oh best beloved and gentle readers, it has been a very, VERY long time, hasn't it? I'm so sorry for being away so long. There's good news though because during that time I published a book! That's right! After almost five years from start to finish, jumping through hoops for publishers and agents, and innumerable rewrites (thanks to our very own demonegg for editing the insurmountable) I finally managed to self-publish a book that I'm very proud of called Andromache: Stealing Tomorrow. Look me up on Amazon or order me from your local bookstore! ;) It's also what burned me out terribly on writing this past year though and there were times I'd be lying if I didn't say that one of the only things that kept me plugging along was the memory of the faith and the wonderful reviews I've gotten here. In thanks of that, I've put up the first two chapters of the book over on my LiveJournal site so everyone can read them. Website address is: kitsune13-tam . livejournal . com (spaces removed). Go, read, enjoy and know that I adore each and every one of you for being my cheering squad this whole time whether you knew it or not. And, because I know why you showed up in the first place, here's a not so short Cloud and Tifa story, written in tandem with Ves. She writes a truly amazing Cloud (everything of his in here is hers) and lets me enjoy writing Tifa in response to that. I hope you all enjoy this and if you like the -er, 'confusion', be sure to check out Fenikkusuken's much longer story Learning Curve Continuum over on her ff page.
To Walk a Mile In Your Shoes
by TamLin and Ves
Tifa hated fighting floating women. They had the most annoying effect attacks. So when the pink cloud cleared away, she was expecting to feel lightheaded or dizzy or - something. What she was not expecting was how suddenly uncomfortable her clothes felt and when she glanced down to pull her shirt hem into place automatically, the sound she made at her suddenly very flat, very muscled chest was a stifled squeak.
It came out much lower in tone than she was used to.
The sound of some... Oddly delicate coughing echoed through the area, as Cloud waved an arm in a half-successful attempt to clear the air quicker. The noxious vapor that thing had expelled before it died was like a sickly sweet, cloying perfume, and he was thoroughly preoccupied with the unpleasant notion that he was probably going to reek of it the rest of the day. Still suitably disorientated, he hadn't noticed anything else amiss until-
"Hey, Tifa! You okay?" ...was that his voice?
The sound Tifa made in response to Aerith's question was muted and weak as she confusedly patted her hands down her... chest. Her flat chest. Her really flat chest.
Wait... Aerith wasn't with the group at the moment...
Huge wine colored eyes rose from her own self-inspection that still wasn't registering in her brain to match what she was seeing and shifted to Cloud. A... shorter looking Cloud than she remembered...
Who'd... apparently stolen her chest...?
Slowly, reluctantly, it was beginning to sink in for her as Tifa put a surprisingly large hand over her mouth and blinked at -
"...Cloud?" The voice came out low and throaty. Tifa's fingers tightened even more across her much more square jawed face in growing horror.
For Cloud, meanwhile, that faint, uncomfortable noise he got in response to his question wasn't at all promising, and he took a few more hasty steps in the direction of Tifa's still sort of blurry silhouette through the fading pink mist before coming up to an abrupt stop. His belt was practically swinging around his waist where it hung from the straps over his shoulders - now just about the only things holding it up - and his armor was slipping out of place.
With no little irritation, he thought he was still suffering the effects of a Mini spell - at least until he reached over to tug his shoulder guard back up. Or tried to, anyway, stopping halfway as the inside of his elbow ran into something in the way... Under his shirt...
On reflex and a start, Cloud grabbed his chest. And then barked out a short yelp that was incredibly less than manly when he felt what was there.
"What the-!?" His voice was even higher pitched than Aerith's, actually, which probably wasn't doing him any favors as he took a horrified peek down his collar and immediately regretted it. Looking to Tifa for help yielded no better results.
Had she always been that tall...?
She nodded because she wasn't sure she wanted to hear that strange voice coming out of her again. The dawning understanding of what had happened was coming in fast but she was pretty sure she didn't want to know. Instead she just kept that too large hand over her mouth and stared wide eyed at Cloud as the mist cleared.
He was -
He was a really pretty girl.
Hesitant, once he was close enough, she reached out with her other hand and touched his cheek. It was strange to have to reach down the littlest bit to do that... It was - his skin felt softer... rounder... under her fingertips than she remembered from the rare times she'd touched him in the past and to add to the oddness, her fingers were larger than she was used to. Brows starting to pinch over her still huge eyes, she very carefully gave him a once over, eyes visibly flaring when she hit his chest. Her fingers finally unwound from over her mouth enough for her to manage a worried, throaty:
The fact that she hadn't said a word to him, yet, somehow rendered the whole ordeal in an even more surreal light (were it still possible). When she touched him, he jumped, but held his ground regardless, momentarily trapped in some kind of awkward trance as he stared right back.
It was definitely still Tifa in there - but looking from the outside, one'd barely know it. (Clothes aside, anyway.) The jawline, the brow, the height and the broad shoulders that made him feel so completely dwarfed just then (though that could've been partly his horrified embarrassment, too).
And perhaps the worst of it was that she made a better man than he ever had. Even if she looked pretty weird in those earrings.
"Don't- Don't stare at it. Let's just..." Grimacing in the face of that obvious shock, Cloud crossed his arms awkwardly over his chest. He'd never get used to the sound of his own voice (and it was almost worse, how it was starting to sound familiar, especially that gruff, defensive tone). "Figure out a way to get back to normal."
Quick, Tifa's hand retreated to curl against her chest and her chin ducked.
She had to wince at the sound of her own voice - it couldn't be hers - and her hand shifted to cup her elbow. Awkward, awkward elbow. Wincing again, she loosened the strap that held the metal plate guard in place there to account for the thicker arm.
"There's got to be a remedy. Or one of the materia."
Turning, determined to fix this quickly, she started for where they'd dropped their packs before the battle. Only to take a single step and then make a muted, distressed noise. Her fingers shifted to curl at the hem of her skirt. With a scowl, cheeks flushed bright red, she determinedly finished her trip to their packs and carefully, gingerly, settled on her heels next to them to start snapping them open for rifling.
The sooner she lost certain physical traits the better.
"I don't remember picking up any materia that did anything like this..." Cloud said. Not that that was a total condemnation of the idea, rather more the grumpy castoff of the whole ordeal. Watching the way she started and stopped on the short trip just over to their collective things (even though she was walking away, he caught a glimpse of that blush, too), Cloud couldn't hold down a sympathetic wince.
In his rather acute focus on the changes she'd undergone above the waist, he hadn't even considered just how ill-dressed she really was for... Being a man. He shifted uncomfortably where he stood, immediately regretting it (so... incredibly... uncomfortable), before making his way over after her as quickly as possible. And trying not to look. At anything. Or move. At all.
"Maybe the Transform...?" Because he could think of times when being a frog had been less embarrassing... And the only alternative that came to mind was the Enemy Skill materia, which he'd never even be able to look at again, if they had to learn a spell like that with it.
It was disconcerting for Tifa as well and so she tried not to watch as man hands that did what she wanted them to searched through their packs for the right materia. She had to look to see what she was doing though and it was jarring. They wouldn't get stuck this way. They couldn't. Even if nothing worked there had to be a time limit to this - or someone in the nearby town would be selling something to counteract the effect.
Because as odd as her having hands like this was - it was really Cloud's voice she wanted back most. She'd learned to rely on that voice to make her feel less overwhelmed or scared. Not that she'd ever tell him. That was her secret. She really wouldn't have minded hearing its usual tone right about now. Sorting carefully through each materia's 'feel' she switched out the slots on her glove for the Transform and fit Heal into the other one. Worth a try? Her voice was soft gravel as she swiveled toward him, not standing, ready to go through every remedy they had immediately if the materia didn't work.
In the meantime, Cloud was finding it incredibly difficult to pretend he wasn't still having wardrobe malfunctions of his own. With an exasperated sound, he finally gave in and started fumbling to take off his belt (with the gloves that were too big for his hands, and the armor slipping off his wrist and shoulder following close behind). Without all of that leather and metal rattling around his no longer quite so well-fit form, he almost felt better.
Except he still couldn't even get into an irritated huff properly, trying to cross his arms again, once or twice, before admitting total defeat.
(How am I supposed to deal with these things...?)
It was a definite relief when Tifa finally came up with the right materia (or what he sincerely hoped would be right, anyway), no matter how unnerving the sound of that voice was. Stepping away from the messy pile he'd tossed his armor into and nearer to her, Cloud nodded, visibly bracing himself.
"Okay. Gimme your best shot."
Brows down in determination, Tifa gave a nod.
…he really did make a pretty girl - something she found even more intimidating than Aerith's femininity. Being in the bulky form she was in now certainly wasn't helping with the insecurity any either. The sooner they got this over with the better.
It was his warning and she triggered the materia, sending the green tinged glow washing outward, centered on the figure in front of her. She tried her hardest to hope for the best, if positive thoughts meant anything at all -
please let it work, please let it work, please let it work...
- and yet the practical part of her had her squinting an eye open afterward, worried about what she was going to see.
As much as he appreciated the effort, Cloud couldn't keep from uttering the short, sharp swear as the glow from the materia faded, and he found himself... Exactly the same as he'd been a moment ago. It was no salve to the wound on his pride that he hadn't somehow ended up in a worse situation, the furrow in his brow deepening as he shook his head, shoulders sagging noticeably.
Steeling himself against the intense discomfort that was walking anywhere, he stalked over to their gathered packs and, falling into an awkward crouch beside Tifa, began rifling through the collected inventory. It was beginning to seem as though the next town would be their best hope, after all - unless one of them had packed away a secret remedy for sudden gender misassignment, here, somewhere.
(I definitely don't want to go shopping like this...)
"It's no good. Maybe we should find another one of those monsters? One of them might drop something that'll help..." He didn't want to admit he was grasping at straws. (Or that he was unconsciously attempting to deepen the tone of his voice back to somewhere at least approaching normalcy - though that was another matter entirely.)
Nothing, she thought...
Which meant it wouldn't work on her either. Tifa had to stop herself from trying anyway, knowing it was just desperation and she wasn't going to give in to that. She could do this. She could... be a guy. For a little while at least. Half of the population did it every day. How hard could it be...?
Except even the smallest shift on her heels reminded her that she was built differently than before and even without the discomfort of the skirt, she wasn't even sure how to walk right much less anything more complex.
She was not going to panic however. Or let it get to her. She was going to be practical and deal with things sensibly - no matter how many times she had to remind herself to.
...Yuffie was never going to let her live this down. Or Cid. And her cheeks went red again at the thought of the playful teasing she could already imagine in her head from Aerith.
Switching out her materia, she very softly rested a hand on Cloud's back while he rummaged, triggering the Restore materia to take care of the cuts and bruises he'd gotten since the last time she'd hit him with some healing magic. If the materia couldn't fix their shape at least it could take away some of the minor problems with it, right? Instinctively keeping her voice quiet the same way he was trying to 'fix' his, she admitted:
"I'm not sure how to fight like this. I can figure it out though. I'd like - it might help if I had pants though. ...are there any Maiden's Kiss left?"
Cloud had made it a point to himself not to think of what the others would say - as it was, he'd already figured avoiding the potential for further humiliation by splitting up from here was probably their only hope of making it out of this with some modicum of dignity intact. Though throwing himself wholly into the potentially hopeless search for a last ditch solution was only aiding a little as he tried to convince himself that that wouldn't actually be a total abdication of his duties as de facto leader.
At that unanticipated Cure spell, he started again under her hand, pausing in his search only to wipe away a little blood where there'd been a shallow cut on his arm seconds before.
"Thanks." A short nod and a grateful glance over his shoulder later, he was redoubling his efforts to dig through their woefully disorganized supplies. (When had he even...? Oh, that was from...)
Fortunately, they'd been on the same wavelength in regards to remedies to attempt next, and it wasn't much longer before he was holding out the one and only Maiden's Kiss in the pack. And an Elixir, for good measure, if she was going to go around healing him like that without his even asking.
"Here. If this... Doesn't work, I'll—" Hopefully she wouldn't make him clarify. "-trade you."
Tifa was most definitely not going to make him clarify. At his thanks, her lips shifted into a small, quiet smile though and her shoulders relaxed the smallest bit. When he handed over the items she took them but she paused over the Kiss. It was their last one. If it did work the other person would be left having to wait until they found another. She should really - her hand made an aborted shift.
No. Part of Cloud being Cloud was the quiet way he took care of everyone else - and part of her response to that was trusting him enough to let him when there was really no one else she let do that for her. She also thought - they both knew that. So instead she just gave him another quiet smile and a murmured 'thank you' before she broke the small globe in her hand, releasing the drift of contact cure. The honey smell filled the air and made her skin tingle - but that was all.
"Must have been the wrong maiden." She tried to make light of the failure. It was okay. She kept telling herself that. Something had to work eventually. They just had to figure it out. Taking a breath, she concentrated on swallowing down the electric taste of the elixir instead. The warmth flushed through her, making it easier to breath and she offered him another, slightly fuller smile.
"It'll be okay. We'll work it out."
For a second, he'd thought she might actually try to give the item back - and when she didn't, his relief at avoiding the inevitable argument (and the inevitable hypotheticals to follow) was evident just around the edges of his grave expression. He didn't like having to insist (and often did simply allow his executive decisions to be vetoed by the more persistent of their friends, present company included), but at times like these he'd not take no for an answer.
In spite of their situation, in spite of that utterly crestfallen twinge of disappointment that he'd fully been expecting, her slightly self-deprecating joke nearly prompted a smile out of him. Faint and with more than a twist of cynical amusement, perhaps, but real enough, just the same.
"Yeah. We'll figure something out."
Because he wasn't even beginning to entertain the idea of being stuck like this for any length of time - it was just like any other status effect, extreme as it might've seemed, at the moment. There was a cure; they just had yet to find it.
"Probably as easy as going into the next shop we see. ...But, first—" Well. He had promised. A little, miserable tint of blush rose in his cheeks as he scanned the area for any convenient shrubbery behind which they might be able to grasp at some fleeting modesty as they swapped the necessary elements of their respective outfits.
(Remind me never to travel without an extra pair, after this.)
She was glad it was Cloud. Not glad that he'd been stuck this way too - but out of everyone, if she was going to go through this with someone, Tifa was just glad it was him.
It was still taking some getting used to - hearing his voice so many degrees higher than usual.
His cut off sentence though had her eyes lifting in curiosity to find his, wondering what - oh. Right. Pants.
Cloud in a skirt.
To hide the absolute bubble of laughter that wanted to come out, stronger than usual thanks to her already strung out nerves, she pressed her lips together and scanned the area too. The tallest looking bush would probably come up to her knees. Other than that, there was the barely visible line of the nearby town on one horizon and the equally distant patch of woods they'd come through originally in the opposite direction. Feeling awkward, she started to squirm the littlest bit but the shift of her body in ways she wasn't used to put a stop to that fast.
It was Cloud. It was okay. He was her closest friend. They'd just - be adults about this.
"We could always –" she cleared her throat, determined to be sensible about this. Even if it was too late and she was determined to ignore the heat on her own cheeks. "Stand back to back?"
Cloud nodded, not looking particularly happy about it but accepting that this was probably the best of all possible options, in spite of his continually withering pride. He had no reason to distrust Tifa (and certainly didn't), but he didn't have to enjoy being utterly humiliated in front of her (again), either. Much more of this, and he'd have to wonder whether some particularly belligerent misfortune was tied to the two of them, in specific...
"Let's get changed so we can get going."
If nothing else, he was starting to think even just giving in and crashing out on a nice, plush bed at the next town's inn would be a pretty good alternative to this. For a little while, maybe he could pretend it was all an unpleasant dream. Maybe it could even be slept off, like so many lesser ailments...
Well, it couldn't hurt to keep hoping.
(Think positively... Right? ...Yeah, right.)
Grimacing a little as he turned to stand, Cloud waited until he thought Tifa wasn't looking (not willing to risk glancing, himself), before he started to undress. He didn't even want to look at his own hands - smaller, almost slender, but undoubtedly his, with all of the same scars and blemishes. It was just too weird.
As soon as he could, he was handing his pants back toward her, looking so hard into the distance that he was glaring out at nothing. It was bad enough that he could feel the disturbing absence between his thighs. He wasn't going to look.
The skirt came off easy enough and Tifa as well had no desire to check and see what the spell had added to her body in that area. She could feel the addition enough as it was. A little bit lost as to what she was supposed to do about her underwear, she finally decided to leave it on, assuming that it... held things in place better...?
What was she going to do when she wanted a shower?
Or to use the bathroom?
Firmly clamping down on her lower lip to stop either the nervous giggle or the scream, she forcefully pushed that thought out of her head, slipping her bra off as well. Fumbling backward with a hand until she made contact with the fabric of Cloud's pants, she was careful to keep her hand wide to the side until she did. Despite the difference, they were still his hands, still warm and solid and so she stole a minute with the excuse of being sensible to hold on to his fingers while she traded out his pants and her skirt, passing the leather back to him and letting go.
Silent, she pulled on his pants, realizing that, in that area, she'd gotten the better deal since it wasn't as if she didn't wear pants from time to time regularly. The thick fabric helped with the... loose feeling and she made a soft noise of relief to herself. They fit all right in the waist - and were a little short in the legs. Pretending not to notice, she sat down once they were fastened and started to pull off her boots, shoving the bra into the pocket of the pants. Soft, to give him the 'all clear', still not looking behind her, she said:
"I'm okay." And then, after a moment, still quiet but with a weak twist of her lips, she added: "I think I like you being the guy better though."
There was a bit of a delay in his perfectly sincere response, as he shifted uncomfortably in the borrowed skirt. It was different from wearing that dress, under which he'd been able to wear his own clothes - this way, he felt oddly exposed, unable to keep from fidgeting, tugging the short skirt down at the hem, as if concerned he might flash something unintentionally if he moved wrong. It was a snug fit, but had he been used to wearing such revealing clothing, Cloud probably would have even considered it comfortable.
Dragging a hand through his hair with a sigh, he clamped down hard again on all that unproductive thinking as he turned back to sit beside her. Shoes next. He could handle that, following suit without any fuss. Or not much, at least, as he cast a few fleeting, sidelong glances at her, still feeling the familiar strength in her grip, the same as ever, in those strange, outwardly sturdier hands.
And then, of course, he noticed the way the hem of his pants sat just a little too high around her ankles- Was she... Taller than him, too?
The miserable look on his face redoubled its presence. He was going to have inadequacy issues for the rest of his life.
Making his best effort not to look too put out as he pushed his too big set of boots over to her, he tried again to keep his mind on productive avenues of thought.
"Let's go on ahead to town by ourselves." ...He didn't think he had to explain why this had struck him as such a good idea. "If they don't have anything to fix this, there, I'll go out looking for another of those things, myself. You can stay at the inn, if it's more comfortable."
She used the boot trading as an excuse to shift a little closer to him. It didn't matter what he looked like, he still felt like Cloud and being able to be near him made things seem easier to take on. The move did have her curling her shoulders inward a little though and absently hunching to try to make herself smaller. She was really not enjoying being what, to her, registered as far too big. His suggestion had her jerking up entirely straight however and her brows came down fast over suddenly opal red specked eyes.
The response was immediate and firm, despite the fact her voice didn't actually rise. The look she sent him under her lowered brows was stubborn, a trait she usually tried to hide.
"No. We're a team. We do this together. I can still fight. I just have to get used to this body, that's all. I'll be fine."
First burst of reaction finished, her chin ducked and she hunched back into putting on his boot. She knew that he was just being thoughtful but it was more important to her that he understand they were in this together than that he was thoughtful. The look she shot him from under the tops of her eyes was still stubbornly reproving for even thinking she would.
"I'm not leaving you, Cloud."
He didn't mind the proximity, comforted at least marginally, in turn. Even the fact that she all but dwarfed him, now, didn't unsettle him any further than it had in deflating his ego ever further; Cloud knew he was short, and harbored no delusions, there, despite his unerring insecurity. But he also trusted Tifa not to rub it in - and not just because she was stuck in the opposite dilemma.
At her instant, brook-no-arguments denial of his earnest proposition, he was clearly taken aback... But probably shouldn't have been, too wrapped up in his own self-pity to think that she might have been just as willing to suffer the same embarrassment on his behalf.
You don't have to, he wanted to say, but there was no room for disagreement in the gravely sincere glare that she'd turned on him. All he could do was go silently back to lacing up her boots on his own feet, nodding his assent, no matter how reluctantly.
Once he was set, Cloud went to gather up his things, stuffing as much of his armor into his pack as he could (the belt ending up simply slung over a shoulder). He'd never get used to walking so carefully, but despite the incredible tide of awkwardness still threatening to sweep both him and his lingering sanity under, he mocked up something resembling an air of confidence before even so much as trying to speak up again.
...Woefully inadequate as any effort felt, wearing a borrowed skirt and a sword that definitely made him look tragically diminutive, now.
"We'd better get started, then." Embarrassment (not totally set) aside, he offered her a hand up.
No one ever asked her why she'd spent so many years training, why she'd bucked her own father and a small town in their idea of what a girl should act like to do it and so Tifa never told anyone that, somewhere along the way, waiting for her fairy tale story to come true, she'd stopped wanting to be the damsel in distress that didn't get saved until the end of the story and started wanting to be a part of the story instead and have her own adventures. It wasn't that she'd stopped wanting her hero to come - it was just that she had decided she wanted to go with him when he left this time. Wanted to be by his side and a help instead of somewhere safe and forever away.
Not that Cloud knew that and not as if she'd embarrass herself by telling him but she would go where he went as much as she could and suddenly being uncomfortably male didn't change that fact.
Even if it made it more awkward.
So, after stalling self-consciously over his boots at her outburst, looking up to find his offered hand, had both her miserable shoulders unknotting and the weak smile moving back to her lips. Her fingers wound through his and, if his were smaller and more slender than she was used to, the grip was the same and so was the feeling that went with it.
She couldn't resist giving his fingers a light squeeze before letting go and fitting her own pack across her shoulder once she was standing. Offering a small smile, she managed: "If we do run into another of those creatures once we've got this fixed - can we have Cid, Barret and Yuffie fight it? "
At the mental image of Cid and Barret as women (horrifying as the actual prospect was), Cloud couldn't hold back a snort of genuine laughter and another nod. Not at all ladylike.
"After this, we deserve to sit one out."
And maybe to spend a few days in really expensive therapy, too. He wasn't going to get over this one anytime soon - especially not if they got caught by anyone they knew before they'd managed to find a cure. Perhaps a little too eagerly, he turned toward the distant silhouette of civilization on the horizon, the little cluster of buildings that one could only fervently hope might prove their salvation.
...By the time they'd reached paved streets and the safe, warm glow of artificial light lining them, though, he wasn't feeling quite as adventurous. He'd earned a new appreciation for Tifa's tough optimism. How anybody could stay so upbeat with their legs so totally exposed to the elements - all biting insects and itchy grass and the occasional distracting breeze - was beyond him. Not to mention the unpleasant chafing provided by a top that was too tight in places he was trying his hardest not to acknowledge.
As he scanned the facades of quaint, crowded buildings around them, he couldn't keep from hoping that Inn would be the first sign they saw. ...With his current run of luck, today, though, that'd probably just jinx it.
Tifa meanwhile had to figure out how to walk. She wasn't used to having... something between her legs like that and that it moved as she did was even more disturbing. She told herself it was just like having a chest. She'd grown up into it and it must be the same for guys only... lower. It still made walking, especially at first, an experience and she hung back a few steps behind Cloud even once she had gotten a pattern down.
Cloud really did have nicely long legs. Even when he was a guy but the skirt just made it more noticeable. Watching him tromp though - it was a nice distraction from her own situation. Watching a girl tromp around in a mini-skirt... the humor of it helped her make it as far as the town without completely despairing so she held on to it as they finally reached the relative safety of the buildings.
It was late though. Well past nightfall and she frowned, wondering if any shops that sold remedies would even still be open.
"A hot bath..." She murmured it and even if she didn't get her own body back, she was still worn down enough that it sounded good anyway. Cloud had said inn after all. She fully supported his priorities. Getting off the street would be nice too. There weren't many people out at this hour but she still couldn't help but feel as if they were staring. From habit her hand went to tug at the hem of her skirt - and then remembered Cloud was the one wearing it. Redirecting, she nudged his shoulder lightly, hand shifting to indicate the larger building set a little to the side and behind a row of houses. It looked like an inn from there and she hoped they had food too.
He could have pushed himself farther, ignored his own distress easily, and gone on hunting even if every business in town had shut down for the night. But he wasn't about to do that to Tifa. A part of him still hoped she'd reconsider letting him go ahead on his own, if only to assuage his need to play hero, to avoid feeling further futile guilt over their predicament.
When he felt that hand bump his shoulder and subsequently turned to follow her direction to look toward potential reprieve for the night, though, that gloomy train of thought cut off rather abruptly. It was late. And he would have had to've been blind and deaf not to have taken notice of Tifa's almost painstakingly meticulous gait, even as she walked just behind him. He didn't need to ask her if she was all right - of course she wasn't. Neither one of them really was, like this. And he wasn't going to drag the day's ordeal out any longer than he absolutely had to.
"Yeah. Let's get some rest." And a decent meal, and a shower, and... "We'll look around more in the morning."
In as perfectly businesslike a fashion as he could still manage, Cloud changed course to head for the Inn that was hopefully an Inn - and for the first time that day, their luck paid off. One awkward, curt transaction, an unbearably long staircase, and a door most definitely locked behind them later, only the silence of a small, homey, two-bed room was left to oppress them.
The awkward transaction would have been a lot more awkward if Tifa had let Cloud be the one to pick up the pencil the clerk had 'accidentally' dropped. One discounted room and an 'accidentally' shattered pencil she'd returned to the desk later however and they were safely in a room that Tifa thought was easily the nicest room she'd ever seen. Because it wasn't Out There. And she'd much rather be In Here with Cloud. Even if they were a bit 'outside' of themselves.
Gentle her hand touched his shoulder, resting there briefly and her thumb rubbed lightly over a spot she knew he probably held tension in. She wouldn't ask him if he was okay because it was a silly question but she could softly offer, almost a bit wryly:
"I bet I can get the clerk to send up some food if you want to take the first shower."
Quick thinking, on her part, had probably saved someone a broken nose - true to form, Cloud had remained plainly oblivious throughout this exchange, showing only a muted sort of concern for the fate of the troublesome writing implement. (Maybe she just didn't know her strength in a man's body.)
A sigh slipped past his lips, too light a sound to have really come from him, as soon as the door was shut and the rest of their trouble left somewhere on the other side. Cloud couldn't remember ever having been happier to be surrounded by such mundane scenery, all pit stops after close calls and grueling battles in the past aside.
Already running down his jumbled mental list of matters left to attend to, he jumped when a hand dropped gingerly to his shoulder - there was not a part of him that wasn't carrying tension, then, but he did manage to relax marginally under that comforting touch.
"No, I'll take care of it. You should go first."
"It probably goes away once we've slept. Most effects do, right?" It was accompanied by a soft rub against the back of his shoulder, a little awkward for her because she was used to having a smaller hand but it was as much to comfort herself as for his sake. The touch of her fingers stayed light, the movements steady and slow. She thought she'd rather deal with the clerk than Cloud in his unsuspecting mini-skirt but she wasn't going to argue. He took care of her in tiny little ways she wasn't even sure he thought about - but she did. She noticed and thought about them. Still - she gave it another shot, hoping a little soft teasing would be okay.
"Besides, everyone knows girls take more time in the bathroom than boys. You go first so I don't make you wait."
Enduring pessimistic streak aside, he couldn't fault her logic, having been hoping for exactly the same. With another of those short, sincere nods, he reached up to clasp a hand over hers - however briefly, before moving away toward the room's only other adjoining door, dropping the last of his extraneous personal effects on the way.
Before he disappeared into the momentary refuge of total privacy that the small inn bathroom would provide- A soft huff of sound that could just as easily have been another sigh as amusement escaped him, and he glanced back over a shoulder that was much too small to be his own.
"But isn't that supposed to be my line, now?"
She could understand if it was a sigh but she hoped there was at least a whisper of amusement in it as well. She didn't know how to make everything better but if she could make something difficult easier, if she could lighten a bit of the burden Cloud always so stubbornly tried to entirely shoulder, then she would count it as her quiet small triumphs. So her smile was softer and closer to the smiles that only he saw from her when she shook her head.
"You couldn't even if you tried."
"You're probably right." And maybe there was just the faintest flicker of a smile there in that last glimpse thrown back over his shoulder, as Cloud closed the door and dissolved back into the utter misery of fighting his way through mundane tasks in an unfamiliar body.
He threw his shirt over the mirror before he cold be duped into getting a good look at himself, and that helped a little- But until he'd managed to fumble through the intricate workings of the bath faucet, and the sound of the shower drowned out everything else, he was absolutely positive every bit of awkward clumsy noise he made was echoing far louder than it should've.
(Just get in and get out. Don't think about it.)
Yeah, right. He could only hope Tifa wasn't having as much of a mental breakdown, in the other room. She had seemed to be holding it together better, anyway.
As situations went, this was closer to what Tifa could handle. She wasn't alone which was her own personal fear - and she had someone else to think about. So she could distract herself from having to think about her own problem.
Except now she was in an empty room wearing a man's body.
Uncomfortable, she rubbed her hands over her arms. Given the strange thickness of the arms it wasn't much help and she trapped her lower lip between her teeth and simple breathed through her mouth for a few quick inhales. She could do this. As bad things went... she'd been through worse. If she remembered that, she could do this. It would be okay come morning.
She really liked being a girl...
Especially these days.
So she could this. And tomorrow it would be nothing but an awkward, embarrassing memory she would only share with Cloud. Which was okay too.
But first she'd promised food and, not wanting Cloud to have to come out to an empty room, Tifa decided that manly lungs were just fine for letting herself out of the room and going to the top of the stairs, to yell down to the clerk she thought owed her one for only breaking his pencil…
Showering turned out to be far less of an ordeal than he'd expected, all things considered. It certainly helped that washing his hair proved no different than usual, and that that was about as thorough as he cared to be (compensating by spending a longer amount of time under water much hotter than what he preferred, and promising himself he'd scrub more than just his face and hands, next time). Drying off was the dilemma.
He was still damp and dripping and wearing a towel over the mess of blonde spikes atop his head when he reemerged, having stuffed himself as hastily back into his clothes as possible and not made any attempt to mask it. Looking a little disheveled was the least of his worries, anyway.
"Tifa? Bathroom's all yours..." Pulling the towel down out of his line of sight, Cloud took a suddenly curious look around.
(Something smells good.)
There was something very satisfying about being intimidating. It wasn't something Tifa did often and when she did it was less a matter of actually saying anything as it was cracking knuckles and That Look. That Look had proved just as effective as ever nicely enough even with the slightly different face around the eyes and the clerk has been nice enough to run next door to the small restaurant that wasn't still open but wasn't exactly closed to late night hotel guests who weren't expecting too much variety. She had been very polite when she'd thanked him for the effort...
So they had food and it was warm and smelled good and that went a long way toward making her feel better. For a moment or two, she actually forgot her problem. Having to pick everything up with oversized hands reminded her quickly enough but she still felt better. When Cloud came out looking...
okay. He looked adorable. Really, really - seriously adorable. And she was pretty sure it wasn't entirely due to him being female. So she was already smiling when he noticed the food and his reaction made it easier to breathe, her face relaxing even more into the smile. She gave a soft 'mm' and a nod, pretty pleased with herself. Since there were no tables or chairs in the room she patted the bed next to her. She was going to have to help him with his hair first though. Not that he wasn't capable but - he couldn't keep looking so cute. So hair - then food - and then it could be her turn to deal with the shower.
"Perfect timing. It just got here."
Though undoubtedly he'd have looked awkward doing so even in his right body, Cloud took the invitation with only a cursory hesitation. He was tired, by every possible definition of the word, and it was more of a relief than he intended to let on just to feel the soft mattress sink beneath him as he took a seat beside Tifa. At a time like this, there was no ignoring the simple pleasures (without risking slipping further away from precarious sanity, at any rate).
With a last valiant attempt to squeeze the rest of the water from his hair, he let the towel fall around his shoulders and skipped straight to reaching for something to eat. Of course, he didn't see anything wrong with his present state - the danger of accidentally being too adorable naturally the furthest thing from his still male and often one-track mind.
"We're lucky anybody was still up." And with luck in such short order, lately, he really meant it, visibly impressed. "You didn't have to go to a lot of trouble, did you?
She shook her head with a smile and another soft sound but the praise secretly warmed her deep inside.
"The clerk was very helpful."
Waiting until he'd gotten his food, she shifted around on the bed, moving to kneel behind him. If the movements were a bit awkward, they were still getting closer to her natural ease of movement than they had been before. She relied on her body to do what she asked it to when she asked it to and that included knowing how it moved on her part. She wouldn't be much of a martial artist of she didn't. For a brief touch, she rested a hand on his shoulder as she moved so he'd know not to shift.
"Stay put. I'm going to fix your hair. You look like a baby chocobo." Taking the towel from his shoulders, she was intent on drying his hair better and then maybe seeing if she could stop at least a fraction of the 'cute' he had going on.
A cute Cloud was a dangerous Cloud and luckily he had no clue.
"You can keep eating. It'll only take a minute."
She wasn't exactly sure how his metabolism worked but she wasn't going to let him stay hungry a second longer than she had to. It also made her remember and so she offered softly:
"You can sleep in my pajamas tonight if you want. The shirt is big enough and the pants have a drawstring so if you leave it loose they shouldn't bother you when your body changes back while you're sleeping."
"He was?" A little surprising, given their welcome... "The way he was acting before, I thought he'd be just as happy to get rid of us. "
But it helped that he'd misinterpreted their host's suddenly unfriendly attitude as just that, rather than the fear of repercussion should he get too friendly. It really was a carefully cultivated obliviousness - two parts low self-esteem to one part genuine lack of personal awareness. The latter of which did him no favor, now.
...And the former took another hit at Tifa's offhand comment about his hair, as she shifted around to sit just behind him. He put up no more protest than to reluctantly nod his head, however; there was no hoping she hadn't heard the sound of him nearly choking somewhere just after "baby chocobo." How was he supposed to salvage his dignity from that?
Best just to concentrate on eating (he really was starving, even if he could've likely gone a great deal longer without, thanks to that SOLDIER stamina), lending half an ear to what she was saying (lest it prove further detriment to his confidence). Unfortunately for him, though, even passive conversation on their problematic situation seemed to actively be working against him keeping his cool.
"Better not—" he said, just a little too hasty to put the notion aside with another shake of his head. "I mean, I can just sleep in my clothes. It's no problem."
At least it wouldn't be the first time - and he wouldn't have to imagine waking up looking the way he was supposed to while wearing... Yet another set of women's clothing. (Karma was never going to let that one go, was it?) "You shouldn't have to be uncomfortable because of me."
Careful not to get it in the way of his eating, Tifa draped the towel over his head and started to rub. She figured there was no reason to correct his assumptions about the clerk and she caught the choke over the 'chocobo' comment but didn't know what to say that wouldn't give away that it was actually a cute thing. Not that he, as a man, would appreciate being called 'cute' or understand that it could be entirely masculine and pretty devastating without taking a fraction away from the handsome and male attributes. Cloud did it sometimes when his eyes went 'little boy'. If he ever found out what using those eyes on her did to her she was never going to be able to tell him 'no' about anything ever again. ...as if she didn't have a hard enough time telling him 'no' already.
"I'm not – "
She cut herself off. 'Aerith... I'm not Aerith.' Not soft and flirty and feminine, fit for lace and pink and flowers. Her pajamas were new. They hadn't had anything escaping Midgar and Aerith had pulled her into shopping when they'd been in Kalm. Her pajamas were just a soft, durable blue, lacking embroidered flowers or fuzzy bunnies or whatever it was that most women were used to. She'd grown up around boys, lived all her life surrounded by males and there were certain traits of being a girl that she knew she just - missed. Like turning down the silk robe Aerith had tried to convince her to buy. She'd wanted it. Thought it looked beautiful and loved the way it felt against her skin and how soft it made her feel... but it would have taken up room in the limited carry space of her pack and so she'd bought herself brass knuckles instead.
"They're not girly." Her fingers rubbed through his hair, as much scalp massage as to dry the hair there. Through the towel she didn't have to feel self-conscious about the way fingers that weren't hers would feel to him. "I can wear the pants and give you back yours. But the top is loose enough that your... top wouldn't feel... wouldn't be uncomfortable rubbing against anything."
She was wincing at herself as she finished that failure of an offer but his newly grown chest was pushing pretty obviously against the front of his shirt and she knew how she would feel if it was her. She wasn't going to commit the mortal sin of offering him one of her bras instead. Gentle she draped the towel back over his shoulders and then went to work on his hair, using her admittedly short nails to begin combing through it, letting them drag just a little over his scalp as she did because she knew how much she liked it when someone did that to her. Quiet, she added:
"I'm not. Uncomfortable." Concentrating on his hair and not having to see his eyes, she could confess it. "I mean, I am but it's easier because you're here. You make it better, not worse. ...I always feel braver when you're nearby."
"That's not—" He shook his head, too aware of the warmth spreading through the sensitive skin under mussed blonde hair wherever those strong hands massaged. "...I mean, that's not what I meant. "
Well, it sort of had been - but the risk of ending up in something frilly for the sake of coping with a situation that was already so unbelievably ridiculous was only the half of it. The rest was far more embarrassing than that, nearly as mortifying as her attempt to elaborate on a perfectly well-founded justification for offering, in the first place.
He sank just a little farther in on himself under her hands, as if wishing it away hard enough could possibly resolve the trouble he was having with his totally backward body. He didn't want to wear Tifa's clothes not because they might have potentially been girly, but because they were Tifa's. They'd be soft, because she had slept in them every night since Kalm, and maybe that familiar scent of perfume or deodorant (given her nature, he should've suspected the latter, but Cloud wasn't the presumptuous type) that he sometimes caught just a hint of when she was close clung to them, too-
And sometimes simply sleeping next to her was distraction enough, but to be completely, inescapably surrounded by her? Even the discomfort the chafing fabric of his uniform top caused would be easier to rest with.
He was about to say something (not that, not any of that, but something), when she spoke up again, too abrupt, too honest for him to interrupt.
For one impossibly long moment, Cloud was silent, not moving or saying anything - until he turned, shifting where he sat just enough to look at her, sincerity enough in his expression to make him look all of fifteen again. His skin still tingled where she'd run her fingers through his hair, and his face felt uncomfortably flushed, but for the first time since they'd run across the inconvenient beast that had launched them into their current crisis, he felt like himself, too.
"...Thanks." He ducked his head, unable to stretch that last waning bit of confidence much further. "It's... Not as bad with you around, either. I wouldn't want to deal with this alone. Or with the others...
Her eyebrows had gone up the smallest bit, waiting to find out what reason there could be other than 'girly' that he wouldn't want her pajamas. She couldn't think of anything though and she usually prided herself on being able to anticipate other people's needs and having whatever it was already waiting for them when they realized it. Was he afraid they might not fit when he grew? She bought her sleep shirts extra-large for a reason...
His shift on the bed though had her full attention and her hands dropped to her lap as he fixed those impossible blue eyes on her. Male or female face, his eyes were still the same and they did the same thing they always did to her when they focused on her, just her, so completely. Her stomach took that strange little flip and the very tips of her fingers went fuzzy feeling and tingly. His 'thanks' had the weak smile surfacing though, softening the edges of her eyes too. The confession that followed afterward though...
Tifa had the ability to make herself startlingly small and having a larger body didn't seem to change that trait at all. She folded forward into herself - and just her forehead found his shoulder. It wasn't a hug because she didn't like this body and because even if she was in her own she wasn't sure she'd be brave enough to do that even as a friend to him when he wasn't having one of his fits - she didn't want to crowd him or make him uncomfortable -
but it was the full equivalent of a hug in intent.
It left her long hair down across his arm and hid most of the rest of her body from him. It would have been hard for Cloud to have found words that would have meant more to her. The nod against his shoulder was small and her voice was a whisper.
Without any of his usual hesitance, Cloud reached over to press a comforting hand to her shoulder. And maybe it ruined the gesture, making it so obvious again (at least to him) that there was something very wrong, here - his hand looked just about as small as she seemed to feel, lifting the illusion of normalcy that the dark veil of her hair almost cast. But he could think of no better, no more adequate response, and that closeness demanded something of him, after all.
It was only the fear of screwing things up that tried to hinder him, still, but with little success. Even though it should only have added to the weight of the world resting so heavily on his shoulders, her confidence always left him feeling oddly lighter at heart. Even at the worst of times...
Which he had to remind himself weren't now, weren't this, feeling foolish for even finding the comparison.
"Things'll be better, tomorrow. Let's just get through tonight."
It was still his touch. Whether his hand was smaller and softer than usual or not, it was still Cloud and the warmth of his skin and familiar. So, eyes still closed for a minute, she nodded against his shoulder the smallest bit. He was right. Tomorrow would be better and they had each other until then. Pulling in a long breath, she straightened again and gave him a small smile, feeling better after this brief respite. She still scooted closer as she got her own food and started eating. Food, shower, bed - and tomorrow would be better.
She did worry though. She had a nightly habit everyone had gotten used to her doing when they were apart - and tonight she just didn't think she could handle it.
"You don't think anyone will worry, do you? If I don't call and check on them?"
"I'll call them." He volunteered, turning back to his own meal as casually as he could. It would be much easier to mask the change in his own voice while still managing to sound at least a little nonchalant than it would be for Tifa to try the same, at any rate. Maybe they wouldn't ask (too many) questions of him.
He did feel a little bad for having made such an abrupt and unannounced break from the group, anyway. Usually the reasons they split up were far less superficial - not that he could regret the decision, so long as he was capable of imagining the awkward hell it would've been to spend the night amongst everyone, looking like he did.
"We'll just... Have to think up a good excuse for why we left." Not that he really thought for a second that even the most convincing argument for their position would stop the rest of them from coming to their own conclusions.
She watched him volunteer and there was a part of her that simply wanted to let him shoulder the problem alone and do the phone call. That wasn't fair though and at the end of the day, she knew that she'd be teased less, however good-naturedly they did it, than he would. Still, brows down, she thoughtfully chewed her food before answering.
She'd be upset if someone else wandered off and didn't touch base with the rest of the team. She didn't want to worry anyone. That said, there wasn't a single part of her that felt the least bit guilty for hiding their situation. Thought outright lying made her feel uncomfortable but - if it kept everyone from worrying it was okay then. Right? Light, her fingertips touched his arm.
"If your voice sounds a little different we can always blame it on getting hit with an effect. Everyone's voice sounds strange when they're still recovering from being hit with Mini."
Mind still hung up on voices, it didn't occur to her that there were any conclusions for the others to come to in the first place regarding the two of them disappearing together for the night. She offered him a small, crooked smile and tried for humor as she said: "You can say I got transformed and we ran out of Kisses so you decided to stop until I finished hopping around. I'll leave the Transform on my glove so no one wonders why you didn't use it."
Tifa was usually better at simply denying things or not volunteering them than she was at outright lying. Except she had been a part of AVALANCHE for long enough to have at least some experience with alibis.
"That should work."
It'd have to - Cloud didn't think himself the most convincing liar, either (though on his part it was mostly a lack of creativity), and coming up with something better was beyond his expertise. As embarrassing as it was to be struck with a Mini spell, he could live with that kind of ridicule. They'd all had it happen once or twice, and nobody could get too smart about something like that, at least.
And nobody'd gone without being Frog Jabbed a time or two, either, though it wouldn't keep him from feeling a bit guilty, lumping some of the blame for their abrupt detour on Tifa's imagined status. As long as they stuck to the story, however, their alibi would be airtight that way, and nobody else would ever have to know. (Still paltry reassurance in the face of their reality, but something he couldn't help rethinking for even that tiny consolation.)
Either full or having lost his appetite at the current topic, Cloud pushed his plate away and rose to his feet.
"Yeah. As long as we say it happened like that... Nobody should doubt us." Going to his pack again to dig out his PHS, he cast a somewhat apologetic look back to Tifa as he retrieved the phone. As awkward as this was going to be, he hoped she'd understand if he didn't exactly want an audience - and he couldn't continue to hog the bathroom, which meant heading outside the inn.
(Better get this over with...)
"I'll be right back."
Tifa understood but she hesitated before nodding. The clerk was still out there. She was pretty sure that she'd driven the point of leaving Cloud alone home but... some guys could be amazingly persistent. If Cloud went outside though she could both finish scarfing down her meal and hopefully get her shower in or at least start to before he got back. The sooner they went to sleep, the sooner they could wake up with all of this behind them.
"Cloud - keep your knees together. If you sit down."
Awkwardly aware of the flush across her cheeks, she went back to her meal, concentrating on it to give him the privacy to deal with the new information. She only let herself cringe after he left and then she hurriedly finished her dinner, setting his pointedly on the nighttable next to the bed before rinsing off her own dishes in the sink.
Then she dug out her pajamas and toothbrush. She debated leaving the top for him but decided not to push the issue. She turned down the covers on their beds... and finally shook her head at herself with a frown for stalling and headed to the bathroom for her shower. It was time to deal with the situation.
It was good advice. Concise. Practical.
And completely horrifying.
Cloud's only saving grace was that his back was already turned when she'd said it (keep your knees together), as he most certainly did not wait until he was on the other side of the door to grimace. He could feel the heat rising just under his skin and was probably miserably beet red the whole, shameful walk down and out through the inn's lobby. If the man at the front desk called anything out to him in passing, he didn't hear it, fortunate, for once, to have a one-track mind. Checking in with the others was the only thing he wanted to think about - finishing the evening's last errand, and then trying to sleep this whole mess off.
Outside, the streets were mercifully deserted, and he could almost breathe easy where he slumped back against the inn's outer wall, hidden in the shadows just around the corner. Even if there was no one around, he couldn't help being just a little paranoid. (It was totally justified.)
Just one phone call, and then both of their consciences would be clear. ...Except it ended up being two awkward calls, to check in with two separate factions - both of which asked entirely too many questions of the simple, straightforward cover story Tifa had concocted for them.
(It hadn't helped that Yuffie and Cait Sith had both been chattering away eagerly on the other end of each call, both as nosy as ever. Not to mention Aerith's polite worrying and Barret's personal offense at the two of them taking off together.)
With a sigh that was far wearier than it had any right to be, coming from a man his age, Cloud went to stuff the PHS back into his pocket... Before belatedly realizing that he didn't have any pockets, there, anymore. For the second time that night, he hoped Tifa was handling the situation at least a little better than he was - though this time, maybe, it wasn't entirely without a touch of (dry, self-deprecating) amusement. Yeah, he'd definitely started to lose it.
Shaking his head dismissively at some hopeful-sounding invitation from the clerk (again, not listening, the poor man), he cut back through the lobby and made his way back up to the room. He was quiet, coming back in, not looking to startle Tifa, if she was still busy in the other room.
Maybe heading to bed without saying much more would be for the best...
Tifa had braced herself for this but catching sight of herself in the mirror over the sink as she closed the bathroom door had her stomach dropping unpleasantly. Hesitant, as if Cloud's boots weighed more than they did, she moved over to the mirror and stared at the face in it. The hugely horrified eyes were the same - and nothing else was. Careful, almost afraid, she touched her nose. Her chin. Pushed almost forcefully at her cheek. They were hers. The sense of feeling told her so. But the cheek and the fingers refused to look the way they should. Her throat went tight and her eyes stung but she swallowed and pushed away from the sink, dropping down without her usual grace to sit on the lid of the toilet. Concentrating as if it would save her life, she began unzipping Cloud's boots.
She could do this. She could do this. It was only for a little while longer and falling apart wasn't going to help any. Blinking hard and sniffing to clear her nose, she gently set Cloud's boots down near the sink, socks neatly folded on top and tried to distract herself.
If she'd had a brother, is this what he would look like? She'd always wanted a brother or a sister. Especially after mama had died. It had been lonely in that big, usually empty house.
If she'd - if she'd been born male was this what she would have looked like? She stripped off her gloves and set them neatly on the lip of the sink. The armlet with its materia stayed on. Even showering she never took it off. Would she have left town like the rest of the boys if she'd been a guy?
Would she have gone with Cloud to join SOLDIER?
The leather arm sleeves came off next as well as the elbow guard. Absent her hand traced over the fabric of her shirt, following a scar it hid that she'd always thought she was the only one that knew about.
Would she have been strong enough to stop Sephiroth - if she'd been a guy...?
she'd been so useless that night...
The shirt came off and the scar was still there even if she didn't recognize the chest it was marking. Male or female, she'd only been fifteen.
But fifteen year olds had fought in the Wutai war. Cloud had been SOLDIER at sixteen. Or so he said. Her teeth worked at her lower lip and she let the old worry distract her while she stood up and tried not to think about it as she unfastened the pants and slipped them off. Except Cloud hadn't been in Nibelheim. He hadn't been one of the SOLDIER to come. She knew. She knew. Because she remembered how heartbroken she'd been.
So how did he know about it? The details that no one alive but her should know? Even Zangan hadn't been there for some of the things Cloud remembered. Only someone that had been there would know.
The speculation got her all the way to the part where she was naked and standing in the shower with the water running. Then it failed her entirely and left her with nothing but herself. Against her better judgment, she looked down.
Huge, her eyes snapped back up and red washed all the way down to her chest. This was the closest she'd ever been to an education about a man's body and she was pretty sure tonight's lesson was over. Grabbing the soap, she went with the 'make enough suds to trickle down and handle places I don't want to reach' theory. Washing her chest felt strange enough and leaning down to get her feet she wondered how Cloud -
NO! No she was not going to let her mind wander to thoughts of Cloud in his normal body and washing habits. The tips of her ears were already burning and, brows down, she focused hard on washing out her hair. Hoping she'd rinsed off well enough, she was out of the shower in record time, dealing with the logistics of drying what she didn't want to touch and in the pajamas that fit awkwardly in no time flat. Teeth brushed and a towel over her shoulder as she stepped out of the room with their collected gear, she hoped she wasn't too red in the face. Concentrating on what was in her arms, she held out his pants, aware of Cloud without having to look. Her voice was still a sincere murmur:
The shower must've been worse for her than it'd been for him.
And why shouldn't it have been? his rational mind asked. As weird as it was dealing with his own unwanted additions, personal experience dictated that hers was undoubtedly the far more difficult to adjust to. She couldn't just... And whenever she had to...
No, no no no, he didn't want to think about that. Not anymore than Tifa did, herself, he was certain. So he took his pants back, nodding to that impossibly meek little thanks as he did, and decided (probably not for the last time, even yet) just not to ask. The last leg of the night was liable to be the worst, still, but once the lights were out and he was alone with his miserable thoughts, there'd be no more unexpected unpleasantness.
"The others are all right." An abrupt, clumsy conversation starter, as he went to sit on the edge of the bed nearest to him. He could pull on his pants under her borrowed skirt, and then return it to her, no fuss, he thought. (Though he still sat facing away, for propriety's sake, anyway.) "...Energetic as usual. But I don't think they'll give us any grief."
Clumsy it might have been but it was a lifeline to her and Tifa caught his topic of conversation desperately. She hadn't expected anyone else to have gotten into trouble but the reassurance that things were fine still had her pulling in an easier breath than she realized she had before.
There was also no way, if they'd run into the same effect she and Cloud had, that the rest of the team wouldn't have known what was going on with them. Cloud's lack of mention of that meant they were in the clear.
Just as long as no one else ran into one of those creatures and got turned.
Deciding to worry about that when and if it happened and not before she scooted over to the bed next to Cloud's and set her gear down next to her pack. Cloud's boots got gently set next to his bed and she keep her eyes on what she was doing while he changed despite the mattress in between them and probably only his back and hair being visible. Digging out her hairbrush to being the soothing routine of brushing out her hair as she sat on the edge of her own bed, she hummed a soft sound. Pausing a beat, she offered:
"Vincent is usually pretty excitable at this time of the night."
The unexpected snort of laughter her casual comment startled out of him caught even Cloud by surprise, and the skirt caught up around his ankles. Once he'd freed himself, his head shaking still in that same muted amusement, he tossed the offending article onto the bed behind him, feeling almost comfortable, back in his own, familiar uniform.
"Sure. I bet he's just bouncing off the walls."
Maybe a few minutes of just not dwelling on it wouldn't hurt, before they both settled in to what would surely be a fitful sleep. While Tifa brushed her hair carefully out, Cloud just combed his fingers through his own a few times, letting it fall back into its usual disarray as he hoisted himself up only to flop over onto his back on his bed.
A casual enough move, but one he regretted almost immediately - it felt strange, in this body, especially with his hands behind his head. But he wouldn't start moving around and draw further attention to himself, with that last, infinitesimal sliver of leftover pride he was still clinging to at stake.
In the little mental tally Tifa kept in her head, she chalked up another one of those golden, delighted points at the sound Cloud made and her own lips curved in pleasure, quietly pleased with herself. Maybe it was just a silly little conversation but she hoarded it away in her memories.
Things weren't all bad.
Finishing brushing her hair out, she left it loose around her, feeling better both from the brushing and the humor. Shaking her head as she made a 'tsk'ing sound, she shifted over on her own bed, crawling under the covers and curling on her side to face him, pillow as much something she was hugging as resting her head on.
"It's the sugar," her voice was a soft murmur. "They really shouldn't let him have sugar this close to bedtime."
"Right, right. "
Despite his best efforts to the contrary, it was impossible to quell the slightest sliver of a smile, there and gone, where he lie patiently facing the ceiling, still. A disastrous day was finally ending, and in the morning, all of this would be one unpleasant, inconsequential memory. He closed his eyes, almost willing himself to drift off right then and there. Not that it would ever be that easy...
When she spoke like that, he could almost hear her real voice in it, could relax just a fraction and imagine her as she was supposed to be, lying in her own bed, just across from him. Not a bad thought.
"I almost feel sorry for Barret. Without you around to keep everyone in line, it's probably chaos."
Even lumpy in the wrong places, it was still reassuring to be able to watch him on the bed nearby. Cloud was Cloud - and she just found it easier to deal with things when he was nearby. So she caught the barely there smile just before it vanished and it made her own lips soften and curve in response. With a soft sound, she burrowed her chin a little more into the pillow, wine colored eyes watching him over the top of it.
Would it be easier if she turned off the lamp though? Maybe not being able to see themselves in the dark would make it easier to pretend they weren't changed, make it easier to fall asleep. Except - she wasn't sure the dark wouldn't just magnify things instead, the way laying there in the dark so often seemed to. At least this way, all she had to do was open her eyes to know that she wasn't alone. She decided that if Cloud wanted the light off, he'd take care of it himself and until than she got to start to relax like this. Emotionally, she was ready for sleep.
"I'm sure he's fine. And tomorrow when we get back, I'll sit on Yuffie so that you can get all our materia back from her."
He made no qualm about the light; but being able to see as well as he could in the dark, it wouldn't have made much difference to him, one way or the other. Not to mention he'd the innate ability to sleep just about anywhere, under just about any condition - but a little bit of military service went a long way, in that regard. You either learned to get rest where and when you could, or you went without.
Besides - any unnecessary motion would only serve to remind him of the sorry state they were both in, and as it was, Cloud fully intended to stay perfectly still until morning. He'd managed the feat once or twice in the past, at any rate.
"You don't think she'll take off with all of it again, do you? I thought we were past that..."
Her lips curved again and she shut her eyes for a moment. Even if the situation was terrible it was kind of nice to be able to be like this, just the two of them. He was her childhood friend but so much more than that, on this journey, he'd simply become her friend. All the other emotions she had tangled up around him...? That he was her friend was the singular unconfusing part. And it was nice to be able to be here with him and not having to pretend. The sound she made was voiceless.
"No. She'll stay. But she wouldn't be Yuffie if she didn't take advantage of materia when it was available. She knows she'll get caught but that's not the point."
Slow, her eyes opened and she looked at him again over the top of her pillow. She'd watched him often enough to know even he didn't usually lay that still. Quiet, she offered:
"I can hit you with Sleepel if you want. There's no reason you should have to stay awake all night long."
"That's okay." Automatically, he shook his head, reaching up a second later to brush his bangs out of his face. As tempting as the offer of instant unconsciousness might have been, he didn't want to take the risk of being caught totally unaware by any precipitant weirdness to their current situation. Especially not when it was just the two of them, no instant backup with the others camping out for the night.
The risk wouldn't have been worth it, just to be knocked out for a while. He was tired enough that he thought he could catch at least a few decent hours, on his own, anyway.
"What about you? Are you gonna be able to fall asleep..." He shifted where he lay, as if trying to relax a little further, cracking open his eyes but not looking around. "...Like that?"
She made a noise as she buried her face in the pillow that might have been a snort. Or a choke. Either way, her voice came back muffled.
"The sooner I fall asleep, the sooner I can wake up looking like me again."
There was a sigh as she readjusted her head, and her hold, on the pillow. As substitutes went, the pillow was trying its hardest. She suddenly missed being able to snuggle her back against one of the other girls or Red though. After a minute, one eye peering over the white mound, she admitted as if she was worried it would sound offensive:
"I don't think I like me being a guy."
"It's just... Weird, because we're not used to it."
Though even an earnest attempt to dismiss her concern came out sounding faulty, when what he really wanted to do was just to agree. Cloud couldn't say he cared much for himself as a girl, either - certain misadventures in the not-quite-past-enough past had made him sure of that well before her cautious profession, now.
But he wasn't going to start reminiscing about that, now, as hard as he'd avoided making any comparisons, yet, today. Casting a sidelong glance at the wrong-shaped Tifa in the periphery of his vision, Cloud frowned in a way that felt more awkward than stoic, even just to him.
"I dunno. You'd probably make an okay guy..."
Under the blankets her shoulders hunched and she buried her face a bit more in the pillow again, eyes closing. Having half a sneaking suspicion that Cloud saw her as 'one of the guys' anyway, she really didn't like this only serving to drive the point home. And she really didn't like not being able to shift her legs without being reminded of just how much of a guy's body she was stuck with at the moment. Sleep - and tomorrow - couldn't come fast enough and if she was still male then...
no. No, she didn't think she could think about that right now and not end up miserable.
And maybe a little panicky.
So instead she shifted her focus to Cloud and him being a girl. A much prettier girl than he'd been the last time he'd tried. At least this time his chest didn't make crinkling noises when he moved wrong... the thought had her lips twitching in the pillow and she made a soft sound before lifting her head enough to look at him, only her eyes visible over the pillow.
"Well, you make a terrible girl," she muttered. "You trudge everywhere.
Cloud sat up abruptly, shooting her an offended look - one that wilted as soon as he realized what he was doing. Maybe his pride had been even more deeply wounded than he'd thought, if he'd seriously considered that point one worth arguing.
It was true, anyway. Thinking back, he'd been pretty rough on her borrowed boots, probably stomping the whole way to the inn without noticing. Trying to look casual walking in a totally unfamiliar body had been chore enough, alone, though. He couldn't be expected to moderate the force with which he did so, as well, now could he?
"Well, whatever." Dropping back to the mattress with a frown that was only slightly exaggerated, he sighed and shut his eyes (perhaps a tad defensively) again. "I won't be one for much longer, with any luck."
It was stifled, both by the pillow and by the fact that Tifa usually tried to stifle it anyway - and it was a little broken - but there was no mistaking the very rare sound of Tifa. Giggling.
It didn't last long but even when it was done the bubbles of it were still in her eyes. Feeling more comfortable than she had since this had all started, she gathered up her pillow, slipped out of her bed and padded on bare feet over to his. She wouldn't have tried it if things had been normal - but they weren't normal and right now she just wanted to be close to the comfort of his familiarity.
Still pretty sore from the sound of her snickering at him (much as he thought he wouldn't mind hearing that laugh more often, he didn't want to be the one being laughed at), if took him a moment to realize what she was asking. Of course, sitting up and opening his eyes once more to see that she was standing at the edge of his bed helped run the point home, in that respect, considerably.
Before he could stop to give her request any real thought, he found himself simply agreeing, instead-
"Oh. Yeah. "
-and making a graceless sideways shuffle across the rumpled comforter to the other side of the bed.
"Thank you." She whispered it as she crawled onto the bed next to him and lay down on her back, pillow wrapped in her arms over her chest. Even if her body didn't fit right, old habit still had her head at about where his shoulder height had been when he'd been laying down. Closing her eyes and exhaling she found that - finally - things felt right. Not entirely but it was easier to ignore what was wrong at least. After a moment, as if in apology for either giggling or perhaps for invading his space, she softly confessed:
"I always liked being a girl when I was growing up. I liked wearing dresses and pretty hats. I liked being the only girl. Until you left. That was when I realized that boys got to go have adventures and girls got left behind."
Wrapping her arms a little more around the pillow she pressed down into the mattress a bit more.
"That's why I trained with Master Zangan. So I'd never have to be left behind again."
For a long while (the sort that always felt far longer than it actually was), Cloud was silent, turning those words over in his mind. He'd never once thought- No, he'd had a head too full of his own childish ambitions to have considered for one second what it might've meant to anyone else that he had just up and left town - just like the rest of them, he'd already been imagining himself in an ideal future, leaving the present and all those still hopelessly trapped in it in the dust.
He'd just wanted to be someone, to make something of himself so desperately...
Like every other time he'd tried to think too hard on the past, lately, the effort only left him feeling empty and headachey all over again, and he had to throw in the towel before he started to upset her further. He really would be up all night, if he pushed it - and then where would they be?
Sliding a hand under the back of his neck, he glanced down at her from where he lay, propped up just slightly by his own pillow. From this angle it was awkward, talking down to the top of her head, but still he managed to sound as sincere as he felt when he said:
(For everything that's happened since then...)
"But... We're all in this together, now. Nobody gets left behind, anymore."
She didn't mind the silence with Cloud, comfortable in it, and she was already starting to breathe deeper when he spoke again. Her eyes flickered open and she tried to tip her head to look at him. The angle was awkward though so she rolled over onto her side facing him instead, still careful not to crowd him or take up any of his space as she cuddled back into the pillow, knees tucking up slightly. She only grimaced a little when she did that. And she shook her head.
"Don't be sorry. I wouldn't have started to dream for myself if you hadn't dreamed first and shared it with me."
Careful of the new curves on his body, her own hand went searching for his free one, curling carefully when she found it. He'd had to leave. She'd known that. And she'd been proud. And sad. And a hundred other things. But if he hadn't gone... if he hadn't gone he might have been one of those sliced open or burning corpses she still saw in her dreams at night sometimes. So she was glad he'd been away.
Except he said he hadn't. And she still didn't understand how he knew what he did about that night...
Eyes lifted to his under her bangs and the smile she gave him was soft but it filled her eyes too. Soothing, her thumb rubbed over the back of his hand.
"That's right. We're a team." For just a moment, the edge of her lips quirked upward and her eyes crinkled at their edges. "And we always come back to each other, even if sometimes some of us have to sneak away for a bit because of cosmetic problems."
She was always much better with words than he'd ever been - so maybe it was a good thing she didn't mind his silence, so often as he was left struck to differing degrees of speechlessness by something she'd said. Whether it was guilty or embarrassed or just plain dumbfounded, she only rarely ever seemed irritated with him for being so quiet. Just entirely too patient.
With everything about him, actually. His faulty memory, his bad attitude, the whole mess he'd managed somehow to sweep the lot of them into... With a little more self-awareness, he could have been properly embarrassed. But as he was, it was simply baffling.
As she wrapped her hand around his, Cloud returned the gesture just as carefully, thinking only of the well-meaning behind it - and not the weird way it felt to have a hand smaller, narrower than hers. (Well, okay, he just didn't think about that too much.)
"Right. ...Completely legitimate cosmetic problems."
"Mm." She gave a small nod against her pillow, lips still smiling at their edges and closed her eyes again. It had been a long day before they'd run into their sex changing nemesis and for the first time Tifa felt safe and relaxed enough to feel it catching up to her. Once again, out of everyone this could have happened to her with, she was glad it was Cloud. He made her feel safe. Hand still safely twined with his, she nestled down deeper into the pillow with a quiet sound, more than willing to let the sleep come now. She was ready to be a girl again.
And yet... she was glad this had happened. Selfish and feeling guilty for it, she was still glad for this time alone with Cloud, glad to have him all to herself for just a little while...
"Tomorrow," she murmured it. "I'm going to buy the girliest dress I can find." A long, drowsy exhale later, common sense had her amending. "Or a new hair ribbon."
Nothing but a distantly amused huff of breath came in response. Even had he not been feeling the soft pressure of real drowsiness behind his own eyes as he leaned back, resting silently once again, he might've been wise enough to keep his mouth shut on that point, though. Whether or not they turned up in their proper forms in the morning, they had already made plans to visit the shops first thing - he wouldn't protest.
And it was with this thought in mind that he drifted off, falling into a sleep he'd expected to find it nigh impossible to catch, with the way things were. Not to mention the added edge of anxiety in Tifa sharing half the bed, in knowing she was there, even though it was completely innocent. Maybe it wasn't the first time they'd ended up sleeping in close confines, but every other time, he'd slept tense, too, cautious even in unconsciousness.
By some miracle, however, that light, fitful rest lasted on into daylight, when Cloud woke reluctantly, shaking his head to dispel that groggy feeling... And then taking a nasty start when those precious few seconds of worry-free thoughtlessness left him behind, and he remembered just where he was and what was up.
His eyes flew open and his hands went straight to his chest - and an instant, impossible wave of relief crashed over him as he found it mercifully flat, perfectly ordinary. He wanted to jump up out of bed and run to wake-
There was something weighing him down, yet. He winced as he lifted his head to look, seeing himself in his own body, and...
"Mnh." The sound was mumbled. During the night Tifa's body had shifted just the way Cloud's had, returning to its natural softer curves and slimmer limbs. Even asleep she'd lost the tension she'd been holding once it had happened. Now, soft and relaxed, she hid her face and snuggled down, slender fingers tangling in the fabric covering her pillow. A pillow she'd apparently upgraded to during the night because the down one she'd been hugging earlier was on the floor and she now had her face pressed into the fabric of Cloud's shirt just about at rib level, hand curled in the fabric over the flat planes of his stomach. And from the way her breathing immediately deepened again after her single muffled noise, she was very content to sleep the rest of the morning away that way too. Lacking a blanket, she'd found her warmth a different way and, sound asleep, apparently considered it satisfactory.
She wasn't waking up. In fact, she didn't appear to have been disturbed by his movement at all, which brought about a new dilemma. Did he make another attempt to wake her deliberately? Or try to make it look unintentional? Or would it have been better just to wait this out?
There definitely wasn't any precedent for handling this type of situation in his (admittedly limited) recollection; much as he didn't want to upset her by going about this in the most awkward fashion imaginable, though, he didn't want to embarrass her that badly, either. And letting it go on too long definitely had the potential to get embarrassing.
There, that decided it, then. It was obviously just an unconscious mistake - anybody could've made it (a thought he immediately regretted having, as it prompted a nice little imaginary slideshow in his mind of alternate possibilities and that kind of thing wasn't helping).
Reaching out to take hold of her shoulder, he gave her one very gentle shake.
"Hey, uh- Tifa?"
Usually Tifa was a quick riser. Whether it was up at the crack of dawn to make breakfast or in the dead of night for a watch, if she didn't wake up on her own all it took was the whisper of her name to have her shaking herself awake.
Usually she wasn't curled up in the perfect spot, right where she let herself sometime pretend she was to help her fall asleep on particularly bad nights. Usually she wasn't the perfect degree of warm and surrounded so completely by a smell she associated with safety and belonging and need. Usually she was subconsciously aware of other people, and one girl in particular, being nearby.
This morning was not usually.
But it was Cloud calling her and even asleep she couldn't not answer when he called for her. So her 'pillow' got a nuzzle and her body tucked in closer against it but Cloud's voice got the hazy response of:
This was just gonna keep getting worse for him, wasn't it? Cloud dropped back to the bed in an only mildly frustrated huff; she was... kind of cute like that, too, even if it was a little inconvenient. There were worse ways to end up stuck-
But that wasn't any kind of excuse to drag this out. Steeling himself once again, he lifted the same hand, reached for her shoulder - hesitated, and then found the resolve somewhere to give her another cautious shake.
"...Tifa, hey. Wake up. We're, y'know... Normal, again."
(And you're kinda on top of me.)
She inhaled, the first sign that she was going to relinquish the very pleasant sleep she'd been tucked into and turned her face into the pillow completely, fingers kneading against fabric in unconscious preparation for the day.
They were... normal. Again.
Mind not fond of giving her bad news first thing in the morning, it took a while for why that meant anything to penetrate the gray haze over her thought process. When it did though, it jerked her awake, a literal twitch through her body as it registered.
They were normal again.
Her head came up, sleep tousled hair over one of her eyes and that single wine colored point focused on the face in front of her.
It pulled out the slightly hazy, soft smile even before she registered that he was, indeed, wearing the male version of his face again, complete with stubborn chin and pale, stubborn eyebrows. Eyebrows that were doing something funny over his eyes at the moment...
Her own eyes narrowed in response to try to figure out what was going -
And that was when she realized she was looking at him up the length of his flat chest. Which meant that wasn't a pillow she was half on.
Almost experimentally, her fingers pulled at the fabric under them the littlest bit.
Yes. Yes, that was definitely Cloud's shirt.
And that was definitely his very solid, nicely warm and comfortable body she was snuggled in against.
... he felt really good to wake up snuggled into...
Her breath dragged into her with a sudden stutter as everything finally came together at the same time in her mind and her eyes went huge. The sound she made wasn't a squeak because Tifa didn't squeak - but it sounded suspiciously like one. Flooded with both the thought of what being so physically familiar with him must make him think of her - as well as how unforgivably she'd invaded his personal space without even asking first - her face flushed bright red and she jerked up and back as fast as she could.
And almost went off the side of the bed backward as a result.
Well, that couldn't possibly have gone over worse.
But there wasn't really any time to think of all the other ways he could've potentially not screwed this one up. Because Tifa was about to topple backward off the edge of the mattress and for some reason his lightning quick reflexes chose only just then to kick back in. Shooting upright alongside her, Cloud reached out to catch her again by the shoulder to drag her back before she could go plummeting to the tacky carpet below.
Not exactly a life or death situation, but Tifa had already suffered embarrassment enough, hadn't she? Cloud certainly wasn't about to judge her for such a simple mistake (especially not one she'd made while totally unconscious), either way, but from the look (and color) on her face, she wasn't so sure of that.
It would definitely be best to just play it off as casually as possible. Yeah.
Before she could react to try to keep herself from falling, Cloud was already there, catching her back to safety before she had full registered the threat. Not that falling off the bed was a huge threat but it wouldn't have been a pleasant way to finish waking up. Her fingers curled around his arm instinctively and she made a soft sound. Her cheeks stayed pink though.
She didn't snuggle men. Marlene - yes. And sometimes Aerith or Yuffie in a puppy pile kind of thing for comfort or warmth. And... all right. Maybe Red once or twice when he 'happened' to by lying nearby in the middle of the night and it was cold and a buried Sector Seven was too fresh in her dreams.
But not guys.
Except apparently, now Cloud.
- who had been warm and nice to snuggle against...
The best thing to do was be casual and hope he didn't think snuggling nearby men in her sleep was something she did regularly. Self-conscious, she smoothed down her hair - and then had to smile, albeit, a bit hesitantly at him. Light, she reached out and touched his chin. Speaking of snuggling guys...
"It's good to see you back. Though the desk clerk is going to be disappointed if he's still on shift."
Those would've been some pretty lofty assumptions, but luckily Cloud wasn't all that adept at jumping to totally ridiculous conclusions. (Sure, he had his moments, but...) He was more concerned with her taking away the wrong idea about him, as it was, and not with wondering whether or not she tended to cling to just anybody, in her sleep. Yesterday had been a mess, and they'd both had to let down their guard more than either of them might've been strictly comfortable with. He wouldn't accuse her of vulnerability, but maybe there had been something like it...
But then she smiled again, and he was pretty sure things were going to be okay. That was, at least until she mentioned-
A self-conscious hand went to the back of his neck as he pulled a face.
"I totally forgot about that guy... No chance you saw a back door out of this place, last night, did you?" A pause. "Though- On the other hand, you really think he's even gonna notice me?"
"We could go out the window?" Maybe... just a little... she was teasing him. But it was okay because that meant they didn't have to focus on being awkward about waking up together and she approved of that. She didn't want -
she didn't want him to be awkward about touching her.
So to emphasize that everything was all right between them, she pressed the tip of a slim finger to the top of his nose and shook her head before letting her hand drop.
Maybe she should tease him about his obliviousness to being a stunning, leggy blond in a short skirt last night... but she couldn't bring herself to do that to him. Instead, she just hummed a thoughtful sound.
"I'm sure his shift is long over by now. And his replacement won't know any better. We can drop off the key and no one will be the wiser."
As further distraction and not entirely for distraction alone either, she added hopefully: "Do you think we could stop and get something warm for breakfast too? ... something with chocolate?"
"Nah, better not go out the window. If anybody saw us, they'd probably think we were trying to skip out on a bill."
And the last thing they needed was more grief, this early in the morning. If the same clerk was still on duty, and they both ended up dragged back in through the lobby's front doors... Yeah, no chance.
Sighing, he shook his own head - almost in time with hers - and turned to stretch his legs over the other side of the bed (pretending not to have realized the dorky way he'd crossed his own eyes at her playful poke in the nose).
Now that sounded like a plan: getting out of this inn just as quick as they could and to a decent meal. And then back on the road, of course. With a half-stifled yawn, he dragged his hands back through his hair before looking back over his shoulder again.
"Sure. Whatever you want. I do kind of feel like celebrating, not being... You know... Anymore."
This adorable thing of his was really dangerous. And it kept getting worse the more they traveled together and he forgot to be that careless mercenary she was seeing less and less of. Closer... she was closer to figuring out what was really going on with him...
If the moments of sheer adorkable or knee weakening male didn't kill her first.
She didn't even try to hold in the grin at that as she scrambled off the bed. Celebrating sounded wonderful, even if it was just with something as blissfully simple as a hot, delicious breakfast together with Cloud that she didn't have to cook herself.
- and this time, if the clerk dropped a pencil, she'd let Cloud lean down and pick it up.