Author's Note: The following takes place shortly after the events of Advent Children and 'Shadow of Fate'.
Sector Five, Midgar…
The square was alive with activity when Tifa arrived. Those who saw her greeted her arrival with broad smiles. She smiled back, knowing full well the reactions were for the food she brought. Still, it didn't bother her. The joy at seeing everyone pitching in with the church's restoration was worth taking over delivery duties.
This joy ebbed only slightly as thoughts of why she had been running around Midgar and Edge came to mind. After the incident with Kadaj, Cloud had finally let go of the sadness weighing him down. He spent more time at the bar with her, Marlene and Denzel, and had been an enthusiastic supporter of the church's restoration. Yet something had come over him again, driving him away from those who loved him best. The workers who stopped by to have a drink told her how Cloud stayed on site long after the others had gone. Tifa wanted to believe it was simply dedication that kept him overdue. Long familiarity with Cloud's moods prevented her from doing so.
People clamored around her, happily accepting the cartons of food she handed out. Among them was Marlene, her face bright as she pushed her way through. "Tifa!" she enthused, sidestepping an adolescent boy who had just taken his lunch, "come see the flowers I planted!"
"All right, all right," she replied, smiling indulgently. The little girl beamed and skipped away to wait. The last carton handed out, Tifa returned the empty box to the truck before joining Marlene. They grasped hands and walked, threading their way through the crowd.
The restoration was coming along nicely. Wreckage that had spilled over from when Meteor ransacked the Upper Plate had been cleared away, allowing for the workers to plant trees. Marlene led Tifa down a raked dirt strip that would one day become a paved walkway, beneath the shade of a recently planted tree and into the church.
Tifa could not help but gasp. The last time she had been here, most of the floor had been submerged. Now it had been constructed into a pond, with an arched footbridge connecting one side to the large flowerbed beyond. It was set upon a raised mound of dirt circled by flat stones, bordered by two arbors wreathed in colorful flowers.
"I can't believe how different it looks in here," she breathed, following Marlene across the bridge and under the arbor.
"Do you think she'd like it?" Marlene asked, glancing over her shoulder questioningly.
Tifa's smile was soft. "I know she would."
Marlene beamed, then gestured Tifa to hurry. The little girl led her around the main part of the flowerbed, nearly twice the size as the one Aerith tended when she was alive, and stopped in front of a smaller one. Instead of boasting a riot of blossoms, this garden featured only a handful. Each bloom was of a different species and color, and while Tifa did not understand its significance, she sensed this was a private tribute.
"Are these some of Aerith's favorite flowers?" she asked, kneeling down to stroke the smooth petal of an orange blossom.
"Un-uh," Marlene responded. She inspected the dirt around a flower's base, then reached for the watering can nearby. "Papa wanted to make a memory garden," she explained as she poured water over the soil. She placed the can down, puffed up her chest, lowered her brows and said, "So we don' ever forget all the ones who died," in a fairly good impression of her stepfather.
Tifa smiled, able to hear Barret stating such a thing. Originally born from a sense of guilt over all the innocents killed during their reactor-bombing days, Barret had decided the best way to make amends was to always remember them. "Who are all the flowers honoring?"
"Biggs, Wedge and Jessie," Marlene said, indicating a trio of orange ones. "And this one is for Aerith," she added, watering the pink rose.
"And these?" Tifa asked, looking to the green, blue and violet ones.
"Yuffie, Cid and Zack," Marlene answered. At Tifa's gasp the little girl furrowed her brow. "Do you know who they are?"
Tifa didn't respond right away. Her mind flashed back to the last time she had seen Zack. It was just past midnight when she spotted them both at the Sector 7 train station. He had been dragging Cloud with him, and while the former was filthy and exhausted, Cloud looked haggard. Tifa, at remembering who Zack was, gladly offered them a place to stay. Zack had only spent one night, insisting he had to get to Wutai to check on something. What he did not say, though he had flashed her a winning smile and promised he'd be back to check on his friend. But he had not returned.
As for Cid and Yuffie, their loss was harder to bear. She had not seen either since the bizarre events that followed the Lifestream and Holy merging to repel Meteor. It was as if they had been swallowed up by the resulting light. Vincent, she noted, had been particularly upset.
The sound of someone calling Marlene's name spared Tifa from explaining about Cid and Yuffie. Both turned to see Denzel approaching, his cheeks smeared with streaks of paint and hair mussed. But his eyes were bright as he greeted them. "Reeve brought the new benches from Kalm," he explained, correctly reading Tifa's questioning look. "Did you want to paint one with me?" he asked Marlene.
She nodded and set down the can. "You coming, Tifa?"
"Sure," she replied, smiling. She rose to her feet and turned. "Let's go."
The children went ahead first, fueled by the tireless energy of the young, and vanished through the doorway. Tifa went to follow when she glimpsed a slender figure pass by the fractured stained glass window. Though she had only seen it but briefly, the shape of the hair and dark clothing was unmistakable.
Curiosity and concern hastening her pace, Tifa exited the church. She passed the children busy painting the benches, Reeve supervising, and rounded the side. Cloud slipped from sight again, this time ducking around the back. When Tifa arrived, she found him sitting on a pile of wooden girders, his shoulders hunched, hands dangling between his knees. She hesitated a moment, wondering if he would be in the mood to answer any questions, before the simple fact he had not avoided her spurned her on. "I haven't seen you by the bar lately," she began quietly. "Is something bothering you?"
Cloud took his time answering, but she expected that. He always found it difficult to express what he truly felt. This vulnerability only made her care for him all the more. "Tifa," he murmured, his eyes downcast, "can you feel her here?"
"All the time," she answered, moving a little closer and contemplating sitting beside him. He looked so forlorn. "Why do you ask?"
"Because…" he trailed off, wringing his hands together.
Tifa chose that moment to sit down. She extended her hand, wanting to give his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "Because?" she prompted gently.
Cloud bowed his head. "I saw her."
"I saw her," he repeated, more forcefully this time. "When we brought the children here to be cured. And Zack…he was with her too."
Tifa fell silent. Wanting to be tender of his feelings over her passing, still she could not help but say, "Maybe you were just imagining things."
"I thought that too," he admitted. "But I keep seeing them both. Every time I'm here I see visions. It's like…" he sighed and shook his head. "Like they're trying to talk to me. Tell me something."
"Cloud…" Tifa ventured uneasily, not sure of what else to say.
He abruptly stood. "I know what it sounds like," he said, running his hand through his hair in frustration. "I just can't stop thinking that they're together somewhere, waiting for me. Tifa," he turned to face her, beseeching her with his eyes, "what if they are?"
"I don't know," she confessed sadly. "Zack disappeared. Maybe he was in Midgar when Meteor hit. And we both saw what Sephiroth did to Aerith," she added, regretting the pain that shone in his eyes. "I just don't see how it's possible."
Cloud hung his head. "I can't stop thinking that it is," he whispered. Tifa reached for his hand, thankful he gripped it tightly. A long moment passed between them before he spoke again. "You know about the rumors of that strange doorway in Wutai, right?"
She nodded. "Vincent said Rufus wanted to sent a team of scientists to investigate it. Everyone says it will take you into another world." Her brow furrowed. "Are you thinking of going up there to see if it's true?"
"Yes," he said forthrightly. He looked anywhere but at her. "I have to see if it's true. Any of it."
Tifa focused on their clasped hands and bit her lip. She wanted to dismiss Cloud's notions as wishful thinking, but found she could not. Especially not in the face of the surety in his eyes, the underlying determination in his tone. "All right," she said at last. "Go to Wutai, but take me with you." When he glanced down at her in mild surprise she sent him a warm smile. "I told you once that we'd meet her together, remember?"
The smile that touched Cloud's face melted her heart. The next instant he had pulled her to her feet, their hands still linked. "Together," he repeated, grateful. When he squeezed her hand Tifa knew right then and there that whether or not the rumor was true, she would follow him no matter where he went. She wasn't going to let him go alone again.