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Winter Roses and All That

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Did you know in Enochian the word lover is the same as worshipper?

 

Winter Roses and All That

What he realizes is that she’s a people person. Perhaps he realized it about her long ago, when his hair was a little too long and his anxieties a little too chronic. But he’s since forgotten about those days, all the parts of him he does not recognize locked deep in his psyche. So when the thought enters his mine he stirs, eyebrows furrowing into a glare.

What does that even mean—people person? What other type of person could you be?

Cat person, he answers, smirking.

Okay, Tifa is one of those too.

“Something funny, Spiky?” Barrett asks, pausing for a second by the ex-SOLDIER. With no answer, he grunts and continues through the bar.

Cloud’s eyes trace the wet footprints of the gunman’s trek. The soft patter of rain registers in his mind and then the room: mostly empty, minus Avalanche and a few nameless patrons.

He scowls again. How long has he been sitting there? How long has it been midday and rainy and not the dark, busy night he thought it was? A glance at his drink tells him nothing, red liquid still full and warm in his hands.

Tifa hadn’t refilled it. She stayed by the bar after his first offered drink, elbows propped and eyes alive thanks to Wedge or Biggs or Jessie, or—as of recently—Barrett. Every now and then, she’d wander to the table opposite him, quench someone else’s drink, offer small talk and a laugh, and return to the bar. If she looked at him on her walk back he didn’t notice.

He downs his drink and shoves the glass across the table.

What was he thinking about again? Shinra? Missions? Saving enough money and getting the hell out of here? No, no that wasn’t it. It was Tifa, laughing in that sharp, raspy way of her’s.

It’s different, he realizes, from her laugh as a kid. She did it a lot back then, freely; always ready to absorb just about everything around her. It was a loud, open-mouth kind of laugh with all the animation reserved to her shoulders. She was outgoing, friendly, and if you had a joke for her you also had her undivided attention.

Cloud had neither—still does.

Shut up, shut up.

He drums his hands on the wooden table. No filters to collect, no monsters to kill. They’re all just waiting for the next move, laying low and keeping idle until the metaphorical coast is clear. For most normal people, the reprieve is welcome. For Cloud, it’s a nuisance. But then again, with pupils laced in green mako, normal doesn’t apply to people like him. Normal opens up a little too much space in his head for wandering, and Cloud Strife does not like to wander. He finds things like memories and stupid phrases when he does; flashbacks of a time when he was too soft for the world, and too much of everything he hated in a person.

What Cloud prefers isn’t thought, but action. His knee bobs below the table, agreeing.

Maybe he should leave. There’s no reason for him to be here anymore; the food’s been eaten, the drink consumed in one swift gulp. He only wandered here to glean information, but so far it’s been nothing but inside jokes and banter filling the air.

Damn the mako for picking up every conversation he does not care about. Damn his stupid brain for trying to chime in with equally stupid thoughts.

“Hey.”

He looks up. “Hi.”

“Need another?” Tifa asks.

He nods, eyes lowered.

“Coming right up,” she says, long ponytail whipping the air as she turns around.

His shoulders slump; she was smiling with her eyes again. He’s been meaning to warn her about it—the smiles behind the eyes. Something about squandering winter roses and all that, though the phrase never really comes together.

He thinks of a lot of incomplete things around Tifa. So much of her presence feels like half of the puzzle—this girl he doesn't know, but hesitates to leave.

The problem is he’s used to being around Tifa. Fifteen years of seeing each other every day will leave that kind of residue, and the gap in between didn’t wipe it clean—only blurred a bit of the film, layered over it like cemented brick. Being around her again has unearthed something in him: an intoxicating composite of attachment and fear.

He shakes the thought away, noticing her walk back from the bar.

“Corel wine, on the house,” she says with a wink.

It’s all been on the house. It’s the only consistent return he’s gotten from helping Avalanche.

“Thanks,” he says, half-smirking.

Tifa takes a seat across from him. Her chin finds her gloved palm and she stares, eyeing his first sip of the newly-filled glass.

The stare and her silence unnerve him, but he pretends not to notice, suddenly a connoisseur of all things wine and the prolonged ritual of a tasting. At the very least, the wine corks his mouth from spilling out anything too unnecessary, like words or—god forbid—memories.

He’s been trying very hard to keep the words at bay. They haven’t talked much since he returned. It makes him nervous, conversing with Tifa. Demanding money and blowing up reactors is easier than small talk. It dawns on him that even flirting with Tifa is easier than talking to her. He has no idea where it comes from, has no idea why it’s easy or fun, but their back and forth banter fell into rhythm the minute she brought him to the bar. The two serious conversations they’ve tried to have so far, however, have fallen into pieces.

He did it first—he’s aware. She tried to bring up SOLDIER and Nibelheim and he clamored up. And Tifa, much too patient and shy herself, let him. Instantly, it was celebrations and dressing up and pacing backward for him to literally size her up.

What did he say again? Something sporty?

She didn’t seem too thrilled about that one, but what was he supposed to say? He watched her punch monsters into nonexistence all week—what suited her was being a fucking anomaly. She was beautiful (he told her so), smart, and deeply hardened around the edges. She was kind and sympathetic beyond his memories, and she had no one but herself to thank for it, because above all else she was fiercely independent. What did a dress matter? How could that summarize Tifa Lockhart? He was set up for failure from the start.

Whatever she wears, it’ll suit her.

“What are you thinking?” she asks from across the table.

Shit.

He reddens. He can feel it in his face—his pale skin never hid a damn thing.

“Nothing,” he says.

Tifa just laughs her laugh, light and clipped like the sound of a spiraling flare gun. It’s a fleeting burst of expression and then nothing—lips closed and smile tight.

“Not another one of those SOLDIER things, is it?” Her head tips.

“No,” he says, or at least he doesn’t think so. Somehow being a SOLDIER doesn’t feel like the problem, though he can’t say he knows what the problem even is. Everything, if he’s cynical about it. Nothing, if he doesn’t think about it. Or maybe, sitting in front of the one girl he never thought he’d live to see again, Tifa if he really thinks about it.

She fed him, housed him, encouraged him to work with people and find a home in the slums. If not for her, where would he be?

Somehow, the red dot in his life has circled back to her and that seems to be the problem.

He wishes he could tell her how he feels, how much he appreciates everything she’s done for him, but lately, talking feels a lot like throwing water through a net—the weight of his words never seems to catch. He tried to tell her he was listening. He tried to tell her if she needed him, he was her’s to need. He tried to tell her that maybe, for once, she could rely on him and not the other way around.

He looks at her from across the table. No, definitely not a SOLDIER thing.

“I was…watching you,” he begins.

Her red eyes perk up at the statement.

“You’re good at your job,” he says, treading lightly with his words. It’s not a lie—the thought entered his mind before. Something in the way she greeted people made it clear—it was the damn smiles behind the eyes, they were enough to make you feel deserving.

“You think?”

He nods, holding her eye contact. “You’re a…people person.”

“Ah—” she points a finger at him, “—unlike you?”

“Unlike me.”

“Hmm.” Tifa taps the side of her face. “So what kind of person is Cloud Strife?”

“You tell me,” he says and brings the glass to his lips. The lilt in his voice is back, the one that seems to carry all his words with unfamiliar ease.

“Well, when he was younger, I couldn’t quite figure it out. Some said he was just the loner type, but I wasn't so convinced.”

“Sorry to have proven them right.”

“I don’t think you have,” she says, single eyebrow arched in amusement.

His blues eyes shift. “People are annoying.”

“And what makes you think you’re not?”

“Hey,” his eyebrows furrow, “I’m efficient, not annoying.”

“Tell that to Barrett,” she says, giggling.

“I’d rather not,” he grumbles and attempts another sip.

“Ah!” Tifa’s fingers snap, drawing his attention. “I’ve got it. I know what kind of person you are.”

“Yeah?” he asks, wary of her answer.

Her hand snakes across the table, resting on his armored forearm. She holds his eyes and says, “The kind I’d like to get to know better. Maybe now I finally can.”

Someone calls Tifa's name from across the room. Cloud doesn’t recognize the voice or the tone or the moment when she leaves the table. There's a coldness on his arm in the shape of her hand and nothing else. His senses—normally a victim of Shinra's powers—are diluted of the usual concoction they swim in. What Cloud feels instead is the personification of his hopes and dreams in the form of thick rope, lassoed at the end and lodged into his throat. At the tip of the bloody organ keeping him alive, it constricts.

If only for a moment, he feels nothing but the shape of Tifa in his chest, knotting around his heart like invisible string.