Does everyone remember that infamous scene after they beat Hojo in the return to Midgar? (Right before Disc 3) You know, after Rufus has been killed by Diamond Weapon (alas! my poor Rufus) and Shinra Inc. is in shambles? Well, as many CloTi fans know, this is a rather special moment when Cloud tells everyone to spend some time with their loved ones and make their peace as well as affirm what they are fighting for. In that time, Cloud and Tifa have a rather lovely scene (considering they had at least 24 hours alone together it was about time they got mushy) and this is my retelling of it. Just a quick little one shot (and trust me, this really is short for one of my one shots). Maybe someday I'll write the corresponding lemon and post it in a more appropriate forum, but this is what gets so enjoy.

Disclaimer: I have no claims to ownership of Final Fantasy VII or any of its characters. I can barely even think about my school loans. . . It's just fanfiction people! Jeez!

Stolen Time

She was standing before him, facing the wind and letting it blow back her masses of hair in twining tendrils while she tried to collect her thoughts. He wouldn't blame her if she left, and something inside of him wanted her to go so that she could stay out of danger. When he had given that pep talk, a slightly more inspiring one than his previous defeatist attempts, he had turned to her and expected something, anything, besides what left her perfect lips.

"I have nowhere to go. There is no one out there waiting for me to return. I. . .am alone." The emptiness in her eyes made him feel wretched for asking her, but the question had been pulled from him before he could stop himself. It was a similar look to the one she had worn the day her mother had died, and all Cloud knew was that he was no closer to being able to help her than the day they had fallen from the cliff and she had nearly died. Even if she was no longer that fragile, he couldn't reconcile himself to the fact. They always seemed to be stuck in a time warp.

After she spoke, he had wanted to tell her everything—to unburden himself of the feelings he finally had a clear idea of. The confusion of his and Zach's lives had at first muddled his regards for Aeris between the duty and the friendship he knew he possessed and the love he knew that the real Zach had held inside, but now that he had regained his own life and sorted out his true memories, what he had thought he had felt for Aeris had faded along with his false memories. All that his dead friend inspired in him now was pity and an ever growing sense of obligation. It was the love, a burning and consuming sort of love, he had always held for Tifa that made those lukewarm shades of Zach's memory fade away. Tifa was his purpose and Tifa was the one he was fighting for. If Cloud could not beat Sephiroth then Tifa would have no future, with or without him, and he felt as if his most important life's goal would end in failure.

Now, with everyone gone and just the two of them left alone, Cloud struggled with the forces inside of him that demanded that he take action. To talk to her, hold her, kiss her. . . They would probably be dead in less than a week whether by Sephiroth or by Meteor, but they had right now and he desperately needed to feel alive. Only Tifa could grant him that boon, but he knew he simply couldn't ask for it. Instead, he retreated into his own brooding world yet again.

"I'll always be here for you Cloud. Just as I was in the Lifestream." She hadn't turned around but her voice carried far back to him on the wind. "Do you remember when I called out for you? When I helped you?"

Cloud focused on a faraway memory. He caught fevered glimpses of the black materia in his hand and then he was falling into warmth until he felt Tifa's presence in the Lifestream among the voices. Only her voice had been distinctive and it was hers that called him back out of himself. It had been agony to hear her calling out in panic and yet being unable to answer her.

"I remember." He said it, then said it again, louder, when she didn't react.

When she turned to speak to him he choked down a lump of emotion that was creeping into his throat and tightening the muscles there. Cloud wanted to give her the words he knew she craved but he didn't think he'd have the ability at this rate. Expression of emotion often seemed to foul itself up when it was making its way out of his mouth. His morale breaking pep talks were proof enough of that.

"I can't express how lonely I've been without you Cloud. You thought, or you told me that you thought, that I didn't even notice your existence but you couldn't have been more wrong." Her cheeks were glowing, if from the cold or from embarrassment he couldn't tell. "I used to avoid you because you made me feel awkward. When you were near I was self conscious, and I'm not used to being anything less than confident. You unbalanced my life, even more now than then."

Cloud, shaken by his sudden total insecurity and mental return to the bad old days when he was outside of her life and all he could do was look on as the girl he loved since before he knew what love meant lived a life without him, took a step forward and then stopped. "Now that I'm here, and now that it's more important than ever to say something, I can't find the words. I wanted to talk to you for so long, Tifa."

There was something of a sparkle in her eye when she turned away from him to let the wind caress her once more. She rubbed one arm with a gloved hand as if to guard some of the chill from seeping in, but it seemed a futile task considering how much she was exposed in that outfit she insisted on wearing. Although Tifa had told them all long ago that it was for the sake of mobility and that the movement of fighting kept her warm enough, she had neither excuse at the moment.

"Words aren't the only way to express what you're thinking."

Since Cloud's mind had already been lingering on her clothing, or general lack thereof, his mind turned down some dark roads he quite badly wanted to turn onto and honestly had turned down before a few times previously. That sounded very much like a proposition. Tifa, though never unaffectionate, had made the point long ago when she started to live and work in the slums that what she wore and the confidence with which she carried herself were not signs of being for sale. This was a concession, a gift, possibly only offered because she thought they were going to die. It would be brave and foolhardy to tell her no and save her the gesture she may regret if he thought they would actually survive this. Honestly, the odds were against them. The odds had been against them the entire time and rather like flipping a coin over and over but only getting tails, his inner tension was thick with the anticipation of the streak ending.

He could take tonight, but he had to be sure he would accept the consequences as if they had the rest of their lives with no Meteor hanging over their heads. If he was just doing this because he thought that he was going to die tomorrow in battle then it wouldn't mean as much. It would still mean the world to him, but it would not be taken in the spirit that he wanted to receive her gift.

Cloud strode forward to end their distance physically but stopped just short, maybe an arm length away. Her hair caressed him, and he batted at it in the breeze. Tifa, surprising him, turned suddenly to face him. With a challenging look she took controlled breaths, obviously wanting an action but waiting for him to do so first, and Cloud lost his nerve.

"I'll build a fire, if you'll grab some dinner supplies from the ship."

Tifa sighed and nodded with a slightly more enigmatic smile than usual and walked with quick strides to the now empty Highwind. It was to her credit that she didn't look back; Cloud knew how disappointed she must be. He just needed more time and less pressure. Now that he had her permission, of a sort, he felt well able to inspire himself.

She was holding some canned green beans, the kind that never tasted as good as the fresh ones but which were cheaper and easier to carry around. It had been weeks since she had had fresh vegetables. They were one of the small luxuries that she would have given a lot for at present. The options on the Highwind so far as dinner went weren't terribly exciting or tasty. There was rice. . . or rice, a few canned goods, and then (and this was way in the back hidden from casual sight by some individual) a box of cookies. She grabbed what she thought would be good and walked back to the now blazing fire. The sun had only just finished setting and so there was still lingering yellow-grey light on the horizon. As bleak looking as she felt.

He had rejected her, hadn't he? She wasn't entirely sure. Cloud was a strange man, possessing amazing talents and an equally large amount of low self esteem that made him doubt those same abilities. One conjecture was that it was that same tendency to second guess himself had caused the stall on what should have been the progression to something a little more involved in their relationship. That is, if they had a relationship. It was a tenuous thing.

The smoke from the fire made her eyes water. Cloud had built it high and the wind on the hill did the rest, fanning the flames up while it burned off the initial ultra bright flammable materials. It would settle down soon to something they could cook over. Tifa wanted to see Cloud being nervous in at least little ways, but when he poked the fire it was no more vigorous than in previous nights and when he cleared his throat it was no more protracted in such a way as to make her believe it prefaced some sort of revelation. This was the man she knew, the detached, chronically apathetic, and generally asocial Cloud. Unfortunately, this was also the Cloud she loved. It was a sad and upsetting world that led her to these ends.

One of the cans of green beans that she had been holding made a noise of protest as the metal folded under her crushing grip upon it. It seemed that she was a little more upset about the state of things than she had been letting on previously. If he couldn't just spit out his feelings now, when they might never have another chance, then what did she have to look forward to? Perhaps startling admissions in the Lifestream before her consciousness was absorbed back into the planet. . . or nothingness. . . depending on their success level with Sephiroth. If Cloud wasn't going to seize the day then she would have to.

"Cloud." Tifa bit her chapped lips. As soon as his eyes were on her she thought about how she should have been better prepared for this moment. There was no way she looked her best after so many weeks of fighting with only the occasional stop at an inn and no chance to really rest and pull herself together. Stumbling on new reserves of insecurity she didn't know she possessed, Tifa snatched words out of her mind at random. "How do you think Reeve controls Cait Sith? I mean, that puppet thing is with us all the time, but he seems to lead a full life in Midgar as well. . . you know, I just wondered is all." Eyebrow cocked, Cloud tried to come up with some sort of answer. Failing to find a probable solution, he simply shrugged and took a drink of water.

That had fallen flat pretty fast. She could think of a different topic that might segue into a conversation about relationships, she was sure she could. There was no way he could stay close mouthed forever if he wanted to say something, as he so obviously had wanted to earlier. However, as the evening progressed she began to despair. Tifa had gone over comments about the weather, the state of the cooking food, the probable monster activity in the vicinity, the weather, and reminiscences of the battle with Diamond Weapon before she exhausted herself. She had never been the one to start the conversations around the fireside before. Usually activities once the team made camp at night went thusly: Cid would tell stories about his flying exploits before he collaborated with Shinra over the rocket while Red XIII and sometimes Yuffie would listen with rapt attention, Barret and Vincent would polish their guns an reload everything off to the side with Barret speaking every now and again and Vincent listening but never commenting, Cait Sith would prattle on to anyone who would listen (frequently Barret and Vincent), and Tifa would keep an eye on Cloud who more often than not was more hurt from the days battles than he would ever admit to and in general make sure no one was getting ready to tear into anyone else. For all their adventures together, they were all fairly passionate people who would get angry at the drop of a hat. Even Tifa found herself getting snappish on some of the longer treks, particularly when they were going through the frozen wastes and she was nearly freezing.

Maybe that was it. They were always around lots of people. Even when they stopped into inns they still had to share rooms. It would be easy to get into a mentality where being obscure about your emotions was an asset. That way the rest of the group would not be made uncomfortable. This was Cloud, so she was sure it was instinct that prompted this development rather than clearly planned out courtesy, but he was always instinctually sensitive to group dynamics so it made sense to her mind. Too bad for someone so attuned to people he was so unaware of the fact consciously. It could be a great benefit if he ever got the hang of noticing it.

Then her chance came, as the fire died and they both yawned. They were used to going to sleep with the sun and it had been a long day. Cloud had set up the tent, just one, and they entered without speaking to one another about the sleeping arrangements. It would be stupid to stand on propriety when it might just be extra work for no good reason. The one tent was big enough for both of them, though not as small as Tifa would have liked.

"I'll be right back." Tifa saw Cloud outlined by the starlight as he opened the tent flap to leave. What she didn't see was the way he began to nearly hyperventilate once he was out of hearing range. While he was out, she decided to make her intentions perfectly clear. This would force the issue if nothing else would: she zipped their sleeping bags together. She let out a laugh that bordered on sinister and crawled into the bag. Nothing was left to do but wait until he came back, and then make her move.

Until then she'd just have to wait.

. . . No

She didn't want to wait, she wanted some cookies and she wanted them at that very moment. It was imperative that she shove those chocolate studded morsels into her mouth. Not that she was getting cold feet about this, no, nothing of the sort, it was simply that she wanted. . . dessert. . . and now was the best time.

Her head emerged from the tent just as Cloud's was descending into a crouch to come back in. They collided with a solid and painful sound and Cloud fell backwards clutching at his jaw. Tifa sighed, got out of the tent, and knelt over him in concern.

"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you just outside and I—"

Whatever she was going to say died as Cloud pulled her on top of his prone form and kissed her.

When Cloud had stepped out for some air it was for good reasons. The first was that he was sure there was some sort of mysterious feminine ritual that happened before bed. The second. . .

Did love do this to you for your entire life? Cloud was sure he was dying, or at the very least about ready to collapse. Pain he could handle. When they had just started out, back in the days when he was helping AVALANCHE, he had suffered all sorts of problems such as being poisoned by ugly bug things, paralyzed by beams that dazed his mind, even confused a few times when he had not prepared properly and was caught unaware. . . but love was the most difficult effect to deal with thus far. Every time he had spoken to Tifa or looked at her, his stomach had twisted and he just managed to respond to her attempts to extract something meaningful from him. Now, at the prospect of sleeping so close to her, he felt his breath stolen from him making him light headed.

Meteor loomed above them, so close, and he wished he couldn't see it as clearly in the sky. It was a reminder that sapped at their spirits, and short of blocking out a healthy portion of the sky there was no way to erase it from his vision. At night, it was a large black blob outlined in red, brighter at the edges than the moon and threatening in a way the moon could not inspire.

It had to be now. Tifa and he were here, they were alone, and tomorrow would determine if they would continue on alone. He had a feeling that his companions would rejoin them, but such optimism was unbecoming. It was better to expect the worst and not be disappointed. Then again that defeatist attitude wasn't getting him anywhere. He needed a change of perspective. Didn't people hold inner debates at times like this? Didn't a little angel and a little devil version of himself poof into existence on his shoulders and tell him what to do? What would they say? Hm. The devil would say something like: 'What's your problem you pansy ass idiot? She's hot! She offered! What are you doing not jumping on her right now! You've wanted to since the day you got hormones. I say go for it.' Maybe it would be more articulate than that, but even so his made up version was oddly persuasive. And the angel. . . 'He makes a good point you know. . . she did offer.'

Cloud made purposeful strides towards the tent. His decision had been made for him. It wouldn't be the first time he had listened to voices in his head, but this time he didn't feel like fighting them at all.

'. . . just make sure you remember that you respect her as a person too!' the angel in him cried out belatedly. She surely knew that he cared about her intensely. After all, among the people in the world, she was the only one he really chose for himself and now that he was facing almost certain death there was no where else he'd rather be.

It was just when he bent his head to push his way into the tent that he met Tifa in a way far more sudden and violent than he had anticipated. A starburst of pain as his chin met her skull was followed by a sudden shift of perspective when he hit his back. It all happened so fast that he had to replay what just occurred twice in his mind before he was sure what it entailed. Once his vision cleared and his mind readjusted to the present, he got his sense of purpose back and there was the very object of his determination bent over him with concern lighting her features.

If she asked him later, then he would just say he had had some sense knocked into him. And it was with that sardonic thought that Cloud grabbed Tifa by the arms and pulled her off balance from her crouch so that she landed on his chest. The two of them were awkwardly placed for a few seconds, but Cloud bent his head up and caught her lips with his own as he pulled the back of her head down so that he didn't have to lean forward anymore.

At first he was hesitant, closed mouthed, as both of them adjusted to the position and feeling of being so close together. Something raw and joyous seemed to bubble up from deep within Tifa and she pulled back to let out a happy shriek of laughter to the menacing heavens before diving back down to a mildly confused but similarly elated Cloud. He knew how she felt. Nothing could be more right than this, than them, and he had been a fool to wait even this long. Their lips crushed together in light of the new vibrant energy that possessed them both.

The two of them wrestled in nearly childish abandon, rolling along the ground sealed at the lips. It wasn't until they got too close to the fire embers that Tifa forced them to disentangle. She had dirt matting her hair, rocks and sticks shedding from it in a miniature filth storm that Cloud was sure he would also make if he sat up. Her eyes were luminous and her lips full from their near frantic attraction that had finally been given room and time to blossom.

"I'm not doing this outside in the dirt when there is a perfectly good tent right over there." She gestured with a flick of her chin that caused more twigs to cascade out of her hair.

Cloud simply nodded. They stood up, but when Cloud helped Tifa up he couldn't seem to take his hands off of her. She groaned as his hands slid over her body, ostensibly brushing her off, but effectively making her feel that getting to the tent soon was an urgent business. It took a couple more tumbles to the ground as they lost their footing in their ardor before they were even near the tent again. Tifa and Cloud separated only long enough to clean up before they were entering the tent and pulling off clothes at the same time. The comedy over both of them becoming tangled in her suspenders was quickly overcome by the excitement of other activities.

That their sleeping bags had been put together didn't even occur to Cloud as being strange. In that moment it just seemed like everything around them was conforming to some sort of agreement to be perfect. And in the darkness of the tent the two of them found a sense of completion, even if that feeling might not last.

Tifa woke to the chill and slight damp of the morning. It was not yet dawn and she knew that the magic of the night was soon to transform to a slightly more sober day. Cloud was missing from her side, but once she had pulled on some clothes she found him on a ridge overlooking the rest of the grasslands. He had purposefully turned to face into the valley that they had parked the Highwind in. The frown on his face was enough to tell her where his thoughts lay. She could distract him just a moment longer.

"Good morning." She blushed and hesitated until she decided to go ahead and snuggle in next to him. The arm that covered her immediately rewarded her efforts, as did his wan smile.


It was tempting to fall asleep like this again and her eyes grew heavy with the desire for sleep. They hadn't slept much at all last night and even though it had been invigorating at the time, and satisfying as well, now she just wished they could have a bit longer to relax. Cloud, it seemed, could not forget the responsibility that he had assigned himself so easily. She must have fallen asleep after all because she felt Cloud shake her shoulders where his arm still lay.

"I just want a little longer." Refusing to open her eyes as they burned in a familiar way that just might end in tears if she didn't steel herself, she added, "Give me this moment Cloud. Today will never come for us again, and I need. . ." She decided not to finish her thought.

With a sigh that she wasn't even sure she heard, Cloud replied with his usual lack of tact. "This may be the last time we have together." Before she got irritated enough to end the moment herself he redeemed himself. "But even if it is, I'm happy. It wasn't enough. . . the rest of our lives isn't enough time. . . but now I won't have any regrets."

Her heart wanted to stop, or burst, or just maybe swallow her, but when he leaned over to kiss her slowly, lingeringly, she was sure she blacked out for a moment after he murmured those words that might just as much be the only goodbye she would get from him as much as it was the admission she had been longing for.

"I love you Tifa." She clutched at him and repeated the words back to him. He didn't need to look at her to know her heart was in her eyes. The trust that lay there was almost too painful for him to acknowledge because he couldn't help but feel it was misplaced. If he didn't believe in himself, then he didn't want anyone else to either. Impulses inside of him that predicted failure were, for once, crowded out by his determination to succeed. This was precious, this relationship, and maybe he had something to fight for now.

The sun rose, but instead of watching it or the way the long shadow of the Highwind forced the dew to linger under it they were cleaning up their camp and munching on the cookies for breakfast. The packs rattled and behind them the smoke from the doused fire swirled in strange patterns. Cait Sith had tried to tell the fortune based on those whorls and each day was invariably wrong, but there had been comfort in that consistency.

The empty quiet of the interior of the Highwind was discouraging.

"Let's go." Cloud's voice was flat.

"But no one is back yet. I mean, it's still early and maybe if we just wait another. . ."

"They aren't coming." He snapped at her. "Yesterday you told me so long as you had me it would be ok. Looks like we'll get to see if it's true."

He didn't need to be like this. The tone he was taking with her was almost sarcastic and it seemed somewhat childish. As if he had sensed that he had hurt her feelings with his outburst, Cloud seemed to visibly lighten his mood.

"I'll make enough noise for everyone, don't worry. Now that I'm the pilot we won't just fly around casually like before. We're on a mission." Cloud's voice became heavy again by the end, but at least he had tried. Tifa rewarded him with a smile and after they dropped off the camping supplies they walked onto the bridge. They passed the inert form of Cait Sith, empty of Reeve's control and the sight would have truly depressed them both if they had not immediately afterward seen Barret and Cid who seemed to be leaning on the controls in a forced casual stance and breathing somewhat quickly as if they had run across the room.

Tifa's brow knit even as she rejoiced in that at least they had Barret and Cid stay with them, but Barret's comment made her even more suspicious of something.

"So, uh, is it ok with you?"

She assumed he was referring to them staying on and fighting Sephiroth and was about to answer when Red XIII trotted in and said hello in his usual chirping tone. Cid, to Tifa's horror, shushed the happy Nanaki as everyone's eyes trained on both Cloud and Tifa.

"Quiet there, kiddo, I want to see what they have to say. Especially you, girlie."

For the time being Cloud seemed perfectly willing to go pale and say nothing. Tifa twitched as she realized what they meant and what that implied. To say that she was displeased was placing her feelings in too fine a category of terms. She seemed to lose her footing and as she sank to her knees on the cold metal deck of the Highwind she cried:

"You were watching us?!"

Barret began to laugh, but once Cid elbowed him he attempted to cover it up with a cough. Tifa tried to hide her face in her hands, as if that would dispel some of the shame and embarrassment.

"What are you talking about?" Red inquired.

"I'll tell you when you're older." Cid dismissed him with an imperious wave of the hand.

"I'm older than you are." Came Red's response.

Cid seemed at a loss and tried to change the subject, as Barret walked over and clapped Cloud on the back hard enough to nearly send the still stunned and partially mortified ex-soldier face down on the deck.

"Way to go, buddy. I knew you had it in you!"

Rather than dignify that and continue the subject line, Cloud changed topics to the one that was more pressing and far less personal.

"Is no one else coming, you think?"

Cait Sith came to life and hopped on over while Barret tried to form a response. "I tried to get here in person, but that proved to be a little difficult. You'll just have to make do with this form for a while longer. But someday we'll meet in person. I know it." This faith in their victory was heartwarming and Cloud just nodded while Cait Sith retreated back to his corner to wait for takeoff.

"Shall we get going then?" Cloud nodded to Cid who was fiddling with the controls, but before he even got the engine started, Yuffie fell from the ceiling with a blood curdling cry.

She punched and kicked, showing her energy and readiness to fight. "You didn't think you were going anywhere without me, did you!? As if! Let's go kick some Sephiroth butt!" The youngest member of the team, and the only one missing to that point provided the rest with an amused smile at her eagerness. Once the Highwind began to lift off her motion sickness set in and the ninja could only moan in nauseated unhappiness, but everyone else began to feel as excited as she had felt when they thought about how they were nearing the end of their journeys.

Tifa looked out of the front as the ground became distant and she readied herself as best she could mentally. When Cloud stepped up next to her and laced his hand in with hers, Tifa knew that whatever it was that their future held at least she too would have no regrets. They had found one another, and she wouldn't let even Sephiroth allow that to be endangered.

"Here goes nothin'!" Yelled out Cid. "I always wanted to try these levers!"