Summary: "When the sound of the motorcycle finally faded the sky was laced with the pinkness of dawn. The conversation had only lasted for a few moments, but it seemed like an eternity to Tifa." CloTi if you squint, set before AC.

Disclaimer: Cloud and co. belong to their respective owners.

Notes: So, I must confess I didn't know anything about FFVII until Advent Children. My knowledge of the game is sadly limited to Wikipedia and facts I've gleaned from various fics. I hope to get to play the game someday, but who knows. So, I apologize if I messed up something major. x.x Please correct me if I did.

The lightning split the sky, the thunder rolled, and Cloud's arm really hurt. Mistaking his grimace of pain for fear of the storm, Marlene patted his arm and looked up at him with innocent brown eyes. "It's okay, Cloud."

Judging by Denzel's heavy breathing, sleep had brought him no relief from the pain the mark on his forehead caused him. Perhaps it wasn't surprising that the inclement weather seemed to have such a negative affect on victims of Geostigma. The disease and Jenova and the Lifestream and the planet and the planet's weather – it was all connected, wasn't it? The power had gone out a while ago. It was fitting. No Shinra. Now it was just the planet and the Lifestream and the disease.

The air was moist and heavy from the rain and the lightning, and between that and Denzel's hushed groans and Marlene's quiet whimpers and the pain in his arm the children's room was absolutely stifling to Cloud.

Thunder rolled and Cloud's arm seemed to throb in time with the noise. Sweat gathered at his hairline and at the back of his neck. What possessed him to wear such heavy clothing? What was he going to do when it got warmer? For he had to don the long sleeves, he had to hide the mark... What could he do, wear one sleeve and remove the other? That'd probably look rather ridiculous.

The rain pounded against the windows and Marlene, finally giving up the guise of being unafraid, sought refuge in Cloud's lap. He was a little too surprised to do anything.

Suddenly there was a sharp flash of lightning that lit the room with an ethereal white light. Marlene gave a little shriek and buried her face in the heavy material of Cloud's shirt, bracing herself for the crash of thunder that was sure to follow.

"It's just a storm," Cloud said gruffly, resting his hand on top of her head. Cloud bit back a sigh. Where was Tifa when you needed her?

But she couldn't do everything at once. She had gone to the pharmacy. There was some miracle drug that claimed to slow the effects of Geostigma and lessen the severity of its symptoms. The drug flew off the shelves, and before Denzel had gotten sick Tifa had scoffed at the people who swore by it.

Denzel getting sick was a tremendous shock. The thought of him dying frightened them all; especially Denzel himself, who had watched his mother succumb to the disease only months before.

He moped about for a few days, until Marlene finally took him by the hand and said, "Play with me."

And other than a few dizzy spells and the appearance of the mark on his forehead, Denzel was more or less normal. Today it had all changed; when he woke up that morning he was so dizzy he could hardly move, and he complained that it felt as though his head would split in two. He'd developed a fever, and the visions started.

Tifa sat with him all afternoon, trying to keep him calm and relatively comfortable, but the disease's grip on Denzel was too strong.

"Mama, make it stop hurting," he sobbed over and over, and when Tifa answered back, her voice was trembling.

Tifa had put Cloud to the task of keeping Marlene occupied and out of the way. That was easier said than done. The girl was worried and anxious to do anything to help, and she couldn't seem to understand that the only thing they could do was wait. She couldn't seem to understand Geostigma had no cure.

He looked down at Marlene, still huddled in his lap, and hoped she wouldn't have to watch them die.

Suddenly Denzel cried out, bringing Cloud back to the present. Cloud coaxed Marlene off his lap, and sat on the other bed next to Denzel.

"Denzel?" he murmured urgently. "Can you hear me? Denzel."

Denzel looked at Cloud with dazed blue eyes. "C-Cloud?" he whispered hoarsely.

"Yeah, it's me," Cloud murmured back, allowing the boy to grasp his hand.

"It hurts really bad," Denzel said softly, squeezing Cloud's hand.

"I know," Cloud answered. "Tifa went to get you some medicine."

Denzel nodded slightly and let his eyes close, apparently calmed somewhat by Cloud's presence. His grip on Cloud's hand never loosened, and in that moment, Denzel was completely dependent on Cloud.

The thought terrified him.

He couldn't do this again. He didn't want to be anyone's hero. He just wanted to be...he just wanted to be Cloud Strife, whoever that was.

Suddenly the room was much more stifling, and suddenly Cloud wanted to get as far away as possible, from the children who thought him a hero, and Tifa, with her worried glances when he holed himself away in his room and her relentless attempts to get him to speak.

When she finally got back, the storm was dying down but the storm in Cloud's heart was just brewing. She had only been gone for a matter of minutes, but it seemed like an eternity to Cloud.

The medicine for Denzel seemed to work somewhat, and his symptoms improved. Three days after the storm, though, Cloud had packed a few things and was ready to leave.

The sun hadn't even come up yet when he left. He was reaching for the door, when he heard the floor creak behind him.

"You weren't even going to say goodbye," Tifa said. It was no question and there was no anger in her voice, only defeat.

Cloud didn't turn around and face her, and Tifa wasn't surprised.

"What...why are you-?" She didn't know how to phrase the question.

"I just...need to get away for a while," Cloud said quietly.

"Cloud...please don't run," she said, biting her lip. "You don't have to run, really... Cloud, what are you so afraid of?"

He didn't answer, so she knew she was correct in her assumption that he was afraid. "I know, it's scary, what's happening... You could get sick too, and then..."

"I'm not afraid to die," he said, a bitter edge to his voice.

'You died a long time ago, didn't you, Cloud? You died with her.'

And once again Tifa found herself cast off in favor of Aerith. Cast off in favor of a memory.

She wished she'd get angry with him for being so thickheaded and so selfish but she couldn't. For so long she'd just let it go, just tried to give him his space, that she'd come to accept this as the way things would always be.

She wished she'd get angry, or maybe he would, and there would be yelling and it would wake up the kids. Because surely, Tifa, Marlene, and Denzel...all three of them could convince Cloud to stay, couldn't they?

'Don't let him go. Do something. Something crazy. Tell him you love him.'

"Cloud, I-"

"I don't think I can really explain it," he said suddenly. "I want to see if I can find..." He trailed off, and Tifa had never seen him so inarticulate before. Of course, it had been a while since he'd actually said much of anything...

"I want to see if I can figure out what the point of living is."

Frightened, Tifa found herself lashing out. "Cloud, just because she's not part of this world anymore, doesn't mean there's no point-!" Instantly she stopped talking and her eyes widened at what she'd just said.

And Cloud flinched. Right before her eyes, his shoulders tensed and he clenched his fist.

Tifa swallowed. "I didn't mean-"

"I know." With that he opened the door, walked out, and shut it behind him.

When the sound of the motorcycle finally faded the sky was laced with the pinkness of dawn. The conversation had only lasted for a few moments, but it seemed like an eternity to Tifa.