Even Heroes

The low rumble of the large engine barely stirred the occupants of Seventh Heaven in their beds. The moon shone brightly through the windows casting dark blue shadows across the rooms and the peaceful figures tucked up in their blankets. Then the low poetic growling eased out in a brisk cut of the ignition and the innocent sound of a small metal key hitting the hard garage floor was heard by nobody, not even he who dropped it. The wind howled a little outside in the moonlight as he began to make his way into the more homely part of the house, starting with the bar adjacent to the garage.

Tifa was unconsciously stretching her fingers out in her sleep, enveloped in a subconscious and peaceful nothingness, while the climber of the stairs' heavy breathing began to bounce, unheard, off the walls of the landing. Rasping as quietly as it could from the dirt and stones amongst other things stuck in its throat, it slumped every other footstep into the other making the floorboards creak. There was a loud thud against the door frame closest to Tifa's room and then one last painful gasp. Upon hearing the sound Tifa began to open her eyes. At that moment there was the hard crash of a body onto the wooden floor outside and she was suddenly very awake, pulling her nightgown from her bedpost. She threw it on and opened the door.

"Cloud!"

She hastily hooked her arms underneath his shoulders and began to pull up his tattered form.

"What's wrong with Cloud?"

Denzel and Marlene had appeared from behind their door, weary-eyed and concerned in their confusion.

"It's okay. I can look after him. Go back to bed, okay?"

Reluctantly they pulled the door closed as they watched her manage to support him on her right shoulder with one of his arms as leverage around her other shoulder. As she'd adjusted to his weight she'd thought she'd heard him laugh.

She took him down the hallway and set him down on the edge of the bath in the bathroom and turned on the light, took off his boots and then his gloves. There she stopped. The gloves were torn right through. The back of his left hand was nothing but a red mess of ripped off skin. She carefully pulled it off nonetheless and set them to one side. He was barely holding himself up as she rushed through the cupboards to find the disinfectant. He nearly fell into the bath before managing to snatch at a wall tile and push himself back up by his fingertips. Her head snapped round in concern. She'd noticed he wasn't opening his eyes properly either.

She stopped her search for a moment and slid her hands around his face to see him better in the light. He made an effort to open his eyes but couldn't focus on her properly and she felt a hollowing feeling in her heart. It was then she noticed the scratches, cuts, rips, tares, all adorned by dirt and dust and streaks of blood, all down his body and clothes. She took a deep breath as she took it all in and then hurried back to the sink to finish preparing the disinfectant.

"I collided...with something..." he attempted to explain but she didn't push him. Her heartbeat was throbbing in her ears.

She brought a bowl of murky white liquid to beside his feet and wetted a cloth in it. She dabbed at a deep cut on the left side of his face and then down the gashes of his arms. She began to find, to her relief, that he was recovering a little.

His sweater was almost torn apart and she removed that too, finding a cut deep into the underneath of his right breast and a large graze down his stomach. They were deep and jaggedly cut, looking like the result of the relentless shearing of sharp rocks through skin. She had to resist the urge to turn away and recover as she wasn't used to seeing Cloud so badly hurt, at all in fact, and took back up the damp cloth.

"Hold still," she said to him.

He let out a horrible yell and thumped his fists against the walls, sending soaps to scatter round the bath and the light fixture above them to swing as she pressed the cloth firmly against his chest. Shadows danced about their faces, distorting Cloud's already tense face. He was still clasping his fists as she applied the disinfectant a second time but this time he was able to hold himself still through the pain. She also remained fast in her position. It was for his own good.

As she dipped the cloth in again for the graze on his stomach she bit her lip as she saw the blood curling about artfully, mixing with the chemicals and water in the bowl. She took another deep breath, retrieving the cloth again and wrung it tight. She turned back to Cloud.

"Stop!" Cloud was suddenly much more awake.

"I have to, Cloud, or it might get infected," she protested.

"But it will hurt," he swallowed.

She narrowed her eyes. "Then you shouldn't have got so badly hurt!"

Her voice had shook; he backed down.

She applied the cloth. His whole body tensed and his mouth hissed. He remained tense as the acute stinging began to ease and he began to adjust.

"Besides, I would have thought you'd be used to this with all the fights you used to get into." She smiled in an attempt to distract them both.

He was silent for a while as she finished disinfecting the wound. He finally replied, "They were over you." Her eyes lost a little focus and she didn't look up.

I know.

When she was finished, both disinfecting and bandaging his wounds, she stood up and began rummaging through the cupboards again. She then cursed and disappeared into the hallway while Cloud tried to keep himself upright and ignored the impulse to bend over and hug his stinging wounds. She finally arrived back with a pair of his trousers that he'd often wear to bed and a couple of pain-killers.

"I don't need them."

"Take them or you won't sleep," she replied firmly.

He studied her facial expression before realising this wasn't something he was going to win, certainly not in his state, and swallowed them down. She cleared away the bloodied disinfectant solution as he managed to slowly slide on his trousers from his perch on the bath, having politely refused her help. He wanted that much control at least. But then, as he began to stand up, his legs, strained from the fall from his bike, faltered under the pain. She managed to catch him just in time.

She helped him back along the hallway in the same fashion that they'd come. She slowly propped him against the door frame of his bedroom and found her way inside. He saw the glow of his bedside light come on and the sound of bedclothes being pulled backwards across the bed. She re-emerged and helped him back off the wall. He was smiling to himself as she manoeuvred him through the doorway, keeping her firm grip on his arms.

She has no idea that this feels just like it did several years ago...

Lining up alongside his bed, she began to help ease him backwards but found herself caught under his weight. They both fell backwards. The mattress compressed softly as they collided with it and each other and she found herself wrapped in his arms beside him on the bed. The room remained silent for a long time. He made no effort to move his arms. She feared to move in case she hurt him. But then she forgot about everything else in the room, her own bed, the moon outside, the wind brushing past the window, and let herself sink into his chest, gripping lightly at his skin, savouring that he was okay.

A few moments more and she let herself up, being careful of his injuries. His left hand trailed uselessly against her side as she pulled away and then pulled the bed sheets over his bandaged form. She bent over, turned off the bedside light and moved towards the door, but then he stopped her with a single word:

"Sorry."

His voice was raw from the dust and stones he'd inhaled. It made her heart feel as if it twisted as she turned to face him.

"What for?" she uttered.

"You're always here to look after me... but all I want to do is to look after you, Marlene and Denzel."

She let her eyes close briefly as a calm emotion rushed over her and she made her way to come beside his bed. Taking his rigid left forearm in her hands, she bent down so that her mouth was next to his ear and said, "Even heroes need looking after." She then let herself kiss him softly on the cheek.

He stared after her as she made for his door again, his arm yet again useless to him, but felt something ease in his chest. She paused briefly and then gently closed the door behind her. He was left with the image of her in her nightgown, in the hall's dim light with a sweet smile across her face.

He didn't let that image go as he closed his eyes and let it linger in his memory as he fell asleep. Despite everything, it was the most peaceful sleep he had had for a long time.