Over the dusky hills of Radiant Garden, over the shadows that no longer menace, over the beautiful purples and blues and greens that have yet to fade, over all that, Tifa Lockhart and Cloud Strife stand side by side. It's their first time in this new world.
In someone else's new world.
In a world where, perhaps, a burst of wild colors just might once more bloom, ever glowing like the newborn squall of sunrises not yet existent and sunsets not yet dead. It's a world of untold possibilities, of future and chance and it is what one might call hope. Might.
But for them, this is untouched territory. This will be unused territory. This will always be a never.
There is no Sephiroth to fight, no Keyblade Master to defend, no Heartless to send. Their friends melt back to the castle. They are giving the two a chance to be alone, a chance to speak of things past that might be better left unsaid. Tifa loves them with a different part of her, with something strong, something fierce – how else could they have seen her? – but there is no time. Already, she can sense different colors from the others; colors that fade in and out of corners and the whole world warps two-dimension before her eyes.
Tifa tries not to think of Yuffie's tear-stained face, how bittersweet Aerith's farewell is, the scent of Cid's gruffly broken heart. She wishes she could give them something more, something of others deader than her. She wishes she could give Yuffie's youth and hope back all wrapped up in scarlet and gold. She wishes she has more time to speak to Aeris of girlish pasts, over coffee and biscuits. She wishes that she has something from their better world, tea and glasses, for Cid. But her wishes are like the deceased chocobos and she has nothing, not even a ribbon.
She is here for one reason and the one reason stands beside her. There is a sword at his side, the red cape of an old friend twisted around his neck, and the wing of a once-beloved leader on his back.
Tifa turns her head to the right and she glances at a pale figure that slouches, quiet and sullen.
For him, it's supposedly over. The sword falls to the ground with a heavy thud, the soil pits in answer, Sephiroth fades away. The world is making a slow and subtle shift back to what it once was, what it still is. Hollow Bastion is no longer quite so hollow. Cloud's darkness is no longer a physical representation and yet, and yet, and yet...
He bleeds. His hands bleed, his neck bleeds, his face, his mouth, his heart...
She chooses her words with exquisite care. "There was nothing you could have done, you know."
Once upon a time, he might have denied this. Once upon a time, he might have told her to stop being silly. But fairytale time is over and their story is winding towards their end. He doesn't say much. He doesn't have to. He's Cloud, man of few words. He's Cloud, being of darkness. He's Cloud, failure and friend-slayer.
"We did not have time." She gestures to the beauty of a world slowly recovering and Cloud curses it.
He's long learned that time was never about the past or the future, but the agonizing present. Anything could happen, many things have happened, everything might never, and the world is his and the world is now. He knows, he's learned, but still, he commits the same mistakes over and over.
Words try to come out but there's nothing but his breath and her breath and they intermingle in the soft air. She reminds him of the fact that he chases ghosts and demons because they are all he has left to chase.
Tifa is awkward as a ghost.
She shifts, as if uncomfortable in her faintly luminescent skin. "I suppose saying that you've gotten what you wanted would be a bit of a lie." She smiles sadly. "None of us got what we 'wanted, and in the end, destroying Sephiroth didn't really mean much, did it?"
No, it doesn't. Sephiroth is dead and for the first time, all Cloud wants to say is so what? So what? Ding-dong, the witch is dead, the witch is dead, and all he has left are her wings.
Tifa stretches and the muscles pull over her taut stomach, the golden tan unchanged by the years that have passed since her death. She looks flushed and healthy, as she once was and it's the look she gives him that really shakes him. She looks at him as if he's a newly-born babe, all tenderness and love, and he wants to crawl at the utter faith she seems to have for him.
Out of a voice, cracked and rusty, he says, "You could stay."
Silence. Is she thinking about it? Is she considering possibilities and chances? Maybe she can stay; maybe all the rules can be broken just this once and he hopes so hard he can feel his teeth ache.
"I don't think I can." Her voice is slow, considerate and worse, sorrowful.
Of course. Of all the things that never came to be, why would this one thing come true?
"This isn't my world, Cloud, not anymore. You know that..." She falters. "I..."
And she stops. Something ancient and crusted-over breaks apart in him and he chokes on it all.
Tifa's form is becoming just the slightest diaphanous and it whispers like a Heartless wind. This is their end. He'd have called it impossible, but it might be even harder than the first time round. He didn't think it was fair; he was only supposed to have one goodbye per person per life and look at him. He's already up to three and now this one, Tifa, Tifa's back and he can do little but stand here and not say goodbye. He turns to look at her. Really looks at her.
"You haven't changed." And he means it literally. Her hair. Her hair is longer.
An familiar feeling bubbles up in his chest at the way she self-consciously smooths the invisible wrinkles out of her clothing, but at the same time, his heart breaks a little too and ain't that a surprise? He'd been sure he didn't have much of a heart left to do anything with.
"I know. It was my choice... I didn't want to be that selfish little girl you fought for, but neither did I want to be the woman who fought against Sephiroth because I was past that. So it was a matter of expediency." She laughs. "I wanted to be strong, someone you wouldn't have to rescue again." She pauses and smiles. "And it was when I was happiest." Her burgundy eyes fairly glow in memories and he sees the images of -
Shinra and Nibelheim and Midgar Kalm Yuffie Aeris Vincent Barret Red Reeve Cid Cait Marlene Denzel Edge Seventh Heaven
"Happiest..." How could she have been happy? He'd run off, he'd left her with two kids, he'd left her to tend the bar alone with longer and longer intervals and she'd never complained. Never even tried to complain, though she'd told him often enough – very gently – that he couldn't keep on abandoning Denzel like that. Denzel. Denzel. Same as Marlene. Same as Barret. His voice is rough like sandpaper. "How could you have been happy?"
She laughs and it sounds like silver bells and chocolate cake. He'd nearly forgotten what chocolate cake sounded like. "Because I was. I was happy, Cloud. Nothing was perfect, but when is it ever? I didn't want perfect." Her eyes grow distant. "I never wanted perfect, Cloud. Not when you wanted to be a SOLDIER or when you thought we didn't need to know that you were sick."
And she's being honest, being as optimistic and beautiful and gut-wrenching honest as she ever was back then. The words echo around them and their history weighs it down. Cloud finds that he can't breathe very well. His lungs expand and contract with fitful gasps and if he didn't know better, he'd think he was crying. This is not supposed to be their ending. That hadn't been their ending. He was supposed to get better. He was one day going to come back, roaring on his Fenrir and the world would have stopped having an apocalypse every other year. He'd be at peace and she'd welcome him back with open arms and they'd be a family and everyone would died old and wrinkled and, and, and,
And then the Heartless came.
A warm hand comes to rest on his shoulder but he feels old.
Tifa murmurs, "We saved our world three times, Cloud. I don't think we were meant a fourth." She looks out over Radiant Garden with a distant look in her eyes. "When the Heartless came, I thought we could save the world again. But They kept coming. And coming. They'd already found the keyhole to the Planet and I don't think even the Knights could have stopped Them." She turns to look at him with soft love. "We can't always be the heroes, Cloud."
"Hero..." An ugly laugh escapes his throat, deep and guttural. "Hero? I was never a hero, Tifa. I couldn't save Zack. I couldn't save Aeris. I couldn't save you." That may be the crux of their relationship now; is he ever doomed to love people he cannot save?
She looks at him inquisitively. "Did I need saving?"
"When They came, do you think you could have stopped Them? Do you think that of all the worlds that were destroyed, our world would somehow be miraculously saved? There was no Keyblade Master for us. There were no keyholes that could be sealed before They poured through like oil out of a broken drum, there was no stopping Them, you know that, right?" She steps forward and spreads her arms as if she could reform and rebirth the Planet with her very will. "I don't think I needed to be saved, because I chose the way I went. They tore into me, They reached for my flesh and deep down, They grabbed my heart and I could hear the sound of chewing and swallowing and They were inky black like the starless night and I couldn't see-"
Cloud makes a sound like a dog on its tired last legs and Tifa stops because she can do nothing but stop.
"... I'm sorry." She sounds regretful. "It's been a very long time, hasn't it?"
A long time.
Yes. He almost wonders at this.
It has been a very long time. A long time since he saw Barret's heart ripped out right in front of his face and the look on Marlene's face as the burly man threw her into Cloud's arms before his body melted into the darkness and how she'd clawed and bit at his arms, her words a terrible mixture of traitor failure how could you! and, yes, how could he abandon her father like that?
A long time since Vincent had bled darkness and twitchy things and they'd realized that his demons were being slowly consumed in their world. Yuffie fought a losing battle to keep him alive, to keep him on their plane. In the end, she'd spilled hysterical words that made Tifa cry, Cid curse, and Vincent knocked her out with a claw to the head. He'd tossed her onto the airship with an unreadable look in his eyes as they took off in a frantic attempt to flee the Heartless pouring out of his chest. Cloud knows many things, but he didn't think he'd ever know how the self-proclaimed monster had felt as he'd watched the ship fly away with only the memory of Yuffie's final words – Cloud still wonders, now, whether Yuffie ever repeats those tender phrases to herself at night – to keep him company.
A long time since the Turks blew them out of Midgar and the way Rufus had smirked before detonating the city and thus granting the refugees a brief reprieve to escape to Kalm... but then Kalm had fallen and Fort Condor followed, then Junon and Costa del Sol and the list never ended.
A long time since Marlene had gotten sicker and sicker and as Denzel seemed to fade into the very shadows and Tifa had nearly killed herself trying to cure them but nothing could save two children from dirty water and fear and in the end it wasn't even the Heartless that had taken her babies and maybe, maybe, maybe Tifa'd lost something that even he couldn't replace.
It had been a long time since Red and Reeve had burst out of the rickety gummi ship as Cid howled for them to get back on and there had been teeth and guns and sharp gunfire and they told them to go go gogogogo! And he should have paid attention, he should have been watching, he should have been a hero but he hadn't been and whip of oily black had come up and grabbed Tifa by the waist and he'd turned only to see her slam against the guardrail of the ship and the look of shock and despair and fury as it hauled her over the side and he'd grabbed her by the arm and they'd hung there like a misbegotten ladder, all misery sweat tears, and she'd looked at him and he'd screamed for someone anyone to come help him and where was Yuffie, where was Cid, where was RedVincentReeveAerisZackRudeRenoElenaMarleneBarretDenzel and something had passed through her eyes, something must have been in her thoughts because just as he was about to be pulled over himself, she'd reached up and clawed him hard with her fingers and the flash of pain and blood exploded and he'd dropped her, he fucking dropped Tifa Lockhart and it was as if all the light had spiraled down with her and he was a coward, a fucking coward because he'd turned away and he couldn't watch her be swallowed and - !
He swallows. Back the bile and vomit and inadequacy. It was almost easy now – he'd had so much practice. He says, voice cracking, "I dropped you."
Tifa looks at him with steady burgundy eyes. "No, I made you drop me. There's a difference."
The difference between her choosing the way she died and the actual way she died. "You don't know. You don't know what it was – you went – you fell – I saw you." He stutters. Cloud clenches his teeth. He's being selfish again. Comparing his pain of losing her to the pain she suffered in actually dying.
Somehow she understands. "You watched them swallow me? You watched them steal my heart? You saw the Soldiers and the Mages and Giants take every bit of me till nothing was left?" He does not remember her ever being so merciless with her words. He cringes. "Yes. You saw it all. And still." She pierces him with a gaze that reminds him of a different time, before. "I chose it. I chose to go the way I did and you know what, Cloud?"
Cloud feels his eyes roll, just slightly. He hasnt' rolled his eyes in forever. "What?"
Tifa gives him beautiful, beaming smile. "I'm so glad I did. Because you would have died and there would have been nothing I could do to save you." He opens his mouth but she beats him, as usual. "And yes, I know that's rather selfish of me but live with it." She gives him a cheeky grin.
It's strange. That of all the things to break him, it'd be a smile.
His sorrow turns to rage. Cloud grinds his hands together and he can feel the ragged edges of his nails break skin and the sharp pain is almost welcome. It gives him something to focus on. "You don't know what it was like, everyone got separated, we were all thrown apart and absorbed into different worlds and no one was around to see it. The Planet's last people disappeared and no one ever saw it. That was our ending. That." Cloud breathes harshly. It has been a long time since he's felt anything as strong as this anger. It feels alive. Strangely, he feels more like his old self.
"But look. You all got together again." Tifa smiles. "You all still ended up together here."
Cloud remembers the days at the Coliseum. Day in and day out, never a night to force him to sleep. He remembers battling for a memory, for a light other than the sunlight. "I hunted. I hunted for something. I was hunting for a light. That was all I knew." And he thinks, it was you.
She is silent and he sees that she knows.
He tries. He tries to voice his thoughts. He croaks. "We. I. I looked. I looked for years and years, for the people I thought were still alive. And I saw Aeris, I couldn't believe it. And then I thought. I thought. I thought if she were alive, I thought maybe, maybe. Maybe." Maybe you were too. He remembers the moment he realized that Tifa wasn't.
Tifa makes a soft sound. "Oh, Cloud." She takes his hand, gently folds away the tension and makes tsk sounds at the bloody crescents imprinted into his palms. She takes out a handkerchief, cream and warm from her body heat, and presses it to his skin. The blood slowly soaks up. He sees Tifa swallow and then he realizes that her eyes glitter with tears and it is a sudden thought that hits him. She remembers as much as he does.
Her eyes are bright and full like the lost moon when she looks up at him. "You know, I never told you something. Something really important." She laughs, rough and tender. "I love you."
He's as numb as a shot of mute and all he wants is to bury his hands into her stomach and chest and remember the way they used to beat in time to the life of the Planet. Heedless of the blood, he wraps his hands around her pale wrists, not quite yet transparent, warm in a way that's not unlike Aeris' sugared hugs. There's an irony there, somewhere. They remind him of all the times she placed a comforting hand on his shoulder, whether in reassurance or comfort, how she'd held his head as he cried in the aftermath of Aeris' death.
Her hands were the ones to pull him back from the mako abyss and he chokes a little at the fact that she is the only one left in all the worlds who still remembers his past. Nibelheim's people, long gone, Sephiroth, a bare memory at the Coliseum, and now Tifa is fading away like the morning sunlight and this should be just one more loss among unimaginable losses, but she's leaving, she's leaving again and Cloud wishes he has fairy dust. Peter Pan, oh Peter Pan, where was Peter Pan?
She brushes a hand gently over an eyebrow. "You'll live through this, Cloud. You will. You're going to grow old and tell the children around you about the Planet and everything that we did to save it. You're going to tell them about Jenova and Shinra, about Kadaj and Geostigma, about WRO and you're going to tell the stories about Red and Reeve and Barret and Vincent and me again and again until they get bored and ask for something new. Then you're going to tell them about Marlene and Denzel, about Elena and Rude and Reno... and maybe even Rufus. You're going to swing that sword until you fall over from a wrenched back and you're going to moan until Yuffie kicks you for being an old geezer and Aeris is going to laugh and Cid will fix you up and that," she pauses, her eyes are distant, she's seeing a wide world before him that she'll never be a part of, "will be your life."
This is Tifa and her surety, a latch on a gray world.
Cloud's face falls into the filthy folds of his red cape - Vinnie, Yuffie's voice says - and he starts to cry. It's been years, oh, years and years, but he starts to cry and he can't possibly stop. She doesn't comfort him, there are no words for his pain, and he knows it's because things are long past and here is now and she was then.
Moments, days, years pass and the deluge of tears find a dam. His bones ache, his eyes are salted through and are as red as the fall leaves that he enjoyed with Denzel and Marlene during the last days of Autumn. He once said he wanted to be forgiven, but that's not it. What he wants is absolution; he wasted three years of his life pining over Aeris when he could have made himself and Tifa immeasurably happy. But like always, she gives it to him with a tap on the head and a poke to the ribs.
Is it strange that that is all he needs?
Her soft hands shift and cup his face; she presses a ghostly kiss to his forehead. "I would stay if I could." Those are the only words she can offer, but oddly, Cloud finds himself comforted. "You're going to be just fine."
With that, Tifa steps away, her form becoming more and more diaphanous, the purple light of Radiant Garden shining through her like the rays of a morning sun. It's getting warm. Warmer. There's a pain in Cloud's eyes, he refuses to blink, he won't miss a moment of this.
Tifa smile at him, no, she grins, oh, how could he have ever forgotten that?
"Still love the hair, by the way."
And then she's gone. Dust motes float in the air. A static charge on nothing-land.
Cloud stares at her lingering after-image and then turns to watch how the sun changes the tired, dead land of once-upon-a-time Hollow Bastion. It's like Tifa to think, it is no longer quite so hollow and it glows like newborn materia; full of potential and hope. Sora has given them something unfettered and pure. Cloud tilts his head back, tilts until his neck strains under the effort. The sky is clearing and a brilliant blue that reminds him of the ocean by the mountains of Nibel.
He can't smile, not yet. But someday, Cloud thinks. Someday. When he can laugh with Aeris over Yuffie and Cid's quarrels, when he can compare sword sizes with Leon and snicker at the innuendo, yes, he'll smile. And someday he'll think and remember the Planet and he'll give Yuffie the golden claws and the ripped up red cape. They'll remember and so will Aeris and so will Cid.
And Cloud knows.
He knows Tifa will love him for that.