I'll admit, this one was a bit of a challenge. mom calling asked for a song fic. I was surprised how hard it was to find the right situation to fit the words of the song. I'm amazingly pleased by the way this one came out though and still coming down off the euphoric high writing it gave me. mc - I hope the wait was worth it. This one is entirely for you.
Sometimes When We Touch
Patriotic music was playing over the speakers and near him two boys his age were talking – loudly – about what they'd do to the Japs when they got their hands on them. Cloud rubbed his fingers against the frayed strap of his pack and ignored them as best as he could. It wasn't hard at this hour of the morning. He hadn't slept last night. He hadn't slept the night before that. He didn't know if he's slept since the draft notice had come in the mail. He'd felt as if he should join the fighting. It seemed like the right thing to do. The world had gone insane just over the ocean and it seemed like every day what little sanity was over there disappeared a little bit more. He'd meant to check out the different branches of service and see which one seemed best for him… but the draft notice had been waiting in the mail for him a day after he'd graduated high school. He hadn't even gotten the chance to make up his mind.
His father had said not to open it. It wasn't as if anyone needed to to know what was in those plain seeming envelopes. If he didn't open it, he could still go down and volunteer for the branch of his choice.
In the end, he'd opened it. Because he didn't know which branch he wanted and it was easier to let someone else tell him where to go.
Now he stood at the bus station and the papers were all signed and his shots were up to date and he'd gotten a sloppy haircut and he belonged to Uncle Sam. Body and soul.
He'd read the statistics. He was pretty good about digging up statistics. He knew that the survival rate among new platoons wasn't that good.
He didn't know that he was scared. He wanted the chance to do something, to be somebody. To be noticed instead of constantly overlooked. He wanted to be a hero.
It was just that he was old enough to realize that most of the time heroic things seemed to require dying. He didn't want to die. It wasn't that he was so in love with living… it was just he had no desire to stop doing it just yet.
He'd had an uncle that had fought in World War I. He would have liked to have asked him about what he should expect. Except, of course, the uncle had gotten himself killed in a hole in the ground thanks to Kraut gas during that same war…
If those kids next to him didn't stop talking about the war prizes they were going to bring back, he was going to reel off and hit somebody…
His head came up and his chest hurt. He'd really hoped he could get out of town before she caught up to him.
"Cloud – " her smile when she saw him was brighter than the sunrise happening somewhere behind her shoulder and she squeezed through the crowd to catch his hands.
Tifa… His best friend, his neighbor, his…
At least, he pretended she was his girl. They were best friends and he'd asked her out to the school dance. She'd said yes. Which had to count for something even though he'd broken his leg falling off a ladder a week before the dance and she'd ended up going with a bunch of girl friends instead.
All his practicing dancing in his room late at night had been for nothing.
Now though she had her hands in his and she was smiling but her eyes were so worried it made him want to wrap his arms around her. He wondered if she was scared and he thought she probably was and that made it a little easier for him to be scared too.
"I was worried I wouldn't make it. No one told me you were leaving today."
It wasn't exactly an accusation; she'd never come straight out and accuse him. It was still a rebuke and he dropped his head and moved the scuffed sole of his shoe against the concrete of the platform.
"Tifa… I – "
"I made you lunch." She was pressing a paper sack into his hands. "I know how long bus rides can be and I knew you'd get hungry. It's egg salad. I know you like that and it holds up pretty well. I made some cookies and they're in there too. And a couple of apples. I stole those out of Wister's yard." Her smile was brittle. "For old times sake."
"Tifa – "
"Here's the newspaper. For something to read on the ride. I want you to write to me. Not every day or anything stupid like that. But I want you to write to me and tell me where you are. So I can write back. I know your mom's… not so good about keeping track of things… so you're going to have to write to me, okay? Once a month at least when you can. So I'll know you haven't forgotten about me."
"The bus is here." Her arms were suddenly around him and the rest of the world disappeared. Everything but her and the terrible hole opening up in the pit of his stomach. Her voice whispered against his ear. "Write to me. Please, please, please, write to me, Cloud."
He nodded dumbly against her, hands full of paper bag and newspaper when they'd rather be full of her. Except –
"Do you love me?"
Her voice was so soft and so desperate and raw with emotion that his throat closed up. They'd never… he'd never… he wanted…
Tell her 'no' his conscience told him. Tell her no and let her move on. If you loved her, you'd tell her no and let her forget you…
"Cloud?" she'd pulled back enough to see his eyes and there was so much pain and hope in hers he felt it like a blade in his chest.
"I – " his breath rasped into him and he tried again. "Tifa… I – "
He didn't want her to be a soldier's girl. He knew how that ended already. They lived in a small town but some of the houses already had black crape on their doors. Maybe when he came back – if he came back…
"I-" he choked on his answer and watched her lips relax as her eyes softened. Around them the crowd was jostling onto the bus. She exhaled and suddenly her lips were against his.
" 'I-' too, Cloud." The kiss was over too fast and he hadn't had time to kiss her back and then she was suddenly out of his arms and on the other side of the crowd. He let the motion of other people carry him onto the bus and there were no window seats left. He crowded the kid next to him until he could see through the glass anyway.
She waved as the vehicle pulled away but all he could bring himself to do was press his palm against the window and watch her. The bus moved too fast and he thought… he thought it would be a very long time before it carried him back this way.
He was bad at this. So very bad at this. Next to him, Biggs dozed on the shaking, narrow bench and across from him Zack was doing the same 'good luck' routine – squats and quoting from Shakespeare's Henry V – that he did before every mission. Cloud had his own routine, though he wouldn't say it was good luck. More of a 'just in case I don't come back from this one' kind of thing.
He was trying to keep his writing legible so Tifa could read it.
When he had assumed the rest of the world had gone insane, he hadn't realized how right he was, how insane it was, or how some of that insanity had apparently spread to the commanders in charge of giving his unit orders. Some of the insanity had apparently spread to him too though because he'd volunteered to fill in a spot as scout when his unit had been assigned to assist the 3rd and he'd never actually gone back to his original unit after that. Zack said he was too good to lose and Captain Wallace seemed to agree. Since then, Cloud had unofficially become one of Darby's Rangers. He didn't even know where his original unit was anymore.
"Are you writin' mush, Spikey?" Zack asked without pausing in his squats, somewhere in between 'and gentlemen in England now a-bed' and 'hold their manhoods cheap'. "Ya gotta write her mush if she's your duchess. You gotta tell her she's the cat's meow. You know, say how you dream about her eyes at night and stuff. Dames love that. Otherwise it's just off-time jive, ya know?"
Cloud just tucked his chin into his jacket a bit more and ignored his English-impaired friend. Even though he did feel guilty. He should. Tifa deserved all kinds of really emotional, sentimental stuff. Flowers and chocolates and, since he wasn't there to give her those, words that sounded like flowers and chocolates.
He bet there were a lot of drug store cowboys in the big city she'd moved to that gave her flowers and chocolates…
He didn't know how to write flowery things though. And he didn't dream about her at night and he was glad about that. At night he dreamed about explosions and body parts and rotting dog corpses and sometimes, if it was really bad, he dreamed about being buried alive while white ghosting gas crept toward him. It was just before he went to sleep that he tried to remember what it felt like to hold her in his arms and see her smile.
Somedays… he couldn't.
"All right, you Molls," Wallace's voice roared it from the front of the plane. "We drop in five. Put your big girl panties on 'cause as soon as we hit, we're gonna be in the shit."
"He's so poetic," Zack chirped cheerfully without pausing in his squats. Cloud scribbled down a few last lines about the weird colored bird he'd seen outside the ruined church last week and then hastily folded up the paper. Pretending Zack wasn't watching him from the corners of his eyes, he held the wrinkled paper against his lips for a long minute and shut his eyes. Then he tucked it in his shirt pocket next to his copy of the Psalm 91 and leaned back against the wall, eyes still closed.
Later that day, when he saw Zack set off the trip wire and dove in the way to take the blast instead, his last thought before the world went dark was to worry that the letter had gotten his blood on it. He didn't want her to get his last letter with his blood on it.
The ceiling was white.
It matched the walls.
The walls matched the sheets.
The sheets matched the nurses' uniforms.
The only time he saw color was when he closed his eyes.
Then – everything bled red.
He turned his head and looked.
She was standing next to him. She was always standing next to him. Once… it would have meant the world to him. Now…
Now he couldn't feel his legs and half a man was no man at all.
Her grip on his hand was hard enough to hurt but he didn't resist it or try to take his hand back. Instead he looked blankly at her and she gave him one of her brave smiles.
He hated those smiles. They ripped his chest open worse than the explosion had.
"The chaplain is here," she told him and for the first time he bothered pay enough attention to notice someone else was in the room with them. It was a tall, thin man that looked harassed but had a peace in his eyes that made Cloud wonder what kind of medicine they were giving him and if he could get some of it too. He could share it with Tifa. Her eyes looked almost as ripped apart and wounded as his felt empty.
"Just say 'I do' when he asks, okay?" her other hand stroked his bangs back from his forehead and it felt nice. He grunted his assent. He didn't know why she was doing this. Marrying him. It had to be the stupidest thing in the history of mankind. He couldn't be any kind of husband to her and he knew for a fact that she'd had at least two other proposals from guys that still had functioning limbs since she'd started coming here to visit him every day. She should be paying attention to things like falling in love. Instead she was letting it pass her by and chaining herself to him.
He was a selfish – desperate – bastard and he was letting her. She was his ticket out of here. He couldn't take care of himself. There was no way he was going home. They wanted to put him in some kind of institution until he could figure out how to shuffle around for himself.
If they put him in an institution he was going to find a gun and blow his own brains out.
If he was married though, and his wife was willing, he could go home with her. She had to take responsibility for him since he couldn't take it for himself. Tifa had seen the panic in his eyes at the talk of an institution full of strangers touching him and she'd told the administrator that they had been planning on getting married before all of this had gone wrong. She'd flashed the ring he'd been given by some weird resistance lady the night they'd slipped through the German lines in Norway. It had a wolf's head on it and it was obviously a man's ring but the woman had told him it was good luck and, what felt like a lifetime ago, he'd sent it to Tifa on a whim, figuring she deserved the luck more than he did.
He hadn't realized she'd had it resized and actually wore the gaudy thing.
Now he nodded and grunted his way through the ceremony and even managed a listless 'I do' when she squeezed his hand.
He had to get out of this place and he'd do whatever it took, sacrifice anyone, to be free of it's suffocating smells and claustrophobic walls.
A week later, she brought him home to the tiny little house she shared with another girl and he moved in to the bedroom down the hall.
She was making him chop the carrots.
She always insisted on involving him in stupid little things around the house. He hated it. Some days, he hated her for doing it to him. He didn't want to chop carrots or peel potatoes or fix the lamp or polish the silver or make the chair she and Jessie had picked up on the side of the road level so it wouldn't wobble anymore. He didn't want her to find little things so that he could pretend he was useful.
He wasn't useful. He was dead weight. It took him half an hour to get dressed every morning and half of that time was just figuring out why he should even bother. He only shaved because she insisted on it and he only bathed because he couldn't stand his own smell. At night he woke up choking on nightmares and biting his tongue to keep himself from calling out for her. Half the time, she heard him anyway. It was the only time he'd let her hold him.
Now he haphazardly chopped what she set in front of him, intentionally making the pieces different thicknesses, and wondered if there was another episode of 'Lights Out' coming on TV soon. There had been one about a month ago…
"Cloud – " the exasperation was in her voice and he turned his head to look at her. Waiting for her to finally, finally break and snap at him. Waiting for her to finally give in and tell him what a useless waste of space he was and wonder out loud what he knew had to be going through her head pretty constantly by this point. Why had she ever bothered marry him? Instead she looked at the mangled carrots and her brows twitched over her eyes. Then she scooped up the cutting board they were on and carried them over to the sink where she added them to the pot pies she was making.
He considered throwing the knife at her. Hilt first. He didn't want to hurt her. He just… he just wanted her to get angry at him.
If she got angry at him, he could get angry at her. And then he could stop feeling guilty and as if new pieces of shrapnel dug into his chest every time he saw the disappointment in her eyes that she wouldn't voice out loud. The only thing worse in her eyes than the disappointment was the hope that had no foundation.
Restless and unable to get up and walk out of the room, he picked at the edge of the table with the point of the knife, concentrating because it was precision work.
The door opened and Jessie, the third member of their dysfunctional household, stood in it. She was soaking wet and Tifa let out a small noise and rushed over to her. Jessie made a face.
"The car broke down again. I had to leave it on Pine and walk." As an afterthought, she added: "It's raining."
Tifa made all the appropriate gestures and sounds and soon Jessie was upstairs taking a hot shower and Tifa had called some of her male friends to stop by the next morning and help push the car back to her house. Cloud watched it all impassively.
Tifa and Jessie needed a new car. They just couldn't afford one. Even though they'd bought within their means, it wasn't as if Cloud was working – his stipend from the government was dirt - and the expenses of merely living were just within their means. There wasn't a lot of money left over at the end of every month and certainly not enough for a new car. The repairs on the old jalopy they had were almost more than they could afford. He watched as Tifa, voice cheerful and friendly, hung up the phone for the last time and he watched as her slim shoulders sagged and she leaned into the wall and shut her eyes.
Then he watched as she pulled herself together and straightened up with a determined inhale. The mask she wore over her eyes looked even more fragile and brittle than usual.
"It'll be okay," she said and he wondered if she was saying it for him or herself. Either way he suddenly hated that phrase. She used it all. The. Damn. Time. A pipe burst and 'it'll be okay'. Jessie sprained her ankle and had to stop working at the diner and 'it'll be okay'. He fell over and she found him before he could drag himself to a door handle or bedpost to haul himself back up and 'it'll be okay'.
God damn it! How many times was something going to 'be okay'?!
"Stop it!" he snapped it in a low growl before he realized he'd opened his mouth. She turned to him with wide eyes and he saw the anger flare to life in them too.
"It's not 'going to be okay'," he snarled it, hands fisting on the table in front of him. "It's not going to get better. That car you have is a piece of shit. It's always falling apart on you. It's useless and worthless and broken and you just keep dragging it around with you like it's some kind of lost dog that's going to get better eventually. Well, it's not. It's going to keep falling apart on you until one day it just dies. You should toss it out and let the junkman take it. Stop playing the martyr. It's old. Get yourself a real car you don't have to take care of."
Her silence was so loud it was a scream and her lips grew white at their edges. Her hands, in fists now as well, trembled and her eyes were either going to burst into flame… or tears.
"You're an idiot for getting it in the first place," he added sharply. "There were better cars out there when you settled for that piece of junk."
For just a second, her lips twitched. The beginning edge of a snarl or the hint of a bursting damn. Then she turned on her heel and marched out of the room, arms held stiff at her sides, back ramrod straight. His chair was by the door however and he caught her wrist roughly as she stalked past him.
"Don't –" she warned and there was a quiver in her voice.
"Break," it hissed out of him. "Why won't you just break, damn it?"
She made a noise and it was furious but she also raised her eyes to the ceiling and locked her jaw. Her "don't" grit through her teeth and it sounded like slowly breaking ice. Before he realized what he was doing, he yanked her and she lost her balance at the unexpected move. Rough, he caught her in his arms and hauled her into his lap.
"Stop it, Teef," his voice had her shuddering and she shook her head, stubbornly staying stiff. He pressed his face into her throat.
"Why won't you hate me?"
"Don't… don't… please, don't… just… don't," her voice got smaller and smaller with each word and by the end she was shaking so hard she couldn't stay inflexible anymore. She inhaled and tried but the inhale turned into a sob. She covered her mouth in horror but the next sob came and that was the end of her. Her body shook so hard he was afraid she was going to dislocate something and, even buried against his shoulder, her sobs were loud enough he knew Jessie heard them. He wrapped his arms as tightly around her as he could and held her against him, bowing his own body forward to curl around her slender frame. Her hands clutched at him and her fingers dug in like talons and still she cried. She cried as if her heart was breaking but he knew better. He knew it had been broken all along.
Rocking gently, he held her and murmured nonsense words into her hair while she shuddered and clung to him.
"I'll fix it," he found himself saying. "I'll fix it for you. I'll make it okay. I promise."
He hadn't meant it to turn into a business. He'd just meant to fix the girls' car. He'd realized he was good with engines while he'd been in the army and he'd figured he could transfer that over to jury-rigging a civilian vehicle just as easy.
Whatever he'd done, apparently he'd done it well enough that Jessie told one of her friends in the secretary pool who was also having problems with her car. Cloud had been embarrassed but he'd fixed her car too.
That woman had told one of her friends.
He still couldn't move around easily. He had no feeling in his left leg at all and it twisted a bit crooked at the hip. From the knee down on his right side he had no motor control and everything he did manage to feel on that side felt muted, as if his leg was wrapped in layers of thick cotton. He had braces he was supposed to use but most of the time he abandoned those for the mobility of crutches instead.
He wasn't going to get any better than he already was.
The cars didn't care though. He wasn't running any foot races with them. It was easy to brace himself up against the side of an engine and even easier when it was an oil change and he could lie down on the dolly and roll himself around. He usually got filthy but it was a clean kind of filthy and the oil didn't smell like blood. Sometimes… he could sleep the whole night through…
"Cloud – "
He rolled himself out from under the car he had been working on and rubbed at his cheek with the back of his hand. Tifa grinned at him and set down her bag of groceries. He saw green stuff sticking out of the top. She really liked her vegetables. He tolerated them, mostly because she added meat to most of the things she made.
Now that he was actually hungry at the end of most days, he'd noticed that Tifa made the best meals.
She sank down to her heels in front of him, taking the rag off of his shoulder to rub the oil he'd just smeared across his cheek clean and he sat up for her. She was smiling and relaxed as she did it, her touch just as gentle and caring as he could ask for.
She touched Jessie the same way.
It was like they were all siblings. Everything was comfortable and calm and level. The only thing she did differently for him was, when he had his nightmares and she was unlucky enough to somehow realize it, she snuck into his room and held him in her arms and stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head. He'd never had a mother that touched him so he couldn't guess if that was a motherly type of thing to do. It certainly felt comforting, the way he'd imagine a mother's touch should feel.
More times lately than not though, by the time she'd slip out of his bed and ghost back to her own room in the dead of night, he wasn't thinking thoughts that had anything to do with maternal affection.
She was too soft. She felt too good. Her body felt too warm and fit too well against his. What she roused in him was distinctly lacking in son or even brotherly feelings. The feelings she woke up in him were starting to bleed over into his daylight hours too.
It would help if she wasn't so pretty. And soft. And have a smile like that and look at him with those warm, dark eyes and…
It would probably help if she just wasn't Tifa. He didn't feel much of anything for Jessie for instance.
Now he watched her eyes while she cleaned off his cheek and he wondered what it would feel like to kiss her. She had soft, expressive lips with secrets that hid in the corners of them. The only kiss they'd ever shared had been one she'd given him and he hadn't been able to return it. He'd never had the nerve to kiss her before that, when they'd been kids. They hadn't even kissed when they'd been married…
He didn't know if he had the nerve to kiss her now. Or the right.
She did so much for him. It didn't seem right to put her in an awkward position where she'd feel obligated to do something more.
It would help if she didn't smell so good…
Her voice was a little weak and he realized how close into her he'd leaned. Very carefully, very slowly, he lifted his hand and his thumb brushed her cheek. It put an unintentional smear of grease across it. It surprised him how hard that single spot of darkness against her pale skin made it not to kiss her. She watched him with wide eyes and he felt a little ashamed of himself. She'd given up her life for him in the 'no greater love…' kind of way.
She deserved so much more from him than he was ever going to be able to give her.
With a grunt, he dropped his eyes and took the rag from her slack hand. Finding a clean spot on it, he reached up again and carefully wiped the oil off of her. She closed her eyes and let him.
He realized he was leaning in again.
What about a 'thank you' kiss? That would be okay, wouldn't it? Just… kiss her politely and say thank you –
Before his head could catch up and tell him how little sense that made, he'd already closed the thin distance between them. His lips bumped lightly up against hers. Before he could say anything though, she sighed out his name… and he forgot he'd planned anything other than the kissing her part.
He closed the distance for another kiss.
And then another.
When he drew back the third time, she followed him. Just barely but it was enough. More than enough. He wove his fingers through her hair, curling them around the back of her head and pulled her in for another kiss. A real kiss. The kind of kiss that had her making a little, soft noise in the back of her throat and following him when he braced his back against the side of Mrs. Winter's car and pulled her closer. Her hands left where they'd been curled against his chest and he felt her fingers, shy and light, in his hair. It made him smile and he pulled her into his lap. She came and her head fell back on his shoulder. When he looked down into her face –
"I love you," he told her and the light that flooded her dark eyes held every star that had ever existed in the night sky. This time it was her that gently tugged him down and he went without hesitation, finding her mouth with his own again.
Everything really was going to be okay.