Chapter 17: Who's the Daddy?

After Cloud had left with Tifa, Eunice had still been a bit miffed at Cloud's behavior. She hadn't thought it was a good idea to let them go off alone together, but if Tifa had been okay with it and even Vincent it seemed, then who was she to argue? So she had decided return to meditating. She found that in any situation where she felt tension or stress, it helped to just close her eyes and take deep breaths. It not only helped her, but it seemed to affect those around her as well. Vincent, however, didn't seem as if he could be affected by anything. Ever. She still remembered his cold eyes this morning, how calm and unaffected he seemed even though he had come to drop a bomb on Cloud. How could he be so cavalier about the daughter he had claimed as his own and raised for five years? Even now he sat still as a statue in the chair he had earlier vacated. It was a bit unnatural. But she supposed she must seem just as cool and calm as she waited for Cloud to return.

Then a nurse came up to Vincent to say that Valeria was in her room and they could go see her. Eunice's eyes had shot open and she quickly volunteered to go get Tifa and Cloud. "I think it might be best if I go. As I'm the most neutral party."

"I will accompany you," Vincent quickly added. Eunice began to believe that Vincent wasn't as calm and collected about the situation as he let on.

"Why don't you go up to see Valeria? I'll send Tifa to you."

That seemed to give Vincent pause as he mentally debated whether to check on his wife, or find his ill daughter. Apparently his need to see his daughter won out. "I will go to Valeria. I'd hate for her to wake up without one of us there."

"Okay." Eunice nodded in agreement.

They both got up and walked out of the waiting room. When they got to the end of the hallway where the path split into two different directions, Eunice looked at the directory. She pointed out the recovery area to Vincent, who immediately took off in that direction.

Eunice followed the hallway until she came to another fork that led to the chapel. As she got closer she heard yelling, and then she saw Tifa come running out of the door and burst into tears.

"What's wrong?" Eunice asked.

Tifa merely shook her head, and wiped at the tears falling down her cheeks.

"Valeria has been taken to her room now, and you can go see her. Vincent is with her now. He'll be expecting you."

"Thanks," Tifa managed to reply and then she was darting down the hallway.

Eunice went inside the chapel. Cloud was standing there his hand on his face, not really concealing a bright red hand print.

"What on Gaea happened?" she asked, rushing to him and pulling his hand away so she could inspect.

"Tifa slapped me."

"But why?"

Cloud shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it."

"Well, I don't care if you don't want to talk about it. You are going to talk about it. And I'm going to tell you how I felt when I got back to the hotel room and found that damned note!"

"I'm sorry about that…"

"Oh, are you really? I was scared out of my mind! I had no idea if you were hurt, or what. And imagine my surprise when I get here and I find Tifa. You do have a phone you know. It would be nice if you picked it up every once in a while." It was a bone of contention between them. Cloud had a terrible habit of never picking up his phone, and Eunice had an equally annoying habit of texting him at least twenty times a day with pertinent pieces of information such as the contents of her lunch and pictures of advertising that she found amusing. And sometimes if she just wanted to say "Hi!" she'd phone him and get annoyed if he didn't answer immediately. She knew her manner of communication could be a bit overwhelming, but she did believe that a matter of this magnitude deserved a phone call, and Cloud couldn't help but agree. Nonetheless, he hadn't called, and he still didn't really want to talk about it, but he supposed he ought to.

"I am truly sorry for worrying you. And I'm sorry for being uncommunicative earlier. Vincent tried to bribe me to stay away from Tifa and Valeria. I didn't know it at the time, but I pretty much agreed to abandon my daughter. I would have taken his money without batting an eyelash, and then I might not have ever known about her…if it hadn't been for her getting into an accident…"

Only then fully understanding the degree of stress Cloud must have been feeling, Neecie immediately began to feel contrite.

"I had no idea Vincent tried to keep you away! I thought he had had to convince you to help Valeria."

"You really think that I'd hesitate for one second to help my daughter? Hell, she wouldn't even have to have been mine and I would have done everything I could to help her. I can't believe you would even think that about me!"

Immediately realizing her mistake Eunice apologized. "I'm sorry. I should have known better than to think something like that. But I never would have imagined someone trying to bribe you to stay away."

"It's good to know you have such a low opinion of me," Cloud said self-deprecatingly.

"I do not have a low opinion of you and you know it! What have I told you about this self-pitying way of thinking? It only propitiates itself. As long as you think that way you will feel that way. And as long as you feel that way you think that way. It's a vicious cycle and I thought we were working on breaking—"

"All right. I get the picture. You don't have to start talking to me like a psychiatrist. Can you just be my girlfriend right now, okay?"

"You're right. I'm sorry. I only want to listen to what you have to say. Tell me your feelings."

Cloud took a deep cleansing breath, but could still feel anger coursing through his veins. "I feel…betrayed." Beneath all the anger he also felt hurt. "I used to love her. We used to be best friends! She could have told me, but she lied. And she sent her husband to get rid of me. She never would have told me if she hadn't had to. And now that I know, she doesn't even want me to see her…Valeria…that's her name. My daughter has a name and I didn't even know it…"

"No wonder you're so angry…did you take out some of your anger on Tifa, and that's why she slapped you?"

"Yes. I got so angry that I grabbed her by the arms and shook her."

"Oh, no, Cloud, you shouldn't have done that." Eunice shook her head.

"You're right." Cloud looked down at the floor. "And I guess you're feeling pretty disappointed with me for losing my temper."

"Just a little. I know you have every reason to feel angry, but it won't get you anywhere. Now, was there any actual discussion in your talk with Tifa?"

"Sort of. I told her what I wanted, and she said I couldn't have it."

"And what is it you want?"

"To see my daughter."

"If you really want to see your daughter, then you're going to have to lawyer up. Do everything she says. Get your finances in order. Pay child support. Get yourself a nice apartment with a decent space for a little girl. You do those things and there's no way they can stop you from seeing your little girl. I can recommend a good lawyer when I get back home. I'll give her a call and set up a meeting."

Cloud nodded in appreciation. "Thanks for this."

"But for now just go and see her."

"I doubt they'd let me."

"Well you won't know if you don't try."

"Will you go with me?"

Eunice looked down at her watch. "Unfortunately I've got to get back to Cosmo Canyon. I already extended this trip once when I found out you were in the hospital, but I don't think I can delay it any longer. My flight is in two hours and I've got clients I need to get back to."

"Okay. I'll see what I can do. Thanks for staying as long as you did."

"There's no need to thank me," she responded sympathetically. "I only wish I could help more." Sensing that Cloud was feeling a bit lost, she pulled him into her arms and held him reassuringly.

Vincent took one look at Tifa's tear-splotched face and wanted to do Cloud great bodily harm. "What did he do?"

"He didn't do anything," Tifa lied.

"What did he say?" Vincent pressed on.

"That I can't keep Valeria from him."

"Can't we?"

"We can try, but I don't want to have to think about this right now. I just want to see Valeria. Is it okay for us to see her now?" Vincent knew that she was leaving something out, but he didn't want to find out that moment. Whatever it was, she would tell him eventually.

"I think so."

"Let's go."

Vincent led Tifa to the nurses' station where they were directed to the hospital room that their daughter was lying in, unconscious, but alive. She looked so small and pale, and so weak with all of the tubes and wires connected to her, that Tifa immediately started crying again. She sat down on the bed next to her daughter as Vincent took the other side, and leaned down to kiss her forehead and stroke her dark hair.

Vincent held her hand, rejoicing in the steady heartbeat and warmth radiating from her. She looked just as she had when he had last seen her earlier this morning…what felt like a lifetime ago. He took comfort in the fact that no matter what had happened, she was still breathing and he was still with her. As long as she was well he knew that he could handle whatever came their way.

As if sensing their presence, she began to stir. First her eyelids fluttered, and then she groggily blinked a couple of times, until her eyes finally opened completely, revealing confused brown eyes. "Mommy, why are you crying?" she asked.

Tifa laughed tearily. "I'm just so happy to see you, baby."

Valeria grimaced. "I'm not a baby!"

"You'll always be my baby girl," Tifa gently admonished.

"Valeria, you gave us quite a scare today," Vincent added, giving her hand a squeeze.

"What happened?" Then she shot up and winced at the pain in her side. She looked down at the tube coming out of her arm then reached down to gingerly touch her side. "Why do I hurt so bad? Where's my chocobo?"

"You've been in an accident," Tifa explained. "You were thrown from your chocobo and had to have surgery. Do you remember anything?"

"No," Valeria shook her head, and began to cry. "Mommy, it hurts so bad!"

"I'm sorry, baby. Why don't you lie back down?" She gently pushed the little girl back down onto the bed. Then she turned to Vincent. "Could you please get the doctor and let him know that she's awake?"

Vincent nodded, but Valeria wouldn't let his hand go. "No, daddy! Don't leave me!"

Vincent squeezed her hand again, and wiped her tears away with gentle fingers. "It's okay, sweetheart, I'll be right back."

But she grabbed his hand again. "Please, daddy!"

Unable to refuse her, he kissed her cheek. "All right, little one. I won't leave you. But will you allow me to push the button right there so I can get a doctor to come make sure you are all right?"

Valeria looked up curiously at the button that was on the table next to her. "Can I press the button?" she asked, immediately letting go of her father's hand to reach for it.

Vincent couldn't help but chuckle. "Of course, you can, sweetheart."

Not more than a moment later a nurse came in. "Look at you!" She smiled brightly at the little girl. "You're awake now. Let me just check your vitals." She walked over to one of the machines and took a look. "Are you in a lot of pain, honey?"

Valeria nodded, "It hurts real bad!"

"All right, let me get the doctor and see if he can't give you something to make it all better."

"Thank you," both Vincent and Tifa told her as she left.

A couple of minutes later she returned with the doctor. "I see our patient is awake. That's really good news!" He too smiled at the little girl. "I hear you aren't feeling too well. Would you like some more medicine to make you feel all better?" the doctor asked.

"Yes, please!" Valeria nodded.

"Okay. I'm going to give you a little bit more pain medication." Then he looked at Tifa and Vincent. "But I imagine with her exposure to mako, she won't need very much, and should be pain free in a couple of hours. I'll just keep monitoring her just in case."

"Will she be able to come home soon?"

"If she continues to improve as rapidly as she has, then I don't see why she shouldn't be able to go home tomorrow."

This time Tifa hugged the doctor. "Thank you so much! I don't know what I would have done if…"

The doctor blushed. "No thanks are necessary. You've got one very strong little girl and I was happy to help." Tifa sheepishly pulled away. "Now I need to get back to my other patients, but if you need anything, please feel free to have me paged. And don't be surprised if Valeria goes back to sleep fairly quickly. The medicine I've given her is very strong, but it's best that she sleeps through a lot of her recovery anyway. Sleep is often the very best healer."

"Thanks again, doctor," Tifa said as he left the room.

The nurse asked them if they needed anything, and informed them that a cot could be brought into the room, but only one of them would be able to stay for the whole evening. Vincent volunteered to go back home to see how Cid, Shera and Madison were doing, and let them know the good news about Valeria. He also had to promise a drowsy Valeria that he would stay until she fell asleep, and that he would be back before she woke up. He would have done those things even if she hadn't made him promise. And he told Tifa that he would bring her a change of clothes and a toothbrush from the house.

When Valeria finally fell back asleep Tifa and Vincent just stared at each other, relief and joy written on their faces. Then they embraced, kissing, holding each other tightly, as if they were each other's lifeline, tethered together in their shared anxieties of the day, and what the future may bring. The worst part was over. Valeria still lived, and though a little bit scared, seemed no worse for the wear. But what would happen next? Cloud's presence in their lives hovered over them ominously. If his outburst earlier was any indication, things may only get worse.

Eventually Vincent managed to drag his lips from Tifa's mouth, and shuddered with the anguish of separation. But go he must. The hours were getting late, and he was sure that Cid must be anxious to hear from them. He helped Tifa get in the cot that had been wheeled in before Valeria fell asleep, and then kissed her on her forehead in farewell. Next he kissed Valeria and renewed his vow to see her again in the morning.

As he closed the door behind him, he saw Cloud standing waiting near the nurses' station. He walked up to him and crossed his arms over his chest in a not so subtle challenge. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm here to see my daughter."

"Let's get something straight. You may have unknowingly donated your sperm, but she is my daughter, and you will see her when I say you can see her."

"You can't stop me!"

"Just try me."

Noticing the escalation in hostility between the two men, the nurse jumped in between them. "You two need to keep your voices down, or am I going to have to call security?"

Vincent shook his head. "I was just letting this man know that he is not welcome here, and if he gets anywhere near my daughter or my wife I'll have a restraining order snapped on him so quickly his head would spin."

"You can't do this!" Cloud cried out in frustration. "She's my daughter! It's my blood that flows through her veins. If that doesn't give me a right to see her, I don't know what does."

"I'm afraid it's not my call," the nurse said sympathetically. "But as visiting hours are over, I'm going to have to ask both of you to leave."

"I was just leaving," Vincent informed the nurse.

Cloud sighed dejectedly. "I suppose I have no choice." But he refused to give Vincent the satisfaction of seeing him leave first. They stared at each other menacingly until the nurse finally cleared her breath.

"Gentlemen?" She quirked one eyebrow.

Confident that the nurse would not let Cloud in to see Tifa or Valeria, Vincent decided he might as well leave. Without another glance at either one of them he walked to the elevator and pushed the down button.

Cid, Shera and Madison were still at their house waiting to welcome Valeria home when Tifa and Vincent arrived a day later with their convalescing daughter. But then they had to leave. Cid had neglected his engines for far too long and was anxious to get back to them now that he knew that Valeria was going to be okay.

After the family left and they had gotten Valeria settled in bed, Tifa began to ponder the question that had been on her mind, but that she had pushed to the back for as long as Valeria had been in the hospital. She wasn't sure if it was worth worrying about, but she couldn't get it out of her mind.

She and Vincent were in bed, and he had his arms wrapped around her as she rested on his chest.

"What's the matter, my love?"

"I was just thinking about Cloud. It's not over, I'm afraid, but I don't know what comes next."

"We should probably get a lawyer."

"Do you really think so?"

"I know that if I were in his position, that's what I'd do. And so we need to prepare."

"You're right. But there's something else. Something he said at the hospital."

"What was that?"

"He said that you'd tried to bribe him into leaving town the morning Vallie had her accident. That's not true, is it?"

She felt Vincent stiffen in her arms. "It is."

Tifa pulled away to look at him questioningly. "Why?"

"It was the only thing I could think of—other than killing him outright—that I could do to protect my family. It wasn't the wisest thing I could do, but I suspected that he could use the money."

"How much did you offer him?"

"50,000,000 gil."

"Isn't that a bit much? Even for you?" When Vincent had disappeared 40 years ago his assets, which had included stock options from the Shinra Company, had continued to accrue interest, and after 30 years it had left him quite wealthy.

"I would have paid more. I thought I got the better end of the deal. No one could pay me any amount of money to stay away from you."

"So do you mean he took it?"

"I didn't even have to negotiate the terms with him. He agreed lock, stock and barrel. Are you disappointed?"

"Not that Cloud would basically sell his rights away, no. Although he didn't know it at the time. But I do wish you would have told me. I don't want there to be any secrets between us, even if you are afraid of how I would react, and maybe even especially if you think I'll be angry. And now I'm afraid Cloud might be able to use this against us. It looks really bad."

"I know. And I'm sorry."

"No. Don't be. Thank you, Vincent. It means a lot to me that you would do anything to protect our family. But from now on, we do everything together. We don't know what Cloud will do, but if we're going to win this fight, then we need to put up a united front."

Little did they know just how soon, or hard Cloud would launch his attack on them.

The next day, Tifa woke up early. The first thing she did was pad over to Valeria's room. Having never slept the night before, she found Vincent already there watching their daughter. She joined him and felt immense relief to see her little chest rose and fell softly with her every breath. Then she went downstairs and started preparing breakfast. Vincent was not far behind her, as he wanted to make a few phone calls. The first was to Cid to make sure that he and his family had made it back safely to Rocket Town, and then he called Reeve to see if he could recommend a good lawyer.

Tifa was in the middle of her second batch of pancakes when Vallie came bouncing into the kitchen. "Mommy, can I ride my chocobo?"

A feeling of déjà vu swept over Tifa as she stared at her daughter. "Aren't you afraid to get back on your chocobo?"

"I'm not skerred."

"Even though you got hurt the last time you rode?"

"Nope. I don't remember getting hurted. I just remember the hospital. I don't like hospitals, mommy."

"I don't like hospitals either, sweetie."

"So can I ride my chocobo?"

"I'm afraid I have some bad news about your chocobo."

"What kinda bad news?"

"Well, when your chocobo fell and hurt you, it also got hurt itself."

"You mean my chocobo felt hurted like me?"

"That's right."

"And did my chocobo have to go to the hospital, too."

"I'm afraid not."

"So is my chocobo still hurted 'cause it didn't go to the doctor to fix it?"

"No. Your daddy helped the chocobo…"

"How did he help my chocobo?"

"I shot him." Vincent came out from behind Tifa, startling her. His eyes glowed red with sorrow.

Valeria's eyes began to well up with tears. "What do you mean 'shot?'"

Vincent scooped her into his arms and carried her to a chair where he could sit down with her in his lap and look her directly in the eyes as he tried to explain what he had done. "I'm very sorry, Valeria, but like your mother said, your chocobo was hurt, so I put him out of his misery."

"He's dead, isn't he?" Vallie wailed, and when Vincent nodded, she threw her arms around his neck. "It's my fault!" Her muffled cries went into his neck, and the sound of them broke both his and Tifa's hearts. "If I hadn't rided him, he wouldn't have got hurted and then you wouldn't have shot him!"

Vincent held her close and rubbed her back soothingly. "Shh…" he whispered consolingly. "It was an accident. You can't blame yourself."

"But—but I didn't listen to mommy, and then my chocobo tried to jump…" she hiccupped.

"That's very true. You should have listened to your mother. And we hope that you will learn from this experience. But even if you had listened to your mother, you still could have had an accident. That's why their called accidents. You can't control them."

She continued to cry as Vincent tenderly stroked the back of her head and Tifa watched on helplessly, tears in her own eyes. Eventually, Valeria quieted, and then she looked up her father with big sad eyes and asked, "Daddy, where is my chocobo now?"

"Your uncle Cid buried him in the backyard. Would you like to visit him?"

Valeria nodded.

"Okay," Vincent said rising, and he carried her to the back door where they saw that the backyard had darkened with the ominous threat of storm clouds. "Tifa get the umbrellas, will you?"

Tifa nodded, and they stepped outside, Vincent carrying Valeria in his arms, and Tifa beside him. Just as he predicted, it began to rain. But it felt fitting somehow that on the day that his daughter learned about the sorrows and finalities of death that the heavens would open up to weep with her.

The rain continued to fall long after Vincent, Valeria and Tifa returned to the house after their make-shift funeral. Even after breakfast had been reheated and eaten, stories had been read, and Vincent had managed to contact Reeve and make enquiries about a lawyer, the rain continued pattering against the roof harder and harder, and the wind began to pick up. Suddenly a blast of lightning lit up the room, followed by a thunderous boom. Then just as suddenly, there was a ring from the doorbell.

Wondering who it could be in that weather, Tifa cautiously opened the door and was startled to find Cloud.

"What are you doing here?" Tifa demanded, stepping onto the porch and closing the door behind her to bar his entrance into her home.

"I came here to see Valeria. I heard she was released from the hospital."

"I don't think that's a good idea, Cloud."

"I thought you might say that. That's why I also brought this." He held up a light blue envelope with official writing from the city courts office. "It's a notice for a custody hearing. I intend to sue for custody of Valeria. Our court date is set for next week." He handed it to Tifa who took it with shaking hands. Disbelieving eyes glanced at the verity of this claim, but she had no choice but to believe that what he said was true. With a smug smile Cloud turned away. "See you in court." Then he walked away and hopped on his motorcycle, leaving Tifa stunned and dazed.

A/N: Is anybody out there still reading this thing? o_O lol I know I promised I would finish this years ago, so I understand anyone who has given up hope. But I'm back now, and I don't have any other obligations at the moment so I'm trying to get back to writing. Please let me know what you think!