Here goes. My name is Sacred Dust; nice to meet you all. I'm an aspiring writer who has finally found the Mecca of fan fiction sites: this one. I am honored to contribute to this network. Now sit down and read.

This is a story of love and fun stuff like that, specifically the relationship of Cloud and Tifa in FF7. I liked all the choices and the romantic buildup, but it seemed to lack realism. I wondered how Cloud could journey with two girls he likes for weeks on end without explicitly falling for at least one of them. And so I decided that, in fact, he didn't. Disclaimer: If I owned these characters, I'd be rolling in dough, not writing fan fiction when I should be doing something productive with my life. And if you have an overwhelming desire to flame me, do it politely.

Scratch Beneath the Surface

Chapter 1: Apologies

"Sorry, Tifa." The words stung Cloud deep inside, even as he spoke them. He had never felt so guilty about apologizing. And it wasn't because of the blistering argument he'd just had with Barrett, or his loathing of Shinra, the malevolent corporation they were all in league against. It was because he knew he was hurting the one person he really cared about right now, the beautiful dark-haired young woman standing behind him.

"Cloud, the planet is dying. Slowly but surely—it's dying," her clear, appealing voice insisted, pleading with him. "Someone has to do something."

"So let Barret and his buddies do something about it. It's got nothing to do with me." Cloud was tired of arguing; he just wanted to get away. He quickly took another step toward the exit of the bar.

"So! You're really leaving?" Tifa cried suddenly, freezing him in place with her words. Her voice was trembling, barely sure of what it was saying—only that it had to be something. "You're just going to walk right out, ignoring your…your childhood friend!"

It was comical how that phrase still made him wince. Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockheart, childhood friends. It was true—at least, it used to be—but he found himself thinking differently about her since he had quit Shinra and come back to Midgar.

If Cloud were truly a greedy, cold-blooded mercenary—like Barrett and the rest of AVALANCHE thought he was—he would have walked away right then and there, without bothering to answer her. But he wasn't going to do that to someone like Tifa, someone who he had always been able to depend on for help and support. He couldn't, especially not now.

Cloud took a deep breath, stopping in his tracks once again. "…Sorry." He muttered again. Another damned apology. He was tired of doing that.

The edge in Tifa's voice had softened, betraying her relief. She had demanded that he stay, and he had listened. "You forgot about the promise, too."

Cloud finally turned around, searching her with his unnaturally bright blue eyes. Mako energy did that to you. "What promise?"

Tifa's face fell, and she turned away from him. "So you did forget."

Cloud said nothing. In fact, he did remember something…but it couldn't be what she was referring to. He'd thought that was just a silly, girlish thing. He hadn't given it another thought since it happened.

"Remember, Cloud?" Tifa coaxed him, stubbornly. "I mean, it was seven years ago, but..."

Yep, he thought. That was it.

"Come on." Tifa took his hand and left the bar with him.

Outside, night was falling over the Sector 7 slums of Midgar. Everything was old, cheap, and broken down, from the piles of rubbish lying around to the ramshackle hybrids of wood and metal that passed for houses. Tifa's 7th Heaven was probably in the best condition of all the buildings. That, and the great food and drink, was what made it popular. No wonder the customers hadn't taken kindly to being kicked out by Barrett, who always wanted the bar empty for a meeting so no one would find out about AVALANCHE's secret hideout beneath it.

Cloud followed Tifa to the center of the slum, and there they stopped.

"Look, the well." Tifa pointed out.

Indeed, the old well was still there. A rope was once lowered from a small crane over the opening to pull up water from below, but the well wasn't used much anymore because the ground underneath had become so polluted.

Cloud nodded, showing Tifa that he was listening. He didn't want to hurt her feelings any more than he had to. She meant too much to him now. "Yeah, I remember. Back in the day, I guess, before I left for Shinra."

She nodded encouragingly. "Yes!"

"I thought you would never come. I was getting a little cold out here."

And Cloud could almost see the two of them sitting there, nearly ten years ago—barely into their early teens, when they were just finding out what life held in store for them.

"Sorry I'm late." Tifa had said, walking over a pile of junk and joining him on top of the well. "You said you wanted me to talk to you about something?"

Cloud had felt the urge to shiver in the night air, but suppressed it. Even at that age, he hesitated to show any kind of weakness or reveal his emotions, especially to a girl. Slowly, he explained that he would be leaving town for Midgar—not just to get any old job, but to join SOLDIER, an elite military branch of Shinra, Incorporated. He promised he would get in the papers if he could, but that he wouldn't be able to contact her or come back to Midgar for a while.

And then something strange had happened, something he remembered most of all—he could have sworn that Tifa cried. It was only for a few seconds, and he couldn't be sure, but maybe she had shed a few tears there when he wasn't looking.

And then had come those words out of the blue, totally surprising him.

"Cloud…why don't we make a promise?"

He didn't know what she was getting at, so he waited for her to explain.

"If you get really famous," Tifa said, so quietly he had to strain to make out the words, "And I'm ever in trouble…will you come and save me?"

Cloud hesitated. "Save you?"

Tifa nodded. It was obvious that the idea had stuck with her since childhood, even before she'd learned that no fairy tale ever comes true. It was the one dream she still carried within herself, despite the squalor and depressing surrounding her, and she refused to let it go. "If I'm in trouble, my hero will come rescue me."

Cloud couldn't see her expression; her back was turned. But he didn't think she was joking.

"I want to experience that at least once." Tifa breathed. And with that, she had entrusted him with her deepest fantasy. It was one of the few things left that she hadn't disclosed to him as they'd grown up together, and now she had finally worked up the nerve to tell him.

Tifa turned to him suddenly. "Please, Cloud—promise me."

Cloud was baffled by it—this didn't quite sound like the Tifa he knew. But what could he say? No?

"All right," he said, if only to put an end to the awkward meeting, for which each of them had snuck out of their houses at night. "I promise."

Neither of them had seen the shooting star overhead, but somehow they had felt it. And then they knew their words held true meaning, and would never be forgotten. No matter what happened between them in the future, there would always be that promise.

"So you remember now." Tifa said quietly as they walked back into the bar. "I'm glad."

Cloud tried to smirk, but there was no conviction on his face. He knew he had an obligation to stay and fight Shinra with her, but he was still bitter about the way Barrett had insulted him in the hideout. He was still down there now, probably destroying the punching bag, while Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie puttered around with machines and charts, planning their next move like good little helpers. Those three weren't bad people, but they weren't perfect. They had joined AVALANCHE because they didn't have the strength to stand alone. That was something Cloud had always valued, and a similar discipline had been hammered into him from his days in SOLDIER. Too bad his future hadn't turned out as bright as he'd hoped on that night seven years ago.

"I'm not a hero," he sighed, avoiding her eyes. "And I'm not famous, either. So what does that promise mean now?"

"Everything," Tifa whispered. "You got your childhood dream, didn't you? You joined SOLDIER and everything. And I don't care if you're famous anymore."

Cloud found himself unwillingly reflecting on all the special moments he and Tifa had shared, all the times they had played together, had fights and made up, got to know each other better than they knew themselves. The memories put his whole body on edge, and he couldn't understand why. How come he wanted so badly to look at her right now, but was trying to stop himself? He was caught between shame and another feeling, a nervous sensation he had never experienced before. He tried desperately not to let it show.

Look at her, you idiot, he told himself. What was wrong with him?

"I…" Cloud said awkwardly. But he had no idea what to tell her.

Now he knew what he had been so afraid of. Once he was looking at her, he found that he couldn't take his eyes away. She had always been beautiful, but now she was grown up, just like him. He'd never looked at her so closely, and suddenly a million strange thoughts filled his head.

How would it feel to touch her? To ask her out? To make love with her?

Cloud fought to stop a blush from creeping over his cheeks. He couldn't believe this. Him and Tifa had always been close, but they were just friends—nothing more. Their relationship had never gone outside those boundaries. He didn't even want to imagine how she would react if she knew what was going through his mind. She might run away—or slap him, probably. She'd always been good at that. But he couldn't convince himself to stop thinking about her, no matter how he tried.

I wonder how she would look without her clothes on?

Cloud really did blush this time, and abruptly fixed his icy stare on the floor. He had been looking at her too long, and too closely.

Tifa knew it, too. For just a few seconds, she had felt something in the air that she'd never sensed before—at least, not with Cloud. But somehow, remembering the promise had affected them.

Why was he looking at me that way…?

Cloud was turning away, looking for an escape—but for a different reason this time.

"Cloud, I…"

He stopped.

"It's okay…I mean…you don't have to leave."

He hesitated, hearing an unfamiliar tone in her voice. It was softer, more soothing than usual. Like she was trying to comfort him.

It couldn't be. Did she really know how he felt?

"Don't go," Tifa reached out and put one gloved hand on his arm. "You have to keep our promise."

But she wasn't talking about that anymore. There was something different beneath her words, a question she didn't dare to ask.

A question Cloud found himself answering as he turned around and put his hands delicately on her shoulders, returning her gaze now.

Tifa smiled and put her arms around him as well, kissing him gently on the cheek. He returned the gesture, even though it felt so different this time—so much more important than it had ever been.

They barely noticed how their faces were coming closer and closer together, their eyes glittering strangely in the light from the makeshift fireplace.

It was only now that Cloud noticed how wonderful she smelled. Tifa had never been known to wear perfume, but there was something there nonetheless, and it was so good it nearly made him dizzy. He could already feel the butterflies in his stomach.

Tifa couldn't believe something like this was actually happening. But their lips were only inches apart now, and she had no choice but to accept the situation as it was. She slowly allowed her eyes to close, let herself drift in the exciting sensation of Cloud holding her and the sweet certainty that they were about to come closer together than they ever had before.

"YO! Wait a sec, big-time SOLDIER!" a boisterous yell shattered the moment, and Cloud and Tifa quickly broke apart, having come so close to something special.

It was, of course, Barrett, climbing up the ropes that led down into the hideout. He jumped off into the bar, facing them with a grim look on his face. Cloud had to fight the urge to start shouting at him all over again, considering his especially lousy timing.

"A promise is a promise. Here." The loud, aggressive leader of AVALANCHE unceremoniously tossed some coins in his direction.

At hearing that word again, Tifa turned away so Barrett wouldn't see the look on her face. Cloud snatched the coins up from the floor, glaring in annoyance.

You're Cloud, he told himself. You were not about to kiss your best friend. You're a cold, emotionless S.O.B. Say something derisive, like you always do.

"You're kidding," he said, sounding more convincing than he'd hoped. "THIS is my pay? Don't make me laugh."

Tifa whirled around. She couldn't keep the pure happiness—and that other mysterious feeling—from coming out. She looked like a child on Christmas morning. Except for the fact that she was 20 years old, and incredibly hot. "Then you mean…"

"You got the next mission lined up?" Cloud kept his eyes on Barrett. "I'll do it for 3000 gil."

"WHAT?" cried Barrett. Pushing his buttons had never been difficult for Cloud, especially when they were talking about his pay.

"It's okay, it's okay." Tifa quickly stepped forward, calming him down and whispering so Cloud wouldn't hear, even though she felt those amazing eyes still glued to her. "We're really hurting for help, right?"

"That…that money's for Marlene's schooling!" Barrett hissed, referring to his six-year-old daughter.

Tifa pleaded him with her eyes. She wanted Cloud to stay. But was it because of the promise at the well…or because…

"2000!" Barrett snapped at him. He abruptly walked away, climbing back down into the basement.

And Cloud and Tifa were alone again.

They couldn't do it now. Someone might come back up, or a customer might walk in, and then…well, it would be an awkward situation at best.

For the time being, they held each other with their eyes.

"Thanks, Cloud." Tifa whispered.

Cloud nodded, and went to follow Barrett. He needed to get some sleep, and push these ridiculous thoughts out of his mind.

But they weren't ridiculous at all, he knew—not anymore.

He dreamed of her until the next morning.