1He could barely see out of the corners of his eyes the white trees that passed him by as he ran through the forest. He barely registered the echoes of the voices of his friends, chasing after him as they made their way out of woods and into the deserted city. He was running fast, faster than any of them, but he felt like he was in slow motion. Yet, his surroundings were whizzing past him. His breaths, ragged and heaving, came out a little slower. His heart was beating hard, and he could hear it so clearly in his head. He felt like he barely moved, yet he couldn't remember for the life of him what he had just passed by. Only when he stopped in the pathway in the Capital, no longer knowing where to go, did everything seem to return to normal.
At least, everything but the pulsing panic in his gut and heart.
Where was she..?
Brown-red eyes opened with a sudden start, still caught in between sleep and awake. Blinking to clear out the fog in her mind, Tifa sat up slowly. She couldn't pin just what woke her up all of a sudden. She glanced around the room and, when she sensed nothing off, considered checking up on Marlene and Denzel when she heard shuffling and muttered whispers next to her.
They had searched everywhere. Every building they had seen, that wasn't already completely wrecked, was searched. They shouted her name; they clambered and checked every place they had found that she could have been in, or in some cases under. Tired from the searching and walking, they laid down to rest in an abandoned home. After they had rested, the panic rose when Cloud could sense him.
Sephiroth was in the Forgotten City with them. And she was still missing...
"Aerith... where are you?"
And the frantic search continued.
No wonder she had been woken up. Cloud was turning about a bit, and muttering to himself, but she couldn't make out what he was saying, and the turning about hadn't turned into thrashing. At least, not yet.
She placed a hand on his arm, gently squeezing it in an unacknowledged assurance. He couldn't feel it, she was sure, but perhaps in that instance, she needed the reassurance too. He kept shifting and turning, and his muttering became a little louder. Unsure of what he was dreaming about, Tifa bent in, and listened closely. At first she couldn't make out anything, but eventually, his words became coherent.
She could have sworn he kept murmuring Aerith's name.
They hadn't gone down the middle path. From what they were able to tell earlier, it didn't seem to lead to anything. However, when they finally did venture down, for lack of better idea, they found a spiral staircase, which winded down into darkness. It was the only place they hadn't gone, and his gut was telling him to go down. With only courage and Nanaki's glowing tail to lead them, they descended down into the depths...
She should have known better. His unsettled movements became more agitated, and she could tell that whatever he was dreaming was turning into a nightmare, if it hadn't been already. She gripped his shoulder, and tried shaking him. "Cloud..."
She looked so pure. It was the first thought that came to his mind as he saw her, kneeling in that altar, praying. In a way, she seemed so innocent and good, praying earnestly for something that, at that time, he did not understand. But at that time, it didn't matter. All he was concerned about was her safety.
Seeing her there, he was filled with relief, but the adrenaline kick was still in his system. As long as Sephiroth was around, no one was safe, especially her. She who said she was the only who could stop Sephiroth. He hurried over to her, making the short jumps over the stepping stones to the altar.
The overwhelming feeling that had come over him should have been his first warning that something was very wrong. And it was. Despite his attempts to stop it, he could feel his arms reach back and grab his sword. He couldn't stop them from lifting up, sword in tow, and pose a deadly strike over Aerith's head...
"Cloud! What are you doing?!"
It was only Tifa who snapped him out of it. He staggered back, so relieved yet so angry at the same time. That son of a bitch nearly...
Her smile. He was a bit surprised at seeing it, considering that he had nearly killed her. Had she known? Her smile was so comforting, so assuring. He nearly smiled back, and the panic in him began to subside. Aerith was all right. They just had to get her out of there and then-
He never saw him coming.
He was thrashing about like mad, and Tifa pressed her entire weight on top of him, trying to keep him from knocking something over, injuring her, or injuring himself. "Cloud!!" She yelled, using all of her strength to pin him down as she tried to wake him. She could no longer use her arms to try and shake him out of the dream. "Cloud! Wake up!"
He barely registered Aerith collapsing into him, after Sephiroth pulled his sword out of her. The shock was so enormous. He watched in horror as the light faded from her eyes. Her soul was leaving, returning to the Planet. He clutched her tightly against him, as rage, grief, confusion, denial, and desperation coursed through his mind, muddling his thoughts and making him shake.
Sephiroth's words and the battle with Jenova were like a big blur to him... all he could think of was Aerith, who had been lying off to the side during the whole battle, and how he had just watched her die.
Her weight had been a comfort, a sad sort of comfort when he had taken her to be put to rest in the waters surrounding the City. As long as he could feel her, she was still with them, even if her soul had already gone on. So, it was so hard on him, so incredibly hard, to lay her on top of the water's surface. He had retracted his hands hesitantly, and nearly snapped them back out as soon as he had. It took everything in his willpower to watch her sink to the bottom, submerging into the deep void of the water, and out of sight.
Even after he could no longer see her, he continued to look down, and a part of his mind refused to believe what had just happened. She couldn't be dead. This couldn't have happened. She would come back. She had to.
Why wouldn't she come back?!
It finally did the trick. Cloud awoke with a jolt, his eyes frantic for a few moments as he stiffened, taking in his surroundings as his mind adjusted back to reality. He fought to keep his breathing in check and return it to normal, and forced his body to relax. It was only after that, after he realized it was another nightmare that he felt Tifa's smaller body pressing into his own. His eyes met hers, crazed blue to worried brown, and immediately his face fell. "Tifa.. I'm sorry, I-"
"It's ok." She lifted herself off of him, and helped him sit up. She kept a hand on his back as he continued to try and calm himself, shaking off the remaining remnants of his dream.
"Bad one huh?" She finally asked after a few minutes of silence.
"Yeah. I'm ok." And that, for Tifa, was enough. They didn't like to talk about their dreams in detail. It just resurfaced more painful memories, and occasionally they would lead to another nightmare. That, in turn, would make them afraid to go to sleep and... well, the cycle was vicious, to be sure.
So instead, she only nodded in response. She rubbed his back gently, hoping to help soothe away whatever haunting feelings Cloud still had left. He gave her a small smile in thanks. To most people, it would have been sparse thanks after having been woken up by a thrashing partner, and having to pin them down for what felt like forever. Luckily for Cloud, Tifa was not most people. She knew, like everyone else close to him, how rare his smile was, and to even see a small one was a treasure to her.
She gave him one of her own small, albeit more frequent, smiles. "Well, maybe we-"
"Tifa." He cut her off, but Tifa said nothing of it as she waited for him to continue, looking at him intently. The smile he wore was gone, replaced by one of his deeper frowns.
"I.... I thought I had let this go. But it still haunts me."
"I have nightmares about it too sometimes. How many times have I woken you up because of it? There's a difference between being haunted and feeling guilty over something like that. I think we're all going to be haunted for a long time by it. Yuffie even told me once that she occasionally had nightmares about it. She didn't even know Aerith that well." She sighed. "You know... I don't think we'll ever stop being haunted by what happened. None of us will."
"Neither do I." Cloud stretched back, arching his back and stretching his legs, before relaxing his body again. "But you know..." He reached out, gently grasping Tifa as he pulled her closer, cradling her against his body as he leaned back against the headboard. He was in need of comfort. "I think I can live with it. It could have been worse. We could have lost a lot more people, lost any of the others and... I could have lost you." He rested his head on top of hers. "That would have done it for me."
She rested her head against his chest, nestling it right underneath his chin. "I'm glad we didn't lose you either. You're right. It could have gone a lot worse. In a lot of ways, considering what we went up against, we're sort of lucky we only lost one person." She shifted against him, chewing on her lower lip slightly. "I feel so guilty saying that. It sounds like I'm minimizing her death or something."
"You're not. We're not. If we thought that little of it, we wouldn't be having these nightmares. And... I think she would understand. She wouldn't want us mulling over it like this." He knew this for sure. After all, even in death, Aerith still helped him out during the whole Kadaj incident a few months earlier. If he could derive anything from what happened, it was that Aerith was not only in a better place, but she was not happy with his guilt trip, and she only wanted him to be happy and move on. That much he knew, and he knew she would be scolding them, most likely, if she knew that they were sitting there, fretting over something like that.
He kissed her forehead, scooching down the headboard a bit as he reached past Tifa, grabbing the blankets. She smiled as she helped him spread the blankets over each other until they were both pretty well covered. She stretched out against him, trying to find a position a little more comfortable. She kept shifting until she finally felt comfortable, and with a contented sigh, closed her eyes to go back to sleep.
Nothing more was needed to be said between the two: their relationship was one more based around actions and expression, not words. She supposed it came with the territory, considering that her lover was a man very well known for being one of few words, and who always had a bit of trouble expressing himself emotionally. But that was fine with her. She took, and loved him, for it, and as long as they got across and communicated what they needed to, than words weren't even necessary.
He wasn't sure when he had fallen asleep. He only remembered softly stroking Tifa's hair, listening to her breathing and feeling her chest rise and fall against his. Somewhere during that, he had drifted off.
He frowned slightly when, as he shifted his back, pain shot through it. It was to be expected though, when one decided to fall asleep in a half sitting, half slouching position. It was uncomfortable, and annoying. However, seeing Tifa lay against him, looking so peaceful and content in her sleep, it made the pain worth it.
And as Cloud looked out the window, seeing the tints of red and yellow heralding the rising sun, he realized that that was what was important. The fact that he lived another day to feel pain, to be able to see Tifa, and just being alive, was what counted. It was why, or at least partially why, he had felt so guilty over Aerith and Zack's deaths. They were robbed of that, of being able to see the sunrise, hear children laughing, or to be able to be with their friends. In a way, he would always feel terrible, knowing that they no longer were able to enjoy life.
Yet, he would continue to honor their memories, and live out his and Zack's lives, just like he promised. It was the least he could do. To keep on living, and to live life to the fullest. It was what they would want.
He pulled Tifa closer to him, and smiled knowingly.
Maybe, later that day, he would give the others a call.