They had almost reached Junon now. With their priceless treasure sleeping soundlessly in the back of the car, leaning on the exhausted Yuffie's shoulder, Tifa slowly relaxed, allowing her tensions to finally unwind. The future seemed brighter than it had done in a long while. She couldn't remember when she last had felt this happy.
The one - and admittedly not very small - worry she did have left, was how Cloud would react to Sephiroth's presence. Since she herself was a kind-hearted and forgiving person by nature, she had soon come to accept Sephiroth as a good friend. She preferred to see his atrocious deeds as something now in the past, something he had had no control over whatsoever. Knowing Cloud though, he wouldn't forgive his foe as easily. Cloud had been one of the countless teenagers blindly idolizing the mighty warrior, and the betrayal had scarred him deeply even if he refused to admit so.
Yuffie's thoughts must have been following similar tracks, since she cast a worried glance at Sephiroth. "Hey Teef? I just thought of something. How are we going to tell Cloud that Sephiroth isn't dead?" She turned towards Sephiroth and continued. "If he sees you, or even finds out you're alive, he's gonna come after you and kill you!" Then, after some thought, she added cautiously "..again." She peered at Sephiroth, hoping he wouldn't take offense. Shuffling her feet to a more comfortable position, she then closed her eyes, feeling the precious sunrays warming her eyelids.
"I don't know how I should solve that," Sephiroth replied, sighing deeply. "Truth to be told, I'm really not that fond of him either - even less so after what you've told me about his behavior now, Tifa. Nevertheless, I do not wish to be his enemy, especially not if I am going to spend time with you." He brushed away a strand of hair from his eyes, causing it to glimmer in the fading sun. Tifa's face flushed red at the suggestion that he did want to spend time again, and again received one of Sephiroth's understanding and somewhat impudent smiles. Which of course caused her face to redden even more. "Concentrate on driving, girl."
"So you are afraid of him then?" Yuffie decided to help Tifa out, forcing herself to become the center of attention, but when Sephiroth turned to face her she regretted that she had even opened her mouth. "Great, you're finally learning when to shut up. Next time, try doing it before you talk," an annoying small voice hissed in the back of her head, and Yuffie moaned. Sephiroth wasn't visibly disturbed by the question, though. Instead, he pondered the query for a while. "I suppose that he could kill me again, and probably much easier this time since Mother would not help me now," he finally admitted, shrugging. Obviously, death was not an easy subject, which was quite understandable.
'I wish he wouldn't talk about that freaky alien like that,' Yuffie thought and grimaced. She quickly rearranged her facial expression, hiding it behind yet another yawn, and hoped he hadn't noticed anything. "What a strange situation." She was at a total loss at how to react. She had heard Sephiroth's story, and while she still weren't completely ready to befriend him, he at least seemed more than deserving of another chance. "He's certainly more nice and friendly to be with than Cloud has ever been as long as I've known him. And cuter. Shut up."
"Sorry to interrupt you, Sephiroth, but we'll be back in Junon in five minutes," Tifa said. "Want me to drive you to my place, or do you want to risk it and come with us? I could really need your help in explaining how we got Aeris back..." Her pleading brown puppy-eyes met his through the rearview mirror, and Sephiroth smiled. "I guess I will have to encounter him sooner or later anyway," he replied, taking a deep breath. Tifa nodded. The rest of the journey passed in silence, as they all contemplated the extraordinary situation they would soon face.
* * * * *
Having fallen asleep in the living room couch, Cloud once more re-lived the events leading to his loves death. Tossing and turning in his bed, he was once more climbing down the arching crystalline stairs in the City of the Ancients. Seeing Aeris innocently praying for Holy, he screamed to his friends to grab her and run the hell out of there, but all in vain, as no sound ever crossed his lips. Once more, he watched a black-clad Sephiroth silently descend, sword raised, ready to pierce the Cetra who hadn't perceived the danger - or perhaps didn't care. Once more Cloud carried the dead woman's body to the water, letting her sink down into the dark depths, his eyes fixed on that sweet smile on her lips, hoping against hope that she would open her gorgeous eyes and return to him. Once more, he woke up with matted hair clinging to his sweaty face a mere instant before he would have screamed out loud.
He gradually stopped panting, slowly reverting to a more acceptable breathing rhythm for a person not currently fighting a WEAPON, and sat up. "Am I going to have this horrible dream the rest of my life? What kind of life is this anyway?" If he ever knew the answer to that question, perhaps he could become happy again.
For now, though, he had about two seconds to freshen up before the passengers of the car that just parked outside would enter the house. "What is it now?" He tried straightening his hair but only managed to get it to stand right up.
* * * * *
Tifa opened the front door, peering anxiously through the opening as if to clear the way. When she saw that Cloud was perching on the couch, scowling at her, her heart skipped a beat, and she unconsciously pressed a hand to her throat as if someone had threatened her. She closed her eyes, inhaled slowly, and nodded to herself. "It's only Cloud after all. I guess this is it, Teef." She looked at Cloud, a faint but unmistakably eager smile crossing her lips, and glanced out towards the car where Yuffie and Sephiroth were waking the sleeping beauty up.
"Cloud?" she started, not really knowing how to continue. "Why does he look at me like that?" Getting no answer from him, Tifa's smile faded. "Oh, what did I expect from him anyway. A big hug and a kiss?" "There's something I haven't told you."
"It can wait," Cloud answered grumpily. "If you haven't told me yet, it probably isn't important anyway." He wanted to go back to sleep, hopefully meeting Aeris in a happier context this time.
"But.. Well. It is important.. but I guess you'll have to see for yourself... Yuffie, you can come in now." The last sentence was shouted through the open door, and was immediately followed by the sound of footsteps on the path outside.
Cloud was totally confused. What was the woman talking about? Obviously, she and Yuffie had some silly little secret, but why was she acting so strangely? When the talkative Wutaian girl entered the house, Cloud was prepared to ask her just that, but his words got stuck in his throat when he saw the sleepyheaded woman she was leading in behind her.
"Aeris?" he gasped, eyes wide open, not knowing if this was just a continuation of his usual dreams. If so, she would probably vanish again in a green puff of smoke when he tried to reach her.
"Aeris?" he tried again, once more failing to formulate a coherent string of words. He slowly walked towards her, all the while prepared for her sudden disappearance. "Is this... really you? Am I dreaming?"
"Of course you're not dreaming, you silly boy, " the Cetra answered impishly, letting one of her trademark smiles lighten up the room. "So, you've been dreaming about me?" Cloud blushed, but didn't answer, to Aeris' delight. Tifa had discretely withdrawn to a dark corner, wanting to experience the reunion but still not ready to participate. This was something Cloud needed to do alone. Besides, she had already heard everything she knew he was going to say, and she most certainly had no part in it.
"How is this possible? You are dead," he declared, once again showing his remarkable skill in stating the obvious.
Now Sephiroth felt it was his time to shine. "Happy birthday, Strife," he answered, with Aeris' soft laughing backing him up as he stepped into the room. Yuffie nervously joined Tifa in the corner, fidgeting with her headband. This could easily become very messy, if Cloud realized who the man who just entered was. Tifa unconsciously reached for her Materia, and at feeling the cold surface caressing her palm, wondered who she was going to use it against, if such an action would become necessary.
There seemed to be no reason to worry just yet. Cloud paid no attention whatsoever to the newcomer. It appeared he hadn't even heard the reply. He was to busy making sure that this was indeed the Aeris he had been dreaming about constantly since her death - and for a quite a while before it as well. He grabbed her hands, holding them tightly; feeling for her pulse to make sure she really was alive. Finally he had certified that he was indeed awake, and this was indeed his lost love.
Well, obviously not lost anymore. And as for love? Maybe now was the time to find out how close to reality his fondest dreams would be. He let his arms enfold her, holding her close to him, and felt her return the embrace. That was surely a good sign. Not willing to let her go just yet, he released his grip a little, cupping Aeris' chin with a hand just to be able to tilt her face upwards. Cloud couldn't stop himself when looking into those luminous green eyes. Trying to put all his passion and yearning for her in it, he covered her marvelously silken mouth with his own dry lips and pulled her into a kiss. She did not resist.
* * * * *
Tifa's heart ached with longing at seeing Cloud and Aeris merge. Just a year ago - or even closer to the now than that - the pain would have come from the realization that she would be totally out of the picture now that Cloud got the one he truly wanted. Now, however, she only felt how lonely she was, and wondered if she would ever experience similar feelings to anyone - and of course, getting love in return.
Feeling that the couple would need some privacy after their long parting, she blinked away a tear and headed towards the door outside. Sephiroth seemed to catch her drift, and, after gently putting an arm around her shoulders, led her outward. Yuffie stood gawking at the kissing couple until receiving an elbow nudge from the withdrawing Tifa. With an embarrassed grin she run out, almost tripping over her feet in her eagerness to show that she wasn't trying to peep.
* * * * *
Too soon the kiss came to an end. Aeris giggled and sat down on the sofa, looking expectantly at Cloud. "Aren't you going to say anything, Cloudie?" "Cloudie?" He didn't know if he really liked that nickname. It sounded a little.. Stupid. "Well, that's not important right now. Lots of time for that later. Okay Cloud, here we go..." He took a deep breath, mentally preparing for the words he was about to splutter out.
"Aeris, I.. " He closed his eyes, crossing his finger behind his back. "She did kiss me back. That has got to signify something.. Now you've started it, better continue. " "I've been thinking a lot about you. No, about us."
Aeris smiled encouragingly, tilting her head and still smiling. "Really? That sounds interesting." She patted the empty spot next to her, inviting Cloud to sit down next to her. Cloud didn't notice; he was too into what he was going to say.
"I.. uhh.. Sorry, I've never done this before.." He scratched his head and decided that he might as well carry on sounding stupid. It wasn't as if it was something totally new to him. "I didn't think I was ever going to see you again." "Well, duh, that could be because she was dead." Finally he decided to stop wandering around the room, coming to a stop right ahead of Aeris. He looked her square in the eye and, taking her hand, blurted out the one thing he regretted most not having the chance to say.
"I love you, Aeris. And I don't ever want to lose you again." Her eyes widened, and she looked like she was going to say something, but Cloud cut her off and continued, feeling his heart racing. "Will you marry me?" "There, you've said it. Good boy. Time to start breathing again?"
* * * * *
Once outside, Tifa wiped away her tears. "Damn them. I hate crying." Yuffie looked at her with sympathy shining in her eyes. "I'm sorry he doesn't like you," she said. Tifa quickly looked up at her. "Does everybody know?" "Don't worry Yuff. I stopped caring for him a long time ago." "Well, not totally true, but she doesn't have to know that." "I'm just.. ah.. I'm just happy for them, that's all."
Yuffie shrugged, not at all convinced. "Whatever you say, Teef."
* * * * *
"What?" screamed Aeris, more than a little shocked. In a more normal tone - so as not to frighten the group waiting outside - she continued. "Marry you? I.. I am flattered, but.. Ramuh! We've only been on one date, and you talk about marriage?" She looked down at her hand and slowly withdrew it from Cloud's hold.
"B..but..." Cloud stuttered. Not being used to expressing his feelings, he'd almost expected everything to nice and easy go his way when he finally did. "I can understand if I surprised you. We don't have to talk about this right now. We can, I don't know.. Keep dating, and we'll see what happens." He sat down next to Aeris, and tried taking her hand, but she shook it loose again, then started shaking her head as well.
"No. I'm sorry Cloud, I'm really sorry. You're a really nice, kind and gentle guy, but I just don't care about you that way. "
"..just don't care about me that way?" That didn't compute. "Then what about the kiss? What about the way you were treating me before you.. I thought..." Tears were forming in his eyes now, but he fiercely wiped them away, not wanting to show his weakness. He had been dreaming about this girl and the perfect love they held for each other, and now she said she.. wasn't interested? Where did this dream turn into a nightmare? He pinched himself in vain, hoping that it was indeed one of them but unfortunately didn't wake up.
"Sorry." She was still shaking her head, but stopped as suddenly as she had began and rested it in her hands instead, looking down, feeling guilty. "I.. ugh. You overwhelmed me with that kiss. And it felt nice, you know, with a living person so near me after all this time, so I didn't want to stop you. I'm sorry if you got the wrong impression." She did seem genuinely regretful for playing along. "And I.. never mind." She jumped up from the couch, not wanting to encourage Cloud more.
"No, please. Bring it on." Head hanging low, he continued. "It can't get worse than this anyway. " "I hope. Oh Shiva, don't let it be worse than this."
Now it was Aeris turn to start wandering around the room. Hands fixed behind her back, she debated whether to break the bad news or not. "It's not like I have an obligation to be truthful, but I can't let him stay in his dreamworld forever."
"Alright." She didn't want to look at him, so she walked over to the window, looking out. She saw Yuffie juggling her Materia, watching out over the street. Tifa appeared to be crying, but Sephiroth was comforting her. Against her will, Aeris smiled. "That's so sweet."
"I.. You know, I used to date Zack."
"...." "I know. I hate him for that."
"He.. he just disappeared. I didn't know what to do. It wasn't that serious, but he was my first boyfriend."
"...." "What's that got to do with our situation?" Cloud unconsciously brought a hand up to his head, scratching his hair, as he always did when confused, thinking - or just had an itch. It didn't improve on his hair style but then again, nothing ever did.
"I just stuffed all my feelings for him away in some dark corner of my mind, locked, and threw away the key. " "Ugh.. I hate clichés.. " Then, when I met you.. The two of you were so alike - at least on the surface. I think I just unconsciously transferred my feelings for him onto you."
"But on our date, you told me..." Cloud had reverted into not showing his feelings again, behaving as if this scene was perfectly normal. The only thing showing his despondency was the glimmer in his eyes.
"I was wrong. I just told myself that I... that I loved you, because I so desperately needed something to keep my mind away from what my life was like back then. And I felt so sorry for Tifa for doing that..." Aeris voice broke. It was her time to start crying now. "Oh, I never wanted to hurt anyone."
".... Now, wait a minute. What about Tifa? You're not making any sense. "
"I.. I didn't really want to step in between you two."
"What? No, no, you got it all wrong. We've been friends since we were children, that's all there is to it."
A melancholic smile crossed Aeris' lips. "So she still haven't told you? No, I guess she wouldn't." "Not if you've been moping about me all the time. Oh, poor girl." At last she understood the desolate look she had seen in Tifa's face when she entered. "I'm so sorry, Teef. If you've had it like this, I couldn't blame you for hating me. And yet you don't."
"What? Can we please stick to our situation? This is hard enough to understand as it is."
"Cloud, Tifa loves you. She always have." Contemplating the scene she had just witnessed outside the window, she mentally added "Though I'm not so sure if she always will... Well, that's one thing he does not need to hear right now."
Cloud just stared at her, his brain trying to process the information. "Now wait a minute. Aeris doesn't love me? Tifa does?" "Oh, damn this! I can't think!" He grabbed his head with both hands, clutching it to stop it from exploding while rocking back and forth.
"I.. I'll just leave you here with your thoughts then." She paced towards the door, tugging her braid as if it could give her comfort.
"No!" Cloud pleaded.
Aeris turned around, eyebrow raised questioningly. "What?" she asked, dreading the answer.
"Please tell me that you didn't mean any of that you just said.." Grabbing his last straw, he looked at her with a melancholy, oh-so-sweet smile.
"Oh Cloud... " She spun around again and hurried out of the building before he could stop her. "I wish I did love him, or at least could pretend to. It would have been so much easier. Perhaps I would have been better off staying dead." Dull as it was. Pity she was such a bad liar.