Tifa is the first to wear a red ribbon. It's out of remembrance; it's out of loneliness. It's from the moment she finds the scrap of fabric in her bag at the clinic in Mideel and cries because she's lost everything again so quickly—so many people in sector 7, and now Aerith and Cloud—and then chokes on the tears of how Aerith would probably scold her that Cloud was not completely lost just yet. Don't ever give up hope, she'd said, and Tifa doesn't want to. Doesn't want to give up that encouragement either. She almost puts the cloth in her hair, like her friend wore it, but she wants it closer. In the end she wraps Aerith's memory around her arm, tying it securely before rubbing at her eyes. Then she faces the man they both cherished with a renewed smile that masks the flinch at his incomprehensible groan.
When the others come to check on her, everyone recognizes the ribbon, and who it belonged to. And there is, really, nothing else to be said about it.
Cloud doesn't feel loss so much as he feels he has always been lost, trying to make connections that don't complete because he disappoints the other somehow. He had thought, back when he was cool and cocky ex-SOLDIER Cloud, that he had things figured out with Aerith. She made it feel easy, as if her hand was always open and reaching out.
But then the illusion unraveled. He let her down by letting her die. By not being himself. By not understanding her, something he only realizes when Tifa wonders aloud what their friend must have thought on the altar. His answer, that she must have been glad to be able to help the Planet even at the cost of her life, is cautious, soothing, and immediately shot down. Tifa puts no stock in the idea that Aerith was a willing sacrifice. Her arms spread wide with a ribbon set into fluttery motion as she talks about her friend's dream of the future, one of the many things he's sure they whispered and laughed about together back when he was single-mindedly focused on bringing them ever closer to the danger of Sephiroth.
Aerith never meant to die. It's so obvious once Tifa's said it. She had even told him about coming back, hadn't she? His memory of that dream might have been muddled by another bout of mako poisoning, but that's no excuse. Just another way he's never understood what's going on with the people around him.
He needs to understand her now, though. For the Planet. For her, because it's what she deserves, and it's the one thing he can still do for her. So few people had really known her, and it had made her feel lonely. That's one feeling he can comprehend.
Her hand was always reaching out, so now he tries to do the same. With everyone's help, he reaches out to figure out what Aerith had been thinking when she died. What they find is her hope. Her prayer will save the world as long as Sephiroth is taken care of.
"Aerith… I'll do the rest," he promises. He might be talking to empty air but every inch of him is willing those words to be absorbed by the walls of the sacred city, especially as the others chime in. Aerith is resting in the lake nearby. If there is anywhere she'll hear them, it's here.
He hopes she doesn't feel alone. He never wanted her to feel that way.
That night, he thinks about the ribbon on Tifa's arm. In the past days he's seen it as a symbol of the bond the two women had, something he couldn't be included in. He can't say he knew Aerith like Tifa did.
But maybe understanding's not the only important thing. Maybe it's just as important to try.
He still hesitates. Tifa finds him sitting in the Highwind's cargo bay with a ribbon draped over his open hand. "Cloud?"
Being caught makes him feel both guilty and relieved. After a moment, he holds it out to her. "Will you put it on me? Like yours," he says quietly. He watches her carefully from under his bangs, looking for the first sign that he's tread somewhere he shouldn't, intruded on something private he never had a right to. But Tifa nods quickly—her own eyes ducking low, he can't see—and she takes up the fabric before pivoting to his left, finding just where to tie it around his bicep.
At the sound of a sniffle, Cloud's shoulders tighten. Dammit, he had—he hadn't meant to upset her. He should have known better. "I'm sorry."
Tifa is already shaking her head. "You miss her too… of course you do."
He wants to explain himself, explain that he can't miss Aerith because he was never really with her, nor does she feel fully gone, at least not yet, but he's never been good with words. He's never been good with his feelings, either, and he wonders if maybe Tifa's got the right of it this time too. But she's upset, and he's clumsy even with the words he wants to say, never mind the ones she needs to hear; instead of fumbling verbally, he reaches around with his free hand to squeeze her shoulder. After finishing the knot, she squeezes him back with both arms in a tight hug and then stands up, quickly walking away. He sits back and lets her. Some bridges they can't seem to cross, even though they've been tied together in so many different ways. The ribbon is another connection, now, but he's not sure what it means to Tifa.
Only a few days have passed when AVALANCHE reassembles itself on the airship, ready to make a prayer a reality. Cloud scans their crew. So many have come back with their own fervent hopes, but he feels disquieted at one very noticeable absence.
"Yuffie's missing." She'd backed down? He couldn't blame her, but…
"She ain't gonna show up," Barret says dismissively. "'Least this time she didn't steal our materia."
"How could you say that?!" The nimble Wutaian is overdramatic as always, launching herself down from the ceiling of the airship and shaking a fist at the man so much larger and burlier than herself. "I came all the way here after being seasick like a dog! I didn't go through all that just to let you guys have all the best part to yourselves!"
…Everyone has come back. Apparently she'd just been waiting for her cue. Cloud's honestly surprised and, despite her antics, touched. "Welcome back, Yuffie."
She looks at him suspiciously. "Gee, that's so nice… you sick? Wait—" And then the fist was being waved his way. "You're the reason I'm late!"
"What?" Leave it up to Yuffie to be unpredictable, he thinks; then he notices the red ribbon around the ninja's arm, just as she reaches into her small pack and brings out five more ribbons.
"Yeah, I had to pick up what you forgot! Everyone put these on!"
There are confused mutters from nearly everyone but Vincent, and a lot of looks being slid toward their leader. Cloud catches Barret's eyes and then Cid's and with a wrench in his heart thinks they're asking for intervention; the ribbons are a memory of Aerith, and maybe they hadn't considered themselves that close to her. His first impulse is to tell them to put the mementos on anyway, but that doesn't seem right either. She wouldn't have liked that. "Look… Yuffie…"
"No, listen," the teenager says, fired up enough to run right over his words while giving the ribbons a wave. "Yeah, it's a load of crap that we're doing this for the Planet, yeah, everyone's got their own reasons, blah, blah, blah, I'm not asking anyone to rattle them off. Keep it to yourself. We still all came together, didn't we?! We didn't stay home and cry about how unfair life is, not that an awesome ninja like me would do that anyway—"
It occurs to Cloud to wonder just how many tissues Yuffie has used up, but asking would be a cheap shot and disrupt this rare moment of seriousness.
"—We're all back here, gearing up to kick a wannabe god to the curb, because we've been given hope." Yuffie stomps one foot on the steel flooring, looking around at the other AVALANCHE members. "You guys all made a bunch of noise about how Aerith did that for us, and Da Chao fall down on me if I forget her now. She should be with us." Her bottom lip juts out for a moment, giving the lie to her youth and how much losing a friend has hurt, before she lifts her chin and firms it. "So put them on. You guys can look sissy for one day, Cloud's been doing it longer."
…Apparently being serious doesn't keep Yuffie from making cheap shots herself.
"Hell, brat," Cid mutters, the first to recover from a display of overwhelming sincerity from Yuffie. "I wasn't saying no. Just…" He turns to Cloud and Tifa, waving a hand. "Is it all right?" He snorts at their confused expressions. "Never was sure if it was a private thing between you two."
"No, it's…" Cloud shakes his head, turning to his friend, the one who wore a ribbon first. "Tifa?"
There's a gentle smile curving her lips. Tifa hasn't smiled often lately with the pressure building up, and he knows instantly that Yuffie has done something right, let some of that pressure out by being so open with her own feelings. "Of course it's fine," she says. "I think she'd like it this way."
They all wear their ribbons long past that fateful day.