Tifa hesitated almost a whole minute in front of the men's hotel room door before raising her hand to knock, and even then she might not have done it if Breon hadn't nudged her elbow and pushed her fist forward. The sound was so underwhelming that she knocked again, much louder, and immediately pushed the door open and walked in, so -- she hoped -- Cloud wouldn't have time to wonder at her half-heartedness.
She found him standing by the window, lost in thought, Skally sitting by the furnace with her paws gathered tight together.
The door swung shut behind Tifa and she walked up to him. "Cloud," she started when he turned to face her, and was momentarily stumped. Beside her Breon was picking his way on the lush red carpet hoof after careful hoof, as if it might trip him.
"What's wrong?" Cloud asked as he walked up to her, Skally tilting her head in bewilderment.
Tifa waved off that question, let out a little nervous laugh. "I thought about what I was going to say, but it's kind of embarrassing..."
Much easier to just do it. He'd go along with it even if he didn't get it, he was easy like that.
She was already stepping forward to push Cloud along when the door opened behind her and Aeris's cheerful voice rang through the gloomy room. "Heya, Cloud! You want to go on a date?"
Tifa flinched around. Aeris's momentum had carried her several steps inside the bedroom, but now she stood staring at her, looking as honestly thrown as Tifa had ever seen the girl.
"... Oh. Oh." Her eyes went to Cloud's face, then to Tifa's, which was slowly heating up. "Are you also here to..?"
"I -- I just wanted to spend time together, that's all," Tifa replied immediately. Breon's ears flicked back nervously and he shook his head in immediate denial, but he didn't say anything, caught just as off-guard as she was.
She couldn't turn and look at Cloud straight on, just couldn't, but from the corner of her eye she saw him blinking slowly, brows furrowing in mildly alarmed confusion. Her eyes were still on Aeris, who looked back at her, wincing. Perched on Aeris's shoulder, Simon licked his shoulder clean, fastidious, like any cat pretending it hadn't just misjudged a landing and crashed. Breon was shuffling his hooves, moving his weight from leg to leg, feeling boxed in.
It... hurt a little, to see Aeris there, even though it shouldn't have; she knew Aeris liked Cloud. She'd just thought... Aeris had been the one back at Don Corneo's saying it was nothing, they'd only just met, it didn't matter.
That was a long time ago, though, and Tifa had replied that she and Cloud were merely childhood friends.
She braced herself. "Um. Date?"
"... Oh. I was the one who offered. Back when we met, I needed a bodyguard, but I couldn't pay him. He never said yes or no..."
They turned to Cloud at the same instant. He did his best to look neutral, but no, that wasn't neutral at all. Closer to impending panic.
"Cloud?" prompted Aeris, leaning forward to peer at his face, hands crossed behind her back.
Cloud visibly restrained himself from taking a step back. When he glanced back at Skally it was a SOS, clear as day, the big bad fearless SOLDIER this close to making a break for it.
It was actually a little ridiculous. Potentially painful, but this face...
"Clouuud?" Tifa said in turn, trying her best to keep her lips from twitching.
Simon thumped to the carpet and slowly padded to Breon, sniffed up. Breon lowered his head cautiously. Their noses touched. Tifa and Aeris glanced at each other and then somehow they were laughing together, rueful.
Simon shook himself all over, rubbed his head and his whole side on Breon's knee as he passed him, and bounced to Skally like a kitten in tall grass. He insinuated his body between her elbow and her ribs, a rather silly attempt to nudge her to her feet that only worked because she seemed to be mildly reluctant to crush him with her superior weight. Aeris was stepping forward, capturing Cloud's right arm with both of hers. Tifa stood stupid and lost for a second.
The housecat daemon looked back at hers meaningfully. Tifa saw Breon's head jerk up in startled understanding a second before she got it as well, and even as she hesitated -- she didn't dare -- her stag arched his neck already to nudge Skally toward the door.
She gave in with an incredulous laugh, grabbing Cloud's left arm in turn.
"Wait -- are we -- what?" Cloud sputtered.
"Just get moving!" Aeris retorted, laughing, and she and Tifa started tugging. Tifa laughed as well, just as embarrassed as he was but unable not to see the silliness, the humor in the whole situation, with the both of them accidentally asking him out on the same night and the ridiculously overblown hunted look on his face.
Even as she dragged him out of the hotel she wished Aeris would have answered, though. Because if Cloud didn't know and Aeris wouldn't say... What were they...?
They trudged out of the hotel with the girls still hanging onto Cloud's arms like they believed he'd take off running if they let go, and he had to admit, they might not have been entirely wrong.
He had to admit something else; having one girl on each side cuddling his upper arms in her cleavage did pretty nice things to his base male ego. He liked them both, as people and as -- well -- girls; Tifa was sweet and Aeris a flirt, they were both tough in very different ways... Yet both needing him (for different reasons as well) and that was flattering, too. Made him feel needed, stronger. And he'd been aware that there was something like that floating at the edges of their interaction, but he'd never paid closer attention. There'd be time later. It could wait. It could wait forever.
Even trotting at his heels where he couldn't see her, he could tell Skally was laughing at him, or maybe just scoffing. Should have gotten your shit together sooner, she'd tell him if she could, he knew. He heard a faint snort and tried to discreetly kick back; he missed, of course; she snorted again.
"Um, Cloud? You're squirming. Are ... are you alright?"
He blinked at Tifa, still a little stunned all over again to find her so close. "Uh. Fine. Just tripped."
Behind them both Skally and Simon snorted. Cloud let out a long sigh and stared ahead. Just in time for the plastic tarantula in the hotel lobby to land on his face.
"Let's just." He closed his eyes for strength. "Keep going."
Aeris muffled snickers against his shoulder; he could feel her giggles even if he couldn't hear them and it was distracting. "Aw, there, there, we won't tell anyone."
Grumbling under his breath, Cloud started towing both girls out of the door. Just because he'd been a little startled, stupid haunted house theme...
He might have been doing his best not to look at either of them, but it was a bit hard to miss a long, meaningful look when it was exchanged just under his chin. He threw them a suspicious glance each. "Whatever you're thinking of, no."
"I was just thinking that if we're going to tour the park, we might as well start with the closest attractions," said Aeris, nodding toward the entry to a darkened little park that wrapped around the hotel.
"Oh, goody," drawled Skally, deadpan, "it's a cemetery."
The girls giggled. Breon looked patiently amused. Simon streaked like an arrow to the crooked, fake-rusty fence, tail straight up.
Tifa smothered a guilty giggle in her hand. "If you're scared..."
"Very funny," he replied, and capitulated, following the cat.
The next half-hour was full of shrieks and laughter. Simon strutted ahead -- until a werewolf in bad disguise jumped at him; he ended the circuit perched in the cradle of Breon's antlers. Skally smugly demonstrated her athletic superiority by leaping over the stag's back or winding between his hooves in mid-step so she could "attack" some decomposing monster, giant spider, or guy-and-sheep daemons in ghost sheets to protect them. Aeris shared her time between faking scared and cooing over adorable zombie squirrels, and Tifa mostly strolled beside Cloud and casually picked spider webs out of his hair, looking rather amused, and not intimidated one bit.
It was almost enough to make him forget he was being a dick.
Sometimes Tifa would look at him with liquid brown eyes and say nothing for long seconds. Sometimes Aeris's hand would land in the crook of his elbow, sparrow-light and just as quickly gone. He... he liked it. He hadn't been blind, he had felt the tension slowly gathering between them. He hadn't said a thing, because... because he liked it, that charge building in the air, wordless and shapeless and mostly just hints and maybes, not even promises yet.
Because he liked things as they were now. Because he didn't like the thought of letting anyone in anytime soon, he (didn't have a clue what you were supposed to do with girls you dated, apart from sex but you didn't need to date to fuck, either, and it wasn't enough) (was a fucking mess, he couldn't show them that, they'd pityhatebreakcryleave) had important things to take care of first, like, oh, Sephiroth. Romance could wait. Tifa and Aeris could wait. Would wait, wouldn't they?
In short, because he was a dick.
Not being a dick would probably involve stopping the... outing (couldn't be a date like this, after all) right on the spot and having a frank, open discussion about why exactly he was a dick. Why he had enjoyed the closeness but hadn't even started considering who to choose.
It was enough to make him wish for a Sephiroth sighting.
"So, what next?" Aeris asked when they left the park. He knew he should take this chance to speak up, say they had to talk, but her eyes were bright and Tifa's eyes still soft and pleased and Simon was grooming Breon's ear.
The plaza was empty; they looked at him. He looked at the signs instead. "My turn to choose, huh?"
"As a reward," Aeris said.
Tifa nodded, solemn but eyes shining in laughter. "You were very brave."
Might be better if he didn't make it too date-y. "Arcade."
"No!" resonated from five voices. Cloud blinked, eyed the girls and the daemons.
"Hey, you asked me to choose."
"And now we're vetoing you," Skally said, the traitor, who had to know just fine what sort of things were on his thoughts, and didn't seem to care at all. She was glaring at him, in fact, golden eyes unimpressed. "We can't play. Not going."
Oh right. Arcade games needed either very inventive controls to allow the immense variety of daemons to interact with them, or several copies of the same game on differently-shaped machines. Way too expensive, even for the Gold Saucer.
"... Fine. The arena."
Aeris looked doubtful at first, but when Tifa brightened up (he should have figured out she would enjoy watching people from all over the globe sparring too), she gave in with an easy smile. Well. Aeris wasn't going to have much fun, right? Tifa would notice. It'd cool things off, they'd go back to the hotel early...
He found them a spot in the stands and went to get popcorn and drinks and wasn't even surprised when Skally bit him and whispered "Coward."
When he came back with drinks in hand Aeris was leaning over the railing and shouting out encouragements, and Tifa was trying to shush her and failing due to laughing herself breathless.
He watched them, watched the other spectators watching the girls more than the fight down on the sand. He didn't think it often; they were squadmates first, road-comrades, AVALANCHE buddies. Friends. They were both gorgeous.
He wasn't going to shack up with anyone in the foreseeable future anyway so there was no reason to think about which one he liked better. They were just different. Tifa was supportive and tender, a great partner who often seemed to guess what he'd need before he even though to ask, Breon a calm, steadying influence; Aeris was sometimes strangely wise but most often playful, dragged him into things almost against his best judgment and made him glad he'd followed. Simon was just funny, in his bratty way. Tifa was easy to be with; Aeris difficult, in a way that made him glad he'd gone to the effort.
"Well, what are you standing there for?" Tifa asked him when she noticed him.
He joined them, handed out his spoils. "Sorry, distracted. So what's going on?"
"That Leather Speedo person is pretty handy with a sword."
"It's not a Speedo!" Tifa protested, though it came out guilty like she knew it wasn't, but she thought it looked like it anyway. (Cloud was carefully not looking too closely at the arena. He didn't want any Mukki flashbacks.) "I think he's supposed to be a gladiator."
Aeris seemed very sorry to hear it. "He should write his tailor and complain, then. I'm sorry, it's a fringed-skirt Speedo." Tifa chuckled behind her hand.
He didn't want to choose, he'd rather be with neither than reject either one.
When they left the arena Skally walked first, and her long, trailing tail kept ghosting against Breon's soft muzzle and Simon's reaching paws.
"Congratulations!" said a guy in costume with a parrot daemon. "You are our 200th couple today -- oh, wait... You're not..."
Cloud had given up extracting himself by then, and he could have told the man what would happen then, the lilting "Yes we are!" Aeris shot back in answer.
He had little to no clue how he ended up in that rickety tower wearing a pink dress with mutton sleeves, but somehow he found it in his heart to blame Aeris again. Oh well. After tonight he'd never meet any of those people ever again; and from up here he didn't have to remember any dialogue, and he could watch Tifa kick a cardboard dragon's ass in her shiny tin armor to the delight of half-awake and three-quarter drunk spectators, and he was out of reach of Aeris in her pointy wizard's hat throwing 'enchanted' tinsel around.
He didn't want to choose. He wished he could choose not to.
They came out of the theater starting to flag, endurance waning but eyes still bright with excited happiness, even Cloud's. She suspected it was because this time he'd been allowed to keep his pants and combat boots on under the skirts.
Aeris didn't want it to end yet. She could tell they didn't, either, no matter how reluctantly they had come at first. She only had to look at their daemons, who walked side by side not with their humans but with each other, Skally winding a drunken path between Breon's long legs, teasing Simon on Breon's back who tried to guess on which side she'd emerge so he could bat at her flowing whiskers, claws carefully sheathed. Sometimes Breon would tilt his head down and lip at one of Skally's ears.
There was tinsel in Tifa's hair still, silver-bright amongst the river of dark strands; Aeris would have left it there all night, it was so pretty to look at. Cloud started to pick it out cautiously, bit by bit. It made Aeris's throat go tight to see.
She had been acting out all evening, laughing and teasing and being outrageous as possible, because she was terrified one of them was going to stop and ask what the hell they thought they were doing, was going to realize it was impossible and then make it so. She couldn't anymore, it was late and she was tired and Cloud's hands were so careful in Tifa's hair.
"Let's go to the gondola," she said, because the other choice was going home.
Without her teasing and Simon's bad jokes, quiet fell fast, a pensive kind. She bought the tickets; they maneuvered themselves into the cabin, which didn't seem to have been planned for a stag and a hunting cat and three people beside; but they made do -- Cloud on one bench with Skally at his side on the upholstery, Aeris and Tifa facing him, Simon on Aeris's lap, and Breon slowly, ponderously setting himself down on his belly in the legspace, his raised head level with the windows. Aeris pulled her feet under the bench to avoid brushing against him, smiled a small "no worries" at Tifa when she apologized quietly for the inconvenience.
The woman at the tickets booth was looking at the three of them strangely, her rabbit's ears up like antennas; Aeris understood. The space between her knee and Tifa's daemon was smaller than her hand was wide. Cloud could have shifted his foot forward a few inches and tucked it under Breon's flank. Simon's head rested in the crook of her elbow, and the outside of that same arm touched Tifa's so that his whiskers almost, almost brushed her skin. None of them would have bridged the last gap, all very aware of the limits not to cross, but...
The gondola shuddered and left the dock, swung them into the night sky. Bright lights everywhere and an almost-full moon in the sky, it was gorgeous, so peaceful. She wanted to comment, to exclaim, but she was tired. Tifa was silent at her side, bare knee warm against hers.
Up and down they went, slow and rocking and then faster, until she smiled despite herself. "Look, Cloud, chocobos!" Perhaps they should have gone to see a race. Next time, she promised herself.
"It's so pretty," Tifa whispered at her side, head turned to look out the other window. Cloud looked as well, arms crossed loosely, expression strangely subdued.
Fireworks all around, trails of pink and yellow. The whistles made Simon flatten his ears, but he crawled out of her arms to look anyway, press his nose against the window; Skally made an amused noise.
She wanted them to stay in here for another five hours, ten, all in each other's personal space and that feeling of closeness that didn't need any words to link them.
She would have had to ignore the little note of disquiet, though. The worry they all felt, the not-quite-right, the not-enough.
Fireworks sparked across the sky a last time and went out. It wasn't dark in the cabin, the Gold Saucer shed too much light for that, no matter how high the gondola went, but in the penumbra it was easier to say some things.
"You know, Cloud," she said, ignoring the way his shoulders tensed, even though the rest of him stayed reclined casually against the bench. "At first you reminded me of my old boyfriend... The way you speak, the way you move..." The uniform, she thought, looking at it; the sword; and then she looked at Skally. "...But you're very different."
Tifa had gone tense at her side, blinking too fast; Breon turned his head away, like he couldn't stand to meet her eyes. Braced for impact, for whatever Aeris had to say that would shatter that strange moment.
She slipped her hand between their thighs, found Tifa's and took it and squeezed.
"... And I never had a friend like you, Tifa." She smiled, just with the corners of her mouth and her eyes. "I cannot begin to explain how glad I am to have met you both."
If Tifa hadn't gotten to the hotel room before Aeris, Aeris would have hurt her, dragging Cloud off and making a move. She was glad Tifa had been just a little faster. She'd have felt so guilty.
If Aeris had realized Tifa was serious about Cloud, she wouldn't have let herself get serious with him... and then she wouldn't have gone on this date, and had such a fun time covering Tifa in tinsel. Heh.
It all seemed so fragile. She and Tifa squeezing each other's hands as support, I'm here, you don't have to be scared of rejection alone, while Cloud watched them, inscrutable, from the other bench, when he could unbalance everything with a single word.
He wasn't saying it, wasn't saying anything at all yet, but it would spin out of control soon whether he did or not. Shifting dynamics like theirs -- bird in flight, falling star; the path itself was beautiful, a complex, gorgeous dance with gravity. Those always ended. She hoped it would be a landing and not a crash.
She hoped it broke into one couple and a friend, or three friends, rather than lose it all. No, not all, she was being melodramatic; they would always be comrades, but...
The gondola ground to a stop, killed the moment; Breon climbed back on his feet with unhurried grace and backed out. Tifa let Aeris's hand slip free with a sudden, self-conscious start and followed. Aeris held Simon to her chest and walked out, Cloud and Skally on her heels.
"I had fun tonight," she said. Tifa nodded, head hanging just a bit. Whether she was embarrassed or sad Aeris couldn't tell.
Cloud ruffled his hair, embarrassed too, and tired, but his eyes were soft when he looked at her. "Yeah, me too." He sighed, rested his hand on Skally's head when she butted it against his thigh. "It's late. Let's get back."
They trailed out of the gondola platform one by one, Cloud leading the way, Aeris last -- not side by side anymore, daemons winding their paths together like a braid so that at first sight a stranger wouldn't have known whose was whose.
"It's probably better like this," she whispered in Simon's ear. He kneaded her shoulder and purred in distress against her throat. Tifa turned around, gave her a worried, questioning look. "No, nothing," she said to reassure her. No matter what happened she wanted to stay Tifa's friend. She sped up so they'd be walking side by side again, smiled, plucked a last strand of tinsel out of her hair; Tifa laughed ruefully, Cloud looked back, smiled almost unwillingly. He paused, waiting for them to catch up, Skally's tail flicking at the end like she wasn't sure how much distance to allow them to close.
And then they saw Cait Sith and his mog bouncing off with the Keystone in hand.