let us borrow the truck."

Tifa bit her lip, looking around to make sure that Denzel and Marlene's curious ears weren't listening. "Convince me, then."

"What?"

"Convince me." She held her hands behind her back, feeling a bit embarrassed and ashamed. Of course it would be irresponsible to shirk her responsibilities for the day, and especially to let the kids skip school, seeing as how they had just gotten into trouble for fighting. But, then again… When was the last time she had the chance to spend time with all of them like this? When was the last time Barret and Marlene had gotten to spend quality time together? When was the last time she and Cloud had gone some place together without it ending in some sort of brawl?

Cloud looked taken aback and perhaps, embarrassed, for just a moment's time, before something in him seemed to shift. He had that slight smirk on his face again, and something about it made Tifa's stomach fill with butterflies. He seemed so… Confident this morning.

"The kids would love it," Cloud stated, starting with the most logical answer. "All of us would love it, actually. Think of it like a mini-vacation. Which you deserve," he added, knowing that Tifa would interject that she didn't need to take any sort of time away from work. Idly, her mind wandered to the three tickets that were still stuffed in her apron pocket. "Those are good enough reasons, but I have more."

"Alright, I still don't feel fully convinced, then," she retorted, forgetting all about the strange gift that Trent had given her.

"Funnel cake," Cloud stated with a laughably serious expression. "That someone else cooks for you, for once."

"I don't mind cooking," Tifa said, a sly smile forming on her face now. "Got anything else?"

Cloud stepped closer, lowering his voice and looking a little too-serious. "You owe me a race."

Tifa's heart skipped a beat. "A race?"

The blonde nodded. "Remember, we said we would race each other last time we were there, but we never got the chance to. You said you owed me one – said you'd let me pick the best chocobo and you'd still beat me. I want my race." He crossed his arms, looking at her pointedly.

Although their conversation was a bit silly, it made Tifa feel excited in ways that she didn't fully understand. This was nothing important; it wasn't serious, it wasn't sad and it wasn't sweet, like Tifa was used to. No, this was something different. Something strong and flirtatious and unsettlingly sexy in the way that he was talking to her. Teasing her. Messing with her. It was too early in the morning for her brain to fully process it.

"Oh, fine," she relented, feeling her cheeks turn red. "I can't believe you convinced me over a chocobo race…"

"Chocobo races are very important, Tifa."

She gave him a look that said 'shut up', but Cloud chuckled quietly. "I'm just kidding," he assured her, his expression falling back into the gentle way he usually looked at her – the way Tifa had become accustomed to and just the way she liked. "You're sure you're okay with this? We don't have to…"

"No, Cloud, it's a great idea," she replied, smiling. "I was just kidding, too. I'm excited! It won't hurt all of us to get out of the bar together for one day..."

"That's what I was thinking, too."

"I'll go call the school and let them know that Marlene and Denzel will need to make up today's work."

"I guess I'll tell them what's happening."

Cloud led Tifa out of the room, leaving her with a shy smile on her face. Marlene and Denzel were still in the bar area, looking more confused than concerned, but once they were told the news, their faces beamed with excitement. Even Barret was full of smiles and laughter this morning, and Cid seemed to be happy as well.

Things almost seemed a little too good to be true. This Cloud – this happy, smiling, joking, teasing Cloud – felt like an old friend that Tifa hadn't seen in years. Her stomach trembled nervously, excitement bubbling up from her chest and exuding from her smile. Things were changing, and hopefully for the better.

"Well, let's get this show on the road, people!" the pilot eventually shouted. "We ain't got all day!"

After some rushed packing and a quick change of clothes, Tifa and everyone else were ready to go. The ride in the truck was a bit cramped, but Tifa didn't mind. She decided that maybe, just for now, it was okay to feel acutely aware of how closely Cloud's thigh was pressed against hers. Of course, Marlene's bony elbow was in her side as well, but that was okay, too.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

The Shera wasn't landed too far away from the bar. Once the countryside on the outskirts of Edge appeared, you could see her in the distance. She was a beautiful airship, strong and proud, and crafted with the essence of the lost Highwind in mind. Marlene and Denzel were enthralled, and all of the adults had to rein them in before they took off and got lost exploring the whole ship. Marlene wanted to ask the crewmen on board all sorts of questions, too, but Tifa asked her to leave the men alone to work. They didn't seem to mind their company.

"You really fly this thing?" Denzel asked Cid as they all entered the cockpit.

"Yep, I'm the best pilot who ever lived!" the older man boasted. Denzel looked at him in awe, his sense of wonder alight.

Everyone was eventually situated and belted into their seats, and after a few moments of whirring and humming motors, the ship was quickly rising off of the ground. "Here we go!" Cid yelled, pulling the Shera into the air. The force pushed everyone back in their seats for a few moments, but before long, it was over, and they were quickly and expertly stabilized as the craft continued to soar skyward. Marlene and Denzel both unbuckled their restraints and made to stand up.

"Sit down and put your seatbelts back on!" Tifa ordered the children.

"Ah, let 'em run around!" Cid commented. "I know what I'm doin'; this ship ain't goin' down any time soon."

Tifa made a sound of disapproval, but gave in after looking at the excited expressions on the kids' faces. "Go ahead," she shrugged in defeat. Marlene and Denzel bounded up to the front of the cockpit, leaning over the control station and peering out the window eagerly.

"Hey! Watch the buttons, though!" Cid barked.

"Yes sir!" the kids responded in unison, pulling their hands away from the many levers and electronic controls.

Cloud walked up close to the front as well, watching Cid curiously.

"This ship operates a little differently than the old one…" Cid commented quietly. "Not sure which one I prefer to fly, honestly. But look. You see what I'm doin' here?" Cloud nodded. "Gotta keep a steady speed on the takeoff, and make sure you keep her stabilized with the rudder pedals. Otherwise, she'll go off-balance."

Cloud nodded again, stuffing his hands in his pockets and silently taking lessons from the older man. Tifa looked over to Barret, who had made his way to the far corner of the ship and was distantly looking out the corner of the window. She walked over to him, holding her hands behind her back and peering out the window as well.

"I've done searched most of this planet for oil," he said, more to himself than to her. "It just ain't enough for the power that this world needs, even with the huge oilfield that we found. Not if we want to keep things the way they are now. Oil ain't cheap, either. And it's no good for the Planet… Almost as bad as Mako."

Tifa frowned, bouncing on her heels. "There must be something else we can use."

Barret grunted in response. "Coal's no good either. No good at all. They talk about wind and solar energy, but I've yet to see that work out very well."

Tifa cocked her head. "Well, how much of a chance have we really given it?"

"Not much of a chance at all. Not with Shinra around."

Tifa smiled. "Then, let's wait and see what happens. Now you've got all the time in the world to help figure out what the Planet needs."

"All the time in the world, huh?"

"Mm-hmm." Tifa's smile brightened. "If anyone's gonna figure it out, I know it'll be you."

The large man chuckled at her statement. "You say I have all the time in the world, but I always wonder if I'm using it wisely..." He shook his head. "Either way, I hope you're right."

Tifa eventually wandered back over to the children, noting Cloud and Cid's exchanges as the pilot maneuvered the ship past the edge of the city's view. They passed over open fields that grew greener in color the further they strayed from civilization, coming upon winding riverbeds and rocky outcroppings.

"So pretty…" Marlene murmured, absolutely entranced by the sites.

"It is," Tifa agreed. She looked over to Denzel, who had grown very quiet. "Isn't it pretty, Denzel?" Tifa prodded the boy, always worried whenever he became silent.

"…I've never seen anything like this before," he stated plainly. "There's so much more out here… More than I ever knew… I mean, I've seen things like this on TV, but…"

"Midgar doesn't even begin to do the rest of the world justice." Cloud's voice had interjected before he walked over to Denzel, placing a hand on his shoulder. "For right now, your job is to stay with us and do well in school. But when you get a little older, you'll see all the world has to offer." He looked over to the little girl, her eyes still looking over the dashboard eagerly. "You too, Marlene."

"…Will you show me?" Denzel asked.

"Of course I will," Cloud replied. "I'll take you both to all of the places I've talked about someday. Maybe someday soon." He ruffled the boy's hair, flashing a small smile to Tifa that caused her heart to skip a beat before retreating out of the cockpit. Tifa wasn't sure where he was going.

"Don't know what you're waiting for," Barret mumbled after Tifa waited a minute for his return. She blushed and exited the cockpit, smiling and nodding at the few engineers who were working on the bridge. Tifa found Cloud exactly where she thought he'd be, out on the side deck of the ship, an empty bottle of ether in his hand.

"You feeling okay?" she asked.

"Mm," he hummed absently. "That takeoff made me pretty nauseous. I should have drunk one of these beforehand." Tifa frowned, her face showing concern. Cloud smiled reassuringly. "It'll pass soon."

They watched the picturesque landscape pass beneath them, the craggily cliffside formations quickly morphing into pure, ocean blue. Tifa felt a strange sense of nostalgia, something both exciting and vaguely painful. They had crossed these oceans many times before on their journey together. But, Cloud had rarely kept her company in the way that he was now, nor had she kept his. There was only one instance where they had shared a quiet moment together like this, watching the same watery bodies pass beneath them.

It had been shortly after Cloud's recovery in the Lifestream. Shortly after he was truly himself and after he had made a speech to his comrades that made him sound like the hero he always wanted to be. Meteor was going to fall in seven days' time, and their showdown with Sephiroth was to come the next day. Cloud didn't beg for anyone to stay and fight by his side. Rather, he had asked them all to leave. He had told them to 'find their reason' for fighting, and if they so chose, to come back. Everyone had left but Tifa. "What are you going to do?" Cloud had asked her. She had shaken her head, reminding him solemnly that she didn't have anyone or anywhere to go home to. Just like him.

They had wandered aimlessly out to the deck of the Highwind together, while the large airship flew on autopilot by Cid's calculations. It was supposed to stop at some specific coordinates in the North, so that everyone who had left may find it again the next day, if they were to come back. Tifa remembered that her mind had been utterly blank as they silently watched the sea pass beneath them. She didn't know how long they stayed out there together, both looking off into the distance at nothing, and daring not to speak for fear of ruining whatever sort of moment they were having.

Cloud groaned quietly, and Tifa snapped out of her thoughts in an instant. "You're sure you're okay?" she questioned again. Cloud smiled lightly, turning to look at her.

"I look fine, don't I?" His tone was almost playful.

Tifa blushed, brushing a silly thought about how great he always looked out of her mind. "You look like you're about to puke any second now."

The airship shook somewhat violently for a second's time as Cid hit some sort of turbulence, and Cloud and Tifa both grabbed onto the rails of the balcony. Cloud definitely didn't look pleased about it.

"If Cid keeps doing that, I might," he huffed, shaking his head. "I'll be fine, though. Really. It's just been a while since I've been on an airship. I forget how rough it is…"

Tifa nodded. She hadn't been on an airship in a couple of months, since Cloud's fight with Kadaj and Sephiroth's reincarnate form, but he hadn't been on one since, she assumed, his first battle with Sephiroth. She frowned at the grim reminder of how much of Cloud's life still revolved around that evil man. He had wormed his way into every important part of Cloud's life like a virus. He still haunted his dreams and he left him wary of his future.

"What is it?" Cloud asked, pulling Tifa from her thoughts again. He must have noticed the angry look on her face. Tifa bit her lip, unsure if she should voice her thoughts. Today was supposed to be fun… And she didn't want to trigger painful memories for Cloud or cause him any unnecessary worry.

"Hm?" he prodded gently, cocking his head to the side. Tifa sighed.

"Do you think… Do you ever think you'll be able to move on from Sephiroth?"

The name itself caused Cloud's entire form to stiffen, his eyes burning brighter blue.

"I know that's a really sudden question…" Tifa continued. "But he's gone, and… He just won't seem to leave you alone. I mean… How is that even possible? I just… I just wish you weren't burdened by him…"

Cloud swallowed thickly, looking into the distance. "Tifa… I think you have to realize that Sephiroth will always be a part of me. A dark, terrible part of me that I wish I could distance myself from. But he will always be there, waiting, in the back of my mind. When I dream… When I have those nightmares… I'm not sure if my own mind is creating them, or if Sephiroth is still there somehow. Still inside my head." He tapped the side of his temple for emphasis.

Tifa's shock was apparent on her face. "He's dead," she said uncertainly. He is, isn't he? she thought. "You killed him."

"Three times," Cloud corrected her. "Who else do you know that can resurrect twice, let alone even once?"

Tifa bowed her head, unsure of what to say.

"I'm learning to live with it," Cloud stated. "I'm learning to live with a lot of things, Tifa. And I won't let him overpower me or control my life. Even if he does come back… Or if he never does again. Even if it's my own mind torturing me every night. It's not like I haven't gotten pretty used to that, too."

The way he said it, so plainly and calmly, like it was totally normal to be tortured by his own mind, caused something inside Tifa to break. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she wrapped her arms around Cloud, pulling his body close to hers. "You deserve so much better than this," she whispered.

Cloud held her for a moment, before speaking very quietly. "You say that… But this is all I really need."

Tifa felt his hand pet her hair gently, the other holding her close. "But…" she began to protest.

"Do you remember when we looked out over the deck of the Highwind together?"

Tifa nodded into his chest, arms still tightly wrapped around him. "I was just thinking of it…"

Cloud made a small noise of acknowledgement. "Even though I didn't say anything to you then… I was thinking the same thing. That no matter what happened, no matter if I won or lost against Sephiroth, I didn't need anything else but you by my side to give me the strength to fight him. So… I don't care if it's real, or if it's fake. If he's here or if he's not. As long as I can have you there to fall back on… He can't touch me." He hugged her tighter, his voice darkening. "And he sure as hell won't touch you, or anyone else that I care about, ever again."

Tifa frowned, fighting the stinging sensation that her tears offered her.

Anyone that he cares about… He's already taken someone so important to him. Someone he'll never get back.

Cloud released her and smiled gently, letting the back of his fingers stroke her cheek.

Someone irreplaceable. Someone I can never be.

"You're worrying yourself over me again," he observed. "But I'm perfectly okay, as long as you're around."

Tifa smiled back weakly in return. "Your stomach?" she questioned, fighting the urge to give in to her tears.

"Feels a little better," he replied. "But I'm more concerned with how you feel." He reached down and gently grasped her hand. "Come on, let's go back to the others."

Tifa nodded, swallowing her feelings into her stomach and tucking away her worries for now.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Before long, the western continent had come into view, the gigantic vision of the Gold Saucer not far behind it. Marlene and Denzel were in amazement.

"It's huge!" the girl declared.

"I don't remember it being this big," Denzel commented, his eyes wide and much brighter than before.

"You've been here before?" Tifa asked.

The young boy nodded. "Once… A few years ago. My parents took me on our vacation." His face fell after he spoke, the excitement dissolving from his features. "It was one of the last fun times we had together. All three of us, I mean…"

Barret hung his head, well-aware of the fact that he was partially responsible for the death of Denzel's parents, just as Cloud and Tifa were. Marlene kept quiet, unsure of what to say, and Cid did as well, focusing on maneuvering the Shera through the foggy patches of sky. Cloud was watching them silently.

"Oh, Denzel…" Tifa cooed, squatting down to his eye level and tucking a tuft of wavy hair behind his ear.

"…Dad was busy with work a lot. And if he wasn't busy, mom was."

Tifa frowned. Even though his real parents weren't with him any longer, his surrogate parents shared a similar story. Cloud was always away for work, and Tifa was always busy running the bar… Up until the last few days.

So much had been changing in such a short period of time. Good things and bad things alike. If it felt like a lot on her shoulders, it must have been the world on Denzel's.

"It feels weird to feel sad right now…" Denzel admitted, showing a surprisingly honest side of himself to Tifa. "But I kind of do."

"It's okay, sweetheart," she soothed him. "We all get sad sometimes."

"Even when you're supposed to be having fun?"

To Tifa's surprise, Cloud chuckled quietly. He came over by them and kneeled down by Denzel as well, a small smile on his face.

"Denzel, I want to tell you a secret."

"A secret?"

"Yeah, a secret. It's a secret that nobody knows, except maybe Tifa. But I don't mind if everyone hears. The truth is, I feel sad a lot of the time. Especially when I'm supposed to be having fun."

"…Because of the nightmares?" he questioned.

Cloud shrugged. "That's part of it, yes. But I get sad about my past a lot, too. And I get angry, and I feel really confused. The pain that you feel when you think of the ones you've lost…" Everyone in the cockpit paused, Cloud's words ringing true for each of them. "…That sort of pain sticks with you forever. And sometimes, happy memories can be painful. But…" He glanced at Tifa, and she noted how relaxed his features were. His eyes… They almost didn't look so dark and hollow anymore. "Even though your memories aren't replaceable… You can still make new, happy memories, too. Trust me when I say that dwelling on the past doesn't get you anywhere. Tifa would agree with that."

"It's true," she concurred.

"I want you to have a great day," Cloud said, smiling at Denzel. "I want everyone to."

Denzel nodded, bravely putting on a genuine smile. "Okay, Cloud. I'm ready for us all to have a good day, too."

Cloud ruffled his hair. "That's the spirit."

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

The terrain surrounding the Gold Saucer was barren and ugly from all the years of Mako energy consumption needed to run the edifice, but the park itself gleamed bright and beautiful. It was gloriously huge – really, a dream-come-true for both children and adults alike. Like any other large business on the face of the Planet, it held its dark secrets, but maintained an innocent appearance on the surface

"Alright, who's ready to have some fun?" Tifa chirped, smiling brightly.

"Me!" both of the kids said in unison.

"Me too!" Barret laughed. Cloud smirked as they made their way towards the tram that would take them into the towering theme park. The kids looked out the window with excitement, their eyes aglow like it were Christmas morning.

The Gold Saucer was just as giant and magical as Tifa remembered. Many large, gold-colored plates housed the different arcade and ride areas. The expansive, rainbow-paved chocobo track could be seen in the distance. The upbeat music grew louder and louder as the railcar approached the end of the track. As soon as everyone stepped off, the ambient chatter and the faint scent of food entered their senses. Cloud led the way to the decorative moogle mouth, which served as the main entrance to the park.

"Welcome to the Gold Saucer!" greeted a spritely young attendant. Cloud pulled out the lifetime pass that he had bought on their journey two years ago from his pocket.

"Oh, great! This should cover the five of you," the attendant commented, scanning the ticket and then clicking away at the computer behind the glass reception wall. "It looks like you still have 15,263 GP attached to your name… Mr… Strife?" Cloud nodded, and the receptionist leaned over to get a better view of him and the short blade that was holstered behind him. "…Usually, I'd have to tell you that weapons are forbidden here as of last year, but Dio gave us specific orders to give you and your party special treatment."

"I'll have to give him my regards. Thanks."

Cloud motioned for Tifa and the others to follow him, but the attendant asked him to wait, her eyes becoming wide.

"So… You're really the Cloud Strife?"

He nodded once more, then continued on his way. "Have a nice visit!" the attendant called behind them, her confusion apparent, and Tifa began to wonder just how well-known Cloud had become around the Planet. She had noticed that small, surprised interactions had begun to happen more frequently whenever Cloud met somebody new. He never had much to say in return, but he usually quietly confirmed that he was the Cloud Strife that people may have heard about.

"You want to pay Dio a visit?" Tifa questioned.

Cloud chuckled dryly. "Not really."

The entrance opened up into a large, circular area that was decorated with bright, neon colors, a network of marked tunnels that would lead them into different areas surrounding all of them. People milled about happily; a person in a fat chocobo costume waddled over and handed both of the kids a gold balloon, waving and squawking out a "Kweh!" before toddling away. The kids both giggled, even though Denzel looked slightly embarrassed.

"Alright kids, we can go wherever you want!" Barret announced jubilantly. "Where will it be first?"

"Let's go play some games!" Marlene suggested. Denzel nodded in approval.

"Alright! To the Wonder Square we go!"

Walking through the mass of people was a somewhat slow endeavor, as the Gold

Saucer was just as packed as ever. Tifa placed a hand on each of the kids' shoulders, guiding them behind Barret's broad figure; at least he parted the crowds pretty well. She blushed lightly when she felt Cloud's hand on the small of her back, guiding her as well.

Marlene and Denzel both gasped in awe when they reached the main arcade room; there was practically every sort of game one could imagine in the crowded space. Electronic dance games, skee ball, basketball, racing games – this place had everything. Tifa fondly remembered playing around with some of the games the last time she had been here; it had been one of the few moments of respite in their journey. She decided to pick up a game of basketball with Denzel as Marlene played with Barret and Cloud watched on. Tifa only had to go a little easy on Denzel, as she was decent, but Denzel was pretty good himself. Barret lost fair-and-square to Marlene. He was big and strong, but fine-tuned accuracy wasn't his strong suit.

Tifa giggled lightly when Cloud suggested that he and Denzel race each other on one of the motorcycle games. Denzel wasn't quite as adept at that game, and Cloud took the time to teach him how to better maneuver the electronic bike. "I'll show you how to actually ride a motorcycle when you get a little older," he noted. Denzel seemed incredibly pleased with that idea.

The kids had run over to play skee ball and a couple of other games that awarded GP and prize tickets, with Barret close behind them. "Teef, come here," Cloud had said, pulling her towards a game stand that reminded her of something you would see at a county fair. There were stacked glasses lining the game area, and lots of plushy prizes hanging up on the wooden walls. "Think Marlene and Denzel would like those?"

He was referring to the cute little chocobo plushies lining the walls, each in a different color. Tifa nodded. "Definitely," she said with a smile.

Cloud tried his hand at the game, but he found that he wasn't as good at it as he expected to be. After three tries, he shrugged, scratching the back of his neck awkwardly.

"Let me give it a shot," Tifa chirped.

She took Cloud's place at the game stand and readied her aim, concentrating intently. She missed a few times, but after a couple of tries, she had successfully managed to win the game. She picked a different-colored chocobo for each of the kids, satisfied with her work.

"Good job," Cloud commented, smirking.

Everyone continued to enjoy their time together for a while; both Marlene and Denzel were holding onto their plushies tightly as they eventually made their way to a large, open food and shopping area.

"You guys hungry?" Barret asked. Both of the kids agreed in unison, but Cloud shot Tifa a look.

"Actually, I think we might take off for a little while and meet back up with you later… If that's okay?" The blonde looked at Tifa, cocking his head. She felt her heart skip a beat.

"Yeah, apparently I owe Cloud a chocobo race," she teased. "How about we give you a call later on? Denzel, Marlene, you'll be good with Barret, right?"

"Yeah!" they responded enthusiastically. Barret chuckled.

"Alright, you two have fun. Give us a call in a little while. We're gonna grab some grub."

After waving goodbye, Cloud and Tifa made their way towards the chocobo racetrack. The transit tubes took them there pretty quickly, and before they knew it, they were standing at the bottom of a huge stairwell that would lead them up to the tracks.

"So, you want your race that bad, do ya?" Tifa teased again, leaning forward to look at Cloud's profile. "You know you're just gonna lose, right?"

Cloud turned to face her, his expression serious. "You underestimate me."

Oddly enough, the mixture of his expression and the no-nonsense tone of his voice sent a chill down Tifa's spine. She almost couldn't even tell if he was messing with her, or if he wanted to win this race that badly.

"Let's add some stakes to it, then," Tifa chirped. "Winner gets to pick what we do next! Loser has to admit their defeat." She stepped in front of Cloud and extended her hand in a show of good sportsmanship. Cloud smirked, taking her hand and shaking it firmly.

"You're on."

After signing up and paying a small fee, both Tifa and Cloud were ready to ride. They had to choose from the chocobos that lived at the Gold Saucer, since they had released the chocobos that they had both caught long ago.

"I still kind of miss Clementine sometimes…" Tifa mused, saddling up on a black chocobo.

"What kind of a name is 'Clementine' for a chocobo, anyway?" Cloud prodded as he prepared to ride a strong, red chocobo.

"Says the guy who named his gold chocobo 'Goldy'. So original," she responded sarcastically.

Cloud frowned. "It was a good name…"

They didn't have much time left to poke fun at each other before the race began. The contestants were good; at least a few of them had to be professional chocobo trainers. Tifa had tried her best to bond with her new, feathery friend before the races began, hoping that it would cause the creature to behave batter. She kicked her foot against its side, and it squawked, speeding up after hopping a little. Tifa smiled – she still had it.

Cloud, on the other hand, seemed to be having some issues with his chocobo. The large bird was repeatedly squawking at him, its feathers ruffled up in irritation. The other riders seemed to zip past him, and Tifa gave him a sympathetic glance before speeding past a few other racers. She knew Cloud was good with his own trained animals; maybe he was just having an off-day.

Tifa didn't come in first, but she did place third. Cloud came in next-to-last. He looked upset with himself. Tifa, on the other hand, was pretty satisfied with her performance. You can take a girl out of the country, but you can't take the country out of a girl… she mused.

She approached Cloud after the race had finished and her chocobo was safely put back in his stable.

"I won," she stated, trying not to break out into a smug smile.

"Fair and square," Cloud agreed. "I admit my defeat. So, what do you want to do?"

"Hmm… I don't know yet." Tifa smiled, kicking her feet up playfully as she wandered away. "I'll have to think about it."

Cloud smiled too. "Guess I have no choice."

Tifa finally did break out into a full smile when she felt Cloud's hand reach for hers. They intertwined their fingers and wandered aimlessly for some time. Tifa didn't really have anything in particular she wanted to do. She just wanted to have the chance to tease Cloud. To flirt with him, whether she realized that or not.

"Hold on," Cloud commanded.

"Hm?" Tifa stopped, feeling the gentle tug of her hand. Something had caught Cloud's attention, but not in the urgent, dutiful way she was used to seeing. Upon looking in the same direction he was looking, she saw nothing of interest other than an ice cream stand. The sign above it read Biggest Milkshakes on the Planet!

They caught each other's eyes, and Cloud shrugged. "Only ten GP."

Tifa stared blankly at him for a heartbeat, before bursting into a fit of laughter.

"What's so funny?"

"I've just never seen you look so serious about ice cream," she giggled. "Let's get some."

The sign wasn't lying; the milkshakes were huge, and Tifa declined Cloud's offer to buy her one.

"Well, what kind do you think I should get, then?" Cloud asked.

Tifa helped pick out some ridiculous concoction, consisting of triple fudge and chunks of cookies. Though it was insignificant in and of itself, the act of picking out the treat together felt so normal and almost juvenile. When Cloud offered her some of it, claiming that there was no way he could finish the entire thing himself, Tifa caught herself blushing. It seemed strangely intimate; she wondered if she was feeling the way that teenagers felt when they went on dates together. Though they were long past their teenage years, Tifa remembered that they had never gotten to really experience those sorts of common little moments.

The longer they strolled together, the more Tifa began to think that Cloud was feeling the same way. She watched him open up into almost an entirely new person; he laughed with her, making small quips about some of the more eccentric-looking guests at the park, and bringing up random, uncharacteristic pieces of conversation. He was still playfully teasing her, and Tifa had never felt so happy to talk about nothing in particular.

After a while, Tifa finally decided what she wanted to do. Her eyes fell on the entrance to the gondola. Twilight was approaching, and the little cable cars on the metal tracks looked inviting.

"Alright, Cloud, I see what I wanna do!" she announced. "Let's go ride the gondola together!" Tifa smiled brightly, tugging him along. "Come on, it's almost time for the fireworks show! I wanna see them from up there!" Cloud followed her lead, but his footsteps had become slower and heavier. Tifa ignored it, letting go of his hand as he paid for two tickets to ride. She ducked inside the small lift and Cloud followed behind her, unsheathing his sword and propping it in the corner of the lift before silently sitting down on the opposite side of her. The rails began to pull them upwards as soon as they had seated themselves. Cloud said nothing, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands folded beneath his chin, the little characteristic pucker of his brows knitting together lightly. Something was wrong.

"Cloud? …Is everything okay?"

He nodded his head once, though the expression didn't leave his face. "…It's just… Strangely nostalgic. But, not really in a good way."

Tifa didn't understand. Had he come here and ridden this gondola when he was a kid? When he was training to become a SOLDIER? Had something bad happened?

Cloud noted the expression on her face and sighed, sitting up straighter. "When we all came here two years ago… The night we all stayed in the Ghost Hotel… I was awake, and… Aerith came and knocked on my door. Asked me to go on a little 'date' with her."

"…Oh." It hit her like a ton of bricks. She blinked once, twice, stupidly, her expression blank. Damn it, she cursed herself, difficult feelings welling up inside her. Just when things were going so well, she managed to somehow screw it up. This was the last thing Cloud needed. This was the last thing she needed. And why… Why did she feel so jealous?

"…She practically had to drag me out of the room," he continued. His voice was serious, not a trace of humor lacing his tone. "And the whole thing was pretty dumb. But she enjoyed herself… And I guess, maybe I had fun, too… We rode this gondola together. Just like this."

Tifa was silent. She clutched at the hem of her shorts, willing the threat of welling tears to fade away.

Of all the times in the world to feel jealous… Jealous over a person who isn't even here now, over a person who I called my friend…

Why do I feel this way?

"When we were in here… I felt nervous," Cloud continued. "But… Not nervous in the usual way. I knew that she was going to say something important to me. I just wasn't so sure what…" He paused, reflecting on his memory. "She told me… That she was searching for me. Searching for the 'real' me. Back then, I had no idea what she was talking about." He shook his head. "She told me I reminded her of somebody. Said I walked the same, gestured the same... None of it made sense. I blew her off."

Tifa stole a glance at him before staring hard at the metal floor. "…Zack?" she questioned.

He sighed heavily, nodding once. "I still can't believe that I forgot who I was. Who he was… All that time spent, just, pretending... And Aerith? She… Never got to meet me. And she never will."

Tifa refused to look up, but she spoke softly. "Sometimes… There are things that you wish you could change about your past. There are things left unspoken. And, sometimes… It's just too hard to say it. And then, it's too late." Cloud was silent. "Me and Aerith… Well, there were a lot of unspoken things between us."

"…I know."

"I wonder… If, at times… It's best if things are left unspoken."

Tifa felt his piercing gaze fall upon her. "Why do you say that?" he asked quietly.

"It's… Hard to explain…"

He was silent in thought for a long moment. "Lots of things are hard to explain, aren't they?" he finally murmured. "Everything that has ever happened to me seems hard to explain. And yet… It happened. Maybe unspoken words cause nothing but pain…"

If only you knew… Tifa thought solemnly.

"I wish I could have told her a lot of things," Cloud admittedly. "But I'm not sure what I would have said." He sighed, letting his shoulders drop with the weight of his breath. "She liked you a lot, you know."

"She liked you a lot, too," Tifa replied, almost too hastily. She could feel the tears threatening to escape her eyes, her breath becoming shaky and her heartbeat quickening. "I think…" She licked her dry lips, unsure of why she was saying what she was about to say. "I think it hurts you because you never got the chance… You never got the chance to say what you needed to say…"

"…I don't know."

Tifa drew in a shaky breath, holding back her feelings as she reached desperately for the truth. "Cloud… Don't you ever wonder how she felt about you?" He said nothing in response. "You… You loved her, didn't you?" she prodded, regretting the question as soon as she had asked it.

Cloud's silence was tortuous, and Tifa wallowed in it, accepting what she had known all along. Aerith had loved Cloud and Cloud had loved her. Tifa had just been there when Aerith couldn't be. If she were here, if she were alive… Tifa would have never known the taste of Cloud's lips. The look of desperation in his eyes. The touch of his hands and the warmth of his body. The little smiles and the gentle expressions, the tiny acts of chivalry and kindness. The torturously decadent feelings that he gave her. The sense of wanting and being wanted in return. She was, and had always been, Aerith's replacement. And, for some reason, in her stupid, hurt, twisted mind… She was almost okay with that.

"…Did I… Love her?" Cloud repeated the question aloud. He turned his gaze towards the window, his eyes faraway. "Maybe… In some ways, yes… I guess you could say that. She was special… I didn't know her for long, but in that time, I feel like I learned a lot about her…" His eyes dropped to the floor again as he shook his head. "But… When it really comes down to it…" He looked back at Tifa, shame and sadness reflecting in his eyes. "No. I didn't love her. At least, not in that way… I don't think."

No?

"'N-No?'" she repeated, dumbfounded.

"Tifa… I…" He sighed. "This is difficult…"

"You don't need to-"

"Just…" He held his hand up and breathed, collecting his thoughts very slowly. "I want you… To understand something." He stood up, taking the two short paces to the window and looking out it again. "I don't know how Aerith really felt about me. And that wouldn't be so bad, if I knew how I felt about her. But I don't. I really don't. Back then… You know how things were. I know that I felt… Something for her. I cared about her. She was my friend, even if I didn't realize it then. I wanted to protect her. I wanted to save her… And I couldn't do that." He clenched his fist, seemingly without realizing it. "When Sephiroth murdered her… It hurt. It hurt… So damn bad. Maybe because it was stirring up feelings that I had buried deep inside. Feelings that, maybe, I would have felt when Zack died, had my mind been stable back then. Tifa… You know." He turned back and looked at her, his features vaguely contorted with emotion. "You know that I didn't know who I was. I didn't know what was happening. And I didn't know whose thoughts and feelings… Were actually mine. But, if something was powerful enough… I think I really felt it… And… Even though what I felt towards Aerith was confusing and strong, I've never known… To this day… If those were even my true feelings…"

"Cloud…" Her silent tears had finally begun to flow.

He shook his head, his voice breaking as he spoke. "Teef… I don't think I'll ever really know. There's no simple answer to that question, but… The truth is, I've never dwelled on it too much. When it comes to Aerith, everything about her memory revolves around the guilt I felt towards her. The guilt that I still feel, even though I promised you I would move on from what happened. Even though I asked her to be forgiven… I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to fully move on from the past… And I won't ask you to accept that from me. But I do want to ask you, to just, try to understand…" He sat back down on the bench, his collectedness breaking and leaving him looking absolutely drained. His eyes – those shockingly soft, sweet eyes – showed years of pain, and for just a second's time, he looked like he might break. Tifa couldn't find the courage to speak – to think, even. Her very essence was focused on Cloud's revelations. "Now that you've actually asked me out loud… Asked a question that I've never really bothered to ask myself…" he seemed to think aloud, more than speak to her. "I think I was too scared of what the answer might be. But looking at you now… I feel like I've known the answer all along." He shook his head, his own piercing, blue eyes watery and sincere. "She just… Wasn't the girl for me."

It was a shockwave of emotion; it was insecurity and a jolt of confidence all jumbled up together. It was a complete, rejuvenating, terribly confusing wash of relief over Tifa's stinging wounds. She stared at him, totally in disbelief, watching how his serious gaze never broke, how he never blushed, never looked away, but looked unwaveringly genuine in everything he had just told her.

"I just… Need you to know," he continued, "that she will always be a part of my life. Just like Zack... But not really like him, either. And just like Sephiroth, no matter how much I hate him. I may never fully move on from the memories. I may never know all the answers. I can try, but no matter what I do... My past is something I will always have to contend with… And the past is a very fuzzy, hazy, confusing thing for me. But they were there. They were a part of it. And… I don't know if you can handle that. Or if it's selfish of me to ask you to."

"You don't know if I can handle it?" she whispered, almost incredulous. She reached out across the short distance between them and cupped Cloud's cheeks. "We've been through so much together… Your past and mine – they're intertwined, too." Her hands fell naturally from his face, from his saddened expression and down to his warm, perfectly empty hands. "Time and time again, we come right back to this place."

"What do you mean?" he questioned, stress tugging at his features.

Tifa stared at their hands, physically woven together just as their lives were. "A place of misunderstanding. You work so hard to protect my feelings, and then I do the same for you. But in the end, we both just end up confused. Maybe I've been the selfish one, Cloud. Maybe I haven't taken the time to actually listen to what you have to say. You close yourself off, and then I try to pry you back open, but each time, I don't know if I've ever really listened… And it just goes in a neverending circle. Until now…" She looked back up at him, tears unabashedly falling silent down her face. "I think I really understand now… There's a lot of puzzle pieces in your past, and they don't all perfectly fit together to form the right picture. But they're there, just like you said. Maybe, what each piece means… Maybe that doesn't matter so much, after all. Or maybe, that's only for you to really know. The truth is…" She smiled, her heart filling up with a sense of purity, a sense of something very tangible and very real. "I'm just happy being a part of your puzzle, too."

Cloud released her hands and roughly wrapped himself around her shoulders, squeezing tightly. "You are more than a part of the puzzle, Tifa. You're… You're basically the whole damn thing."

"Cloud…"

"I'm sorry… For how confusing this must be for you… How it must have been in the past…" He buried his face in the side of her neck, words muffled against her skin. "If you think you've never tried to listen, then it's probably because I've never tried to speak. I know I've kept myself so closed off from you. And, even now, it's still hard for me to do any of this. But… Damn it, Tifa…"

"You forgot already," she murmured into his shoulder, letting her own arms wrap around him, as well. "No more apologies, right? Maybe… Maybe we've got this all wrong. Maybe it isn't about moving on from your past. Maybe it isn't about worrying about the future, either." Tifa pulled away, leveling her gaze with Cloud's and smiling gently through her tears. "Maybe it's just about accepting what the past was… Accepting what the future might be… And living in the present as much as we possibly can."

Cloud reached up and brushed his fingers along Tifa's cheek, wiping away her tears as he had done many times before. "Just 'be'?" he suggested, echoing her sentiment from just a few nights ago. She nodded.

"Yeah… That's right."

Aerith…

When it all comes down to it… I owe you so much.

Beyond saving the Planet, beyond saving all of our lives… The impact you've made on us… The impact you've made on the people that I care about, and the impact that you've made on me, in the short time that I knew you…

I think, if I'm feeling jealous of your spirit, then maybe I'm missing something. Maybe I've spent too much of my time thinking too simply. Or… Maybe not thinking simply enough. Your presence here was a gift. Because of you, Cloud is who he is, and I am who I am. We'd be totally different people, if it weren't for you.

If you had never been here… If you had never journeyed with us… Would we even still be in the same place that we are now? Would I think the same way that I do now? Feel the same? Act the same, and love, and live, and breathe the same?

Would he?

It's okay, I think... Okay to dwell on all of these 'what-ifs' and 'maybes'… For a little while, at least… But, at some point, I have to stop. I have to stop running my mind in endless circles and never coming to any answers or conclusions. What purpose does it serve, other than to cause pointless suffering?

You were so present, when you were here. I wonder, if I can feel your presence now… You told me that I knew what I needed to do…

I need… To…

"You have that look on your face," Cloud murmured. "That look that tells me you're thinking about a lot of things that I won't be able to work out on my own."

Tifa smiled as Cloud wiped away the last of her tears. Colorful bursts of light illuminated the little cabin, the gunpowder shots heard far in the distance. Tifa looked out the window, but Cloud's eyes never left her face. "The fireworks…" she commented absently. "…They're really pretty."

"Beautiful," Cloud agreed. Tifa looked back, her eyes slightly wide.

"…I'm thinking… That I'm happy that you got to have that moment with her, Cloud," she said honestly, all of the bitterness washed away like Aerith's cleansing rain. "I know it was important to you."

"…Yeah. I am, too. It was… It was important to me." Gently, he brushed Tifa's bangs away from her forehead, and placed an innocent kiss on her warm skin. Her stomach tumbled and fluttered in response, and Cloud smiled softly as she blushed. "But this is our moment, Teef." He turned to look out the window again, and Tifa did as well. "You know… the future's not so bad, when you really think about it."

"Even if bad things might happen?"

He nodded, watching the explosions in the sky. "I don't want to spend all my time feeling afraid anymore… Or guilty, or anything else that isn't 'happy'. If something bad happens…" Tifa watched his starry eyes dart across the sky, a sense of hope filling her up deep inside her wounded heart. "…We'll worry about that when the time comes. Until then… I think I feel excited."

Tifa smiled, leaning her head against Cloud's shoulder. "Me, too."

I need to…

Really… I should thank you. I should thank you for being there for Cloud during the times that I wasn't. I should thank you for caring about him so strongly. For caring about me so strongly, as well.

Aerith… Thank you. Thank you for being my friend. For being his.

I understand now… I just need to…

Live.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Tifa and Cloud were silent as they walked hand-in-hand away from the gondola. Cloud was smiling, his eyes no longer distant and his body language no longer aloof. Something seemed different about him; but, maybe, something was different about Tifa, as well.

"We should probably get back to the others soon," he said. Tifa nodded in agreement. "But first," he continued, "is there anywhere else you'd like to go?"

"Nowhere in particular."

I'm just happy to be here with you.

As if he read her mind, he led her through the masses of people without further question, simply enjoying her presence. They wandered through the Event Square without any sense of urgency, people-watching and making the occasional, quiet comment to each other. It was, in a sense, sobering – as if they'd both discovered some sort of clarity in the gondola that they had been searching for together. Yet, at the same time, Tifa felt like she was riding on high. "You alright?" Cloud had asked her gently. Tifa just smiled and nodded, wrapping her free hand around his arm and leaning her head against his shoulder.

They were content like this for some time, simply wandering through a sea of people as the lights in the park glowed brighter beneath the darkened sky. Cloud's demeanor was soft and gentle – calm, as if he were at peace. For a short time, Tifa felt like she was truly living in the moment, rather than worrying about her past or her future, and she wondered if Cloud were feeling the same.

That's why she paused, concerned, when she felt Cloud halt in the middle of his step, his eyes narrowing.

"Keep walking," he instructed calmly. "Someone is following us."

"Who?" she asked, her eyes widening as she feigned ignorance to being tracked.

"Not sure, but I can sense them. Let's lead them somewhere less crowded."

Tifa nodded, and they continued their charade, her arm still tightly wrapped around Cloud's. She felt uneasy, the previous feelings of serenity falling away from her senses. They rounded a corner that led into an empty alleyway, and Cloud finally stopped in his tracks, bringing Tifa to a halt as well.

"Hmph," Cloud chuckled. "Either you wanted me to know you're here, or you're just bad at trailing me." He turned, unlinking his arm with Tifa's, and directed his words at the person behind him. "Let's talk, Trent. I know you've been wanting to."

"…Trent?" Tifa echoed, confused. It was him, alright – all dressed up in a long coat and sunglasses in a poor attempt to hide his identity. "What are you doing here?"

"Good question," Cloud acknowledged, his hand reaching for his blade in its scabbard as he advanced on the man. "Got a good reason for why you're following us? Or do you have an excuse, instead?"

"Cloud-"

"Stay back!" Trent warned as he backed away. "I'm just here! This is all a big misunderstanding!"

"Is it?" Cloud questioned coldly, flipping his blade over in his hand.

"Stay away from me!"

"Cloud, wait!" Tifa tried to calm the swordsman, but he was already ten steps ahead of the other man.

Dangerous and controlled, Cloud's blade was firmly set against Trent's neck in an instant, pinning him tight against the concrete wall. Cloud jerked his head infinitesimally in Tifa's direction, acknowledging her but continuing his attack.

"Why were you following us? Lie to me and I'll cut you right here."

"Cloud, stop it!" Tifa pleaded, running to the two men and pushing against the hilt of Cloud's blade as Trent began to whimper. Cloud pulled his sword back into position as soon as Tifa lifted her hands from the blade.

"I wasn't!"

"I don't believe you," Cloud retorted.

Trent struggled against the pressure of Cloud's sword. Though it didn't draw any blood, it was enough to send the tawny-haired man into a panic. His eyes went wide, his breathing becoming erratic, and he tried to squirm free. Cloud eyed him maliciously, somehow daring him to make a wrong move beyond his pathetic struggling.

"Cloud, please!" Tifa was practically begging him to calm down. His calculated attack and cool demeanor betrayed the anger that she knew was building inside of him. As she tried to gain control of the situation, something fell out of Trent's pocket. Tifa picked it up, and her eyes grew wide at what she saw.

"…Cloud's maps?" She looked at Trent, questioning and unsure.

Cloud jerked his head to look at the evidence, his blade never leaving Trent's neck. "The ones that were missing from my desk drawer…"

"…Missing?" Tifa echoed.

This must all just be a huge misunderstanding… It has to be… Doesn't it?

"So you're a liar and a thief, now?" Cloud spat.

"Please!" Trent pleaded. "P-Please, I'll tell you everything!"

"Do it, then." Cloud pressed a little tighter on Trent's neck, and a slight trickle of blood began to seep out from the wound. The man was getting visibly more terrified by the second.

"Please don't kill me! I'll talk! I promise I'll talk!"

"Cloud!" Tifa interrupted. "Can't you tell he's scared? He's not gonna say anything in this state…"

"I'm not the least bit concerned about his 'state', Tifa."

"I know that, but I am!" she retorted. "Can we at least go someplace more private? He's being loud, and I'm worried that people are beginning to notice us…" She wasn't wrong. As she looked down both ends of the alley, she could see people in the distance craning their necks to look in their general direction. A mother appeared to be holding her children close to her, out of fear.

"…Fine," Cloud finally relented, taking notice of the park attendees as well. "We'll go to the Ghost Hotel. No time to waste." The blonde finally lifted his blade from the lanky man's neck, and motioned for him to lead the way. "Any wrong moves, and you'll regret it. Now move."

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Cloud smacked his GP down roughly on the attendant's counter. "One bedroom," he barked, his eyes glowing intense with rage.

"Y-Yes, sir," the woman stammered before quickly typing on her computer. She was visibly nervous, and Tifa frowned deeply. This was a side of Cloud that she hadn't seen in a long time. A side that scared innocent people. The attendant fumbled with a card key, and Cloud all but snatched it out of her hand. He wasted no time in making his way towards the elevator. "Move it," he commanded to Trent, no nonsense in his voice or his demeanor. The attendant glanced at Cloud's blade, resting in its sheath.

Tifa smiled at the attendant meekly. "Don't worry, everything's okay. We won't be any trouble."

The martial artist hurried to Cloud and Trent, her mind reeling. To say the elevator ride to the fourth floor was uncomfortable would be an understatement. Trent was visibly shaking. He cast his gaze towards Tifa for a moment's time before staring hard at the metal floor again, opening and closing his mouth as if he wanted to speak, but was too scared to. Finally, he did.

"Tifa, I-"

"Shut up," Cloud growled. The elevator dinged and they all got off. Cloud had taken his blade from its scabbard again, and was pressing it into Trent's back. "Room 407," he instructed. Tifa didn't realize it at first, but she was shaking now, too. She was feeling a whirlwind of anger, fear, helplessness, sadness, and confusion. She didn't understand a thing. What was she supposed to think? And why was Cloud acting this way, after he had been so sweet and honest on the gondola? She couldn't believe that Trent was up to no good. He wasn't a bad person… Was he?

"Talk," Cloud commanded after unlocking the door and shoving Trent inside, the door slamming shut hard behind him and Tifa.

"I-I don't… I don't know what to-"

Cloud advanced on him, swinging his blade out to his side and roughly grabbing Trent by the front of his shirt. "Listen here, you piece of sh-"

"Cloud!"

Tifa stepped forward, tears welling up in her eyes, and pulled the swordsman away from Trent. "That's enough! Look at him…" Trent had gone pale as a ghost; he ripped his sunglasses off, breath heaving, looking both terrified and enraged. "You two have never seemed to get along, but this is taking it too far! There must be some sort of misunderstanding!"

Cloud regarded her for a long moment, mulling over her words.

"Alright, Trent," he said, his tone now as calm and as even as it could be. "Tifa says there's been a misunderstanding. Is this the case?"

Trent sniffed, anger and fear showing in his features. "…No," he admitted. "I followed both of you here."

"And my maps?" Cloud asked.

"I took them." He shook his head, almost looking ashamed. "I found the extra key to the bar, broke in, and snooped through your stuff. Took your maps so that I could try to track your location."

"You're working for Deepground," Cloud stated.

Trent shook his head. "Yes… And no…"

What?!

"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Cloud questioned, mirroring Tifa's shock aloud.

"I never wanted to… Never wanted to do this…" Trent fell back onto one of the single beds, his gaze becoming distant and somewhat detached. "Any of this. But I had no choice…"

"Stop dancing around the question," Cloud spat, his anger threatening to take control again.

Tifa stepped forward, having been quiet and still before. She carefully placed her hand on Cloud's arm, signaling him to back off. This time, he listened.

"Trent…" she spoke lowly, calmly. "You're not making any sense. I need you to start from the beginning. Tell me what's going on…"

He shook his head, and tears began to pool in his eyes. "I can't do that, Tifa."

"Yes, you can," she coaxed, slowly walking closer to him. "It's very important to me. We're in danger, Trent. Are you… Are you putting us in danger?"

He shook his head again. "No… I'm protecting you from it."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean he's dangerous!" he suddenly exclaimed, pointing to Cloud. "A dangerous dead man who's gonna get you killed, Tifa!"

Cloud didn't seem to care about Trent's outburst, and he leaned against the wall coolly, waiting for Tifa to continue her work. He was entrusting her.

"Cloud's not dangerous, Trent," she replied. "I told you that. He's my friend."

"He's a bad person, and he doesn't care about you. He doesn't care about anyone but himself. But Tifa… I do. I care about you. That's why I have to protect you…"

"From Cloud?" she asked plainly.

"It's not just him," Trent replied. "But he's the reason why you're in danger.

Tifa frowned deeply. "What does Deepground want with Cloud?"

"I- I'm not sure," Trent stammered.

"Liar," Cloud spat, clenching his fist.

"No, I'm not lying! I- I really don't know! They wouldn't tell me that information… I don't even know who runs the operation! I work for a lowly Scout."

Tifa's frown deepened. "I need you to tell me more. The beginning, Trent. I need to know everything."

The panicked man sighed deeply. "I was 'recruited' by a Deepground Scout a few months ago. It seems like it's been much longer than it has… I really was a plumber, until then. I was working is a seedy part of the Midgar ruins, and that's when it happened."

Tifa's eyes widened. "When what happened?"

"My 'recruitment'. I was kidnapped, Tifa."

The brunette's hand flew up to her mouth. "Kidnapped?" she echoed.

Trent nodded his head solemnly. "A man knocked me in the back of the head, and when I woke up, I was in some place I had never been before. Someplace underground. I was told that I could have been killed, but they decided there was a use for me. I was made to do labor for them… Deepground, I mean, even though I didn't know who they were at the time. I couldn't deny them. If I tried to escape, they would murder me. If I tried to defy them…" His eyes grew wide and fearful. "Well, I can't explain it, but… I just couldn't. Whatever they told me to do, I had to do it."

"Trent…" Tears welled up in Tifa's eyes. For some reason, she felt like all of this was somehow her fault. She thought she had become Trent's friend, but after all this time, she never had a clue about the truth. She never knew that he could have been killed by the very people that she and Cloud were desperately trying to learn about.

"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked, holding back her tears as Cloud stood silent against the wall.

Trent shook his head. "I couldn't. I…" He shook his head again, sighing heavily. "I got off lucky, is what I did. I sweet-talked my superior as best I could. Told him I knew my way around Midgar and Edge. Told him I could be of use looking for the man I had overheard so many other members talking about… A man named Cloud Strife."

Tifa turned to look at Cloud, but he only cast his eyes back in her direction, otherwise remaining almost statuesque in his stillness. He was restraining himself.

"They ignored me, at first," Trent continued, disregarding Tifa's saddened expression. "They beat me when I spoke out of turn. But I persisted. I had to get out of there, Tifa. I just had to." He closed his eyes, drawing in a long, shaky breath. "Then, I overheard my superior describing the appearance of another person they were looking for. A person that I had met in a bar a few weeks before I was kidnapped. That person… Was you, Tifa."

"M-Me?"

Trent nodded solemnly. "Yes… You. I knew they were talking about you as soon as I heard them describe your appearance. So I…" Trent shook his head, appearing to be gulping back tears. "I told them I knew you. I told them I could find you."

No…

No… This can't be true…

Cloud clenched his fist angrily, but otherwise kept still behind Tifa's trembling form. Tifa was in shock. Trent had… Trent had used them as bargaining chips?

"I lied, though…" Trent continued as Tifa stared at him, wide-eyed and silent. "I told them you moved around a lot… Made deliveries with Cloud all over the world… Never mentioned your bar… Never mentioned your children. They beat me some more, and then they mocked me. They asked me how I could find either one of you if you're always on the move. I told them, that if I stayed in one place long enough, you'd come find me, Tifa. And Cloud would be with you." Trent wiped at his eyes; his face looked stricken with guilt, betraying the dishonesty he had shown Tifa. "They finally relented… They sent me and my superior out. Blindfolded and handcuffed. Never knew where I came from, or where I was going. Before they let us go, they did this to me…" Trent pulled his jacket sleeve back, revealing a large, discolored scar on the length of his arm.

"Is that…?" Tifa whispered, her voice tight and unable to take form.

"Tracking device," Trent confirmed. "I cut it out myself, after I got away from my superior. I was lucky to escape. I was finally free… Free to come see you, Tifa. Free to protect you."

Protect me…

"Protect me…" she echoed aloud, finding a quiet part of her voice. "Protect me…" she repeated, her hand fluttering to her chest. "You were hurt… And you were scared… I can see that, Trent. You needed a way out… Any way out, or maybe you would have died. But…" She shook her head. "You never cared about protecting me. Me and Cloud… You used our names as a means of escaping." Tifa leaned down closer to Trent, her eyes level with his. "That's where this all started, didn't it? The man who attacked me in Edge… The behemoth that attacked Cloud and I when we were coming out of Midgar... The men who looked like SOLDIERs…"

Trent looked shocked. "I… I didn't know you were attacked, Tifa…"

"The day you came into the bar and scared me… I was attacked by a man that day. Large, with greasy black hair and a scruffy beard."

Trent's eyes widened. "My superior…"

"Tell me his name," Tifa ordered.

"Jericho… All I know is they call him Jericho…"

"And the monsters… They all attacked after we'd come out of Midgar… Could it be that they were looking for people on a motorcycle in the area?"

Trent was silent, his eyes tracing the floor and avoiding Tifa's penetrating gaze.

"Trent…" she prodded, her voice becoming colder and colder. "How many other people died because of this? People who looked like us?"

The tawny-haired man opened and closed his mouth stupidly. "I-I don't know. I don't know, Tifa. I just had to get out of there… You don't understand what they do to people down there…"

Tifa stared hard at the ground. She felt her heart grow cold, a stark contrast to the sympathy she had felt for the man just moments ago. "It was all a lie," she said aloud. "Everything… Our friendship… Our conversations about your work… The date… The tickets…"

"No!" Trent stood up, looking Tifa intensely in the eyes. "It wasn't all a lie. I only lied to keep you safe. I couldn't let you know the truth. But, I couldn't stay away from you, either. Every time I'd try to leave, something about you would pull me back. I worried about you constantly. You were always, always on my mind, Tifa. You and the kids. Those tickets I gave you…" He closed his eyes and gulped. "They're for you to escape."

"From what?" she said coolly, not a hint of tenderness in her tone any longer.

"From them."

Tifa slowly reached into her pocket and pulled the three tickets out. "The fifth through the eighth," she read aloud.

Trent nodded. "Before they let me outside of their facility… Those were the last dates I had overheard. Three days that they plan to launch an attack on Edge. All because of him," he spat venomously as he eyed Cloud.

Tifa stared at him, her stomach lurching like she was going to be sick. "Trent… This can't be real…" She shook her head. "You weren't even going to tell me about this attack, were you? You just gave me those tickets and assumed everything would be okay. You wanted them to find Cloud. You wanted us to hurt."

"It was for your own good, Ti-"

"Save it," she interrupted coldly. "I've heard enough."

"Tifa, please!" he pleaded desperately.

The brunette woman shook her head. "You lied to me… You put me and my family in danger… Everything we've ever had… It's all been a lie." She clenched her fists tight, crumpling the tickets in her palm. "You dirty snake. You're nothing more than a rat."

"Tif-"

"You hear me?!" she suddenly roared, grabbing Trent by the collar and swinging him around against the wall. "A rat! A filthy, lying snake in the grass! I can't believe you! You liar!"

Trent was quivering under her grasp, unaware of the raw power that Tifa possessed, until now.

"Y-You're dangerous, too…"

"You're damn right, I am."

The scrawny man opened and closed his mouth stupidly for a moment, terrified to look Tifa in the eyes. "They'll… They'll kill me… They'll kill you, and they'll kill me too…"

Tifa snapped. With a cry, she pulled her fist back and let it crash into the brick wall beside Trent's head, leaving a large enough hole that you could easily see into the empty neighboring room.

"Take your tickets," she spat, throwing the crumpled up mess in his face. "And get the hell out of here."

He opened his mouth to protest, his eyes wide and tearful and his face pale from fear.

"Listen to me," Tifa hissed, looking straight into Trent's eyes. Her fiery stare could kill a man; her voice was poison in his ears. "If you ever come around us again… If I ever see you… I will not hesitate to kill you. Do you understand? Don't fear them any longer. Fear me." His lips made no sound, but the pure terror in his eyes told her that he understood. "Leave," she commanded.

He scrambled to his feet and took off, throwing the door open and running full-speed out into the hall, never once looking back. Tifa stood there for a moment, her entire nervous system in shock and her mind completely absent. She turned to look at the blonde man who was approaching her, arms open and eyes sympathetic. Her voice cracked when she called his name uncertainly, tears streaming freely down her reddened cheeks and quivering lips.

"Cloud?"

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

It was late. The kids had been put to bed hours ago, having passed out on the ride home and been carried inside by Cloud and Barret. Once they were safely tucked in, Cloud and Tifa had quietly told Barret the information they had learned. It had cost the large man every bit of his willpower not to explode on the spot. Some phone calls later, and Reeve, Yuffie, and Cid had been notified of the planned attack on Edge. Barret had rubbed his eyes after a while, showing Tifa an exhausted side to him that she had always felt uncomfortable seeing emerge from his fiery form. "Take my bed," she had offered, waving off his questions concerning her comfort. She knew Marlene had a penchant for kicking her legs in her sleep, and her bed was much too small for Barret to actually get any rest in, again.

Tifa sighed. They hadn't told the kids, despite their promises to be more honest with them. Maybe tomorrow, she rationalized. They'd have to be told eventually, because they'd have to evacuate. Still, she couldn't bring herself to tell them while they were wide-eyed and smiling at the Gold Saucer, their expressions playful and childish for the first time in what seemed like forever.

She heard footsteps behind her, softer than the usual clunk of boots that she was used to hearing, but she didn't take her eyes away from the lightly-smattering rain outside the window.

"You should sleep," a masculine voice gently commanded. He placed a hand on each of her shoulders, squeezing lightly. "You need your rest if you're going to be in top form."

Tifa frowned. He was just as worried as she was. Gone were sweet words of "don't worry" and "it's okay". He was instructing her for battle; preparing her. She knew it.

"I'm not ready for this," Tifa admitted. "I'm tired of fighting…" Her frown deepened, the image of Trent appearing clear in her mind. "I'm tired of loss." Yes, she was always losing something. If it wasn't a battle, it was someone close to her. If it wasn't precious moments gone too soon, it was the excitement of making a new friend. In dark moments like this, she wondered if she'd eventually lose everything she cared about. It's not like it hadn't happened before, but this time, she didn't know if she could recover.

"…Me too," Cloud murmured, wrapping his arms loosely around Tifa's shoulders. "But, the way I look at it, we have two options." Tifa stayed quiet, so Cloud continued. "We can do our usual dance of worry and sorrow, fearing the worst and expecting it, as well. Or… We can do what we do best. Prepare for the inevitable. Fight with all our might, and band together. We can be strong for each other. And we can finally put an end to this." Cloud circled around Tifa, tilting her chin up to face him. "Which do you want to do?" he questioned gently.

Tifa laughed quietly – one of those laughs that are dry and empty of humor, before shyly averting her gaze. "The answer seems obvious, when you put it that way." She slowly smiled at the blonde. She was proud of him. He had come such a long way, even when she seemed to be regressing. He was coming out of his shell, learning how to smile, and staying strong as the leader she always knew he was.

He smiled back at her, allowing his hand to drop from her chin and choosing to fold her hands into his, instead. "Besides… Your birthday is in a few days. We have a party to prepare for."

Tifa blinked, her eyes growing wide with disbelief. "Are you kidding me?" She shook her head. "We can't be throwing a party under these conditions. It's ridiculous… It's a waste of time."

"It's not waste of time."

She shook her head again, more slowly this time. "I'd feel guilty… And selfish… And stupid."

"But you're none of those things."

"I should spend my time training over the next few days. Prepare the bar in case of a direct attack. Get the kids ready to evacuate."

"We can do all of those things and still have your party, Teef. I won't let you down."

Tifa smiled at him wanly. She knew he wouldn't let her down, but it just felt wrong at this point.

Cloud unraveled his hands from hers and reached up to squeeze her shoulders again, a little tighter this time. "Tifa… I need this."

Tifa blinked again, surprised. "The party?"

"Yeah. I just…" He shook his head. "I'm looking forward to it. All of us being happy together. You being happy. Even if it's just for one night…" He shook his head again, embarrassed. "…Maybe I'm being irrational."

"No!" Tifa assured him. "But… I thought you didn't like the party idea, anyway…"

His lips curved up into a slight smile. "…I guess I've had so much fun over the past few days, that… I've changed my mind." He let his fingers trail down Tifa's arms, stopping at her hands again. "Please… Let's forget about this for a while. Let's just focus on the good that happened today." He nodded his head towards the stairwell behind them. "Let's go to sleep."

She couldn't deny him, even if she wanted to. Not that she ever would. They ended up gently embraced in Cloud's small bed, no more words uttered about good things, or bad, for quite a while. When Tifa thought Cloud might have fallen asleep, he quietly whispered into the darkness.

"I had fun today."

Tifa smiled at the absurdity of his statement; despite everything bad that had happened, Cloud assured her that he had, indeed, enjoyed his time with her that day. The barmaid sighed, snuggling up closer to his chest. It was an act that was quickly becoming familiar and longed for, something that gave her a concoction of confusing and warm feelings. Their conversation in the gondola surfaced to the forefront of her mind, the image of bright fireworks dancing off Cloud's smiling face situated in the focus on her consciousness. When she was with him like this, even the strongest of her fears seemed to melt away. Maybe it would all be okay… After all, they had made it through worse things before… Hadn't they?

"Me too," she finally whispered back.

"Good night, Teef."

"Good night, Cloud."

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Morning came far too quickly, and Tifa awoke to Cloud gently stroking her hair. "Time to wake up, Teef." She blinked several times, realizing that she had a light headache. It was early; the sun was only just beginning to rise.

Tifa went through her usual morning routine, and when Cloud approached her and asked her to take a ride with him before opening the bar, she agreed without question. She had a feeling that he had something important planned.

She had become accustomed to riding peacefully on the back of his bike, her arms wrapped around his waist protectively, her chest leaning against his back easily. Cloud never objected, but rather, would stroke her hands from time to time, riding the curves of the roads effortlessly as he touched her in gentle, innocent ways.

He eventually pulled them into a remote field; nothing was around, no monsters seen for at least a few miles, and Tifa was unsure of what Cloud was doing. She felt her heartbeat quicken as she pondered what he could possibly want with her out here, in this remote location, early in the morning.

"Tifa…" He uttered her name softly as he cut off the ignition. "You told me you felt like you're becoming weaker than you used to be."

She nodded silently behind him, her fingers clutching at the leather seat beneath her.

"Let's put it to the test."

"Huh?" she uttered, surprised.

"I brought you out here to train," he replied. "Get your gloves on and get ready."

There was that authoritive voice she remembered. Fast flashbacks of him commanding her in battle two years prior entered her mind. Gone was the sweet, gentle Cloud she had known minutes prior, and when he looked into her eyes with that serious look he always seemed to carry, she knew that he meant business. Quickly, she slid off the back of the bike, grabbing her fighting gloves from her pocket and slowly pulling them on. She eyed Cloud the whole time, watching him pull the largest blade of his First Tsurugi from the holsters on Fenrir. They caught each other's gaze for a moment, Tifa's eyes becoming a bit wild as she felt her heart rate increase, Cloud's narrowing, fully calm and in control. He suddenly jumped backwards from her, flipping the blade of his sword towards its blunt side so that Tifa wouldn't get sliced from any of his blows. Cloud nodded.

"Come at me."

She did. Swifter than a wild coeurl, she charged at Cloud, but her first strike landed hard against the side of Cloud's blade. He dodged her easily; she was fast, but he was much faster. He spun his sword around and took a swipe at Tifa's legs, and she caught his intentions just in time, jumping over the blade. She responded with a series of high kicks and punches, but Cloud blocked each of them. He spun his sword around again, and it caught her in the back, knocking the wind out of her.

"Come on, give it your all!" he commanded.

Tifa yelled out a battle cry, flipping over him and attempting to throw his footing off-balance, but she failed. She whirled around him again, avoiding the quick swings of his blade, and managed to successfully suplex him, but he brushed it off easily, rolling over and throwing a blade beam at her. Tifa juked out of the way, once again just in time, and with another cry, ran up his sword and dolphin kicked off of his face.

It hit. Cloud purposefully stuck his blade in the ground, and Tifa just stood there, absolutely dumbfounded. She felt like she was paralyzed, until Cloud gently touched his face and examined the trickle of blood dripping down the palm of his glove.

"O-Oh my gods!" Tifa panicked, rushing towards him. "Oh, Cloud, are you okay?!"

"I'm fine," he chuckled, shaking his head.

"Cloud, I'm so sorry!" Tifa cried. "H-Here, let me cure you!"

"It's okay, Teef, really," Cloud assured her, his voice calm and steady. She ignored him, pressing her hand directly to his face and allowing the healing green glow of the materia to pass over his skin. "You got me," he stated, his expression somewhat amused.

"It doesn't hurt?"

"Oh, it stings, but I'll be fine."

"Cloud, I'm really sorr-"

"Tifa…" he cut her off, placing his gloved hand on top of her own. "Look at me." She did, noting the way the wound had already almost fully healed, and taking a deep breath. "You win. Fair and square."

"Cloud, I don't like this. I never want to hurt you like this again…"

"Teef…" He placed his clean hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. "It's called sparring. It's okay, I promise. And look… If you can beat me, you can beat anyone. So take this as an opportunity to see how strong you really are. There's not a hint of weakness inside of you. All is see is strength. And… Admittedly, it's a little bit intimidating."

Tifa threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly. "I still don't want to ever fight you again. It just doesn't feel right."

"Then we'll train together in different ways. But for now, I want you to see how strong you really are. You've never lost it – that fire burning within you. You just need to believe in yourself. Like I believe in you."

Tifa pulled back, looking at his now fully-healed face. "I could say the same thing about you…"

"Don't worry about me."

Tifa frowned. "Does it still hurt?"

"I feel better than ever." Cloud turned and picked up his sword, placing his free hand on the small of Tifa's back and guiding her back to Fenrir. "Come on. Let's go home."

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

"Plastic cups?" Marlene looked up at Tifa, her eyebrows knit in confusion. "Why don't we just use the glasses? Plastic is wasteful."

The brunette smiled, patting the young girl on her head. "Plastic works better for the type of game we're going to play, Marlene. Don't worry. We'll recycle them." Even the littlest things were beginning to underline just how unordinary this party was going to be.

Yes, despite everything, they were still planning the party. Everyone had already been invited, another day had passed, and the adults still hadn't told the children the news. Tifa had opted to take the kids shopping with her after school. Marlene, inquisitive as ever, had asked where Cloud's deliveries were that morning. "Just a few local towns; mostly around Kalm," she had lied. He was actually actively patrolling the streets of Edge, keeping a lookout for any unusual activity. He had texted Tifa on several occasions throughout the day, reporting nothing strange or out of the ordinary.

"I think we have everything we need. Let's get out of here," Tifa suggested to Marlene and Denzel. They paid and walked back to the bar, all in decent spirits, though Tifa was quieter than usual.

Barret greeted them when they returned home, patting Marlene on the head as she passed by him to get a snack from the kitchen. "Tifa, come'ere," he murmured, jerking his head.

"Yeah?"

"Take a look at that kid over there."

A rather young-looking child was sitting in a corner, laying his head down. His clothes looked ripped and dirty.

"I don't know who that is, but he refuses to talk to me. Maybe I'm too big and scary?"

Tifa smiled, taking the hint and grabbing a fresh glass of water from the kitchen before approaching the young boy.

"Excuse me," she said politely, her voice gentle. "I saw you sitting over here, and I thought you might be thirsty. Would you like a glass of water?"

The child finally lifted his head and nodded, taking the glass with both of his small hands. He drank most of it before setting it back down on the table.

"Where are your parents?" Tifa inquired in her same, gentle voice.

"Gone," the boy stated plainly.

Tifa frowned deeply. "Are you all alone?"

The child shook his head and pointed at the bar. "Sissy's here."

A teenage girl who looked to be roughly seventeen or eighteen years old was sitting at the bar, a couple of shot glasses laid out before her. She also looked a bit unkempt, though she seemed to be in a better condition than her little brother. Tifa's frown deepened even more. "Why don't we go over there and talk to her?" she suggested.

Tifa led the child by the hand and lifted him to sit on the barstool beside his sibling. "I'm Tifa," she greeted the younger girl, extending her hand. The young lady eyed the barmaid, obviously a bit drunk, and lazily accepted Tifa's handshake. "Jamie," she responded.

"Say, Jamie… Your little brother looks like he needs a fresh set of clothes, and he seemed really thirsty… Are you two okay?"

"Okayyy?" she drawled, scoffing. "We're always okay. Nothing can hurt me, not anymore. Not since our parents died. 'Course, that was only a day or two ago." She downed one of the shots that were in front of her. "Or was it longer than that? I've totally lost track of time." Tifa frowned again as she pulled her little barstool out from behind the bar. "What happened?" she asked as she sat down.

"No idea," Jamie replied, shrugging her shoulders dejectedly. "They went out for a ride, and they never came home."

"A ride?" Tifa prodded.

Jamie nodded. "Daddy loved his motorcycle."

Tifa's eyes grew wide, and her heart began to hammer in her chest. "Jamie… If you don't mind me asking…" She took a deep breath, trying to calm her already-frazzled nerves. "What did your parents look like?"

Jamie reached for another shot, and downed it quickly. "Daddy had bright blonde hair. Kinda spiky. And blue eyes. And Mom…" Jamie squinted at the barmaid. "…Well, she looked a little bit like you."

"…Thank you," Tifa murmured, sliding off of her barstool and trying not to hyperventilate. She rushed upstairs to the bathroom and immediately threw up. Her head was swimming by the time she finished.

Those people… Those people died because of us…

Tifa shook her head and turned on the sink to splash some cool water on her face.

Not again… Not again not again not again…

No more lives lost… No more…

She leaned over the sink and took some time to regain some composure. She had to help those kids. Jamie obviously wasn't able to properly care for the younger child, and she seemed like she needed some help herself. Tifa knew that she could put them up for a while; she would explain it to Cloud, and he would certainly understand. She nodded to herself, wringing her hands and heading back down the stairs. But, they were gone.

She ran outside to look for them, even after Barret told her they had left some time ago. She ignored him when he asked her if she was okay; she also ignored his comments about her looking pale and taking a long time in the bathroom. She searched the bustling streets for a long time. Too long of a time, apparently, because Marlene and Denzel came looking for her. They had concerned looks on their faces, and when they asked her what was going on, Tifa just said that she really wanted to give those kids a change of clothes. It was a partial truth.

She kept quiet the rest of the afternoon. When Cloud came home for dinner, she still didn't speak much, and she knew that he could tell something was wrong. The kids picked up on it, too. "I guess I'm just nervous about the party," Tifa laughed it off. "Cloud's nerves are rubbing off on me." Marlene giggled, but Denzel frowned.

"Tifa… You would tell us if something bad is going on, right?"

The barmaid set her fork down and sighed. "Honey… Sometimes it's better to just let the adults handle certain things…"

"So there is still something bad going on! I knew it!" He let his silverware clatter on his plate as well. "Tell me."

Everyone was silent; Tifa looked at him, somewhat taken aback. "Tell me! I want to know!"

"Denzel," Cloud interjected, his voice quiet, yet commanding.

"You promised you wouldn't hide the truth from me anymore," he responded. "You promised."

Cloud set his own utensils down and dropped his head. "You're right, Denzel. I've let you down."

Denzel shook his head. "I don't want to be treated like a kid anymore. Even though I still feel like a kid… I get scared and I don't understand a lot of things… But I've also seen a lot of things that kids my age aren't supposed to see. I know what sort of bad things can happen to people. I'd rather be prepared to handle whatever bad stuff comes my way, instead of being in the dark about it."

Cloud sighed, pushing his plate out of the way and rubbing his forehead. Marlene and Barret were silent, and Tifa watched him, her appetite lost.

"Just like Reeve did to me…" he murmured to himself. "You're right, Denzel. I messed up. And so did Tifa and Barret. You kids are mature enough to handle the truth." He glanced up at Tifa, his expression solemn. "Teef," he murmured, a quiet request for help. She nodded, and finally, they explained everything to the children.

The rest of the night was rather quiet and solemn. The kids went to bed early without expressing any complaints. Barret went to bed early as well, his features painted with years of fatigue as he gave Marlene and Denzel goodnight hugs. "Kids," Cloud announced as he hovered in the children's doorway. "…You two make sure to get some good sleep tonight." Denzel and Marlene nodded and smiled weakly at him. Cloud sighed, but then he lifted his head and smiled, chuckling quietly to himself. "There's nothing to be afraid of," he said. "Barret, Tifa, and I will take care of you. And we have friends that can help us, too."

Tifa nodded. "He's right. As long as we're here, nothing will hurt you. We learned our lesson once… Right, Cloud?" The blonde crossed his arms and nodded, and Denzel smiled more genuinely.

"I know," the young boy said.

A few hugs and kisses later, and the kids were put to bed. Cloud and Tifa ended up exactly how they had been for the past few nights – quietly cuddled up in Cloud's small bed. Tifa breathed in the scent of him, her face pressed gently against his t-shirt. She was exhausted, and in his arms, she began to drift off quickly. Vaguely, she worried that Cloud might have more nightmares as they slept, but the thoughts were too far away from her consciousness for them to register.

"Teef?" Cloud eventually murmured into the darkness. Tifa awakened, as she was attuned to his quiet voice and his minimal movements. He hadn't fallen asleep yet.

"Yeah?"

He stilled, his breath hitching and then quietly exhaling. "…Good night."

Tifa thought he might have wanted to say something else, but she accepted his words for what they were. "Good night, Cloud," she murmured sweetly, already drifting off again. She smiled when she felt his lips press gently against the crown of her head.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

The next few days had passed by quickly, and Tifa had somehow found it in herself to feel somewhat excited for her birthday. She took a moment to look over herself in the mirror, turning her body to view it from different angles. She had gotten so used to wearing the same aprons and armor and other gear fit for efficiency that she had forgotten how fashionable she could be. Her tight, light blue jeans were worn and faded, but they accentuated her hips in a surprising way. Her old, red, leather boots looked as cool as ever, and she wondered why she never bothered to wear them anymore. Her tight, white tank top was a staple – something she had always loved for its comfort and stylishness. She had even pulled her old suspenders out of the closet, something she used to wear simply to hold her skirts up, but she decided that she just liked how they looked on her. Perhaps the most bewildering aspects of her outfit were her light, carefully applied makeup and her high, sleek ponytail. She blushed a little after realizing that she was being quite girlish. Dressing up for her own birthday party… How juvenile of her.

Marlene seemed to think she looked great, though. "Wow, Tifa!" she gasped. "You look so pretty!"

"Thank you, Marlene," she replied, smiling shyly.

"Can you help me pull my hair up like yours, too?"

Tifa giggled and nodded, ushering the little girl into her room where she could tie up her hair. After some quick brushing and a few ties and pins later, Marlene vaguely resembled her adopted mother. It made Tifa happy.

"Can we do my makeup, too?"

"Maybe when you're older," the brunette responded gently. Marlene pouted, and Tifa instantly relented. "Alright… Maybe just a little lip gloss would be okay…" Marlene had a way of making Tifa give in to her cuteness.

Once the two of them came downstairs, they found Cloud and Denzel sitting at a table, looking over some sort of old manual concerning modifying motorcycles. They looked content in each other's presence. "Happy birthday, Tifa!" Denzel greeted Tifa.

"Thank you, Denzel," she replied, her eyes darting to Cloud's. He smiled shyly and mumbled "happy birthday" before averting his gaze and greeting Marlene.

"Barret's in the kitchen," he said, answering Tifa's question before she asked it. She noticed his eyes trace over her entire form, his gaze lingering on hers for a moment, before burying his nose back in the manual. Tifa blushed lightly and made to go find Barret in the kitchen while Marlene seated herself beside Cloud.

"Morning!" she called to Barret, her voice chipper.

"M-Mornin'…" he responded hastily as he stirred a bowl of something almost violently.

"Oh… My…" Tifa murmured, taking in the sight before her. Bowls, cups, and utensils were strewn everywhere, some sort of batter dripping off of everything and onto the floor. Various ingredients were spread across the countertop, little puddles of berry juices and milk spattering the surface. Somehow, he had managed to spill chocolate syrup all over the sink.

"Everything okay in here?" she asked, something between concern and humor lacing her tone.

"Everything's fine, just fine!" he retorted. Tifa could tell he was frustrated. "Don't worry 'bout nothin' in here! Now go sit down and let me finish cooking breakfast!"

Tifa stepped closer, leaning her hand against a clean part of the counter. "But you haven't told me 'happy birthday' yet!" She smiled, and Barret relaxed his shoulders visibly and huffed.

"Happy birthday, Tifa," he said, looking at her purposely and finally breaking into a laugh after she began to giggle.

"Here, let me help," she offered, scooting closer and gently taking the spoon from Barret's hand. "You were trying to make… Pancakes?"

"Heh, yeah," he laughed. "Blueberry and chocolate chip pancakes, for your birthday. Only thing is, I forgot how bad I am in the kitchen!" he laughed again. "Cloud and Denzel took one look at me and decided to leave me to it."

"That was probably in their best interest," she teased.

Barret chuckled. "Let me at least clean up the mess I made."

The two of them worked in tandem for a little while; Barret cleaned up every drip of batter and chocolate syrup, and Tifa managed to whip up a nice batter using the ingredients he had laid out. "Sorry you ended up cooking my birthday breakfast for ya…" Barret apologized once he had finished.

"Don't sweat it," she assuaged. "It's the thought that counts, and it was very nice of you." She smiled gently. "Why don't you go join the others? Once I get these cooked up, they'll be ready to eat."

"You're a genius in the kitchen, Tifa. Always have been," Barret remarked before leaving out of the room. Tifa smiled to herself. She wasn't sure if she was a genius at anything, but supposed that she had become a pretty decent cook over the years.

Cloud poked his head in a moment later. "Smells good," he said casually, sauntering up beside the brunette. "Need any help?"

"I think I've got it under control," Tifa responded. "But feel free to stay and keep me company."

Cloud quirked the corner of his mouth up, and leaned back against the counter, arms crossed and watching Tifa's work intently. "Are you excited for tonight?" he asked her.

She frowned, flipping a pancake artfully in the pan. "I feel like I should be… And maybe I am, a little bit… But..." She shook her head.

"But what?"

"…It just doesn't feel right, Cloud. Knowing what's going to happen, I…" She trailed off, lost for words as she transferred her pancake onto the stack of the others.

"Don't worry about that, Teef," Cloud soothed her. "We'll worry about that time when it comes, alright? I just want you to have a good day. Besides… I think I'm a little bit excited, too."

"Really?" Tifa asked, surprised.

"I think so. As long as you and the kids have fun, then I'll be okay."

"…I'm glad." She smiled and began cooking another pancake, stealing a glance at him. He blushed and looked away from her shyly. Tifa cocked her head to one side, too absorbed in her work to notice the quickening of her pulse. "What is it?" she asked.

He took a moment to respond. "Your hair…" he mumbled.

"What?"

"Your… Hair. And your clothes. And… You're wearing makeup?" The last bit came out as more of a question than a statement, and Tifa blushed lightly as well.

"Y-Yeah…"

Cloud dropped his arms and planted them on the counter behind him, squeezing the lip of the metal surface. "You look…" He shook his head, choosing instead to make himself busy by grabbing a jug of milk from the fridge. "I'll get everyone something to drink."

Tifa stopped prodding at her pancake, and finally noticed that her heart was beating quickly in her chest. "Cloud…" He paused near the doorway, avoiding looking at her. "'I look' what?"

His eyes looked everywhere but hers, and his face turned redder. He seemed like he was having trouble speaking. "Cute…" he finally murmured. "…H-Happy birthday," was the only other thing he managed to mutter before retreating to the front of the bar. Tifa's hand fluttered up to her reddening cheek, completely forgetting about the sizzling pancake in the pan.

Cute?

Maybe he was right… Tomorrow's worries be damned. This was a night meant for celebration.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Breakfast had been delicious and enjoyable, and everyone had pitched in to get the bar ready. Tifa had to rush the kids off to school, despite their protesting that they wanted to help her bus tables for the day. "The three of us grownups have it under control," she had told them. "You two can help me get ready for the party after you get home and finish your homework. Now go!" She had kissed both of them on the forehead and returned to the kitchen to whip up some quick pasta to serve her customers while Cloud and Barret had flipped all of the chairs off of the tables. She had mused over the comment Cloud had made to her the whole time, unable to contain her smile.

The lunch rush had passed by easily with Cloud and Barret's help. Business had streamed in steadily and dipped later in the afternoon. By the time the kids came home, Tifa was down to serving only a few tables. She finished up prepping dinner and snacks for the party while Marlene and Denzel did their homework and Barret tended to the last few customers. Cloud was sitting at his regular seat at the bar, sipping on a short glass of whiskey.

"Starting the party without me?" she teased him.

He chuckled lightly. "Just relaxing for a moment. Take a break with me."

Tifa decided that taking a break sounded nice, and she sat on her little stool behind the bar. Cloud silently offered her his drink, and she laughed quietly. "I'm still on the clock."

"Suit yourself," he said, smiling.

She smirked and relented, her fingers ghosting over Cloud's as she took the glass from his hand.

"That easy to change your mind?" He propped his cheek against his hand, his eyes mischievous. Tifa felt herself blush as she took a short swig of his drink.

"You can be very persuasive, when you want to be."

"Oh?"

"Mm-hmm," she responded, feigning casualness.

"And you can be very surprising."

She shrugged. "Sometimes it's good to keep people guessing."

"Really?" He quirked an eyebrow.

She blushed a little harder, and took another drink. "Maybe."

Cloud smiled again, cuter and softer this time, and took his drink back from Tifa's hands. "Well, I'm just glad to see you in good spirits." He looked into her eyes a little too seriously. "I know how hard you're trying for everyone."

Tifa shook her head. "Not just for everyone else. For myself, too. And I know you're trying hard as well. You have no idea how much it means to me."

Cloud took a short drink. "At this point, I don't feel like I'm trying anymore. But, not in a bad way. I'm just… here."

"Really?" Tifa asked, her eyebrows raised in surprise.

"Mm-hmm. With all of the ups and downs we've had recently… It's getting a little too hard for me to keep hanging on to all of these negative feelings and fears, when they keep getting me nowhere." Cloud shrugged, his eyes earnest. "I just want to be happy."

"I get that…" Tifa admitted, her eyes downcast. She perked back up immediately, though, choosing to tease Cloud. "So what you're saying, is… You wanna let loose?"

Cloud shrugged again. "Guess I can't knock it 'til I try it."

Tifa laughed, warm and hearty. "Cloud Strife, the last person I would ever expect to agree to such a thing, wants to let loose." She shook her head. "So tonight, you're gonna live for the party, huh?"

He shrugged once more. "'Suppose so."

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Music wasn't something that accompanied the bar very frequently. Tifa would sometimes turn on the radio to a very quiet volume when she was working alone or when the customers seemed like they needed some background noise, but she usually just keep the lull of the television on the same news station most of the time. Cloud liked things quiet – very, very quiet, and the kids' taste in music wasn't quite her cup of tea. So, Tifa was quite taken aback when Cloud deposited a bag of old cassette tapes on the floor in front of the stereo.

"What's that?" she questioned, curious.

"I bought them off a guy a while ago, after making a delivery out in Kalm…" He rifled through the contents, pausing when he found something that seemed to catch his interest. "There's some good stuff in here," he stated plainly, glancing up at Tifa. She was looking at him strangely. "What?"

"…I didn't even know you listened to music," she admitted.

Cloud smiled shyly. "Well, I like classical, just like you. And there's some old rock bands that I used to listen to as a kid that I still like. But this," he said, holding up a worn-looking Lucid Acropolis tape, "seems like the perfect party music." He put the tape in the stereo player and rewound it. "I think you'll like this."

The first track began with a hypnotic beat and an almost haunting melody; Tifa liked it, but she shook her head, still unable to process the fact that Cloud enjoyed music like this.

"I listened to this sometimes when I was training to become SOLDIER," Cloud informed her, seemingly reading her mind. "Zack liked a lot of rock music, but he also secretly enjoyed this kind of stuff. He didn't tell very many people about it." He clicked over to track two, which picked up in pace, and definitely set the proper atmosphere for a party of their sort. It was strong and fun, but somehow decidedly dark and a bit depressive, as well. Tifa realized that it fit them so well, whether she wanted to admit that, or not.

"I do like it," she said, smiling and clicking to the next track, curious to listen further. Cloud chuckled quietly as the next song began to play. "What is it?" Tifa inquired.

"This was Zack's favorite."

"Oh!" Tifa fumbled with the stereo, trying to click to the next song as quickly as she could.

"It's okay," he assured her, gently pulling her hand away from the radio. "It doesn't make me feel sad to hear it. Actually, it kinda makes me happy. We had some good times together, listening to this song."

Tifa smiled, taking Cloud's other hand into hers. With a quiet giggle, she gently tugged at his hands, pulling them back-and-forth to the beat of the song. Cloud quirked an eyebrow.

"I don't dance."

"Me neither," Tifa teased, continuing her movements and bouncing just slightly on the balls of her feet.

Small footsteps quickly scuffled towards the pair in the living area. "Tifaaa! Where do you want me to put-" Marlene stopped in her tracks at the sight of the two of them, her eyes wide. "Never mind!" she yelled, and ran away giggling. Tifa blushed, laughing as well.

"Let's finish getting everything ready," she suggested, motioning her head towards the bar area.

Cloud nodded, his cheeks red.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

It was a perfect night. The air was warm and breezy, and the faintest scent of flowers floated in to Edge from the fields outside of the city. It was one of those nights where teenagers would slip away from their homes and get into trouble with their friends; one of those nights where people would roast marshmallows over a fire and talk about silly things like the meaning of life or how the universe was created. Both were things that Cloud and Tifa never really got the chance to do as kids.

The guests had begun to come to the bar around 7:00 pm. Surprisingly, Reno and Rude were the first two to show up. Cloud begrudgingly greeted them at the door, before Reno had the chance to literally bust his way in. "Happy birthday, Tifa!" he exclaimed, winking at Cloud as he walked past him. Rude politely greeted Tifa as well, although he was much quieter. "Rule number one," Reno said as he helped himself to a beer that Tifa had served in a bucket of ice, "is no talking about Deepground. I don't wanna hear it, and I know you two want to bitch about it. You talk about it, I leave."

"What a shame," Cloud muttered sarcastically.

"Rule number two," Reno continued, completely ignoring Cloud, "is no bitching about anything. I'm here to take a night off, so if you've got any complaining to do, take it up with someone else."

"We'll be sure to keep that in mind, Reno," Tifa laughed, totally unsurprised by the WRO member's callousness.

Yuffie was the next person to show up, with Cait Sith at her heels. She had a large bottle of liquor in her hand and all but attacked Tifa with a hug. "I tried to call Vincent, but he never responded. He was always a party pooper anyway."

"Nanaki sends his regards," the little robotic cat piped up. "He says he'd like you to come visit him sometime, lass. You and Cloud both."

Cid and Shera were the last to arrive, and everyone else had comfortably settled in by that point. Conversational background noise filled the bar as everyone had their first drinks and complimented Tifa's cooking. Marlene and Denzel sneaked off to the kitchen, both of them giggling. Tifa peered over, knowing they were up to something.

"Alright everyone, it's time to wish Tifa a happy birthday!" the little girl yelled, helping Denzel carry a large cake into the bar area. Tifa gasped.

"How did you guys manage to keep that a secret?" she asked, genuinely surprised.

"Can't tell you," Marlene teased. Tifa looked at Cloud and smiled knowingly. "Beats me," he said, shrugging.

Denzel lit her several candles as everyone else gathered around. "Alright Tifa, you gotta make a birthday wish!" Marlene ordered. She smiled, shyly basking in her moment. As she was surrounded by her friends and her family, all smiling at her and celebrating her very existence on this planet, Tifa felt her heart fill up with joy.

A birthday wish… she mused. Of course, there's lots of things I'd wish for…

She looked at Cloud, who was smiling gently, the corners of his eyes crinkling up in just the right way. He nodded, encouraging her.

But if I could just have one wish…

Everyone cheered as she blew out the candles, but the only person she really took notice of was the shy young man who clapped and smiled like it was his own birthday he was celebrating.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

The party was finally in full swing, and by Cid's suggestion, a game of poker was started. Everyone bet single-gil pieces, including Marlene and Denzel, who had been given some change out of the cash register. Tifa, Cloud, Barret, and Cid took time to teach the children the basic rules of playing, so that they could be included. Marlene became slightly frustrated with the complexity of the rules, but Denzel caught on pretty quickly as he studied Cloud's instructions seriously. After a couple of practice rounds, the kids decided to move onto something they were more adept at, which turned into a rather serious game of chess. The adults continued to play their game for a while, most of them taking sips of liquor or beer as time went on. Shera eventually folded out of the game and watched the kids play with interest; she seemed impressed by their proficiency.

After a few more rounds, Tifa found her little glass of house whiskey almost empty. A slight, warm buzz was creeping up her legs and into her stomach. She looked at her current hand with satisfaction, a slight smirk threatening to pull at the corner of her lips, which must have turned into some sort of blatantly confident expression without her realizing it.

"What was that?" came a slightly teasing voice. She felt eyes on her, and looked up to Cloud, who was smirking ever-so-slightly.

"What was what?" she replied innocently.

"That look. What was that?"

Tifa shrugged, smiling. "I have good cards."

Cloud eyed her for a second longer, before taking a long swig of his drink. "I think you're bluffing."

"Yeah, she's full of it," Cid agreed, raising his bet.

Barret shook his head, folding his hand along with the rest of the players.

Tifa laid down her hand, a flush, and giggled. "Look who's bluffing now," she teased, leaning over and raking in the gil pieces from the middle of the table.

"She got ya, Spiky," Barret chuckled heartily, his laughter only becoming more boisterous after Cid left the table in a huff to go smoke a cigarette.

Cloud scratched the back of his neck embarrassedly, his cheeks flushing the palest shade of pink. "I guess she did."

The game continued like that for some time, after cigarettes were smoked and drinks were refilled. Marlene and Denzel were still very involved in their battle of wits; Denzel had won, and Marlene had heatedly declared a rematch.

"The hell are you grinning at?" Cid questioned Yuffie sometime later, eyeing the young ninja girl with suspicion.

"Nothing! I'm not grinning!" she retorted, attempting to hide her toothy smile behind her hand of cards.

Cid scratched his chin thoughtfully. "I fold."

A chorus of "fold" and "me too" followed after him.

"Wha-? I'm bluffing! Bluffing! Can't you tell?" Yuffie pleaded, and everyone at the table gave her a pointed look. Her face turned red with irritation, or perhaps it was from the dwindling contents of the strawberry-kiwi vodka bottle that was seated between her thighs. "Come on, really?!" she huffed, displaying her cards. A full house.

"You have to practice being more subtle," Cloud stated matter-of-factly.

"Oh, what do you know about being subtle, Cloud? You're an open book, and I can read every hand you've got." The young woman took another swig of her vodka. "Every hand."

Tifa giggled quietly at her less-than-sober friend. An open book, huh? she thought. Cloud's face was as neutral as they come as he emptied a palm full of materia from his pocket.

"H-HEY!" the ninja sputtered, quickly standing from her chair and knocking her bottle in the floor. Thankfully, it had a screw-top lid. "That's MY materia!" She swiped at Cloud's hand unsuccessfully, throwing herself slightly off-balance as she did so. Tifa let another quiet giggle escape as everyone else watched on with amused expressions.

"Ask nicely," Cloud instructed, his voice void of emotion.

Yuffie practically growled at him and stamped her foot down childishly. "FINE. Will. You. Give. Me. Back. My. Materia. Please." She emphasized each word angrily, and Cloud dropped a single materia into Yuffie's hand.

"That's for the first time you stole my materia two years ago." He dropped another. "That's for the second time." He dropped another one. "That's for the third time. Do I need to keep going?"

"No!" she spat.

He dropped the rest of the magical orbs into her hands. "Good. Glad we finally had this talk."

"Whatever, Cloud! You're such a jerk!" Yuffie stormed over to the other side of the table, looking at Tifa angrily as she finally burst out laughing. "It's not funny, Tifa! Don't egg him on! Come on," she declared, pulling the barmaid up by the arm. "Take a shot with me, birthday girl. I need a drink after dealing with him."

As if Yuffie really needed anything else to drink at the moment, but Tifa's usual maternal demeanor towards the girl was weakened by the prospect of letting loose with a friend. "I guess I have no choice," Tifa giggled again, absolutely giddy. Or perhaps it wasn't all that funny; maybe it was just the previous shots of liquor kicking in. She caught Cloud's eyes as she followed behind Yuffie, and felt her heart skip a beat when he quirked the corner of his mouth up mischievously. Nobody else had seemed to notice.

"Birthday girl's choice," Yuffie said, looking over all the bottles behind the bar. "Whatcha want?"

Tifa handed the younger girl the bottle of whiskey she had already drank from, and Yuffie made a weird face. "You always drink that nasty stuff."

"It's not nasty, Yuffie. It's what I like."

"It's gross."

"But I made it myself."

"So? Still gross."

Tifa scowled at her, and Yuffie rolled her eyes. "Just kidding, just kidding. Don't get your panties in a bunch." She popped the top off of the bottle, pouring two hearty shots. "You know you're gonna need them looking nice for later, anyway."

"What?"

"Your panties."

"Yuffie!" Tifa's eyes darted immediately to Cloud, worried that he might have heard the ninja's comment over the lull of conversation and the radio. He drank casually from his bottle of beer, seemingly oblivious to their conversation.

"Drink up!" Yuffie grinned, ignoring Tifa's obvious fluster at her comment. The barmaid opted to down her shot, and considered immediately pouring herself another. Yuffie scrunched her face up in disgust.

"Blegh! I'm going back to the fruity stuff I brought."

The stuff that's almost gone? Tifa thought, willing the heat in her cheeks to leave her face.

"Enjoy," she drawled. The barmaid did pour another shot, and the burn of embarrassment in her cheeks was quickly replaced with a different sort of burn. So what if she was already on her way to becoming more drunk than she had been in quite a long time? It was her birthday. It was a celebration, and the warm liquor was starting to take the edge off of a lot of deeply-buried feelings. She was starting to feel pretty damn good.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

"You say that name one more time, and I'll kill ya," Barret commented pointedly before throwing down a King of Hearts.

"Whaaat?" Reno drawled. "Shinra was powerful. It doesn't have to be the way it was. Rufus is different now, yo. He's all…" He made a gesture as if he were searching for the right word. "…I don't know, guilty, and shit." The redhead threw down a Nine of Hearts, and Rude threw down an Ace of Hearts silently, looking at Barret over the rim of his sunglasses. Barret grunted in response.

"I ain't never trusted Shinra and I never will, and that's that," the grizzly man grumbled. "Rebuilding the company would not onlybe a huge mistake on everyone's part, it would be a slap in the face to the Planet. And I've fought for this Planet long enough, that I'll kick anyone's ass who tries to screw her up again. So." He pushed the pile of cards in Rude's direction. "Don't bring that rebuilding Shinra crap up around me again. I'm trying to enjoy myself and you're pissin' me off."

"Whatever, old man."

Tifa almost stood up from the new game that she was playing with Marlene and Denzel to go make sure that Barret wouldn't blow his top, but Cloud appeared out of the kitchen with a bottle of wine just in time. She watched Barret visibly relax as Cloud poured him a refill.

"You know, Reno, I've been meaning to ask you something," Cloud interjected, setting the bottle down and leaning his hands against the table. "What's going on with Rufus and Reeve? Is there some sort of alliance between Shinra and the WRO?"

"Alliance?" the Turk scoffed. "How can there be an alliance if Shinra doesn't exist? It's all about the money flow, baby."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean exactly what I'm sayin', yo. I just said that Rufus has been consumed with guilt. He's funneling gil into the WRO in the hopes of restoring the Planet. It's an act of good will. The WRO receives money, they restore order, Rufus gets a clean conscience, and we're not out of a job." He jerked his thumb between himself and Rude, and Rude nodded in agreement. "We're Turks. We've always worked for whoever we want. Guess you could say we're true members of the WRO now. Just like all of you guys should be. Especially you, Cloud."

Cloud stood up straight, grabbing the wine bottle again. "I'm considering it."

"It'd be more profitable than that little small business you're running."

Cloud's eyes narrowed. "My business is important to people."

"Is it?"

Cloud chose to ignore the rude comment and slinked back into the kitchen. "It's not like you can't do both!" Reno called after him.

"Man," Yuffie suddenly drawled, yawning widely in the process. "Let's stop all this work talk and really get this party goin'! I'm setting up beer pong."

"I'll help," Tifa offered.

After a few minutes, two tables of the game were up and running. Marlene and Denzel didn't notice the quizzical looks that Tifa and Barret exchanged when they asked Yuffie to teach them to play, their previous game forgotten about. "Alright," she had agreed. "But you two obviously have to just drink water or something, so I'll take your drinks for you."

The ninja seemed to be enjoying getting plastered off of the kids' successful throws, and Tifa wondered if other parents would frown upon what they were doing.

They just want to play a new game and feel included, she reminded herself. Nothing to worry about…

She distracted her worrisome thoughts by watching Reno and Rude absolutely dominate their game against Barret and Cid.

"Like I said," Reno gloated, "we've been champs since high school."

"And you still look like a couple of dumbass high school kids, too," Barret retorted.

"Don't get jealous, old-timer. Bring on the next team. I wanna show Tifa here how it's done." He smiled smugly. "And I really want to kick Cloud's ass."

"Not gonna happen," he commented, sipping on another one of Tifa's brews.

"Come on Cloud, you can't just ignore a challenge. Look, Tifa wants to play with you."

The barmaid blushed lightly and looked at Cloud, shrugging her shoulders. "I wouldn't mind playing a round." She hadn't played the juvenile drinking game in years. A round or two with him would be interesting, to say the least.

"Ha!" he laughed, pointing at the blonde swordsman. "Now you have to play. Come on, don't be scared."

"Scared?" he echoed, his eyes narrow. He set his drink down on a table and approached them anyway. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Oh, I would love it, Cloud."

For a second's time, a certain electricity crackled throughout the room as Cloud and Reno remembered that they didn't necessarily like each other half the time. "You don't have to, Cloud," Tifa said, smiling. "It's just a silly game; it won't hurt my feelings."

"I'm playing, Teef," he told her calmly. Her stomach fluttered again, and she silently chastised herself for feeling so excited over something so small, yet again.

"Great, can't wait to see you lose," Reno taunted.

"Shut up and throw the ball."

"Hm," the red-haired man huffed, smiling confidently. The ball landed in the nearest cup, and he popped his neck audibly. "Gonna be another short round, ain't it, Rude?" The quiet man smirked, nodding once, and took his shot. Another ball in the cup.

Even Tifa felt slightly annoyed by the Turks' high five and their smug expressions.

Alright, they want a challenge? she mused, downing the cup they had made before Cloud could even reach out to grab it. I'll give them one, alright.

She remembered the glasses from the Gold Saucer and aimed just like she was trying to win another prize. However, she quickly learned that she did not play better as she became more intoxicated, unlike Reno and Rude, who seemed to get better with each drop of alcohol they consumed. Cloud didn't do so well either, and he insisted on drinking a few of the fallen cups that Tifa was almost angrily trying to consume. The game did last quite a while, and with Tifa and Cloud's combined efforts, they managed to take the Turks down to one final cup, before losing.

"I'll admit, you two gave me a run for my money," the redhead commented before shrugging. "But you can't beat the champions."

"Guess not," Cloud said, returning to his previously unfinished and undoubtedly room-temperature beer.

Tifa spent some time with Marlene and Denzel afterwards, as they had decided that "the pong game" wasn't the most fun, and had broken out some sort of elaborate board game. Shera and Cid were playing with them, and Barret was watching. Yuffie had roped Cait Sith into being her beer pong teammate, and was cursing profusely each time Reno and Rude made a cup or Cait Sith missed. They beat her team far before the kids had managed to finish their game.

Some time later, all of the adults, aside from Shera and seemingly, Cloud, were becoming quite intoxicated. The whole party was getting up and milling about, grabbing second servings of dinner or cake and refilling their drinks. Cid had stepped outside to smoke on several occasions, asking anyone but his pregnant wife to accompany him. "Don't wanna give my babies no secondhand smoke," he had said.

Tifa caught Cloud coming in from one of Cid's cigarette breaks just as she had finished having a chat with Shera and serving the kids some juice. "Cloud!" she whispered fervently. She giggled when he jerked his head in her direction, able to hear her quiet voice over the chatter and loud music. She motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen, safely tucked away from the rest of the party. Tifa wasn't sure what she was doing anymore, but she wanted Cloud to let as loose as she was trying to.

"Beer pong isn't your cup of tea?" she teased, stepping into the kitchen.

"There's something about drinking hot beer out of red plastic cups that doesn't sit well with me, no."

Tifa smiled brightly, procuring the expensive bottle of liquor she had hidden in the cabinet. "How about some of this, instead?"

Cloud quirked his eyebrow. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think the bartender is trying to get me drunk."

Tifa felt her heartbeat quicken, noting how attractive he looked when he made rare little expressions like that. "Maybe a little."

"And what makes you think I'm trying to get drunk tonight?" His tone was vaguely playful, and Tifa made to pour two shots of the alcohol.

"You had shots earlier."

"I did, and that was plenty."

"But you'll take another one with me, won't you?"

"Tifa," he sighed, smiling slightly and shaking his head. She held the shot glass out in front of her, silently insisting that he take it. Cloud's eyes darted from her, to the drink, and back to her again.

"Come on, it's my birthday," she pleaded.

Cloud sighed again and took the small glass from her hand. "That's really not fair, you know."

Tifa shrugged, her face alight with joy at her victory, and clinked her glass against his. "Cheers."

"To you," Cloud nodded, throwing his drink back at the same time as Tifa.

Tifa spent the rest of the night throwing back shots and joining in random conversation. She had taken to silently bringing Cloud a shot each time she made her own, and he had taken to silently accepting them. She perched on the end of the couch's arm, beside Cloud, once Marlene and Denzel had started singing on the karaoke machine that Yuffie had brought. It was decidedly adorable, although she couldn't say the same about the ninja's drunken singing that came afterwards.

"I could live the rest of my life without ever hearing her sing again," Cloud had commented quietly. Tifa giggled, feeling her stomach flutter again in knowing that nobody else could hear their conversation.

The night grew rowdier and rowdier, and as all parties do, everything eventually came to a drunken climax. Cloud had cut down the music to a barely-audible level as, one by one, everyone started to pass out. Yuffie was laying her head down at a table in one of the booths, and sweet Shera had been nice enough to fetch her a "just-in-case" bucket before the usually-hospitable Tifa even had a chance to. Cid was cuddled up with a sleeping Shera on the couch, an unlit cigarette handing limply from his lips; he had been holding it for ages. Reno and Rude were passed out in a booth of their own, their slack jaws mirroring each other on opposite sides of the table. Marlene, Denzel, and Barret had made quite a comfortable looking pallet in the living room area; they were all laying on it and munching on popcorn as they watched some old movie that Barret had insisted was great. Both of the kids looked like they were on the verge of crashing, and Barret wasn't too far behind them.

Cloud had been conversing with Cait Sith the last time Tifa had looked over towards the bar. He didn't seem to look too troubled; his surprisingly relaxed demeanor had persisted for most of the night, including while he talked to the little robotic cat. Tifa had turned her attention back to the old movie, but couldn't focus on it. It was boring, much too boring to keep her drunken, spinning mind sane. All she could think about was him. But when she looked back again, he was gone.

"Aye, lass, I feel like I've hardly talked to ya tonight, despite it being your party," Cait Sith commented in his heavy Scottish accent as he toddled up to Tifa. "It was a fun time, nonetheless. I hope you've enjoyed yourself as well."

Tifa bent down to meet the cat at eye level and smiled. "This is the best night I've had in ages," she admitted. "Honestly… Might be one of the best nights of my life."

Cait Sith nodded enthusiastically. "You should do this again sometime. Perhaps Reeve could make it on the next occasion. If only he weren't so busy…" The robot scratched his head, a small frown marring his adorable features. "I guess I'm a decent replacement for his company, though!" He punched his fist in the air animatedly, his frown instantly replaced with a brilliant catlike smile. Tifa giggled, patting him on the head.

"You're not a replacement, dummy. You're a friend."

"Aw, that's mighty sweet of ya, lass," he replied, a cartoonish blush lighting up his furry cheeks. He stretched and yawned, catching his small crown before it tipped over off of his head. "Well, if ya don' mind, I think I'll be joining everyone else in taking a little cat nap. Gotta recharge me batteries."

Tifa giggled again. "Make yourself comfortable. Our home is yours."

Our home. A home that was shared by two sweet, smart, caring children who loved her like she was their own mother. A home that welcomed back an old friend, an old ally, an old man who was something of a father figure to her, and the children, as well. Marlene's daddy. Denzel's new friend. A home that took in friends, both old and new, past enemy or lover, and welcomed them with open arms.

Past lover…

But current… What?

It didn't take long for Cait Sith to curl up in Reno's lap, of all places, perhaps to spite or irritate the red-headed man in his own curious way. The Turk still slumbered heavily, completely unbothered by the instantly-snoozing cat. How Cait Sith had passed out so quickly, or if robotic animals could even really sleep, didn't seem like important questions. What did seem important was quietly slipping out of the living area and searching for a certain blonde-haired man.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

"Cloud?" She found him sitting on the porch steps out front, and she gently shut the door behind her, the sounds of snoring and old television becoming muffled and distant. "Are you okay?"

"Mm-hmm," he hummed; his entire body looked heavy. His head drooped downwards and his arms rested weighty on his knees. There was a cool breeze blowing, gently playing at their hair as Tifa sat down a bit clumsily beside Cloud.

"Are you drunk?" she giggled, slipping her suspenders off of her shoulders; they had begun to dig into her skin and become uncomfortable.

Cloud cast her a sideways glance. "A bit," he answered honestly. "I'm not sure if all those drinking games are my thing." Tifa frowned, the guilt she had been suppressing the entire night rising back to the surface once again.

This whole party wasn't his thing… And yet… He said he 'needed' it…

"You're awfully sneaky with that liquor," he commented. "I haven't been this drunk in ages."

"Is that a bad thing?" she inquired, intending to sound playful but coming off as concerned.

Cloud shrugged. "I guess a little bit of fun can't hurt me, right?" He smiled, noticing Tifa's change of expression. Although he seemed genuine, Tifa held her doubts. "I just needed some fresh air," he assured her.

The barmaid nodded. "So… You really had fun? You're not just saying that to make me happy, are you?"

Cloud chuckled lightly, shaking his head. "Why would you ever think I would do something like that?"

"…You usually try to keep me happy." She blushed, though her face was already painted rouge from intoxication. Her head was beginning to swim.

"You don't think I know how to enjoy myself?"

"I never said that!" Tifa huffed, jerking her head in his direction and eyeing him pointedly. Her hand flew to her mouth, surprised by her own reaction, and Cloud chuckled quietly.

"Then again, I'm not too surprised," he seemed to murmur more to himself than to her. "I'm not the type of guy you would call 'fun'."

"I always have fun with you, Cloud," Tifa replied honestly. "Even on the hardest days… I'm always happy when you're around." She became vaguely aware of the light red tint that was painting Cloud's face, the slight, playful twinkle in his eye.

"Cloud… Your eyes…"

He blinked. "What about them?"

"They don't look so tired anymore…" she noted, cocking her head to the side. She felt transfixed.

Blue… Bright, bright blue… Like the ocean… Like the sky…

"What do they look like, then?" he asked quietly.

"Hmm…" She thought, her own eyes unwavering from his. "There's a happiness in them that I haven't seen in ages. There's… A light in there that I almost forgot you had." She smiled. "They look like… They want to tell me something."

What am I saying?

"…You sure that's not just what I look like when I'm drunk?"

"I've seen you drunk before."

She had, a few times. Once or twice, they had drunk and had fun together. Just the two of them, and Barret, mostly. Sharing drinks around an open campfire as they built their new home with their very own hands. Hands that worked hard and were calloused and thickened from years of fighting.

"…Things sure have changed a lot," she murmured. "Even over the past few days."

Cloud nodded. "They have."

"Do you think… This is a change for the better?"

Cloud chuckled again. "Tifa, these past few days have honestly been the happiest of my life. That's… Not an exaggeration."

"Really?" she breathed. "Even despite…" She trailed off, hazy thoughts meandering towards a dark place that involved Deepground and Trent. She unknowingly clenched her fist, and Cloud placed his hand on top of hers, effectively easing her tension.

"Despite everything," he confirmed. "I never want these days to end."

"Me too," she agreed, her throat growing taut with emotion. "You have no idea…" She trailed off, still unable to fully express her thoughts after all this time.

"Teef…" Cloud's eyes fell away from her, and he suddenly lost all traces of calm and confidence that he had displayed the entire night. "I… Ahh…"

"What is it?" Tifa asked.

Cloud reached into his deep pant pocket, pulling out a slim black box. "…I got you something. For your birthday. I'm… I'm scared to give it to you." He laughed quietly. "…Silly, right?"

Tifa's heart fluttered, and her swimming head began to hum. "You got me a present?" she gasped, hands clasped over her mouth.

Cloud nodded, and, silently, handed her the box. Tifa handled it carefully, with both hands, and with shaky fingers, opened it. Inside was a beautiful, heart-shaped locket.

"I saw it in a store in Junon, and… I thought you might like it."

"Cloud…" Tears welled up in her eyes, intense emotions threatening to overwhelm her.

"Open it."

She did. Inside was a family photo, the only one that they all had together. The only one where Tifa could be seen leaning over and holding onto Denzel and Marlene's shoulders in a motherly fashion. The only one where Marlene was smiling brightly, and Denzel was smiling sweetly, shyly. The only one where Cloud was standing a little further away, as if he were afraid to be in the photo, but his characteristic, sweet smile was stile undoubtedly there, as well. And despite the shy smiles and the fact that their little family had grown even closer to each other since that moment, they all looked happy together.

"…I'm speechless," she admitted, hardly able to say even that. "…Would you mind?" She let the question hang delicately, and Cloud swallowed thickly, moving to sit on the step behind her. He gently pulled her thick hair aside, his fingertips ghosting over her skin as he clasped the metal link shut. Tifa's hand fluttered up to gingerly grasp at the pendent, her voice still failing her.

"I've messed up a lot…" Cloud murmured, breaking the short silence. "Especially when it comes to you… And I've made a lot of promises to you."

"You have promised me a lot… But you've never messed up," Tifa managed to murmur.

"This…" He paused, taking her hand in his and gently flipping the locket over. 'I promise', it read. "This is a new kind of promise. It's not just a promise to be here when you need me. It's a promise to… just be here. Always."

A new kind of promise…

Cloud has promised her many things in the time they'd spent together. When he first made a promise to her on the water tower, all those years ago, she knew that he would protect her. When he gave her the Fenrir ring, he promised that she would always be a part of his pack, and she knew that he wouldn't forget her. And with this locket, with this new promise, Tifa's eyes were beginning to open in a whole new way.

"Cloud…" she whispered his name again, turning to look back at him.

"I.." His gaze was hazy, his lips parting to speak but pausing in hesitation. "It looks so pretty on you…" He paused again, his eyes darting between Tifa's. "You look so pretty."

Tifa's heart was hammering in her chest, and she was unable to utter a 'thank you' as a single tear finally broke free from the captivity of her eyes. She felt something stirring inside of her, something strong and something daring, and she took a chance, leaning back and kissing Cloud's cheek softly. Deliberately. She watched his eyes grow wide as she slowly pulled away. A mistake, she might have thought before, but his shocked expression quickly melted into something different. Something that told her that her touch was anything but a mistake. His eyes, still hazy from the drinks, traced over her features, and his hand followed slowly behind. His touch fell down her hair, then down her tinted cheek, his thumb pausing to softly rub over her lips. They parted in response, and Cloud dragged his fingertips along her jaw and over the chilled skin on her neck. Tifa found herself leaning towards his touch, wanting to give into it desperately. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to relish in the feeling; the swirly warmth of the liquor in her veins and the electric sizzle of Cloud's fingertips made a dangerous combination, far more dangerous than any of the monsters she had fought in her lifetime.

"Tifa," he murmured, his voice low and husky. She felt both of his hands wrap around the back of her and lock around her chest, his body close to hers. She didn't dare open her eyes, choosing instead to easily let go of the mental restraints holding her back and to wholly treasure the feeling of his touch. "I feel sort of silly right now…" he softly murmured near her ear. "Kind of the same way I always felt when I was around you as a child…" He leaned closer and, carefully, placed a hesitant kiss on her neck. A pleasurable chill shot up Tifa's spine. "…I've always felt shy and nervous whenever I'm around you… But more than that… I've been feeling a lot of things, lately..." Her stomach trembled nervously and she felt a surge of adrenaline spark through her as Cloud continued to speak softly against her pebbled skin. "No… I've felt a lot of things for a very long time, when it comes to you, Tifa… And, if I'm being honest…" He kissed her neck again, less careful this time. "…I don't know what to make of these feelings." Tifa felt her breath catch in her throat, her senses totally alight and her voice unable to give form to her words. She could feel every subtle movement of his: his lips ghosting along her skin, the tip of his cute nose and wisps of blonde hair touching her as well. "I'm sorry," he whispered, and placed more slow, soft kisses down her neck, stopping near the dip of her shoulder. "…Tell me to stop," he pleaded, a hint of desperation lacing his tone as his arms wrapped around her tighter. Tifa's breath felt constricted; she couldn't speak, her throat was dry and her tongue was swollen, but she could shake her head 'no'. For the love of Odin, her mind begged, please don't stop. Cloud understood, the silent communication that they had both grown accustomed to firmly established, and he continued, parting his lips further to kiss down the delicate slope of her shoulder. "Tell me it's just the liquor talking…" he urged her. "Tell me you don't want this."

But I do want this, her drunken mind begged. I want this so bad, I feel like I'm going crazy.

Tifa felt her sense of control slipping away, and she allowed the lingering effects of the alcohol to take her over completely as she turned to lean her cheek against his own. "Why?" she whispered, almost terrified to hear his response.

"I'm no good for you," he drawled, placing slightly more urgent kisses against her shoulder before nipping dangerously at her soft skin. Tifa's breath audibly caught in her throat, and a slow-burning sensuality was threatening to overtake her.

"Is that what you really think?" she questioned, her voice quiet and throaty.

"…Yes," he breathed, his lips still lightly touching her skin.

Slowly, purposefully, Tifa reached up and hooked her finger under the straps of her tank top and bra. She slipped them down and off of her right shoulder, exposing a tantalizing sliver of her skin to Cloud's desperate lips. He breathed in sharply in response. "…If you're no good for me," she murmured, "then maybe… I don't want 'good'."

"Tifa…"

"You're afraid to touch me… Like you did back then…"

"Terrified," he whispered, trailing a lone finger down the bare slope of her shoulder.

"…Don't be."

Something inside him seemed to break, and Tifa gasped when he placed several slow, heated, open-mouthed kisses along the curves of her exposed skin.

"'Words… Words aren't the only thing that tell people what you're thinking,'" he murmured lowly, kissing back up her neck, torturously slow in his movements. "I've thought of those words so many times over the years... Dreamed of them…" He paused, kissing more delicately at her earlobe. "…But there's something I should have told you a long time ago. Something important."

A heartbeat's pause that seemed to last a lifetime stretched between them, and Tifa was enchanted, enamored of the man that was touching her in almost sinfully wonderful ways. Her world was melting away and there seemed to be nothing and no one left but just the two of them.

That's why Tifa jerked hard in response to the sound of the front door of the bar being slammed open by Yuffie. She stumbled out onto the porch, pitch-drunk, and began to retch over the wooden railing. Quickly, Cloud stood and pulled Tifa up with him, holding her steady as she gained her bearings on her wobbly feet. "Yuffie…" she exhaled, a mixture of anger and confusion pulling her away from the distant world she had fallen into under Cloud's touch. She was acutely aware of the feeling of his hands touching her shoulders, his right one gently pulling her shirt and bra straps back up into their proper position.

"Damn it," he muttered, his voice icy and still decidedly drunk. Tifa was taken aback by his outward expression of irritation, but she shared the same looked back to him desperately, wanting, needing some sort of reassurance. Cloud grabbed her by the shoulders, a bit roughly, and fervently whispered, "We'll talk later." He then leaned forward and gently kissed her on her forehead, locking eyes with her before disappearing inside the bar. Tifa was left in a daze; if her head was swimming earlier, it absolutely spinning, now. She blocked out every drunken thought, feeling, and question as she tended to her friend as best she could.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Taking care of Yuffie was a sobering moment for everyone. Cloud had fetched Tifa a glass of water, a wet rag, and an elixir, while the brunette had held Yuffie's short hair away from her face as she puked and patted her back gently.

"Tifa… I swear I'll never drink again," Yuffie drawled before dry heaving over the railing again. Dimly in the back of her mind, Tifa noted that she would have to hose off Yuffie's drunken mess in the morning.

"It's okay," Tifa soothed, handing Yuffie the cool, wet rag. "You owe me, though," she whispered, making sure Cloud was back inside. "Big time."

"Huh?" The younger woman moaned, dry heaving again.

"…Nothing," Tifa replied, shaking her head.

His lips… His touch…

Touch that I've craved for ages… Answers that I've wanted for years, so close I can almost taste them...

Tifa's whole world had been turned upside down, and everything felt enticing. Tantalizing. Electrifying. Fiery, heated, strong feelings had emerged that Tifa had all but thrown away. She was alive. She was alight with a fire that burned slow and heavy and needy. She needed him. She needed to know. There was more to it than just the liquor. Just a promise. Just a night holding her tightly as she cried. Just a morning murmuring sweet nothings into her ear. Just a thousand small smiles and reassuring glances. Just a million blushes. Just a billion moments of casting his tired, Mako-tainted, gentle gaze in her direction.

Just one night, roughly two years ago, that had been wrapped up and neatly packed away in the back of their memories, never to be touched again. Never to be addressed. Never to be spoken of.

The door of the bar opened again, and he was there, face undeniably controlled and stoic. She knew that expression all too well. He was burying his emotions, whatever they were, deep, deep down inside his heart. "Is she done?" he asked, avoiding looking Tifa directly in the eyes and stepping around to look at the drunken girl. "Yuffie, let's get you inside. I've got a bed ready for you."

Yuffie hiccupped and looked at Cloud miserably. "Really?" she drawled.

"Yeah. Let's go."

Cloud let the younger woman drape her arm over his shoulder as he helped her inside. Tifa followed quietly, bringing the supplies Cloud had brought outside in with her.

"Cloooouuud, since when are you so nice?" Yuffie drawled, becoming less and less helpful in walking as they approached the stairs.

"I don't have time for this," Cloud huffed, letting his control slip for a moment as he hefted Yuffie over his shoulder in a fireman's carry.

"Heeeyyy! Put me down!" she whined, more loudly than she needed to.

"Shut up," Cloud growled at her. He deposited her on his own bed after making it up the stairs. The girl just moaned in agony and rolled over. Cloud sighed. "She has a bucket, some water, and a rag…" He turned and faced Tifa, finally looking into her eyes again. "Is there anything else I should get her?"

Tifa shook her head silently, feeling dazed and confused, and still a bit drunk. More drunk than she'd like to be. It all felt like it was too much.

Cloud reached out, and gently, ever so gently, caressed her cheek. "…Let's get out of here."

What?

At first, it didn't click. "Where should we go?" she whispered, feeling slowly returning to her numb and drunken mind.

"Anywhere," Cloud responded quietly. "Let's take my bike and see where it takes us."

Tifa stood there stupidly for a moment, her face as blank as her mind.

See where it takes us?

"Teef?" he murmured, concern etching into his handsome features.

Teef… My nickname… My name that only he calls me…

"…You're not supposed to drink and drive," she murmured.

A silent second stretched between them, and then Cloud laughed. It wasn't a quiet, typical chuckle – no. It was hearty, true laughter. It rang through Tifa's ears like music, and she came back from her numb state as all her senses lit back up like the lights of the fallen city of Midgar. She laughed too, happily, giggling away the tension.

"Of all the things to say…" Cloud mumbled, shaking his head and smiling.

Before she knew it, Tifa was leading Cloud down the stairwell as quietly as she could, grabbing her special bottle of liquor and a few other small supplies. He took notice, just as she hoped he would, and quickly packed a bag of some supplies as well, including several blankets and a small tent. Something dangerous and enticing stirred inside of Tifa. Perhaps it was because the liquor hadn't fully left her veins, and the lingering sense of Cloud's touch was making her feel things that she had promised herself she would never allow herself to feel. Perhaps it was the fact that her brain might be on the verge of melting and her heart might be on the verge of exploding, and she was beginning to care less and less about silly promises to herself when he offered her plenty of tantalizing promises in return. Perhaps it was the fact that she took pleasure in knowing that Cloud had become so used to reading her actions, rather than her words, and always seemed to know exactly what she needed. Or, at least, she felt that way as of late. And maybe, when he smiled at her and held onto her hand like he could never let go, he really was offering a new sort of promise to her. Something about the air that night felt wild and spontaneous, and all of Tifa's fears and doubts slowly dissipated into nothingness as she and Cloud snuck out of the quiet, sleepy bar that they called home.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

Tifa opened her eyes to the sound of Cloud quietly calling her name. She sat up, having fell asleep against his leather-clad back, and looked around.

"Where are we?"

It was still very dark outside, and they appeared to be at some sort of lake. This wasn't the same lake they had bathed in, though, and it wasn't a place she recognized. It was pretty, and felt tucked away within the wooded scenery. A few fireflies lit up occasionally, and the sound of chirping crickets filled the otherwise quiet atmosphere.

"Nowhere in particular," Cloud answered, hoisting a bag over his shoulder and slipping off the back of his bike after Tifa did the same. "Well… That's not exactly true." He offered his free hand to Tifa, and she took it easily. "Walk with me?"

Tifa nodded, slightly surprised at Cloud's uncertain question. She'd walk with him to the ends of the Planet. She had proven that to him, hadn't she?

They stayed hand-in-hand and silent for some time, the sounds of nature filling up Tifa's senses. She was sobering up now, and the implications from earlier in the night were beginning to consume her mind. What if she was wrong? What if it she had taken things the wrong way? He was drunk, she was drunk; or rather, the both of them weren't particularly drunk anymore, but what he had done… What he had said… What did it mean?

This place… Why did he bring me here?

"Cloud…?" She stopped walking and let her hand fall from his, opting to clasp her own together shyly. Her questioning tone was laced with consistent doubt and insecurities, but beneath it all, she was left curious and wanting. Cloud smiled at her in the sweetest way.

"This is a special place, you know," he commented. "Monsters rarely roam here. Nothing's around for miles. It was one of the places I would come to sometimes, whenever I felt like I needed to get away from the world. A place that isn't filled with painful memories…" He took a moment to close his eyes and breathed in deeply. "I feel very peaceful here. I feel like… I can be honest with myself, here." He opened his eyes and his gaze fell onto Tifa's. "Like I can be honest with you."

Honest…

Tifa closed her eyes as well, soaking in the sounds of nature and breathing in the smell of fresh flora. "Do you feel like you need to get away from the world now?" she quietly asked, her eyes slowing opening.

"Yeah… I do. But, the truth is…" Cloud reached out and took Tifa's hand again. "I've only ever come here to be alone. But this time… I wanted to be alone with you."

Tifa let him pull her deeper into the woods, and he silently led her to a distant shore that kissed the breast of a short river. They paused; he looked at her, and she looked at him, unsure and heart beating wildly. "…Tifa," he murmured. "…After all this time… There's so many things that I never got to say to you…" He let his bag slide off of his shoulder and hit the ground before gently squeezing Tifa's shoulders. "I keep thinking, 'this isn't the right time, or the right place', or that I shouldn't say anything at all… But…" He shook his head. "I'm tired of living this way. I've trapped myself in this… lie, where I pretend that I don't feel the way that I do…" Tifa's eyes darted between Cloud's own; she was instantly transfixed again, finding herself lost in the ocean of his gaze. "You know me better than anyone," he continued. "Better than I know myself, sometimes…"

Tifa's heart fluttered madly, and the flood of heated feelings from before assaulted her and pooled in the pit of her stomach. "I don't know everything about you," she whispered, reflecting on her own thoughts that she had voiced to cloud only a short time ago.

"I know a lot more about you than I used to," he had said.

"Really? Like what?"

"Like the fact that you read romance-mystery novels every night after you finish cleaning up the bar. Or that you like hot pepper sauce in your scrambled eggs… Which is really gross, by the way."

"…I guess you're right, Cloud. But… You don't know everything," she had replied.

"I don't?"

Cloud nodded. "You do, though." His hand reached up to gently caress Tifa's cheek. "You know my story from beginning to end."

"Would it be weird if I said that I miss you?"

"And, Tifa… It all begins and ends with you."

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

The beginning of their story started with an innocent, childhood promise atop an old, rusty water tower. That night, the stars shined magnificently in the sky. Tifa swore that she had seen a shooting star that night, and even if it were only her imagination, she had made a wish. She had wished for the boy that had caught her interest to come back to see her someday. She didn't understand why at the time, but something about him made her feel safe and secure, even when she only barely knew him.

The middle of their story began with that same boy, much older now, and different, but the same. He had intrigued her, and worried her, with the way that he spoke and acted. He wasn't the same shy, sweet boy that she had remembered from her past. He, instead, brought up memories of that same boy getting into fights with the other neighborhood kids. Everyone always thought he was bad, or strange, or dangerous… But Tifa always knew how good he was under that tough exterior. Yeah… She always knew that he was good.

And so the end of their story had remained unfinished, and they were left in a tangled web of confusing feelings and unaddressed thoughts. The current setting sought to inform Tifa that Cloud had intentions to stay with her, there, for a while. He had pitched the small tent and laid a palette out under the stars, and had even taken to gathering supplies for a small campfire. He had done most of this without speaking, giving Tifa ample time to reflect on her feelings. Somehow, she knew that Cloud was just killing time in order to do the same thing. After what felt like hours, he had turned away from her, and Tifa was left looking at the back of the man who was confessing his deepest feelings to her.

"Time and time again… I sink," the blonde man said to Tifa, and not to the river that he was intently looking at. "I sink deeper and deeper every time. But, somehow, you always manage to pull me back up to the surface without drowning yourself. And every time, I feel this gratitude that's so strong and profound that I just can't express it. But, I always get scared, too. Scared that I'll pull you down with me. Scared that, one day, you won't be able to save me… And I'll end up hurting you more than I already have." He shook his head, turning back to face her. "Teef… I'm a broken man. A broken shell of a man. And when I fall apart, I feel so guilty letting you pick up all of the pieces. But… At the same time…"

"I'd do it every day," Tifa said, quickly standing from her blanket and stepping closer to him. "I could never let you fall apart. Not after everything we've been through together."

"I know… And that's why it's so hard…" He hung his head shamefully. "To feel like I couldn't possibly deserve someone as wonderful as you are."

He stepped closer, too, and their hands connected easily. "After I became 'the hero', I should have gotten everything I've ever wanted," he continued. "The glory. The satisfaction. The girl…" He shook his head slowly. "…But I pushed it all away. I pushed everyone away. And you, Tifa… You got the worst of it. You've gotten to see… Every worst side of me. And yet…" He squeezed her hands gently. "And yet, you've stood by my side, for better or worse. You've fought for me, tooth and nail, mentally and physically. You've…" He searched for the right words. "You've put the pieces back together for me, time and time again. You've searched for me when I couldn't find the strength to do it myself. And I just can't wrap my mind around how incredibly lucky I am to have someone care about me that much. More than that… The person who kept me together, kept me whole, was the one person I've cared about all my life. The one who I never stopped thinking of."

"Cloud…"

"Wait," he asked, halting her from pulling him closer. "I have more that I need to say…" Tifa squeezed his hands tighter, patiently drinking in his every word. "A lot of times, I feel like I'm stumbling. I feel like some freak of nature, something that is whole and broken at the same time, and I feel so… Different from everyone else." His words were coming out more quickly now, more frantically, as if they'd disappear if he stopped speaking. "And I try, and I try, and I try again, but I can never seem to get things right. And then when I finally feel like I'm getting somewhere, like I might have finally found the light at the end of the tunnel, something bad happens, because something bad always happens, and then I give up. Again. Over and over again, I just give up and give up and keep giving up. But you… You never let me give up for too long. And you always come to me when I'm at my lowest and my weakest, and you pick me up, and you dust me off, and you smile the prettiest smile at me and you tell me 'dilly dally shilly shally'." Tifa laughed quietly, tears pooling in her eyes as all of her strong emotions welled to the surface again. "Have you ever felt like a loser, Tifa?" Cloud asked her, quietly.

"…Sometimes," she responded.

"…I always feel like I'm about ten steps behind everyone else. Like no matter how hard I try, I can't keep up. And the whole time, everyone around me is relying on me. They look up to me; they ask me to lead them… So I try my best, and sometimes I succeed, but other times, I fail. When it all goes to hell, Tifa, you're the reason I keep trying. Even if I feel like a complete failure. Even if I think all hope is lost. And that terrifies me, Teef. I'm so scared to be hopeful, to be happy, to be relied on, to be loved by others. To be needed… To even be wanted… When all my life, I've been nothing but an outcast. The loser. The failure. And now, everyone wants me to play the hero. And most of the time, I just feel like I'm faking it. Until I look at you… And then for once in my damn life… I really feel like I am one."

Tifa was silently crying now, but she knew that Cloud knew that she wasn't sad. No, she was anything but sad. She was happy. She was so incredibly, unbelievably happy. One of Cloud's hands floated up to caress her cheek, and she leaned into it, thankful for his touch. Thankful for everything.

"For a long time, I thought that, maybe, you felt sorry for me," he continued. "That you pitied me. But looking back at it now… I see that you really cared all along. And I had other people in my life that cared about me, too. I just… Couldn't really see it, until now. And, even just thinking about it…" His voice began to shake, losing the calm, neutral tone that he had carried throughout his confession. "Thinking about all the people who care about me… All of my friends… My family… And you… Just thinking that I can finally be happy… Finally have a chance to be normal… Tifa, it's so damn terrifying. And, I don't know why, but… It hurts…"

"It hurts?" she echoed softly.

Cloud nodded, his eyes full of tears now too, bright and blue and full of truth in the light of the campfire. They searched Tifa's own for answers that he had sought for a very long time. "Tifa… I am so, so deeply in love with you… It hurts."

And then, without any restraints or inhibitions, Tifa kissed Cloud with an intensity that she didn't even know she was capable of. Her hands, having moved to cradle his face, dragged through his hair as he kissed her back in a way that told her to never stop.

When she finally pulled away and looked into his eyes, she could make out every detail in those intensely blue irises. Could feel the warmth of his skin against her own. Could taste the scent of liquor on his lips. She felt alive.

"I've waited so long…" she admitted.

"I know," he confessed, kissing her freely in between his words. "I know that now. I should have told you… Years ago."

"It's not your fault… None of that matters anymore." She pulled back again, desperate as she was to kiss him until time itself ended. "Cloud… I love you, too."

Cloud kissed her again and again, pulling her body tight against his and running his fingers through her long, tied-up mess of hair, and Tifa melted into his touch. Touch that was gentle by nature, yet desperately demanding all the same.

"I love you… It feels so good to say it," he whispered, kissing down Tifa's neck and rubbing his hands over her back.

"I love you, Cloud… I love you, too. So… So much…"

Tifa was elated. She was running on a high that was almost manic in nature, and this time, her world really did melt around her. No, the rest of the world didn't matter right now. This place was just Tifa and Cloud's, and stagnant memories of their time together began to rise to the surface.

A young, shy Cloud trailing her up a huge mountain. A teenage, determined Cloud fighting through his fear of speaking to her atop an old, rusty water tower. An older, different Cloud feigning indifference to Tifa's needs. A pained, sick Cloud slowly losing his mind as Tifa tended to him. A brief, joyful Cloud that laughed quietly and filled up the room with his smile. A depressed, broken Cloud who believed that no one would ever want to help him heal.

And now, finally, here in her arms, was the Cloud that she had been searching for all along. A Cloud that she had only had brief time with, time that was always too short. Tifa knew that he was a complex man; there were many facets and sides to him that were probably yet to be explored. But Tifa wanted to explore them – wanted to know every nook and cranny of Cloud's mind, beyond all of the things that she learned in the Lifestream. She wanted to know all of him, to be with all of him, to feel all of him and to love all of him, wholly and completely.

And he wanted to love her the same. Words were dissipating into the chill of the night air, and were replaced with touches that grew heavier in their nature. That night under the Highwind came flooding back into Tifa's mind as Cloud began to lose his hesitance and grew hungry in his desire to learn every inch of her. What was different about this time, was that the world wasn't ending, and there was ample time to be had. The knowledge that this was only the beginning of something new for them seemed to register in both of their hazy minds, and they touched each other with equal fervor and a slow-burning pace.

Cloud gently pulled her inside the tent, kissing her as much as he could, and helped her lie down on the pallet he had created. He took great care to prop Tifa's head up on a few rolled-up blankets, and he paused, looking down at her.

"Are you comfortable?" he asked, his voice very gentle.

"I'm more than comfortable," she responded, pulling him back down to kiss him again. Comfort and everything else be damned. This is what she had been wanting. Had been needing for years.

Cloud caressed her cheek and kissed her more slowly. He pulled away from her again, his body hovering inches away from hers. "I should have taken you somewhere nicer than this place."

"This place is perfect."

"You deserve nothing but the best." Cloud almost looked sad for a moment. "You deserve better than what I've given you."

"And yet I still love you all the same." Tifa reached up and cradled his face, her voice pleading. "Cloud, you've given me everything I need. You've given me love, and friendship, and support, and protection… Don't you understand?" She traced her thumb over his cheek sweetly. "You've given me nothing but fond memories. Through all the bad times, you've given me a shoulder to cry on. Through all the good, you've given me someone to smile with. That's enough for me, Cloud…" She kissed him again, slow and deliberate. "All I want is you. All I've ever wanted is you. The details aren't important. All that is… Is that you're here with me. Right now."

It was enough for her, and finally, it was enough for him, as well. Each kiss marked a timeless memory, and every touch etched its place in Tifa's soul. Between whispered words of love, Tifa and Cloud bathed in the feeling of each other. Tifa was intoxicated by the heady taste of his lips, the night's liquor still lingering on his breath. He smelled of fresh soap and earthy leather, the masculine nature of which made Tifa weak and ready under his touch. The look in his eyes, pure-blue and full of love and desire, was something both new and familiar to Tifa. It excited her. Though she had seen that look before, it has always been distracted. But this time, regardless of what battles may be fought in the future, Cloud and Tifa were completely and absolutely absorbed in the presence of each other.

They loved each other in a way that was totally new. Heavy, impassioned touches paired with gentle caresses and curious exploration. They dared to take risks together, learning each other's battle scars and placing healing kisses to those wounds. Cloud took on a whole new demeanor that Tifa had never seen before, and he slowly drove her mad with his possessive and determined touch. And when Tifa was nude and panting and had fully unraveled, her eyes filled with lust, Cloud broke.

Tifa let him pull her arms over her head, entwining his fingers with hers on the tattered blankets. For a long time, they remained flush against each other, choosing not to speak because they deemed it unnecessary. They had a way of showing each other how they felt with their actions.

But tonight, Tifa reminded herself, words are important.

Tifa gently let her hands escape Cloud's, choosing to instead caress his hair as he laid comfortably on her breast. "I feel like I'm in shock," she admitted. "All these years… What have we been doing for all these years?"

"…I've been living in fear," Cloud stated truthfully. "But you make me feel like the bravest man on the face of The Planet." He lifted his head to look at her, smiling. "And the luckiest."

Tifa smiled, too. "You are the bravest man I know, Cloud." He chuckled lightly, his smile bright and toothy and genuinely real. Tifa thought he looked like an angel.

"I owe it all to you," he breathed, scooting over to cradle Tifa beside him and looking into her eyes. "My reason for fighting. My inspiration." He brushed a wisp of hair away from Tifa's face. "I have a lot of reasons for fighting. A lot of people that I love who I'm fighting for. But you always inspire me to keep going. When I'm with you… I know anything is possible." He chuckled again. "Cheesy… Right?"

"I love cheesy."

They both laughed lightly together. "I guess I do, too," Cloud admitted. He kissed her again, gently and lovingly, reluctant to pull away. "…I feel like my chest is going to explode," he whispered. "…Is that weird?"

Tifa smiled, gently shaking her head 'no' against the ground. "I feel the same way." She let the tips of her calloused fingers play along his jawline. "…You were afraid to look at me last time."

"I was," Cloud admitted.

"Why?"

He winced slightly, before softly smiling again. "I felt ashamed… I felt like I didn't deserve what you had given me. Like I had taken advantage of you, somehow."

"I felt the same…" Tifa laughed lightly. "We're both idiots."

Cloud chuckled, too. "Things were different, then…" He kissed her softly, and Tifa relished in the fact that his pupils were blown and dilated rather than the angry slits they usually were. "Things are different, now… Now, I couldn't stop looking at you even if I were blinded."

"You couldn't see me if you were blinded," she teased.

"I'd find a way to," he replied, kissing from her forehead down to her chin. "You are, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman on the face of the Planet." He gently kissed her again. "…Inside and out."

Tifa smiled brightly, letting her hands roam and play wherever they pleased on Cloud's body. "I could say the same about you."

"That I'm the most beautiful woman on the face of the Planet?" he questioned, quirking an eyebrow.

"Don't make me remind you-"

"You don't need to," Cloud interjected, holding a finger up to Tifa's lips and obviously rejecting the hazy memory of cross-dressing in Wall Market. They both shared another laugh together before Cloud sweetly kissed Tifa again. "You make me so incredibly happy, Tifa." His hand reached up into her tangled hair, pushing it behind her ear and gently flicking her earring. "You have no idea."

"I do, though," she breathed. "…You make me the happiest woman in the world, Cloud. I mean that."

Cloud trailed his hand down Tifa's side, finding her hand and intertwining his fingers into hers. "Teef… Remember what you said about my life being made up of a bunch of different puzzle pieces?"

Tifa nodded, smiling gently. "You said I was more than just a part of your puzzle… You said I'm 'basically the whole damn thing'."

Cloud chuckled. "Well… I've been thinking… Maybe my life isn't a puzzle. Maybe it's more of a book."

"A book?"

"Mm-hmm." He kissed her tenderly. "A book filled with lots of different chapters… Good ones, and bad. But, no matter what page you turn to… You're always there. My beginning, and my end."

Tifa continued to smile, feeling happy tears well up in her eyes once again, and she kissed him like the gentle glow of sunrise that kissed the edge of the Planet. "I like being your story."

Cloud and Tifa whispered sweet nothings to each other late into the night, giggling and smiling like teenagers who had fallen in love for the very first time. Tifa felt so youthful, so rejuvenated, so deliciously alive that she thought she could take on the world. After a bath in the river, more lovemaking, and an eternity of whispered feelings, Tifa found herself curled against Cloud, just as she had been for the past few nights. She knew that she would never sleep without his gentle form beside her again, and she cherished the way he snuggled his face into her hair and stroked his fingers down her spine.

"Cloud…" she whispered.

"Teef," he replied gently.

"I love you."

"I love you too, Tifa. So very, very much." He leaned his head down and kissed her again, before snuggling up as close to her as he possibly could. "Let's rest, now."

Tifa nodded, whispering her goodnights and feeling her heart swell as he whispered his. And as they fell asleep together, all was right in the world. No matter what sorrows the world may have brought, no matter what trials they would have to face, Tifa knew that they had strength in each other. So long as they were together, nothing could hurt them. Perhaps, they were invincible.

That's why Tifa was so terrified to awaken to Cloud tightly clutching her nude body as he screamed in agony.

·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•·•

ENDING AUTHOR'S NOTE: Wow, guys. That was a lot, right? I understand that it may be -too much- for some people (some people prefer to read shorter, more frequent chapters), but this is the format I've chosen for a variety of reasons. I really didn't want to upload this until I felt like it was 100% ready to go. Some places in this chapter are obviously not perfect, but I poured my heart and soul into this chapter, and I really hope that shines through! I hope with all my heart that you guys enjoyed reading this chapter, and I hope that it made you feel lots of things, good, and bad. I know my writing isn't perfect, but I really gave it my all on this one. With that being said, I hope you guys will look forward to the ENDING! We have one final chapter, and an epilogue to go. I do not think the final chapter will be as long - it will instead focus on wrapping things up, finishing off conflicts, and tying off lose ends relating to the characters' feelings and dynamics with each other. Please understand that it may take me a while again... I know how frustrating it is to wait on me for -literally- a year to write this. But, that's how long it takes me to write something this long, and of this quality, bearing in mind that I have real-life stuff to deal with as well. I will do everything in my power to finish this story as soon as I can! And I do sincerely apologize for the agonizing wait... I hope that the length and content of this chapter will help make up for that. As always, please feel welcome to leave a review, because they absolutely make my day and remind me that it's worth writing all of this. I love knowing that other people are enjoying something that I've worked so hard on. I do this all for you guys! I won't let you guys down. It may take a long time still, but rest assured that this story WILL be completed! I AM DEDICATED TO FINISHING THIS PROJECT! So, please enjoy, and have a wonderful day or night :-) I will be seeing you, hopefully sooner rather than later - Sincerely, SummonerStrife