Waiting On The Stars

If there was one thing that Cloud Strife was really good at, it was thinking. Not the day-to-day, does Tifa like cream or sugar in her coffee kind of thoughts, but the kind that makes your head spin. The kind that twists and turns until the line is pulled so tight that, if it wasn't for the soothing breeze coming from his half-cracked window that he always forgot to shut, he might never fall asleep.

It was useless for him to try and stop the rampant of images and voices that flickered through his mind every night. It was like watching an old film, with one scene never failing to lead to the next, endlessly thickening the plot as time wore on. Then, with the first rays of early sunlight innocently sweeping over his eyes, he would eventually awaken to the familiar feeling of disappointment tugging at his chest that he never got to watch the ending.

But no matter how dangerously deep he sank into his own head, he would haphazardly stumble out of bed each morning and start his meticulous routine in the same orderly manner. The covers would get thrown off, his soft footsteps would carry his lithe frame to the bathroom (careful to give the curtained window a wary look on the way), and Cloud would carry out all the normal necessities most people accomplished on a regular basis. All this was done while, at the same time, trying to suppress the urge to know what would have happened had he not forgotten to close that damn window. Because despite how curious he was to see it, no matter how close he came to untying the last few knots, to put it quite simply he was afraid.

If there was one thing Cloud Strife hated admitting to himself, it was how much the prospect of closing that window scared him.

Much like his tendency to curse his hair for being so damn defiant each morning, Cloud was also used to stepping carefully down the stairs with the soft murmurs of Tifa's voice filling his ears. She was definitely a morning person, much unlike himself, and she never failed to show this particular trait by mindlessly humming whatever song had woken her up on the radio. He would pause at the doorway, watching as she unloaded the dishes or put down the chairs, smiling at the simplicity and ease with which she carried herself.

But she would always feel his eyes on her in the end and, with a swish of her long dark hair, he would find himself caught red-handed under her tender gaze. She never questioned him on it. So he continued to do so, day after day, feeling like a kid in a candy shop. To always be allowed the unwavering presence of her beauty always struck him as slightly auspicious.

It was those mornings, when the kids were still asleep and he had time to spare before his first delivery, that he would nod at her welcoming gestures and join her in the kitchen. Their hands, comparably different between his rough calluses and her agile fingers, would rinse any leftover cups under foaming water and turn the blinds until the sunlight spilled onto the smooth hardwood floor. But unlike hands, which could only reach so far, it was their meaningless chatter and hushed laughter that got the job done and joined the dancing sunbeams across the floor in a waltz, a tango, a swing.

Moments like those would cause Cloud Strife to realize just how much he cared about the smaller woman beside him, up to her elbows in soap in order to clean a particularly stubborn glass, and it was thoughts like those that would do nothing more than confuse him.

Lately, he felt as though he was always confused.

The departure of the geostigma had done more than simply heal his body. It had sewn together the more frayed edges of his mind and given him the freedom of truly living. He had done what Vincent had deemed rather inept and atoned for his past mistakes. Sure, many believed him to still be a walking mass of complexes, and only Tifa seemed to really understand that as just who he was. That was all he really needed.

But his demeanor around everyone had changed dramatically after his renewed health, and he was slowly making his way back to the Cloud he was before. The man before he'd realized just what the horrors in his past hiding silently in his veins were capable of accomplishing. What he had accomplished. And although he and Tifa had managed to fit together the missing pieces of the puzzle that gave him a rough push back to reality those short years ago, there was still one question he felt had not been answered yet.

And that was, of course, how he was supposed to decipher which of his actions before the day they fell into the lifestream were really his. How could he tell the emotions that were his between the words that were Zack's? The buried existence of Zack in his mako-drenched mind had poured so freely into his actions that he wasn't sure how to go about it. Had he really meant anything he'd said? Or had it all been scattered fragments of his fallen friend? Who was he, Cloud Strife, really?

Sometimes, after a particularly lighthearted morning in which his spiky hair would be dripping suds and she would guiltily laugh at the messy sight she'd made of him, he would catch her looking at him with a look of almost pride in her eyes. Pride, he knew, not of his slow success back to normality, but rather of everything. Pride of being there with him. Pride of being the one he chose to show this side to, the side he'd been afraid he would never find again after his countless mishaps.

Perhaps it was her pride he feared losing the most. Which, inevitably, brought him back to the prospect of closing his window. He didn't want that pride to fade just like so many other dreams had in his life. Tifa Lockhart had always been his ultimate dream, both as a youthful boy and now as an adult. Her importance to him had only grown over the years. She was, after all, the only person who had never stopped believing in him even when he himself had completely lost his way. It was this fear, the fear of disappointing Tifa, that had finalized his decision of leaving their make-shift family those months ago; the guilt of Aerith and Zack's deaths combined with the weakened mental state that the geostigma left him in were additional fuel for the raging fire in his own head.

He had lost faith in his own abilities and yet there she had been, still pushing him on, knowing he really could do everything he feared he could not.

It was silly, really, to think of a window as an enemy. It was just a piece of glass, rimmed in the dark mahogany that Tifa had determined to decorate the interior of their house with, barely larger than Marlene's latest picture hanging on the wall. But Cloud would muse, always, what his mind would tell him if he didn't stem the endless flow of thoughts that tugged at his curiosity each and every night.

Her hand would grab his arm affectionately then, and she'd smile that mysterious smile of hers. And as the kids could be heard clambering down the stairs he would be reminded, again, of what he had to lose. It was those moments, when everything was perfect, that he would curse himself for having that burning selfish desire to know who he really was.

Some nights were considerably better then others. There were a few occasions where he could recall waking up with a smile, something that was thought to be a rare occurrence these days. And it was during those moments that the covers of his bed were not thrown back unceremoniously as they so often were; rather they had been eased back with a gentle grace he thought only Tifa could possess. Cloud Strife would emerge from under their comforting warmth as seven, nine, or even twelve years old. For a few glorious minutes before sleep claimed him, he would be whisked back to a time that hadn't been marred or tampered with by the mako flowing in his veins in any way. It was the only time in his life that he knew he was truly himself.

Sometimes he would see his mother again. And his battered brain would prove to him yet again the true power it held by conjuring up another lost memory, one he would have never found on his own. He would almost smell the soft buns in the oven when he'd open his front door, and he would see her there, hair messily tied up from her striking face, as it always was. The sunlight would pour in through the windows and blend the backdrop into a colored haze until only she stood out, alone and unafraid.

She would laugh and speak to his younger self in the firm voice that had almost faded completely from his memory, but it was there; gentle and coaxing amidst the strength she presented herself with. She was always proud of him. In his memories she would tell him that, over and over again, until her image would soften at the edges, slowly drifting from sight. But her voice would remain, so loud and sure despite all his uncertainty, until a soothing breeze would inevitably pull his thoughts into the dream world and lose her to the nothingness of sleep.

Yes, it was the diminishing face of his mother that made him feel safest. Secure. That and, of course, forgotten memories of Tifa. Hers came up even less than his mother's, but they made him feel just as strong and invulnerable. They were always short and fleeting, and if anyone but him were to see them they wouldn't think much of them. It had been the little things he'd appreciated most, and still appreciated about her today. He was always the most elated to find a lost memory of her as a child; the experiments himself and Zack were forced to endure had washed away a lot of the key aspects of his childhood.

And yet there she'd be, sauntering innocently into his mind seconds before sleep whisked him away, peering at him shyly under her long dark hair. Sometimes she'd smile, or cautiously wave hello, but his favorites were when she would say something to him in her young and wobbly voice. It was fascinating, seeing her eyes light up and the slight blush rise to her fair cheeks as she tugged unconsciously at the hem of her dress. It was never spectacular, never all that unique, but he would smile fondly at it nonetheless.

"Morning, Cloud!"

"Johnny says your hair looks like a chocobo, but I think…I think it's cute!"

"But Cloud, don't you like to play games?"

"I'll see you tomorrow Cloud!"

She'd been so small back then, the rest of her friends had been much larger than she, but to him she had soared above the others. After all, she had been the only one to give him the slightest bit of a chance, the only one to laugh off his countless mistakes and smile kindly. The only one to notice him. He'd thought she was beautiful. Still thought she was beautiful. But just as he had been when he was a boy, almost ten years later he still found himself too scared to do anything about it.

All for two very similar reasons. Back when they were children, he'd never told her how he felt due to his own insecurities and fears. Fears that he wasn't good enough. Fears that she hated him. Fears that he wouldn't be able to take care of her. Now, as he lay on his bed in the room next to hers, most of the youth gone from his face and replaced with the chiseled, more sharpened features that could only belong to that of a man, he found that he still felt the same way as his adolescent self had.

He would run an ungloved hand roughly through his disheveled hair, bright eyes closed shut and a hint of a frown covering his handsome features, thinking the same thing he did every time she came into his head. That he was inadequate for her. That he wouldn't, as he had proven so many times before, be able to protect her. And, worst of all, that if he failed her she would be gone from him forever. After being alone for so long he knew he wouldn't be able to handle that.

So instead, Cloud Strife would try and turn his mind to lighter things, waiting for that gentle breeze to carry him away, when little did he know that the woman he tried so hard not to think about was up thinking about the exact same things.

"Don't worry about it, Cloud. Why don't you go tuck the kids into bed, hmm?" They had an unspoken ritual. On most nights after dinner, he would help her put away the dishes so they could say goodnight to Denzel and Marlene together. But on busy days, when the deliveries were too impossible to manage coming home at a decent hour, she would force him to take a seat and mix him a drink. He'd tell her about all the places he'd been and she would ask all the right questions in all the right places from her spot behind the counter. He always tried to make it as interesting as possible, adding his own shameless opinions and trying to make her laugh. She always did.

Then, in turn, she would answer his questions about her day with endless enthusiasm, shaking her head when she talked about Denzel doing his own version of an omnislash in the living room or Marlene innocently thinking that the Malibu in the fridge was really just coconut juice. And they'd go on like that, her at times reaching over to grab his hand affectionately at the especially funny parts, dark eyes dancing merrily on her pretty face, until he dropped his empty mug with a dull clank on the polished wood.

Every time, on these late nights, he would rise from his seat with the intention of helping her unload the last of the dishes and she would grab him firmly by the arm with kind words. Her soft touch would guide him to the stairs, give him a gentle push up the first steps, and smile warmly as she made her way back to the bar. It never changed.

Tonight was no different. He looked down at her soft hands that were grasping his arm lightly and felt the familiar squeeze in the pit of his stomach that came with it, hoping the slight color that rose to his cheeks would pass by her unwavering gaze as nothing more than a rum buzz. Like always, he would tilt his head to the side as though questioning her actions. Her response was to wrap her slender fingers more firmly around his bicep and tug him along behind her.

"Come on, I happen to know that they love it when you put them to sleep. I'll be up in a bit, alright?" She loosened her grip and let one travel softly down his arm to the tips of his own hardened hands, sending a small tingle down his spine that her other was currently pushing him up with. Out of reflex, or perhaps idiocy he would think to himself later, he eased his fingers between hers and stopped her usual departure out of sight.

"Tif…" He stopped, unsure of what to say.

"…Is something wrong?" She stepped closer to him, but he just shook his head.

"It's nothing…the kids are probably waiting. I'll see you in a bit." And just like that, he dropped her hand and turned around, heading up the stairs and turning out of sight. He never meant to do things like that, but he always had such a good time with her that he found he sometimes couldn't help it. She drove him mad. But, prone to the ways of Cloud Strife, the uncomfortable emotions flitting in his head were forcibly pushed aside. She didn't want him like that, anyway. And he had a job to do, one that he knew he would succeed at: putting the kids to sleep. Their bedroom door was ajar, obviously waiting for him; he could hear what could only be them jumping devilishly high on each of their respective beds.

The sound of his dull footsteps caused them to shriek and quickly dive under their covers, looks of delight covering their exuberant faces. He smiled beside himself, entering the room with a face of mock authority at their behavior.

"You know, you two are lucky that Tifa isn't here. She might've just grounded you from riding Fenrir tomorrow if she'd seen the damage you two were doing to her throw-pillows."

Denzel looked rather appalled at this prospect, but Marlene sat up a little straighter and asked in a hushed voice, "…And you Cloud? You won't tell her, will you?"

He pondered, scratching the back of his head as he sat on the edge of the boy's bed, knowing their eyes were on him. "Hmm…you know, I probably should…"

"Oh, please Cloud! We'll never do it again, I promise!" Denzel pleaded, eyes wide. Cloud sighed.

"Well…I suppose that I could pretend I never saw anything…"

"Yeah! Pleeeease? Pretty please!?" Marlene's lower lip trembled slightly in earnest.

"…On one condition." The corner of his mouth twitched and his mako eyes were failing to hide his amusement. They were so gullible, and so easy to entertain, for their mouths were agape with wonder at what Cloud could possibly want of them. "That you don't tell Tifa just how fast we'll be riding Fenrir, 'cause something tells me she probably won't approve…"

"Really Cloud!? You mean it!?" Denzel sputtered, awed.

He laughed and reached out a hand to roughly mess the young boy's hair, who promptly leaned back into his bed and out of reach with a grin. "Yeah, I mean it. But you guys have to get some rest, 'cause if you're cranky in the morning then I'm not taking you anywhere."

"We won't be cranky, Cloud! Look, we're going to sleep right now!" Marlene promptly pulled the covers under her nose and snuggled deep into her pillow. Cloud shifted his gaze to Denzel, who immediately did the same. Sure he had just prompted them into a relatively early sleep, he stood up slowly from the mattress and stepped forward to turn off the lamp on their bedside table. Darkness covered them like a cloak, and with a reassuring smile towards Marlene's wide brown eyes he silently walked to the door and shut it firmly behind him, the light sounds of their breathing no longer audible.

Instead, he could hear the soft whir of the blender echoing up the stairs from the kitchen; Tifa was obviously making herself a drink. Tired albeit intrigued, he turned his back on the children's door and headed back down to the dimly lit floors below. As the familiar polished floors and shadowed pictures came into view, he slid his eyes to her form hunched wearily over the counter. She stood there, back straight but head bent, her dark hair pulled messily over one shoulder and hanging low around her face. Her tiny hands were holding a much too large cup and she was staring peculiarly across the room, too dazed to notice his newfound presence.

Something stopped him from making that tentative step forward. Perhaps it was the whiteness of her knuckles, informing him of her vice grip, or the slight shake in her usually sturdy arms. Perhaps it was the tired circles under her eyes or the unwelcoming paleness of her skin. Or perhaps it was the single tear running down her cheek, her single moment of weakness, that drove him to leave her there as though he'd never seen it.

His bedroom door closed with a snap and he stiffly began to change into his sleeping attire. Methodically. Unthinkingly. His bed creaked slightly at the added weight when he sat down suddenly and placed his head in his hands. The night air coming from the open window blew through the blonde tips of his spiky hair, making his skin prickle and his toes numb at the abrupt change of temperature. But he didn't dare close it, he knew he couldn't as he shuffled under the blankets rather haphazardly and laid his head down to rest, because it was tonight more than ever that he needed to be lulled to sleep by its calming touch.

Cloud Strife found he hated to see the strongest person he knew crumble and break like he had done so many times before.

Some nights were cruel. They were bitter and harsh, cutting deep into the parts of his memories that he didn't like to think about; the ones that confused him the most, never stopping its endless flow of agony until the bliss of sleep finally overtook him. While these particular memories could at times be looked at fondly, the dangerous path his mind sometimes took under the light of the moon before sleep claimed him could not be considered just that.

It would begin, always, when he thought of Aerith and Zack's final departure through the doors of their church. He no longer viewed it as just the flower girl's; it had become the home of his counterpart as well. After all, it had been their moment together that had lifted the final unbearable weight from his shoulders and brought him back down to the life he so desperately wanted to live, so it was only natural to start to see that place in a different light.

He had never told anyone about their reassuring farewell, not even Tifa, and they in turn had never asked. Quite simply, they honestly didn't know. Their disappearance together into the lifestream he had understood was for him and him only, for it had been him who had needed it most. They were happy. Aerith' angelic face had smiled serenely one last time, radiating the glee at his latest triumph as she had always done in life; as though she had never gone. But it had been his accident, a foolish blunder among many that Cloud felt he did notoriously often, that had caused her death in the first place.

It was there, on the gleaming floor on the altar, where the flowing waters and brilliance of the Ancients had danced around them so freely, that an already raging flame in his chest had truly come to life. For all the beauty that that place had held was stripped bare the second its own blood splattered onto the icy floor; the warmth of her life slowly seeping under his dirty boots and sucking the color out of her dimming eyes. He hated that the last image he'd had of her was lifeless, for that was not who she was. She had been more alive than anyone else he had ever known.

That image had burned him ruthlessly for two long, miserable years. It was enraged and relentless, slowly singeing and scorching away what little confidence he had left until he had fallen into despair. The geostigma, of course, had only added fuel to the fire, making it blaze anew.

Seeing her there, shining gloriously as opposed to the deteriorated image etched so severely into his head, shining as the ethereal beauty she had always been, had calmed him more than anything. She was happy. She did not blame him. That was all that mattered. Quick as she'd come, she was gone again, but this time it didn't hurt. Her leaving grace had quenched the flame in his heart, releasing all of his prolonged guilt the second her soothing words had reached his ears. Zack had been there too, reminiscent of all their days in Shinra when he, too, had been full of life. It had been that side of him, that eager restlessness to just live, that had appealed most to Cloud. He had always looked up to him, and seeing him with her had meant more than anything.

While seeing Zack and Aerith had caught his breath and comforted him in every way, he tried to refrain from thinking about it too much. Night's blanket and it's starry sky offered him no mercy at the chaos it stirred in him constantly, no matter how at peace he felt.

At what point in the past few years could he draw the line between Zack and himself? After their escape from Nibelheim together and the accident outside of Midgar, where could he define which parts were really him and which were not his own? He had, after all, more than once caught himself wishing he was more like Zack back before the reactor mission, and for good reason. It was Zack's easy-going nature, his ability to talk with careless ease, the strength he possessed on the inside and out that had striven his younger self to be so wistful. Zack was everything he had always wanted to be.

After all, if he been like Zack from the beginning, maybe he would have been that hero he had told and failed Tifa to be.

So it was only natural after he'd groggily awoken from his mindless state in the muddy Midgar road to pick up where Zack had left off. As though he had been him the entire time. As though he had, in fact, done what everyone had doubted him able to do. Now, with the truth, Cloud could look back on that fateful day and remember the taste of the dirt in his mouth and his blurred vision, marred by his sopping hair and the freezing rain. He remembered the shape of the body slightly ahead of him, riddled with holes, his life draining away in the rivers of rainfall on the dampened earth, cutting a path down to where he lay. Binding them.

He, too, had looked so unlike life. But his poisoned mind refused to register what had really happened, refused to notice the ashen color and look of defeat on his idol's usually jubilant face. All he could see at that moment was Midgar, and the life that awaited him. The new him that awaited him.

The biggest complication of Zack's subconscious was Aerith. Zack had told him all about her, of course, which had given him the feeling that he had already known her in a way. She had intrigued him, not just with her beauty and unabashed innocence, but with her honesty and compassion. She'd had a way of pushing past every wall he'd put up and easing him back through to the other side. Aerith had been so free, so gentle, and so unafraid that it had rendered him helpless. She was unlike anyone he'd ever met.

And for the first time, she had noticed him. Noticed him in the way he'd wanted so desperately to be noticed all those years ago under a starry Nibelheim sky. She would flirt and play with him in her own way, never pushing his buttons but with a serious air that he could never quite look over. She had told him many things, and asked him endless questions, always curious about him. He would remember her words, even now years later, in that particular tone she would reserve just for him.

But the mako in his very blood would turn against him, and as her mouth would smile sweetly under playful green eyes he would rise against her smaller form and bring his blade above his head. It would come crashing down with merciless grace, and there would be no one to stop him as his own body turned against him. He would strike her; hear the anguished cry that was so opposite of what she had planned to say, feeling the warmth of her lifeless soul seep into his skin…

He couldn't take anymore, so he would pull himself out of his twisted reverie with a distressed sigh and roll over to face the gleaming night sky. Sometimes it would be covered by thick fog or darkened clouds, but other times he would find himself looking up at the innocent twinkle of the thousands of stars spread before him. They seemed almost childlike, the way they naively met his gaze with their unspoken promises of futures and happiness.

But Cloud had grown to hate the stars. He hated the way they hid the horrors if his past in their timeless history, and he hated the way that they did nothing but taunt their knowledge and wisdom when they knew he was lost. Most of all, he hated how they knew which path he was supposed to take, but they stubbornly refused to tell him what it was.

So he would lay there, bathed in the soft glow of his sightless present under the stream of what was to come; waiting for that chilling breeze to pull him into the starless void of sleep.

He had learned a lot about Tifa in the past few years. It was to be expected, what with sharing a home together, but even then he sometimes found it comical to think of all the little things that made up who she was.

For instance, one of the first things he'd observed was her love for films. It was a common occurrence for him to enter the bar on a delivery break and find her on the couch, feet tucked warmly into Marlene's quilt that she would routinely steal as a make-shift blanket, dark hair tied in a high pony out of her watchful eyes so she could allow herself the pleasure of being sucked in by whichever thrilling story appealed to her that day. It hadn't taken long for the TV to shrink beneath the countless tapes she bought on her days off, something which Cloud would often tease her about. He'd never quite understood how movies with bad acting and sketchy plot lines could be so fascinating, but they certainly had a way of grabbing her attention during the rare moments she had to spare.

Sometimes he would catch her at a bad spot during a sappy love story. Sure enough, if he ever noticed that the kleenex box was not at it's usual spot beside the toaster, he would quickly vanish upstairs and try not to smirk at the image of one of the world's greatest heroes resorted to tears because so-and-so left so-and-so. If he failed, and she happened to see him fighting to keep his mouth straight, he would unceremoniously get a pillow thrown at the back of his head, which would only cause him to chuckle and hurry faster up the stairs and out of sight.

On other occasions, she would be watching a low quality karate film, and he tended to actually sit and watch parts of these simply for laughs. After all, being a perfectly capable fighter herself, she would go on a rant about how horribly useless the hero is and how she could have kicked the bad guy's ass a long time ago with her eyes closed. He could never stay long, some days he could only stop by for a few minutes while others he would push to about twenty or so, but he always loved dropping in to say hello no matter what. She always looked happy to see him, with her dark eyes lighting up and her lips curving into a gracious smile, and he found himself pushing his time limit further and further each time.

Tifa was also quite the cook. If he came home early enough to witness it at the end of the day, he would have Marlene and Denzel begging him to play one game or another in the kitchen while she went to work behind the counter. She would throw on an apron and hum quietly to herself as she took the proper ingredients off the shelves; laughing at the kid's suggestions of chocolate cake and other various junk foods until the delicious smells would waft discreetly over to their table, sugar forgotten. He found he loved to watch her cook, and often paid a price for it by getting beaten by Marlene in checkers on more than one occasion.

But Tifa always looked so at peace there, talking animatedly with Denzel about the latest sci-fi movie she'd watched, her cheeks flushed in the effort with the occasional streak of flour covering the tip of her nose. And it was always delicious, with perfectly seasoned chickens and potatoes so fluffy that they lived more up to his namesake than he did. She always looked so proud to set the table and listen to them ooh and ahh over her night's work, and she'd never forget to give Cloud a sly wink before tucking in herself.

Yes, Tifa was definitely a woman of many talents, he'd learnt. And though Cloud loved them all, he couldn't help but pinpoint the one part of her that made her so unique. That was, of course, her unwavering confidence in him. After everything he'd put her through; after every selfish blunder he'd made that had hurt her; she was always there, waiting. For what, he didn't quite know, but he'd be damned if he would make her endure that kind of pain again.

Cloud Strife had learned a lot about her in the past few years. But despite that, he was at a loss of what could have penetrated her seemingly endless wall of faith to the point where she had allowed it to crumble, if only for a second. She had faltered in the past. She had come impossibly close, but it had never quite broken as it had last night. In spite of everything he thought he knew, the answer to her uncharacteristic fall remained a mystery.

The floors were clean, the counters had been thoroughly wiped and the kids had scampered off to bed with giggles and laughter as they always did. He was sitting on the barstool tiredly as usual, watching Tifa's lithe frame ease its way between the upturned chairs to shut the stars from view. However, unlike most nights, she had yet to pull out a bottle of their favorite drink and he had yet to ask for it.

For tonight, she seemed more preoccupied with the heavenly lights. For tonight, he seemed more preoccupied with her.

He couldn't help notice her striking beauty in the pale moonlit glow, with the shadows dancing along her cheeks and dark eyes fixated dreamily towards the sky. She was stunning. She was perfect. His stomach would flip pleasantly sometimes at the mere sight of her. He had always seen it of course, but under night's veil it seemed to radiate throughout the room, her presence filling every inch and corner of the darkened bar. So it surprised him very much when she spoke, barely louder than a whisper, with the oddest of expressions on her delicate face.

"Do you ever look at the stars, Cloud?"

He was taken back at her words and wasn't quite sure how to answer. When she never tore her gaze from the sky he even began to wonder if he had imagined it, her voice had been so soft. But instead he cleared his throat and hesitantly opened his mouth.

"…Sometimes." His voice was much louder than hers had been, out of place among the dreamlike state he felt the room was in. Everything was hushed and surreal, and his deep voice seemed to break the calming tone. But she paid no notice to this; instead she shifted her feet, her only move to inform him that she'd heard what he'd said.

"They're fascinating, aren't they? They see everything, hear everything…they hide away our secrets and our dreams from the rest of the world…they must know so much."

He stared at her. At her slender arms and her curvy hips, and the way her knee was bent just slightly. And he wondered how she could have such a different view from him. How they could look at the same thing and see two different halves, feel completely separate feelings. And he grew, as was his way, confused. He wasn't sure how long it took for him to slide off his chair, and he was only dimly aware of the sound of his boots walking across the floor. But next thing he knew, he was looking up at the stars he had grown to loathe so much, her face cast in the shadow of his larger build, in confused wonder.

"Doesn't it ever…bother you?" He said quietly. The words floated seamlessly through the air for a moment, and upon reaching her ears she finally averted her gaze to him uncertainly.

"But…why would it bother me? I find it comforting."

"I suppose it can be…but…" He frowned. His thoughts always sounded so much better in his head, and outwardly he was unsure of how to say them. "It's like you said, they know everything…our past and our future…it's all out there, but they can't tell us what it is. It's almost as though they're…taunting us."

She was still for a moment and he didn't dare steal a glance at her. So he involuntarily jerked in surprise when he felt her arm snake its way around his waist, feeling the usual lurch in his stomach when she pressed her frame against his back and leaned her head against his shoulder.

"You're right. I've never really thought of it that way…it's sort of scary to think about." She sighed then, and gently pressed her hand over his, squeezing slightly. "But you shouldn't always think of them like that, Cloud. They aren't supposed to frighten anyone. We can live out our entire lives on this planet, and no matter what happens or what changes, we can still look up every night and see the same starry sky. You could be anywhere, and feel anything…but they'll always be there for you, waiting."

He was quiet for a long time. He didn't know how to respond. Her words had calmed him, in that way only she could, and he subconsciously relaxed against her; tentatively easing his fingers through hers once more and gripping tightly. He didn't know how long they stood like that, gazing out the window together and up to the darkness above, but it was too soon when she numbly pulled her warmth from his side and took a few timid steps back.

"Goodnight, Cloud." He didn't turn around when he heard her walk slowly towards the stairs, but he listened to each light step across the floor and to her nails clacking lightly against the banister as she slid her hand up its side. It was when she stopped, suddenly, that he turned to look at her with his mako eyes. She was halfway up the stairs, her dark hair lost in the shadows and gazing at him with an expression not unlike the one he'd seen last night.

"They might hide your future from you…but maybe that's because they think you already know what it is." As she continued up the stairs, slender legs vanishing from his sight, he felt as though the air had grown thick, too much for him to even breathe. As was her way.

And she was right. He'd looked at the same twinkling lights his entire life and never once really acknowledged them. While he might never work out the blended words and memories of his recent years, it wasn't as though anyone could take them away. The same stars from Nibelheim, from when everything had been real, from when everything had been his, were still alive. They were there, just above his reach, waiting.

Some things didn't change. Some things never went away, never could get lost. And he realized then that despite everything that had happened, she had always been there, waiting. Just like the stars.

If there was one thing Cloud Strife was really good at, it was thinking. And he thought, a lot, on the short journey from the kitchen to her bedroom door. He thought about what he was going to say, he thought about what she would do, and he thought about what was to come. He thought about the way her face lit up when he hesitantly stepped into her room and how pretty she looked when she was confused by his inaudible mutterings.

"Cloud? Um, I can't really…I have no idea what you're saying!" She finally laughed and, shaking her head in a bemused sort of way, she patted beside her in gesture for him to sit down. Grinning stupidly, with his hand awkwardly scratching at the back of his head as he always did when he felt slightly embarrassed, he sat down heavily onto her bed. Thinking, now, about how much of a complete moron he was.

"Sorry, I just…look, Tif, I was thinking about what you said. About, you know, the stars and all, and I started thinking about…well, I started thinking about Nibelheim." He said the last word slowly, cautiously, waiting for her reaction. She looked at him inquiringly but didn't say anything, so he continued. "I never noticed before, but when I looked out at the sky I realized that they're the same stars as they were in Nibelheim that night."

"And I started thinking…I started thinking about what you said to me in the lifestream. You told me that after I left, you were always wondering about me…about whether I was okay or not…"

"Cloud, I-"

"No, wait. Please, what I'm trying to say is that, well…you were always waiting for me, Tifa." He sighed, shuffling his feet uncomfortably against her hardwood floor. He still wasn't quite sure how to say it, but just as she had downstairs she timidly scooted towards him and clasped a hand over his, urging him silently to continue. His blonde hair hung obtrusively over his eyes, but he could see the reassuring look she was giving him and he tried to continue. "There are a lot of things I still can't work out about me, or about my past. And there aren't a lot of things left that haven't been tampered with in some way. But then…"

Cloud Strife was not used to being nervous. He wasn't used to feeling the tingle down his spine as she gazed at him so intently and he didn't like the cool clamminess in his palms. But he loved feeling her warm palm on his, loved how cute she was with her hair in a messy ponytail and before he allowed himself to think twice he reached out to grab her other hand tightly.

"But then there's you. And you…you're real. It doesn't matter how many memories I've lost or what memories are mine, because…you've always been there for me no matter what." She was smiling now, just barely lifting the corners of her lips, and he tried to ignore how impossibly close they were. "I know I've made a lot of mistakes…and I know I haven't been the easiest to be around…"

He paused, and looked up from his feet. And he thought. He thought about how neat and orderly her room was, with her favorite pictures lined up on top of her dresser and her clothes for tomorrow folded neatly on the chair under the window. He thought about how dim the room was with only her bedside lamp on, and how their joined shadow was dancing on the wall behind them. He thought about how much her navy bed-shirt reminded him of the dress she wore that night in Nibelheim, and how good her toned thighs looked peeking out under its hem. And he thought, finally, of how it wouldn't matter if he never sorted out the lost fragments of his mind, if only she was there with him.

Like she'd always been, waiting.

"…But damnit Tif, ever since we were kids I couldn't see myself with anyone but you and I just-" His eyes widened in surprise when her lips were suddenly pressed against his lightly, almost shyly, her hands gripping his so tight it was almost as though she was afraid he would back away. And though color rose to his pale cheeks, though the missing years in his life betrayed his innocence, he gently pulled her closer to him and placed her hands against his chest, kissing her back with as much fever he could muster.

He couldn't help thinking about how good it felt to finally run his callused hands down her curvy waist, to feel her fingers play with the spikes in his ridiculously wild hair, or to ease his tongue up against hers. He loved every moan she made against his mouth, every motion she made to press him closer against her warm body and every rough stretch of her fingers across his skin. He loved it all. He loved her.

But what he loved most of all was the way her body fit so perfectly against his, as though she had been made just to dip and mold against his very being. She was small enough to lie down between his strong, shaky arms, but her hips gave her the strength to wrap herself around his waist bringing them, if it was possible, even closer together.

And they danced. Only this time, their hands reached far enough to create their own waltz and rewrite the steps to the tango; as they held and twisted their burning fingers upon the sweat-soaked sheets. Her back arched gracefully with each of his eager thrusts, her feet curling as he'd feel the appreciative rake of her nails against his back. And he'd moan into her neck, closing his eyes tightly into her untangled hair and shuddering as the heat of her breath grazed his ear. It was under the moonlight that he felt her tighten, throwing her head back with a heavenly cry of his name; and it was the sight of her quivering beneath his chest that finally threw him over the edge, his slick body rigid against hers.

Later, after they had both caught their breath, his forehead pressed lightly atop hers, he rolled onto his back and pulled her into his arms. He thought about how nice it felt to have her snuggled securely with her head buried against the crook of his shoulder, and how soft her hair felt under his chin. He thought about how natural it felt to reply to her final, hushed mutterings and about how pretty she looked when her lashes fluttered wearily against his skin.

The curtains in her room did not turn across the starlit floor as they did in his, and in the last moments before sleep overcame him he realized that her window wasn't even open. And though she'd never know it, Cloud Strife tightened his grip around the petite woman lying in his arms and closed his mako eyes, a mischievous grin gracing his handsome features. For tonight, he wouldn't need a breezing lullaby to drift his mind away.

Instead, he cursed himself for waiting too damn long on the stars.

all because of you, I believe in angels
not the kind with wings, no, not the kind with halos
the kind that bring you home
when home becomes a strange place