A/N: Special thanks to Denebola Leo for planting this seed and giving me permission to run with it. She gave me the kick in the ass I needed to start writing again.
Chapter 1: Babysitters
Tifa hummed to herself as she washed the dishes after dinner. It was Sunday, the day Seventh Heaven was closed so that they could spend some time together as a family, and both Cloud and Denzel were in an exceptionally good mood that evening.
She sensed Cloud's presence before she heard him; he had this aura about him, this feeling of power that Tifa recognized when he was nearby. She rubbed the washcloth over the plate and set it in the basin, and was just plunging her hands back into the hot, soapy water when she felt warm, dry hands touching the exposed skin at her sides, then sliding together to rest on her taut belly.
She picked up a glass and shoved the washcloth inside, giggling as his spikes tickled her cheek. "Cloud, I'm trying to do something here," she said, attempting to sound stern.
"So am I," he said into the curve of her neck, pressing himself against her back.
She tried to suppress the warm shudder as his lips grazed lightly over her neck. "Denzel could come in any second," she protested weakly.
"Denzel went to Lexi's house," he whispered, his spikes now tickling her sensitive ear. His left hand slid down her arm and over her hand, linking their fingers together in the hot water. Their rings rubbed together, and the memory of their simple ceremony – long overdue, in everyone's opinion – warmed her from the inside.
But she really wanted to get the kitchen cleaned up so that she could get started painting in the bar before it got too dark. She used her free hand to put the glass in the dish rack, trying her best to ignore him. It didn't work for long, because his right hand was moving down and...oh gods. The dishes could wait.
Tifa let her head fall back on his shoulder, breathing his name. He took that as implicit permission to take her higher, and her breathing steadily grew heavier until she couldn't take any more. She turned around to face him, taking his face in her bubbly hands and redirecting his mouth to hers. Buckles clinked and buttons popped as he backed them through the kitchen doorway. He picked her up and set her on top of the bar, pulling back long enough to give his attention to removing the rest of her clothes.
"Out here?" Tifa gasped, looking around nervously. "Someone might walk in on us!"
"I know," Cloud said, his eyes glowing as he grinned mischievously.
She never could say no to that grin.
She always took a bit longer to recover than he did. She lay sprawled across the bar in a contented afterglow, watching him calmly pulling on his clothes. She loved that she could stare at him all she wanted now. Once upon a time she'd been too shy for anything except quick glances at his slender, nicely muscled form. "How can you…just jump up so quick…after that?" she asked, stretching languidly.
He was down on one knee, tying on a boot, but he looked up from under his messy, spiky hair. "Well, like you said…someone could walk in at any time," he said with a teasing grin, laughing as she jumped up and frantically began redressing. She fumbled with her bra and then fought with her top, taking an unnecessarily long time before realizing she was trying to shove her head through an arm hole. Cloud, being almost completely dressed, just watched her scrambling in amusement with one hand in his pocket.
"My…my panties," she said distractedly, searching under the bar, looking between dusty bottles and clean glasses. "Cloud, I can't find my panties!"
"I'm sure they'll turn up," he said with a shrug. As he spoke, her phone started playing a distorted tune from the far side of the bar. He walked over and picked it up, turning off the alarm. "Time for your pill," he said. "You might as well just get a new pair while you're upstairs."
"I can't just leave it for someone else to find!" she said, exasperated. "What if Denzel finds it when he's working?"
"Denzel's not a child anymore," Cloud shrugged. "He'll understand." Indeed, Denzel was 19 now. He still lived at Seventh Heaven, although now he earned his room and board working at the bar. "What do you think he's doing all those nights he stays at Lexi's place?"
Tifa cringed. "I…would rather not think about it," she muttered, finally giving up on her underwear search. "Well, just keep an eye out for it, would you?" she asked. "I still don't think he really needs to see it."
"Sure," Cloud said. Then he followed her back to the kitchen, his hand still stuck in one bulging pocket.
Yuffie maneuvered the stroller over the uneven threshold of the door, while her oldest son, Jacky, obediently held the door open.
Tifa perked up from behind the bar. Thirteen years ago she would have scoffed at the idea, but she and Yuffie had actually become very close friends. "Hey, it's the E-clan!" she said cheerfully. Yuffie had fallen in love with a man named Maury, and they thought it would be amusing to name all their kids with the same 'ee' sound at the end. It was. It was less amusing when they added it to everyone else's name.
"Auntie Teefy!" Her middle child, Nicky, now four years old, nimbly hopped over one wheel of the stroller, gleefully ignoring his mother's struggles.
Tifa came around the bar and squatted down to receive her flying hug. The average person might have fallen over backwards with the gale force of the charging little boy, but Tifa had religiously stuck to her training, and she was nearly as solid and toned now, at 32, as she had been at 20. "Hey little man!" she said, ruffling his long black hair.
"Auntie Teefy, can we have ice cweam tonight?" he asked, his big, innocent eyes sparkling with excitement.
"We'll see," Tifa said with a small smile. "If you can be a big boy and eat all your lima beans, I might be able to find some ice cream back there somewhere."
Nicky's face fell. "Lima beans? Teefy, lima beans are so gwoss! Why you make me eat 'em?" He crossed his arms over his little chest and stuck out his lower lip in an exaggerated pout.
"You always say you want to be big and strong like Uncle Cloud," she said with a shrug. "How do you think he got that way?" Cloud was strong by anyone's standards; he wouldn't usually be considered big, but he seemed to leave that impression on children. These boys looked up to him just as much as Denzel had as a kid.
Nicky's eyebrows furrowed. "From lima beans?" he asked doubtfully.
"Yep," Tifa nodded solemnly. "Plus…some other things," she added vaguely.
Tifa left the little boy to ponder that as she stood up to greet Jacky, Yuffie's oldest boy at seven. He was unusually small for his age, and also unusually mature. He reminded Tifa of a young Marlene – wise beyond her years, and far too serious for a child. Now sixteen, she had become passionate about finding sustainable energy sources. She had compiled an impressive amount of research on the subject, and had finally convinced Barret to let her move across the continent to work with him.
"Hello Auntie Teefy," he said politely as he hugged her. His formal way of speaking clashed oddly with his family's propensity to add "ee" to everyone's name.
Tifa smiled down at him. "Hello, Jacky."
"Are we going to play War tonight?" he asked hopefully.
"Yeah, I think we can find some time for that," she said lightly. He grinned and ran off, and Tifa zeroed in on the stroller, where baby Lonnie was busy gnawing on those curious long things at the end of her arm. She had a look of utmost concentration on her face, as if determined that today would be the day that her exploring mouth would figure out what those things were. Tifa unstrapped the little girl and scooped her up, holding her close and inhaling her sweet baby smell.
Yuffie was busy unloading an enormous diaper bag, along with traveling bags for each of the kids. "Teef, are you sure you're ok with this?" she asked, untangling the strap from her hair. "I mean, Sunday's supposed to be your family night."
A distorted tune started playing from the vicinity of Tifa's hips, and she absently turned off the alarm, giving her friend a stern look. "You guys are family," she said. "Anyway, Cloud's going to be working late and Denzel ditched me for Lexi as usual, so I would've been all alone if you guys didn't come to keep me company. And," she said, giving the two boys a meaningful look, "it's been forever since I had a sleepover."
Nicky and Jacky grinned back at her. Sleepovers with Tifa and Cloud meant romping around all evening with Cloud, then a bubble bath together in that big, claw-foot tub, playing with toys that had made many journeys through the imaginations of Denzel and Marlene, and then curling up in bed with Tifa, letting her soothing voice lull them into a blissful sleep. She might walk a hard line about lima beans, but Tifa was a total pushover when it came to bedtimes, and she let them stay up so much later than they could at home.
"Thanks a million, Teef, you're the best. Maury is horny as hell lately and we need a little ee-err ee-err time, ya know?" Yuffie laughed, imitating the squeak of bed springs.
Tifa glanced over at the kids in alarm, but the boys were too busy crawling on the furniture to even care what the adults were talking about. Yuffie was always so much more comfortable with things like that, openly talking about sex like they were discussing what to cook for dinner. Tifa wondered if she taught her kids about the birds and the bees as soon as they were old enough to walk.
Lonnie tugged playfully at a wisp of hair that had come loose from Tifa's braid and babbled nonsense. Tifa automatically smiled down at the baby, giving her a kiss on her slobbery mouth.
"Alright, I'm out," Yuffie said, finally freed of her heavy burdens. "Be good, boys," she called over to Nicky and Jacky. "Love you guys."
"Yeah, bye," Nicky said distractedly. Jacky didn't even bother to answer. He was rolled up in a throw blanket, and his older brother was dragging him across the floor, both giggling like mad as Nicky banged him into furniture and walls.
Yuffie sighed and shook her head. "You'd think pushing their giant watermelon heads out of my vagina would at least earn a wave when I leave, but…" She gave Tifa a quick hug. "Call me if you need anything. You know the drill. I'll be here at noon tomorrow."
"Noon?" Tifa asked, shifting Lonnie to her other arm.
"Well yeah. I mean, we'll need time for morning banging too, ya know," she said, rolling her eyes at Tifa. "Latah, sistah," she called over her shoulder, letting the door shut behind her with a bang.
Tifa may have been exaggerating a bit when she'd said Cloud was working late. The WRO never kept Cloud past six unless there was an emergency, but she didn't want Yuffie to feel guilty about leaving the kids. Hell, who was she kidding? She loved it when the kids stayed over, maybe even more than they did. She had Cloud all the time.
They ate dinner together - Nicky looking resolutely at Cloud before muscling down his lima beans - and the boys earned a good couple of hours playing with Cloud while Tifa cleaned up. That must have ranked higher than ice cream, because they never even asked about it.
Tifa took a bit longer than usual, both because she knew Cloud would help the kids burn up their restless energy, and because she kept stopping to talk to Lonnie in her swing. The poor child got the full narrative of the cleaning of a kitchen. When she finally finished, Tifa picked up the little girl and went to find the boys. She found them in the disaster that used to be Marlene's bedroom.
The beds had been stripped of their blankets and pillows. The sheets were clipped to the curtain with clothespins and hung over the closet doors, making a translucent ceiling for their hideout. The blankets were tucked, folded, and clipped to anything that could hold them up. There were some strange noises coming from behind Marlene's old quilt, which made up the wall at the foot of the beds. Tifa lifted it, and the sounds stopped abruptly.
She leaned down and clamped her hand over her mouth to hide the laugh. The three of them looked like they'd been caught with their hand in an electric cookie jar. They were comically frozen in place. Jacky and Nicky's long black hair practically sparked with static electricity, making it stand straight up, much like Cloud's did naturally. Cloud misinterpreted her hand over her mouth.
"We'll clean it up," he said immediately, and his dark minions nodded in earnest agreement.
When Tifa was sure she could speak without laughing, she removed her hand. "All right," she said, shaking her head indulgently. "I'm going to start their bath."
Bath time fell to Cloud due to popular vote. Kids really loved Cloud, although he never could see why. Tifa was slightly hurt, but only for a moment. It would give her a chance to get Lonnie fed and put down.
She really was a good baby. Her bottle was overdue, but she wasn't even fussing yet. She waited patiently while Tifa warmed it up, jabbering and blowing bubbles with her saliva. When Tifa was satisfied that the temperature was perfect, she offered the bottle to the baby, who grabbed it eagerly and immediately began sucking it down. Tifa smiled. The little girl seemed ravenous at first, but soon enough she slowed down, tiny lids drooping over tiny eyes. Tifa gently stroked the soft tuft of jet-black hair, so much like her brothers'.
When the boys had been babies, she had adored feeding them. She and Cloud had been together, but it always felt temporary, and Tifa lived in constant dread that she would wake up alone in her bed. She was certain that the floor would fall through and Cloud would evaporate from their lives like he'd never even been there. He hadn't left, of course, not since his Geostigma had cleared. He had sworn never to leave them again, assured her over and over that he wanted to be there with her, with them, but to Tifa, it always felt like he had one foot out the door.
After one particularly vivid nightmare, Cloud had awoken to her crying. After he'd held her in his arms and reassured her for several minutes, he'd managed to pry the dream out of her. "Damn, Tifa," he sighed wearily. "What do I have to do to make you believe I'm not going anywhere?"
"Marry me," she said suddenly, looking up at him with intense brown eyes.
Cloud looked taken aback. He blinked several times, his mouth opening and closing. "I didn't…I mean, that wasn't…Tifa, I…"
Tifa instantly regretted her words. She didn't mean to push him; it was just that the dream had felt so real. She'd been forced to watch him fall in love with someone else, marry someone else, and what was to stop him from doing it for real? He had made no formal commitment to Tifa. They were just living together, playing house, really.
Tifa had pulled away and rolled on her side, pulling the blanket tightly over her shoulder. "Never mind. It's fine. Let's just go back to bed."
Cloud had stared at her curled form for several minutes, finally lying back down next to her. "I…I do love you, Tifa," he said to her back. "I just…" He tried to find something to say, to make it better, but he never was good with words, and he finally sighed and gave up.
The years had passed, and still, he hadn't left. They had raised two kids together - kids that weren't theirs, but they were a family nonetheless, and Tifa wouldn't have changed it for the world. As Marlene and Denzel grew older, and Yuffie brought new babies into her life, Tifa treasured her time with them, but she knew it wasn't the right time for her to have one of her own. Cloud couldn't even commit to her; how could she expect him to commit to the decades that would be required to raise a child?
But one day, out of the blue, Cloud had proposed. It was rushed and awkward and utterly adorable. By that time, as they neared their thirties, Tifa had already resigned herself to her reality, determined to just enjoy the present and stop worrying about the future. Now, finally, he was giving her a future. Nothing really changed, but everything had changed.
A milk-scented sigh brought Tifa back to the present. She looked down at Lonnie, who had fallen asleep in her arms. The nipple of the bottle sat loosely in her lax mouth. "Oh, shoot," Tifa said, setting the bottle on the end table. "Wake up, baby. You need to burp." She brought Lonnie's head up against her shoulder, jogging her slightly. Tifa used to scoff at Yuffie's advice, not wanting to wake the boys when they were sleeping so peacefully, and they'd never given her a single bit of trouble. Lonnie was a different story. Tifa had once let Lonnie sleep after feeding, only to awaken an hour later, screaming in pain and pulling up her pudgy little knees. Tifa tried everything she could think of to calm the little girl, but the baby was inconsolable. It wasn't until she had spit up half of her bottle on Tifa's shirt that she finally relaxed and fell back asleep.
Yuffie had only shrugged, later, when she told her. "Live and learn, Teef," she chuckled. Sure, it was easy to laugh by then, when the gas had passed and Lonnie was a sleeping angel, but Tifa hadn't forgotten how horrible she'd felt.
Now, Lonnie was grudgingly opening her eyes as Tifa began patting her back. Tifa stood and walked upstairs as she burped the baby, feeling oddly proud of each watery belch. A low rumbling sound drew her to the open bathroom door. She leaned against the doorway and watched as Cloud, his hands in the tub up to his elbows, drove around his little boat, making the rumbling sound of a motor with his mouth. Nicky and Jacky chased his boat with their own, their motors higher pitched and sounding rather ill, and clearly defying the laws of physics.
Then Lonnie gave an especially loud burp, and their high-stakes boat chase was ended abruptly. Cloud looked over at her, immediately pulling his arms from the water. He seemed embarrassed to be caught acting like a kid. Tifa tilted her head and smiled. "Don't let me ruin your fun."
Cloud chuckled. "No, it's ok. It's time to get out anyway." He reached over and pulled out the drain plug, and the water began spiraling down with a loud slurp.
"Aww," said Jacky and Nicky in unison, still holding their little boats. They were really just pieces of scrap wood that Cloud had sanded down in a vague boat shape when Denzel and Marlene were little, but they had somehow become their favorite toys.
"But if you get ready for bed really quick, maybe Auntie Tifa will let you pick which stories she tells tonight."
Tifa smiled. "Let me put her down first," she said, gesturing to the baby in her arms. Cloud nodded, already lifting one dripping boy out of the tub.
Bringing Lonnie into the room that had been Cloud's office once upon a time, Tifa picked up her blankie and rubbed it gently against the baby's face. It was soft and fuzzy – luxurious materials that Tifa could never have afforded, but Yuffie had done quite well for herself. She owned the largest materia shop on the planet, and had turned out to be one hell of a businesswoman.
The blankie had a soothing effect on the baby, and her eyes were already beginning to droop as Tifa laid it out on the bed and wrapped Lonnie up like a burrito. She held her little baby burrito in her arms and gently bounced her. Lonnie's eyes were closed within seconds. Tifa stared down at the baby, feeling almost disappointed that she had fallen asleep so quickly. She didn't want to put her down. She ran her finger over velvety soft cheeks, staring at the innocent little face.
Cloud came in behind her, chuckling as he found her still standing over the bassinet. He put his arms around her, beneath the arms cradling the baby, and rested his chin on her shoulder. "The boys are waiting for you," he said.
"Okay," she said absently, her eyes still locked on the baby. "Cloud? I want one."
The arms surrounding her froze. "One what?" he asked carefully.
"A baby. I want us to have one."
His arms left her. "We can't. I can't. You know this."
She turned around, surprised to find him looking stony. "I know you're a little nervous—"
"A little nervous?" He interrupted incredulously, throwing up his arms. "Tifa, those experiments, the mako…I don't even know if I can…"
"Shh!" She cautioned him. "You'll wake her." She turned back to the bassinet and gently laid down her precious bundle. When she next looked up at Cloud, he had a familiar look in his eyes, that awful stubborn set of his jaw.
Tifa came a step closer and reached for him, but he backed away. "We can at least try, right? If it doesn't work, we'll think of something else, but…"
She frowned. Cloud was always afraid that he wasn't good enough, but if he could be convinced to try, she could show him that he truly was. He always had been. "Cloud, you'll never know if you could if we never—"
"I won't," he said firmly, and there was a note of such finality in his voice that she shut her mouth. Then she felt a small hand impatiently tugging on hers.
"Teefy, it's time foe the stowy. I picked one but Jacky wanted a diffewent one, so you have to wead both, okay?"
Tifa shook herself and looked down at the little boy. He was wearing footie pajamas, and his black hair was still damp from his bath. "Sure, Nicky," she said with a forced smile. She glanced back over her shoulder as he led her from the room. Cloud stared back, his face as cold as stone.