A/N: Okay, I actually started this story about seven months ago. Then I shelved it, because--fair warning to everyone--it is a story about Tifa getting amnesia. This bothered me on a lot of levels--mostly because it's subject that's written about in every fandom (hey, it's been written about, both in canon and fanon, in this particular fandom), and it bothered me because the type of amnesia Tifa gets in this is very rare. Ultimately, though, even after all these months, I decided to go ahead and write it because it won't leave me alone. So I have taken it upon myself as a challenge to see if I can write this subject well. I've been trying to do my research on brain functions and amnesia and everything, so here's hoping I get this right. ;)
If you decide to join me on this craziness--well, welcome to the story. I hope you enjoy it. Hopefully I won't want to tear my hair out in frustration by the end of it. ;)
My deepest gratitude goes out to Drink. Juice for letting me rant about this and offering suggestions. You have no idea how much you're appreciated.
This is rated T for some language, adult situations, and possibly disturbing imagery.
Disclaimer: Do I still have to write these? Not mine, not mine, not mine.
The noise from the impromptu celebration in Seventh Heaven finally quieted well past midnight. There was definitely cause for rejoicing: the reincarnation of Sephiroth defeated, the Geostigma healed, the planet once more saved from imminent threat.
Cid had stumbled, very drunk, back to his ship, waving off Tifa's invitation to sleep on the floor of the bar--"I've got blankets, Cid!"--muttering something slurred about Shera and home. Red XIII had followed, saying that for Shera's sake, he would make sure Cid didn't try to fly home in his inebriated state.
Yuffie was passed out, but had managed to do it after cornering Vincent against the wall in one of the booths. Her head was propped on the table and her body drooped sideways; the only way Vincent would be leaving was if he moved Yuffie or climbed over her. Cloud wouldn't have been at all surprised if Vincent simply pushed Yuffie onto the floor before too long; Yuffie would sleep through it. At the moment, he simply sat quietly, nursing the only drink he'd had all night.
Cloud had carried Denzel to bed after he fell asleep on one of the benches, and Barret had gone to tuck Marlene into bed. Judging from the rumbling snores that were coming from upstairs, he had passed out there, too.
Cloud stepped outside the bar and gazed up at the sky, breathing in the warm night air. For the first time in longer than he could recall, he felt like he could really breathe. Without pain, without guilt, without the burdens he had been carrying around for so long.
And he had no idea what to do with himself. Hours earlier he had been dying and now--
The door opened and Tifa peered outside. "Cloud?"
She had already spotted him. She didn't say anything, but the smile she gave him when she stepped up beside him spoke volumes. It was a genuine Tifa smile, not the one that she sometimes forced on her face just to make everyone else happy.
Before he could move, she grasped his hand quickly and squeezed it once before releasing it, and he knew, without her voicing it, that it was a welcome home gesture. And a question. Despite the soft smile, he could see the question in her eyes.
So he answered it, even though she hadn't asked. Because he needed to. Because he wanted to. "It's good to be home."
Her eyes lightened, yet there was still a fear there. He couldn't help but recognize it, because he was still afraid too. He had so many holes he had to fill, holes that he had left by running away. But there was something else in Tifa's eyes, something that had always been there for him: hope. He felt that he didn't deserve to see it there; he had dragged her to the edge of despair with him in so many ways. But her hope for him, her faith in him, her unrelenting refusal to give up on him…it was still there, still lending strength to him after everything.
The door opened again, and Cloud and Tifa both looked to see Denzel poking his head outside. Marlene stepped past him, holding her favorite stuffed rabbit and rubbing her eyes with her free hand. "Tifa, can I sleep in your bed? Papa's snoring on our bedroom floor and we can't sleep."
Tifa laughed. "Yes, go ahead. Denzel--"
"I can sleep on the floor," he said quickly. "I know where the extra blankets are."
Both children disappeared back inside, and Tifa let out a long, slow sigh. A breath of release. Maybe she had been struggling to breathe under the weight of the burdens he had left her with, too. She had always been better at letting go of her burdens, but then, she was always the one shouldering other people's loads, too.
Slowly, he reached for her hand and returned her earlier gesture by squeezing it briefly before letting go. She shot him a quick look of surprise, but then a peaceful expression settled on her face.
He couldn't change the hurt he had caused her, or Denzel and Marlene, by leaving. But maybe, given time, he could make up for it. He wasn't sure how, but that was okay. Right now, all that mattered was that he was home.
Marlene's exclamation brought Denzel racing to the window, and Tifa looked up from washing the dishes, her face lighting up. She wiped her hands on a towel and hurried over to the window, peering over the kids' heads.
A small smile crossed Cloud's face, and he shook his head slightly, turning his attention back to his delivery slips spread out on the bar's counter. The only thing snow meant for him was the potential for ice on the roads in the morning.
"I hope it stays on the ground so we can play in it tomorrow!" Marlene said.
"Maybe we'll get to stay home from school!" Denzel chimed in.
Cloud glanced back over at Denzel just in time to see him throw a hopeful look at Tifa. "School's only two blocks away," Tifa said, taking one last look out the window before returning to her dishwashing. "I don't think we'll get so much snow that you can't walk two blocks."
Denzel sighed. "Yeah, I guess."
"And speaking of school--" Tifa began.
"Bedtime," both children chorused resignedly. Still, they peeled themselves away from the window and raced up the stairs to get ready for bed.
Tifa washed and rinsed her last dish and leaned on the counter, studying his delivery slips. "Do you have a lot for tomorrow?"
Cloud shook his head. "Just a few morning deliveries. The next day will be pretty full." Then, realizing she might have reasons for asking him this other than just finding out his schedule, he asked, "Did you need something tomorrow?"
"Nope," Tifa smiled warmly. "I won't be here in the morning, either; I have some shopping to do." She started walking around the counter, adding, "Oh, and Yuffie's coming to dinner tomorrow."
Cloud's forehead pinched into a frown. "She's not cooking, is she?"
"No," Tifa said emphatically.
Well, that was something, at least. Last time Yuffie had insisted on coming to the bar and cooking, the disaster she created hadn't been nearly as bad as the stomachaches that had come afterward.
Marlene pounded down the stairs. "Tifa, I can't find Mouse!"
"I've got him. He somehow made an escape from your room and ended up getting pretty dirty down here." Tifa disappeared around the corner and Cloud heard the particular squeak of the laundry room door opening. She returned a moment later with a tattered stuffed rabbit and handed it to Marlene, who hugged it tightly.
"Thank you, Tifa." Marlene skipped over to Cloud, flinging her arms around him. "'Night, Cloud."
Cloud gave her a one-armed hug in return. "'Night." He watched Tifa follow Marlene upstairs to make sure the kids got into bed.
A moment later, Denzel yelled down the stairs, "See you tomorrow, Cloud!"
"Tomorrow, Denzel," Cloud called back. It had been Denzel's way of saying goodbye or good night for over two years now. Either 'see you tomorrow' or 'see you later.' In the beginning, Cloud knew it had been Denzel's way of reassuring himself that Cloud wouldn't disappear on them as he had done when he had Geostigma. Now, it was simply habit.
While Tifa went upstairs to make sure the kids were actually getting into bed, Cloud gathered up his organized delivery slips and maps and took them up to his office. He heard Tifa's footsteps going back down the stairs, and then wasn't at all surprised when the sound of the front door opening and closing met his ears.
He went down and saw Tifa's boots and socks sitting by the front door. He opened the door, and sure enough, Tifa was sitting on the step outside Seventh Heaven. It was cold, but not bitterly so, the snow falling softly in big flakes, settling on Tifa's hair and clothes…and her bare feet. She inclined her head toward him and reached one hand over her shoulder, inviting him to sit with her.
Cloud paused for only a moment before settling on the step behind Tifa, putting his legs on either side of hers and folding his arms around her. She leaned against him, pulling his arms closer against her and sighing contentedly. Though he couldn't see it, he could practically feel the huge smile that was undoubtedly on her face. "Isn't it beautiful?"
"Exactly." Tifa tilted her head backward so she could look at him, and now he could see her smile. Then she looked away, and after a quiet moment, said, "It reminds me of Nibelheim. The snow in the mountains…I always thought it was so pretty."
"I always just thought it was so cold," Cloud said.
"My father used to yell at me for running barefoot into the first snowfall."
One corner of Cloud's mouth tugged upward and he nudged her bare feet with his boots. "I remember."
"It always just looks so soft. I don't mind the cold." Tifa leaned against him in comfortable silence for a minute, and then said, "Still, I'd better get inside soon unless I want frostbite." Yet she didn't move, just held his arms more tightly. He knew why; he knew what her memories were bringing up. Despite the years that had passed, the subject of Nibelheim was still a painful one. They hadn't visited it in years, not since that last fateful trip after Meteor. It had brought up too many bad memories for both of them.
Tifa finally stood, shivering slightly as she lost Cloud's body heat. He got to his feet and followed her inside, locking the door behind him as Tifa pulled her socks back on.
Cloud headed upstairs with the intention of going to bed, since he had to be up early to make his deliveries. As he unlaced his boots and kicked them off, Tifa came into their room, her face still flushed from the cold. She slipped into the bed before he could, curling the blankets around her.
"Cold?" He lifted the blankets and got in next to her.
She immediately rolled into his side. "Not really," she murmured, her fingers brushing his cheek. He knew the strength of her hands, felt the calluses on them, but her touch was as light and soft as the snow falling outside. The blend of unyielding strength and gentleness she possessed was one of the many things that had always drawn him to Tifa--which still drew him to her.
He turned toward her, studying her face, seeing the contentment in her eyes. It didn't matter how long he had been together with Tifa, didn't matter that they had been married for almost a year now--when he saw the happiness in her and realized that he had done something to put it there, he sometimes still had a momentary jolt of surprise. Surprise that this was actually real, that for some reason, Tifa loved him and still wanted him.
It made it easier to get through the hard times. It wasn't as though their relationship was perfect. It never had been and never would be. But ultimately, after the fights or the fears, after the dangers of their lives or the angry, frustrated silences that came in place of fights, she was still there. And so was he.
Tifa wrapped her arms around him and touched her lips to his. He returned her kiss, slowly at first, but as her hands trailed leisurely down his body, he pulled her closer, his own fingers finding the zipper on her vest, tugging it down, and their kiss became something deeper and more intense.
He didn't always have the words to express what he felt, but this was one of those times when it didn't matter, when this was the only answer he had to give to be understood.
Cloud's morning deliveries were uneventful. There was a very thin layer of snow on the ground, but the roads hadn't really been icy except for a patch here and there, but Fenrir was well equipped to handle any weather. He hadn't even run into any monsters on the road, and he ended up back in Edge earlier than he had anticipated.
He was just entering the city when he noticed the smoke that was pouring upward from one area--the area, he realized, where his home and family were.
It was as though a bucket of ice water had been thrown on him; he froze for half a second on Fenrir, his heart thunking loudly in his chest, and then he was racing faster down the streets, zipping around corners, dodging cars and pedestrians, unable to think anything except a single, pleading thought. Please…
By the time he was two streets away, he knew that the cold fingers of dread gripping his heart had every right to be clenching tighter. He knew precisely where every building around Seventh Heaven was, but the only other building that really mattered at this moment was the school, which was just around the corner from the bar.
Cloud abandoned his bike as soon as he reached the scene of the fire. The school, an old two-story building that had once been a business, but which the WRO had changed into a place for education, was destroyed. Much of the second floor had collapsed onto the first, leaving a huge chunk of it a pile of rubble. Flames licked the sides of the few walls that stood, crawling like insidious fingers determined to stroke every bit of life out of the place.
Cloud's eyes were not on the collapsed school; they were frantically searching through the gathered crowd, looking for familiar faces as he shoved through the people standing close enough to watch the disaster. The scene before him was one of absolute chaos. WRO rescue workers and other adults were busy, checking over children huddled or lying on the ground. Some of them, Cloud saw were not even moving, but he couldn't tell whether it was because they were unconscious or dead. Several injured people were being loaded into vehicles to be whisked away to the hospital.
Cloud's eyes briefly followed a screaming girl as she was carried away from the rubble, and then turned to the other children. He saw a few he recognized, but none of them were the ones he was looking for. "Denzel!" he shouted. "Marlene!"
Where were they? Crushed inside the fallen school? Taken to the hospital? Where was Tifa? She had to have known what was happening, with Seventh Heaven being so close. Why hadn't she called him, unless something had happened that made it impossible for her to call?
As he hurried through the chaos, looking for Denzel and Marlene, he snapped open his cell phone and called Tifa. The phone rang…and rang…and kept ringing. After six rings, her voicemail kicked in. Frustrated and now worried about Tifa--she always answered her phone--he hung up and was just about to make another call when his own phone started ringing. Hoping that it was Tifa calling back, he glanced at the phone. Yuffie flashed on the screen. As soon as he flipped it open and said, "Yuffie--" he was cut off.
"Cloud! You have to get back to Edge now. There was an attack on the school; I've just been called down there so I'm on my way, but I don't know if Denzel and Marlene got out and I can't get a hold of Tifa and--"
"Yuffie, I'm at the school." And he didn't see the kids or Tifa anywhere. Maybe one of the kids had been taken to the hospital and Tifa had gone with them? Maybe there was bad reception on Tifa's phone...?
"You are? Have you seen the kids? Did you talk to Tifa?"
Cloud had just about given up on finding them outside. He knew--he knew that there was a definite chance they had been crushed inside the school, or that they were trapped, but he couldn't--
"No, I…wait, I see Marlene. I'll call you back." Cloud snapped the phone shut, running for the familiar figure lying on the cold ground and dropping down beside her. "Marlene!"
She was blinking at him in a very dazed way, and her skin was ashen. "Cloud?"
Cloud quickly looked her over. Her brown hair was streaked with dirt, her skirt was torn and filthy, but what really got his attention was the way the bottom part of her shirt was stained red.
"Cloud, I hurt." Despite the glazed look in her eyes, her voice was steady. Weak and thick, but steady. She had been in many situations that were dangerous in the past, and it had made her very levelheaded in an emergency. "And I don't know where Denzel is. I don't know if he got out. I don't remember how I got out here…I think something hit me…"
Cloud carefully lifted the edge of her shirt. She was bleeding freely from her left side.
Marlene peered down at her stomach and blinked. "Oh!" There was a heavy pause and then she said, "Cloud?"
There was such fear in her voice, mirroring Cloud's own desperation. He had to get to the hospital; he had to get help for Marlene and find out what had happened to Denzel. To find out why Tifa wasn't answering her phone. He had to find out what had happened at all, but he didn't have time to stick around and ask anyone questions. "It's going to be okay, Marlene. I'm going to get you to the hospital and if Denzel's not there, I'll come back and find him." It would be much quicker for Cloud to get her to the hospital than to try to get the WRO to take her there.
He lifted her in his arms carefully. She was trembling but silent as he carried her to Fenrir and settled her on his lap. Within seconds, they were zooming away from the scene.
What happened? What kind of attack was this? A monster? Explosion? Terrorist, random…Where is Tifa? The fear was feeding on him, and as he zoomed through the streets, he tried calling Tifa again, but again got her voicemail.
Fenrir roared to a stop just outside the hospital's main entrance. Cloud scooped Marlene back into his arms and shoved through the hospital entrance. She was limp against him, her eyes closed and her face stark white.
It was immediately apparent that it was just as chaotic in here right now as it was back at the school; there were doctors rushing around, and right behind Cloud, several more children from the school were being brought in. One of the doctors spotted Cloud carrying Marlene in and hurried over to check on her.
Cloud could see from the expression on her face that it wasn't good news, and was positive when she started snapping orders. Within moments, Marlene was being taken from him and put on a stretcher. The doctor asked quickly, "Is she yours?"
"She'll be in surgery. You can't come back there. The best thing you can do for us is get her registered so we know who she is--we're trying to sort out patients. Here." She handed Cloud a tag with a number on it. "That's her number. I'll let you know what's happening as soon as I can." She hurried through a door with Marlene, calling orders to the other medical staff, and closed it in Cloud's face.
The sound of the door shutting, though quiet, was as resounding as a gunshot. He had no idea if Marlene would be okay when that door opened again. He couldn't think about it (yet how could he not?); he still had to find Denzel and Tifa (but what if he couldn't?).
He couldn't even be surprised that his life had come crashing around him in an instant. It had never had trouble falling apart in the past.
It was his life, after all.