AN: Written for the beautiful and uber talented Motchi's OTP war thread.
"You need to let me fail."
The hand chopping onions for dinner paused. "What?"
He stared at the cutting board and the glint of steel kissing onion. Maybe doing this while she had a knife in her hand wasn't the wisest of choices. He dared a furtive glance at her face. Scratch maybe. Definitely not the wisest choice, but he hedged on regardless.
"I need you to stop being so protective of me," he continued, fumbling for the right words. Words he had practiced on Fenrir over broken roads and dusty trails a hundred times, but now seemed scattered on the same. "You've always been so damn patient with me. Always had my back." He risked another glance.
Her head was cocked, but she wasn't looking at him, she had resumed her chopping; listening.
"And I know you thought that was what I needed, but honestly, Tifa..." He scratched the back of his neck, hip coming to rest against the counter. "Things between us probably would have been easier if you'd rushed me, or been pushier...or just smacked me upside the head--"
"I could try that," she interrupted, irritation evident in the slight flare of her nostrils.
This wasn't going at all like he'd planned. "What I'm trying to say is that I don't want you to always be there for me--"
A sharp hiss of breath and a splash of red against the cutting board drew his attention. "Tifa!" he exclaimed, grabbing for her.
She jerked back with a scowl. She yanked her hand towel from the counter, wadded it against her fingers and turned her back to him.
"Let me see." He placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, but she stubbornly refused to turn.
"Yes," she winced.
"Don't, okay, Cloud, just don't." Her voice fought for neutral and failed "I get the message. I'm smothering you. I'm sorry, I'll back off."
"What?" It was his turn to be surprised.
"You just said you didn't want me around--"
"That is not what I said."
She turned, eyes narrowed and accusing. "It most certainly is. 'I don't always want you to be there for me'... sound familiar?"
His mouth gave a rueful twist at the words. That was what he said—just not what he meant. Was it any wonder he disliked conversations?
"Will you let me finish?"
Her bottom lip looked ready to refuse, content in it's sullen pout. But when he placed a knuckle beneath her chin and tilted her face up, her eyes wavered and she sighed, "All right."
"This isn't easy for me. Talking, you know."
She did and for a moment was contrite. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be." He took the towel from her hand and motioned her to the sink where he turned on the tap. He rinsed her fingertips and watched the blood tinted water spin down the drain.
She waited, impatiently silent, for him to continue.
"I have been wading in self doubt for so long. Who am I? What am I ? Do I deserve to be happy? Can I be happy? And I still can't answer those questions, because I don't know—not really."
Tifa placed her free hand on his chest, her usual response primed and ready. "Of course you deserve to be happy, Cloud."
He inclined his head, grazed her temple with his lips. "And of course you'd say that. It's your nature." He settled himself back against the counter, but this time pulled her with him. He spread his feet apart so that she could stand between his thighs. "The thing of it is that I want to be happy. I want to be happy with you, because...it's you and I'm me and there is no Cloud without Tifa. And I want there to be no one without the other, but I want-- no I need, to know I can do this on my own."
"On your own?" Each word was carefully spaced.
"I can't have you constantly being responsible for me. And I know that will be hard for you—to step back and let me fail a couple of times, but you've got to."
Watery eyes closed. "I can't watch you drown in depression again, Cloud." A wobble gave hint to the emotion she was holding in check. "I can't."
His fingertips brushed against her lashes. "I'm not asking you to. Just let me swim."
"Without me," she inhaled shakily.
"Not without you. Always with you." He corrected. "But beside you. I need you to come out from behind me, Teef. Can you do that for me?"
She nodded once. "I can try."
"That's all either of us can do." Her mouth was soft beneath his.