Title: The Way to Babylon

Summary: Tifa brings Cloud back again.

Warning & Disclaimer: One-sided UST. Mostly gen. All characters belong to Squaresoft.

Friday night I'm going nowhere
All the lights are changing green to red.

David Gray, Babylon

This is the third time he's left her this week, but the fourth (fifth) time that he's left her overall. She doesn't drop all her things and bolt out the door like she did on Monday--- God knows their budget can't stand too many dropped six-packs, and it was such a mess to clean up--- but she doesn't linger either. Jacket on, check the lock, and then everyone in Sector Seven moves rapidly out of Tifa's way as she goes.

He was gone Monday and Wednesday. Today is Friday and she supposes she should have seen it coming.

It's all right, because Tifa has a feeling she knows where Cloud will be.

She doesn't want to think as she walks, but she does, the ring of her boots on the ground tapping out a cadence that echoes in her mind, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, left-again, left-again, Cloud-is-gone-again. The first time he left her was Nibelheim, of course. Tifa remembers that night quite clearly, more clearly than she probably should for something that happened--- well, some years ago. It doesn't matter as to the exact number, numbers aren't that important.

She remembers the blue dress she was wearing and the evening breeze on her bare legs; she remembers Cloud and his still-long hair. She remembers that she was actually taller than he was: her eyes looked directly at his brows, but maybe that's just because he had such a hard time meeting her gaze. He told her he was going to Midgar and joining Soldier, and she made him promise---

Tifa skirts around a sleeping (drunk? dead? all viable options in the slums) man on the sidewalk and her rhythm breaks. It's not too far away where she's going, and lo, there he is.

Cloud stands in the train station with his back to her, looking down the empty tracks. Except for the train guard he's the only one there, and she can't see his face at all but there's something about all of Cloud's stillnesses that just seems so lonely, just so damn sad, and her heart breaks all over again as she not-quite runs to him.

"Hey," she says, and touches him with her voice first, the same one she uses with Marlene's nightmares. "Hey. Cloud."

He doesn't look away from the tracks or give any indication he's heard her, except his shoulders tremble for an instant and then relax. She puts one hand on his shoulder, and winces inwardly at how cold his skin feels.

"It looks sort of like it's going to rain soon, don't you think? I hope not, that means there's going to be more mud to clean up." She keeps talking to him in that same soothing way while she puts a hand on his shoulder; it's never the words that matter but the tone. "And you wouldn't believe how bad the floor can get, you could probably plant seeds in all the dirt that comes in."

Careful now, taking his hand and that's cold too. The guard's face is carefully empty of speculation; he's seen her here before.

"I've had soup cooking all day, people like to eat warm things in this kind of weather. I want you to have the first bowl, okay? You can tell me if it needs anything."

Cloud nods slowly. That's good. That's very good. She takes a chance and steps into his line of vision. His gaze slides away from the tracks and warily traces her face; he raises a hand as though he'll touch her cheek, and then he drops it.

"Tifa?" he says, and then in a more decisive tone, "Tifa."

"Yeah," she says and smiles. It only hurts a little. The other two times she found him here, she was breathing raggedly from searching the whole sector and there was a stitch in her side. Upon finding him those times her emotions had gone from fear and confusion, made a brief foray into anger, had a heart-stopping interval with panic, but finally settled firmly on... pity? Tired affection?

Something more than that?

"Do you…" Cloud frowns in concentration, a battle waging across his face. "Do you ever feel like you've forgotten something?"

No.

"Like there's somewhere you're supposed be, or a place you're supposed to go?"

Oh no.

He looks at her, really looks at her and they could be thirteen again with that uncertainty hanging between them. "I keep feeling like I've forgotten something," he whispers.

And she doesn't care about weather or soup or the bar burning to the ground, she wishes she was still the taller one so she can more easily wrap all that hurt up in her arms, tell him things were going to be okay, and she'll always find him and do enough remembering for two. He's trembling so hard, and she squeezes his hand tight because it's all she can do.

But he's not there anymore, he's slipping away as everything trembles and cinders sting her face like the tears that she won't let come. The train roars in, a roiling fury of noise and smoke that batters at their small pool of isolation and tries to fill in the space where her words should go.

Much later, she'll let herself think about how maybe this is really the fifth time Cloud has left her, but she's scared to think about that too hard, scared to remember lying on a reactor floor and bleeding her life out as Cloud was there and then not there. He never came back, and then he did, except maybe he didn't.

One of them has to be wrong, and she's scared of who it is.

Numbers aren't that important. For the time being, she focuses on getting both of them to a place that's never going to be home.