A/N: This is definitely the shortest and fastest thing I've ever written. I'm not sure I like that, but I need to get back to my longer fics. Now leave me alone, muse!
The Shoe is on the Other Foot
Tifa couldn't sleep that night. She was furious with Cloud. She was furious with herself for still loving him, despite what he'd done. It wasn't right. She couldn't stop thinking about that little girl, with her big blue eyes and wispy blonde hair. She hoped Veronica would take good care of her. She had looked healthy and clean. Maybe it was for the best. Maybe she needed to just move on with her life. Forget Haley, forget Cloud, and focus on what she had.
Unfortunately, her keenly observant kids weren't ready to move on.
"Hey Tifa," Marlene said the next morning at breakfast. "Where did all Cloud's stuff go?"
Tifa glanced over at the bare place on the floor that, just yesterday, had been home to a pile of boxes with "Cloud" hastily scribbled on the side. She had considered writing something a little less nice on them, but luckily common sense overcame anger.
"Oh, I brought them over to him," she said.
"You went to his new place?" Marlene asked with wide eyes.
"Then we can go visit!" she exclaimed.
Tifa laughed. "No. No, you can't."
Denzel looked betrayed. "But Tifa, you promised," he said in a small voice.
Gaia, his face was killing her. "I know. Maybe you can meet him somewhere else. But that place is really not safe for you guys. You can't be there."
Marlene pouted. "That's what Cloud said too, but we can—"
Denzel kicked her under the table. It wasn't discreet. The sour look Marlene gave him as she rubbed her leg wasn't, either.
Tifa looked back and forth between them. "When did you talk to Cloud?" she asked, trying to keep her voice calm. Both kids looked down at the table. "You're not in trouble, guys. But you need to tell me."
Denzel was the first to look up. "Will he be in trouble if we tell you?"
Tifa tried not to fall apart. The kid was so damn sweet. He was worried about protecting Cloud from her. "No, honey. He won't be in trouble."
Denzel looked over at Marlene. She gave him an encouraging nod. "He…he calls every night since he left. After you open the bar."
"Oh?" Tifa squeaked. "And what…um, what does he talk about?"
Denzel shrugged, finally opening up more. "Mostly just asks us what we've been doing and if our homework is done. Stuff like that. Oh, and then he always tells us to—"
"Listen to Tifa," they said in unison, and then giggled.
Tifa's head spun. She didn't understand. If she was honest with herself, she had always known that he loved them. She shouldn't have been surprised, but that was what made his actions so hard to understand. Why would he deny this little girl? Because she was his? Because he didn't want to ruin what they had?
"Tifa, it's time to go," Marlene said, breaking through her reverie.
Tifa blinked and stood. "Right. Sorry." She walked over to the fridge and pulled out their lunches. She held them out, but they both just stared.
"Um, why are you giving us pickles and ketchup?" Marlene asked curiously.
Tifa looked down. She had just grabbed the first things she saw in the fridge, which were indeed a jar of pickles and a bottle of ketchup. She shook her head, trying to clear it. "Sorry guys," she said, retrieving the two small lunch bags, sitting right where she had put them half an hour earlier. "Here."
Denzel and Marlene took the bags, looked at the names written on them, and swapped with each other. Tifa was glad that she had already made the lunches, or she might have ended up sending them to school with motor oil and tinfoil for lunch.
As the kids trooped off for the bus stop, Tifa's heart hammered mercilessly. A few weeks ago, her whole view of Cloud had been shattered and replaced with a stranger. This stranger was cold and selfish, so different from the person she had known for years. Maybe it was what she needed to do in order to detach herself. It was cognitive dissonance at it's peak, a defense mechanism to let her believe that she was doing the right thing.
She thought back through his actions that night. I don't want to see a picture. It's not mine. It had seemed so cold at the time. He acted like she wasn't a real person.
Maybe that was the answer. Denzel and Marlene were real to him. He could see them and touch them and love them. But this little girl, she was just an abstract concept. If he didn't make her real, he wouldn't have to deal with the guilt of what he had done. Tifa had seen this little girl, a living, breathing being with a sweet smile that melted her heart.
Tifa's hands curled into fists. If Cloud wouldn't do the right thing on his own, she would just have to force him. It had taken him some time to adjust to his role with Denzel and Marlene, but he eventually did. He would be good to Haley, too.
Before she had time for any second thoughts, Tifa found the phone number for child services in Junon. After being passed around for a few minutes, she reached Veronica Chicke.
"Hello, Ms. Chicke? I'm not sure if you remember me, but my name is Tifa Lockhart. I'm…I mean, I was—"
"I remember you, dear," Veronica said impatiently.
"Oh. Right. Well, I'm sure you've seen the paternity test results by now."
"But umm…Cloud would still like to meet her." Might as well give up and become a compulsive liar now.
Veronica sighed. "I don't think that's a good idea, Tifa. I'd rather not put Haley in that situation if nothing's going to come of it."
"I know, of course," Tifa hurriedly agreed. "We definitely don't want to hurt Haley. But I thought we could just introduce them, you know, not as her father, just as a friend or something."
"I see," Veronica said flatly. "Cloud doesn't really want to meet her, does he?"
Tifa dropped her head back. This is what lying gets you. "Ok, here's the thing. I think the test results might be wrong. And I think if he met her, he'd see that, too."
"And why do you think that?"
Tifa hadn't thought this far ahead. If she told her that Cloud knew Haley was his and had the test results changed, she would never allow Haley to come. She had a hard time thinking up lies on the spot. "I…well, I'd rather not say, but I have my reasons. Please, Ms. Chicke, what harm could it cause? I know Cloud wouldn't do anything to hurt her."
Veronica was silent for a long time. Tifa was just about to check if the woman was still on the line when she spoke. "Fine. How about this Saturday?" she said briskly.
"Oh, that would be perfect!" Tifa exclaimed. "We'll be here."
"Alright, then. 9:00 sharp."
"Yes, you've got it, that's perfect," Tifa gushed.
"Tifa…" Veronica's voice held a warning. "Don't make me regret this."
Tifa swallowed back the bit of apprehension that wanted to leak into her voice. "I won't. I promise."
The next phone call was Cloud. Maybe he was still hoping to talk to her, or maybe he was taking calls from Denzel or Marlene, because he actually answered his phone. The wind whistled in her ear, which meant that he was actually outside again. Hopefully he was working. She took that as a good sign.
"Cloud, hey! So um, the kids have been asking about you, and I told them you would come over on Saturday morning to see them."
There was a pause. "Tifa, you know it's Thursday, right?"
"I have deliveries to make on Saturday. You have to give me a little more notice."
"Oh." Crap. She hadn't thought about that. "Well can't you cancel them?"
He sighed. "Not if I want to eat this week."
"Cloud, I promised the kids it would be Saturday. They're really looking forward to it." Maybe sometimes lying is ok. Or maybe I should just admit that I adjust my morals to fit the situation.
"Damn it, Tifa, I wish you would've talked to me first." He sounded more exhausted than angry.
"I know. I'm sorry. It's my fault, but it's too late to change it now. Can you please do it, just this once? I'll feed you on Saturday," she pleaded.
He groaned in frustration. "I'll see what I can do, ok? That's the best I can promise."
It would have to be good enough. "Ok. The kids, they really miss you, you know?" She wasn't trying to hurt him; she just wanted to give him a little extra nudge to follow through.
His answer was soft. "I miss you guys, too."
She felt a lump rising in her throat. "I…I have to go. I'll see you Saturday." Tifa hung up the phone and buried her head in her arms on the bar. She took several deep breaths, trying to get her emotions under control. She was so sure of herself when she kicked him out. She knew it was the right thing to do. So why was this so hard?
Tifa was incredibly nervous on Saturday morning. She had started questioning herself, wondering whether this was such a good idea after all. What was this really about? Revenge? Anger? She could admit that she wanted to see him hurt. She wanted him to feel as bad as she thought he should, and that really wasn't fair. What if, by punishing Cloud, she ended up hurting Haley? Maybe she needed to remind herself that Haley was a living, breathing being, and not just a tool for revenge.
The kids were the first to hear his engine when he pulled in the lot at 8:30. They were playing in the bar area for that very reason.
"Cloud!" they yelled in unison. They both jumped up and ran outside, too impatient to wait for him to come in.
Tifa followed slowly behind them. He had been clobbered with hugs before he even got the chance to take off his goggles. She was relieved to see that he had at least showered, and a little disappointed that he had shaved. He looked much more put together than the last time she had seen him, anyway. At least that's what she thought until he took off his goggles. His eyes were shot through with red, and dark circles cast shadows on his cheeks.
"Gaia, Cloud! Did you even sleep last night?"
Cloud stowed his goggles and pinched the bridge of his nose. "No, I didn't. I drove through the night to get my deliveries done early. I just got back into town."
"Oh." She didn't know what else to say to that. She felt a little guilty for forcing that on him. Besides his ghastly eyes, he was as dusty as always after he came back from a long drive. It made her a little nervous. She wanted him to make a good impression. "I think you still have some clothes here if you want to shower or change or something," she offered.
"Who cares, Tifa! We're used to it," Marlene scolded with her hands on her hips.
"Cloud, come on, you have to see the new fort me and Marlene built! It's so cool!" Denzel was pulling Cloud's hand and Marlene was bouncing on her toes.
He smiled down at them and allowed himself to be pulled through the front doors.
Tifa sighed as she watched them go. She had far too much nervous energy to just sit and wait for the next half hour, so she decided to make his favorite breakfast. She had promised to feed him, after all.
By the time her anticipated guests arrived, the smell of blueberry muffins filled the building. This had the effect of drawing the other three down the stairs at the very moment the knock sounded at the door.
"I'll get it," Denzel called as he ran for the door. He pulled open the door and stared up at the prim older lady holding the little girl's hand.
Tifa rushed to get there behind him. "Hello, Ms. Chicke! Please come in," she said nervously, nudging Denzel to the side.
They stepped inside, and Tifa smiled down at the little girl. "You must be Haley," she said.
"Mm hmm. And you're the bird lady!" she chirped.
Tifa looked nervously over at Veronica, who was eyeing her with suspicion.
"And this is Denzel and Marlene," she said quickly, pointing at them in turn.
"Hi!" Marlene chirped. Then she looked up at Tifa. "What are they doing here? I thought this was supposed to be our day with Cloud."
Tifa flushed. "Um, well, Haley is going to spend the day with us too."
"You mean we're babysitting?" Marlene asked.
"Yeah, sure," Tifa said. "Something like that."
"Excuse me, but where exactly is Mr. Strife?" Veronica asked suspiciously.
"Oh, he's just—"
Right then, Cloud walked through the kitchen door with a blueberry muffin in hand. "Tifa, I don't think you made enough—"
He stopped when he saw Veronica in the entryway. His eyes moved down to the little girl and the color in his face drained. "Tifa? Can I…talk to you in the kitchen for a minute?"
Tifa laughed uncomfortably. "Um, can it wait? Ms. Chicke was just—"
"No. Now," he said firmly. He turned and walked back through the swinging door.
Tifa gave an awkward smile to Veronica. "Excuse us a minute." Veronica did not look amused.
As soon as Tifa made it through the kitchen door, Cloud exploded. "What the hell are you doing?!"
Tifa lifted her chin. "Well, I thought if you saw her, it would make her real—"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure she's real," Cloud sputtered. "That still doesn't make her mine."
"Are you still trying to pretend that's the truth, Cloud? I mean, look at her!"
"You know, I'm not the only man on the planet with blond hair and blue eyes," Cloud said in disbelief.
"Oh come on, Cloud. She looks just like you."
Cloud pushed his hands through his hair and sighed. "Well, I have no idea where my dad is. Who knows, maybe I have half-brothers all over the place."
"Who happened to fuck this woman at the same time you did?" Tifa yelled.
"Tifa!" Cloud hissed, glancing at the swinging door.
Tifa lowered her voice. "Listen, Cloud. I tracked our journey from beginning to end. I checked the dates we were in Junon. The timelines match up. If it was someone else, it would have to be within a few days of the time we were there."
Cloud threw up his hands. "Look, I don't have an explanation. I just know that she can't be mine. Why are you still clinging to this idea? What part of 'I can't have children' do you not understand?"
Tifa started to retort, but then his words sunk in. Actually, they hit her like a ton of bricks. "W—what?"
Cloud's mouth moved, but no words came out. He scrunched his brows together. "I thought you said you talked to Reno."
Her face flushed. "Well, you know, Reno's not really…" she trailed off and looked away.
A scowl was starting to form on his face. "What exactly do you think Reno was helping me with?"
"I—I don't know, but—"
Cloud was slowly backing away from her.
"What? Cloud, where are you going?"
He was staring at her, shaking his head. "You think I asked him to manipulate the paternity test."
"Well, I mean, you seemed so calm when we got it—"
"Because I already knew what it would say!" Cloud yelled.
Tifa held her arms out to him. "I—I'm sorry, Cloud! But if it's not true, then—" she tried to put her arms around him, but he pushed her away.
"No. No, you thought…Tifa, do you really think I would do something like that?"
She was scrabbling for the sides of the hole she had dug. "I didn't at first, but then evidence was just stacking up and—" she reached for him again, and again he pushed her hand away.
"You really don't know me at all," he said with disgust. "I need to…not be here." He turned and walked out the back door.
Tifa ran after him. "Cloud, wait!" she said, grabbing desperately at his hand. "What about Haley?"
"What about her?" he growled.
"Well, she was going to spend the day with you—"
"Not my problem," he said, shaking her off.
She followed him around to the front, where he pulled out his keys and climbed on Fenrir.
"But what about Denzel and Marlene? They'll think you just left them again."
His hands were already on the handlebars, but he let his head drop. "That's pretty low, Tifa," he said softly. After a minute, he sighed and got off. "Fine. Give me your keys and I'll take the three of them to the zoo or something."
Tifa smiled hesitantly. "My car only has room for four."
"I know," he said stonily.
Tifa blinked. "O-oh. Ok. Sure. I'll just—I'll get them." She ducked her head and walked around to the back.
Cloud went back in through the front. Veronica was sitting alone at one of the tables. He glanced around. "Where did the kids go?"
"Your kids are showing Haley their fort upstairs," she said with a slight smile.
Cloud nodded and headed upstairs. Tifa came through the kitchen door with the keys in her hand. She looked over at Veronica and smiled uncomfortably. "He wants to take them to the zoo," she explained awkwardly.
"I see," she said, pressing her lips together. "I had hoped to be able to observe their interaction. I'm still not sure if this is the best idea."
"Right. I understand. You'll have a chance to do that after they return though, right?"
Veronica's sigh coincided with the sound of cheers and running footsteps.
Tifa held out the keys to Cloud as he came down the stairs behind them. He took them with barely a glance.
"We'll be back around lunch time," he said to no one in particular.
Tifa bit her lip. "Ok," she said.
She watched the four of them leave. Denzel and Marlene were each holding one of Haley's hands, and she was skipping and giggling between them. Cloud followed behind them like a herder.
Tifa turned around to look at Veronica Chicke. "So, umm, you want to come back at lunch time, or…?"
The older woman raised her brows. "Actually, I'd love a cup of coffee."
"Oh. Sure," Tifa said, trying to put on a brave front. She walked back into the kitchen and tried to still her shaking hands enough to pour a cup of coffee. She set it down and took several deep breaths to calm herself. She could fix this. She hoped.
She picked up the cup and brought it in to Veronica.
"Join me, dear," Veronica said gently. "You look like you could use some company."
Tifa sighed. Actually, what she wanted was to be left alone so she could cry, but that probably wasn't the best idea right now. She sat down across from Veronica.
Veronica said nothing; she just sat back and sipped her coffee. Eventually, Tifa spoke.
"I guess, maybe there wasn't an error in the results after all."
"I know," Veronica said over her coffee cup.
Tifa looked up. "What?"
"I had them run the test again after we got the first results. The lab tech even looked at the DNA under a microscope at my request. He said it looked strange, but there was definitely no match."
Tifa let that sink in. "Then why did you agree to bring her here today?"
Veronica set down her cup and looked up at Tifa. "If you recall, I told you that Haley wasn't just another client to me. Well, neither was her mother. You remind me a lot of her, actually," she said wistfully, tilting her head to look at Tifa. "Jessica was my neighbor in Junon. I remember when you all were there. The whole town was buzzing about some stranger who had saved Priscilla on the beach."
Tifa remembered. They had found the little girl under attack by a bottomswell. After defeating the monster, they went back to find her little body lying still on the beach. She wasn't breathing. Cloud had revived her with CPR.
"Jessica was Priscilla's aunt, you see. You all stayed at her house that evening – rather, her mother's house. Priscilla's grandmother."
Tifa's eyes widened. "I remember her! She was so sweet."
Veronica smiled. "Yes, she was. She was also quite taken with your Cloud. But she was such a dreamer. She imagined that she could convince him to stay." Her smile faded. "She must have been so heartbroken when he left a few days later. He was her first, you know." She shook her head sadly. "She convinced herself that he was on some epic quest to save the planet."
She picked up her coffee and tapped her fingers thoughtfully on the cup. "She never would let go of that delusion. When she found herself pregnant a month later, I urged her to contact him, but…" she shook her head. "She refused. She said that what he was doing was too important."
Veronica sighed. "So you see, I didn't need the test to know. He was the only one who could have fathered the child."
Tifa stared at her. "Then…why didn't it show on the test?"
Veronica shrugged. "I don't know, dear. But it doesn't matter to me what was on a piece of paper. Jessica knew, and I knew. The problem lies in convincing him."
Tifa finally went to get her own cup of coffee. She was glad that Veronica had stayed after all. She slid back into her seat with a question on her lips. "So…if he can't be convinced, will you adopt her yourself? I'm sure you take good care of her."
Veronica looked wistful. "If only." She looked sadly into her coffee cup. "No, I won't be around long enough. The doctor says I have less than a year left now."
Tifa's hand went to her mouth. "You-you're sick? I'm so sorry."
"No, it's alright," Veronica said, smiling bravely. "My only concern is finding the right place for Haley before I go."
Tifa fiddled with her wolf ring. It was the one Cloud had given her. She never did take it off, even though they were technically separated. "Do you think…the right place is with Cloud?" she asked hesitantly.
"Perhaps," Veronica said. "But only if he wants her. If not, she's better off with a stranger."
Cloud came back with the kids shortly after noon. He must have filled them up with sugar, because they were all loud and giggly. Tifa sent them to wash up and put lunch on the table.
It hurt that Cloud wouldn't even look at her during the meal. At least there was no awkward silence, though. Haley seemed to be a bit of a clown. She kept them all entertained throughout the meal.
When they had finished eating, she jumped up and ran over to Cloud. She put her sticky fingers on his arm. "Clow, will you read my book?"
"Um, your book?"
"Her favorite book," Veronica supplied. "It's in my purse. She brings it everywhere."
Cloud smiled. "Sure, Haley."
Haley skipped off to retrieve her book from Veronica's purse, which was still sitting in her usual booth. She brought it back to Cloud at the table.
"Let's read it upstairs, Cloud!" Marlene suggested.
"Ok, sure," he shrugged.
Three wild kids ran up the stairs, dragging Cloud along.
Veronica watched them, smiling. "He does well with them, doesn't he?"
Tifa sighed. "Yeah." She stood and collected the dishes from the table.
Veronica stood and picked up the milk and condiments and followed Tifa back into the kitchen. "You don't seem too happy about that, Tifa."
Tifa set the dishes in the sink and stared out the window. "Yeah, I just…I made a mistake and I'm not sure…"
"If it was a mistake, I'm sure he'll forgive you."
Tifa smiled sadly. "Maybe. He takes things hard sometimes."
It was only about 30 minutes later when a pair of pounding footsteps heralded the return of Marlene and Denzel.
"Hey guys," Tifa said. "Where are Cloud and Haley?"
Marlene giggled. "They're sleeping."
"Both of them?" Veronica asked.
With a start, Tifa remembered that Cloud hadn't slept the night before. Under the guise of using the bathroom, she crept up the stairs to look in on them.
Cloud was sitting in the rocking chair, his head tipped back, fast asleep. Haley was sitting on one of his legs, curled up against his chest, with her thumb securely in her mouth. She was making tiny little noises in her sleep. The book was open on the other knee. Carefully, Tifa picked up the book and set it aside. Then she tucked a blanket around Haley's little shoulders.
"Why don't you go talk to him already?" Marlene demanded.
Tifa smiled sadly down at Marlene as she tucked her into bed. It had been two weeks since their Saturday with Haley, and he still wasn't answering her calls. "I don't think he wants to talk to me, sweetie."
"So?" Marlene said. "Make him listen! Say you're sorry! I don't know why adults try to make everything so complicated all the time."
Tifa kissed her forehead. "I'll think about it, ok?"
Marlene rolled her eyes. "You've thought enough, Tifa. Just do it already!"
Tifa tucked in Denzel and looked back at them before turning off the lights. She wondered if he was still calling them. They both seemed fiercely protective of him, and it was really their secret to keep. She didn't dare ask. She flipped the switch and shut the door.
She walked downstairs to the kitchen. She had some things to get ready for the next day. She always tried to keep busy these days. It was easier not to think that way. She opened the closet to pull out the iron and was assaulted by one of his old gloves.
He was always jumping out at her like that.
Tifa bent down and gingerly picked up the glove. She flipped it over and examined the front. It was worn in all the same places his hands were calloused – soft where his hands were hard. But she had so many memories of being touched by him, with and without his gloves, so both touches were as familiar to her as the feel of those downy spikes in his hair. She sat down on the floor and slipped it on. She touched her arm with the gloved hand. It felt so much like him. A tear slipped down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away, and that felt like him, too.
Frustrated, she pulled the glove off and threw it. The anger she had tried so hard to hold on to had burned away with that one little sentence in the kitchen, and suddenly the shoe was on the other foot. He was the person she'd always known. Unfortunately, she wasn't the person he thought he knew.
She thought back through those confrontations. We'd find someone else to be the father and we could still have our family… You knew what happened to me! Did you really think there would be no consequences?... I hoped nothing would change...
So this whole time, he'd thought that she was kicking him out because he couldn't give her a child? That was just ridiculous. She wanted him, not his genes.
What a stupid misunderstanding. There was no good reason for him to still be avoiding her. Except that you accused him abandoning his kid.
She needed to go talk to him. It was easy to avoid a phone call, but he wouldn't be able to ignore her in person. Before she could lose her nerve, she grabbed her car keys and made the drive across town.
She pulled up to his building, suddenly realizing that it may not have been the smartest idea at this time of night. She sat in the car and looked around at the dark-clothed people clustered in groups of threes and fours instead of one or two stragglers. Most of them were probably too far gone to notice or care, but she pulled her gloves from her pocket and slipped them on, just in case.
A strange thumping sound was coming from behind his door. Tifa knocked, leaving behind little smudges of blood.
The sound stopped. After a moment, the door opened. He opened it only about a foot, but it was enough for her to see that he was wearing nothing but shorts, and he was glistening with sweat. She forced her eyes back up to his face.
She couldn't tell what he was thinking from his blank expression. What he said was, "Why are you wearing your gloves?"
She matched his expression. "I don't like getting your neighbors' blood on my hands."
He sighed. "Tifa…you shouldn't be here. Especially not at this time of night."
"Why not? I can…" Then she remembered the strange thumping sounds. She re-evaluated his attire. "Oh. I get it." She gave an incredulous laugh. "I should've known. Fuck you, Cloud."
She turned and walked away, but he called after her. "Tifa, wait. Don't go back out there. You can come in."
She stopped. After considering for a moment, she spun around on her heel and marched inside. Whatever she was expecting to find, it wasn't an empty apartment that looked pretty much exactly the same as the last time she'd been there. The only addition was a punching bag in the corner that looked like it had been pulled out a dumpster, held together with liberal amounts of duct tape. He hadn't even unpacked the boxes she had brought him. They sat by the door where he had dropped them.
He shut the door behind her. "You can wash my neighbors' blood off your gloves in the sink." He sat down on the arm of the lumpy couch and started unwinding the tape on his hands. "I don't know why you're here, Tifa, but since you clearly still don't trust me, I don't think this conversation is going anywhere."
Tifa watched the rust-colored blood swirl around the drain in a funnel of water. "You got a punching bag."
"Yeah. Landlord doesn't like it when I swing around a sword in here."
Tifa laughed. Cloud didn't. She shut off the water and looked over at him. "I hate this, Cloud. Please, will you talk to me?"
"Unless I misunderstood you, I don't think we have anything to talk about," he said flatly.
Tifa set her gloves on the edge of the sink. "Can you just try to think...what would you have thought? If you were in my position?"
His eyes flared. "You know, it would never have crossed my mind that you would do something like that to escape responsibility, because I know you. If you said you didn't do it, I'd believe you."
He stood up and tossed the balled-up tape in the trash. He linked his hands on top of his hand and walked over to the window. She stared at the muscles of his back as he moved. They were the ones she usually felt underneath her hands when he was moving inside of her.
Tifa brought her brain back to the conversation with an effort. "You're right. I'm so sorry, Cloud. I don't know what else to say! I made wrong assumptions and made stupid mistakes. If I could go back and change everything I would, but I can't! I can only ask for your forgiveness."
He stood staring out the window, apparently unmoved by her apology.
"You know, it would really be a lot easier to have this conversation if you would put on a damn shirt," she said jokingly.
She had hoped it would lighten the mood. She expected him to get that smirk on his face and ask if he was distracting her. But he didn't. He just blinked and said, "I'll get one."
He walked over to a plastic garbage bag in the corner and dug out a black t-shirt. He pulled it over his head before turning back around. "Better?"
He sat down on the couch. "Tifa, I'm not even really mad at you anymore."
"Then why won't you talk to me? Why don't you answer your phone?"
"I guess I thought it would be easier than having this conversation." He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. "I've just been thinking. I know what you want, Teef, and I can't give it to you. Ever. So I just think you'd be better off without me."
Tifa felt like banging her head against the wall. She should have known. He was in one of those self-flagellating depressive cycles again, and it was so damn hard to pull him out of them. He would isolate himself and ignore everyone who tried to reach out to him until something knocked him in the head.
She walked over and sat next to him on the couch. He looked uneasy, trying to discreetly scoot away from her. Good, she thought. I still have that effect on him, too. But when she reached out to touch the little spikes, he pushed her hand away.
Tifa dropped her hand back in her lap. She needed to get to the root of what was bothering him. "Cloud, why did you ask Reno to look into that for you?"
Cloud stared at the wall, not blinking. "I just…I hadn't been careful in the past because I didn't think it was possible. And then that woman came with that birth certificate." He sighed and looked down at his hands in his lap. "I had a dream that night. I dreamed the kid was a monster. My screwed up DNA caused all kinds of mutations and…and then I laid awake watching you, thinking about how many kids could be out there and how much this must have been hurting you. I had to know."
Tifa edged a tiny bit closer. He was so sensitive to her touch. She needed it if she was going to get through to him. "So what did Reno find out?"
Cloud stood up, walking away from her. "He did some digging. He said that no SOLDIER has ever fathered a child. The mako just mutates your cells so much and you can't ever…" he shrugged. "The amount I got was so much more than a standard SOLDIER. Reno talked to some scientist who gave me something like a .01 percent chance.
He braced his arms on top of the little oven, still unable to look at her. "It was weird. I thought I'd be relieved, because who knows what kind of messed up kid would come out of my genes. But I was actually disappointed. I never realized I even wanted that." He lapsed into silence.
Tifa didn't know what to say. She hadn't even considered how he might feel about it. He always seemed focused on here and now, getting through the next day. But he was so hard to read sometimes, especially when he closed himself off. It just didn't seem like something that he'd even think about.
Finally, he spoke again. "After you kicked me out, I decided it was a good thing I'd found out now. You're still young enough. You can find…someone else…"
He struggled with those last few words, and she knew that was her opportunity. She came up behind him and slid her hands around his waist. "I don't want someone else."
He shook her off and turned around to face her. "It doesn't matter. I've always been a loner and I always will be. You're not, Teef. You're so great with everyone. I just need to be on my own."
"You were great with Haley," she said softly.
He looked away, a sure sign that she'd found a chink in the armor he'd wrapped around himself. She took a step closer.
"Even if the test doesn't say she's yours, she still needs a home, Cloud."
Cloud laughed bitterly and gestured to the apartment around him. "Do I look like I'm in any position to adopt a kid, Tifa?"
She stepped closer again, close enough to kiss, if she thought he would let her. She reached her hand up and placed it on his chest. She felt his heart speed up. "You can move back in."
"Stop it," he said, pushing past her. "I'm too screwed up. You and Denz and Marlene deserve better than that." He walked to the window and looked out over the filthy alley below.
"Damn it, Cloud!" Tifa finally lost her cool. "Do we really need to go through this again? You—" My screwed up DNA… "Oh my gods," she said as her hand flew to her mouth. "Your DNA."
He leaned his head against the window. "Yep."
"No, Cloud, your DNA is mutated."
"Yeah, Teef, we've been over this."
"Don't you know what they check in a paternity test? They look for similar DNA markers."
Cloud turned around slowly, accepting it. "Ok, fine. But if it's not possible to have a kid, you really don't need a test to know you didn't make one."
"No, Cloud. You said no SOLDIER has ever fathered a child. Maybe not, if they're only looking at DNA tests."
His eyes flickered. He was thinking through it. "But Tifa, after all these years you haven't gotten pregnant."
Tifa started laughing. Cloud wasn't amused. She laughed harder. "What's so funny?" he demanded.
"Oh, Cloud. Didn't you ever wonder about that little pill I take every morning?"
He furrowed his brow. "I thought it was a vitamin or something. I mean, I thought you wanted kids."
Tifa came closer, cornering him against the window. "Well, yeah, eventually, but not yet. We're not even…" she trailed off. Really not the time for that conversation. "Please move back in." She pressed herself against him. "I miss you," she said, brushing her lips against his.
He looked pained, but this time he didn't push her away. "Tifa..." he whispered. "We shouldn't..."
She stepped back and unzipped her confining vest. It was a practicality for her. It was hard to move around and work with such large breasts; the vest held them down tightly, but she knew he liked it better when they were free and loose.
Cloud groaned. "You're killing me, Teef."
"I know," she said, an evil smirk spreading across her face as he tentatively ran a thumb over one pert nipple. She put her arms behind her and let the vest slide to the floor. It had the added effect of thrusting her chest toward him. He was breathing harder, struggling with himself, fighting against his instincts.
She was well past feeling guilty about using her body to get through to him. Sometimes words just didn't penetrate his thick skull. Sometimes she just needed to show him how she felt. And sometimes it was the key to getting him to lower that protective shield around his heart.
She sidled up to him again and reached down to grasp him through his shorts. "I miss this, too," she murmured in his ear as she pulled at his earlobe with her teeth.
He finally gave in. He tangled his fingers in her long brown hair, wavy from her morning braid. He kissed her with all the pent up emotion and longing from the last month. It took her breath away. It was all of the feeling she didn't get from his voice and his face, wrapped up in the tenderness he showed her with his fingers tracing lightly over her skin, or the way he always made sure she was taken care of first.
Then he pulled away. "Tifa. Gaia knows I can't resist you, but it doesn't change-"
She put a finger to his lips. "Sex now. Talk later."
He was cool with that.
The lumpy green couch was more comfortable than it looked. Or maybe it was just that she was more comfortable with her head on his chest and one leg sprawled across him. They were wrapped in a soft, fuzzy blanket and she was surrounded by the smell of him. He was nuzzling her hair, much more open in the afterglow.
"I'm sorry," she said, tracing her fingers lightly over his stomach. "I shouldn't have accused you like that. I didn't want to believe it, honestly, but I saw this little girl's face, and I just knew. There was just no way she wasn't your daughter."
Cloud sighed. "I get that, but why would you automatically think I had done something to hide it? That's what bothers me the most, you know. Out of all the possible explanations, you assumed the worst about me. In the past, when I couldn't see the good in myself, you always found it for me. You always believed there was something worth saving. And then, suddenly, it was like you could see me for the monster I always felt inside. This whole straw man I had built with your help just collapsed. I don't want you to keep me around out of some sense of obligation because you feel guilty."
Tifa sat up on her elbow. "Cloud…you don't understand. Life without you is like going back to black and white TV after high definition. Something funny happens and the first thing I think of is how I can't wait to tell you about it once you get home, and then I remember that you aren't coming home. I keep expecting to see you standing in the kitchen, or listening for the sound of your bike in the lot, or looking for your toothbrush next to mine, and every time I realize you're not there, a little more color gets leeched out of the world. That's why I want you to come home. I need you. The kids need you."
He seemed to be thinking it over. "What about…the baby thing? I don't know if that can ever happen. Are you ok with that?"
She leaned down and kissed him. "There are other ways. I just want you to be there."
He pulled her back down, extending the kiss, re-awakening nerves that had just settled. "Are you sure it's not just because I'm so great in bed?" he murmured.
Tifa grinned. "Maybe. Is that a problem?"
He let out a little laugh. "Not at all."
Cloud was nervous. He wiped his sweaty palms against his pants. "Are you sure this is what I'm supposed to be wearing? Am I supposed to be wearing something casual? What if she doesn't recognize me? I look different than before, right? And it's been a couple months. That's a really long time at her age. She probably won't even remember me."
Tifa smiled, rubbing the tiny bit of scruff he let grow these days. "Just relax," she said as the car pulled up. "It will be fine."
The back door opened and a little blonde bundle jumped out. "Clow!" she screamed, running toward him.
He knelt down just in time for her to throw her arms around his neck. Hesitantly, he put his arms around her little body. She felt so small and delicate. He released her and tucked wisps of hair behind her ears, overwhelmed with the urge to protect her.
Haley looked over at Denzel. "Denzy! Let's play in your fote!"
Denzel shrugged apologetically. "Oh, we took down the fort. But we can build a new one," he said.
"Ok!" she bounced over and grabbed one of his hands. "Come on Mawene! Let's make a fote!"
Tifa linked her fingers between Cloud's and squeezed his hand as they watched the three kids making plans for their newest fort.
Things change...and that's ok, too.