Between Blue Rocks

. o .

In their first days not-quite-together (after they'd stopped the sky from falling,) she'd been rebellious when he ran away: she'd cried, she'd argued, she'd even kicked in the tires of his bike once. She had been twenty-one, lovely, and infuriated, but he had only lowered his eyes and had walked away. Again.

Cloud had actually walked away, the idiot. And maybe she should have broken his legs instead of his bike, but the fact of the matter was that she hadn't.

Instead, by the time he stumbled his way back to their house on the outskirts of Wutai's capital, she had splintered enough to take him in and wrap him in warm blankets; softened enough to cut his hair and pepper him with kisses – I'm glad you're home; glad you're back, glad you're here even if you're slowly killing me – and she hadn't asked any questions that she didn't want the answers to, any questions that he didn't want to answer.

Yuffie had stomped by soon after, and had asked Tifa around a mouthful of chocolate-chip cookie why the hell Tifa hadn't done some running away of her own yet. "Saint Tifa, patron saint of pigheaded lost causes," Yuffie had teased, grabbing another cookie with a grin. "An' of all things chocolate and bake-y. Yanno, I really have to visit more often."

Lady of Wutai or not, Tifa had thought, some people never really grow up, and you are one of them, Yuffie.

"The rest of the cookies are yours, if you want," Tifa had sighed, and chuckled at the ninja's exuberant grin. Someone might as well enjoy the cookies; Cloud had disappeared again, and the milk chocolate chips were too sweet for her liking.

Yuffie had slipped away two days later with a grin and a flash of red silk, mumbling about court negotiations but still managing to spring down the front steps of Tifa's porch with the tin of baking in her hand – and suddenly the house was quiet again.

And maybe Tifa was growing just the tiniest bit sick of quiet.

And maybe, on the other hand, it wasn't a good life, but it was still her life.

Either way, it was the way things were until he decided to throw a wrench into the clockwork her life had become. She hadn't seen the pilot since last Midwinter's Festival, and faintly, abstractly missed him whenever she smelled oranges or cigarette smoke, but that was fine; she was a girl who was used to missing things. True, he was more than an acquaintance; he'd saved her life and killed for her, once, and she had returned the favour in kind, but he was still not quite a friend.

And that was maybe why she never saw him coming.

And yet he had shown up out of the blue (although the skies were threatening rain) on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday, his remodelled Bronco shuddering and clashing to a stop on the hills outside town. With a grocery basket looped over one arm, she had looked up in the direction of a sound she'd know anywhere before turning back to the produce. As she lifted a red pepper and tested its weight before placing it beside the strange cabbage with a name only Yuffie could pronounce with a straight face, Tifa smiled, but the curve of her lips was her only reaction. Company was welcome, but if he was visiting, he knew where they lived.

Where she lived, if she was going to be honest with herself, but she had always had difficulty in that department whenever Cloud was concerned. The porch would provide shelter from the rain, and she would be back at home soon enough. She was done with chasing after what didn't want to be caught, what didn't want to stay. And she wasn't entirely certain if she was up to even trying to catch anything, either.

So by the time that she made it up the hill to her house, waterlogged by the sudden rain shower, her pace slowed as she realized he was waiting on her porch swing. His cigarette glowed, a tiny beacon under the umbrella that he extended as she walked towards him. As he stepped off of the porch and raised the umbrella over her head, she smiled. "Thank you," she said, and meant it.

Somehow at thirty-six, he could still pull off a convincing approximation of a brash and bumbling schoolboy when she smiled at him, and that alone made him want to hightail it back for familiar quarters of curved metal and cool glass. But her shoulder was warm as it brushed against his arm and he managed a "happy birthday, girl," around a much-needed drag on his cigarette. Ducking under the porch's awning and leaning the umbrella against the wall, he picked up a square box with a lopsided bow that he held as if it held active explosives. "I don't have much experience buyin' girl-presents, but I thought you might like these, and 'cause I was gonna be 'round here anyway… heh. Yeah."

She smiled softly as she took the box. "Thank you." At least someone remembered…

Her thoughts must have shown, because his smile dropped away and though he asked "aren't you gonna open it?" even she could tell that he meant Spikes isn't here, is he?

"Come in," she murmured, "you must be cold; I'll make dinner for you, at least."

"I don't want to butt in, if you-"

"It's no trouble. Please." No, of course he's not here. Don't go and leave, too.

So he had grinned a brave, happy grin and stubbed out his cigarette against his boot before following her. Setting down her basket and present, she untied the bow around the box and laughed in surprise at the contents: a bottle of almond liqueur (disastrously expensive in Wutai, but she'd mentioned it was a favourite, once, and was pleasantly surprised he remembered) and a hard-covered book. Turning the book over, she blushed when she realized the author was one whose works she'd liked back in her Midgar days.

"I hope it's good," he said. "'Cause you wouldn't believe the look the book seller gave me when I went t' pick that up."

"I think I can imagine." She'd have given anything to see the gruff pilot in the midst of buying the latest in the line of sensational historical romances that she still denied she read. "How did you…"

"Wait a sec," he replied, looking through his bag before cursing. "Aw, damn - I forgot to bring the blasted thing. First time you were through Rocket Town, all those years back, you left one by the same guy behind, and we found it again, a year or so ago. Asked Shera if it was hers, and the woman just glared at me – no offence, hey, or anything."

"None taken. And thank you, you know; you really didn't have to…"

"That's the whole point of birthdays, ain't it?"

"True," she said, uncovering the vegetables and letting them cascade onto the table, then picking up the pepper and chopping it into fine slices. Halfway through, she looked over to where he had sprawled lazily and sent him a look that had quailed Yuffie successfully. "You should know that if you're eating, you're helping."

He scratched the back of his head nervously. "That's probably not the best idea; I work with spears and not knives for a reason, hey." Waving his right hand at her, which was covered in small bandages, his smile was rueful but she could sense the mischief in his eyes.

"What happened to you?"

He laughed. "Bachelorhood."

It was an ugly, bitter laugh, and she bit her lip to keep from speaking. There was a story here, and if she waited…

"Damn worst kinda luck, y'know? Fall in love with a woman and she up and leaves for university the day y'finally decide to say something. I don't blame Shera for it, and that's the funny part. Hell, it's high time, just damn bad timing. Maybe it's better we're apart now, hey? We were damn prone to bad timing…"

She pulled a knife from the block, walking across the kitchen to where he sat. Using her free hand to roll an onion towards them, she handed him the knife. "Here. It'll help." He had enough tact not to ask how she knew, taking the blade and peeling away the outer layers of pearlescent onionskin before slowly slicing it into rings and then into long strips. Nodding in approval, she returned to her peppers before heating a pan and pouring sesame oil into it with a practiced air. Before long, the scents of sesame, spice, and smoke filled the kitchen with warmth, and as she stirred noodles into the large pan, she shook out of her thoughts to find him leaning over her shoulder to reach the kettle on a shelf above the oven. "What are you-?"

"Makin' you the best birthday drink ever, or I will if you have this orange stuff."

Pausing to look at him, then at the kettle in his hands, she pursed her lips in curiosity. "...With a teakettle."

"Damn, no faith whatsoever," he sighed. "Wait an' see. Special recipe of mine, y'might say."

He was incorrigible, she thought, shaking her head. "Should I be worried?"

"You? Nah, you'll be fine. It, uh, needs some of your birthday present, though…"

"As long as you don't mean the book, it's no problem."

"Ah, good," he replied, setting the water to boil before starting to look through her cupboards. As she coughed pointedly, he took back his hand. "Okay, we need two glasses and orange liqueur, then. Sorry."

She released the pan and lifted her hands to hook the stems of two wine glasses and pass them over. "Try the top shelf in the one to your left; if it's there, it should be on the left side."

Finding it, poured a small dose of each liqueur into the base of the wine glasses. "I call it blueberry tea," he said. Pulling two teabags out of a pocket in his vest and draping them over the edge of her teapot, he transferred the water from the kettle. His smile only grew as she flicked the tea-tags and looked up in amusement.

"This isn't blueberry tea at all – it's an orange blend. So…"

"Just wait, hey. You'll see." Then, as he poured the tea over the liqueurs and passed her one of the glasses, he waited for her reaction.

As he expected, she smiled in surprise, and then frowned prettily. "I don't understand. It does taste like blueberries, but I don't know how…"

"Beauty of the unexpected, right?" His eyes glinted enigmatically before he looked over at the pan behind her. "Say, girl, I think dinner's burning."

She whirled around with a shout of surprise – she'd meant to take the pan off the stove before he'd distracted her. Scraping at the bottom (only a little burnt) she served the stir-fry and followed him to the table, shaking her head at the teakettle in one of his hands and the wine glasses in the other.

And somehow dinner wasn't awkward – the food was good, the drink was better (this one was maybe her third), and conversation flowed – naturally, and she wondered when the last time that happened was.

The topics drifted from their travels to what little spare time they had to their work. He laughed when she told him she worked with Yuffie and he added that she was just the woman to keep the brat in line; she punched his shoulder to defend her friend, but her eyes danced as her fist flew out. He nodded and continued – he worked as a civic official and did some charter flying on the side – she was glad he hadn't given up the sky and told him so, watching as his eyes lit up with pride and something she couldn't quite name.

She laughed at his stories and he grinned at her escapades and somewhere between laying her chopsticks down beside her bowl and wondering how in Shiva's name could you have been the one worth leaving? he had leant across the table, cradled her chin in one of his hands, and kissed her.

She had read, once, that there were ten perfect kisses throughout history, and one that left them all far behind. This, she thought, was certainly not one of those eleven. Not that it was bad, or even uncomfortable despite his rough hands and honest stubble and the unexpected burn of blueberry tea on both their lips. It just wasn't what a girl who had become accustomed to kissing a ghost was used to.

That was all that this odd, prickling awareness was; that and the tea, and his bowl clattering to the floor behind them, and the fact that that was the door to her room at her back and they were through it and stumbling and well, then, that was her bed that was behind her knees, but why not…

Why not, indeed. It was fine – it was better than fine, said the tremble in her knee, the arch of her neck as his lips traced it along the vein, said the fact that she is suddenly thinking in present tense and tugging him closer and feeling it, not reflecting in half-frozen spectatorship – but even with that in mind it isn't supposed to happen this way.

His hands aren't supposed to be the ones brushing over her arms and wrists and pinning them up, up. Ah. Arch and smile in a flash of teeth and a press of lips because it's expected. Isn't it? But if this much is a lie… It would be so much better if she could think straight.

But the almond and orange liqueurs burn like the sight of the empty garage did this morning and like the tears that she's trying not to cry or at least to angle away from any light and so too do the shadows that make him nearly faceless as she tilts her chin up to face him. She knows he's not faceless no no not at all but it's still the wrong face for both of us and maybe that's what makes this hurt in the first place –

- or at least, it hurts at the corners of her eyes and some indeterminate place in her stomach. The rest of her body is numb and wilful, running like an automaton, and the metaphor is fitting because he's always been good with the mechanical side of things... but he doesn't deserve that snipe, not after his presents and his smiles and not at all in the first place and she knows it. Maybe her brain is screaming beneath the surface as her leg hooks around his with a grace that speaks more to instinct than practice. Maybe it isn't.

...This is what you wanted, wanted, wanted and the thought is familiar. Alien. Unwelcome. True.

Pressure on her collarbone and she blinks out of her thoughts – his lips are softer than she'd thought they'd be with all that time he spends hurtling into the wind, and they are gentler than they ever are when he speaks – and, oh. Her free hand flexes against his ribs and he swears and laughs warmly (he's ticklish – it's absurd) and suddenly he isn't so faceless, blue eyes that are close but not right but right here look down at her.

His eyes are the only spot of colour in the room, although they have long since adjusted to the ambient darkness: the burnt-out streetlight, the curtain falling in uneven folds across her window. Beyond the curve of her chest she disappears under him and into the blankets, and his body is little more than a familiar weight and an unfamiliar silhouette from his jaw down – square and honest where it should be more pointed, feline, fey – like her ghostboy that was never, never really hers to begin with.

Or to end with.

She'd giggle at that if she were the giggling sort. She's not, so she kisses him instead, wrapping one arm around his neck and tugging him down. It's more an attack than it is an embrace but damn it, she wasn't going to think of him (the other him, the first him, and there she goes again with the thinking) tonight. So if this (other, very present) man is willing to stay around, even if he tastes of cigarettes and oranges instead of the ice and steel and something else that she half-remembers, that's just fine. It's a fair trade, in a backwards way; she knows that he has someone he is trying not to remember, too.

So she murmurs nonsense into his ear as she plays with his hair and kneads at his shoulders and somewhere along the line her words become a name. His name, and it should be silvery and abandoned but her head is the clearest it has been all night when she thinks that she should thank him, even if she still can't feel a thing, and this might do...

A name is muttered against her throat in an instant reply; not her name, she realises with perhaps less surprise than she should, but while she might be the better liar, he is the better friend; he swears and immediately steadies himself above her.

Sharp blue eyes seek out an apology before he moves away and curses again, his tanned fingers buttoning up his shirt as he sits on the edge of her bed and looks anywhere but in her direction. "I –" he starts, but she doesn't want to hear it.

Tifa takes a deep breath and sits up, tugging her shirt down and running a hand through her hair. "Hey, shh," she says, carefully laying a finger across his lips, it's my mistake, please don't blame yourself for this, "just... consider it a birthday kiss?"

He laughs. Really laughs; she can see his shoulders shaking and before she knows it, the corner of her lips is quirking upwards too, although she knows she shouldn't be happy… "One hell of a birthday kiss, Tif..."

She smiles, twisting her hair into a low ponytail as she moves over and sits beside him, tucking her knees under as she settles. "Yeah, it was. But I – I think I needed it."

He relaxes at her reply and slings an arm around her shoulders to make up for the fact that he hasn't looked at her yet – he isn't entirely certain that he can, and the feeling is new and unwelcome; he is not used to being afraid of anything, but he knows as well as she does that that wasn't her name he said and… damned females could be difficult about that sort of thing. For good reason, you fool, he thinks. Old fool… just lucky Tif didn't punt you out head-first for it. But he's known for being the level-headed one – the hot-headed one, he'll give them that much, but he doesn't carry the burden of being a princess or the last of his race or carrying around multiple other personalities inside his head or outside his body and so there had always been this expectation that he was… normal. So he breathes and squeezes her shoulders and wonders just what normal would do next. Because in the end, he isn't normal, either.

He is just a man, and she is just a woman, and he isn't certain what that makes them. Brave? Stupid? Maybe both. Damn, he thinks, if he was Strife right now, he could clutch at his head or something and make a mumbling-crazy-hero run for it… and the idea almost sounds appealing until his eyes slide over to look at where Tifa is leaning on him – not really leaning; she is barely touching, barely brushing her arm against his as they sit together on the edge of her bed.

The idea of flight distracts him until he sees her; sees what he has made - her swollen lips and her carefully hooded eyes, and what he has not – the freckles on the bridge of her nose and the bit of scarring that her shirt doesn't quite hide – and so he stands up. Hearing her quick exhalation, he tells her in the only way he knows that he's not about to start running. "What you really need now, Tif, is a good cup of tea."

She looks up and holds his gaze. "Just make sure that there isn't any alcohol in it this time, Cid."

And as he gawks at her a smile blossoms across her face and suddenly she is smiling and laughing, and it's a good, honest laugh – the type he hasn't heard from her in far too long – and she is standing beside him and slipping her arm around his waist and saying besides, don't you mean that you need a cup of tea, Mister Highwind? in a voice that doesn't sound heartbroken at all. He's not certain what he has done to deserve the impish edge to her voice (which is a lie; he remembers the events of the last little while very well) but he is not about to argue with a beautiful woman who can, he's sure, punch holes through walls with her bare hands.

So they drink their tea on her front porch steps, and when the first hint of morning bleeds over the tops of the Da Chao range, he looks over and asks if she's ever watched a sunrise from the sky, frowning as she sleepily shakes her head to the negative. He knows he can't take away the slump in her shoulders (but he will, he swears, and wonders at his sudden resolve), or the way that she casts furtive glances out to sea every so often, but he can change this much.

Leaning closer, he wraps his corner of the quilt that she had draped around both of their shoulders around her. As her gaze turns inquiring, he tugs at her hand and grins down at her as he stands, feeling all of giddy twenty again. "C'mon," he says, letting their fingers tangle together as she pushes off of the stairs.

She has always been a girl who has held her ground and had bled for it more often than not; running away has never been her style. Still, as she walks beside Cid to where the Tiny Bronco is waiting, Tifa's shoulders relax as she thinks that maybe this time, she can let herself fly away. Barely after the plane has taken off and as she sits wrapped in her quilt in the co-pilot's seat, bone-tired and sleepy-warm, her eyes slip shut as Da Chao glows magenta and crimson. So this is why he flies, she thinks as she curls into her chair, trusting that he'll bring her home.

He's not entirely certain that he deserves her trust. He is tempted to fly away with her; to be selfish and wing it back to Rocket Town without looking back. Strife's a good man, a grown man, he thinks; the other blond would be bound to figure things out sooner or later.

But this is precisely why he turns his plane back to the east, catching the wind as the plane descends. Strife is a good man, for all his faults, and Tifa is a grown woman; she can make her own decisions on her own time. Cid's expression turns mischievous as he takes one hand off of the controls to nudge the corner of a well-loved paperback novel back into the pockets of his bag. She would make one hell of a wingman (wingwoman?, he wonders) but they could figure it out in time. He didn't expect any of this to happen, and although he does not need her old book as a reason to return to Wutai's shores, he is practical enough to know that when competing with the man who saved the world, every little advantage counts.

"Happy birthday," he whispers to her as she sleeps, and thinks about asking her if he can come back another time, when she is awake enough to actually watch the sunrise and not sleep through it. The words freeze on his tongue as he notices that she is smiling in her sleep and maybe it is too soon to think it, but he likes to think she is smiling for him.

Tifa – who is not sleeping at all – knows better. She is smiling for both of them.

. o .

( this is the time of tension between dying and birth
the place of solitude where three dreams cross
between blue rocks
but when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away,
let the other yew be shaken and reply )

. o .

( I think I was asleep until I met you )

. o .

…finis.

. o .

Sabe's Scribbles: Dedicated to Darknightdestiny (Rach) – this one is probably four pages longer than it needs to be… yet where the story leads, I go. But wow were these two fun once they got going. They're really a switch from writing Reno/Yuffie and the other younger duos - more grown-up, not quite softer around the edges but more worn, mellowed by time, perhaps?

Lots of influences went into this, probably more than I catch on the review, but for the sake of disclaiming (and the fun game of spot-the-reference,) the characters herein belong to Square-Enix, "Between Blue Rocks" is a direct reference to a line in T.S. Eliot's poem "Ash Wednesday" (see first endquote). Other almost-direct references include The Princess Bride (for which I probably should be shot), Notting Hill (definitely should be shot), and "The District Sleeps Alone Tonight" by the Postal Service. A lot of Metric's music provided moodmusic/background noise, as did "Lua" & "The First Day Of My Life" by Bright Eyes, and "Fake Plastic Trees" by Radiohead.