Disclaimer: I do not own the characters of Final Fantasy VII.
The first thing he felt was the vexatious sore in his chest, an irritable itch right over his heart. He brushed two fingers over the bare skin, rubbing away at the annoying sensation.
He cracked an eye open. All he could see was a bundle of dark, messy hair, but after a few more blinks, he realized it was Tifa, resting her head near his shoulder. Her long, curving lashes prickled at his cheek, and her soft breath tickled his neck. Cloud blinked twice more and rubbed his eyes, just to make sure it wasn't some kind of dream.
Sharing the same bed with Tifa was an experience unfamiliar to him, though it was something he wouldn't mind getting used to. Cloud grinned and with a soft groan, he reached his arms up, holding his breath and stretching the full length of his body. His toes brushed against a leg. It was too smooth to be his own.
It took him a few more seconds to realize that the alarm had not gone off. He jerked his head to the side, wide eyes peering at the digital display that read quarter till ten. "Damn," he hissed, shaking his head slightly as he edged off the bed.
Maybe Tifa had turned it off and forgot to wake him. Reluctantly, Cloud circled the bed, making his way around towards the door on the far wall, but paused to spare another glance at the sleeping woman. Her lips were pursed, one arm draped limply over her stomach. Truth be told, she was absolutely gorgeous, even in her sleep, and he couldn't help but stare as the thin strands of hair wavered at the flow of her breath. Something in his mind forced him to step forward, and though he was hesitant in his movements, he found the courage to lean over and brush his lips over her forehead, pecking gently in a soft kiss. Surprisingly, she didn't shift at his touch, and remained still in her slumber.
Kissing Tifa wasn't exactly the most familiar act to Cloud Strife. Nevertheless, it was a satiable sensation, the act of expressing one's feelings through such a simple physical touch. With a slight grin, he turned towards the desk, approaching it reluctantly. The yellow post-it that was tacked onto the wall revealed his delivery schedule for the day, and he was relieved to find that it only listed three items. The strange reality of the note, however, was that it wasn't written in his handwriting; it was much neater—probably Tifa's. Cloud rubbed his chin. His memory was a little foggy; he couldn't quite remember exactly what had happened yesterday. The only thing that seemed to tug at his mind was the irritating itch on his chest.
He convinced himself that Tifa had taken the requests last night, and scanned his eyes over the post-it.
Bouquet of lilies from the flower shop downtown
Reeve's secretary is holding an envelope: WRO HQ
Godo Kisaragi's package on the bar counter
Peeling the small paper from the wall, he folded it once and tucked it into his pocket. His usual uniform was hanging limply from a hook on the door, probably still a bit damp from the washer. He snatched it off, fitting it over his form with a few tugs and smoothening out the creases.
Tifa was still motionless on the bed. He pondered whether or not he should take her back to her room, but decided against it, and walked out the room. After the usual routine of brushing his teeth, shaving and washing his face, Cloud descended down the stairs, careful not to cause too much noise. Just as the post-it had read, there was a fairly small box resting on the countertop, a short note scribbled onto the surface. Cloud lifted it in one hand and read "To the church in Midgar. The people of Wutai honor your name forever. May you rest in peace."
It was a bit strange. Godo had never sent any gifts for Aerith's remembrance, but Cloud figured Yuffie probably convinced him into doing it. He placed the box under his arm, and was a little surprised to see that Tifa hadn't packed his lunch today. She must've been pretty busy last night, with the delivery requests and all.
He grabbed the keys from the table and headed out the door, locking it behind him. Fenrir was parked near the sidewalk, resting its weight on the kickstand. He hopped on, balancing the bike on one foot and releasing the kickstand with the other. Two small birds came fluttering down from the sky, landing near his feet and pecking ignorantly at the ground. Cloud shrugged and turned the key, causing the engine to roar in its waking. The birds didn't budge; they merely continued their pecking as if they were deaf to the noise.
Cloud's first stop was the flower shop at the center of the city, where the demolished Midgar Monument still lay crumbled at the base of its once proud pillar. The crew would probably initiate its reconstruction in about a week. He parked the bike near the sidewalk, and hopped off. The streets weren't nearly as crowded as they normally were, presumably due to the early hour. He stepped into the store, and was surprised to find that the bouquet of lilies was placed on the side table right next to the entrance, as if his arrival had been anticipated. The store owner didn't even acknowledge his entrance, though Cloud didn't mind much. He wasn't really the social type; he appreciated the lack of conversations in his encounters with the customers. He grabbed the bundle of flowers and noticed a small tag hanging out from between the petals. It was also addressed to Aerith's church.
His last pick-up would be at the W.R.O. Headquarters, the building located at the outskirts of the city. Thanks to the light traffic, it didn't take him long to reach his destination, only about twenty to twenty-five minutes of quiet driving.
The W.R.O. parking lot was always crowded, and today was not an exception, but in Cloud's case, all he had to do was park the bike near the entrance. After all, he was only here for a quick pick-up. He entered the lobby area, and found a woman sitting at the front counter, scribbling something down on a large notepad, and occasionally pausing for a quick sip at her mug. He stepped forward and took notice of the large envelope that rested on the table, picking it up with one hand and reading its address. It wasn't surprising to find that this, too, was to be delivered to Midgar. In return to the woman's lack of response, he merely walked out, sighing as he stepped through the automatic doors.
A man dressed in a black suit was yelling furiously into his cell phone, waving a clenched fist and rolling his eyes in irritation. Cloud identified the man as Reeve Tuetsi.
"What do you mean you can't find the body?! God damn it, I thought I told you to start the search two days ago!"
"Listen to me, you have to find it!"
"I swear to God, if you and your men don't find that body by tomorrow, you can consider yourselves unemployed!"
Cloud decided to move on. It probably wasn't the best time to chat, considering the W.R.O. commissioner didn't seem to be in the brightest mood.
He placed the envelope in the cart that rested on the back of the bike, and started the engine. It hadn't been too long since his last visit to Aerith's church, but he didn't mind paying her another visit.
As he made his way towards the interstate, he found himself contemplating on the recent events that had befallen him.
Geostigma. The Remnants. They had put a hold on the temporary peace that he and the other members of AVALANCHE had just begun to settle down with. Cloud grinned at that thought. Peace. He didn't even have a firm understanding on what that word meant. No fighting, no worries. Was that really attainable? All he knew was that peace was not something that came without prices. Sacrifices were necessary.
His mind shifted towards his last conversation with Vincent Valentine.
"Can sins be forgiven?"
"I've never tried."
The demons that had tormented him for the past several months, the sins that had burdened his shoulders, they had all forced him to isolate himself from Tifa and the children. Even though he no longer felt that weight tugging down on his heart, there was still something missing. The fights had ended in victory, but he felt nothing in his triumph. Sure, he had moved back into the bar, settling down with Tifa and redeeming himself with the children, but there was still an emptiness that troubled him. It felt like a hole in his heart.
Tifa Lockhart. She had been the one who convinced him to take up the sword and fight back.
"So which is it? A memory? Or us?"
Those words still rang clearly in his head. If Cloud Strife only had one fear in his heart, it was the possibility of breaking that promise he had made to her long ago. He had already failed Aerith. He didn't want to fail Tifa.
The sun was now casting golden rays down from above, its high position signaling the peak of noon. Fenrir roared as it carried its lone passenger across the toppled gates of the once proud city, leaving a trail of dust in its wake.
The church was among the few structures that still stood in the ruined vicinity. It had once been the only place where sunlight leaked through the plate of the Acropolis, radiating a sense of hope for the people of the Slums. Cloud carried the parcels through double doors, careful not to drop the flowers as he stepped over a fallen pillar. It was strange here. He had spent so many months in this place, concealing himself from society and hiding from the ghosts of his past, and yet, this time, it felt as if there was a new presence residing within these walls.
He no longer felt Aerith. He felt something else.
He set the parcels down on the dry floor, and dipped his fingers into the clear pool that sparkled in the center of the church.
The first thing he felt was the vexatious sore in his chest, an irritable itch right over his heart.
He inhaled a strange, unfamiliar scent, and closed his eyes.
Cloud blinked twice more and rubbed his eyes, just to make sure it wasn't some kind of dream.
He could hear faint whispers echoing off the walls, calling his name, beckoning him to let go.
It took him a few more seconds to realize that the alarm had not gone off.
He limped over, collapsing into the cold water and drifting silently on the surface.
He brushed his lips over her forehead, pecking gently in a soft kiss. Surprisingly, she didn't shift at his touch, and remained still in her slumber.
He knew where he was. He knew everything now. The church had been calling him.
The strange reality of the note, however, was that it wasn't written in his handwriting; it was much neater—probably Tifa's.
Cloud sank down to the bottom of the pool, feeling his consciousness drift off as someone entered the church through the doors.
His memory was a little foggy; he couldn't quite remember exactly what had happened yesterday. The only thing that seemed to tug at his mind was the irritating itch on his chest.
It was Tifa Lockhart. She brushed a tear from her eyes as she knelt down near the three parcels, a gentle smile forming in her lips.
"You brought these here, didn't you? I was wondering what happened to Godo's package."
She pulled apart the two flaps on the box, and reached inside, taking out a small cerulean seashell.
To the church in Midgar. The people of Wutai honor your name forever. May you rest in peace.
Tifa felt another tear roll down as she placed the Leviathan Scale down near the edge of the pool. She picked up the thick envelope, tearing it open with a finger and pulling out the letters inside.
Tifa hadn't packed his lunch today.
The first letter was from Barret. Her voice was hoarse and shaky as she began to read its contents. "Dear Spike," she rasped. "I'm sorry we weren't there to help you out, man. I'm sorry I failed you. Even though you're gone now, I know you're still watching over us. You're a real hero, ya hear? Marlene and I will never forget you. Rest in peace, Cloud Strife."
Cloud shrugged and turned the key, causing the engine to roar in its waking. The birds didn't budge; they merely continued their pecking as if they were deaf to the noise.
"Dear Cloud. It's me, Yuffie. We had a memorial service in Wutai last night, in honor of your name. I'm sorry for all the times I bothered you and ticked you off. Even though I never showed it, I always respected you dearly. We love you always, Cloud. Thank you so much for what you've done."
The store owner didn't even acknowledge his entrance, though Cloud didn't mind much.
She couldn't hold back any more. The tears began to pour out in streams, tracing curved paths down her cheeks as she lifted the next letter.
"Cloud. You once asked me if sins could be forgiven. I believe you've found the answer. Your sacrifice has brought us peace, and for that I'm grateful. Rest in peace."
Cloud identified the man as Reeve Tuetsi.
"What do you mean you can't find the body?! God damn it, I thought I told you to start the search two days ago!"
"Dear Cloud. I'm writing the letter for Nanaki and Marlene. I always thought of you as a hero, and now I know that you're more than that. You're a savior. You're the best friend I've ever had, and I want to thank you so much for saving me back then. I'll take good care of Tifa while you're gone, so don't worry too much. I hope to see you again soon. Love, Denzel."
Peace. He didn't even have a firm understanding on what that word meant. No fighting, no worries. Was that really attainable? All he knew was that peace was not something that came without prices. Sacrifices were necessary.
Tifa picked up the bouquet of lilies, placing them onto the water and watching as they drifted away on the surface, causing small rings to wave out. She wiped away another tear, but managed to form a smile.
"You never broke your promise," she whispered. The memories of the explosion flashed into her mind. She remembered the intense force of the shockwaves, how they roared out from atop the ShinRa building. Cloud had given up his life to restore the peace.
It felt like a hole in his heart.
Despite the fact that the bullet had pierced through his heart, Cloud had used the last of his strength to fell the remaining Remnants.
"I love you, Cloud," Tifa whispered. "Thank you."
A/N: Totally inspired by Horky's You Were Always Late. I know it's confusing as hell. I wanted to try an AC twist, and I was wondering what would have happened if Cloud never came back after that huge explosion at the end of the movie. And I have class in like two minutes. Later!