Between Life and Love

Between Life and Love

FFVII fic by Lilac Summers

author's notes at end

They were small hands, strong and slightly rough.

Capable hands, more used to wiping tables and breaking bones than to the elegant rituals other women enjoyed.

She couldn't knit a sweater to save her life, but she could punch through concrete as easily as through paper.

And to Tifa, they were ugly hands. The nails short and serviceable, the knuckles all-too-often scraped, they lacked the feminine, languid beauty that Aeris' conveyed with every movement.

To be honest, she'd never really given the appendages any thought. They worked, and that was pretty much good enough. But this evening, she quietly inspected each fingertip, each knuckle, the little birthmark on the corner of her palm she'd never before noticed. Her left thumb had a hangnail and she picked at it idly before letting it be. Palm up, she continued her inspection. She'd been clumsy earlier today as she cleaned her fighting glove, and one of the spikes had slipped. A shallow cut now bisected her palm, running right through the lifeline and edging towards the loveline. Symbolic, perhaps? What would a fortune-teller claim now? Maybe she should have Cait Sith read her palm.

A shadow fell over where she sat, and she looked up as it blocked the rosy light the falling sun cast that permitted her inspection. Cloud stood over her, bemused smile edging lips that were too-often grim. It was her favorite smile, that boyish, shy smile that reminded her of moonlit wells and fervent promises. Tifa clenched her hand into a fist, obscuring the foreboding cut.

"Hey, Cloud."

"Hey Tifa. What's so interesting?"

"Hmmm." Short nails bit into her palm, and she felt the shallow cut split and bleed. "Nothing much, just passing time, I guess." Narrow shoulders lifted and fell in a nonchalant shrug.

Cloud dropped down beside her, stretching out long legs in the measly stretch of grass that could be laughingly called a field, if one had been traversing through seemingly endless miles of desert. Which they had, so even this sickly "field" was a welcome change.

"You mind?" he inquired, shooting another lopsided smile Tifa's way.

"Not at all." She scooted over her little patch of pathetic grass and unfolded her own legs beside his, silently comparing their states. His rough blue pants were stained with dirt at the knees, while dried mud caked the bottom of his beaten leather boots. Her own bare legs had tanned into a golden color that would have looked lovely, had the skin not been marred with various scrapes and bruises. She absently noted a new scab on her right knee.

She looked up from her inspection and caught the Cetra, off conversing with Yuffie in the distance, in her sight. The pink romper seemed pristine.

Tifa tucked her legs beneath her again, almost guiltily.

In Nibelheim -- that long-abandoned town of youth and loss -- she had enjoyed what some would have called popularity. Not that she thought of herself as popular. It had been a small town, with few children. She'd been the only girl able to keep up with the boys, just as fast, just as strong, just as fearless. Her abilities had provided her an entrée into the group of "popular" boys. Bullies mostly, but to children power often equals unquestioned acceptance. She'd begun to believe that boys were naturally boisterous and oftentimes cruel.

But then Cloud had appeared, a shy, skinny youth. A runt. At the time, there was no hint of what he would become. No hint that those awkward bones would lengthen, that the skinny arms and legs would someday be padded by beautiful musculature. His face had been too delicate for a boy, wide of eye and round of cheek. He'd been pretty, and had suffered because of it. Now, the loss of baby fat revealed a face dominated by hard blue eyes and high, slashing cheekbones.

He was still pretty, but in a way that made women sigh and men grumble.

His looks had meant little to Tifa back then, however. He'd been . . . kind. Serious for his age. Almost wise. He'd been a gift to her, even if she had not learned to appreciate it until it was almost too late. In her childhood, with an endless future ahead of her, Tifa had been supremely confident that she deserved the gift of him, and that he would always return to her, somehow.

Sometimes, Tifa wondered where that confidence had gone. She wished to find it back, but feared it had been left behind on the lip of well, in the hands of a young girl dressed in robin's blue who rarely questioned her worth.

Now she could only see herself as if from afar, standing back in the shadows that the older, fair-skinned girl cast with her ebullient light as she flitted around a somber Cloud. She wanted to show that she also had light, light that went deeper than just what others called "optimistic Tifa." But she maintained rooted in the edges, giving out "everything will be okay!"s and "we'll get 'em"s to everyone but herself.

"I'm pretty sure I've got sand in places I never knew I had," muttered Cloud, brushing clumps of grainy mud off the knees of his pants.

Tifa agreed silently. She knew how she must look; her shirt had crossed the line from white to dingy yellow a while back. The dust around the area was so fine it coated everything until there was no definition of color: white became gray, black became gray. The entire party looked like they had been swimming in quicksand.

Except for the flash of happy pink, which refused to sully, even after Yuffie's loud green shorts turned khaki and Red XIII's flame fur shifted to a dull ginger.

Fresh and bright as a flower compared to her grimy companions, Aeris was a slash of color in a sea of beige and brown.

Tifa had never quite been one to forge comparisons, so feeling green-tinged envy gnaw at her was not a welcome experience. But ever since watching Aeris and Cloud casually walk into Don Corneo's boobie bar, the sentiment had clipped on to her spine and gleefully made itself at home.

At that time, it had taken Tifa a bemused minute before she realized the lanky (ugly) blonde beside Aeris was Cloud; the hilarity of that moment had overshadowed the severity of their situation for a brief minute. But Aeris had been wearing a red satin dress, she recalled. Something gauzy and flowing that skimmed her slender shape and brought out the honey-toned highlights in her auburn hair.

Later, standing beside her as Don Corneo made his choice for the "lucky" lady, Tifa had suddenly felt . . . too much. Her dress was too short, the color too bright, her hair too dark, her body too clumsy, her lipstick too heavy . . . the effect too garish.

She'd wondered, of course, if Cloud was thinking the same thing.

Because, if she couldn't keep herself from measuring her worth against Aeris, how could anyone else?

"-o quiet. Tifa?"

Cloud's voice drew Tifa out of the memory. She quickly looked up and noticed his attention was on her, waiting for an answer.

"Oh! Um . . . what?"

"You didn't hear a word I said, did you? Where'd you just go?"

She twined the tips of her ponytail around her fingers. The rough grass tickled the backs of her legs until she shifted again. She lifted her arm and gestured expansively at the dead landscape. "Gee, why would I go anywhere when we have such a lovely campsite?"

Laughingly, she ended her survey by pointing out a lone "tree." "Tree" because it had a scraggly trunk and spindly branches upholding a few pathetic leaves. Cid dozed grumpily beneath the meager shade. Even as they watched, one sickly leaf gave up its fight; it drifted inevitably towards the ground before landing on Cid's nose. His snores were interrupted by a few rough snorts as he sleepily brushed the leaf away. He awoke long enough to stare blearily at the distance, mutter what sounded like "'z my damn tea?", then fall back into blissful snores.

Tifa dissolved into giggles, sensing Cloud's amusement, as well. The impromptu demand for tea had caught the rest of the group's attention, and Yuffie began to sneak purposefully towards the slumbering man.

"zzzzz . . . snort . . . zzz . . . urp-'ey! Watcha think you're doing, damn kid?!" Indignant bellowing erupted from a newly woken and red-faced Cid. Yuffie, indomitable brat that she was, had climbed the tree Cid napped under, and begun to shake its branches vigorously, showering Cid with wilted leaves.

Barret's hearty belly laughs echoed over the oasis, and Aeris' own laughter joined his.

But Tifa watched none of the comedy; she was too focused on Cloud, how he shook with mirth as he tried to stifle low chuckles under a gloved hand. After taking a few calming gulps of air, he turned his grin towards her, like a guilty kid caught spying on an eccentric uncle. He looked . . . carefree, she decided. Young. How odd, that before this adventure she would never link the word "young" and "Cloud" together. Since she'd found him at the Midgar train station, he had seemed so much older than his 21 summers. Lifetimes older and wiser than she, his minor by a one measly year.

But these events, this mission had lightened him somehow. Given him a purpose he had been lacking. His posture was more relaxed, his gaze softened as he looked upon his little motley crew.

She was happy he had found something to strive for, but a mischievous shade often whispered in her ear: 'why isn't being with you enough of a purpose for him anymore?'

Tifa ruthlessly squelched that thought, focusing instead on how lovely he looked, sitting there in the waning golden sunlight and sharing his happiness with her.

He gave her a flower once, at her bar. After his first Avalanche expedition, he'd arrived with a blush-colored posy clutched in his soot- stained fist. As little Marlene rushed to greet him, she'd thought he'd brought the flower for the child. Instead, he had locked eyes with her as she stood frozen behind the counter, and had silently handed the bloom to her.

Tifa had never gotten a flower before.

He'd done it off-handedly, murmuring that he'd felt sorry for a flower seller and had paid a single gil for it. And what was he going to do with a flower, anyway?

But Tifa had treasured it. She pampered it with water and artificial light until she could stave off its withering no longer, then had lovingly pressed the bloom between the pages of her favorite book.

She had saved it from the wrecked bar after the plate crashed down; she carried it and a few other meager possessions in her pack.

She treasured it still, even after she found out the flower seller had been Aeris.

Cid continued to bellow as Yuffie, quick as a monkey and thrice as sneaky, scampered down the bark of the tree and set off running to hid behind the still-laughing Barret. He towered over Yuffie and Aeris like a mountain, casting them both in shade.

Nearby, Cait Sith's rotund, furry shape teetered back and forth like a drunk beach ball, a stark contrast to Vincent's form. Vincent, of course, was not laughing. Even as Red XIII's flame-tipped tail, which he was waving about in that languid way cats have, came close to setting Vincent's cape on fire, he didn't bat an eye.

"You found yourself quite an eccentric group here, Cloud. Should I be insulted or flattered that I'm included in it?" Tifa teased softly.

A sheepish shrug was her response, red tingeing his neck and spreading up to his ears. "More like they found me, don't you think? Not really my group." And his gaze left hers, running over pilot, thief, recluse, beast, toy, and revolutionist to finally linger on the Cetra.

Tifa noticed -- and if it made her stomach clench a little and bitter taste creep up her throat, in the dark of the night when she tossed and turned in her blanket she would deny such treacherous feelings had ever existed.

But now they toiled inside her, and it was hard to fight them off when the Cetra turned to catch Cloud's eyes, blushing and waving a little before she resumed her conversation with Barrett.

Tifa had long-since noticed that Cloud's gaze followed her through her day. She didn't quite understand why, and that mako-imbued gaze often made her fidget self- consciously. But she had become used to the familiar weight of his watchfulness. It made her feel protected, even if Tifa had not needed protecting in a very very long time. Yet it helped, when she was tired from wiping down tables and fending off indecent proposals, and she would swear that she would crack if she had to haul another drunk out the doors. Cloud's steady gaze always made it seem okay. It made the tableau bearable and even pleasant, if she could turn to catch his rueful grin as she exasperatedly sidestepped around boisterous patrons, leaden down with food and drink while her feet ached as if she'd been lugging around cinderblocks.

Later, when Aeris had entered their little group, she had continued to feel those eyes on her, but had become convinced his attention was drawn in comparison. After all, Aeris and she were practically polar opposites. How could he not stop but notice the contrast: her manners rough, her hair an unruly brunette waterfall, while everything about the other girl was smooth as satin, from her delicate skin to the sophisticated auburn curls. It hadn't taken long for her to realize that she would never be able to reach that level of ladylike perfection. All in all, it simply wasn't her.

It had never bothered her before. Snide looks from female patrons who had derogatory remarks to make about the length of her skirt had earned only amused eye-rolls from Tifa. She'd never felt the need to explain that her short skirt left her legs free to kick or run. She'd never given into an urge to tug down the hem, or exchange her brief shirt for one that covered her midriff. She'd never felt the lack of "fragility and decorum" keenly.

Until now. Until Aeris.

Unbidden, the question passed her lips before she could contain it. "She's beautiful, isn't she?"

Cloud's attention swiveled back to her. "Huh? Aeris?"

Tifa drew her legs up, rested her chin on her knees and refused to meet his eyes. "Yeah. There's something . . . I don't know, something perfect about her."

It was an invitation to study the far-off girl, and Cloud accepted it. Tifa watched Cloud watch Aeris, observed how he titled his head to the side as if considering a difficult question. And she wanted to smack him, because there was no consideration necessary.

After what seemed like an age, he agreed with her. "I know what you mean; it's like a little nimbus of light follows her around."

To her horror, Tifa felt her voice rising up again, tongue forming around words. Torturing her, they sprouted, all those little details she'd noticed, compared, and found herself lacking. "Sometimes I . . . it's like seeing an ad in a magazine. Such pretty hair, the color, the texture. She's never dirty . . . I don't know how-How can she not be dirty, when we're practically dragging ourselves through a desert?! It doesn't make sense, but somehow it does because it's her, and she just doesn't get dirty. Doesn't tan and doesn't get freckles, she's always like peaches and cream with these perfect little hands that wouldn't callus even if she mopped floors for a living. She's strong but feminine, dainty even. You can just tell no guy would dare try to hit on her in a bar, or try to grab . . . you know-" Somehow she managed to dam the flow, because Tifa did know, with disturbing regularity, what it was like to have to smack hands away.

Embarrassed, she shifted a flushed face towards a bemused Cloud, who watched her now as if she had fallen to earth courtesy of Meteor itself.

"Sorry . . . I'm . . . I don't kn-- Sorry." She forced a watery chuckle out and thought that maybe, just maybe, Cloud would attribute the suspicious wetness in her eyes to a vagabond dust particle and nothing else.

"Tifa, what are you-"

But she couldn't stay to hear his confused questions. Her feet were beneath her with a clumsy movement, and in seconds she was standing, about to stride off to bury her embarrassment in the endless dunes around them.

Until she was stopped short, a jerk on her left wrist toppling her over so she sat with an undignified thump back by Cloud's side.

And found Cloud's blue, blue eyes back on her, seeking answers to questions neither one of them would voice.

Her hand was trapped in his. It made her want to cry, seeing how small and insignificant and pathetic it looked against his right hand. How his fingers -- long and tanned -- wrapped around her palm and rested lightly on that annoying cut . . . between life and love. She stopped breathing altogether to keep the tears at bay.

His attention drew down to that wound, tsking in the back of his throat as a silent reprimand she understood as 'you should be more careful.'

She wished she could explain that her knuckles were callused from punching monsters, and that her skin was chapped and rough from washing dishes or, more recently, from washing off ichor and blood. That with a little more care, perhaps one day her hands would be beautiful as well.

When he fixed his gaze back on her, however, her courage failed and she could say nothing. That special smile was back, reaching his eyes. The one that was just for her.

With her grimy hand still held in his, he said, "I've always loved your hands."

And Tifa could breathe again.

The End.

Finally got around to finishing a FFVII piece.

I'm not a fan of "perfect" characters, which probably explains why I'm not an Aeris fan. If I had to travel around the world with her, I'd probably be tearing my hair out in frustration after yet another "mysterious, wise smile" while she explained she had to go off and save the world with her infinite nice-ness.

So here's a little Tifa piece, who strikes me as a more real character, bustline notwithstanding.

CC welcome!!

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all characters therein belong to Squaresoft. No infringement intended.