I do not own FFVII or any of its characters. The dialogue and original story line are all taken or adapted from kitsune13's story 'Taking Care.' Everything else is mine.

As a kid, he remembered a lot of shoes. Not smiling faces or scarred kneecaps or the whiskered underbellies of chins when they scolded him for one thing or another--mostly just shoes. His mom had worn soft shoes: fuzzy slippers in the house that he liked to step on when she was leaning on the counter, listening to a far-away melody coming from the radio. He would place his bare feet gingerly on hers, and she would twirl him around and her eyes would shine a little brighter, and she would seem a little less sad for a waltz or two in time. The men of the town wore work boots, tan dusty things that had never looked quite right even when brand new, and tromped around barking orders to 'Get off my lawn,' or 'Stay away from my daughter, Strife.' And then there had been the slick black boots the soldiers wore, the kind that came once a year, most years, heralded by newspapers and flyers and a couple of smart-aleck brats boasting of being the best. Those boys had left with muddy brown farm boots--occasionally one boarded the bus donning his Sunday best--but they all came back with black boots, scuffed and dull and not up to Regulation standards.

But the shoes he remembers best were white and clean and dangling from tiny feet at the edge of a well. He has thought of those shoes so many times the last two years, and the person attached to them. They're made for dancing, those shoes, so he usually imagines him and her at a festival in Nibelheim. He thinks up the soft lights reflecting from her eyes, red-tinted brown, from what he could tell whenever he was brave enough to steal glances at her; a cool fall evening, the last of the fireflies flickering between rust-colored foliage, a soft breeze tiptoeing through the glowing treetops; a band playing softly near a moonlit dance floor. She sits all by herself, smiling at the people who shuffle past. Bravely, a lot braver than he actually feels with the man-eating butterflies wreaking havoc on his stomach, he walks up to her and holds out his hand. Hers is cool and small in his, and he thanks the stars he finally hit that growth spurt because it would be hard to be the man he wants to be if she towered over him. She twirls, and she dips, and she smiles, and he blushes (because even in his best dreams, he's still a dork).

He's imagined them so many times, what he would say to her, what he should have done--or would have, if he were anybody else.

And now he's got his chance because he's standing next to the girl he's always liked and he's sixteen for Shiva's sake but it's like he's five again because all he can do is look at her shoes. Cowboy boots, to be exact. They're nice enough, brown with some plant--no, flower, no-- design up the sides, but he wonders if he's become even more clueless in the two years he's been gone because he never saw anyone wear those before. But she'd just be the kind to start a trend, especially with how she looks, perched on the stairs and tapping her heels, all light and cute and free and willing to ride into the sunset forever if someone would only ask.

He wants to ask. Gaia, does he want to ask.

Except he doesn't want her to know it's him, either. Zack would laugh if he could see him, and maybe he'll twist it out of him later and laugh anyways. Zack never has this problem. Zack would saunter up to her in that SOLDIER uniform of his and say something totally suave with a cocky smirk, and she would swoon, cowboy hat tipping, tipping, tipping until it tumbles to the ground and her dark hair falls free and whispers against the hand at the back of her neck. But he's not Zack, so what does he do? He stares at her shoes. Even in his helmet, he stares at her shoes. But he steals glances at her now and then, and she seems to be thinking pretty hard about something. Maybe about how much she wishes she could get away from him, or how much she wishes he was Zack or Sephiroth, or maybe about a knight in shining armor who would whisk her off her feet, instead of a grunt in a Shin-Ra uniform, who, for all he knows, is developing some sort of deviant foot fetish, when her skirt's up to there and he's still staring at her shoes.

But finally he gathers a little courage to look up, just as she tousles her hair and runs her fingers through it, and the breath catches in his throat and he has to look away before he blushes in real life. It briefly occurs to him to ask Zack if Shin-Ra makes a helmet that covers his entire face, so he can stare at her all he wants, and at more than just her shoes. To hell with nausea; having half his face exposed is just too risky.

Eventually, though, he chances another look back at her, as she bites her lip and twists the brim of her cowboy hat. Maybe she's plotting her grand escape from him, but he hopes not because he's promised to protect her twice now (once to her, once to himself), and it would kill him if she took away the one thing that has kept him from becoming like all those other failures from Nibelheim.

He panics for a bit when she stands up--Wait, is she going to run?--and moves towards him--Maybe it's a ruse--but he decides to play it cool and just watch in case she suspects something and---


Her voice startles him, and he steps back. He wasn't expecting words. How should he act? How would Zack act? Gaia, she smells good.

"I didn't--"

Oh crap, she's caught him now. What if she knows it's him, and that he was smelling her, and he moves further back because this isn't good because it's good so it's definitely bad and he's screwed.

She folds her arms, furrowing her brows until her eyes look a little darker than he remembers them. It makes him shift nervously, and distantly reminds him of his mother. That image and the promise he's made twice now are the only things that keep him from turning tail and running for the hills. Or the mountains, in his case.

"I just wanted to say I was sorry. I know it's not your fault we're out here. I..."--she breathes for a moment--"didn't mean to be so..."--he holds his breath--"mean."

Mean's not the word he'd use to describe her. It's not her fault she wants to go into the reactor and he was in her way. It's just that...if she knew it was him, and that he was doing his best to protect her and live up to the promise of the man he wants to be, if he were stronger, then she wouldn't have tried to escape him. So he nods, because he doesn't want her to be guilty too, not when she should have a SOLDIER protecting her, when he'd give anything to be the SOLDIER protecting her.

Oh, crap, she's coming closer again, but he's not ready, not ready yet, maybe someday, he'll sweep her off her feet, but now, she'll just--well, he doesn't know, but it'll be bad, and crap crap crap---

And he isn't sure what he did now, but her hands are on her hips and she's glaring at him. Dammit, he'll never get this right, not at all, but he almost wants to smile, she looks so cute when she's angry. "I'm really not all that horrible you know," she pouts. And he thinks he smiles, or maybe he just wants to. Of course she's not horrible. She's wonderful and perfect, especially when she smiles and her eyes shine, like the color of red wine.

Mentally he slaps himself upside the forehead because that was the lamest rhyme he's ever heard. Poetry's obviously not his strong suit--not that anything is--but he comforts himself that at least he didn't say that out loud--wait, she's smirking a little...he didn't, right? She sidles up closer to him, and he leans back because the risk is simply too great that if she touches him (Oh, please, Gaia, please), he'll start smelling her hair again or burst into the second stanza of Ode by the Weak and the Stupid.

"You know," she says flatly, but her eyes have a devious glint in them that makes him nervous, "with you backing up like that, it makes me feel pretty unwanted." Wait, no, that's not it at all--but of course, she'd assume he doesn't want her, it's probably like talking to a wall. (Verse Two. Gaia, he's a moron.)

She continues, unaware of his ever diminishing IQ (he thinks he's been hanging with Zack too much): "Maybe I should just go find the others," and her eyes lift to his, challenging him, although he doesn't know to what, until she races up the stairs he's supposed to be guarding. His heart stops for a minute because she really must hate him now to want to escape him and get him fired in a single move, but he still sprints after her with all he's got because he'll never ever ever forgive himself if she got hurt again. He's fast, so he catches her easily, but his relief quickly turns to confusion because she's laughing and smiling and...happy?...and supposed to be hating him right now.

She grins even wider at his flustered state. "See? You don't burst into flames if you get too close to me."

Too close to...

He's so happy he almost laughs and says her name, but then he remembers that she doesn't know it's him, so he clears his throat over the sound and prays she doesn't notice his blunder. Her look softens then--hopeful, happy, and unsure, all at once--and her voice drops lower, telling him a secret, and for a moment, he believes they've been friends forever. "I really am sorry," she says, "I didn't mean to sound angry at you." He nods, just because he has to say something, but never can find the words. Not with her hand slipping gently down his shoulder, or her slightly sweet scent that makes it hard for him to think, or her eyes boring into him gently, not judging the boy underneath the mask.

"I'm sorry you got stuck out here with me." Her voice has gotten even quieter now, and he nods again, not that he agrees with her, but because he can't move (his legs are stiff, and his feet rooted to the ground), and he'll agree with anything as long as it keeps her near and his mouth shut. But vaguely, he realizes how dangerous this is, for him and for her, so he summons everything he's got and retreats a little. She keeps staring. He turns his face away before he blushes.

From the corner of his eye, he catches her moving towards the first step. "You can come sit down," she says, patting the seating next to her, and the thought occurs to him that maybe she actually wants to be friends. With him. He hesitates for a moment, then sits down next to her. Sweat pools beneath the leather of his gloves, and he fights the urge to wipe them on his pants. He has to stay calm, cool. If he can't be friends with her when he's pretending to be someone she doesn't know, then how can he ever pretend that the boy she does know will one day be more?

She doesn't seem put off by his proximity though, so he relaxes, just a little. But he still refuses to look directly at her. He will. Just not yet. They're...friends, after all.

"You have, you know?" she begins quietly. "Taken good care of me." Something warm and unfamiliar wells up inside him, and he holds his breath as she speaks. "Coming up here? Those monsters? I didn't even get a chance to fight any of them, you were always there first. I know you think I'm just a girl and I can't fight but I can. I come up here all the time." The thought of her facing monsters alone on a mountain reminds him of another time, long ago, when she'd been by herself and needed help and he couldn't give it to her. He stiffens, and his fists clench and unclench because he can't bare seeing the image in his mind of her bruised and bleeding in the bottom of a gorge, or hearing every voice in town, save for two, hammer into him how stupid and worthless he is, how it should be him (almost) dead. But she remains oblivious to his discomfort and continues. "It's not that I'm not used to taking care of myself,"--(She shouldn't have to, he thinks)--"It was just..." She looks as nervous as he feels, although he can't understand why. "It was nice of you to watch out for me, that's all. So thank you."

For a moment, the voices in his head stop, while he digests what she just told him: she's not disappointed in him. However he may have failed her in the past, she's not disappointed in him. Happiness wells up inside him, and pride, and a little fear too, that he misheard her, or misunderstood. But the feelings keep rushing up, from his heart to his brain, or maybe it's just blood rushing to his cheeks. He doesn't move his head, but he can see her staring at her shoes (he doesn't feel so dumb now), so he gathers all of his courage to look at her, just for a moment. Her hands are tapping nervously at her knees, and she's biting her lip again. But even then, her mouth looks so soft and perfect that he imagines kissing her. Threading his fingers through her hair, soft moans and softer lips molding to his; and then tilting his head as she whimpers, so he trails his fingers lightly down her back, lower, and lower...

And he stops there because those thoughts are dangerous when it's daytime and he's in public and the girl of his dreams is right there. And he's definitely blushing now, and she's grinning at him, and he doubts it's possible for his face to get any redder without rupturing something vital.

"Let me see your hand," she says, and his head jerks towards her, because she can't possibly be asking what he thinks she's asking, but there she is, hands stretched out, waiting for his. But he can't...she can't...she wants to hold his hand, but they're too old to do that as mere friends, and they've only been friends, for what?--five minutes now; and his heart is beating about a million times per second, but it's not bad, per se, just unexpected, and this doesn't make sense, not at all.

"Come on. Your hand. The one that hurts. I saw you block that monster's snout with your palm when he almost bit you. I've had to do that before too. I know their noses are like rocks and it really hurts when they smack into you that way. I can make it better. Give me your hand." Suddenly, it makes a little more sense now, and part of him feels better, simply because he knows how to deal with this, even if his heart has just about fallen to his feet. She was always the caring type: picking up a kid or two who had fallen down; band-aids on scraped knees and a kiss to the forehead.

He almost blushes again when he thinks about it because in his version, she'd definitely be kissing somewhere a little lower than the tip of his brow. So he moves away a little--he doesn't want to clue her in to his train of thought; besides, they're too close for a newly forged friendship. But he still unfolds his hand, just barely. She's still offering, and he wants to accept, even though it means far less to her than it does to him. For the moment, he'll force himself to pretend that this is nothing and they're only friends, if even that, and he won't do anything dumb this time like smell her hair or finish that stupid sonnet. Yes, he cajoles himself, his plan is excellent.

She takes his hand then, shedding the glove and turning it over in her hands; and when she says something, he doesn't catch it because he's too busy reminding himself they're friends, just friends; keep it together, Strife. But it's okay, he hasn't opened his mouth yet, his plan is still good.

And it would have stayed that way, except all rationale behind it gets shot full of holes when she runs her thumb along his loveline, lifeline, some line, and leans into him a little bit, and he thinks he hears her breath quicken too, or maybe it's just his, when she starts working the muscles in his hand and everything in him unwinds. His mind trails off in the sweetest sensation of peace he's had in forever. And all that registers with him is the feeling, slow and deep, of her drawing patterns along his fingers, one at a time, again and again, tracing his fortune with one barely there tip of a smooth nail. She soothes every pressure point, and his brain turns on briefly to tell him he's the luckiest guy on the face of the planet, that she never did this for the village kids, and not to blow it, Spike (strange, how even his inner voice sounds like Zack at times). It's better than anything he's ever imagined, even if they're not dancing and he hasn't kissed her yet, because this is real and her body is almost pressed up against his, and he wills his mind to function again because he has to remember this, needs to remember this when the nights get cold and he's all alone and needs something to keep him going. And when she raises his fingers to her lips, almost kissing them with a few puffs of air, she tells him it's for luck and he feels like the heavens have opened up for him: surely this is a sign, a blessing from above. This is his chance to win her over. Maybe if he shows himself, she'll be proud that he protected her, or maybe he can make her fall in love with him and she'll want to come to Midgar and he'll finally get into SOLDIER and she'll never hurt again because he'll be by her side forever and she'll be happy. They'll be happy.

His chest lightens a little with this epiphany, and he watches her lean into him, before forcing a laugh and returning his hand to his lap, her own fidgeting with the edge of her skirt. After sixteen years, he finally musters up the courage to look at her, to take in every detail unabashedly, and he marvels at her eyes, bright and afire, even if skittering between rocks, trees, knees, anything but him. "There. Now it won't be stiff in the morning," she chirps, but she still refuses to look at him, even now, ironically, when he refuses to look away. So when she staggers to her feet in a blushing retreat--he reacts.

It's the bravest, and quite possibly the stupidest thing he's ever done, grabbing her hand like that. But he knows he has to say something: she stands there, eyes wide, and they really do look like wine, sort of, but this is not the time for that. It's his lucky day, and he's going to take a chance. How should he do this, he wonders. Say her name first...or his? Yeah, that's good, but what if his voice cracks? (Buck up, Strife, you can talk to her.) Or he could just remove his helmet, but that would mean that he would have to release her hand, and he's not willing to do that just yet. Back to plan A. He'll say her name, and she'll either recognize his voice or not (probably not), but it'll be okay. It will be a new start for him, for them both, and it will be okay this time.

But the gods must be tired of waiting, for just as he opens his mouth, lightning cracks and a portal opens, and there are monsters and men. And he's not a SOLDIER, maybe he never will be, but he knows he has to protect her, his Tifa, so he doesn't think twice about jumping in front of her and taking the first blow. Except now, when he finally opens his mouth, it's in a mangled scream, and it's not her name. Then he bleeds, and his stomach throbs and his heart aches, because even though she's safe, the signs lied to him, and all he can figure is that it only works out for heroes.

And somewhere between teeth and blade, blood and flesh, as he grasps the final few moments before he blacks out, he curses the gods for ever letting him think that he would be enough. That a nameless, faceless, voiceless soldier would be enough.

A/N: This is my first foray into fluff, so reviews would be appreciated, if only to tell me what works and what doesn't. Constructive criticism is always appreciated. And thanks once again to kitsune13 for letting me explore her story from Cloud's POV. Thanks for reading.