This won't be a long story, maybe a two or three shot. I just wanted to get a second VII fic up.

Never Left

Chapter 1

Tifa's eyes popped open at the sound of a door slamming. She sat up and grabbed her gloves from the beside. The bar had closed a couple hours ago, and she looked down at her watch. Just past midnight. She slipped her gloves on and moved into the hall, listening. There a clinking of glass from downstairs. She moved to the stairs and careful tiptoed down them. She'd run 7th Heaven for eight years after coming to Midgar and had run this new bar ever since it existed. And she hadn't ever had a single burglary. Time to show this one why.

Tifa paused and pressed herself against the wall of the stairs, listening to the footsteps moving about the room. They came closer, and she spun around the corner. Gloved fists shot out and the victim cried out, stumbling back as they made contact with his face. Glass crashed to the floor and Tifa spun and delivered a kick to his chest, knocking him back to land on a table. The wood cracked and collapsed, and Tifa turned on the light behind the bar.

"Cloud?" she gasped.

"Uh huh?" the man asked, groaning and turning onto his stomach.

"Oh my god, I'm so sorry!" she cried, running to help him up. She slipped on something on the way and looked at what it was. A beer. So that explained the glass rattle. "You okay?" she asked, taking Cloud's hand and pulling him to his feet.

"No," Cloud coughed, collapsing back on a barstool. "Shit, Teef…" Cloud pulled up his shirt and looked down at the red flesh covering his chest. "That's gonna make a nice bruise," he mused. Tifa blushed at the sight and moved behind the bar.

"Sorry, I thought you were a burglar," she explained, grabbing him another beer and a bottle of painkillers from under the counter.

"Well, trust me…" Cloud replied, wincing as he rubbed his sore jaw. He put a finger on his lip and pulled it back. The tip of his glove was red. "If I was, I'd be running.: Tifa smiled as best she could and slid the objects across the counter. Cloud popped the painkillers open and slipped three into his mouth before taking a long drink.

"Wutai Head Slayers and alcohol. Nothing chases pain away faster," she said, trying to make light of the situation. Barret had joked once she could kick Cloud's ass in a fight, but she hadn't thought it would ever be true. Then again, he wasn't ready for her.

"So I see," Cloud nodded. "Is that because the pills work well, or the drink?"

"Does it matter?" Tifa shrugged. Cloud conceded her point and took another drink. "So what were you doing coming here in the middle of the night?" Tifa asked, remembering when she had woken up.

"Came to get a drink, got my ass handed to me instead," Cloud sighed, rubbing his forehead. "And a headache to boot."

"I said I was sorry," Tifa grimaced. "Go upstairs and lay down, a good night's sleep will do you good. The last time I remember you sleeping was when you had Geostigma, and that was just passing out."

"No thanks, not tired," Cloud shook his head. "Gotta head back out by morning anyway."

"So the plan was to sneak into the bar, grab a couple beers and leave while I was asleep?" Tifa scolded. "I don't think so."

"Well what else would you have me do?" Cloud asked.

"Stick around? Barret's coming by tomorrow, he found another oil geyser and is celebrating. Rufus bought the location info from him. Seems Shin-Ra really is starting back up. Hopefully they've learned their lesson," Tifa supplied.

"I doubt it," Cloud snorted. "Remember Teef, it was Rufus that went after Jenova's head in the first place. You think he had good interests at heart when he did that?" Tifa didn't have a response. Come to think of it, he was right. Kadaj had found the head conveniently enough with Rufus during their battle a few months ago. She hadn't taken the time to consider how Rufus got his hands on it.

"Well…come on, just stay. Visit. Remember before Meteor, we spent all sorts of time together. You, me, Barret, Aer-" Tifa cut herself off as Cloud's expression fell.

"Yeah, I remember," he said, setting his half-finished beer on the counter. "That's the problem," he finished, standing up.

"Wait, Cloud!" Tifa protested. He opened the door and paused.

"I'll stop by tomorrow…if I remember," he said, stepping outside. Tifa sighed as the door swung shut behind him. That was the first time she'd seen him in weeks and she had barely said hello.

- - - - - - - - - -

"It's nothing, you know what he's like," Barret rolled his eyes. Tifa nodded and went back to picking up playing cards from the floor. It was two in the afternoon, before the noon rush and before the evening rush. Barret had come by just as the drunkards were filing out a half hour ago. "Don't let it get to you."

"Easy for you to say, you're usually not here when he stops by," Tifa replied. "You don't have to see what he looks like when he leaves."

"Yeah, I guess," Barret admitted. "So what set him off this time?"

"I did," Tifa sighed, standing up and slapping the half-missing set of cards on the table. Their owner would likely be back that night for them. "I told him to hang out with us like we used to, him, me, you and…" Barret nodded.

"And…I'm guessing you didn't stop yourself soon enough?" he finished.

"No," Tifa shook her head. "I tried, but…she slipped out."

"That foo ain't ever gonna get his head on right is he?" Barret laughed. "It's always something with him."

"I'm trying Barret, but he makes it so hard. Every time I think I'm getting through to him, something happens and I end up watching his back move away from me," she explained.

"It's like I told ya girl, just be there for him. That's all any of us can do," Barret said, leaving back on his stool.

"It'd be a lot easier to be there for him if he'd be here at all," Tifa snorted, grabbing a cloth from the counter and starting to wipe down the tables. "I'm trying to help him, but he doesn't seem to want help. I just don't know what he wants."

"Yeah ya do, and that's the problem. He wants something no one can give 'im," Barret corrected. "You can't be Aeris, Tifa, you just gotta be you. Cloud'll come around. Just give him time."

"I've given him almost two and a half goddamn years!" Tifa shouted, throwing her head back. "What am I supposed to do? You told me that same thing last year, and the year before that. I'm giving him time and he's getting worse."

"Ah…I ain't so good at this stuff," Barret shrugged. "That's all I got. Some people just don't get over death."

"I got over Nibelheim, you got over Biggs, Wedge and Jessie," Tifa reminded.

"Yeah, but we…ya know…we were just friends," Barret said. Tifa flinched. "Okay, that came out wrong," Barret scrambled

"I know…I know…" Tifa sighed. "It's just…if I could, I'd do anything for him…I love him Barret. And I can't help but wonder if he'll ever notice…or maybe he notices and just doesn't care," She lowered her head as Barret stood up and wrapped an arm around her shoulder in a half hug.

"Ey, you know that ain't true, a'ight?" he frowned, lifting her head up. "Cloud cares about all of us. I hope he don't, love us or anything…that'd just be weird." Barret faked a shiver, and Tifa giggled. "Ah c'mon girl, I told you I ain't good at this."

"Well I'm not so hot either," Tifa sniffed.

"You're a fine catch. Now if Cloud pulls that spiky Chocobo head out of his ass someday and sees that, I know you could make him happy," Barret said. "And if he doesn't…well, I got nothing to say 'bout that."

"Neither do I," Tifa nodded. "Thanks." She smiled up at him and he pulled away.

"Hey, don't go makin' me soft!" he warned. Tifa laughed as he sat down.

"Wouldn't dream of it," she replied. The door opened, and the two looked up. "Cloud!"

"Hey spiky!" Barret cried, standing up. "I'd give ya a noogie but I don't wanna get cut."

"Ha ha," Cloud flashed a halfhearted smile.

"I wasn't sure if you were going to show up," Tifa said as he sat down at the bar.

"I said I would if I remembered," he shrugged.

"Yeah, and nothing escapes your memory does it?" Barret teased. Cloud didn't respond this time.

"How is your chest?" Tifa asked. Cloud leaned back and pulled his shirt up.

"Nice color. I think I've seen flowers that shade of purple," Barret grinned. "You do good work girl." Tifa smiled sheepishly as Cloud let his shirt fall back.

"So, I heard you found oil," Cloud started blankly. Tifa turned and opened the minifridge, pulling out a sandwich and handing it to him.

"Yup, out around the Mythril Mines," Barret stated proudly. "Well, close to them at least, not near the goddamn swamp anyway."

"No fighting then?" Cloud asked.

"Hell no, damn snakies were bad enough two years ago with all you guys around. I ain't going back there," Barret shook his head. "Naw, this place is a little south of that, a little ways north of Chocobo Billy's. And I talked to Rufus."

"You mentioned that, and said something else," Tifa mused. "Something about Midgar?"

"Yeah. Rufus and Reeve were talking, and Reeve thinks they could finagle one of the surviving Mako reactors in Midgar to run on oil," Barret nodded. "And this oil patch is close enough to supply Edge and Kalm, or to employ them. If we can get a workforce together and get drilling, we might be able to charge up the reactor and get it running."

"So what's that mean?" Cloud asked, poking the plastic wrap over the bread and ham Tifa had given him.

"It means, spiky, that if we can get that reactor running on oil, we'll have enough power for Edge and then some!" Barret laughed. "We could expand the damn place faster, the coal plant's at full capacity and you remember what Midgar was like on Mako juice. If we can produce even a fraction o' that with oil reactors…"

"That's great news!" Tifa smiled. "Are Rufus and Reeve keeping you involved?"

"Ah, Rufus weren't too happy 'bout it, but Reeve says he wants me around when they start drilling. He used to work for Rufus, he knows what kind of tricks he'd pull if he didn't have us around watching his ass, kicking it when we thought it was needed."

"Reeve…he's the one who got the parts for the city, right?" Cloud said aloud. Tifa watched him with a frown. Once again he was treating what should have been a happy reunion of friends like a chore. He was making himself into a voyeur.

"Yeah, WRO or something," Barret nodded. "He's talking about a new place to the southern edge of town but he needs volunteers to-"

"So Cloud, how have you been doing?" Tifa interrupted. Barret gave her a confused look, and Tifa jerked her head at Cloud. Barret turned. Cloud took a slow bite of his snack and kept his head low.

"Fine, I guess…" he mumbled. Barret rolled his eyes.

"Really, because you look like something Cait Sith dragged off the street," he countered. Tifa smiled. Cloud shrugged.

"Just…been busy…travelling…"

"You're a delivery boy, and I handle the orders," Tifa scolded. "If anything you're not busy because whenever someone calls, I have to tell them to wait to place their order because I don't know when I'll see you next."

"You run the bar. You're fine," Cloud said. "Besides, I was the one getting paid for the deliveries, and I don't use the money for anything."

"Gotta gas up that bike o' yours," Barret reminded.

"Yeah, and that sets me back a lot," Cloud snorted.

"Oh no, we're out of draft lite!" Tifa forced a laugh. "I gotta go down the street and place an order with the supplier!" Tifa headed for the door, and Barret's eyes went wide. "You two keep each other company, I'll be back." Tifa glared at Barret over Cloud's head and mouthed 'talk to him'. Barret held up his heads and opened his mouth to mouth something back, but the door was already closing. Barret groaned and slumped back into his seat. The two men sat in silence for a moment, Barret looking up and watching the Chocobo and Moogle hands on the clock over the bar.

"So, uh…spiky…get in any good fights lately?" he asked.

"Not really. The bike scares off most of the monsters out there, the only ones that aren't afraid I just drive around," Cloud supplied, biting his sandwich again.

"You keep eating at that speed, you'll be having that thing for breakfast," Barret said. Cloud didn't reply. "Um…that sword thing you got now, that ain't the Buster Sword, or one of the ones we found two years ago. What's it called again?"

"First Tsurugi."

"Right. That's a good weapon. I'll bet there's a story behind it," Barret prodded.

"I guess. Maybe," Cloud shrugged.

"How about telling me how you found it?"

"Just picked it up somewhere. Nowhere important."

Barret grimaced. This wasn't working.

"Hey, can I say somethin' to you without you leaving?"

"Go ahead," Cloud said. Barret took a breath. Here goes.

"She ain't comin' back!" he blurted. Cloud's face clouded over and he stood up. "Hey, sit down!" Barret yelled, standing up and pushing him back down by the shoulder. "I'm sorry, spiky, I really am, but come on. It's been over two years, almost three!"

"Two years, nine months and eight days," Cloud muttered. Barret whistled low.

"Well, a'ight yeah. But hey…" he forced himself to be softer. "We all miss Aeris, spiky. She was a friend to all of us."

"She wasn't to me and you know it," Cloud replied.

"Yeah, but spiky…." Barret struggled for the words. "I know, I get it. How do you think I felt when Corel got destroyed? It hurts, they're gone and it ain't right. But you gotta move on. I miss Corel and I miss Myrna, but you can't dwell on the past. If Aeris were here she'd say the same."

"It's not the same!" Cloud protested. "She's…she's gone, but…"

"Well, she's not gone," Barret shrugged. "She's just, with the Lifestream or something."

"And that's the problem!" Cloud shouted, surprising Barret. Cloud settled down and closed his eyes. "I keep seeing her, Barret…when we fought Bahamut SIN…she was there."

"What are you sayin' spiky?" Barret asked, confused.

"I saw her…she helped me break through his attack and beat him," Cloud explained. "And when I was at the church after Sephiroth….she was at the doors with Zack." Cloud lifted his head and turned to Barret. "I saw her Barret. She was there, she was…alive." Cloud's fists tightened as he stared at the ground.

"She's out there somewhere…living, dead, I don't care anymore. She still exists somehow, and I can't get to her. I looked everywhere, I even hopped a ship north and checked out the crater…"

"The crater?" Barret cried. "With all those monsters, not to mention what happened there? Are you nuts?"

"Maybe," Cloud admitted. "Barret…even if it's only in the Lifestream, Aeris is out there somewhere. I'd do anything to get to her, even just…there's so much I want to tell her, that I never got the chance to…and if I could just see her for a minute…but I can't. I can't find her, but I know she's there…you have no idea what that's like."

"You're right…I don't…" Barret nodded. "Look, we know all about the Lifestream and Mako and that. Who knows, maybe she's there, but she's not alive if she is."

"And we all know that once you're in the Lifestream, there's no coming back," Cloud muttered darkly. "That's what got me thinking. If Sephiroth found a way to come back…maybe I could find a way for her to."

"Well, you got me there," Barret sighed. "Spiky, Cloud…if it keeps you going, then I ain't gonna tell you no. But hey…don't get your hopes up."

"Hope is all I have anymore," Cloud replied.

"Now you know that ain't true," Barret scowled. "We're all here for you Cloud, anytime."

"I know," Cloud nodded. "And, um…I was gonna go, but…my bike is low on gas."

"Ah, well you should do more work," Barret grumbled, reaching into his pocket. "Let's see…here." Barret held out a hundred-gil note. "That enough?"

"That's fine," Cloud nodded, taking the bill. "Thanks. For everything, I mean."

"Don't worry your spiky little head over it," Barret laughed. "Just stop by the oil patch sometime and say hi." Cloud nodded and walked outside. He pulled out the keys for Fenrir and slid them into the keyhole. He looked down at the bill Barret had given him and rolled it out to slid it into his pocket. Something small and white fluttered to the ground from inside the note. Cloud frowned and picked it up. It was a piece of paper, with an address and a name written on it. Cloud studied it for a moment, and gasped softly.

"Look, we know all about the Lifestream and Mako and that…"

"Mako…" Cloud whispered, staring at the paper. The Lifestream. Mako. They were basically the same thing, weren't they? Cloud didn't know entirely. But he knew someone who would...

Cloud set his face in stone and pulled down his goggles. Sliding the paper into his pocket along with the gil, he revved Fenrir and drove down the street, zooming past a returning Tifa who spun to watch him turn the corner.