Cloud had been hearing rumours about some of Cosmos’s most recently summoned.
For the most part, he didn’t pay much attention to the conflict – he’d fight when the need arose, but Chaos wasn’t big on giving them specific orders and most of time Cloud stayed deep enough in Discord’s territory to only have to deal with the occasional lost or particularly bold champion of Harmony.
Chaos’s champions gossiped, though. It seemed to be everyone’s third favourite hobby – right after diabolical plotting and mass destruction. Without even trying, the news would eventually reach his ears.
Most of it didn’t matter, and he tuned it out. But Kefka’s lewd comments about a young brawler wearing a tight white tank top...
Cloud didn’t want to believe. What were the chances? It was bad enough that Sephiroth was here, but Tifa?
He needed to find out for sure. It would change everything. He didn’t know what he’d do if it were true, but he needed to know.
The only question was how.
His biggest advantage was that he wasn’t very well known around Cosmos’s camp – largely because with each cycle the few that met him didn’t survive the encounter, and so forgot about him when the cycle began anew. All the same, he couldn’t simply openly wander onto the Southern Continent. He was the enemy, after all.
So he needed a disguise.
Putting the clothes on was uncomfortable, but when he was by himself in the middle of nowhere, it was no big deal. What was he to care about what a bunch of moogles thought of his appearance? All that mattered was that he had a compelling disguise, and as much as it felt really, really weird, it was the most effective disguise he could think up with such limited resources on hand. The moogles didn’t have that sort of variety in their shops – it was surprising enough they had this. For the girls, he guessed. Shinryu only knew Darkness could use some more clothes.
It wasn’t until he first ran into somebody else, though, that he remembered exactly how emasculating this getup could be.
Some kid was hollering at him. Cloud self-consciously tucked a long strand of blonde hair behind his ears, and checked that his purple choker was hiding his throat and that the neckline of the silk dress still sat high enough to properly cover his decidedly fake breasts.
The tanned, platinum-blond teenager was waving him down enthusiastically from atop the grey-green grassy knoll. Following at a more leisurely pace was an older man toting a machine gun – an odd weapon in a world so heavily dominated by more medieval weaponry. The sight of it made Cloud nostalgic for his own world.
When they were closer, the boy stopped and let out an appreciative whistle.
“Hey, I haven’t seen you around before! Are you new? You’re with Cosmos, right? I’m Vaan, that slowpoke over there is Laguna.” Cloud, who had been ready with his backstory and excuses, stared at him in bafflement. He’d fought some naïve warriors over the cycles, but wasn’t it just a bit optimistic to assume he was with Cosmos just because he was in their territory? This was way too easy.
No point passing up a wild materia, though. “Nice to meet you,” he murmured, voice soft and pitched just a little higher than normal.
Laguna caught up then. “H-hey, nice to… uh, that is… um, owww, leg cramp, leg cramp!”
Vaan gave him a curious look and snorted. “What’s the matter with you?”
“N-nothing! Aha! Ahahahaha,” Laguna laughed nervously.
Stuttering idiot, Cloud decided, and deliberately didn’t think any further into it. He tried especially hard not to notice the red blooming on the gunman’s cheeks or his nervously wandering gaze.
“We’re going to go look for the others, wanna come along?” Vaan offered. “We got separated when we ran into some manikins a while back.”
Almost suspiciously easy. Cloud nodded. “Do you know if a girl named Tifa is with them?”
“Tifa, Tifa…” Vaan scratched his head. “I only just arrived, sorry. No idea. Kain’s been around for a while though, he might know! You can ask him when we meet up with the rest.”
Cloud paused at that, and suddenly realised he hadn’t thought this through. His disguise would work on casual inspection, but could he really keep it up while travelling to meet the others? And if they came across any manikins, it would look really suspicious if he didn’t get attacked.
Maybe it wasn’t so easy after all.
Laguna had moved on to making some kind of choking noises that almost resembled words. Cloud started to send a silent prayer to Shinryu for strength, but stopped himself at the last moment. On this world, prayers had an uncomfortable tendency of getting answered in ways you never intended.
As the hours passed, Laguna eventually wrangled some semblance of control over his vocal chords, Cloud was almost used to walking in high heels – though his feet were killing him – and Vaan had yet to break his constant stream of chatter.
So far, it wasn’t as bad as Cloud had feared. They’d been lucky in avoiding manikins, and Vaan’s prattle – while tiring - saved him from having to talk much.
For the most part, anyway.
“How old are you?” Vaan asked out of the blue.
Laguna sputtered. “Vaan, you can’t just ask a pretty lady-”
Cloud gave them both weird looks. What was so wrong about it? “I have no idea.” That was the truth. Even in his world, his exact age could get a little confusing. In this world where time stood still and cycles could pass the length of years, he’d long lost any sort of count. “How old are you?” he countered, mostly to derail any further nosy questions.
“Seventeen!” Vaan replied easily.
Which was a good two years older than Cloud had guessed. He supposed he should just be grateful that Vaan still hadn’t moved much past the childish curiosity stage of adolescence.
Though, given the teen’s lack of any meaningful shirt, maybe the girls where he came from wore so little there was a good deal less to be embarrassed about. Whichever it was, Cloud was glad for it.
Whatever the boy had been about to ask next was thankfully aborted when he spotted someone on the edge of the sandbars up ahead.
“Hey! Hey, Laguna, look, it’s Yuna! Yunaaaa!” Vaan hollered across the beach.
The summoner turned and greeted them with a bright smile. “Vaan, Laguna!” she greeted as they caught up, then her bright, mismatched eyes landed on Cloud. “And who’s this?”
“Another ally for Cosmos! I found her wandering around alone in the north,” Vaan introduced.
“Nice to meet you,” Yuna greeted politely. Cloud managed a small smile back, though couldn’t help but feel wistful. From what he’d heard, Yuna had been in the cycle for some time, yet still she managed to maintain such a peaceful, accepting demeanour. Cloud couldn’t help but be envious. She turned to the other two. “But what were you doing in the north? That’s so far away from where we were supposed to meet up.”
“Laguna,” Vaan said, as though that explained everything.
“H-hey! I knew exactly where we were going!”
Yuna smiled gently. “I’m sure you did. Why don’t we hurry on to find the others? They can’t be much further ahead.”
“Yeah, let’s go!” Vaan scampered across the sandy beach with ease.
Yuna was slow to catch up, and Cloud was slow in general because he was currently discovering the hard way why high heels and dresses and sand didn’t mix well. Still, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. “I wanted to ask,” he said, keeping his voice soft and low, “Do you know a girl named Tifa? She has brown hair and brown eyes. Likes to fight with her fists.”
Yuna tilted her head thoughtfully for a moment. “I’m sorry, no. I’ve mostly travelled with Sir Jecht until now, so I haven’t had the chance to meet the newest ones yet.”
Cloud sighed, and nodded his thanks. He was stuck in this disguise a little longer yet, apparently. Lucky him.
“She’s important to you, isn’t she?” she asked.
Cloud stiffened, and turned his eyes away.
Yuna laid a gentle hand on his arm. “Don’t worry,” she whispered with a kind, understanding smile. “Your secret is safe with me.”
Then with that cryptic comment, she shuffled ahead to join Vaan and Laguna.
Cloud spent the rest of the day’s travelling spooked beyond words, wondering exactly which secret she meant – if she knew he was with Chaos, or that ‘she’ was actually a man.
The worst part was, he couldn’t figure out which answer he dreaded more.
Cloud was somewhat reassured when Lightning Farron was immediately suspicious of him.
It almost made up for the fact that Kain Highwind wasn’t.
Kain had been one of the ones Cloud most worried about. He’d been in the cycle long enough to start recognising its nature, and was inevitably reclaiming a significant number of memories along with it. If anyone were going to see through his disguise, it would be the dragoon.
“Tifa, was it?” Kain asked thoughtfully. “I have not yet met anybody by that description. But then, it is possible she is newly arrived in this world, much like these ones.” He indicated the others with his lance.
Lightning crossed her arms and regarded the newcomer with open distrust. “So, you claim to be with Cosmos. Why haven’t we seen you before? And how do you know about this ‘Tifa’?” she demanded.
“Hey, Light, cool it,” Laguna protested with a friendly smile. “She’s just new like us, right?” Kain nodded his agreement.
Her suspicion didn’t lessen at all. “That doesn’t answer the question. If she’s so new, why is she asking about this ‘Tifa’ person?”
Cloud wasn’t good at thinking up lies on the spot. Luckily, he had already planned for these questions before he first made contact – thanks to Vaan, he simply hadn’t needed that preparation until now. “We met when we first arrived here, but we got separated.”
She continued watching him through narrowed eyes. A long, strained silence developed.
Cloud rode it out like a pro. He was the professor of long, strained silences. Even when wearing a dress.
Especially when wearing a dress.
In the end, Lightning scoffed, and turned away. “Fine. Whatever. Let’s not waste any more time.” She sent a disdainful glare at Cloud’s heels. “If you think you can keep up.”
Cloud revised his earlier opinion.
It wasn’t just distrust. Lightning, for some reason, absolutely hated him.
It didn’t particularly bother him – they were enemies, after all – but Cloud couldn’t figure out why. He hadn’t done anything to tip anyone off, had he? Except Yuna, apparently, but whatever it was she’d figured out about him, she didn’t seem inclined to share – not even with him. She reminded him a little of Aeris, actually, so for all he knew she also had a secret hobby of dressing guys up in drag and so could spot them from a distance.
Kain was keeping pace beside him. It suited Cloud, as the dragoon for the most part kept a comfortable, if vigilant, silence. It made for a pleasant change from Laguna’s nonsensical stuttering, Vaan’s speculative monologues, and Lightning pointed barbs.
At least, until Kain had to go ruin it.
“Do you need any assistance?”
Cloud glanced at him, irritably tucking a stray blond curl back into place. Long hair was annoying – how did Sephiroth fight with it? And his feet ached constantly from the unnatural arch they’d been forced into. “No. What made you think I did?” As painful as they were, he thought he’d finally mastered the heels. Was there a flaw developing in his disguise?
“I meant no offence. Only, your attire is not entirely… practical.”
“Tell that to the moogles,” Cloud muttered.
Cloud was fortunately saved from explaining that by the pink-haired fighter who held him in such low esteem.
“Kain!” Lightning barked. “A word.”
The dragoon stopped, expectant.
Lightning sent an impatient glance at Cloud. “In private.”
“I see,” Kain murmured, then with the slightest of bows to Cloud, excused himself to follow his comrade a short distance away.
Vaan sidled into the empty space Kain had left – Laguna was still trailing by a distance, huffing and puffing and rubbing at his leg, Yuna encouraging him along. “Oh man, she really has it bad. You should watch out- hey, what did you say your name was again?”
Cloud hadn’t. He cast about for a distraction. “What did I do to annoy her so much?”
Vaan folded his arms behind his head. “Well, Kain, you know, he doesn’t normally travel with us. Not like this,” the boy confided. “He normally stands off on his own, or scouts ahead, or guards the rear.”
Cloud stared. “So…?” he prodded.
Vaan laughed. “So isn’t it obvious?”
After that, the comfortable silence Cloud had been enjoying with the dragoon got a lot less so.
It was her.
Cloud couldn’t believe it. It really was Tifa. The brunette country-girl he’d once shared a promise with, once saved the world with. She was here, trapped in the same cursed cycle as him.
“-And she said she knows you,” Lightning finished their introductions with a sharp jerk of her head in his direction.
“Really?” Those familiar, chocolate-brown eyes turned on him. To Cloud’s shock – and joy – recognition flashed within their depths.
“Tifa,” he greeted, voice faint.
For one long moment, they stared at each other. Cloud swallowed. It felt like… it had been… years since he last laid eyes on her. The rush of emotion that swept through him left him dizzy. It was as though he’d spent the past few cycles seeing in nothing but greys, and now colour had suddenly invaded his world.
Then Tifa clapped her hands, and shattered the gravity of the moment. “Oh! I think I remember you! Miss Cloud, isn’t it?” Her brow knitted in thought. “We were sneaking into some dodgy place together, right? Wait, there’s something weird about that memory…” she trailed off, then shrugged. “I can’t remember it all, I guess. But it’s great to meet someone else from my world!”
Throughout all those miserable cycles, Cloud never wanted to kill himself as much as that exact moment.
Tifa didn’t remember him. Tifa only remembered the girl who’d sneaked into Corneo’s Mansion with her.
It had to be Chaos screwing with him. Not even Sephiroth was this evil.
“Nice to see you again,” Cloud eventually managed to murmur. It came out slightly strangled.
Lightning’s eyes narrowed. “Wait,” she interrupted. “I thought you said you’d met before in this world before getting separated.”
Tifa shook her head guilelessly. “No, this is definitely the first time we’ve met since I woke up here. What is she talking about, Miss Cloud?”
Cloud stared at them each in turn, gauging their reactions. Lightning’s suspicion had sharpened to a knife edge. Kain had gone very still. Vaan just looked confused, but even he read the mood and started shifting into battle stance.
Well, it had worked longer than he thought it would.
“Hey look,” Cloud said, staring over their shoulders. “Manikins.”
He’d become rather fast at running in high heels. By the time they turned around again, he was already long gone.
He’d done what he’d planned. He’d confirmed Tifa was one of Cosmos’s summoned.
Cloud took off his high heels and threw them into the sea. It would have been more satisfying to burn them, but he was still in Cosmos’s territory. He didn’t exactly want to go picking fights in a somewhat flimsy dress, no matter what the moogles said about ‘stats’.
The gush of water and hum of energy gave him pause. When he turned back around, a void had opened in the sea behind him, black and murky. Dark lightning crackled, and rising from the depths of the rift came a samurai, face painted white and red.
“Looooong have I waited for this day, Bar- Whoaaaaa!”
Cloud stared. He definitely wasn’t one of Cosmos’s lot, but Cloud didn’t recognise him from Chaos’s ranks, either. “Who are you?”
The odd samurai cleared his throat and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “There is no name to call me by, miss,” he said in a low, sultry voice, buffing his knuckles against his armour.
Something deep inside Cloud – something he’d held in check through Laguna’s blushing stammering, Vaan’s blunt assertions, Lightning’s jealous rages and Tifa forgetting everything about him except the worst of all possible memories – finally snapped.
That was when he pulled out the Sexy Cologne.
“H-Hey, what are you… argh! That stings! What is that stuff?! I can’t breathe! This is most unladylike behaviour!”