When the door suddenly opened, letting out an upset Aeris, Tifa almost immediately sensed that something had gone wrong. Aeris seemed to have been crying; though she desperately tried hiding it. Instead, she flashed them a wavering smile, clasping her hands behind her back. "Can we please get away from here? I.. um.. I really don't want to talk to Cloud right now."
"What?" Yuffie screeched, not understanding what this new course of events signified. Tifa, who were sitting down leaning against Sephiroth, looked up at Aeris with big, wondering - and a little puffy - eyes, as baffled as the Materia Hunter. He and Tifa both rose as the same time and Sephiroth put an arm around her. Tifa didn't seem to notice, too engrossed in what Aeris just had said. "What went wrong? A minute ago they were kissing and holding each other like nothing could ever tear them apart."
"I'm sorry Teef," Aeris said after a few moments of startled silence, satisfied that Cloud weren't coming out after her after all. "I'm sorry that I've caused you so much pain. I had no idea that Cloud.. That Cloud liked me that way." "I should've known."
"Huh?" Tifa rose, gently removing Sephiroth's comforting arms, and walked towards Aeris. "What? What just happened? I thought that you two...?"
"I.. uh, I thought the same about you." Cheeks flushing, Aeris looked down at her feet, shuffling them nervously, then started drawing intricate patterns in the gravel. "He said you were his girlfriend when we met the second time."
Tifa nodded slowly. "Right. And that's why you had to ask him for a date?" Tifa would probably never forget Cloud's happy expression that night at the Golden Saucer. The first time he really had relaxed in a very long time. "That's why you just kissed him like that?" "Aeris... " she began, the muscles around her eyes tightening.
"No, no, Tifa, listen. Please don't judge me for the one I used to be. I know now that.. The way I behaved must have caused him to believe..." She sniffled discretely, turning around to quietly blow her nose. "I just explained this to Cloud as well, and.. He didn't take it too well. Oh, Teef, he asked me to marry him! What was I supposed to do? I couldn't just pretend that I loved him just so I wouldn't hurt him."
At last, Tifa appeared to grasp the meaning of what Aeris just had said. "Marriage? Cloud?" "Aeris, he's been talking about you since the day you.. died." That word still didn't have the right ring, and probably never would. "He was convinced that you two were meant to be together, and... "" No, she does not need to know how he's been treating us for being alive when she wasn't." "..and he so much regretted not having had the chance to tell you."
Aeris' face crumpled as she once more started crying. "Uh oh, is she gonna do that the rest of the day?" Yuffie silently wondered, taking a step backwards.
"Aeris," Sephiroth interrupted, frowning. "Did you notice if Cloud saw me?" He was not too keen on standing outside his archenemy's house now that his plan to win Cloud's trust seemed to have failed. Cloud probably wasn't in the proper mood for meeting Sephiroth right now, and the SOLDIER wanted to know if he had to withdraw for now. No use taking unnecessary risks.
"Huh? No, I don't think he saw anything else than... me." Aeris blushed again.
"Then I had better remove myself from here. Tifa, can I stay in your house a little longer?" Tifa nodded, and Sephiroth hurried off, cape flapping violently behind him, after asking Tifa to break the news carefully at an appropriate moment.
* * * * *
"Tifa loves me? I.. Oh, how can I not have noticed?" Cloud was feeling more than a little stupid for having the obvious pointed out like that. But even more stupid for being rejected like that.
"Aeris... Of course she doesn't love me. I couldn't save her."
Another voice, maybe a little stronger, vehemently argued against that. "It's not because of that, you jerk. She said she never did feel anything for me, that it was all for Zack." He guessed he could believe that, hurtful as it was.
"She said she didn't want to come between me and Tifa. But why haven't Tifa said anything if that is what she truly feels?"
It all was like a slap in the face, brutally waking him up, back to reality again. "Why did I propose to her? She's right, we've been on one date. One date! No wonder I scared her! What on Planet have I been thinking the last year? Haven't I had enough of conjuring up self-decepting illusions?" He was the uncrowned king in that specific area, it appeared.
"I've got to apologize to Tifa, to Aeris.. to everybody?" He couldn't believe why they had even bothered staying his friends after all that had happened. The most recent event he had messed up - his birthday - came back to haunt him. "I'm so sorry, Tifa. What have I done to you?"
Reality was far more painful than his worst nightmares had ever been.
Now that his brain finally started working after more than a year wrapped in fuzz, he remembered asking about how Aeris possible could be there at all. Hadn't somebody answered? A man.. He vaguely recognized the voice but... Shaking his head, Cloud hated his worthless memory. "Though I did have other things on my mind so I shouldn't blame myself. Not for that at least." Enough things to blame oneself for already.
"I'll just go out and see if the girls are still out there, and I can ask them what really happened." If he really wanted to ever face them again after all he had done them.
* * * * *
Only moments after Sephiroth had disappeared around a corner, the front door opened again, revealing a very red-eyed, disheartened Cloud. They all turned to face him, silently thanking him for not coming out a few seconds earlier.
"Aeris," Cloud began, and winced at seeing the look of sorrow crossing the diminutive girl's face as she heard his broken voice. "I'm sorry. You're right. I don't know why I have been fooling myself again." He scratched his head.
"Tifa, I.. I would like to talk to you alone, in a moment." Tifa's eyebrow rose automatically. What could he possibly have to say to her that the others couldn't hear? Aeris blushed once more, knowing fully well what it was about. "Poor Cloud. I think you're going to have your heart broken again." This certainly wasn't Cloud Strife's day.
"I'm really, really sorry for the way I've been acting." Cloud was feeling oh-so uncomfortable, all to aware of the fact that he had quite a few other persons to apologize to later on. "I don't know what's been wrong with me. No, that's not true. I do know what's been wrong. I've been a complete idiot. I don't know how you've been standing it."
"We neither," Yuffie mouthed, getting elbowed by Tifa in return. "This is hard enough for him as it is," she whispered to Yuffie.
"Yeah, so what? He has been an idiot." Yuffie did not bother to stay as secretive, much to Tifa's dismay.
Cloud's posture dropped, his head hanging low. "Can you ever find it somewhere in your hearts to forgive me? I can understand if you don't, but..."
"Cloud, " Tifa interrupted, her dark brown eyes staring intently at him, leaving him with a feeling of his soul being pierced. " If we were going to leave you, we would have done so when you first started acting irrationally. We're your friends. While we haven't appreciated your behavior, we still care about you." Not as much, or even the same way, as I used to, but still.." "Apology accepted."
Yuffie nodded agreement, but not as determinedly as the older woman had done. "Yeah, " she answered, then decided to follow up with an explanation. "I mean, you guys have been putting up with me... Not that I'm saying I'm nearly as bad as you or anything," she hurriedly continued, reddening, causing everybody to start sniggering. Having succeeded in cheering the others up Yuffie smiled serenely, leaning against a tree with her arms crossed over her chest. "And once again you save the day, Yuffie."
They all stood silent, looking at each other for a few peaceful moment, feeling that maybe everything would turn out alright after all.
* * * * *
Sephiroth unlocked the front door of the unlit villa and crossed the threshold, fingers tracing the wall searching for the light switch. After turning on the light, he quickly closed the door, locking it behind him. On the way here, he had had the most peculiar feeling.. He couldn't quite put a finger on it but it did feel as if something awful was awaiting him. Not in the hallway though. Seeing nothing else than the usual, diversely colored coats and jackets hanging from their hooks, he warily entered the kitchen.
Nothing unusual there either.
Having scanned through the house, finding nothing, Sephiroth decided to call it a day, since the last thirty or so hours had been quite straining. Once in his bedroom, the feeling from earlier returned. This time, it was closer, more intimidating, more imminent. He frowned, eyes narrowing, and reached for his sword. It wasn't were he had left it, however. In fact, he soon discovered that it was not even in the room, which was bizarre since he had definite recollections of leaving it there before they drove over to Cloud. Of course he hadn't wanted to stand unarmed in case of danger, but he had weighed that against looking like too big a threat, and decided to leave the Masamune at home.
Funny that. This was the place most homely, most like a home to him, that he had ever been in, and he had found that he enjoyed it immensely. He smiled inwardly, remembering at the thought that he had something important to discuss with Tifa later. That subject, too, was something he had not experienced much in his life up to now.
More important right now, though, was to find his sword. Closing his eyes, he cleansed his mind from all distracting thoughts, browsing through his extraordinary memory to see where he had left his weapon.
Most peculiar. It should be in this room.
So where was it?
And was that footsteps he heard on the floor below?
* * * * *
"What was it you wanted to talk to me about?" Tifa inquired, tilting her head a little to the side and looking at Cloud. Cloud smiled at her, unsure of how to act, but then quietly led Tifa into the house, closing the door behind them.
Yuffie looked wonderingly at the now tranquil and calm Aeris, who shrugged away the unasked question. This was really something between Cloud and Tifa, something that they should have talked about a long time ago. "If I hadn't been in the way, they probably would have, too."
Instead, she convinced Yuffie to give her a small tour of the city, so Aeris could get some air and see what had changed since her last visit. She needed to buy new clothes, too, since she had been wearing this particular dress for more than a year now. "Eww..." She wrinkled her nose, and quickly pushed away the unpleasant thought.
* * * * *
Sephiroth strode towards the bedroom door. He reached for the knob that served as a handle but before he had had time to turn it, the door flew open. In swarmed a mass of young girls, all dressed in attires similar to his. They encircled him, surrounding him completely before he had a chance to react.
He turned around, seeking a way to break to circle, but ending up facing the dark-haired, silver-eyed Hojo-spawn who triumphantly grinned at him. Next to her stood the leader, with a petulant look in her eyes.
"You don't need to be afraid, Master," she slowly pronounced, taking delight in letting every syllable roll off her lips. "We wish only what is best for you." "And if it happens that it is best for me, as well - then so be it."
"You have got to be kidding, " answered Sephiroth, annoyance making his voice harsh. "What is best for me is to never see you again for the rest of my life." After flicking a strand of hair away from his face, he crossed his arms over his almost bare chest, disturbed by the constant gazes from the affected younger girls.
"Now stop being so childish, and behave as who you are. The rightful ruler of this planet. " Mayalin's eyes glazed over as she once more started dreaming. The small, dark woman next to her looked annoyed, but kept staring at Sephiroth with that same smile - as if she knew his every thought, and even worse, knew that she was the one putting them in his mind.
Knowing that the girls probably wouldn't understand his arguments, Sephiroth still had to try. "Who is being childish here? You're the ones conjuring up immature dreams of taking over the world. I crave nothing of the sorts." "And if I did, I most certainly would not need a teen-aged co-ruler gawking over me all the time." Now how would he get out of this unpleasant situation?
Mayalin sighed, dejected that it seemed she once more had to depend on that stupid, power-mad sibling of Sephiroth's. She had hoped that she could sweet-talk him into returning to them, proving once and for all that she was worthy. On the other hand.. Perhaps she hadn't been clear enough? Better try again.
"Sephiroth, you know that we will fulfill your every dream. " She looked at him flirtatiously, hoping that he would catch her drift. Nevertheless, by some weird circumstance, he looked back at her with that same weary annoyance, as if she was being a nuisance!
"Alright then. "
Mayalin's heart skipped a beat. "I knew it would work! Now I've got him exactly where I want him."
"I wish that you would leave me alone." Having said that, he finally lost his temper and pushed her away so she fell onto the bed then marched towards the stairs leading down to the bottom floor.
* * * * *
Cloud appeared to be a trifle embarrassed about something. He sat down on the same sofa that had witnessed his not-so-glorious failure a few minutes ago, hoping it would behold something nicer this time, and pulled Tifa down beside him. He stared right ahead so he wouldn't need to look at her and feel stupid when he voiced his thoughts.
"Tifa, I.. Aeris said you've been in love with me for a long time." After saying this, his face turned completely pink. "Stupid. I am so stupid, for bringing Aeris into the conversation."
When Tifa didn't answer instantaneously, he dared glancing at her. She sat with her hands folded in her lap, face as flushed as his.
"Is it.. true?" he breathed, not knowing what to think. "I wanted to join SOLDIER because of her. I just wanted her to notice me. And look at me now. How have I treated her?"
"Yes," Tifa admitted finally, looking down into the floor as if she wanted to scrub it clean with just her glares.
Cloud stopped breathing. "Is it her I've loved all the time? Or am I only reacting like this because I'm finding out that at least someone cares about me?" He closed his eyes, trying to reason it out. After spending a year yearning for one woman, he wanted to be sure before getting involved with someone else.
"Yes, I did care for you. Deeply. " Tifa continued. "However, I.. don't have the same feelings for you anymore. I knew it would always be Aeris for you, and so my love eventually faded away." "And.. I met somebody else." Having finally admitted it - even if only to herself - made her stomach start curling together again. "Damn it Teef, do you have to be so dependent of others all the time?"
Cloud's shoulders sagged. "One more down the drain. And I'm not going for Yuffie." "I... see."
"..." "I wonder where we would've been if he had said this just a few months ago. Hell, if he said it two weeks ago. I'd probably thrown myself at him. Look at him! He doesn't even know what he's feeling anymore!"
"Tifa, I'm so sorry. It must have been very painful for you to hear me.."
"Yes, it was. Now, please, I don't really want to talk about that now." A lone tear was glistening in her eye but she didn't seem to notice.
* * * * *
"Not so fast, " a hissing, scraping voice grated, so much like her father, enforcing the command with a mental order to the fleeing Sephiroth.
"I will not falter."
His legs stopped moving.
"I can withstand Mother."
He turned around, dropping to his knees. Head bowed and looking down, he once more pledged his soul.
"I will obey."
Returning to the girls, his last conscious thoughts cursed him for not being more cautious. After that, his brain felt as if buried in soap bubbles, and the only thing he cared about was the beautiful smile of his beloved mistress. Somewhere deep inside someone was screaming, but that was of no importance.
* * * * *
When Aeris and Yuffie returned, they found Cloud outside. He was watching the sun set, looking completely devastated. When he saw the women arrive, he made an effort to perk up, grinning his usual self-confident smile at them and waving. To Yuffie's question of where he'd hidden Tifa, he pointed to the house. "She's baking something, and she won't let me taste. She won't even let me know what it's going to be. Smells like chocolate to me, though." Indeed, a sweet smell was worming its way out through the open kitchen window.
"Weird to see Cloud back to normal, or whatever it is." Yuffie contemplated. "It must've been a weird day for him as well. At least I noticed Tifa acting strange, even if I did not expect Sephiroth and Aeris to be the reason. I wonder how it'd be like, to first get the one you love back from death, and then hearing she was never interested in you at all."
"Hey Cloud, how are you feeling now?" she asked, feeling strangely empathic for some reason.
Finding the question a little unexpected coming from her of all people, Cloud stared at Yuffie, bewildered, before answering.
"Well... I felt like piss for a while."
Yuffie laughed. "That's honest anyway. What about now?"
"I don't really know. I guess I'm glad that Aeris is back." At that Aeris glared at him, making a face. Cloud looked baffled, then at thinking back what he'd just said, blushed.
"Of course I'm glad you're back, Aeris. But so much happened today, and I'm just so.. confused." Then he thought of something else. "Oh, and... how is this possible? No one has bothered explaining how you can be back. I mean.. you were really gone."
Aeris and Yuffie looked at each other, worried. They stood silent for a while, each hoping that the other would come up with a reasonable explanation.
"It's kinda weird... " Yuffie said, at the same time as Aeris opened her mouth saying "You'd better ask Tifa."
Yuffie nodded, happy to let someone else do the explaining. "Yeah, ask Tifa. She's the one doing it. I was just kinda.. trailing her. 'Cause she was acting so weird. 'Course you didn't notice, you were weird too."
"Yuffie, you promised.." Aeris said, looking dissatisfied.
"Yeah, yeah alright." She pouted, but continued "Sorry, Cloud, I'll try to stop bringing that up."
* * * * *
When Tifa finally let them in, she wasn't too eager to answer Cloud's questions.
"Can't we talk about all that tomorrow? I think you've had enough shocks today as it is." She motioned for them to follow her into the kitchen, where an enormous chocolate cake awaited them. Baking was the perfect activity to put Tifa in a contemplative mood, which was exactly why she'd starting making a cake at this time of the day. As they sat down, Tifa poured up the strong black tea that they all had grown to love. Well, they'd had to, since it was all Cid wanted to drink anyway.
"Shocks?" Cloud wondered, sipping from his cup. The circumstances leading to Aeris revival must have been peculiar indeed, if they would be shocking to him after this awful day. He wasn't quite happy with the answer, but he wouldn't lower himself to begging. Not after today. "Alright, if you promise you'll tell me then. I've gotten nothing out of these two, " he pointed at Aeris and Yuffie, "and I sure can't figure it out by myself."
"Alright, alright, I promise I'll tell you all about it tomorrow." Tifa didn't look too happy, but understood that Cloud weren't going to give up about something this important.
The cake tasted wonderful, but then again, nobody was surprised. Tifa was a master chef, and her skills were honed to perfection after her years at the Seventh Heaven and now her own restaurant. After eating, Cloud prepared a guest room for Aeris, while the girls stayed in the kitchen to discuss how to tell Cloud about Sephiroth.
* * * * *
The following morning Cloud woke up late. His dreams had been wondrously free of all references to death, catastrophes and Aeris. This was the first night since they had defeated Sephiroth he had been able to sleep through, undisturbed by nightmares. He felt like a new person. No, erase that. He felt like a human again, prepared to take on the world. Just as when he was fourteen and wanted to become a SOLDIER.
He hastily threw on his clothes and rushed down the stairs, almost bumping into Aeris who were arranging flowers in a small blue vase. She frowned, but when she saw his happy smile she couldn't resist grinning back, eyes sparkling. "I take it you're feeling better today," she said, handing one of her roses to him.
Cloud nodded, and gave the girl a quick hug before continuing to the kitchen, looking for Tifa. It was time for her to fulfil her promise, and whatever she would reveal he thought he could handle it today.
In the kitchen, however, the only thing relating to Tifa was a note addressed to him, in her handwriting. "Just checking on a friend, "it said. "I'll be right back." Cloud hummed, but since their was nothing to be done about it, he decided to get some breakfast and wait for Tifa's return in front of the television.
* * * * *
Tifa warily entered the house. All the lights were turned off, but yet the door was unlock. Something was amiss. She called Sephiroth's name a few times, but at receiving no answer, started looking for him. At last she found a note, fastened on the inside on the front door. "I need some time alone," it read in Sephiroth's characteristic bold handwriting. "I'll contact you if I need anything. Don't try to find me."
"Huh?" The was certainly news to Tifa. He hadn't suggested anything like this. In fact, she had gotten the impression that he wanted to clear the air with Cloud just so he could spend more time with her. Though she had probably misunderstood that part, with her heart going soft again and all. She sighed miserably, and pulled the note down. With her right hand, she crumpled it to a tight ball and threw it in the trash bin in the kitchen. "Well, this is safer for him if I don't know where he is, now that I'm going to tell Cloud."
The way back to Cloud's villa was a desolate one. Tifa was feeling the weight of all the world on her heart, and wondered if she had made the right decision in helping Sephiroth. "At least Cloud's back to normal now, I guess. And for me? Well, I'm still in love with someone who doesn't return my feelings, but Cloud and I have become friends again." On some scale, that had to be better.
* * * * *
When Tifa returned, Cloud and Yuffie were occupied by some sort of cartoon on TV. "...never running from a real fight... " a bunch of girls were singing, not quite in tune with the accompanying music. Her friends were too absorbed to even acknowledge her presence, so she just went into the kitchen, grabbed the remains of the cake and returned to the living room to join the others in the couch. As she made herself comfortable, a newsflash interrupted the show.
An agitated reported was standing in front of a miles-wide pile of what looked like ruined buildings. Fires were ablaze all over the place, and the sky was blackened by soot.
"Reporting live from the ruins of Neo-Midgar," she shouted, trying to make herself heard over the chaos surrounding her.
"Just an hour ago, something large crashed down from the skies, totally destroying the city of Midgar that has been slowly recovering the meteor impact a year ago."
Eyes widening for each passing second, the four witnessed an unsteady, shaking video obviously taken by a nearby bystander during the incident. The scene was disturbingly familiar for all but Aeris, but it was Cloud that mouthed the suspicions first.
"That's... Supernova!" he shouted, jumping up from the sofa looking for his sword. "Sephiroth's back!"
"By Hades! The girls must've found him!" cried Tifa to Cloud's surprise.
"The girls must've found... who?" Eyes narrowing, he edged closer to Tifa. "You're not saying that.."
"Oh be quiet," Aeris told him. "This is not about you. Yes, Sephiroth is back, but he's the one who helped Tifa in reviving me."
"What? You've met Sephiroth and never told me? You.. you traitor!" He now looked like he wanted to strike Tifa down, but she grabbed him by the arms trying to calm him down.
"He's one of the nice guys now," she tried.
"Nice? You call it nice to demolish a city like that? Don't you remember what he did to your father? What he did to Nibelheim?" He squirmed and wriggled, trying to break loose from Tifa's hold, but got nowhere.
"We don't have time for this, " Tifa yelled back at him, momentarily stunning him into silence. "Get out to the car and I'll tell you everything on the way." She shooed him out through the door, ignoring his protests. After changing into her combat attire she followed him, finding Aeris and Yuffie ready for action in the back of the car as well.