The fresh flowers on Cloud's desk are slowly wilting, turning brown at the edges. So yes... Yes. Tifa is going to have to take Marlene to the church for new fresh flowers. They are useful and beautifully vague as indicators of time, showing how much has passed since Cloud left for the long haul but without being painfully hours-minutes-seconds about it like a watch, or a clock. And if Tifa just brings in new flowers she can pretend... that...
It's only been a few days.
Marlene's humming a cute little tune that Tifa didn't teach her, something that will probably disappear once they leave the church. Tifa likes to listen to Marlene and watch her and pretend that it's only been a few days, because flowers are fragile and rare, because they don't grow in Midgar proper, and...
"Tifa?" Marlene calls. She's standing over a box, which probably hasn't been there. Or maybe Tifa hasn't noticed because of her selective amnesia regarding this spot, the only place where they can get fresh flowers to brighten up the bar and Cloud's lonely desk room here in Midgar.
Marlene is standing over a box with a bandage on it.
Geostigma. Tifa knows the type, knows the black, powdery stain it leaves on bandages like dry rot. This is not Denzel's bandage, but--
"It's just like Denzel's," Marlene affirms unknowingly, wide eyes fragile and worried. "Is Cloud sick?"
Aerith! Aerith! Aerith! The half-habitual shriek for their former healer starts up, but the problem is Geostigma is like poison. It saps away strength slowly, and not just for the victim but for the people around them. They will need an antidote or something, but no one has found one so far.
Yes, Cloud is sick. Denzel is sick and so is Cloud and they are both, both going to die.
Tifa wants Aerith back again, and it's probably because she's so tired from days of watching Denzel in bed half-comatose. She is so, so tired; her eyes don't even water but she makes a note to, if she feels like it later on, start crying in private alone. Someplace like her room where no one will remotely hear her. This is what bothers Tifa: Aerith, in death, continues to touch people's lives. Denzel was found here, and Cloud fell in through the roof and met Aerith here, and now... Cloud is living here, almost?
He at least changes his bandages here, all alone. And it must be someplace easy to bandage because Denzel really does need help with his own.
This is so weird, Tifa thinks that night as Cloud, who has returned for some reason (not for her), stands there without making a sound. Marlene is gone (kidnapped, on her watch! Oh, Barret!) and Tifa herself is still fuzzy. She doesn't know where Denzel is, either. Cloud is standing right next to me and now he's going to die.
Tifa wanted to think that their family, small and fragile as it was, would amount to more than she'd ever had back in Nibelheim when they were young children. Tifa's father loved her but... but he was only her father, one man. She'd thought that, with a little sister like Marlene and the strange mix between son and brother that Denzel is, and whatever Cloud will call himself (big brother? Resident hero figure?), it would at least give them security or something.
The feeling that there is always someone waiting for you when you get back late at night is impossible for Tifa to describe. That, for her, is home. Even if now, she is the only one sitting up for Cloud or the rest of the gang, that thought of home is so very enchanting. Even if now, there will never be somebody waiting up for her... she can live with that, because the feeling of being home is precious enough to make her feel that she's important enough to be the ever-present motherer of AVALANCHE.
Or she could have lived with that. Because Cloud, a constant source of worry for her, doesn't seem to think it is enough. He has to go to Aerith's church to change his bandages: alone, alone, alone.
"Cloud... y-you're dying." Tifa's voice shakes slightly on the statement, but she doesn't think Cloud would answer if she attacked him verbally right now. "You're dying and Denzel is dying, too, and I don't know why you didn't talk to me about it. Is it... because of...?" And Tifa chokes because she can't bring herself to say the name.
Cloud isn't the most coherent person ever, but he is loads better than when they first reunited. She doesn't know why he never says anything to her; maybe she doesn't matter to him as anything more than a friend (and she can live with that, desperately hoping for something of course), but she would like an acknowledgment of some sort. That Cloud! The one who keeps worrying her, the one she...
"This is really weird." That takes Cloud out of his shell for a moment, the tiniest bit. "I never thought I'd know two Geostigma victims at the same time, let alone..." This is when he withdraws a little, right hand clutching his left arm self-consciously. (So that's where it is. The sleeve makes sense all of a sudden.) "But you could have told me!"
She keeps her voice soft so she won't wake Denzel, then remembers he isn't here either. The softness is kept, though, since Denzel will be back soon and she shouldn't get out of the habit. "I... I don't know about you, Cloud, but I don't want my friends to die alone. I want everyone to stay close to me so... so they'll know that I..."
Tifa's train of thought is speeding up and she buries her head in one hand. "I try so hard to hold on to the people I love, but they keep falling apart... just like you, and Denzel, and... and I don't like that, but I'm still going to try, at least. I'm going to hold on to Denzel and you, Cloud, no matter how much it breaks me. I'm--I'll always..."
Tifa wants to think with her security-blanket habit that maybe Cloud just doesn't know what to say, but Cloud is dying and there is nothing she can do to change that. Cloud, Cloud is dying and... and she can't even work up the nerve to reach out for him like she always hugs Denzel. She used to think that if anyone would outlive them, Cloud would through sheer luck. She used to think that if anyone could be labeled strong, it was Cloud; and she used to think...
"I didn't want to worry you."
"So you went to hide in Aerith's church instead." Question? Statement, explanation, scream? She doesn't know what to do with him anymore. And sitting up late will not heal Geostigma.
Aerith answers her nonexistent prayers and heals all the suffering people with a sprinkle of clear water. It takes a while for the huge surge of relief goes through Tifa completely and leaves this dead, cheated feeling in its place. The weeks, months of worrying and sitting up late, the bandages, the knowledge that beat its way into her heart that Denzel was going to die no matter what--that is all nullified by a few drops of rain? It's so sudden that Tifa wakes up in the middle of the night, one time, for absolutely no reason at all.
Well... well, actually she'd wanted to check up on Denzel; but he is eating and growing properly now so there is no real reason for that, for her constant worry and care.
She... she wants...
She's spending a day with the rest of AVALANCHE. It's nobody's birthday and there's no danger to the whole of the Planet: Tifa just wants someone to mother. She's not entirely ashamed of this, and yet when Cloud answers the ringing phone upstairs she feels a little bit embarrassed for wanting to do something for him. Cloud comes downstairs, bids goodbye to everyone and makes to leave for the day; but Tifa cannot, cannot, cannot let him leave without--
"Wait--Cloud!" Tifa tries on a bright smile and thinks on the wing, rummaging frantically under the counter for the paper bag she knows is there. "You're probably going to be gone for a while so I, um... packed something for you to eat on the way."
She really hasn't; originally she'd packed this for Marlene or maybe Denzel, but since Barret and the rest of the gang's come to visit the lunch is kind of useless. Cloud picks it up silently and looks down at it, amazed and uncomfortable at the pains Tifa has taken for him.
He doesn't know this whole thing is just a coincidence. Their friends don't know this whole thing is a coincidence. Only Tifa knows.
Once upon a time, Tifa thought that taking Denzel in would mean (besides having someone else to mother fervently) that it would put an anchor on Cloud; that no matter how long his trips got, he would always, always come home. (But what is home, to someone who will not answer your calls?) It was... true, for a while. And Tifa thought maybe the fact that Cloud had found Denzel collapsed at Aerith's church had something to do with it: some faith, some buried logic, and it burned Tifa's heart to shreds of spent charcoal to realize that Denzel... Denzel was only here because of Aerith and Cloud was still alive because of Aerith, and Aerith, Aerith, Aerith, Aerith, Aerith!
(Those flowers are still on his desk)
Cloud is still looking at the thankfully generic lunch bag Tifa's given him. A moment of... silence? Embarrassment? Well, Tifa is kind of embarrassed herself, especially since the rest of the gang is staring at them and Yuffie snickers--
"Tifa? I love you."
There is a bright, vibrant moment of Hoshit he has finally done it! Judging from Yuffie's gasp. Tifa can only watch out of the corner of her eye as everything... starts... to stand still.
Tifa? I love you.
Tifa, I love you!
This isn't right. She isn't supposed to swallow the lump in her throat like Aerith's just conveniently risen from the dead and taken Cloud's heart in her hands. Tifa isn't supposed to still think that 'but Aerith is still dead and Cloud loves me, now what do I do?' Tifa isn't supposed to feel like something's wrong with this, like this wasn't the most anticlimactic moment he could have chosen (and there were a lot of anticlimactic moments he could have chosen), she isn't supposed to have her eyes water like tears or something are going to drip out of them--she isn't--
Cloud, Cloud is dying. I...
She picks up a mug.
"Go back to Aerith's church."
And throws it.
"Go back to Aerith's church!"
Cloud drops the bag and ducks, but even his broken-SOLDIER reflexes can't stop him from being hit by the glass in the face. There's a whole lot of commotion in the corner as Tifa picks up another mug (a really loud "Denzel, Marlene, go upstairs!" from Barret) and hits Cloud's pauldron with it. The bad arm, the wolf arm, the one with Geostigma before Aerith cured it, the one with Aerith's ribbon.
"Why?! Why would you say that to me right before you leave?!"
("I... I think we should all go upstairs," Yuffie says.)
Tifa can't keep track of the voices, but she knows they're moving somewhere higher up and besides, all she can see is the splash of thin red lines across Cloud's face like--
"Whoa!" Yuffie marvels, once they've all herded the children out of the line of fire. "I mean it, whoa! Maybe we should be down there helping Cloud or something, because Tifa's just gone completely crazy right now!"
"Cloud can take care of himself," Cid reasons. He hasn't brought his spear with him, but a couple of nervous twitches brings out a cigarette or two (or five, or seven).
"They should figure this out by themselves," Barret tells them, trying to calm down his daughter. "Marlene, baby, are you feeling okay?"
"Papa, wh-why is Tifa so mad?" Marlene whispers, sounding on the edge of frightened tears. Crazy Cloud is one thing, but Tifa is the sweetest person they know; and of all people to start throwing things at people in homicidal rage (childhood friend and unrequited love, besides--because they all know Tifa loves him) they would not have picked her. Even Aerith would have squeaked onto the list ahead of Tifa, because Aerith always had something in her hands. (Something that bore startling resemblance to one of Cid's spears.)
Barret sighs. Out of the group, he has about the most in common with the bartender because he, like Tifa, has adopted a child and possesses the single-parent ferocity that comes with being alone for a very long time. He knows what he's talking about, but they still find it hard to believe it when he says, "Tifa isn't mad, Marlene. She's tired and a little bit scared because she doesn't know what to do."
"Tifa is scared?" Marlene's dark eyes are wide.
"Yeah, she's scared. And she's probably sad, too."
There's an almost musical tinkle of another glass breaking, so far the third or fifth or seventh so far. "You're only saying that to make me stop throwing things at you!"
Everyone flinches, except for Barret and Vincent. Yuffie jitters and paces nervously around the red and white check bedspread. "Tired..." Something clicks in her head and the ninja throws herself down on it, wailing, "Oh my god! We are all going to hell!"
"Don't curse in front of the children." Sometimes Yuffie thinks Vincent and Barret switch off being the local stern father-figure person, because ever since they came back to Midgar neither of them has ever said that twice in a row. But Denzel is sort of huddling confusedly against Red's side and Marlene is still in Barret's lap, sniffling, so they probably haven't been paying much attention to her.
"Okay, for one thing--" Yuffie stands up and counts off the reasons. "Hell is not a curse word because preachers use it all the time. For another, I think I'm right. I leave out Marlene and Denzel because they're kids and they kind of need a mother figure in their lives, but we, as adults--" (Barret snorts) "Kind of are."
They look at her skeptically.
"You notice how Tifa's always looking after us?" Yuffie rambles. "Not just for birthdays and junk, but for us? She's always, always doing that. I think she's taken everyone under her wing at some point and sat up to watch us sleep--not in the creepy way, in the motherly way, like when we were sick or something. Well, except for you, Vince. And Cid!"
"Eh." The pilot shrugs dismissively. "She's packed my lunch a few times and told me to stop smoking."
They stare at his lit cigarette in horror. Cid follows their gazes and balks. "Holy shit, we are all going to hell!" He throws it onto the floor and stomps on it, hard. "Dammit!"
Barret has already covered Marlene's ears, and Vincent has somehow materialized next to Denzel to do the same.
"And... and you know how Aerith's never done that for us?" Yuffie asks tentatively, knowing it's kind of a sore spot since Aerith has saved the Planet and all.
"Aerith could heal almost anything," Red points out. "She never had to sit up with us all night."
"Yeah... but Tifa does, and that's got to count for something." A sort of half-hearted 'chink!' replies from below. Tifa must be getting tired by now.
"You think it's too late to ask ourselves if we've all been taking Tifa for granted? Because I don't think we've ever thanked her for that."
Some muffled sobbing seeps up through the floorboards and they decide to wait until it quiets before Vincent, Barret, and Cid take it upon themselves to step out of the room (they will probably be able to drag Cloud's black-clad body away and bury it somewhere nice and secret).
"Wait--no." Barret stops Vincent. "You stay here with Marlene and Denzel. Yuffie!"
"Come on, ninja!"
Yuffie flashes down in front of them speedily.
It is a mess downstairs. Mostly broken glass, though, and a few crooked chairs. Their footsteps crunch like they're walking on snow's evil cousin, and to their dismay Tifa is still crying quietly--enough so they can't hear her until they're at the foot of the stairs. She's behind the bar, but they can't see her.
"Cloud?" Yuffie whispers, looking for bloodstains and a broken, spiky-haired, glass-ridden corpse lying somewhere. "Are you alive, man?"
"Yeah," Cloud answers softly, also from behind the counter. "Here."
A peep over the bar reveals him with an arm around Tifa. Those little cuts on Cloud's face are still bleeding slowly, but it must not be that important as he's letting Tifa stifle her sobs in his shirt.
"Okay, well, I think I'll just leave you two alone," Yuffie says, and then remembers: "Wait--hang on!" She digs into her pocket and brings out a freshly glowing Cure materia, while informing Cloud bluntly, "Your face is kind of bloody."
"Thanks," Cloud says absently, taking it with about as much attention as signing the last of a large stack of papers.
"We're going to clear up the glass so no one falls on their face and puts an eye out," Cid declares, while opening a closet. He throws a broom at Yuffie in a gratingly expert manner. "Sweep, ninja. I ain't doing all the grunt work!"
"But Ci-id--" Yuffie whines, before Tifa pops into her head again. The ninja changes track quickly. "Aren't there two brooms in the closet?"
"Just start!" Barret grumps. As Cid and Yuffie obediently start, the man moves over to the counter and addresses Tifa quietly. "Tifa." She doesn't look up, but she does stop sniffling, sort of. "Once we're done here I'm going to take Denzel and Marlene and the rest out to eat. You want us to wait for you?"
Tifa thinks, and then answers timidly, "I think we'll catch up... Me and Cloud."
"Okay. You do that."
It doesn't take an awful long time to clean up, so when Yuffie creeps upstairs to inform the gang that their young, fearless, occasionally schizophrenic leader isn't dead and they're all going out to eat somewhere else, Cloud and Tifa are still behind the bar holding each other, though no one chances a look at them. And when the rest of the AVALANCHE gang leaves quietly, Yuffie listens at the window for a few seconds; but even before Barret snaps at her to hurry up she doesn't hear a single sound.
Just a small, bright flash of the Cure materia working its magic on Cloud's face... and silence.
Yuffie wonders on a whim if they're going to screw each other senseless after this, then kicks herself mentally. Bad, bad Yuffie! Emotional turmoil does not good foreplay make!
"I'm sorry I threw things at you," Tifa whispers in the dark of the bar. They haven't turned on any lights so twilight is creeping up on them mercilessly.
You're only saying that to make me stop throwing things at you!
"It's okay," Cloud replies.
I mean it. I mean it! I'm not going back.
"What makes you think I'm going to believe that?" Tifa grabs the cute blue anonymous smiley-face mug and throws it. "You went to fight Sephiroth and you didn't say that. You were dying and you didn't say that! Why should I believe you?!"
Cloud doesn't answer right away, and she's ignoring the fact that he's just dodged one of her long distance attacks.
"Tifa!" For a man, Cloud has got a soft voice. It's way too easy to overpower him.
"You always, always leave!" There goes another glass mug for the customers. Tifa wonders in the back of her head if anyone will have anything left to drink out of when (if) she stops throwing them. "You always leave and you always make a stop at her church, so just go back! Go back!"
"I'm not going back. I'm telling the truth."
Tifa feels for the next one without looking at it and the mug feels disturbingly small in her hand. A glance down reveals the purple mug, her favorite, with a yellow flower painted on the side. Marlene had made it one day for Denzel, but he hadn't liked it much for some reason so it ended up being Tifa's birthday gift the next week. And... hadn't she loved that.
(I'm going to drink out of this every day! I promise.)
Tifa puts it down and picks up another one, shaking. Throws the generic, mass-produced mug in Cloud's direction with maybe a quarter of her regular force. It doesn't hit, and it also doesn't break, although there is a large chip in the rim.
"...Why aren't you leaving?" she asks tearily, and sinks to her knees on the floor. As she rocks back to set her back against the wall, Cloud crunches over broken glass to get behind the bar with her and kneels, very close to her.
"Tifa, you remember what you said? You said you wanted to hold on to people so they would know that you cared about them, and it's true. You do that a lot." Against her will Tifa drags her knees up, puts her face in her hands and starts sobbing incoherently while Cloud continues. "You've done that for everyone, especially me and Denzel... and I don't think any of us have ever thanked you for that. So now... I'm going to hold on to you. I'm going to make it so no one can say we didn't try."
"I don't think I can hold on anymore," Tifa whispers, voice half-gone. "I don't see the point. No matter what we do, we'll all die in the end, just like Aerith. It doesn't matter."
"It does matter. It matters because it happens now. Even if you can't do something... you might get somewhere if you try. If you hadn't tried so hard to keep Denzel fighting, he might not have lived to get cured. And you said..." Cloud reaches out to her; she can see it in the crack of light between her face and her hands. "You said you'd hold on to me no matter what. Will you still keep trying, Tifa?"
Tifa lifts her head and manages to stifle her tears, reaching out with a tear-soaked hand to Cloud's gloved one. "I've always tried to reach for you, Cloud." So when Cloud puts his arms around her, she wonders if this... if this is how other people feel when she takes care of them. Because she can't remember, honestly can't remember a single point in her life when she was the one taken care of without magic to compress the healing into a few seconds.
"This is how I feel when I'm with you," Cloud remarks. To anyone else it would sound like a humungous coincidence that this random sentence answered a question she asked silently, but...
This is when Tifa cries and can't stop crying, because she's finally, finally, finally... reached...