A/N: Set post-FFVII. With in-game flashbacks. :D
Interrupted by Fireworks
I don't know how it happened. Well, all right, that's a lie, I'm sure it was staged. But I definitely didn't help plan it. It was late in the afternoon when Cid called me up to go meet with him at his place, because Shera needed help with the baby (but why would I know anything about babies?), only when I got there Yuffie was holding up a brand new dress and asking me to model it, pleaseplease, because her boobs can't fill it out and it'd be such a waste. I knew something was funny then, but the ninja's pretty pushy if you turn her down, so I complied, although reluctantly.
"So, what's the matter, Shera?" I asked, uncomfy with the dress, but all set to help.
"Nothing's the matter. I thought you were just visiting."
We exchanged blank stares, then I turned my head. "Cid Highwind, what's going on?"
When the mechanic says it's nothing, you know you're in for something pretty iffy, but before I could sock him a good one on the nose the bell had started ringing. I should have expected whoever was on the other side, of course, should have known it even before Yuffie flung the door open with her ever-imaginary fanfare and his boots stepped onto Cid's Welcome Home mat.
"Um." Cloud Strife looked thoroughly confused, wearing a formal suit that looked as if it had come out of Vincent's crypt. Reeve was grinning deeply behind him, fine car in tow. Nothing could be more suspicious.
"Guys!" I started, but Yuffie was already pushing me out the doorway, and Reeve was giving instructions to his chauffer as he steered Cloud into the backseat.
"Have fun!" Cid shouted. Shera shot me a pitying look, although she really couldn't have helped with the baby in her arms. Yuffie gave me a thumbs up, the door slammed, and the car zoomed away.
And here we are, now. Cloud and I, on a 'date' in the Gold Saucer.
It's midnight when Tifa slips out of her bed and stretches, uncomfortable with the cold and the clamminess. She hasn't been able to sleep. It's not the hotel; they know that the cheap frights aren't anything as real as the threat of Sephiroth or the deadliness of Jenova. They're past mummies and vampires and ghouls (except Yuffie, maybe, because she always did call Vincent spooky). It's the real fear that keeps her awake. What will happen tomorrow? Will they be able to stop their nemesis? Or Meteor, for that matter?
She sighs, pulls on her gloves, wonders if she ought to beat out the anxiety in the Battle Arena, then decides that enjoying the rest of the park might be more soothing instead. But it isn't fun going through a theme park all on your own – and, well, she's nineteen, she simply doesn't want to. Unless it's a date.
She's being silly, of course, but there's always a chance that Cloud's awake.
I think he's afraid of the Chubby Chocobo. His shoulders go up as it nears to greet us and invite us to purchase a lifetime pass; I've already got one, I wave it in his face, so that it bounces and goes away. Cloud stops holding his breath, and I want to burst out laughing. He's cute that way sometimes, as if the mascot might give him cooties; and he's freaked out but he never says anything. He does that with a lot of things, putting on his cold, stern face when everyone knows he's screaming inside – but that's what you get for being a hero, I suppose.
I don't expect that from Cloud. I never did.
We're awkward, the two of us. There's a huge difference between ten and twenty. When we were kids we could wrestle without a care in the world – I could almost be a boy, and he had long, spiky hair that stuck up funny. My dad would take turns swinging us around, and when we were finally spent for the day we'd troop to his house and his mom would serve us milk and cookies. And there weren't any secrets or any weird feelings; and there wasn't any heartache or expectation.
Now we tiptoe around each other like broken glass; I think he wants to protect me, to protect all of us, but he's gotten more distant in the process. And I'm too afraid to hold him. Like he'd break, or something, if I did; smash into smithereens because my arms are made for punching, not for tenderly embracing, the way – hers, were. I can't do it the way I used to. I can hardly touch him without feeling some sort of imaginary virtuous scalding. Cloud is off-limits to the world, he has sealed himself off as an emotional hazard.
"I had no idea," He says, after a moment.
"Neither did I." Truthfully. What, he doesn't think I'm that desperate, does he?
I don't think we can turn back now; the others would boo us, Yuffie might throw eggs, and Reeve would complain about the waste of his gasoline, or something shallow like that. "Why not?" I gesture. (I'm inviting, not desperate!) I don't need the fun, but Cloud might. He doesn't get the chance very often.
The hallway seems enchanted as she makes her way down it, as if it's the last night in the world, the last night they have left before the real battle starts. If it really is that magic night – oh, she's thinking in dreams now, isn't she? Maybe she doesn't have trouble sleeping at all, maybe she's dreaming – but if it is that night, she'd want to spend it with Cloud. For old times sake. Maybe another promise under the stars. She's expecting too much.
Maybe – maybe just goodnight, or – or, how are you, Tifa, we haven't really sat down and talked since this whole Sephiroth thing started, right?
But now she's putting words into his mouth.
We go to the games first, and I win us tickets with the simulated battle; as always, he tops the high-score in the motorbike game. I think that cheered him up, a little – he's like a kid when you get down to it, easy to please but easy to hurt, as well. The points come rolling out of the machine. There are less creases on his forehead when he suggests we take dinner, less barriers in his speech, less knots in his movements. He says my name. "Let's have dinner, Tifa," but he's probably hungry. Yeah. We spend the tickets on a stuffed moogle plushie for Marlene, and then we go to the snack bar and have chips and chicken (I order apple cider, and Cloud has water).
"It's been a while since we were here." I know, such a cliché to start conversations with; but I'm rusty, and unsure, and this dress makes me feel pretty naked (princess of Wutai or not, Yuffie is so going to get it the moment I get back). "Remember when we were kids and this was the only thing we ever wanted for our birthdays? A trip here? Gold Saucer's always been the same." Why do I always have to go back to the time when we were ten, and not now, not twenty? I look back, he looks back, we're never going forward.
"Yeah, it never changes. Right down to the corny music."
It's piping in the background, a saccharine sound punctuated by hooting trumpets.
I pause. "You're scared of Chubby, aren't you?"
He stares at me for a moment, his eyebrows are twitching, and I've said the wrong thing, haven't I – but suddenly he's laughing, I'm laughing with him. It's not the apple cider, and I don't think it's the atmosphere. The knots go out slowly, all except one.
"Maybe just a little."
She doesn't know how to react when she hears Aeris' voice in Cloud's room – the words are muffled by the door, but the speaker is unmistakable. Tifa's breathing is rough in the hallway, her legs are cramping up, she can't seem to move. She hears scuffles and Cloud saying something like, "Aw, no, I don't want to," – there's a sound like his boots dragging, their footsteps are nearing the door, she's got to move away, fast – she's down the hallway just as the door opens, hands over her mouth in case she's breathing too hard, she's overreacting.
"It's just a date, silly," Aeris goes. She keeps her hands around his arm, but she's not really pulling anymore. He goes willingly. They disappear down the stairs, and Tifa doesn't know what to do. Or what to feel.
It's turning out all right, surprisingly. He seems at ease, and the dress is still tugging too tight but seeing Cloud happy makes it all worth it. The play that night is a comedy – The Quest for the Golden Chocobo Egg, or something equally silly. I want to sit at the front, Cloud wants to sit at the back – we end up in the middle, anyway, because the usher places us there. The music starts and the lights dim. I can hear some kids giggling and their parents shushing them. It must be fun taking the whole family here – not that I'm complaining, of course. It's just different, as a family.
A round king clomps onto the stage, robes tight against his belly as he gestures majestically. "I have raised a decree that whosoever finds the Golden Chocobo Egg may have a reward of his choice – half my kingdom, half my riches, or one of my daughters as a bride. But so far no one has taken up the challenge! Why could that be?" As he puts a pudgy finger to his temple, a wizard clothed in purple waltzes behind him.
"My lord, it is because of the fearsome dragon that guards the egg! Only someone with true valor could face up to such a ferocious beast – someone like a knight! You, there!" And suddenly the wizard is pointing at Cloud, and he looks stunned, struck. "You look like you might be able to slay the dragon! Won't you come up here and try?"
"Come on, Cloud," I shove him, because everyone has started staring.
"I don't want to," He answers flatly.
"Don't be a spoilsport," I whisper, still lighthearted, but he turns and glares.
"I don't want to."
And suddenly I know why – the realization makes me feel like the stage itself has suddenly come crashing down on my head. I don't know. Maybe I was being insensitive, or maybe I was intruding somewhere again, somewhere sacred that I wasn't fit to walk on, crushing all the precious flowers underneath my strong and sturdy feet. I can't force him anymore, this probably happened when she – well, on their date. But we have an audience and an expectant wizard gazing upon us.
"I am a knight," I answer, standing up. "Er, in the disguise of a woman."
I saved the show, at least. Kick-kick-punch to the dragon, cheering with the king, choosing the kingdom as my reward (because I'm not greedy, and I'm not gay), twirling to exit stage right. At least Cloud doesn't walk out. It's not difficult to imagine the role she would have played, if this was in fact the show that had been staged that night – but then, I wasn't there, among the crowd, watching their story play out before me.
Honestly? I don't enjoy being the knight to Cloud's heartbroken princess, but it doesn't seem to work any other way.
She's not sure what she does after that, but she doesn't go back to her room.
Maybe she walks out of the hotel, when she's certain they've left the lobby; maybe she wanders around for a bit, not wanting to run into them, but not wanting to hide, exactly, either. She doesn't know what the situation is. Aeris is sweet and angelic and too much like a mother-sister-aunt-bestfriend for Tifa to resent her; besides, the Cetra always seemed to hint at a greater personal mission. If anyone can save the world, it's the innocent flower girl with the smile of an angel, and Tifa believes that more than anyone.
But Cloud...oh, she doesn't know anymore. They've never been anything more than friends. The longer they know each other, the more they seem to grow apart...with SOLDIER, and Sephiroth, and Cloud's identity crisis and now this.
It's just a date, Tifa, but she can't help feeling like it's matrimony instead.
Maybe she stares daggers at the man who tells her everything's free for couples (I'm alone, buster, take a hint); maybe she looks at the theatre poster, glumly, not daring to go inside; maybe she does go to the Battle Arena after all, punch-uppercut-cartwheel all through the matches, until she wins a champion belt that makes her feel more like a loser instead. Maybe she accidentally spies them in line for the ferris wheel, and that's when she really cracks.
The cry escapes from her throat like some Nibelheim ghoul dying; she sucks it back in as soon as she's mouthed it, and then it's just plain tears and sobbing and she shouldn't be acting this way but she is; it's probably fair enough as far as life goes, but when the man you love is up in a romantic night sky with the girl that you can't help but adore, and you're all friends and you hate that word right now, and no one can understand it, well. It feels pretty much like the wrong judgment on doomsday.
Tifa cries like a little girl, head bent, one fist up against her eyes, rubbing like crazy, as she walks back to her hotel room. Behind her the fireworks explode in the colors of the rainbow, light and beauty, but she just can't enjoy it.
So that's why I can't take the ferris wheel with him. We both stare at the poster for a while, and I get the feeling he'll ask eventually, just to be gallant. (To his credit, he didn't say anything else about the play, except, trying to be funny, "You made a pretty good knight up there." It's no joke to me, not really, but I smiled for his sake.)
He doesn't know that I know, of course; he doesn't know that I saw.
I just can't ride that ride with him. Maybe someday, but not today.
"We've only got enough time for one more. Let's take the rollercoaster," I offer, so we do. Vincent's the best at getting the extra-point shooting, of course, but Cloud and I don't do half-bad. It's a fun ride. Not exactly the best choice to end a date with – even a carousel would probably have a more fairytale feel, or the loveboat or something – but I enjoyed it. That's all I need right now, and I'm sure as heck that that's all Cloud can stand, too.
He might seem nothing like his name – sharp hair and stern jaw and a sword that's as tall as he is – but inside Cloud really does fit his namesake. He's a softie. He's like a pillow that's been whacked around one too many times, with the stuffing going wrong and patchy in places. But at least he's still standing. We get another plushie, this time for Anna (Cid and Shera's kid. Cid wanted to name her something like Rocket, or Saturnina, but Shera was pretty firm on normal names, not wanting their kid to become the laughingstock of school).
And then, as we're starting to leave, just outside the gate (Cloud stares warily at Chubby), the fireworks go up. We both turn our chins up and stare. We can't help it. We gaze as the sparks burn like flowers blooming in the sky – blooming and dying in the same second – stars fading, iridescent meteor showers that never land as anything more than ashes. And I know that he's seeing her face, that evening they shared, that enchanted night before the battle (one we won, another one – the one that meant more to us, although not so much to the world – we lost).
And just like that night, I'm crying – tiny tears, not big bawling ones, I don't want him to notice, he shouldn't have to. It feels like agony. For all the things we lost, and all the things we sacrificed, and all the things we'll never have again – for those times when we could play without a care in the world, for Biggs and Wedge and Jessie, for my father, for Zack, for everything we want back. For Aeris, because she really was an angel, and it's impossible to blame her for anything, she saved us all, she really did. For Cloud, who will have to learn how to smile again, little by little, in baby steps. Maybe this is how a soldier feels, surviving a war. Everything's changed. There are holes that you can mend eventually, but others – like an amputated leg or a long jagged scar - they'll stay forever.
It's like death and despair, but that's how love is pretty often, isn't it?
And the three of us share that memory, although no one knows that but me – I was in the background, they were in the stars.
My arms are meant for fighting, but it's worth a try, anyway.
"You miss her?" I ask.
He doesn't say anything, but I embrace him just the same, and even if his eyes stay dry I feel his shoulders go up, just a little, and I know he's screaming inside. That's okay, Cloud. I rock him from side to side like a baby, and pat his head. We all miss her – maybe not the same way you do, but we understand, and we'll share that ache. No matter what, I'll be right here, waiting, until you get your smile back, because I know you will eventually. You're bound to. You're a natural smiler, you're a goof, you're a child, you'll get that light back someday, you'll find it. You'll fight for it.
And so will I.
It's like the world is not turning, just for these moments, until the last rockets fizzle out and the smoke starts drifting downwards. The display is over, and we're spent, we're done, his head has lifted from my shoulder and he seems much lighter for it. But there are some things a hero can't admit. I understand, now. I know the role of a soldier, too. It's time to go home.
Cloud holds my hand, a little hesitantly, as we walk away from the lights; from the repetitive carnival song and Chubby Chocobo snoring through his suit behind us..."Thanks, Tif," He says. "I – I had fun."
"You're welcome," I answer, but I mean it more like I love you.
A/N: I must be cheating, because all my Tifa stories center on heartbreak, but I really like writing her voice and her dealing with Cloud. (I never meant for this piece to turn out this long, though!) I hope you enjoyed reading it. Any and all comments would be very greatly appreciated. :D