The Calling

(actually, many of them)

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Tifa dried her hands lightly, sighing as she walked up the stairs slowly, and made a mental note to add an extension downstairs for Cloud's delivery service's phone number.

"I'll get that," she said as Marlene and Denzel tumbled ahead of her, racing to get to the phone first. They'd been doing that lately. Picking up a phone must be that incredible of a thing to a kid, or maybe they just wanted to race. She walked into the room and picked the receiver.

"Strife Delivery Service, how can I help you?"

"Has Cloudie arrived?" asked a slightly muffled voice.

Tifa raised an eyebrow, and tried to remember who had called Cloud "Cloudie" that she could remember, apart from his tipsy, giggling mother calling him "my puffy cloudie" in a neighborhood party and all the neighborhood boys for a whole month afterwards. No one as far as her memory went; and since his mother had been dead for seven years and counting, and the muffled voice was definitely feminine, she ruled out Johnny.

"No, not yet, madam. Care to leave a messag…"

"Oh, dear, I guess he wouldn't, not yet. I mean, he just left here, after all!" giggled the woman, coquettishly. "I'll phone later, then. Bye-bye…" the woman sing-sang, a click was heard, then the busy line beeped incessantly in her ear.

Tifa's brow shot up higher, and even by dinner time, when Cloud had already arrived, it was still raised just a little higher than the other one. Cloud gave her a funny look as soon as he walked in, but she decided to discount it as cooties. Or her brow.

She was still wondering what Cloud would be doing in the house of someone who called him something so stupid as "Cloudie" by three in the morning, then she decided it wasn't her business. She had almost completely convinced herself when the alarm clock rang, and when Cloud looked at her strangely again before taking off she couldn't help kicking the trashcan into the wall.

She was jealous, she knew it, and there wasn't anything she could do about it because, living under the same roof or not, they were just friends. Yeah, there was this inch or two or three beyond the "friends" line, but in the great scheme of things they meant nothing. They never made a verbal agreement or anything.

It just occurred Tifa that shy smiles and the occasional shy glance did not a romantic relationship make. Laying their head on the other's shoulder didn't count for much either. It was the same for sharing a bowl of ice-cream in front of the TV when there was an interesting movie. Or even poking the other awake when there was a bad dream to share.

She already had a few customers and was in the middle of prepping a sandwich for a girl who had run off to school without breakfast just to arrive late anyway when the phone upstairs rang. Setting the food article in front of the famished school kid, she ran upstairs and picked it up.

"Strife Delivery Service, may I…"

"Oh, has Cloudie left already?" said the muffled, sing-songy voice.

Tifa need to make a physical effort not to crush the receiver in her hand. "Yes, he has," she said, doing her best not to let her annoyance show in her voice. "Would you like to leave a message?"

"Oh, no, dear. He should be arriving soon," she could hear the smile in the muffled voice, and it made her eyebrow twitch and crush down on an eyelid instead of going up, this time. But Tifa didn't care – as long as the woman on the other side couldn't see her face, she could flinch all she wanted. Just keep it out of your voice, she told herself. Cloud's love life is not your business.

She decided to play innocent. "Do you have that many deliveries scheduled?"

"Oh, dear, don't worry," the voice giggled. "We always use protection."

Both of Tifa's brows shot up, then came down against each other in a frown. It was like the woman wanted to make sure she knew what they were up to. A prank, said a voice in Tifa's brain. She held back from bashing her forehead against the wall.

"I could live without knowing that, thank you," Tifa said, with as much coldness as she could. No mercy for prank callers, principally ones who actually fooled you once.

"Could you?" asked the sing-songy voice, sounding elated. "Oh, dear, are you sure? I thought it was better than being eaten up by doubt… wondering what he's doing everyday, going everywhere with that pretty motorbike of his. Oh, dear, I guess I was wrong."

"Yeah, I guess you were," Tifa slammed the phone down, going back to her counter and apologizing to her customers. Damn prank-callers, she fumed. It's like they take some sick kind of pleasure off of harassing people. Then she forgot about it for the better part of the morning.

She was pausing for a quick lunch when it occurred to her that the prank caller knew Cloud's name.

Oh, well, he was his own big outdoor. The guy with six swords, a customized bike and chocobo hair who could go to Icicle Inn and back by himself in less than a day and, most incredible of all, alive and without a scratch.

And anyway Cloud had more self-respect than to let anyone know he was mass-bullied by being called Puffy Cloudie once. That settled it for the next hour, when the phone rang again.

She picked the phone with a bad feeling, and waited for the other side to talk first. No one did, but she could hear muffled giggling. She hung up.

Halfway down the stairs it rang again, and she picked up. More giggling. She hung up, but she was still halfway across the room when it started ringing once more.

She decided not to delay the inevitable. "Strife Delivery Service…"

"Oh, dear, it's me again," giggled the muffled voice. Tifa's brows went flat. "I just wanted to tell you not to worry, because he already arrived and is taking a good bath right now!" she sing-sang.

"That's nice," said Tifa, hanging up and going back downstairs. She made a mental note to pick a phone that could trace calls.

Suddenly she noticed she was back upstairs and punching in Cloud's phone number. What was she going to tell him? No one else phoned, except for the prank hag. Well, she could at least ask him to bring an extra phone for the extension, one that could trace calls and all.

Except his cell phone was turned off.

Tifa went back to the counter feeling like something had punched her guts in, leaving them smashed and clammy inside her. Giving her best smile to all her customers, she furiously wondered if Cloud was actually showering at the house of a singy-songy woman who called him Cloudie, and tried not to scream and smash the counter with her head.

The world had become a strange place filled with people talking and laughing and eating by the time the phone rang again, and she saw herself automatically walking up the stairs even though picking that call was the last thing she wanted to do in the world. She did anyway, simply because her day couldn't get any worse.

"Strife delivery service, may I help you," she vaguely noticed her voice was completely flat.

"Oh, dear, it's me again. Has Cloudie arrived yet?"

"Would you like fries with that?" Tifa had no idea where that came from, but it went out of her mouth and she was feeling too flat to give a damn.

"Oh, well, it was a silly question anyway," sing-sang her. "After all, he's sleeping right by me!"

"What a bastard," Tifa said, noticing she couldn't identify what was that thing she was staring at.

"Oh, dear, don't say that. He's such a sweetie…" she giggled. "You'd never believe the good time we had today."

"That sucks," said Tifa, and suddenly she noticed she had been staring at the window.

"He can be so wild at times," sighed the woman.

"That sucks," said Tifa again, noticing that there was someone outside who looked suspiciously like Cloud, dragging a motorbike by him that looked suspiciously like Fenrir.

"Actually, it doesn't," giggled the woman, and Tifa hung up, running to the stairs.

The phone rang again, and Tifa came back.

"What?"

"Oh, dear, if you were getting upset you could have just told me…"

Tifa hung up, then unhooked the phone and ran back downstairs.

She ran outside, right as Cloud picked the motorbike up to set it on the sidewalk as one would a bicycle, to the stupefaction of random passersby. "What happened?" she asked, feeling the weirdest mix of relief and worry.

"Uh?" Cloud looked up from fixing the bike's position, then motioned down. "Uh, it died, not sure why," he gave the bike a light, friendly kick on its plate that would have smashed any other bike that wasn't custom-made for Cloud's friendly abuse.

Tifa almost melted with relief. A rather guilty relief, but relief nonetheless. "Well," she tried not to grin, "are you going to leave it outside?"

"Greg said he'd give me a hand," Greg was the engineer that helped Cloud soup his bike up. "Also, I don't wanna make a mess inside."

Tifa nodded. "How about something to eat, then?"

Cloud nodded distractedly, fishing his cell phone out of a pocket. "Need to recharge this thing, too… hope there weren't any emergency jobs…" he walked inside, Tifa grinning widely right after him, and walked up the stairs while Tifa fixed him a mean sandwich to make up for all the mean things she had actually not thought about him but probably would have if given enough time. The kids will be happy to come back from school and find him here, she thought.

She was midway up the stairs when Cloud's voice reached her.

"Hey, Tifa, you left the phone unhooked," and the unmistakable click of a phone being hooked.

It rang right as Tifa walked in the room, and Cloud swept it off the hook so swiftly a normal human would probably not have seen him do it.

"H…" he paused as the voice on the other side of the line reached Tifa faintly, but with the clarity that all disgraces do.

"Dear me, I guess someone left the phone unhooked for a while, am I right?"

"Yeah, sorry," answered Cloud, motioning for the petrified Tifa to get closer. "I hope you haven't been trying to phone for long, that would suck. What's the delivery?"

Tifa walked slowly, half paralyzed by glee and half not wanting to make a noise that would drown the faint voice, but the other side of the line was silent for a long few seconds until a very clear "…ah!…" and some stuttering sounded, not muffled anymore, and Tifa guessed that whatever was muffling her voice was probably on the floor by now.

"Oh, it's Mrs. Peterson," said Cloud, setting down the pen he had picked up. "I did meet your husband today."

"You did?" the voice squeaked.

"Yeah," Cloud nodded uselessly, as phones don't transmit nods, still calling Tifa with his other hand. "He said work is going well, and he should be back home by next month. He also introduced me to your niece."

"Niece?" the voice squeaked. Cloud picked the sandwich from the plate Tifa was holding and took a big healthy bite off of it.

"Yes, your niece Rubia," said Cloud as soon as he chewed enough to talk through. "She was very friendly."

"Thanks," said the voice, strangely flat. Cloud hung up and looked up.

"This one's great," he waved the sandwich, and then took another bite. "I'm glad you're okay now."

Tifa blinked. "Uh?"

"Well, you just seemed worried since yesterday," he motioned uncertainly with the sandwich, "but I guess it's alright now." He gave one of his shy smiles.

Tifa could only nod slowly, unable to hide the big grin plastered on her face. "Who was that person?" asked her, waving the plate at the phone.

"Oh, just Mrs. Peterson from Costa," Cloud paused to swallow. "Her husband moved to Kalm to work on the mines, and she keeps asking me to tell her if I meet him." He paused again. "She pesters me as soon as I step out of the boat. I think she stalks the place." He took another bite, and Tifa laughed, though she wasn't sure at what.

"She probably doesn't have anything else to do with her life," she said.

Cloud swallowed loud enough for Tifa to hear. "Prolly not," he shook his head. "Apart from taking care of those crazy grandchildren. They pester me a lot, too." He stuffed the rest of the sandwich in his mouth, frowning, then chewed thoughtfully for a while. "Scary kids… the oldest one is fourteen and still talks like Denzel."

"She must be very old," commented Tifa, who was starting to pity the woman, now that the calls seemed so far away.

"Not really," Cloud scratched the back of his head, "more like broken. The kind that fried up in front of a stove while her husband read the news with his boots on the table." He paused. "I think telling her about the niece was a bad move…"

"Her husband must be horrible," Tifa sat the all but forgotten plate on the table, walking towards the door.

"Not horrible," said Cloud distractedly, kicking his boots off. "Just a son of a bitch. But I'm biased."

Tifa walked down the stairs, thinking that, with the strong woman Cloud had for a mother, he really would be biased. Then she had many other things to think about.

-----------Earlier that day…

Cloud leaned against the bike and frowned down at his cell. He really wished Greg would phone back soon, preferably before the batteries ran out. What had been just a little sputtering in the morning had turned into a dead bike by the side of the road an hour before noon, and even though he wanted to blame the weather he knew he should blame lazy maintenance instead.

The cell rang, and he immediately shot it open. "Hello?"

"Oh, hello, dear," said a muffled, vaguely familiar voice on the other side, "I saw something you wouldn't believe. So sad…"

Cloud just blinked. So someone was phoning him out of nowhere to tell of something he wouldn't believe anyway? Ah, ha. What a way to start a conversation. "…what?" he asked anyway, curious.

"I was looking out the window when I saw a black, tall man walk into your house, just like that. Oh, dear…"

Oh, Barret's over for a visit, would be the first thing Cloud would think if Barret hadn't been down with the flu at Cosmo Canyon just the day before. Something exploded in his head and he batted a kalm fang away with his sword.

Wait, said his brain, when the soothing view of a flying kalm fang splattering against the faraway mountains helped disperse the green fumes. Anyone can walk into my house. It's a fucking bar.

He stared at his cell like it was retarded.

However, the woman on the other side couldn't see his expression, and, taking the silence as shock, kept on: "I'd say you need to pay better attention to what your wife does, my dear."

Wife? Cloud's eyebrow shot up and he checked his memories. Nope, so far he was still single. Tifa had slept on his lap the other day, yes, but that just wasn't Intimate Enough.

"I'm sorry, I think you're pranking the wrong number," he said vaguely, closing his cell phone and staring at the mountains. Now he was feeling sorry for the kalm fang.

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January 17, 2006: wrote this all in a go XD; it's 2am!

I remembered a talk with my mother from a while ago – apparently she had a friend who enjoyed prank-calling random people and saying stuff like "is your husband there? Of course not, he's here with me", and how she was always wondering if this friend would prank-call her, too. I thought that was a very retarded way to pass time, and still think so; this fic was born when I was looking back at that conversation and thinking "prank callers must be really fucking sad people. Not in a good sense".

I really don't like prank callers, but I decided not to pass on judgment on this one. Whether that woman deserves pity or not is anyone's choice.