A/N: I poked around at this piece for a couple of weeks and finally finished it. In the process, I learned that it's really not a good idea to try to write Tifa from a third-person POV at midnight when you're exhausted after just finishing a story where you wrote Tifa from a first-person POV. You start to write "I" instead of "she" and have to reread it half a dozen times to make sure you got it right.
This takes place immediately following On the Way to a Smile: Case of Denzel.
Disclaimer: Still not mine.
Tifa knew she should have been asleep. It was four in the morning, and she needed to be awake in two hours to make sure Denzel and Marlene had everything they needed before they left for school. Then she had errands to run before opening the bar for lunch. She couldn't sleep, though; the day's events were still fresh and heavy on her mind. So she stood in the children's room, listening to their slow, even breathing, looking out the window at Cloud, who was obviously having the same trouble finding rest. He was right outside the bar, tinkering with Fenrir, trying to keep his fingers busy. Trying to find a distraction.
She wondered if he was having any success. She had nothing left to do to distract her. The dishes were scrubbed, the laundry was clean, the bar swept (twice, just to keep busy), and the kids' lunches for the next day were made.
Her eyes drifted across her sleeping children, coming to rest on Denzel. He looked so incredibly young and innocent as he slept, his hair flopping into his face. Why? she thought silently at him, though she had quite a few ideas about what would have driven him to do it. She hadn't had a chance to talk to him about it, though, because he had already been asleep when Reeve called.
"I just wanted you to know--you've got one special boy there. Made me change my mind about our policy on accepting kids in the WRO."
Sighing, Tifa turned back to the window and stared down at Cloud. His hair glinted in the moonlight as he bent over his bike. The next moment, probably sensing someone watching him, his head tilted up, his eyes meeting hers through the glass.
She held his eyes for a long moment before he pulled them downward again. She turned away from the window, gently kissed Denzel's forehead, pulled Marlene's blanket up over her, and walked out of the room. She hesitated for a moment before descending the stairs and crossing the bar to step outside. She approached Cloud quietly, sitting down on the ground beside him and silently watching him work.
He set down the tools in his hand and sighed, half-turning toward her. It was a long moment before he spoke, but when he did, his words didn't surprise her. "It's my fault."
"It was Denzel's choice," Tifa said. "He decided to try to join the WRO, Cloud."
"Because of me," Cloud said simply, and there was no guilt in his voice. It was a statement of fact, and it held the tone of resignation.
Tifa knew what he was thinking. Denzel idolized Cloud. He wanted to be strong like him, to fight like him, and maybe that was why he had snuck off to Johnny's Heaven (and she was going to have a conversation with Johnny about letting her son have meetings in his bar) to have an interview with Reeve--so he could get a step closer to being his idol.
"Cloud, you know it wouldn't have happened," she said, trying to sound reassuring. "Even if Reeve had told him yes, we wouldn't have let him go."
Cloud gave a little gesture that was halfway between a nod and a shake of his head. "I--" He looked up at the kids' bedroom window. "This isn't what I ever wanted. I don't--" He stopped and shook his head in frustration, turning back to his bike.
She wrapped her arms around her knees and watched him for a few minutes longer, leaning back against the building.
She didn't realize she had fallen asleep until Cloud shook her knee and she jolted to awareness. She mustn't have been asleep long, because she hadn't gotten uncomfortable, and dawn had not yet arrived.
"You should go to bed," Cloud said.
She dragged herself to her feet and stifled a yawn behind her hand. "I'd probably only get to sleep for an hour. I'll just make coffee."
As she took a step toward the door, he said, "There's been too much of this."
She stopped with her hand on the door. "Of what?"
"Fighting. Kids going to war because they want to prove something to somebody." He bowed his head, looking at the ground. "I've had enough of that kind of legacy. I don't want Denzel to carry that burden. If he decides that's really what he wants to do with his life, I want him to understand…"
He trailed off, but she didn't need him to continue. She understood. The choices Denzel made were his own, and when he was older and decided what he was going to do with his future, she wanted him to know the cost of choosing this kind of life. At the same time, she wished he would never know the cost. She did what she did to protect the people she loved. She fought for her family, fought so that Marlene and Denzel wouldn't have to understand the price she paid.
"I know," she told Cloud. She waited, and when he nodded once and went back to Fenrir, she stepped inside. The clock on the wall said it was almost five. She went to make some coffee, and when it was done, she sank down into one of the booths with a steaming cup in hand. Cloud came in a short while later and got a cup of his own, sitting down across from her. They sat in silence until the dregs of their coffee sat in the bottom of their cups and the sky was beginning to lighten.
Tifa sighed and stood up. Time to wake the kids.
Cloud reached out and put a hand on her arm. "I'll get them."
She nodded and sat back down, her gaze following him across the room and up the stairs. Marlene, she knew, would moan and pull her head under her blankets, pleading for a little more sleep, while Denzel would be up like a shot, wide awake and ready to go.
Sure enough, he came down the stairs a few minutes later, and Cloud was right behind him, carrying Marlene over one shoulder. He deposited her on one of the barstools, where she promptly groaned and lay her head on the counter. Cloud left her there, putting one hand on Denzel's shoulder and saying something to him quietly. Denzel looked at him, then at Tifa, and slowly came to sit down across from her.
Tifa moved over so that Cloud could sit beside her, and they both looked silently at Denzel. He blinked, squirmed, and looked down at his hands. "You found out, huh?" he finally mumbled.
"Reeve called yesterday," Tifa said.
"I-I wasn't trying to…I just…"
Tifa and Cloud exchanged glances, and Tifa said, "We were just a little worried, Denzel."
Denzel looked up, his wide eyes looking between them. "I didn't mean to make you worried. I only wanted to help."
"There are plenty of ways you can help without joining the WRO," Cloud said.
"I know that. It's more than that. I want to--" His eyes flickered to Cloud, then down at the table. "I owe so much to so many people. I want to make some of that right."
Tifa leaned forward and reached across the table, grasping his hand. "You already do that, Denzel," she said firmly. "You do it every day, just by being here and growing and learning."
"I want to do more."
"Then can you talk to us about that? Before you go off to try to join the WRO next time?"
Denzel was quiet for a moment. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I knew you would stop me and I…I had to try." His eyes pleaded for understanding.
Tifa understood, far more than Denzel probably knew. "I know," she sighed. "I really do. I still wish…"
"Denzel," Cloud said suddenly. He had a considering look in his eyes as he leaned forward. "I'll teach you to fight."
Denzel stared at Cloud, excitement creeping into his voice when he asked, "You mean--with a sword?"
"Yes. And if Tifa agrees, then you can come with me on deliveries sometimes." He looked at Tifa, who studied him briefly before nodding. They exchanged looks, and she knew that he would only take Denzel on the safest routes.
"Really?" Denzel straightened, positively beaming. "Really, Cloud?"
"Yes. But I want you to promise me that if you ever decide to join the army, or anything like it, we'll talk first."
"Good. Why don't you go wake Marlene and get some breakfast?"
Marlene had fallen back asleep, using the counter as a pillow. Denzel jumped to his feet and ran over to shake her, and Tifa turned to Cloud. "Sword training and deliveries?"
Cloud was quiet for a long moment, watching Denzel drag Marlene off the stool and pull her toward the kitchen so they could get their breakfast. "Maybe it will help him. Maybe…maybe it will make him feel like he's doing more. Kids like Denzel…they can't just give up on repaying a debt because someone wants them to. He needs to work it out and I don't want him to spend his whole life trying to do it."
"And maybe you can show him that fighting isn't everything he thinks it is?"
"That, too," Cloud agreed. "If he does choose to fight when he gets older, though, I want him to know what he's getting into. That much…that much I think I can help him with. Maybe."
They watched both kids come out of the kitchen and sit down at the counter with their breakfast. "Yeah," Tifa said softly. "If anyone can show him that, I think it has to be you." She nudged him so he would let her out of the booth. As he stood up and she slid out to stand next to him, she squeezed his arm briefly. "I think it will be good for you, too, Cloud."
He raised his eyebrows, silently asking why.
"Maybe it will show you that the legacy you're leaving him isn't one you should be ashamed of." She smiled at him. "He wants to make you proud."
Cloud eyes lingered on Denzel. "He already does."