Tifa knew Cloud occasionally had conversations with those who'd passed on already. She'd had her own fair share of conversations with Aerith. And while she didn't know most of the things that had happened to Cloud in the years that they had been separated (except for knowing that they were horrific for him, and that was enough for her to leave them alone), she did know that Zack had been a big part of those years. She'd met Zack and instantly liked him. Everyone liked Zack. It was impossible not to. He was way too charismatic and upbeat to dislike.
That being said, it should have come as no surprise when she went to find Cloud one afternoon in the church. And it wasn't. He had moved back in with her at her request, nodding and trying to smile and that was better than any effort he'd given in the last decade, so she took it happily. He was home as much as he could and he even spent time helping the kids with their homework. It was like a dream come true. On some days, he came home a little later because he made a stop to Aerith's church. Tifa used to get jealous about this, but she didn't any more. In a rare moment of total openness, he had admitted that he loved Aerith from Zack's point of view but had never intended for there to be any sort of romantic involvement between them. So she let it go.
And as was said before, it should have been no surprise to find Cloud in the church that day. It wasn't. What was surprising was that he wasn't alone. Tifa had entered silently so as not to disturb his reverie as he dangled his legs in the water, and was shocked to see Zack sitting next to him, looking as solid and real as ever. Cloud was studiously not looking at his friend, probably afraid that if he did, the moment would be over. As she took a few more silent steps forward, she realised they were having a conversation. Unable to help herself, she listened in.
" ... and I don't feel guilty about her death itself," Cloud was saying.
"Then why do you still let it get to you?" Zack asked.
Cloud sort of shrugged. "I wanted to save her on your behalf. I know you loved her."
There was a moment of silence, and Zack shrugged, too. Even without looking up, Cloud had to have felt the movement. "Yeah, well, she and I get to be together now, so you didn't fail me there, kid."
Cloud snorted and his head drooped, shoulders sagging. Zack looked over, and as Tifa saw the outline of his profile, she noted definite concern. "Hey, what's wrong? Aerith and I really do get to be together now."
Cloud nodded, waited a few minutes, and said, "Do you ever regret it, Zack?"
Zack flinched. "Regret it? Regret what?"
"Dying for me." The response was almost spat out, sounding painful and filled with emotion.
Zack looked like Cloud had sprouted horns. "Are you kidding me?"
Cloud shook his head and his shoulders sagged more. Tifa could feel his pent-up emotion from where she was hiding behind a pew and desperately wanted to run to him. She'd never seen him like this, sure that he must be close to tears if he wasn't already crying. And he didn't cry. Ever. For anything.
But Zack had this situation under control. He smiled, ruffled Cloud's unruly hair, and said, "Naw, of course not, Spike. I'd do it again every day if I could."
Cloud's voice was completely even when he said, "But you deserved to live."
Zack nearly growled his exasperation. "And you don't?"
"Not like you did," Cloud answered as though he honestly believed it. "You were a hero. And not just to me. There were a lot of people trying to find you and save your life - people who loved you."
"Kid, you saved the entire planet. Three times. I never did that."
"Of course you did. And you held a lot of people's sanity together because you were you."
Zack grinned, but now Tifa could see his eyes were shining with unshed tears. "Cloud, the thing that always made me feel sad whenever I ran into you was how little you valued yourself. You've never given yourself enough credit. You act like you think you owe everyone something."
Cloud looked away, and Tifa saw the tears in his eyes, too, instantly triggering her own. "I do," he said softly. "So many good lives have been lost because of me."
Zack leaned closer, draping an arm around his friend - and Tifa noticed Cloud's shoulders tensed for a few seconds before he relaxed into the casual embrace. "Cloud, not one good life has been lost because of you. You're an idiot if you think so." He waited a beat, and continued, "I chose to die for us because you had so much potential, so much light in your eyes. I mean, you took Sephiroth out without the aid of training and enhancements after he'd nearly killed you. Then you were stuffed in a little tube where you were nearly drowned in Mako and tortured excessively for years before -"
Tifa almost gasped out at that, never having had the courage to ask Cloud what had happened. It was lucky she didn't, because apparently Cloud didn't want to talk about it any more with someone who had endured much of it with him than someone he'd known his whole life. He briskly interrupted, "I was there. I know."
"And you think I didn't want you to live more than me?" Zack went on smoothly. "I was where I was because I chose to be there. You'd been forced and manipulated into one of the ugliest situations I've ever seen. I couldn't have abandoned you and kept any sort of dignity. Besides, where most people would have been dead, you were still hanging on. Did you know it was really physically impossible for you to come say goodbye to me after that fight?"
"I - I had to," Cloud answered as though it explained it all.
"Exactly," Zack said. "You're the strongest person I know. I want to see that spark in your eyes again. I want you to live."
Cloud sighed, and Zack sighed, too, before leaning over to add weight to his embrace. "How come you never look at me?" he asked playfully.
Tifa could picture the scowl on her best friend's face. "You're not real."
Zack rolled his eyes. "Yeah, right. I'm talking to you, aren't I? And we're sitting here being buddies."
"But you're dead. I'm hallucinating you."
Zack shook his head, gave Cloud a glare with no heat, and then suddenly shoved the blond into the water. Cloud slipped off the edge and popped back to the surface, sputtering and wiping water from his eyes before Zack grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked him into the same sitting position he'd been in before. Then he grinned widely and asked, "So ... was that your imagination or are you just clumsy?"
Cloud resolutely shook his head, but Tifa was sure he was probably amused. She knew she was. And with a happy smile on her face, she listened intently for the next part of their conversation.
"Zack?" he asked softly.
"I think I'm in love with Tifa."
Said woman slapped a hand over her own mouth to prevent anything from coming out, and then was grateful for the pew she was hiding behind. She was sure her face must be pretty crimson right then. And her shock was complete when Zack turned around to look straight at her, waggling his eyebrows playfully. He knew she was there. Obviously Cloud didn't.
Cloud twitched. "You knew?"
"Kid, everyone knows you love her. Even those orphans you live with. Except maybe her. You haven't told her, have you?"
Cloud was shaking his head. "I can't. She deserves -"
He was interrupted with an uncomfortable-sounding squeak and full-body spasm when Zack squeezed some nerve in the back of his neck. Tifa sympathetically watched their tough-love relationship and knew she'd be making him his favourite meal tonight.
"Spike, don't say things like that. We just got through this. You deserve to live. You deserve to be happy. And she does, too."
It was probably better this way, anyway, Tifa reasoned. Zack could say things she would never permit herself to speak out loud.
"I know she deserves to be happy," Cloud retorted irritably, one hand rubbing the back of his neck. "That's what I was about to say. I'm afraid she won't find her special someone while I'm living with her."
"Because no one would dare ask her out while I'm there. I think I frighten people. It's not fair to her."
Wow. She'd never even thought of that. He didn't frighten people, actually. He probably confused hero-worship with terror. Most of her customers had mentioned that they'd really love to have his autograph but were too awed by him to ask. She had never considered the idea that men might be afraid to have real relationships with her simply because "that guy who saved the world with a sword bigger than he is" was around. Luckily, she didn't care, because she was interested in that guy with the giant sword..
"Did you ever think that maybe her special someone is living with her?"
Cloud shook his head, tossing off that as if he'd considered and subsequently dismissed it before. "Of course not."
Zack rolled his eyes and looked at Tifa again. She blushed and he smiled. "Well, maybe you should ask her what she wants before you make any decisions."
Cloud was nodding thoughtfully at that suggestion, clearly finding it feasible. Tifa smiled at his desire to please her. She'd be making his favourite meals for a week after this. Especially if he actually found the courage to talk to her.
"You're probably right."
Zack grinned. "Naturally. I'm always right. Now, I want to get back to Aerith and you need to get home. There are probably people getting concerned about you."
Cloud nodded again, and, as he was starting to rise, Tifa heard Zack say, "Oh, and Spike - you need to be more careful."
Just as he was turning to look at his deceased best friend, Zack kicked Cloud's legs out from under him and sent him sprawling back into the water with an added shove for good measure. This time, though, he bent quickly to put out a hand and hold the blond under. Then he looked back at Tifa.
"Don't hurt him," he said gravely. "He's trying more than you know even from listening in tonight. Be good to him or I'll have to hurt you. And I don't like doing that to girls."
Tifa, eyes wide, nodded quickly, not having to really think about it, anyway. She loved Cloud and she wanted what was best for him. This conversation she'd overheard was going to help her be patient with a man she knew was struggling to find himself. Then Zack faded out and Cloud broke the surface of the water. Tifa expected him to be mad or at least defensive, but he wasn't. He merely shook the water out of his hair - as if this had happened before - and wiped a gloved hand across his face. Tifa chose that moment to make her presence known.
"Cloud?" she asked hesitantly, and then, as though suddenly spying him, she said louder, "Cloud! Are you okay?" And she ran to where he was pulling himself out of the water.
"Tifa?" he asked, blue eyes riveted on her as she ran toward him, not having to feign concern. He vaulted onto the floor of the church and then rose to his feet. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," she said. "I figured you might stop by here and I wanted to ask you a question before you finish your deliveries for the day. Are you all right?"
He snorted, trying unsuccessfully to brush water off himself, before looking down at her and giving one of those half-grins that were practically beaming smiles in his world. Tifa almost melted at the sight of it. "I'm fine," he said. "Just ... uh ... clumsy, I guess."
She smiled. "I doubt that. You're the most capable man I've ever met."
He gave her an odd look but said nothing in response. Then, finally, he asked, "What was it you wanted to ask me?"
Lost in the deep blue of his penetrating gaze, she answered, "Huh?"
He put a wet glove on her shoulder to give her a gentle, concerned shake. "Tifa? You okay?"
She could feel the red creeping across her cheeks when she realised she was staring at him. "Yeah. Sorry. I'm fine."
"Are you sure?"
Before she could decide it was a bad idea, she said, "You're cute when you're wet."
She heard him exhale loudly and risked a glance at him, glad he wasn't running away. He definitely wasn't. And he wasn't embarrassed, either. He looked more confused than anything, but he didn't call her on her confession. Normally she would have profoundly appreciated that, but in light of the knowledge she'd gained recently, she wanted to have that conversation. She flicked a casual hand over a piece of his wet hair that was somehow still spiky and laughed. "Cuter than normal, anyway."
"Hmm." His answer to that was purely Cloud - non-committal and non-threatening. And Tifa realised at that moment that she was standing close enough to him to feel the gentle rumble through his chest when he grunted. She smiled and leaned in to give him a hug. This wasn't that unusual for her - she was slowly training him to get used to non-violent physical contact.
"I'm wet," he protested lightly before she wrapped her arms around him and pressed herself against him, ignoring the fact that he was wet. And cold. And it was a few seconds before Tifa realised he must actually be cold. His enhanced body made it easier for him to survive in cold conditions than most people, but that didn't mean he didn't feel it. She herself was trying not to shiver when she started pulling away. He must have noticed in spite of her efforts, because he scowled and said, "That's why I was trying to warn you."
She looked up at his face and smiled. "You'll give me a ride home, right?"
He looked concerned. "You'll get colder."
"So will you."
He sighed. "Tifa, the Mako -"
"I know," she interrupted. "But you're still human. You can still get sick, right?" He shrugged. She took it as an affirmative. "So let's just hurry home together so we can both get dry and stay healthy. I'd rather not walk."
He continued to search her face for a few seconds, but finally shrugged and gave in. On the way home, with the cold wind being blocked by his body as she sat clinging to his back with arms wrapped around his waist, Tifa smiled when Cloud said, "Hey, Tifa? I think we should talk."