Zack/Tifa, you don't see this very often.
Done on request for Zelda. Farewell sweet fanfic days, I knew ye well. On to original work, and maybe a oneshot here or there if I can be dragged away from my precious original works.
Hope this Zack is to your liking, Zelda. Never wrote him before, but he's a fun guynevertheless. The Rufus/Tifa piece will be up in another couple days, I think. Waiting to be inspired again after interruption from that accursed accident.
Disclaimer: I don't own these characters, Squaresoft owns FF7, I think. Probably a bunch of other companies too, none of which am I affiliated with. Blah blah. Usual stuff.
Wedding Bell Blues
The bride was beautiful, stunning even. There were lots of words that other people used among themselves to describe her. Radiant was thrown around. The more poetically inclined even managed to dip into the realm of words like ethereal for descriptive terms. The groom was slightly less praised for his looks, but Cloud had always been handsome even when he was nervous or indecisive. He had spent so much of his life like that anyway, if he couldn't look good while doing it he would have been in some trouble.
The bride's long brown hair flowed freely down her back, trailing in styled waves and mimicking the white train of her gown that was held up by a starry eyed Yuffie so that the woman would not trip. Barrett held the rings in his one hand, a prosthetic hand gracing where his gun would have been for the sake of the ceremony. The emotional man tried to contain himself, but he looked even more nervous than Cloud somehow. When Marlene had come out with her basket of flowers at the start of things, he had nearly burst into noisy tears.
Music filtered through the chapel, filled to capacity with people from all over the planet who the team had met on their journey. After Holy came and everyone was saved there were few people who didn't know that they owed this band of heroes a great debt. Reporters lined the back, snapping pictures and taking notes for various papers that still ran all over the world. Information networks were still rebuilding, now that the Shinra corporation was in pieces. Lives were returning to normal, after the several months of living without the use of mako energy.
This event was a fairy tale come true, a prince and his princess. They were two of the saviors of the planet and their love for one another, the trials they had endured, would all be played up since everyone in these hard times wanted a story to get lost in. There were few people that this fairy tale would not soothe, and sadly one of them stood directly next to the bride, wearing the title of maid of honor. In her mind, being a maid was no honor, but she had enough presence of mind and toughness of spirit to smile even while her heart ached in her chest.
Yes, Tifa would try her best to be happy for Cloud and Aeris, but only while the photographer's shutters snapped and their bulbs flashed. This was their day, and she would play her part, but after that she was going to find a bar and try very hard to kill the brain cells that recorded this event in her memory.
What the minister actually said was a blur, and the ring exchange was a blur in her mind as Tifa worked hard on trying to keep her smile on. All she had to do was wait until the end and then the tears she needed to shed so badly would not seem out of place. Blurring eyes watched the couple kiss and run down the aisle.
Goodbye, Cloud. Goodbye. . .
Forlorn, her heart burned in her chest. A numbness took over. She sat down in the nearest pew and watched people vacate the chapel to make their way to the reception half a block away. Tifa was soon abandoned for the prospect of free food and the honor of shaking the hands of the happy couple. She smoothed her hands over the pale pink dress that Aeris had picked out for her so that she would match the colors of the wedding as a whole. Pastels didn't suit her, but she didn't want to disrupt anything. This was their day, and Cloud and Aeris were happy. Ruining it would be selfish.
Darn it all but she wanted to be selfish right now. Maybe if she had been selfish earlier then she could have gotten more time with Cloud to herself, could have made him understand her feelings, could have been the one running down the aisle with him today.
"You're gonna rip that dress if you keep tearing at it like that." It was a gruff voice, accented with the working class twang of the Midgar slums she remembered so well.
"Excuse me but I don't think I want company right. . .oh." She looked up into a face uncannily familiar, framed by shocking masses of unruly hair that, were they a different color, could have made him Cloud's twin. This had to be. . .
Zack shifted uneasily under her gaze. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"No!" He looked around, and seeing the chapel empty but for them, sat down in the pew next to her and put up a booted foot on the back of the pew in front of them. "I was going to slip out quiet like, but I was always a sucker for a crying chick. You're. . . Tifa, right? You remember me?"
The way he preened, so cocky, made her sure that he fully expected her to say she did. She thought about saying no and then watch his ego deflate, but she wasn't in a playful mood. "Yes, I remember meeting you Zack. It was a while ago. I might not have remembered if it weren't for the fact that your visit wasn't so very peaceful or routine for a Shinra check up on Nebelheim." She didn't add that eventually Aeris had told her a few things as well about this SOLDIER. The parallel between him and Cloud had been many, and the two of them had had a lot of time to discuss things while they had been on the road. Aeris had had a mixed opinion of Zack.
"Yeah, well, it wasn't that good of a day for me either, ya know. You aren't the only one in this church who wishes things might have happened a little differently in their life." Zack was leaning back, his arms spread wide and dangling over the wooden backing. One of his hands was brushing the side of her arm, tickling the skin.
Tifa, who had been trying to be at least a little bit aloof, didn't have any defenses left to throw against this blast from her past that should have been dead and gone. "Was it that obvious?" She shriveled into herself, feeling new hot tears gather in her eyes. Today was too much of everything, too much shock and strange vulnerability.
"Hey," Zack shifted his position, turning towards her and embracing her as she began to sob in earnest into his already wrinkled dress shirt. "None of that now. I've only made a few girls cry in front of me, and they were usually a lot more angry so I didn't feel this bad about it. C'mon Tifa, cheer up."
"B-b-but why—" Anything else coherent was swallowed up by her misery as her throat locked up. That was a mercy. It gave her time to get a hold of herself and find some control.
Zack felt the violent burst of sorrow pass and didn't remove his arm from around Tifa's shoulders. "How about we get outta here and find ourselves someplace with more action, eh? I'm turning down free food and booze less than a block away, and I wouldn't do that for anyone less special. Got it? Now show me a smile."
He was so friendly, even jocular, and Tifa felt comforted and cajoled into agreeing to go with him. It was better than being alone, and she felt like she shared something with him that no one else at the reception they were missing could understand. After all, hadn't Aeris meant to him what Cloud had meant to her? She had a feeling that between the two of them, there would be plenty of drunken angst to go around for the night. It would be nice to have company, anyway. One person drinking was an alcoholic. Two people drinking. . . well. . .
"Man, I hate these things." Zack pulled at his tie as they entered the restaurant, loosening it. The hotel they had gone to was known as much for its pricey dinners and good stiff drinks as it was for the well kept rooms. Tifa had given him a somewhat suspicious look when they had walked in here, but he had said that he was staying here and they served good food. He didn't have any money on him, it was all in his room and so they might as well stay here and get drunk (he actually had said 'get pissed') on his room credit.
What difference would it make where they were? Line up the drinks, she had said. Zack had given her a friendly slap to the back that left her coughing and linked her arm in his so that he could lead her up to the restaurant properly. The rough masculinity of his treatment of her was so familiar to the way that her male friends had always treated her that she was already growing into a sense of ease in his company even if she didn't know him that well. Then again, she had met his parents and she had been close to one of his friends and even his ex-girlfriend. It didn't feel as if he were nearly a stranger to her.
"That stuffed shirt of a host just about fell all over himself to get you a nice private table with a good view when I dropped your name." That arm was around her shoulders again, warm and solid. Tifa tried to remember the last time someone had touched her in such a casual way and came up blank. Maybe a good natured punch to the arm from Barrett, or a hug from Aeris who was always too touchy for Tifa's recalcitrant nature. She was neither one of the guys, like Barrett assumed, or one of the girls, like how Aeris had treated her. Tifa had always been something else entirely.
"Neither fish nor fowl. . ."
"What's that? Didja want something to eat first?" He looked down at her and winked, drawing a blush out from her. "Sounds good to me too. All that sitting, doing nothing, really works up an appetite in a healthy man like me. Get whatever you like, it's all on me tonight."
She moved away from him, letting his arm drop away from her body. "I couldn't. . ."
Zack stopped smiling and looked at her in a way that made her heart speed up. "I insist, Tifa. Tonight is for us, not them, and I intend to celebrate it."
There was no reason to argue with that. They sat down and she picked up a menu, glancing above it to study Zack's face better while he was absorbed in picking out his own meal. Once his face was not animated he looked older, and she remembered that he was indeed older than her by a few years. Not that many, though, and she had finally reached an age that a couple years older didn't seem like such the unbelievable gap. The giant SOLDIER she remembered meeting couldn't be the same person that had practically swept her away from the wedding she hadn't wanted to attend.
How could she have mistaken him for a dark haired Cloud? Cloud had a softness to his features that Zack didn't have. Zack had a stubborn line to his jaw, squaring it in a way that was very unlike Cloud. While Zack worked to loosen his tie more with one hand Tifa noticed how his nose was bigger than Cloud's, more pointed at the tip, and slightly crooked. Tifa wouldn't be surprised to hear that he had broken it at some time in his life and it had healed that way. The only thing that she couldn't see any difference in was those mako eyes. . .
"Is there something on my face?"
Oh no! He had noticed her staring at him. She began to shake her head and then thought better of it with a blush. Tifa pointed to the corner of her mouth and rubbed it. Zack imitated her and then asked if he got it with a devilish smile that forced her blush to deepen. All she could do was nod, with the sinking feeling inside that she had made a big mistake going out with this man tonight. There was no feeling of friendly neutrality, of fuzzy social safety.
"I'll have this steak, the one right there, rare, and bring out a bottle of something expensive here for my friend and I." He handed his menu up. "What would you like, honey?" Zack got away with the endearment by waggling his eyebrows and winking at her. She laughed despite herself, a small noise that choked itself in the back of her throat.
"I'll have the same."
"A woman after my own heart." Zack said and the waiter left with a smile on his face. The SOLDIER's attitude was infectious. With that kind of charisma and strength it was no wonder he had burst through the ranks so fast when he was younger.
"So," They said almost in unison, and Tifa started and looked down again. This was starting to feel very much like a date. She wished that thought had left her mind so that she could act more naturally, but at least this was taking her mind off of other matters. Zack had a way of filling up his surroundings and gathering attention so that she was having a hard time holding on to her insistent depression.
Tifa was the one to restart conversation while Zack took a drink of water. "So how did you. . .um. . . I don't know how to say this. . . How did you survive?"
"Ah, the million gil question." He looked off into the distance, through the window and out on the town below them and the sea beyond. One blunt nail scratched at his nose. "I don't rightly know. I woke up in one of Hojo's labs with a bunch of tubes stuck to my body. Had a hell of a time dragging my naked ass somewhere that had food and water, but here I am, healthy as can be expected."
"When did you wake up?"
Zack stroked his chin, it looked a tad stubbly and made a scraping noise against his calloused palm. "Oh, I don't know. A few months ago? Long enough to know that I lost a couple years, but that it almost wouldn't have made a difference anyway. Saw my parents, boy were they shocked, but they handed over that fat life insurance check that Shinra gave them when I 'died'. They had refused to spend my 'death money'. Pretty nice of them." He laughed, and it was a forced and slightly humorless one this time. "How many people can cash in on their own death? I should die again when I decide to buy a house or something."
The bottle of wine arrived and they paused long enough to watch the waiter offer the cork for sniffing and the tasting glass to Zack, who drained it rather than taste it and asked for a refill with a little more in the glass this time. The high class waiter bore this all without even a raised eyebrow. Tifa, rather than get embarrassed, found his act incredibly funny. She was sure this was all for her benefit and she was grateful.
"Are you. . . much broken up over Aeris?" She had almost not asked the question once they were alone again, but she would rather avoid her own pain until she had a few more glasses of wine in her body. Tifa didn't know Zack well enough to ask anything else specific.
Zack took a while to answer, pulling his tie off the rest of the way and tossing it carelessly in the seat next to him. It was strange how, even though this wasn't the kind of atmosphere he could possibly feel comfortable in, he made this moment his own. People seemed to serve him readily enough, and his manners were neither poor nor ignorant but purposefully altered to fit what he felt like doing. That sort of casual arrogance was built into him, marking him again to Tifa as being very different from Cloud who was never able to assert himself like that. No wonder a shy Cloud had idolized Zack so much, down to the point of interposing their memories when his brain had been addled by Hojo.
"Well, as much as I was a little shocked at finding who I thought to be my current girlfriend about to get married to one of my better friends in the service. . . I can't say that I was that upset." Zack downed some more wine as only an enlisted man could, as if it were water. "Sure I raged a bit at first, because the idea of Cloud getting the drop on any girl of mine was a blow for the ol' ego, but in the end there's not much I can do, right? We all have to keep going forward."
"Yeah. . ." She wished she could brush off her own feelings so easily. Envy for Zack ate at her, as did the sinking feeling that maybe he didn't understand what she was going through after all. He didn't seem to be that broken up over Aeris, that's for sure.
He hadn't finished his train of thought yet. "I don't know if she ever really needed me anyway. Man, the fights we used to have. . ." He gave a low whistle and the refilled both his and Tifa's glasses. "Our personalities clashed so badly, I don't remember why we were together in the first place. She needed someone, I dunno, softer I guess."
That seemed to fit Cloud well enough. There wasn't a harsh bone in his body. He was still that sensitive little boy who had sworn he would win Tifa's acceptance by becoming a hero for her. The goal had changed, maybe, as had the object of his desires, but Cloud's introverted instincts had always needed someone outgoing to bring him the comfort and support her craved. Tifa was outgoing, but not willing to lay her emotions on the line as quickly as Aeris had been. That hesitation had cost her.
"And on my end, well, I guess I wanted something more stable. Not so high maintenance. I'm just a simple guy."
"I doubt that very much. Simple guys don't become SOLDIERs before their 21st birthday." She flinched. "Or didn't. There won't be any more of them with Shinra gone."
Zack preened under her flattery. "It's just a big game, Tifa. I always did well at those. Hey, maybe I should go into politics. I need a new job, after all."
Conversation sank back to milder topics as Tifa tried to help fill in any details Zack didn't have or had wrong about the current state of things. How disorienting it must be to suddenly wake up, having lost a couple important years in your life and the life of everyone around you. Yet, Zack showed no sign of frustration when she corrected him or much regret over lost time. If anything, he seemed all the more driven to use his time wisely and enjoy the future that everyone in the world was building for themselves. Their food came and the lights dimmed as the sun set. A man came by and lit the candles at their table. After such good food and a couple of shared bottles of wine, Tifa's head was swimming. It was just what Zack had been waiting for, it seemed.
"Now tell me," He said, putting one of his hands over hers on the table. "What would make a beautiful woman like you so sad at her best friend's wedding?"
"I. . . I don't think I want to tell you." She said in her dreamy, half-drunk voice.
Zack brushed fingers across her knuckles, making her shiver in an anticipatory manner. "Oh, I think you need to tell someone."
"Um." Tifa said, feeling words catch in her throat as her brain tried to decide what should come out first. "But you have to swear you won't tell a soul. Cross your heart and swear on the Lifestream."
He nodded. "Sure sure."
"Well," Her eyes watered a bit again and she gave a maudlin sniff. "I hate this dress. I never liked pink. It doesn't go with my eyes at all!" That brought on a violent bout of tears.
Zack stood up and slid next to her on her side of the booth. He dug out a handkerchief with a look of triumph from his jacket pocket and soon Tifa had wet it through. The fit of crying passed almost as quickly as it had come, and she tried to get a hold of herself.
"Sorry," She sniffed, trying not to leak any more fluids in front of this concerned new friend. "I don't usually act like this."
"From what I remember of you, that boy was the first thing on your mind when I met you and it seems like that didn't change much as you got older." He prompted her, easing an arm around her again, bringing her in close so that she could smell his cologne and wonder at how solid his chest felt against her cheek.
Tifa hoped that her makeup, painstakingly put on for the wedding, hadn't turned into some sort of disgusting mess at this point. Before it hadn't even occurred to her, but Zack's proximity was putting thoughts into her muzzy mind that would have been unthinkable an hour or two before.
"I need to go to the ladies' room." Zack let her go; watching her unsteady gait with an almost predatory smile that at the same time was not entirely unkind.
Tifa washed her face off and tried to calm down her racing blood. She was not going to throw herself at this man! He was being nice to her, yes, and he was touching her in ways that reminded her that she was by most people's accounts an attractive woman. However, this was too soon and he didn't deserve the disgraceful position of being her rebound. Zack was a nice guy, even if some of his motives for this outing were becoming suspect.
Ugh. The mirror reminded her that now, without the aid of makeup, she was a girl with red eyes in a dress that didn't suit her. That sliver of vanity in her tried to convince her that she should walk out now while she still had her wits about her and then see Zack another time when she was more composed. Alas, skipping out on him like that wasn't the sort of thing she could bring herself to do, and back she went to face him again. He was picking at something between his teeth, looking bored, and waiting for her.
"There you are. I wondered if I'd have to go in and get you."
"Even if your sentiments were noble, I don't think that the other ladies would appreciate that."
Zack scoffed. "So I would ruffle the feathers of a few old hens, so what?" He patted the seat next to him and got up so she could slide in next to the window. "I think you have something you need to tell me."
"What's that?" Unsure, she still sat close to him. He didn't make a move on her, but he did shove a glass of water in her direction.
"Tell me about Cloud."
So she did.
It had to start from the beginning, of course, when they were small. About how Cloud had been the butt of a lot of jokes, how she had lived next to him for years and hadn't even thought about how he trailed after her like a lost puppy. Eventually their mutual childish love had become a source of strength for both of them and had driven them to train and grow in ways that they might not have otherwise. She had thought he would remain true to her and to that strong feeling they shared, but then he had changed somehow and grew in a way that she couldn't follow. Aeris had reached out to him at a crucial time and Tifa had lost out.
The narrative took another hour or more, while she carefully traced what she felt were the most important parts of the story. Slowly, as the alcohol left her system, she noted how it felt like another poison was flowing out of her. Those rancid feelings, no longer appropriate to hold for a married man, faded into a dull ache and left her cleansed. Zack patiently waited for her story to end, sometimes watching her face and sometimes entranced by the candle that sank into itself as she spoke. When Tifa was done, she was the one who initiated the touching, grabbing his hand with both of hers and thanking him with deep sincerity.
"I don't know what to say. That's some history you two have. I can see why today might not have been the happiest of days for you. . ." Zack tried to insert some humor into the moment, and had probably been holding back from doing so the whole time. "But hey, you've got me now, and I'm so much better—ow!" She batted at him, rolling her eyes.
She pointed a finger at him. "Don't pretend like you're a saint right now."
"What did I do?"
"So it isn't your hand that's resting oh so casually on my knee?" Tifa removed said hand and dropped it back in his own lap.
Zack had the grace to blush a little, the offending hand rubbing through his hair almost nervously. "It's not what you think. I mean, it is what you think, but you don't. . . well shit."
His consternation was so delightful that Tifa couldn't even bring herself to do anything but laugh. It wasn't a guarded laugh, but full throated and a little over loud. Zack looked entirely too pleased at the noise and Tifa finally calmed herself enough to give him an askance smile.
"You know how dreams sometimes feel like they last for months?" She nodded at him, confused at his sudden shift of topic and the rushed tone at which he approached it with. "Well, that's only after sleeping a few hours. I was asleep for much longer, and I dreamed, Tifa. . ."
There was an almost fevered urgency to his tone now, low and serious. She listened, waiting for him to get to a point he seemed to be building towards.
"I saw you a lot, that spunky little girl who was slashed down right in front of me by Sephiroth. You were one of the last things I saw while I was awake, so naturally I would see you frequently in my dreams. Then, later on, there was more shape to them and I would see things that maybe only you and your friends would believe." He looked down at his hands. "Whatever that stuff was that they shot me with. . . it gave me a connection or something with Sephiroth. . . I saw things. . . I saw you. . . but you were older."
It wasn't hard for her to believe him. She remembered Cloud's strange link to Sephiroth, to Jenova, and how it manipulated his will. That Zack, who had been exposed to similar treatments by Hojo, would also experience strange effects was entirely within the realm of possibility. He could very well have seen her when they were confronting Sephiroth, the few times they had seen him. It would be strange to awaken from a coma after all this time and discover that your dreams, as strange as they might have seemed, were actually real. For someone as grounded in the material reality of things as Zack seemed to be, that must have shaken him.
"You were so great, Tifa, so strong. It was just the sort of woman that I could have predicted that girl would turn into. I was so relieved when you lived through my dreams, and I was half afraid that the girl I had saw die was the reality and the woman I saw fight the dream. I guess both were true, but I'm not making sense. . ."
It was spellbinding, seeing this strong man so caught up in his indecision. Zack was sure of everything, but now he faltered. "No, no, I understand, I think." She tried to reassure him.
"Then I saw you there at the wedding. I was way in the back, but I knew you well enough. Yeah, you looked damn fine, even in that pink rag they had bagged you in. I guess I wanted to see you more than I cared to see the wedding. . . To me it felt like I'd been with you for so much longer." He grabbed her hand again. "This, all of this, isn't about me picking up a cute girl at a wedding." Zack's mouth twitched at the corner. "Ok, it isn't just me picking up a cute girl at a wedding."
"But you knew that so soon after Cloud—"
Zack dropped her hand and clenched both his own in fists at his side. "Damn that man! If he were here right now I'd punch him! He stole all the life out of you!" She looked taken aback, even offended, and he knew he'd have to explain more.
"Tifa, when I first met you, nothing could keep you down. Then I saw you later and you still had that fire inside of you that made you stand out. But when you were talking about him today, mooning over him, it was like something vital had been sapped out of you. I want that fire in you, Tifa, not some weepy wilting flower. Or some weepy wilting flower girl, for that matter."
What had happened to her? She had been a leader when she was young, someone the boys and girls looked up to and wanted to emulate. Then, later on, she had moved to Midgar and made a name for herself again, even become a terrorist of sorts with AVALANCHE. Tifa knew she was a strong person, even a tough and fearsome one, but as soon as Cloud had stepped into the picture all that had been thrown out. She had become a follower, with about as much personality as dry toast. Well, that was an exaggeration, but she had changed what fundamentally made up her personality to fit what she thought Cloud expected her to be for him.
The time for kidding herself and holding herself back had ended. Right here in front of her was a man who wanted that side of her that was allowed to be tough, allowed to be angry and talk back when she didn't agree with something. He would want to hear if she had a good idea, she intuitively knew, and would use it if it was practical. There was no need to hide behind a meek shield. If she was going to be honest, she felt more like herself around Zack right now than she had felt around Cloud since he had reappeared in her life.
An outpouring of affection took her by storm. Tifa leaned forward, inviting what Zack had wanted to do to her all evening. He moved in quickly, seeing his opening and taking it, and their lips met not viciously but rather more urgently than she had thought they would. His hands smoothed over her masses of glossy hair as they kissed, his fingers running down her arms and wrapping around her body at the waist. They were bent somewhat oddly, limbs entangled in the booth, but discomfort was a small price to pay for such a wonderful experience.
The kiss didn't end even when Zack opened his mouth over hers and coaxed her to respond in kind. His tongue stroked hers, and Tifa felt heat inside of her bank and flare to life. How long had it been since someone had kissed her like this? Hell, had anyone ever kissed her like this? The soft sounds of encouragement that emanated from her drove Zack to become more vigorous in his attentions.
When his hands became a little too fresh and Tifa squealed into his mouth, she knew she had to stop this before they became positively indecent. It might be a private booth, but it wasn't quite private enough to be doing what they had been doing, or what they had been about to do.
Zack, seeing that she hadn't pushed him away because of a lack of interest, began to nuzzle at her neck. Tifa forced her breathing to calm even though she was sure that would be impossible with the way her body was thrumming, and again pushed him away.
"That. Is. Enough!"
"I think you're wrong." His eyes were lit from behind with lust and it was almost refreshing to see that kind of expression on a guy and think that she had put it there.
She held up a hand, to prevent him from another assault on her senses. "First of all, I'm not that easy. Second of all, even if I was we couldn't continue this here."
"Well, you know I have a room just a few floors down. . ." Tifa was already pushing past him, climbing over his lap to get out of the booth. He didn't seem about to stop this part of the process.
"Good night, Zack. I'll give you my address and number and you can either call or see me tomorrow."
Not to be put down, he persevered. "I could walk you back tomorrow morning and then you wouldn't need to write it down. . ."
Tifa scribbled down the needed numbers and letters and dropped the scrap of paper from her purse on the table. On closer inspection it turned out to be the wedding invitation she had had to present at the door of the chapel to get in. Her mouth puckered, but the burst of pain that she had felt when thinking of the wedding previously was not there. The man nearly pouting near her was most likely the cause of that. Tifa bent down to give him a peck on the cheek, but he turned and captured her lips in a kiss that almost had her agreeing to stay the night despite herself.
"I'll see you later, Zack." She said, parting with a gasp.
He winked. "You can count on it. Strife made a huge mistake today, but I'm glad. I don't think I'll ever find another one quite like you."
"Darn straight." Tifa said with a flick of her hair as she walked out, trailed by Zack's admiring glance.