The light from the candle flickered every time Cloud paced past it.
Crimson orbs watched as he retraced the same path again and again, like an agitated animal. Tifa curled in upon herself on her bed: chin on her knees and eyes on her bare toes. She'd spent days nursing him back to health in the dim light of her bedroom, crying with the relief that he was somehow back in her arms and the fear that he wouldn't heal. Tifa tirelessly devoted herself to the recovery of her sick husband, under the weight of her love for him and the bonds of their marital promise. After five years her closest childhood companion, her best friend and lover, was in her life once again. When Cloud did regain his strength, his revival was sudden, like flicking on a power switch. And while he still looked sick, he moved with precision in an almost robotic manner that was foreign to her. Days passed and it was easy to see that while he was functioning physically, there was still something very wrong with Cloud.
After ShinRA had declared him dead mere months after their marriage, Tifa spent countless desperate nights dreaming of reuniting with her husband. Young and alone in the oppressive Midgar slums, she fantasized about the feel of his arms around her and how at home she'd finally feel when she'd gaze into those familiar, gentle eyes. But there was nothing soft about the way he stared at her now, pulsing blue piercing her like knife in the gut. Like a prey animal, she froze under his gaze.
His gentle, timid nature had been replaced by prideful confidence. Somewhere, he had traded cautious optimism for arrogant apathy, and Tifa was frightened to see how his temper would flare under his unstable emotions. By flesh, it was obvious that this was the man she had married when she was barely fifteen. By persona, she could not be entirely sure. Obviously, he had been through a terrible ordeal, but he hung onto the details of his trauma with powerful fists. The more she begged for his story, the more closed off about it he seemed. She just couldn't help herself and periodically asked Cloud about it, but obviously, it was only working him up. But she needed to know. She needed to be certain that he hadn't chosen to leave her side for so long purposefully. Cloud would've never willingly left her, right? Tifa had been quite sure of this until he began to act this way. Did he always possess this attitude underneath his gentle exterior? It was frightening to see just how little she knew of Cloud in the end. But nothing in their many years as close companions had ever given her a hint that this demeanor could in any way be normal, and it left her unsettled to her core.
"Cloud, come sit," she offered gently, stroking the worn comforter. "Please...let's talk about what happened."
Tension lingered in the spaces between their breaths. Sadness and disappointment were coiling, twisting, burrowing into the softest part of her heart as Tifa waited for his response. How foolish she had been to assume that if Cloud ever came back, that he'd be the same as he once was. She wasn't the same wife he'd left behind, either, having gone through the most harrowing and frightening experiences of her life without her husband by her side. Cloud looked like he had been through hell—of course he wasn't her wide eyed, innocent teenage boy anymore. He was a grown man, with new height and muscles to prove it.
The ceiling fan turned slowly overhead as he moved his head to look at her.
His lips were pressed into a tight line as he stared at her face. It was inconceivable to think that Cloud would have abandoned her without any word to endure some long, intense training in the SOLDIER program, but his mako eyes and ragged uniform told another story. When she pressed, he would deny it all, saying he had been in SOLDIER since before they were married. If he was lying, it was obviously false. And if he really believed he was telling the truth, he must have suffered more severe trauma than she originally thought. Her arms ached to hold him. During his week of recovery, Tifa had cradled his head against his chest whenever she wasn't feeding him or keeping him clean or changing his clothes. But in his agitated state, she knew he'd never be still long enough to let her comfort him.
"I told you, Tifa. I don't know what happened." Brilliant blue watched her closely, and he chose to lean against the wall instead of sitting beside her. Arms folded over his chest, he sighed. "I had to leave you. Don't you remember what I told you about SOLDIERs and their wives? Sometimes we'll be gone for long stretches of time for training and missions. I didn't expect it to be that long, though."
She didn't remember him saying that. They'd never had this conversation because he had never made it into SOLDIER. Was she blacking out important events in their lives or was she losing her mind? It was hard enough to deal with the emotional whiplash of the relief of his return and the realization that what had come back to her was not her beloved childhood friend. Tifa closed her eyes against the rising disappointment and frustration building inside her.
"Sephiroth went berserk. Nibelheim burned. After all that, it gets fuzzy. But what does it matter? I'm here, aren't I? I came back to you."
The way he said it, as if he'd done her a favor, made grief spread like frost in her belly.
He had recounted the demise of Nibelheim, their families and the townspeople they had grown up with. He'd explained how he found Sephiroth in Mt. Nibel's reactor after he murdered every last familiar face, and how he'd confronted him with the intent of revenge. But Tifa was deeply disturbed by the fact that he could not tell her anything beyond that. At some point afterward, he had to have undergone the mako therapy required of those ethereal eyes and the unnatural strength he now possessed. When she pressed for details he couldn't recount, he'd get angry and short with her. The Cloud she had known would never have lied to her. If he had left her for training in the SOLDIER program, why had ShinRA reported him dead? Nothing made sense. Tifa stared at his heavy boots and thick belt.
It must be his illness, she reasoned. He'll regain more of his memory as he recovered, wouldn't he? Maybe then, he'd be able to tell her why he was such a mess when she had found him. And maybe then, he'd start acting like himself. In all of her fantasies where they had somehow been reunited, it had never been anything like this.
"That's alright. We'll just take one day at a time." Flicking her eyes up toward his face, she swallowed back unease. "Cloud, please come sit with me."
Holding him always seemed to soothe him, if only he'd let her. Tifa put on her best smile and held out her arms to him, beckoning him to her. Slowly, he sauntered over to the bed, sitting a few feet away from her. Holding her breath, she gingerly reached to rest her fingers atop his knuckle. It was a gesture that had once been so familiar. Now it felt strange and forced, like he didn't want to be there and she didn't want to make him uncomfortable. Tifa slowly released the air in her lungs when he didn't remove his hand from resting underneath hers.
"It's just a bit of amnesia, I'm sure. You looked like you'd been in quite a scuffle. It'll all come back to you, I know it will."
"What if it's not worth remembering? ShinRA screwed up, they've lost a first class SOLDIER, and now I've finally made it back to you." He turned to look at her once again and shrugged one nonchalant shoulder. "We're together now. What does it matter?"
It mattered a lot.
"I just…" she began. "A lot has happened since you left."
"Apparently." Cloud scoffed, withdrawing his hand to cross his arms over his chest as he leaned forward. "You moved out of our apartment and moved in with another man."
Crimson eyes widened at the hidden accusation. "Cloud! It's not like that! He's a friend who helped me find a place to live."
"We had a place to live," he snapped, sitting up and turning to face her properly. "Our apartment was adequate, wasn't it? Everything was fine when I left. I'd finished building that table and was starting to build a…" He blinked slowly, staring numbly at the loose threads on the blanket beneath them. "A…crib."
Blue eyes flashed, as if he had suddenly remembered something.
"Where is it?" He demanded. The street light through the blinds painted him in stripes of orange. "Where is the baby?"
She flinched, shocked by the way his speech pulsed with accusation and contempt. His anger was palpable. It oozed from his voice, his posture, and his words, curling into the air between them like suffocating smoke. Clouds voice was as cold as a winter's dawn and unwavering as a stone. He grasped her arms and she felt the restrained, inhuman strength in the press of his fingers into her skin. It didn't hurt, but a whimper tore from her throat anyway. There was something very, very wrong with Cloud, and she was frightened. Tifa could feel the heat of his breath from their proximity. Glowing blue pierced her wine colored eyes and she fought the urge to cry. Nowadays, her tears were the result of disappointment and confusion. Was her quiet, kind friend since childhood lost forever?
She was tempted to draw back, to dismiss this whole conversation in order to avoid the torrent of emotion it would churn up, but that was the old Tifa. Post-Aria Tifa knew better. Denying the past never helped; it was more like putting off the pain than burying it. There was also the fact that Cloud's behavior was unpredictable at the moment. How would he react to the death of his daughter? Maybe it would be alright, and he'd hold her and they'd comfort each other like she had always fantasized. But she wouldn't expect such mercies.
"S-she…s-she—" Tifa limbs began to shake and she shriveled under his grasp. Her breath quivered as she recoiled from her own memories. "Cloud, the baby didn't make it. She d-died."
His arms went slack as his eyes softened, and for a moment Tifa thought she could see the love of her life in there somewhere. Her lips trembled as the overwhelming desire for his comfort washed over her. She circled her fingers gently around his wrists, as if to hold onto that softness she had found. Purposely, she let her thumb glide over the cold metal of Cloud's wedding band. That glimpse of her old friend had encouraged her to summon back that bravery that had dissolved into the air.
After a long silence, he lifted his head to ask, "Why?"
"I don't know," Tifa whispered, hiding beneath her bangs. "I gave birth to her before it was time, and she never took a breath."
Tifa breathed a long, shuttering sigh and began to tell Cloud everything, beginning with her work as a waitress while pregnant, and how her contractions had come on suddenly that day. She recounted her frightening labor, the empty feeling of leaving the hospital alone, and how she was fired for sneaking milk to Barret for baby Marlene. Cloud listened quietly as he learned how she survived in the slums without him, and how she ended up running a bar in Sector Seven and working for an eco-terrorist organization. She longed for his comforting touch, for him to encircle her with his arms, for him to mourn with her over the loss of their daughter. But he didn't move to hold her. Instead, she listened as the air hissed out of his nostrils in an audible rush as he leaned away from her.
"Do you want to know more about her?" Tifa asked, hopeful that talking about it might help lessen the sting of this news.
Perhaps hearing the details of her perfect, round cheeks and beautiful, light hair would be of some comfort to him. Cloud slumped forward on the mattress, putting a hand to his head as though he could push out the memories that he couldn't recall. Tifa was about to reach over to rub his back when he spoke.
"I want to be alone."
His voice sliced the air, and Tifa felt the strength leave her limbs. So much pain had gathered into a knot in her chest, making it hard to breathe. Startled by his cold response, all she could do was stare at the way the candle light illuminated his beautiful, flaxen hair. In that moment, Tifa felt abandoned in her sadness by the man who pledged to commit himself to her happiness on their wedding day. Eventually, she had to force her feet to carry her to the doorway. Her earlier confidence had fled, and unease was only too eager to take its place. As she pulled the door shut, a weight settled upon Tifa's shoulders, and her heart felt numb and empty.
She walked a few staggering steps down the hallway before leaning against the wall and choking back a sob that wracked her body. Fingertips slid along wallpaper as she leaned her head back, letting her trembling knees give way to slip gracefully to the hardwood floor. As long as both of them were alive, they were bound together. She recalled their marriage ceremony, and the finality of the line: 'Til death do you part'. But in some way, it seemed as though death had already parted them. The man in her bed was both her lover and not, a foreigner inhabiting the shell of her beloved.
Their childhood selves had died, lost to the years like leaves in the wind. The hopeful, joyful marriage they once shared had dissolved into dust. Tifa played with the wedding ring on her finger, staring at the delicate, pale band. She couldn't give up; she wouldn't.
Cloud Strife was worth pursuing, and her marriage was worth mending.
A/N: Hello, all! If you have not read 'What It Means To Be Living', I highly recommend reading it before you continue this fic. While this story follows the original game, the relationship between Cloud and Tifa is quite different, and I fear that this narrative will lack its impact if you are not familiar with its prequel.
For those of you who have read the prequel, please note that this fic will be a bit different in its structure. I no longer have the time for weekly updates and to write as often as I once did, but I still plan to update fairly often. In This Cage will read like a chain of drabbles, with the intent to close up the loose ends of What It Means To Be Living.
With that said, please enjoy this continuation of Cloud and Tifa's story as they mend their marriage. Thank you!