Inspired by the frame story of "Reminiscence of Final Fantasy VI" found on the special features disc of Final Fantasy VII: Advent ChildrenI
It was sunny.
And that was good, because there had been far too much darkness in their lives for far too long. They had had enough of cold and darkness. Now it was time for warmth and light. Yes, definitely time.
Tifa Lockhart didn't reflect very deeply on this as she straightened the empty main room of 7th Heaven, she just knew deep in her soul that it was true. It was time. Maybe it had been time for a while now, but something was about to change, she could feel it.
Brushing her wayward hair from her eyes, Tifa moved from the tables she had been wiping down to the area behind the bar. It was probably about time to clean the glasses on the top shelf again. It had been awhile since she had to utilize her entire store, but that was no excuse for uncleanliness; Tifa cleaned everything in the bar several times a month. She glanced out the window and then over at the clock. She had plenty of time before the night crowd began to filter in.
She couldn't reach the shelf, and she wasn't about to set a poor example by climbing on the bar. What would she say if Denzel or Marlene walked in? She searched for the step ladder, having to go into the back room for it, and set it behind the bar. She stepped up onto it. Funny, she didn't recall it being this unstable the last time she used it. She took a moment to steady herself before reaching for the first glass. She would take them all down and wipe out the shelf itself before wiping each glass and replacing it.
It didn't take her long at all –Tifa was nothing if not efficient– and in less than an hour she was stretching to replace the last glass. Satisfied, she drew back and began to step down, but somehow her foot got caught between steps and she felt herself falling. The distance was too short – she couldn't possibly catch herself with her foot still stuck, and there wasn't time to dislodge it. She relaxed, hoping her foot would come free without injury to her ankle. She felt it slip out as she came level with it and took a calming breath preparing for the hard impact with the cold floor.
It never came.
Instead, Tifa felt something warm and firm slide beneath her, lifting her gently so that she was cradled in strong arms.
Her gaze traveled slowly up the white, toned arms, up to revealed shoulders and black ribbed sweater, past that to a firm, pale chin and delicate featured face framed by blond hair. Blue eyes blinked down at her and for a moment she was confused by the look in them. It was so warm. His expression was usually dark, as though he had been lost in sadness so long he didn't know how to feel anything else. She flushed, hastily righting herself.
"Cloud." She brushed at her skirt. "You're home early."
He didn't seem to notice her flustered state.
"Mm," he agreed in typical Cloud fashion with the smallest of nods. He didn't remind her to be careful – she already knew.
She titled her head as she studied him, feeling calmer now that she was out of his arms and no longer pressed against his chest. She had known him all her life, had cared about him for so long –had lived in the same building with him for so many years– that one would think she would be used to him. But she never got used to him. Even when she was scolding him, the fire of attraction burned beneath, warming her. When they had been in danger, when he had been so distant . . . in a way it had been easier. There was less time for such feelings. But now that things had finally, truly, settled down, and he was here every day, really here body and soul . . . things could get so complicated. She knew he wasn't ready. He'd forgiven himself, but he still had a hard road before the old wounds healed and the scars faded. She didn't want to pressure him.
But the feelings wouldn't go away. And the more she was with him the harder it was to hide them. To pretend that being his friend was enough.
It had never been enough.
He must have been uncomfortable with the silence -or maybe he just thought she had forgotten about him- because he was stepping away.
"Umm, you got a call from Reeve."
He paused, his head turning slightly toward her, but he still wasn't facing her.
She squared her shoulders, lifting her head and forcing a casual tone. "He needs you to make a pick-up tomorrow."
"Tell him I can't."
She noticed that he was looking at his own hand, dangling beside him. It twitched.
"I'm taking tomorrow off," he finished, in that same tone. It was his tone. Emotionless, almost, with just a hint of sadness. But less sadness than a year before. She was waiting for the day when it showed everything he felt, but that day would probably never come. Even when they were children he had sounded like that. He sounded as though he were trying to be distant, but could never quite accomplish it. He was reserved, but he cared deeply.
She took an involuntary step closer to him. "Is something wrong?" She had never mastered it. What she felt always came through in her tone, and now she was concerned. Cloud had never taken a day off in his life.
That settled the queasiness in her stomach and calmed her racing heart, but she was still curious. "Umm . . . okay." Her gaze lingered on him even as she turned away; her head finally following her body at the last second and she returned to work. He was just standing there, as though frozen, his head barely turned toward his right shoulder, his arms at his side, loose, but never relaxed. She shook her head as she began to wipe down the counter.
"Tifa." He paused and so did she, the cloth held in her hand in mid swipe. "Can you close the bar tomorrow?" He gave no indication of what he was thinking.
She looked up, cloth still in hand, and studied him a moment. It was useless: she hadn't figured him out in twenty three years, she wouldn't figure him out this afternoon. "Okay," she agreed, calmly and fluidly returning to her work.
He let out a huff of breath that she imagined might almost have been a laugh. "Well, that was easy," he murmured.
And then she heard his steady, even steps as he left the room, and for some reason she smiled.
Tifa hadn't slept-in in a long time. It was a nice feeling, lying languidly in bed, knowing she didn't have to rush. It had been a while since the sun had gotten up beforeshe did. But it couldn't last forever; someone had to make breakfast for Denzel and Marlene. Funny, she hadn't heard them at all this morning. They were generally quiet and well behaved, but the sunlight filtering through her window told her that it had to be at least nine o'clock and neither of the orphans were late sleepers.
Still, since all was quiet, Tifa took her time getting ready for the day. She enjoyed a shower and then combed leisurely through her hair.
Today was a good day.
Finally she was ready and she tread softly down the stairs to the bar which also served as the makeshift family's kitchen. Her hand trailed lightly along the wall as she descended, but at the base of the steps she paused, her hand on the corner of the wall.
Sitting at the nearest table was Cloud. He didn't look up at her, though she knew that he must have heard her approach. He was sitting, feet planted loosely apart, and he looked almost relaxed. Except that Cloud was always alert, always ready, so his casual stance didn't fool her. She could see the rigid line of muscle beneath his skin. He was ready for anything. Before him was a glass of dark liquid and a napkin with crumbs on it. Apparently he had already eaten what passed for his breakfast. She never could convince him that baked goods were not a true breakfast. He didn't usually indulge in caffeinated beverages - if he had she would have scolded him about that too. Just because she served things that ate at one's insides didn't mean she approved of them. Fortunately, healthy life style was not something she usually had to worry about with Cloud. His emotional state may have been a wreck, but physically he was in top condition.
"Where are Denzel and Marlene?"
She hadn't found them upstairs, and they weren't down here with Cloud either. Maybe they had gone out into the city? That would be good; all the children in Edge Town were far too serious. They needed time to be kids.
He was watching his glass and didn't look up. "Barrett's in town. He wanted to spend some time with Marlene."
Barrett had adopted Marlene several years ago, though usually it was Tifa who took care of the girl. She didn't mind, she was very fond of Marlene. And Barrett was off trying to find a new source of energy for them to use. She knew that he and Marlene missed each other so it was no surprise he would stop by for her if he was in the area, and Denzel usually went where Marlene did.
"Oh." She moved down into the bar. It was time to get her own breakfast. Her stomach was gently reminding her that sleeping in, though it had its advantages, also meant that it had been longer since her last meal. She kept the things for her customers on the lowest shelves and their personal things up higher – though not at the top. Usually it was a simple matter to get the stool and reach the bread, but then she remembered her mishap from the day before. She debated climbing on the counter –since both of the children were gone– but had gotten no further than standing beneath her objective when an arm reached over her shoulder to snag the desired package.
It was Cloud, though she hadn't heard him move.
He was standing very close to her, and she could feel the heat of him behind her even though he wasn't quite touching her. His voice, when he finally spoke, low and near her ear, made her shiver as he slowly lowered the bread she had been reaching for.
"Need anything else?"
She swallowed. "No." She was desperately trying to quell her reaction to him. This close he would feel her blush even if he didn't see it.
She was certain he had to know, but he gave no indication. She was grateful for that.
As he withdrew and stepped away, his arm brushed against her. Her breath caught and she reflexively reached for his retreating arm.
"Cloud?" She couldn't look at him. She was so embarrassed - that had come out far breathier than she had intended.
"Mm…" A short syllable, not at all drawn out – it was his usual form of agreement or acknowledgment.
She could feel his gaze trained on her expectantly, and she didn't have the faintest idea what to say. She hadn't meant to stop him like this.
"Never mind, it's nothing . . ." She withdrew her hand, swiping at the lock of hair that insisted on falling over her right eye.
He accepted this without question and, when she released him, he merely stepped away and began to clear his place at the table. When he was done he moved to leave the room, pausing in the doorway. Again he did not turn to face her, merely angled his head ever so slightly toward his right shoulder. Tifa was still standing where he had left her behind the bar.
"You should eat," he admonished her gently. And then he was gone, and she was desperately trying to breathe.
It had been a good day, though a bit quiet. But Cloud liked quiet, and Tifa did as well – sometimes. It was getting late and Marlene and Denzel weren't home yet, but Tifa wasn't worried. Barrett would take care of them.
Tifa had done a little straightening during the day, but Cloud wouldn't allow her to spend her entire day off cleaning. They had walked through town a bit, sometimes talking, usually in companionable silence. It was both wonderful and painful for Tifa. She enjoyed spending time with Cloud, just being near him made her feel safe and secure. At the same time it was torturous. She loved him. He had never felt the same.
But he stayed with her.
She was important to him. She knew that.
What had he told her? He had joined SOLDIER because he had wanted her to notice him. But then he had been through . . . everything: the experiments, his jumbled memory, he had met Aerith. And everything had changed.
So much had changed.
He had always been serious. Now he was melancholy.
Would she ever be able to help him heal? It seemed as though he wanted her to. He said he had forgiven himself. But deciding to do something and actually getting it done were two very different things. At least he smiled now though. She just wanted him to be happy.
But she wanted him to be happy with her.
Now it was evening and Tifa was in 7th Heaven alone. Cloud had wandered away after supper with promises of returning. She figured he needed some time alone. Even when they were together she sometimes felt that they were both very much alone.
Cloud liked to be alone.
That was probably part of the reason he had chosen to start a delivery service. Lots of alone time on the road. He hadn't taken his bike tonight though, so he probably wasn't far. Tifa finished the dinner dishes and moved to the outmost doorway, looking out onto the street. She stood there, leaning lightly against the door frame to watch the city around her.
She had come to Midgar to be near Cloud, but she had found so much more here. It was here she had joined AVALANCHE, it was here she had fought beside friends, here that she had found Marlene and Denzel, here that she had formed her own little family to replace the families they had all lost. And now Midgar was gone as well, destroyed in the battle for the planet, but the city that had grown around it, Edgetown, this was a good place too. It was a symbol of hope.
She thought of the monument that Kadaj and his gang had destroyed in their search for Jenova's remains. Yes, there were dark memories, but there were good ones too. It was there that Cloud had opened up to her. There that he had taken her advice and let go of the past. It was there that he had found the strength to overcome and move on.
Her eyes wandered past the streets and the rooftops to the precipice overlooking the town. Somewhere up there was the sword that marked Zach's resting place. Though she couldn't see it from here she imagined she could. Without knowing why she found her feet carrying her toward that place.
It was only a thirty minute walk out of town and through the barren wastes surrounding it to the precipice. She walked at a leisurely pace and it didn't surprise her to find Cloud sitting there when she arrived.
He was sitting at the very edge, one leg dangling over, the other pulled up, his arm resting across the upraised knee.
He was so handsome sitting there, motionless and ethereal, silhouetted against the setting sun, and she was afraid that if she moved he would vanish.
"Tifa." His only acknowledgement of her arrival, but it was enough. She moved to sit beside him.
"Today was nice," she noted.
He didn't respond, he was watching the skyline already fallen deep into thought once again.
"Don't you think?" She made another attempt to draw him out, but he remained unmoved. She watched him several moments before standing with a sigh.
His hand shot out to catch her wrist gently, stopping her.
"Tifa," he said again, but it was different this time. There was more feeling in the way he said her name. But maybe she had imagined it. His gaze was still averted.
"Stay," he said.
So she did.
Because he had always come when she needed him, and she would always stay for him for as long as he needed her. She would always be there.
For long moments they sat in silence, watching the setting sun. She knew he was collecting his thoughts and she let him. Silence with him was never uncomfortable, not for her.
When he spoke it was soft, slow, broken and uncertain, as if he was afraid to turn this corner, to take the next step.
"I think . . . you were in love with me once."
She looked at him and he was still looking away. He was tense and she wanted to soothe all his cares away. She had spent so long unwilling to admit her feelings because she was afraid of being hurt. But she could risk that, for him. She smiled softly, moving her hand to rest near his on the ground between them without touching him.
"Yes." She wouldn't deny it anymore. How could she? It had always been there for anyone to see, even when she tried to hide it.
"Do you– can you– I guess I want to know-" He sighed, as though frustrated with his own inability to form a full sentence. "I need to know if you can still love me," he finished at last.
She titled her head. "Why?" There was something in his tone, and she had to know.
"Because," he finally turned to meet her gaze and her breath caught at the look in those blue orbs, "I love you," he whispered.
She had waited to hear those words for most of her life, had almost despaired of ever hearing them. And now he had spoken them, and for a moment the weight of them made it so that she couldn't think – couldn't speak.
"I understand if you can't. If it's too late." And he would, because, after all, he'd only just learned to forgive himself. It was easy for him to imagine that everyone else had not.
He was watching her earnestly, intensely, and finally she moved, crossing the scant distance that separated their hands to catch his in her own.
"I have always loved you, Cloud. I always will." It was a promise as well as a confession.
Even though she had known him nearly her whole life Tifa had rarely seen him smile. The smile he gave her now made her heart stick in her throat. It wasn't large or exuberant, but it was real. It lit his eyes and warmed her heart. He squeezed her hand and she smiled back at him. Then he lifted his free hand to gently brush back her hair, barely touching her face.
"Thank you," he murmured, his eyes going deep, "for waiting."
She reached up to grasp the hand that rested on her cheek. "I knew you needed time."
She didn't blame him, had never blamed him, but the person hardest on Cloud had always been Cloud himself. He blamed himself for everything.
He shook his head. "I'm through wasting time – yours and mine." He leaned closer to her and her breath caught once more, "Tifa – I need you," he confessed. "Marry me?"
He had obviously been thinking about this for some time. Someday she would have to ask him about that, ask him what had begun this change, but not today. Right now it was enough that he wanted to be with her - forever. She had never seen him look so certain, and it reaffirmed everything she felt and everything she knew, strengthening her own resolve.
She met his gaze evenly, "Yes."
She let go of his hands as he raised them to gently frame her face. Then he was leaning toward her and both of their eyes were drifting closed. His lips met hers in a gentle caress, a little timid, a little uncertain, but so very, very right. And she let him gather her into his arms – no longer embarrassed by the shivers evoked by the feel of his skin on hers.
This was everything they had both dreamed – everything they needed, everything they wanted. Here was rest; here was peace and forgiveness, healing and comfort. Here there was home.
And they were neither one alone.
A/N: Sigh... I really thought I posted this forever ago when the movie came out on DVD, but apparently I did not. Now probably no one will read it... but whatever. Anyway, I always struggle with proposal scenes. I guess because proposals are something normal, happy people do, and people in animerarely are either of those... Still, I hope it wasn't too terrible. Read and review please!