Let me just preface this by saying this is going to be my dump box. That's right, my drabble collection (I suppose every author has to do one of these at some point). Whenever I get that burr that says something small needs to be written I'm just going to dump it in here. So this won't be a continuing story but rather a collection of small one shots that grows as the lighting strikes me, my cache for all the shorts that don't need to be stand alones. At least that's the plan, we'll see how it goes. I expect it will grow in fits and spurts. And hey - finally wrote something from Cloud's POV!! It takes place in a 'what if?' moment during the game - insert it wherever it seems to fit in the time line. I always loved his odd sense of humor in the game and was glad to see its reappearance in Dirge of Cerberus. I think its leaked out a bit here. AC Cloud and the game version of Cloud always seemed a bit different personality-wise to me too so that's going to show in this first short as well. Reviews are precious so don't forget to leave them. They're very motivational, especially the detailed kind. Yum!


by TamLin

Filthy. Everything seemed so filthy to him. He realized he shouldn't even notice, much less care. He was hardly clean himself by any stretch of the imagination, his own clothing dusty and marked with sweat and dried blood. They were all like that, tired out and worn down and dirty. And yet, somehow, walking into the little town, all he could think of was how much worse off then them it looked. Filthy and beaten down and ugly.

"Hopeless." The young woman walking next to him whispered it, tired enough that she was letting her thoughts slip out verbally. She did that when she was tired and it sparked something warm in his chest to realize that she'd always done that. That he actually remembered that about her.

He remembered

It shouldn't have meant anything, but to him, it meant everything. It made his chest feel suddenly a little bit lighter despite the exhaustion and the ugly, hopeless surroundings. He had remembered something that was entirely his own memory. Behind them their last team member grumbled.

"Probably got shit for food here." The big man sighed. "An' I'll eat it too, I'm so hungry."

They were all tired. They'd been fighting monsters and walking and sleeping out in the grass for days now and anything looked good. The thought of an actual mattress under his back, no matter how lumpy, almost made Cloud groan in anticipation. He was their leader though, even if he sometimes wondered why they still followed him so faithfully considering some of the things he'd done, and it was his job to look after his team. Even, and maybe especially, when it was an abbreviated team like this one was.

He'd failed a lot lately and yet somehow it was the small failures that bothered him the most. The failures that the rest of his team looked at him with trusting eyes and shrugged off. The times he didn't manage to take care of them. He'd started this journey without meaning to and for a long time hatred and revenge had been his muddled reason for it. He'd even entertained the comforting impression that he was doing this to save the planet itself for a while because that was an awfully noble reason and what better reason could he have? Except, it wasn't enough because it was too big and impersonal and somewhere along the way after his dip in the Lifestream and the fact they'd all stayed with him anyway and even, insane as it made all of them, still followed his lead – somewhere along the way he'd realized…

He was doing this for them. Because he couldn't stand the thought of letting them down. Again. Because, something inside him had to keep them safe and make them happy and keep them from falling. They – his little ragtag team of misfits and awkward individuals and flat out certifiable nutcases… they were the reason he kept pushing himself onward toward the inevitable end. Because of them he wanted the sun to rise tomorrow and he wanted that hateful new red moon out of the sky and he wanted…

He wanted to keep them safe…

It was big talk from someone that wasn't even sure he wouldn't go off the deep end the next time he ran into Sephiroth and turn into a puppet again…

"Come on," he turned their weary steps toward what he hoped was an inn. It was the largest building in the area and seemed to have a lot of plastic coated windows. It sagged in the middle and the edges of the building were worn down and discolored. Hopeless, she'd called it and he realized it was that, not the dirt and careworn aspects, that made the place so ugly to him. It didn't matter. They just needed beds and hopefully some hot food. Just for the night and then they'd be on their way again.

The innkeeper looked apathetic when Cloud pushed his way in the creaking door and Cloud couldn't find the energy in him to respond with anything but the same. Ugly town, ugly man, ugly building… he wouldn't care if the beds were ugly though. He would be checking to make sure the lock on the door was sturdy however… until he remembered that the windows were all stapled down sheets of plastic and almost laughed at himself.

"Three beds, one room. Where can we eat?"

"Two beds," the key got pushed across the counter top to him without much care. "Boarding house across the road has food. Pay up front."

Cloud took the key and frowned to himself. Two beds. Everywhere they'd gone had three. Two beds was going to make it… awkward. Maybe he should get a second room…

The door pushed open and Cloud could feel who it was so he didn't turn as he counted out gil. The way the man at the counter suddenly sat up however made him tuck his chin to hide the smile. She had that effect on men. Even tired and covered in mud and monster blood with her hair tangled and loose around her shoulders, Tifa Lockhart was enough to make any man's breath catch in his chest. She did it to Cloud all the time and didn't even know it.

He laid the gil on the counter and decided to talk things over with the other two before he got another room. None of them said it but they'd gotten used to sleeping near each other and it was actually disturbing not to hear that soft noise and feel those presences in the dark. He supposed if it came down to it, he'd take the lonely room. He just hoped one of the other two of his team thought of a better solution first. He didn't like being alone at night when there was only silence, the voices in his head, and his tangled thoughts to keep him company.

Tifa was standing with her arms lightly hugging herself in the doorway, watching him when he turned and he gave her a little smile. She looked as if she was going to fall over right there. What he wouldn't do to find her a nice hot bath in a clean tub somewhere private. She'd like that. She didn't complain and she was just as tough as any of the men on the team – tougher than some in fact if you counted Cid and the way he fell asleep like a narcoleptic and couldn't do anything without a cup of tea nearby - but he didn't want her to have to be. She smiled back at him and it was one of her warm smiles that softened her face and made her eyes go warm and wine tinted. He liked to think that she only smiled that way for him because he'd watched and hadn't seen her give it to anyone else, but he wasn't sure if he was just being stupid. He'd been stupid a lot lately and he didn't want to mess things up anymore by still being that way. He cupped a hand under her elbow and guided her back outside. He was allowed to touch her that way and it still surprised him. After the Lifestream… he was allowed to touch Tifa Lockhart because they were friends, close friends. Maybe even, if he could manage it without sounding like a needy idiot… best friends. It was still a concept he was getting used to… touching people. He hadn't before, not if he could help it, and he was still having a problem with it now. It was just… easier to touch Tifa than anyone else. It always had been. She was the closest one to his soul and he wondered, sometimes at night while he sat watch over her as she slept, what exactly had happened in the Lifestream. He wondered… if she'd lost a piece of her soul inside him somehow. Considering all the other voices and personalities he had inside him… he didn't think it would be so terrible if there was a little part of Tifa there as well. Maybe that was why all the other noises in his head had been quieter since the Lifestream. Maybe she brought them peace the way she always did to him.

Barrett was waiting for them under the awning of the inn and beyond that it had started to drizzle. Cloud sighed silently. Instead of being misted and water colored the way rain usually managed, the town somehow looked even more bedraggled and beaten down. The packed earth of the main track through town was turning to bland colored mud and the air was starting to feel sticky and chilled.

"Food's across the way," Cloud gestured with his chin and remembered to let go of Tifa's elbow now that they were standing still again. Barrett just shook his head, not even having the energy to curse, and without a word the three of them darted across the street, mud splashing up to stick to their shoes and lower legs before they reached the dimly lit interior of the next building.

If outside was chilly, inside was stuffy and overly warm. Cloud sometimes wished his nose wasn't as good as it was because he could pick up the smells of old vomit, dried blood, and overly greasy food past the almost overwhelming scent of unwashed bodies and trapped smoke. His eyes adjusted better to dim light though and so he slid a hand under Tifa's elbow again and guided them toward the back of the crowded room. He always took a table with a back to the wall and in a corner if possible. It wasn't a habit he saw any reason to stop.

Tifa was drawing looks even though she had her head down and was barely managing to follow Cloud without stumbling. Cloud kept her well clear of the more aggressive looking tables. She was perfectly capable of breaking the arm of anyone that tried to grope her but so were he and Barrett and he thought he and Barrett would probably be the first ones to act on the desire too. With a nudge, he had her slide into the booth first and then took the protective spot on the outside of the bench, propping his giant sword against the wall within easy reach. Barrett slid in across from them and glowered around the room. Cloud didn't but he had still taken it all in and he'd noticed there were very few women in it. The ones that were…

Tifa leaned against the wall with a sigh and shut her eyes, tucking her legs up on the bench under her only the way a very flexible woman with amazingly long legs could and Cloud looked away from the contrasting pale of her skin with the dun colored mud that had splashed on it and concentrated on finding a harried waitress.

The sooner they all got some sleep the better.

"Don' like this," Barrett rumbled after they'd gotten drinks planted in front of them and the waitress had flounced off to get their food. Cloud knew she had been flirting with him because that's how they made their tips but he'd been too tired to want to deal with it. Next to him, eyes still closed, Tifa had an amused little smile on her face which was as loud as if she'd had the energy to tease him. She was the only one in the group that teased him. Cloud didn't like being teased but she had a way of doing it so gently and affectionately that, somehow, it was okay when Tifa did it. Sometimes, he even found himself enjoying it. It made him want to tease her back but he didn't know how and he thought if he did it wrong he might break the strange new closeness he felt between them. They'd been close before but since the Lifestream…

"What?" Cloud pulled his tired thoughts out of their comforting loop and looked at the large man across from him.

"I don' like this," Barrett repeated, shifting his gun arm restlessly. "Place's got the feel of too many people tucked too close. Makes for bad feelings real fast."

Cloud blinked at Barrett. He would never, on his most delirious, multiple-personality day, accuse the big man of being insightful. However, if a man that had lived in the Midgar slums thought the situation was crowded and unstable because of it, Cloud paid attention. His blue eyes lifted and scanned the room again and he had more people flinching back from their unnatural brightness than those that hadn't been looking in the first place. He was used to their drawing attention but this was more attention than usual. It woke him up from the stupor he'd been sliding into and he met Barrett's eyes over the table.

"We'll eat fast and go. We're all staying together tonight."

The dark man nodded and his eyes slid to Tifa who had all but fallen asleep tucked in the corner. Cloud watched his scarred face soften and resisted the urge to smile himself. You knew someone was special if they could turn Barrett into mush without even doing anything other than existing. He'd wondered about their relationship at first. The closeness had annoyed him and between that and Barrett's strong personality, Cloud had found himself going out of his way to annoy the other man. He hadn't seemed to have been able to help himself. During the journey though he'd come to respect and even like the other man and he got how Barrett felt about Tifa. It wasn't romantic.

The food came and Cloud wondered if the waitress had spit in it. Looking down at the unappetizing mess, he didn't think it would have made any difference if she did.

"Teef," he reached out to give her a gentle nudge and his hand fell on the curve of her bare calf before he realized it. She made a groggy, humming noise and didn't seem to notice his slip or the way he snatched his hand back to keep from offending her. It had been his gloved hand and so skin hadn't touched skin but…

But his palm on that hand still tingled maddeningly and he frowned down at his plate.

He was her friend. She had enough men that thought of her in other ways. He never wanted her to think he was the same way and lose that beautiful, vulnerable openness that was always in her eyes when she looked at him.

She shifted next to him and let out a quiet sigh as she looked down at the food in front of her and he knew she was lamenting the lack of a stove. He'd realized that she actually liked to cook and even more than that, she liked to cook for other people. It made her feel good and, since she was so good at it, Cloud supported the idea entirely. Especially when she was cooking for him. It was always delicious but more… there was something… personal about it. It felt… warm every time she set a plate or bowl down in front of him and he knew, without a single doubt in his mind, that she'd made it specifically for him. Just because she wanted to do it. For him.

She didn't complain as she ate now though and Cloud made it a point to inhale his own food. Her arm touched his companionably from time to time as she delicately spooned the mix into her mouth and that felt warm too. Barrett made another rumbling noise before they could settle too deeply into their food though.

"Gonna be problems gettin' otta here."

Cloud lifted his head but he hadn't been entirely unaware of the situation either. He could feel the familiar tickle between his shoulder blades. He exhaled in mild annoyance and looked. Sure enough, the tables between them and the door were watching their group and again, his narrow blue eyes made them flinch away. Usually the giant sword was deterrent enough but apparently this wasn't going to be one of those nights. With a male's natural instincts, Cloud knew the men weren't interested in him and Barrett. Most times, people were content to look and not touch and, as much as he didn't like that either, Cloud had learned to put up with it. Most of the time. Now wasn't one of those times apparently, though the group by the door were still trying to work up their nerve with liberal amounts of 'liquid courage'.

"Isn't there a back door we can go out?" Tifa asked, sounding more tired than annoyed and it told Cloud just how worn out she really was. Usually she was just annoyed. While Tifa was usually right there when it came to a fight, when it was over her she seemed to almost feel guilty and she tended to do everything, or almost everything, in her power to keep them from happening. It didn't help that she was in her barmaid's outfit but clothes shopping hadn't been a high priority and they hadn't exactly had time to pack before the Plate had fallen over Sector Seven.

There was no way she could wear the kind of clothes they'd been selling at the Gold Saucer the one time they'd actually had free time to relax. Costa del Sol had been even worse and Cloud's eyes automatically narrowed at their edges as he tried not to think of bathing suits and the woman he called his friend who happened to be sitting right next to him in the same mental picture.

"Only way out is through," he managed to keep up with the conversation at least and raised his eyes again. The men at the other table were still avoiding his gaze but they were getting slower at it.

"That's the way these places are," Barrett grunted, shoveling down his food. "Lots of hard men, not enough women to remind them to be civil. An' we've got a fine lady with us. They know she's not what they're used to but they don't know how else to act. Forgotten."

At Cloud's dry look, he shrugged.

"Corel wasn't always full of families. My pa brought my ma there an' she was one of the first ladies. She had to bang a few heads together until they learned to respect the woman."

Since, when he thought of the unknown 'Barrett's mom' all that sprang to Cloud's mind was the image of Barrett in a gingham dress and bonnet, it made the edges of Cloud's mouth twitch upward a little. He got the idea though.

Barrett gestured with his spoon apologetically to Tifa.

"It's cause you ain't with a man actual. So they think you're fair game."

Tifa made a noise and rubbed her hands over her face.

"Some days I hate men," she muttered and both of the men at the table with her shrugged in tandem, not taking it personally. Traveling with Tifa and Aerith had taught Cloud more about women and the way men reacted to them then his previous sixteen years put together. It had also taught him more about women themselves than he was sure he was comfortable ever knowing but that was part of living in close quarters with women that liked to talk girl talk even when the men were present. Tifa lowered her hands and exhaled.

"Can I just pretend to be with a guy? Will that make them stop?"

Barrett frowned and rubbed his chin as he looked at Cloud. Who looked blankly back at him for a full minute before he realized where the other man was going and his mako-blue eyes popped fully open. Any trace of tiredness was swept out of him.

"Don't think Spiky's aggressive enough to make them notice," he decided and Cloud felt Tifa wince next to him. He could sense her mentally backpedaling what she'd been too tired to realize she was stepping into even before she raised her hands, palms outward in front of her.

"I didn't mean – I mean – but – not like," her cheeks were adorably pink and Cloud realized just how cute it made her look at the same time he felt a strange burst of annoyance at Barrett. He shot the other man a narrow look. Barrett raised his own hand in defense.

"What? I'm just sayin' you're too laid back, Spiky. Men here, they're not good with subtle. You'd have to toss Tifa over your shoulder before they'd get the clue."

For some reason it just annoyed Cloud more and he felt a strange flare of anger. Then he heard Tifa stifle a giggle and turned hurt eyes on her to see she'd covered her mouth with her fingers and her eyes were shining. Seeing his look, she shook her head even though her eyes were still bright.

"No! Not – oh, Cloud!" she still had laughter in her voice and it stole his anger away from him the way her smile always stole his darker emotions away from him. "It's just – I'm sorry. It was the picture of you tossing a girl over your shoulder." Another stifled laugh escaped her and he found himself barely smiling as well.

"You don't think I'm caveman enough?" he asked and had the pleasure of watching his first attempt at teasing make her beautiful eyes go wide in shock before they wrinkled at their corners and bowed at their bottom.

"Cloud," she quietly laughed his name in delight and somehow that made it easier to reach out and wrap his arms around her to pull her in against his side. For her own good, he told himself and her eyes were so huge as they flew to his face that it made him feel strangely smug.

"Cloud – " her voice came out much differently this time, small and soft and confused and the smirk slid across his lips before he realized it. He'd never realized how adorable she looked when she was off balance and his long abused male ego felt a surge of pride to know that he'd been the one to put that look on her face. Adorable and still absolutely unguarded toward him. It soothed his worried heart.

"I can be a good boyfriend," he told her and told himself that he was talking about pretending and not actually being one as he cupped her cheek with his palm. She was so warm and soft against his side – he needed to touch her. She didn't pull away from him or stiffen and her eyes, still helpless and vulnerable didn't leave his. He watched the very edges of her lips tremble and found he didn't want to look away from her lips.

"Oh?" she managed weakly. Still, barely, teasing him and that friendly, gentle affection helped him work up the nerve to nod.

"I can," he promised, voice gruffer than he'd meant it to come out. Was she lifting her chin? Just a little? We're just pretending, he reminded himself. So…

its okay?

His eyes met hers and that rich, dark color swallowed him whole. So… familiar. As if it were his home and he'd been away forever and yet it had always been there… waiting for him to return. He'd thought – no, he knew he'd felt something for Aerith. She'd been playful and laughing and drawn him out of the shell he wore around himself. She'd made him happy and he hadn't questioned himself so much around her. She'd been too full of life for him to think about himself and he'd been glad. He'd liked that.

Tifa made him question everything about himself and yet, disappearing into her eyes, he felt as if, whatever answers he ended up with, it would be all right. He felt as if, no matter how far he wandered, she'd be there when he came back and he'd still see his home in the depths of her eyes. She made him laugh too… but sometimes she made him want to cry. And scream. And howl. And finally, really, for the first time in his life, relax. Aerith had made him feel brave. Tifa made him feel strong and weak, scared and capable all at the same time. It was… complex. And familiar and necessary too. Her eyes were still watching him and he saw the uncertainty starting to move into them. In a second she'd pull away with a shy laugh and make a joke and scoot carefully back to her corner of the bench… and spend the rest of the night watching him from the corners of her eyes and looking sad behind her smile…

"Mm." He answered her question a second time and lowered his head. His lips found hers and brushed them lightly. He'd never kissed anyone that way before but it seemed necessary to kiss Tifa before he drowned in the sudden realization that all he could smell at the moment was her and whatever soft smelling kind of soap she used that always seemed to linger on her skin.

"I can," he repeated against the softness of her mouth and her lips barely parted to let a silent whisper of his name slip past them. Her absolute defenselessness when it came to him slipped out in the way she said his name too and it made him feel protective and determined. His arms moved around her to enclose her against him better. It left her all but cradled in his arms and he nodded, barely there, continuing a conversation he'd forgotten the point behind, before lowering his mouth to find hers again.

The second kiss was better. He was more sure of himself and this time, after a stumbling moment on her part, her lips relaxed and softened under his. Only his ears picked up the soft, humming sound she made and between the two of them they found a way to fit their mouths closer together with a little tilt on his part and a slight lift of her chin on her part. That felt… even better… he managed to think as his arms wrapped more securely around her and he felt the tug of her long, slender fingers against the fabric of his shirt where they curled against his chest. A part of him was aware of the way her silk soft hair fell over his bare arms like water, of the way her chest was pressed against his, of how soft her skin felt, how good she smelled, how warm and gentle her body felt in his arms. Another part of him didn't know anything but the way her lips felt against and under his, how good she tasted and how every little rub and brush and slide sent pure electric and heat through him, until it was in his very blood, bubbling along as potent as the mako it flowed next to.

He wanted to keep her just like this forever.

Somewhere, very far away, Barrett cleared his throat. Cloud ignored him and it wasn't hard to do. After another long moment, Barrett coughed. Ignored again, he finally sputtered:

"All right, Spiky, all right! I was wrong. You can let her breath now." Another long pause and then he was laughing. "All right, you two. You're good. Shit, get a room or something."

Cloud was tempted to tell Barrett they already had a room and the man was on his own for the night but even thinking that much had his brain kicking back in. No. No, Tifa was more important than that. She always had been. He'd always known she was more. Reluctant his mouth left hers and he felt the escaping brush of her breath against his lips. Her body was relaxed and curled around his and it made him smile contentedly, head still lowered over her. He saw the dusting of pink when it rose through her pale cheeks and felt the way she tensed as she realized what they'd just done. For a second, his heart panicked. And then she turned her face into his throat, seeking shelter and safety in him, and his heart swelled dangerously in response. She was still looking to him for protection, still open to him – he hadn't lost her.

He raised his head to look at Barrett and the big man was shaking his head and still chuckling quietly, not about to challenge Cloud over whether the blond warrior had a right to hold the woman in his arms or not. It relaxed Cloud a little bit too and one corner of his lips shifted upward the slightest bit.

"Damn, Spiky!" From the look of it, Barrett would have pounded him on the shoulder if he wasn't safely across the table. "How long's that one been building up?"

'All my life', Cloud thought. 'Wanting to hold Tifa Lockhart in my arms and kiss her has been building up inside me all of my life.' He knew he should correct Barrett. He should tell the other man it was just pretend, just for show, that he'd only kissed her to warn off the other men. It would be a lie but it would be a lie that would keep things from changing between him and the woman that was still nestled close in his arms. Except… Except she was still nestled close in his arms and he didn't want to pretend. He'd spent too much time pretending already.

He didn't know what came next but he knew he didn't want to pretend anymore.

His eyes flicked up and caught the table of men by the door. They'd subdued and the eyes that had been watching flickered downward when they came up against the blue of his. It was just as well. Cloud, in that moment, would have personally beaten the tar out of anyone that looked at Tifa sideways right now. She was vulnerable because of him and no one was allowed to abuse that. Letting go of her with one arm, he reached out and retrieved his sword, sliding it awkwardly into place on his back before he gathered the woman that was turned into him for protection into his arms. He stood up and her head came up and looked at him, eyes surprised and again, he felt the surge in his male pride and a barely there smirk slipped across his lips.

"I'm not really an 'over the shoulder' guy," for the second time he teased her and, watching the laughter and light move into her eyes, he thought he just might learn how to do it more often. Her slender arms slipped up his chest and around his shoulders and she rested her head against him and didn't protest. Trusting him.

And Cloud Strife realized that, in the center of everything else, her trust in him had always been what he'd needed most of all.