"This time…I think I'll be okay. Because I have you."
"You've always had me."
"I mean from tomorrow on."
—Excerpt from Tifa's novel in the Advent Children boxed set, and what greatly inspired this fic.
It's been scarcely a month since Cloud moved back into the loft above the Seventh Heaven with Tifa, Denzel, and Marlene. He wonders if things have been this way all along and he's just now alive enough to notice, but there's a different kind of softness to Tifa's expression when she looks at him now, one that he doesn't really remember seeing before that day at the church in the slums…the day he was gifted with another second chance he's not sure he deserved, the day Denzel and all the other kids were healed. There's a tenderness to the way she sometimes squeezes his arm when she walks by, and to her small, random smiles. It's more than just a childhood crush—has been for a while—and he doesn't understand how he never really noticed before.
Recently, his days have been filled with running deliveries in and around town, evenings helping the kids with their school work, and nights helping Tifa close up the bar, then organizing receipts and the next day's schedule before retiring to bed. It seems like a real home, and almost...well, almost like a real family. But despite the comfortable routine they've worked their way into and the newfound peace in their lives, he's still not sleeping well at night.
He's not the only one.
Early in the morning, he hears Tifa gasp through the wall separating their rooms, hears the noisy rustle of sheets when she abruptly sits up in bed. His enhanced senses pick up the sound of her door opening a moment later, and then the whisper of bare feet moving quickly and quietly past his door and up the short stairway. She's checking on the kids. It's something he's come to expect after her all-too-frequent nightmares.
A few moments pass before the muted steps return, slower this time, and pause just outside his room. For the span of a few heartbeats he hears nothing but carefully quiet breathing, and then his own door slips open with a small creak. He's come to expect this, too.
He's facing the wall so she can't see that he's still awake, but even so, he can feel her gaze on him as strongly as if he were meeting her eyes with his own. She lets out a shivering sigh of relief, having once again reassured herself that he's really still here, that he hasn't disappeared on her again, and the thought sends an all-too-familiar ripple of sadness through him. He closes his eyes against that feeling and frowns, pressing his cheek a little harder into his pillow.
Instead of leaving after just a moment like she usually does once her mind is set more at ease, he hears her take a cautious step towards him, and curiosity begins to bleed into his self-deprecating thoughts. It takes over completely when she takes another, and then another, and his heart rate begins to increase the closer she comes. Soon she's standing beside his bed, and her strong, slender fingers are tentatively stroking his hair like she does the kids'. It's just the barest of touches, feather-light and careful like she's afraid she'll wake him—which she would have had he actually been asleep—and it's gone before he can figure out how he's supposed to feel about it. The only thing he's sure of—the one clear thought standing strong against the whirling zephyrs in his mind—is that he wants her to be that close to him again.
Afraid of that irrational desire and how she might react should he somehow express it, he keeps his eyes closed and his breathing as steady as possible, though he can't keep his heartbeat reined in and he's a little surprised that she hasn't caught on to him yet. After a moment, she brushes her fingers against his bangs once more, slower this time, almost tenderly moving them off of his forehead. Just when he imagines she might be leaning over him, close enough that he thinks he can smell her breath washing over his face and his heart begins to beat even faster in anticipation—she turns and slips away, and he's left wondering if he had in fact fallen asleep enough to be lost in such a realistic dream.
It's not until the door latch settles into place with a small, resolute click that he opens his eyes. He heaves a deeper breath to calm himself, taking in the scent of rosemary and honey and mint still lingering in the air around him and raking his own calloused fingers through his hair in subconscious imitation of her touch.
He's been thinking (brooding, Tifa always calls it) a lot these past few days, and this latest turn of events has him even more confused than ever. He still doesn't know what to think…not about how she's acting, or how he's reacting, or how he should have been reacting. Or how he probably should have been the one acting in the first place (Be a man, Cid grouses in the back of his mind). But he doesn't really think he can, not just yet. Especially not now.
Once more, it's all the thinking that keeps him from falling victim to his perpetual weariness, and sleep doesn't grant him solace until the sun begins to creep up into the horizon, slowly breaking its rays across the waking city.
A few nights later, Tifa comes into the room long after he's gone to bed, after her nightmare and after she's checked on the kids. This time, after watching over him for a moment, she bends to place a soft kiss into his hair. There's no hesitation, no tentative fingertips touching him first to gauge his reaction, and it's all he can do to keep from reaching for her and making her confront him while he's awake—while she knows he's awake.
Despite instinct, despite the want and need to move, he manages to stay still, hoping she doesn't notice the heat building on his cheeks. She stands there for a few more seconds before silently slipping out, and he lays there for a long time, even more awake than before, with his heart pounding in his chest so hard it's almost painful.
Bahamut, Sephiroth, and he doesn't have the guts to face her.
But maybe that's his duty now…his next move, now that all the rest of it has been dealt with. It's time to move on with his life—their lives. And she's already put herself out there and drawn first blood. There's no reason for him to back down now.
Without giving himself a chance to second-guess, he pulls back the covers and rises, tugging the string on his sleeping pants a little tighter and padding down the hall. His bare feet make only the faintest of sounds on the hardwood floor…one, two, three, four, five steps and the knob on her bedroom door is in his hand, cold and soothing against his palm. He shivers a little but keeps carefully quiet, opening the door with as much stealth as his nerves will allow.
It's dark in her room. There's no moonbeams threading through the curtains, nothing beautiful or romantic or even particularly striking about the setting, but maybe that's the way it should be. He supposes after all they've done and all they've been through that they're not meant for all that, for falling in love over wine and roses and long talks about nothing. But that's okay. He thinks she would be okay with it too.
She's fast asleep in her bed, head resting on one bent arm on her pillow and her well-worn blanket twisted and wrapped tightly around her as if she'd been tossing and turning before finally giving in to exhaustion. He kneels on the floor beside her, and without his brain really giving the command to do so, lifts his hand and strokes his fingers along the dark tresses draped over her shoulder, lightly so she doesn't awaken just yet. She lets out a sigh and seems to relax a bit more, fingers loosing their grip on the covers. In some part of his mind he entertains a thought that it might be because of him, that she's reacting to his presence or his touch, and he likes that selfish little idea, likes the feeling that he's comforting her somehow. It's a nice change from all the heartache he knows he's caused her.
He loses himself in thought until she stirs slightly, murmuring softly in her sleep and then whispering his name, and the effect on him is sudden and profound. In that moment, he realizes just how much he genuinely wants to be a comfort to her, and how very much he wants to give, no matter what she asks of him. Because maybe it's okay for her to ask anything of him. It always has been, hasn't it? And maybe it's okay for him to want her to ask. But maybe she doesn't even need to.
Maybe that's it, then. Now that things are over, now that his mind is clearer and he knows who he is and who he isn't… Now that he's started to forgive himself…
Maybe things really are all right, like Aerith said.
When Tifa does eventually wake up, it's to find him still on his knees at her bedside, gazing quietly at her and hoping she'll be able to read in his eyes all the mixed, muddled things he's been feeling and translate them into something he can deal with…turn all the what-ifs and maybes into something he can better understand. She's always been so good at that.
She doesn't say a word, though—not out loud. But that's okay. It's her gaze that speaks the most to him now.
He strokes her hair again, brushing sleep-mussed bangs aside and using those few seconds to gather his courage. Funny that it's here, alone with his closest friend, that he needs courage to act.
She pushes up onto one elbow gingerly and watches him, and he does his best to steady the fingers he grazes over her cheek and jaw, trailing down to rest lightly against the side of her slender neck. Her skin is almost too smooth, like satin beneath his battle-roughened hands, but she doesn't give any sign of discomfort or displeasure. He wouldn't really expect her to. Her expression remains only curious and open and calm, and it gives him heart.
"Cloud?" she asks quietly, like she's afraid to break the moment.
It's more timid than even he expected of himself, but her soft, soft voice prompts him to finally close his eyes and move in closer, his hand curving around her nape and some newly-realized instinct guiding his lips to her forehead and pressing there in a gentle kiss.
She doesn't move. She doesn't even breathe, and with her complete lack of reaction, the air around them becomes even more still and empty than before. It's almost stifling, and a tiny, cold thread of panic weaves into his mind and makes his pulse thunder in his ears. Has he read things all wrong? What if she…
Just when the heat of rejection begins to burn his face and his heart starts to feel like a lead weight in his chest, she takes in a slow, shaky breath and lets it out just as delicately, warm air stirring against his throat.
"You missed," she whispers.
The tender amusement in her voice gives him pause, and he draws back just enough that he can meet her gaze, his brow furrowed slightly and lips pressed in an uncertain line. He doesn't get a chance to shy away any further because she's suddenly leaning forward and kissing him softly and squarely on the mouth. It's startling, the velvet softness of her lips and the static fire reaction his body has to the touch. The next sound to echo through the room is, embarrassingly enough, his own—a muffled groan of surprise and unexpected pleasure—and he breaks away in a sudden fit of shyness.
"Sorry," he mumbles, ducking his head. He can feel his cheeks flushing hotly again, and rubs his hand over his forehead to hide the reaction.
She laughs once, quietly, an affectionate smile broadening the curve of her mouth and crinkling the corners of her eyes. The aura of contentment she's radiating is infectious, and though he tries his hardest, though his cheeks heat even more and he can't bear to bring his gaze very far away from his knees, there's no controlling the tiny, bashful smile that forms on his own mouth in response.
She lifts his chin gently with two fingers, forcing him to look back up at her. "Try again?" she offers.
He's relieved to hear a hint of timidness in her voice and see the shimmer of hope in her eyes; it calms his own nerves, and after a moment, he shifts up on his knees a little to be more on her level.
"Okay…" His gaze instinctively shifts to her prettily parted lips, then slowly back up to her eyes. "I'm a quick study…"
"I know," she breathes, moving in to meet him half way.
Her breath is soft and warm against his chest. One hand is curled into a fist beneath her chin, and her other arm is draped over his side and up his back, fingers splayed on his shoulder blade. He has an arm resting carefully over hers, lightly over her slender waist. Their legs aren't really touching, but that's okay. Neither of them is ready for that next step just yet.
"Good night, Cloud," is all she says when she finally closes her eyes, but he knows what she really means by it.
He buries his nose into the silk of her hair to breathe in the scent of her shampoo, then releases a quiet sigh. It feels so good to be so close to her like this. It feels...real. It feels right.
He may not deserve it, but she's here with him anyway. Just like she's always been.
I love you, too.