Summary: Five years after Meteorfall, Cloud and Tifa are just two regular people, working two regular jobs. A surprise visit from child services threatens to turn their stable world upside down.
A/N: This is my first attempt at a one-shot. It came to me in the middle of working on my chapter for Breath of Fire and demanded to be written. I obeyed.
It was an hour before the bar was set to open when the prim woman in the gray suit walked through the door to Seventh Heaven.
"Sorry, we're not open yet," Tifa called from behind the counter.
"I'm not here for that," the woman said in a brisk voice.
Tifa looked up. She was an older lady, with gray hair clipped extremely short. The wrinkles around her mouth suggested that she spent a lot more time with her lips pursed than smiling. She carried a worn briefcase in one hand.
Tifa dried her hands on a dishtowel and stepped around the counter. "Oh. Then what can I help you with?" she asked politely.
The woman pursed her lips, confirming Tifa's suspicions. "I need to speak to Cloud Strife."
"Oh I'm sorry, he's not here right now. I can get him a message if you want, though."
"No," the woman said shortly. "I need to speak to him in person."
Tifa shrugged. "Ok, well he'll be home in about two hours if you want to come back."
The woman looked around the bar with distaste. "This is a drinking establishment, is it not?"
Tifa tried to brush off the offensive tone. "We serve alcohol and a full menu after 5 pm," she said.
The woman's lip curled as she looked at her watch. "Fine. I'll take a menu please."
Tifa smiled politely. "We're actually not open yet," she said.
"Don't worry, dear, I won't order until 5:00," she said in a patronizing tone. "Surely you won't make a paying customer sit out in the cold for arriving half an hour early."
Tifa raised her eyebrows. "No, you're welcome to wait inside until we open," she said, pulling a menu from the counter.
"Hmph." The woman took the menu and settled stiffly into a booth.
Tifa shook her head and went back to getting set up for the night. At promptly 5:00, she returned to the woman's table. "Welcome to Seventh Heaven! What can I get you?" she asked, as if their whole interaction had never happened.
"I'd like a behemoth steak, medium-rare, and fries on the side," she said, also pretending they had never spoken.
"Anything to drink?" Tifa asked.
"Water," the woman said briskly.
Tifa smiled. "You got it." The woman seemed to soften slightly. Tifa often had that effect on people.
When she returned with her order, the woman had several manila folders pulled from her briefcase, one open in front of her. She closed it as Tifa approached, something almost like a smile on her wrinkled face.
"Thank you dear," she said. "How soon until Mr. Strife arrives?"
Tifa glanced at her watch. "About 45 minutes. Anything else I can get you?"
"Not right now, thank you."
The barmaid was slightly miffed by the woman's behavior, but she shook it off. She had other things to do.
Exactly 45 minutes later, she heard the familiar rumble of Fenrir in the parking lot. It was still early on a Monday night, so no other customers had come in. Tifa had already cleared her only customer's empty plate and refilled her water.
Cloud strolled through the door, covered in dust as usual, but at least no blood this time. Thankfully, he'd left his sword in his bike. Tifa didn't know if the woman could handle the sight of the massive weapon, considering how much offense she seemed to take to his appearance.
She stood up and straightened her suit. "Are you Mr. Strife?"
Cloud stopped and looked in her direction. "Uh, yeah?"
The woman pursed her lips. "You don't sound very certain."
He laughed lightly and scratched his head. "Not really used to being called that. I'm Cloud Strife."
He pulled off his gloves and held out his hand as the woman approached. She shook it, but grimaced as she did so. His hands were rough, Tifa knew; the gloves helped, but calluses were par for the course.
"Hmph. Is that a motorcycle I heard drive up?" she asked archly.
Cloud glanced back at the door. "Yeah, that's my bike."
The woman pursed her lips again. "Is that the only vehicle you own?"
"Yeees," he said slowly, sensing disapproval. "Teef's got a car though."
"I see," she said primly, looking over at the barmaid. "And is 'Teef' your wife?"
Cloud furrowed his brow. "No, she's…I'm sorry, who did you say you were?" he asked the woman.
She straightened and lifted her chin. "My name is Veronica Chicke. I'm with child services."
Both Cloud and Tifa were instantly alert. "Can we sit?" Tifa asked, coming from behind the bar, gesturing to the booth that still held the woman's briefcase and papers.
"We can," Veronica said, "but unless you're his wife, this doesn't concern you."
Tifa put her hands on her hips. "I'm his girlfriend, and if you want to talk about the kids, I need to be here."
Veronica looked surprised. "The two of you have children?"
Tifa tried to backtrack. "Well, not, I mean, they're adopted. But we take care of them."
"Really," she said. "Well, I suppose it's up to Mr. Strife whether he wants you present or not."
"She can stay," Cloud said instantly.
"Fine," Veronica said, sliding into her side of the booth.
Cloud nodded to Tifa and she slid into the booth ahead of him.
"I'm here to discuss the custody of your daughter, Mr. Strife."
Cloud laughed out loud. He didn't mean to, but the sentence sounded so absurd. "Uh, no, I don't have any kids," he said.
Veronica pursed her lips again. "According to this, you do." She opened a manila folder and pulled out a birth certificate. She slid it across the table to him. He barely glanced at it.
"Yeah, whoever she is, you can tell her she's wasting her time," Cloud said irritably. "I don't have any money."
But Tifa picked up the birth certificate. "Cloud, this is from five years ago," she said softly. "Before anyone even knew your name."
Cloud stood up. "Oh come on, Tifa. It's a fake. They can put whatever date they want on it." He put his hands on the table and leaned down over Veronica. "Look, Ms. Chicke, you're wasting your time. I'm a delivery boy. My name is all I've got. So I'm sorry that you made the trip all the way out here, sorry to you and whoever this woman is, but you're not going to get any money out of me."
Tifa had to admire the woman's spine. She didn't even flinch at the mako-intense eyes trained on her. Cloud gave her one last hard look and then turned away, walking toward the kitchen.
"Well she is dead, Mr. Strife, and no one is looking for any money," Veronica said harshly to his back.
Cloud stopped, but he didn't turn around. "Then it's a mistake," he growled. "I don't have a daughter." Then he walked away, disappearing into the kitchen.
But Tifa was staring at the manila folder open in front of Veronica. There was a picture clipped to the front of a mass of papers. "May I?" she asked shyly.
Veronica slid the folder across the table. Tifa turned it around, looking into the eyes of a beautiful little girl. She had white-blonde hair and the clearest sky-blue eyes she'd ever seen. At least, the clearest she'd seen since before the mako infused Cloud's.
Tifa's heart was in her throat. She had a miniature version of Cloud's nose, even the same stubborn set of her jaw. Her hand went to her mouth. She raised her eyes to the woman across from her. "Is this…for real?"
Veronica sighed. "Quite. Jessica Anderson died in a train wreck last week. The birth certificate is from the official records."
The words on the certificate blurred in front of her eyes. Haley Rose Anderson. "But…but if the father isn't present, can't the mother just write whatever name she wants on the birth certificate?"
"Yes, she could," Veronica said with a frown. "But you can see why I knew who he was the moment he walked through the door," she said, nodding to the picture. "And we can get a blood test to confirm if you think that's necessary."
"Yes," Tifa whispered. Her whole world was spinning. "I just…let me talk to him. Would you mind?"
"Please do," she said. "I'll wait here."
Tifa nodded and swallowed hard, sliding out of the booth. She found Cloud in the kitchen, standing at the counter with an open beer in front of him. His arms were crossed over his chest, as if he'd just been waiting for her to come in. "It's not true, Teef. It can't be."
"Cloud," she said gently. "Nine months before the date on that certificate, we were on the road. We never stayed in one place for long, but…is it possible Haley was conceived…?" It was hard for her to say. Giving the child a name made it real, and the picture was oh-so-real.
At that time, their relationship had been uncertain. He was so distant. So hard to reach. But her feelings for him were so strong already; she wouldn't allow herself to think about what he was doing when he disappeared for hours at a time.
Cloud shook his head and walked out the back door. Tifa chased after him. "This isn't going to go away, Cloud! Just think about it! Even once! Is it possible?"
He stopped when he reached the garage door. He grasped the handle, but didn't open it. He sighed and leaned his forehead against the door. "I don't know," he said quietly. "Back then, I was…I mean, there were a lot of one night stands, but…"
Tifa put her hand on his shoulder. "You weren't…careful?"
He lifted his head and let it fall against the door again. "I don't know. I don't remember. Maybe not. I didn't think it was possible. I thought the mako…"
Tifa let out a shaky breath. "Cloud. You need to come back and talk to this lady. There's something you need to see." She reached out and grasped his hand, tugging him gently back toward the bar.
He followed meekly behind her, out into the bar area. A few other customers had trickled in while they were out back, so Tifa went to tend to them, leaving Cloud to return to Veronica alone. He slid back into the booth seat. Veronica raised an eyebrow. "Well?"
Cloud sighed heavily. "It's possible, but I'm still not convinced. Who is she? Where is she from?"
"Her name was Jessica Anderson. She was living in Junon at the time." Veronica pulled back the file folder and flipped through a few pages. She pulled out a paper with a photocopy of a driver's license. It was a photo of a young, pretty brunette. The picture was grainy, but not grainy enough for any reasonable doubt.
Cloud put one hand to his forehead and shoved the folder away. "Yeah, ok."
Veronica pursed her lips and took back the folder. "Yeah, ok, what?"
"Yeah, ok, it's possible," Cloud said irritably. "I remember her."
Tifa returned to the table at that moment. Somehow, hearing him confirm the encounter was more of a blow to her than the idea of his child. She felt it in her gut. On shaking legs, she lowered herself to the seat next to him.
"So, what now?" she asked Veronica, sounding steadier than she felt.
"Now? Well, now we discuss custody. I want you to know, though, Haley is more than a client to me. She is living with me while the arrangements are sorted, and I won't have her put into an unstable environment. I will bring her by tomorrow to meet you—"
"No," Cloud said. "No, not until we're sure. I want a test."
Tifa's jaw dropped. "Cloud, are you serious? Look at her!"
Veronica had already closed the folder. Tifa reached out and pulled it toward them, but he put his hand down on hers, stopping it.
"I don't want to see it. I want a test." His voice was hard.
Veronica sighed. "Very well. I will contact you with the details of where you need to go." She gathered up the folders and piled them back into her briefcase with practiced efficiency. The warmth that had snuck in over the course of their conversation was gone again. She was a blank slate, a consummate professional.
Tifa walked her to the door. Cloud disappeared into the kitchen. At the entrance, Veronica paused. "You know, I trust you, dear. But him…"
Tifa's smile was strained. "He'll do the right thing. Don't worry."
Veronica pursed her lips once more before opening the door and disappearing into the night.
Tifa wasn't feeling well. She was hot and cold and dizzy and nauseous. Marlene had taken one look at her at breakfast and ordered her back to bed. As a result, for the first time in years, Seventh Heaven would be closed. If she'd had the strength to object, she would have. The fact that she didn't spoke volumes to her family.
She woke up late in the afternoon, soaked in sweat. She kicked off the covers, disgusted with her own smell. It took some effort to drag herself out of bed, but she managed. She grabbed the door handle, expecting resistance, but it swung inward easily. It hadn't been latched.
She slogged into the hallway, moving at a glacial pace. Her ears perked up when she passed Cloud's office. She didn't mean to eavesdrop, but she could clearly hear his voice.
"Yes, Reno, I owe you one," he said dryly. "Don't make me have to—" He paused, presumably listening to someone on the phone. "Oh shut up. I'm sure I'll regret it then, but believe me, you're the last person I want—" He was silent again for a minute. "Yeah, whatever," he said irritably, slamming the phone back on the receiver.
Tifa's brain felt like mush. She was feeling way too crappy to make sense of that conversation right now, so she slogged the rest of the way to the bathroom. As soon as she closed the bathroom door behind her, she heard the office door open. She trudged over to the toilet and sat on the lid. A second later, there was a soft knock on the door.
"Teef?" It was Cloud.
"Yeah." she croaked.
The knob turned and Cloud came in, closing the door behind him. "How ya feeling?"
Tifa just groaned. It was enough of an answer. He smiled and peeled the sweaty hair from her neck. It was really unfair how good he looked in that moment. His jeans hung just right on his hips, hugging his ass, and his pale blue t-shirt was just tight enough to give a hint of what lay underneath.
He kissed her sweaty head and leaned over to the bathtub. He turned on the faucets, carefully adjusting it until he had it just right, and then dumped in a handful of her favorite bath salts. She reached over and touched the soft spikes at the back of his head. They were her favorite. He looked back and smiled, then helped her to her feet.
She raised her arms over her head and he peeled off the damp shirt. He tossed it in the corner, and she couldn't help wondering how he could stand the stench. He didn't seem to notice. He put his hands on her hips and slid them down, pulling her pajama pants and underwear with them. She held on to his arm to step out of them. She really, really loved his arms, especially when he wore a shirt like that, and she was starting to wish she didn't feel like death at that moment.
He grinned as if he could read her thoughts, and then led her over to the bathtub. He scooped her up, which really wasn't necessary, but incredibly sweet how carefully he lowered her into the water. She groaned and leaned her head against the back of the tub, closing her eyes and letting the hot water encase her aching muscles.
He knelt down next to the tub and gently wiped her face with his wet hands. "We're gonna be ok, Tifa," he said affectionately.
She opened her eyes. "Easy for you to say," she muttered. "You don't feel like roadkill right now."
He chuckled, leaned over and kissed her gently. "Do you need anything else?"
Tifa let her eyes drift closed again and shook her head. "Mm mm. I'm good."
She didn't even hear him leave.
The flu that had knocked her on her ass for two days was just a memory. Tifa hadn't heard anything about Veronica Chicke or the little girl for weeks, but they were on her mind that night as she wiped down the counter after closing.
Cloud was changing one of the taps when his cell phone rang. He wiped a hand on his pants and unclipped it from his belt. "Yeah." She could hear the murmur of a voice on the other end that sounded suspiciously like Reno. "Excellent," Cloud said. "Thanks for letting me know."
He hung up the phone and went back to the taps. Tifa threw her rag back in the sink and leaned against the bar, facing Cloud.
"Hey, Cloud? Did you ever hear anything else from Ms. Chicke?"
He pulled at the one stubborn tap, the reason that Tifa always had him change them. She hated that thing. "Who?" Cloud asked without looking up.
"Veronica Chicke. From child services. About Haley."
Cloud paused for a minute, then continued working. "Not since I got the blood test. I'm sure we'll find out soon."
He finished with the tap and stood. He put his hands on the sides of her face and tipped her head back. He kissed her, long and slow and deep, pressing her back against the bar. That was the last she thought about Veronica Chicke that night.
Two days later, he walked through the front door with the mail in hand, waving an envelope. "Hey, look what came."
She took the envelope from him and glanced up. "The blood test?"
"Yep." She tapped the envelope against her hand nervously. "Aren't you going to open it?" he laughed.
"Me? Um, sure." As she slid her finger under the flap, he came around behind her, wrapping his arms around her waist and resting his chin on her shoulder. She hoped he couldn't see the way her hands shook as she unfolded it.
As she scanned the first paragraph, she felt a release of the tension she didn't realize she'd been holding.
"Negative. See? We're gonna be just fine," he murmured into her ear.
Tifa pulled away from him, turning around to look him in the eyes. He looked smug. "Cloud...what did you do?"
His expression turned to annoyance. "Do? I didn't do anything. It's not mine. End of story." He plucked the paper from her hands as he walked away.