Tifa stared at Cloud, trying to make sense of the doctor's comments and the implications of his words a second before. The other members of Avalanche were gone, left to do something, anything. Now she wished she had not let them go, wished she knew where her PHS was. She needed to talk to someone.
"I'm sorry," she said, interrupting the doctor and leaning forward in her chair. still staring at Cloud's face. "Could you say that... again?"
"Hmmm?" He sounded distracted, unaware of the confusion in her voice. "I was asking if you knew if she had any history of mental illness or substance abuse."
"How... what are you talking about?"
He sighed. "I know this might seem invasive or insensitive, but we have no records for your friend. For Cloud. So, if we are to have any hope with the Mako poisoning I need to know everything anyone can tell me."
"No-." Tifa looked away from the slumped form in front of her, staring at the doctor crouched beside her. "Why... did you say she?"
He frowned. "Cloud is female."
"Cloud is not a girl," she said, saying the words with a force she did not feel. The doctor's eyes widened.
"Oh. Oh, I'm terribly sorry. I didn't-. Never mind. Did he have any history of mental illness or substance abuse?"
Tifa closed her eyes, counting to ten in her head. "Is there another doctor here?"
"Ah, um, no. 'Fraid it's just me," the doctor said with a sheepish grin. "Would you prefer to talk to the nurse?"
"No." Her voice was shaking. "Why did you change how you talked about him?"
"I thought that was what he preferred? I only assumed he was female because of our examination when he was brought in. I apologize for any offence."
"No," she said, rising on unsteady legs. She took a cautious step forward looking down at her friend on the bed. "How can you think he's female?"
The doctor coughed and rose to his feet. "Biologically, Cloud is female. How he wishes to be perceived in day to day life is another matter." He trailed off into silence. "Oh. Oh, I'm... I'm sorry. You didn't know?"
"No," she said still staring. "Cloud is a... girl?"
He moved a little closer, hands twitching as he paused. "There are some surgical procedures, but your friend has no trace of those or the resulting scarring. Excepting some miraculous procedure I have never heard of, I would have to conclude that yes, he always has been female."
"Jenova," Tifa muttered, the name unpleasant in her mouth.
"Nothing." She shook her head. "But even if... Why?" She trailed off into an uncomfortable silence. The doctor coughed.
"The questions can wait for now. I'm going to leave you alone - I'll check back in on you both later." He paused a few steps away. "And when he's recovered I should talk to him about his binding; long-term it's doing him no good at all."
She did not reply and just stared at the person she had thought she knew so well. He had always been short, shorter than all the other boys. No. This was absurd. This had to be an effect of Jenova's influence on him. It had to be what Sephiroth talked about in the crater, Jenova cells altering his physical form based on her memory. No. That was wrong too. That would mean this was not the Cloud she remembered, the one who had called her out to the well on the night seven years ago. And she certainly did not remember meeting a girl on that night.
The well. The request had been a surprise; she remembered how unexpected the note shoved under her window frame had been. But was it only because it was Cloud asking her, or was there something else about the invitation? And Cloud's hair was in a ponytail when they met under the stars. No. No, this was still ridiculous. SOLDIER did not accept female applicants; there was not one single female SOLDIER in the ranks. Turks; fine, Shinra; fine. SOLDIER and the military? No. There had been numerous articles and programs explaining it was a simple matter of biology that barred women from entering the program. Therefore: Cloud could not be female. He would not have survived the process. For all the confusion about Nibelheim; Cloud was a SOLDIER.
But what if the lack of female SOLDIERs was not a matter of compatibility. What if that had never been the whole truth? What if there was no problem beyond corporate policy? Nothing more than Shinra's sexism? It would not be the first time the company lied; again and again for so many reasons. The SOLDIER restriction might be no different. Cloud could-. No. Tifa sighed. She needed someone to talk to. Anyone. She laughed quietly. Who could she talk to about this? The Cloud she remembered, the one she spent so much time in the company of could only be male. The person she most wanted to talk to, to open up, to be honest with had to be male.
So many things seemed to fit together if Cloud was female. The beauty and grace of his turn as Miss Cloud. Little thoughts and nuisance inconsistencies that had never sat quite right. She had never doubted Cloud was a boy - why would she? But now she looked at him afresh, she wondered at the smoothness of his skin; she could not remember him shaving once. There was more; his lithe physique and how good he looked in that dress and make-up - so much so he even convinced Don Corneo. And now she was that much less certain.
Would that Aeris was here now. Had she known? Was that the reason behind her plan all that time ago in Wall Market? Or just an appropriate coincidence? Of all her friends, Aeris would be the best to talk to right now. And Aeris remained the only one of her friends she could not ever speak to again. Wait. What had the doctor said? Talk to Cloud about his binding?
Beside the bed was Cloud's uniform, folded with his shoulder guard and bracers perched on top. Along with a rolled up bandage. It meant nothing. Cloud could have any number of injuries she did not know about. Maybe he used it as padding for his shoulder guard, or his bracer, or- Maybe he used it to bind his breasts.
She peered around; the doctor was nowhere in sight. It was still hard to take in, to accept that what she had once thought about Cloud was wrong. No, not wrong. He was still Cloud. She stepped forward, doubts still screaming in her head. But she had to see him. Had to see for herself if what the doctor had said about Cloud was true. She needed to see his body. Tifa took a step forward, Cloud's head still lolled awkwardly on the pillow. She swallowed, wondering where best to look. She had wondered more than once about Cloud's body. Idle day-dreams at sixteen to individual moments through their time together over the last few months. But never about this, and never anticipating that she might find him like this.
The scent of Mako was stronger now she was beside him. Tifa swallowed again. His chest. She would look at his chest. Lower would be too invasive, too prying. Trembling fingers reached out for the gown that covered Cloud. She would be quick. She just needed to check. She just had to know. Her fingers gripped the gown. Tifa stopped. Her hand twitched but she could not draw the gown aside. She let her grip loosen and her arm fall back to her side. No. This was not her place to look. She should go; let him recover. Tifa turned to leave, stopped and turned back to the bed.
Did Cloud even know the truth? Surely he must. He must have at least once known the concealment was intentional. But did he still know? In the present with his head full of memories that did not match her own? Of course he must; he would have to wrap those bandages around his chest himself. If she looked now, would it changed how she treated Cloud? If she knew before he did, how would it shape how she dealt with him? She stepped back. How did she feel about him after learning all this?
Tifa framed the thought in her mind. Cloud was a girl. Had she known that all those years ago, or had Cloud made himself appear to be male even then? What had gone through her mind when she asked for that promise from him? Had she gone to that meeting knowing it was the only time a girl had ever asked them to meet her there? Frustrating almost memories hung on the edge of recall. Stolen moments for which she now only possessed fragments. Did she still... No, she could not bring herself to even think that. Not now, not yet. Start simpler.
Was she still attracted to Cloud? She looked at him with a critical eye. Cloud was not in a good state, much like when she met him in Midgar. But he was still the same person she had asked to rescue her if she needed it. The same person she had been been so looking forward to seeing seven years ago. The same person she stopped walking away from the Seventh Heaven. Did Cloud's gender change how she felt?
No. No. She breathed, a laugh escaping with the breath. Nothing had changed. She still wanted to be with him. She still wanted him to be well, to talk to him, to get through all this with him. She wanted to do everything she had not been able to in the aftermath of the City of the Ancients, after they both lost a friend. She was going to stay. Not that she could even entertain the thought of leaving Cloud alone like this, but she was staying for him, to help him. She was staying for the same reasons she stayed before. She would be with Cloud until the end.