Disclaimer: I don't own any of the characters or situations depicted in FFVII, FFX or FFX-2; Square Enix has that distinct pleasure.
A/N: What if time within the Lifestream/afterlife flows differently than in 'real time'? This post-Advent Children AR premise has probably been done half a bazillion times already, but the bunny had extremely sharp teeth.
FFVII supposedly takes place on a planet in a galaxy far, far away, but since the featured weapons include katana, shuriken and zanbato, I've included a few Japanese cultural riffs in this plot just for the fun of it.
Bouquets to my patient and detail-oriented betas, Ranuel and SilverOnTheRose.
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The first thing he sees when he stands upright in the shallow pool is a large vase, overflowing with an even larger arrangement of flowers. That gives him pause, and he looks around more carefully. Instead of toppled columns and destroyed pews, the nave of the church is empty except for four benches arranged facing the water. What remains of the floor is swept, and there's that giant, slightly-wilted floral bouquet which looks uncannily like a grave offering. Slogging over to the edge, he heaves himself up onto the smooth wooden planks and assesses his surroundings.
The brilliant sunshine flooding the nave is also somehow wrong, he decides. It's pure and clean - completely lacking the metallic tang of mako pollution or the dark taint of Sephiroth's malaise. Sitting and dripping, he considers this difference along with his next move. He's surprised to find the place deserted, since he was sure Aerith would somehow let their friends know where to greet him. Standing up, he wrings the water out of his clothing, then sits down on one of the benches to dump out his boots. His sword is missing and that bothers him, but he can't remember having it in his hand while he was 'over there'. His empty harness is heavy against his back, a comforting weight, and he hopes the others retrieved his weapon from the Shinra Tower. Taking off his gloves, he gives them a squeeze and tucks them into his belt before running his hands through his hair and shaking droplets from his fingertips. Wiping his face, he blinks his eyelashes free of residual wet and decides he might as well take a look around outside.
The bright light immediately warms his bare arms as he steps outside the building, and he watches water vapour wisp off his sweater. Squinting against the sun, he frowns; the piles of rubble seem smaller, tidier and set further back from the church than he remembers. Puzzled, he collects himself and descends the stairs, then winds his way through the tumbled piles of steel, glass and concrete until he comes across a work crew dressed in WRO coveralls. They're sitting in the shade of their vehicles taking a lunch break, judging by the position of the sun – but didn't he battle Sephiroth later in the day? Giving his head a shake, he strides towards the workmen, intending to ask for the loan of a cell phone since his must still be taking calls at the Forgotten City... until he remembers that he's never bothered to learn 7th Heaven's phone number, instead relying on Tifa to contact him.
A couple of the men glance his way, then do double-takes, their eyes widening and their jaws dropping. Their buddies notice and silence falls over the group as he approaches.
"Any chance I could hitch a ride into Edge?" he asks, wondering why they're staring.
One of them stops gaping and queries in a hushed tone, "You're... Cloud Strife?"
"Yeah," he replies curtly, not deliberately trying to sound unfriendly, but their interest is unsettling and he just wants to go home.
One grey-haired gawker, the supervisor by the look of it, crams what's left of his sandwich into his mouth while fumbling in his pocket. Retrieving a handful of keys, he chews and swallows hastily, saying, "I can give you a lift, Mr. Strife," and that seems to break the stasis. All of a sudden, the crew is breaking out cell phones and snapping pictures, and that both irritates and confuses him, because since when did cell phones have cameras? However, he ignores them in favour of following the supervisor to his truck.
Once in the cab, the geezer asks, "You hungry?" and when Cloud nods, he's tossed a sandwich that's obviously been made by the guy's wife or daughter because there's little squiggly moogles printed all over the wrapper, but he doesn't comment, just starts to eat and discovers that he's ravenous. The geezer offers a bottle of water when he's wolfed down the food. Grinning sheepishly, he nods his thanks and drains the bottle. After that, they sit in silence, even though Cloud can tell the old guy is dying to ask questions because of the way he keeps sneaking looks at him out of the corner of his eye.
They're on the road approaching Edge when the geezer asks if there's someplace specific he wants to be dropped off at, and he gives directions to 7th Heaven. The driver changes lanes and within a minute or two they're zipping down the exit ramp to join the vehicles streaming towards a distant traffic circle with what appears to be a fountain in the centre. Cloud frowns, because he's pretty sure that the Midgar Monument stood there until Bahamut used it for target practice a few hours ago. Construction cranes still clutter Edge's skyline, but there's colourful banners rippling down the facades of buildings and bright pennants snapping in the breeze above the throngs of people who aren't dodging debris as they shop, eat and socialize.
When they reach the traffic circle and careen around its outer lane, Cloud contemplates the cascading fountain throwing rainbows into the air. He wants to ask questions, but he also doesn't want to look like an idiot, so he bites his tongue in favour of asking Marlene later; she'll babble everything he needs to know. As soon as he spots the angel statue that watches over the neighbourhood, he tells the geezer to let him out, that he'll walk from here.
"Should I tell Mr. Tuesti that you're back, Mr. Strife?" the old man asks, obviously bursting to tell someone, but Cloud shakes his head.
"I'm taking a couple of days off," he says as he raises his hand, and starts walking towards the bar. After a block, his sense of unease grows. It's the right street, but it looks... different. He attributes it to this unaccustomed sunshine; everything is brighter and cleaner-looking. Even the girls beckoning from outside the local brothel look fresh. The residents are also wearing more colour than he's used to, and he guesses that he's being stared at because of his dark clothing. After the fourth group reacts like a flock of startled chocobo, he ducks into a side street that he knows leads to the alley running behind 7th Heaven's rear entrance. He's never used the front door of the bar, anyways, and he doesn't really want to walk into the middle of the victory party until he's had a chance to collect himself, because they'll all be several rounds ahead of him and Barret doesn't always know his own strength.
Pushing open the metal gate leading into the small courtyard, he ducks the flapping clothesline and comes to a dead stop when he sees two large flowerpots flanking the kitchen door. Masses of cheerful blooms reach for the sun, spilling over the sides and trailing over the paving stones. He figures that he should remember the pots, since he would've walked between them when he left a few weeks ago, but he can't, and he decides that Tifa must have bought them while he was trying to outrun his personal darkness. Unsettled, he checks the shed, hoping that at least Fenrir was retrieved before they started drinking.
His motorcycle is there, as sleek as ever despite the abuse it suffered. Cloud relaxes a little until he notices small details that don't add up... like the spare tires that used to be in his bedroom now piled over there in the corner and the thin, even film of dust dulling the gleaming bodywork as if the bike's been sitting here for a few days. Sweeping his hand over the leather saddle and the contoured fairing, he contemplates the dirt streaking his palm. Wiping his hands off on his trousers, he presses the toggle to pop Fenrir's hidden compartments. The hydraulics briefly stick before cooperating, the squeal of metal on metal setting his teeth on edge. The multiple weapons racks are empty, and he hopes again that someone recovered his sword. Deciding that the mechanical reluctance is due to battle damage, Cloud makes a mental note to do a complete overhaul and tune-up the next day, because he's sure that Reeve will call as soon as the forty-eight hours are up with an express delivery that'll probably involve a long run through monster-infested territory.
Glancing at his tool chest, he immediately notices that somebody's been messing with his stuff. Not only are the drawers all open, but the wrenches are in the top drawer instead of the third, and the screwdrivers now line up largest to smallest instead of the other way around. Frowning, he can't imagine who would reorganize his tools when the garage is out of bounds to everyone when he's not there. Failing to come up with a reasonable explanation, Cloud exits the shed and crosses the courtyard in search of answers. Tifa will help it all make sense; she's done it before and the part of him that absolutely trusts her is sure that she'll make it all better. Stepping between the unfamiliar pots of flowers, he lets himself into the kitchen. Inhaling the familiar, comforting aromas of Tifa's cooking, his stomach rumbles loudly in response and he finally notices the unexpected silence pervading the building, when he expected it to be practically rocking on its foundations.
Bursting through the swinging doors into the bar proper, he's brought up short by the empty room. The lights are off, the chairs stacked against the walls, the windows shuttered, and he can't quite wrap his head around the differences between this reality and his expectations. He's not terribly social – never has been – but he can't believe that no one's waiting to buy him a drink after he died saving the Planet again. Nameless fear suddenly twists his gut, and he turns, pounding up the stairs to the next floor, his footsteps echoing off the walls. Bypassing his office, he comes to a halt inside the first doorway at the top of the second flight. This is the room where he woke up less than a day before, with Tifa beside him on Marlene's bed and a couple of asshole Turks smirking at him from a safe distance.
There's only one bed, draped with a bright blue cover that he doesn't recognize. Although it's obvious that Denzel is alive and well due to the fresh clutter on every surface, including a desk that looks familiar, Cloud rapidly checks the other doorways until he finds evidence that Marlene has taken over Tifa's room, judging by the frills and ribbons that have sprouted everywhere. The poster of a singing idol he's never seen gives him pause, but the familiar shambles next door in Barret's room is oddly comforting.
One person remains unaccounted for, and he double-checks all the other rooms on the floor. Coming up empty, he heads back down to the first landing. The crookedly-lettered sign declaring 'Strife Delivery Service - Head Office' that Marlene thumb-tacked to his door is curling around the edges, the paper brittle and the ink fading, as if it is several years old instead of merely months. Inside, he's stunned to find a proper bedframe and mattress pushed up against one wall in place of his flimsy cot and his desk is gone, replaced by a bureau topped by a round mirror. The walls have been painted a soft yellow that reminds him of something, but he can't quite put his finger on what. Closing his eyes, he breathes deeply and immediately recognizes Tifa's warm scent. Calmness steals over him... at least until he wonders if she's rearranged the rooms so that they can share a bed tonight. Shuffling his feet, he considers this possibility and finally decides that since he's both forgiven himself and been forgiven for his sins, it's time to move on with his life.
Intending to locate the young woman and show his appreciation of her faith in him, he notices several photographs on her dresser as he turns to leave. He recognizes one of the pictures – it was on his desk – but there's several more he's never seen. His friends and family smile out of the frames, either alone or in pairs or ragtag groups. There's one of Cid and Shera, the pilot grinning toothily, and Cloud nearly keels over in shock when he realizes that there's a baby in Shera's arms and he has absolutely no idea when that happened. Still reeling, he sees another picture of two teenagers and Tifa posing with a man on a sandy shore, and he abruptly goes very still. The teens are Denzel and Marlene, but his brain rejects this assumption on the basis of their ages, even though the lanky youth has Denzel's eyes and the pretty girl smiles exactly like Marlene. Instead he focuses on the tousle-haired stranger standing between them, his arm draped across Tifa's shoulders in a very familiar fashion.
The idiot is wearing the most ridiculous outfit Cloud's ever seen, his chest and stomach bare under a cropped yellow jacket with a white hood and a pair of dark shorts with mismatched legs and colourful embroidery. He's tanned, blond and blue-eyed, smiling easily, a fish-hook shaped pendant gleaming on a heavy chain around his neck. He looks like a cabana boy fresh off the Costa del Sol beaches, and Cloud's lip curls.
Backing away from the pictures, he turns on his heel and strides out of the room, even more intent on hunting down Tifa and demanding some answers. At the bottom of the stairs, he checks the kitchen once more before again entering the bar. Ferreting under the counter, he looks for the calendar he knows Tifa keeps to track deliveries, appointments and Barret's erratic schedule. Locating the battered notebook, he's impatiently leafing through it for some clue as to where she and the kids might be when something glints at the edge of his vision and he glances up.
The main blade of his sword is mounted on the wall over the bar like some sort of trophy. Cloud stares up at his weapon, gleaming dully in the dim lighting, and wonders what the hell his friends were thinking.
Setting aside the calendar, he looks around, finally spotting the accessory blades displayed on other walls, almost lost in the gloom up by the rafters. Hoisting himself up on the counter, he adroitly avoids the glass shelves crowded with liquor bottles and is about to lift his weapon out of the brackets when a small plaque attached to the guard catches his attention. Squinting at it, he's staggered by what he reads and almost steps backwards off the counter before catching himself in time. Grimly considering the ramifications of the information engraved on the tiny piece of metal, he yanks the weapon free and jumps lightly to the floor. Stowing it in his harness, he begins methodically collecting the rest; he's just liberated the smallest blade when he spots his target on the street outside the glass-panelled front door.
Stalking across the room, he realizes that Tifa looks... different. In a good way, he decides, after another highly appreciative once-over, but he supposes that her altered appearance makes sense if the plaque is correct – although he's having trouble accepting that what it says might be the truth. Her hair is longer, almost reaching her hips, the sun teasing warm highlights from the dark strands. She's wearing a short, floaty red dress that makes her look like a million gil and he can't help admiring her long, slender legs. Tifa's stance is relaxed as she shades her eyes while chatting with someone, and when Cloud moves sideways to see who it is, his hackles go up hard and fast.
It's the garishly dressed punk from the photograph, and he's standing far too close to Tifa for Cloud's liking.
Assessing his unexpected rival like any other opponent, Cloud notes that the other man has a couple of inches on him, even in his boots. While still resembling a seaside rent-boy, he's now wearing black body armour in the form of a low-cut vest, along with a bright-blue pauldron and ornamental gauntlet covering his left arm that look almost too pretty to be taken seriously. There's also blue segmented armour plates gleaming on his left thigh, and Cloud finally notices the wicked-looking hook-bladed sword slung from the idiot's shoulders. He excuses himself for this oversight, because there's enough ribbons and shit dangling from the hilt to make it look like a festival fly-whisk, not a lethal weapon.
Tifa giggles breathily at something the brat says, a completely unfamiliar sound, and Cloud is too shocked by what happens next to react fast enough when the punk stoops and kisses her forehead. Watching in disbelief as Tifa just smiles instead of punching the asshole into the middle of next week, a feral growl claws its way out of Cloud's throat when the creep takes his leave. Fading into the shadows as Tifa enters the bar and shuts the door behind her, he takes a moment to admire the way her vibrant dress burns like an ember against the darkness. She may have been smiling a moment ago, but her expression is now pensive as she crosses the room towards the kitchen, completely oblivious to his presence.
"Who the hell is that?" he snarls.
She whirls, instinctively dropping into a defensive stance that's at odds with her flimsy clothing, but then her mouth falls open and her eyes widen, her face taking on an ashen hue. There's a very long, very silent pause, wherein Cloud glowers and Tifa gapes before she gropes for the nearest table and hangs onto it for dear life. The desperate movements of her hands catch his attention, and he notices that his ring is no longer on her finger; instead, there's a gaudy string of chunky blue, yellow and red beads wrapped twice around her wrist.
Ignoring the tiny voice of reason that's reminding him if the plaque is correct, she has had every right to move on, he storms around the table, only stopping himself when she lets out a frantic noise and scrabbles away. She backs up until she collides with the wall, making a faint keening sound that instantly cools his anger and sparks his concern because it appears that she's terrified.
"Tifa... it's me," Cloud says, intending to calm her since she's visibly shaking, her fingers digging into the wall panel, but that doesn't seem to work because she whimpers. Taken aback by this response, he moves towards her with intentions of comfort, but he doesn't realize that he's looming menacingly in his black clothing, that his glacial gaze appears otherworldly, and she literally slides down the wall into a heap on the floor. Frowning, he goes down on one knee before her so as to look her in the eye, but Tifa kicks frantically at him, forcing him into keeping his distance. Her short dress flips up as she does so, giving Cloud a clear view of her panties, and he's momentarily distracted by the jaunty blue and white-striped number she's wearing.
In all their time spent chasing Sephiroth around the Planet, he had more than his fair share of free peeks while Tifa kicked and pummelled sundry monsters into submission, but he's never, ever seen such a girly pattern. When he drags his attention away from her lingerie, he's concerned by the way her hands are clutching at her bodice, mercilessly twisting the soft red fabric and by default he notices the fine silver chain disappearing into her cleavage. Then he realizes that her attractively heaving chest is dappled by clear liquid and he meets her tearful gaze.
"You're dead," Tifa rasps. "You died and we waited and waited, and hoped, but..."
She's still the most beautiful girl on the Planet, but there are tiny lines collecting at the corners of her eyes; he wonders how many of them are attributable to his absence. "I'm back," he says, thinking he's stating the obvious, but she slowly shakes her head, her expression tragic.
"I wish you were," she whispers brokenly, and then she's sobbing helplessly, and Cloud finally understands. She thinks he's merely a ghostly figment of her imagination, and if he's really been gone for five years without a trace, he can't blame her for assuming the worst. Edging closer, he cups her cheek in one hand and circles her wrist with the other, afraid she's going to tear the dress and that'd be a shame because he rather likes how she looks in it.
Her eyes snap open and she seems to stop breathing as he strokes his thumb over her wet cheek. "Y-you're warm," she finally stammers.
"I also have feet," he says wryly, unable to suppress a grin when she actually looks to make sure and he wiggles his boot just to prove that it is indeed attached to the rest of him.
Tifa shakily lays her fingertips on the back of the hand caressing her face, tears forgotten, but not quite able to believe what she sees. "C-Cloud...?"
"Yes." He's startled when she yanks her hands free and starts rabbit-punching him in the chest; he lets her get it out of her system because if their situations had been reversed, he'd be pretty choked,too. It hurts more than he'd like to admit, but it's okay because she isn't putting as much strength into it as she could. If she was really upset, he'd be three rooms away by now, picking plaster out of his teeth. Tifa stops hitting him and flattens her hands against his chest, but he manages to get his arms around her before she can push away.
She's so real that this loose hug is woefully inadequate, but he waits until Tifa's ready because he has to earn back her trust when all he's done is vanish when she needs him. He tugs her closer by small increments, until her forehead is pressed against his chest, right over his madly thumping heart. "I'm back," he repeats softly, feathering her hair through his fingers until she relents and slides her arms around him in a fierce hug. Their legs awkwardly tangle, but Cloud doesn't care, holding onto her with desperate strength that leaves Tifa gasping.
Plucking at his sweater, she hoarsely demands, "Where've you been?"
"Not sure – not here, anyways." He catches her chin between fingertip and thumb, tilts up her face to look her in the eye. "So far as I know, it's only been a couple of hours."
Her eyes widen in shock. "Aerith told us to wait, that you'd eventually show up, b-but you didn't..."
"Time must run differently over there," he says, because it's the only plausible explanation he can come up with as he carefully wipes away her fresh tears.
"It was the fifth anniversary of your d-death last week... and we always take a picnic to the church because you don't have a t-tomb..."
So the bouquet was a grave offering – his. Cloud's not too sure what to think about this, so he comments neutrally, "Nice flowers."
She tentatively touches his cheek. "We... I missed you." He's never heard her sound so vulnerable, but he can't reply in kind because he felt nothing while in that vast whiteness – didn't know that he was losing time. Cloud starts to get pissed because he's lost another significant chunk of his life, like when that damn Hojo shoved him into an oversized test tube and treated him like a lab rat. Controlling himself, he turns his energies to comforting the woman he adores... the one who was left behind to wait for him again.
Licking his thumb, he wipes it across the place on her forehead where the punk kissed her and presses his lips there instead. He can tell by her sharp intake of breath that she knows why he chose that exact spot, but he doesn't give her a chance to explain. There'll be time for that later, but right now, he's making up for lost opportunity. Kissing her damp eyelashes leaves the taste of salt on his tongue and he follows the flavour down to her lips. Tifa's fingers curl into his hair as he takes her mouth; several intense minutes later, she's flushed and breathless, but more importantly, her eyes have begun to sparkle the way he remembers.
He loses track of time again while kissing her, there on the hard wooden floor of the bar while dust motes dance around them in the stillness, but this is a good type of distraction that he can easily get used to. Tifa pulls his head down and sprinkles kisses across his cheeks and his forehead; he's intrigued by the needy sound she makes when he takes advantage of the situation to nibble lightly down the column of her throat. His lips catch on the silver chain and he pauses to inspect it, then hooks his finger around it and tugs. She goes still as an object is pulled up from between her breasts and he hopes he hasn't scraped her skin when he sees what it is.
His silver wolf ring. She's been wearing it close to her heart.
Cloud can't speak, because his choked voice would give him away, so instead he carefully opens the clasp on the necklace and shakes the ring loose. It really is a massive chunk of metal, and he decides that he'll buy her a new ring that suits her slim hand, one that they pick out together once he's earned enough gil. As he slides it into place on her finger while considering the question of how to raise the necessary amount, he asks, "Who's been messing around in the garage?"
It isn't the question she was expecting, but Tifa answers quickly, "Please don't be angry. Denzel took Fenrir to the church this year."
She clasps his hand and squeezes reassuringly. "Marlene rode with him to make sure he didn't do anything too crazy."
He shakes his head. "It isn't that... he's kinda short, not to mention young, to handle that much power."
Her smile is bittersweet. "Denzel turns fifteen in two weeks. He's as tall as you, if not taller," she gently replies. "Marlene is thirteen and a complete heartbreaker... Dyne's wife must have been a real stunner."
Cloud's still wrapping his mind around the first piece of information. "Fifteen?" He was already packing a rifle and going on Shin-Ra missions with Zack by the same age.
"He wants to start up Strife Delivery Service again," Tifa says. "Reeve has already opened an account." When Cloud just blinks, bemused, she adds, "Denzel's never given up... he always believed that you'd keep your promise."
Rubbing his thumb over her knuckles, he quietly asks, "So... do I have to go kill that guy, or what?"
She looks first puzzled, then concerned. "Tidus might not look it, but he's a very skilled fighter."
"Is that a warning?" he demands huffily.
"No – not like that!" Tifa instantly soothes, tightening her grip on his hand. "I would hate to see either of you get hurt."
"What's he doing here?" His conscience reminds him that the only rights he has over her are the ones she herself chooses to give, but his ego isn't backing down.
"Reeve sent him, to help out."
Cloud fills in the blanks. To assist with running the bar. Raising the children. "Where'd he find him?"
"He, er, appeared on Wutai..."
She bites her lip in thought, and his mouth thins in response because he doesn't like her thinking about another man, even if he asked. "When the WRO decommissioned and dismantled the mako reactor on Wutai, Lifestream-infused water began flowing from the drill hole. A couple of years ago, Tidus was found floating downstream, and once he recovered, his rescuers took him to Yuffie. She figured that he needed something useful to do, so took him to Reeve, who brought him to me. He's from Zanarkand."
"An island somewhere in the southern ocean, apparently very far away from here." Tifa weaves her fingers with his. "Tidus acts as bouncer when Barret's not around, mixes a mean Amber Twist, keeps the storeroom organized, deals with suppliers if I'm unavailable, supervises the kids, goes on WRO monster-hunting patrols on his days off. He's a good guy, Cloud. Honourable... a good friend."
"Since when do you let 'friends' kiss you?" he growls. "Or is that a Zanarkand thing, too?"
Her eyes darken. "He's in love with someone else. Her name is Yuna."
Cloud can't let it go, despite recognizing that she's pitying the other man, not wishing she were in Yuna's place. "So why is he kissing you if he has his own girl?"
"He can't find his way back to her. It's like... he can't go home."
He's about to say something rather petty, but bites his tongue instead. "Maybe he's like me; kept away from where we want to be by forces beyond our control."
Nodding thoughtfully, Tifa says, "Tidus and I understand each other, Cloud, because we both lost someone we love." Happiness flooding her expression, she continues, "But now... maybe he'll have a chance to see her again, since you've returned out of the blue."
"Where'd he take off to?"
"Picking up the kids from school. They'll be back any minute now..."
"Long enough." Cloud scoops her into his lap as he sits down, his swords scraping splinters out of the floor, and kisses her. Tifa sighs against his lips and deepens the sweet contact until their world narrows to the growing heat between them. He's sliding one hand up her silky bare thigh while she's tugging on his sweater when a babble of approaching voices cuts through the haze of arousal. The door behind them opens, and there's a moment of stunned silence that gives them a split-second to compose themselves. He smiles ruefully down at Tifa, who's blushing prettily, before shifting sideways to face their audience.
They barely have time to brace themselves before a joyfully shrieking Marlene throws herself on both of them while Denzel scrambles across the floor on his knees, staring at Cloud with an expression of yearning wonder on his face. When Marlene finally loosens her strangle hold on Cloud's neck and tackles Tifa, Denzel slowly leans in and presses his forehead against the man's shoulder. "You came back," he whispers.
Gently scruffing the teen's hair, he replies quietly, "Yeah. Just a little later than I expected. Sorry to keep you waiting."
A heavily accented voice breaks in. "Is that him? Finally?"
Tifa's smile lights up the room. "Yes."
"Excellent!" Tidus grins just as broadly as he inclines his head to Cloud, who guardedly returns the salute. Sea-blue eyes twinkle before going distant and unfocussed. Abruptly, he snaps his head around, staring into the shadow-wrapped far corner.
"Tidus... ?" Marlene asks worriedly.
"I thought... I heard her whistle," he murmurs, squinting into the gloom, then raises his fingers to his mouth and makes them all flinch with an extremely loud blast that echoes off the walls. They wait in respectful silence, but whatever Tidus detects is for his ears alone. Perking up, as if he's heard a response, he declares, "It's definitely Yuna," before loosing another shrill call.
Cloud's just decided that the guy must be a few materia short of a full crate when the distinctive tang of an ocean breeze sweeps through the room, bringing with it a faint, answering trill. Tidus' outline begins faintly glowing after he returns the signal with ear-shattering volume, and Cloud has an inkling of what's about to happen. The green light intensifies, begins to spin off into dozens of tiny twinkling threads that unravel the substance of the man's existence. "Wh-what's going on?" Tidus demands, looking back at them with panic writ large on his face.
"It's all right," Cloud begins, and then he's suddenly sure. "Don't fight it. You're going back to where you want to be."
The man relaxes even as his body dissolves. "Then I won't keep her waiting."
"Tidus!" Tifa calls urgently, half-rising onto her knees. "Thank you... for everything."
"I will miss you... all of you," he replies, winking at the children. Catching Cloud's gaze, he adds, "Look after Tifa; she's amazing."
Briefly raising his hand, Cloud holds onto his family as Tidus vanishes into a sparkling column of glimmering, firefly-like points of light. "Will he be all right?" Denzel asks in a hushed tone as the man disintegrates into nothingness, a final eddying swirl marking his passage.
"Probably." Giving the youth a friendly shoulder-bump, Cloud says, "Stand up, kid... I've heard a nasty rumour that you might be taller than me."
A crooked smirk creeps across Denzel's lips. "I know I am, because I had to raise Fenrir's seat... Spiky."
A good-natured tussle ensues wherein Cloud rapidly discovers that Denzel has been working out and that Marlene has had martial arts training. Tifa sits back and laughs merrily rather than taking his side; Cloud doesn't mind that much, even though his ego is somewhat bruised by the fact that he has to look up at Denzel when they finally pick themselves off the floor... and then discovers that Marlene is also gaining on him.
Tifa closes the bar for the day, but their celebration is low-key because while he came back, they also lost another dear friend. Marlene and Denzel take pictures of Cloud with their cell phones and call all their friends with the proof of his return, with the result that somebody's pocket is jangling all evening long and he has to talk so much to so many exuberantly happy people that he loses his voice... but not so much that he can't tease Tifa.
"Good thing I like older women," he casually observes later that night when they're finally alone in the pale yellow room that matches his hair, the walls glowing in the lamplight.
"Eh? What are you talking about?" she demands, turning away from the mirror, hairbrush arrested mid-stroke.
Folding his hands behind his head, he blandly observes, "By my reckoning, you're now four years older than me."
She gives him a narrow look. "So...?"
"I never took you for a cradle-robber, but after I saw that Tidus guy today, I'm not so sure... I think I might be too old for your tastes."
The hairbrush nearly upsets the steaming cup of honey tea on his bedside table, because her target is already across the room, pinning her up against the bureau. Carrying the grumbling light of his life back to the bed, he manages to dissuade her from committing mayhem on his person via several melting kisses, followed by slow caresses and tender promises.
Cloud's voice is still rough even after the honey tea, but Tifa doesn't mind because his words soothe the ache in her heart, and the best cure for all of his pains is her soft smile and softer lips, her dark hair spread over the pillows, her voice sighing his name, her long legs wrapped around his hips as he sinks deeply into her warmth, because it all means that he's finally home.
Ф Ф Ф Ф Ф