A/N: I've been struggling to get this fic written for some time now, mostly because it deals with an issue that is very serious and one that I tried hard not to trivialize. While this remains fan-fiction, this is also my attempt at portraying an issue that is very real for many people. Self-injury is not easy to get over and I will not insult anybody by depicting that it is. The journey to ridding oneself of such a burden is painful, but it is not hopeless. This is my attempt at showing that. So, while this fic was written for entertainment, it was also written with the hope that somebody somewhere will be encouraged by this.

As a side note, while I'm borrowing parts of the vision statement from To Write Love On Her Arms, I actually am not affiliated nor have I participated in any of their events. Regardless, check out their website if you have time. Good cause.

Disclaimer: I make no profit from this piece of fanfiction. Final Fantasy VII and all the characters within are property of Square Enix.


TO WRITE LOVE ON HER ARMS

The vision is the possibility that your best days are ahead.
The vision is the possibility that we're more loved than we'll ever know.
The vision is hope, and hope is real.
You are not alone, and this is not the end of your story.

From the vision statement of the organization To Write Love On Her Arms


The first time Cloud met her, he marveled at how someone with so much life in her eyes could ever try to take it away.

He'd thought that she was a social worker like him, that first time. After all, she acted like she was, looking after the others in the help center and never asking anything for herself. She worked tirelessly to comfort the weeping, to feed the hungry, to mend the broken. It was so easy to believe that she was an angel sent to bring these people relief.

He didn't realize that she herself was in need of rescuing.

It was Aerith, the director of human resources at the center, who told him that she was a cutter. He didn't think it was possible that someone who gave so selflessly and smiled so freely could hurt anyone, especially herself.

But, of course, appearances are deceptive. Or maybe, the problem was that appearances are too true. Although Tifa never told anyone why she did it, Aerith believed it was exactly because she gave so much that she had nothing left to save for herself. She emptied herself and because she sought nothing in return, she could only rely on self-inflicted pain to fill up the emptiness.

He didn't quite understand it, but he was resolved that he would.

When he went to meet her, she was sitting at the bedside of a little boy, carefully wiping the sweat off his forehead. The boy, whose name was Denzel, had been recently orphaned by a gas pipe explosion near the building where he lived. He was spared only because he'd been out playing a game of kickball with his friends. With nowhere to go and Edge's foster system as shoddy as they come, three weeks ago, he'd somehow found himself collapsed in front of Seventh Heaven Support and Shelter.

Since his arrival, she had taken it upon herself to care for him personally, a difficult task in all respects. Nobody knew how long the boy had gone without food, but his body was so very weak and he was prone to illnesses on and off again. It took much patience and diligence to sit by his bedside for hours at a time, using a wet towel to cool his body when his fever peaked, or tucking him in tightly when his shivers wracked his thin body. Food could only be administered in small, liquid doses and there'd often be more soup spilled on his shirt than there was in his stomach.

But she was nothing if not patient and after three weeks of unceasing care and worry, his health finally seemed to be taking a turn for the better.

Cloud stood in the doorway to the sickbay for a couple of minutes, content simply to watch the gentle curve of her lips and the kind light in her eyes. He still found it hard to believe that she could hurt herself, but when he approached her, his sharp eyes caught sight of several thin horizontal slices of white that lined the insides of her wrists. These were not too alarming; white scars meant that they were old wounds, wounds that no longer held mastery over her. However, what startled him the most were the raw scabs of red that crisscrossed with the white. These were recent marks, probably only a couple of days old, if that.

It chilled his heart to see the proof of her self-abuse.

He hesitated, not sure if he was welcome here, but she noticed his presence and turned her head to smile at him.

"Hello," she greeted simply. She had beautiful eyes, he noticed at once. He wondered why they pulled at his heartstrings so, until he realized that it was because they were filled with such sorrow. They were like a river: the calm surface above belied wild currents beneath.

He stopped when he was a couple of feet away. "I'm—"

"Cloud Strife. I know. You're the new Assistant Director. Zack told me they needed an extra hand up in the offices after he and Aerith get married."

"Yeah, that's me."

Laying the towel down on the bedside stand and dusting her hands against her cargo shorts, she stood up. She held out a hand which he automatically took. "I'm Tifa, but you probably already knew that."

He was slightly startled by her perceptiveness. "Yeah. Aerith told me."

She cocked her head to the side with an amused smile. "Well, what can I do for you Cloud?"

He lifted his hand to the back of his neck in a sheepish gesture. He'd been single-minded in his desire to meet her and talk to her. He hadn't really thought about what to say once there. "Um, I guess I just wanted to see if you could show me around a bit more."

"Didn't Aerith already do that?"

"Well yeah, but she seems like she has a lot to do and I figured it be nice to have someone who is…" he trailed off as he tried to think of an appropriate way of phrasing this, "…um…someone who's actually a resident here and more…familiar with being on the cared for end of things."

A fine eyebrow lifted. "I take it that Aerith didn't tell you that I'm a volunteer here too then."

"You are?"

She shrugged, a graceful rolling of her shoulders, and she lifted up her arms so that her wrists were facing him. "You noticed these, didn't you? That's why you think I'm one of your cases." Flustered, he didn't get the chance to respond before she continued. "It's okay. A lot of people think that just because we show signs of deviant behavior that that's all there is to us. For people like you, the single most defining factor about people like me is our 'problem.' It surprises you that I'd want to help other people when I'm supposedly just as messed up."

"I don't mean it like that…"

"It's okay. That's just the nature of society."

He nodded dumbly though in reality he didn't quite understand it still. It was true though. He had a hard time understanding how someone who was broken could spend so much time helping others before themselves.

The next time he had a chance, he asked Aerith about it. Her response was about as vague as the person she spoke about. Hesitantly, she told him, "Tifa…is an interesting case." (Tifa's words that people such as her often get treated as cases more than people came unbidden to his mind. 'She's not a case, she's not a case!') "She comes not because she wants help; she comes because she wants to help. In fact, it's almost as if she has to be helping someone at all times. But that's all she wants. She doesn't crave companionship nor is she afraid of being alone. She doesn't need the food or the shelter; she has her own job and her own apartment. She's nearly friends with everybody, but she never lets anyone get close. She's about as helpful a volunteer as any support center could ask for, but still…"

She trailed off and he finished for her. "…But she still cuts herself."

She smiled sadly and echoed softly with a nod. "But she still cuts herself. You know, it hurts to talk to her sometimes because I know she's in pain, but she won't let anyone in and she holds it all in as if she can beat this on sheer willpower alone."

They fell silent after this for a while. "Do you know her story?"

She shook her head. "No. I don't think anyone does."

"Family?"

"I don't know." He contemplated this quietly and didn't notice it when Aerith began circling him with a smirk. "You're interested in her."

"Yes…that's why I'm asking you about her."

She rolled her eyes. Of course he would take it literally. "No, silly. I mean you're interested in her."

He blushed and looked away but he didn't deny it.

Suddenly very serious, she warned, "Don't pursue her if it's only a passing interest for you. She deserves better than that."

It was interesting settling down into life and work at the Seventh Heaven. The people were friendly enough, though the founder of the center—a man everyone addressed as Sephiroth—looked like he had a couple of his own problems. Cloud found it strange that someone who seemed so cold externally would found a support center for the downtrodden. Cloud was inclined to believe that Sephiroth would rather trample on them than to help them, but obviously, Sephiroth wasn't nearly as cold as he appeared to be or else Seventh Heaven Support and Shelter wouldn't be in existence.

His days were filled with finding jobs and homes for recovering addicts, his nights often interrupted by phone calls spilling with tears. It was hard when people—friends—he'd worked with for months and who were making good progress suddenly relapsed, and the cycle started all over again.

It did not help matters that, even after several months, he could not get within arm's length of a certain brunette.

It wasn't even for lack of contact; he often worked side-by-side with Tifa since she was more familiar with the residents and therefore knew what basic necessities they needed while he handled the advocacy aspect. They worked well together, even. Unfortunately for Cloud, work and the residents at Seventh Heaven were all they ever talked about. Despite his many attempts to know her story, she always managed to steer the conversation in another direction.

It was frustrating to say the least.

But perhaps it is indeed true that one's past can only stay removed from one for so long before it returns with vengeful ferocity. Despite Tifa's best efforts to start anew, it simply was not to be. But perhaps she should have known better. After all, though she refused to acknowledge her past, she also refused to let go of it, as evidenced by the thin marks on her wrists. Maybe the occurrences during Cloud's sixth month at Seventh Heaven were in that way, a blessing in disguise, for if nothing else, it provided closure. Much needed closure.

The man came in early that morning. He was a distinguished-looking gentleman whose years numbered twice those of Cloud's. Though white colored his otherwise dark hair at the temples, it did nothing to take away from his regal bearing. He was standing patiently by the receptionist desk by the time Cloud came out to see him.

Seeing the man's immaculate charcoal-gray suit, Cloud wiped his hands somewhat self-consciously on his black basketball shorts before coming forward to greet the gentleman.

He had been in the back playing basketball with some of the kids (building rapport was his reasoning, though owning them at "M-O-O-G-L-E" was an added plus) when Yuffie had come running in excitedly about the businessman-looking gentleman outside (though her exact words were considerably less polite).

Speaking of whom, Yuffie Kisaragi herself was an interesting character. Externally, there didn't seem to be anything wrong with her. She was healthy (could run a mile in less than six minutes), positive (her laughter, though not infectious was relentless), and active (though perhaps a little too active).

She was also here involuntarily. At fifteen, she'd already racked up an impressive set of minor misdemeanors. After her last court hearing, the judge had finally sent her here, hoping to "cure" her of her kleptomaniac tendencies.

It wasn't until she arrived and settled down that they found out her problems extended far beyond juvenile misdemeanors. Despite her athletic ability, it became evident after two weeks of her living there that she was also bulimic, her cycles of binging and purging rotating even faster than she talked.

It seemed a trend here at the Seventh Heaven that so few people actually looked like they had problems. Then again, maybe that's why it had been so easy for them to hide it for so long.

Stepping forward, Cloud extended his hand and was gratified to see that the man didn't hesitate to take it. At least he wasn't one of those people who were too haughty to take a handshake.

"Good morning. My name is Cloud Strife and I'm the Assistant Director here at Seventh Heaven Support and Shelter. How may I help you?"

"I'm looking for Tiffany Hart." He noticed Cloud's perplexed look and quickly added, "She may be going by a different name like Teef or Tifa."

"Tifa Lockhart, you mean?"

The man's eyes narrowed slightly at the modified surname. "Yes. That should be her. Is she here?"

"I'll have someone check right now." Cloud shot a glance at Jessie, the receptionist, but it was Yuffie who volunteered herself.

"Oh oh oh! I'll get her."

She was off before Cloud could tell her otherwise. Returning his attention back to the visitor, he asked professionally, "May I ask what your relation is to Miss Lockhart?"

"I'm her father."

"Ah… Mr. Lockhart."

"Hart. Our last name is Hart."

Cloud slowly nodded. "My apologies, Mr. Hart. Are you here visiting Miss Loc—Miss Hart?"

Hart gave him a long, indecipherable look before replying, "No. I'm here to take her home."

"Miss Hart is a volunteer and not a resident here. She lives in an apartment close by."

"But you people know about her condition don't you?"

"…You're referring to her…self-injury? We are…aware."

"And yet you would let her live on her own? That's just all the more reason for me to bring her home since she's not getting the proper supervision on here." There was nothing pointed in his tone; he sounded too blasé in fact. But Cloud knew an insult when he heard one and that was most certainly an insult.

Carefully measuring his words, Cloud replied, "You do realize of course that we can't force anyone to come here against their will."

Something dangerous blazed in Hart's gaze and Cloud found himself wanting to take a step back despite himself. However, he'd come across too many angry family members and friends demanding why their loved ones couldn't be quickly "fixed" to start backing down now. As if it was really as simple a matter as flipping on and off a switch. Sometimes he wondered if these people who claimed to love the hundreds he's come across in his casework really understood the agony that had to be worked through.

Cloud continued. "We want to help people, but it only really works if they'll let us. Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Hart?"

The man grunted his assent and any traces of hostility were wiped clean. He was really good at hiding his emotions. Cloud couldn't help but mentally snicker at the thought. Maybe Tifa had it right after all. Lockhart seemed a far more fitting name for their family.

"Daddy? What are you doing here?"

Tifa's voice stole both their attention. The stern man that had stood before me suddenly melted into a warm smile and adoring eyes. This was a man that truly and utterly loved his daughter. It amazed Cloud how quickly a man could change dispositions so completely.

Hart caught the slight woman up in his arms and spun her around while she giggled like a little girl. When he set her down, her eyes were bright and she wore the most dazzling smile Cloud had ever seen her smile. For some inexplicable reason, it made his chest ache to know that he had nothing to do with its emergence.

"There's my princess!"

"Daddy!" she protested at the pet name even as she hugged her father closer. "I missed you Daddy."

"If you really missed me, you would come home," Hart pointed out.

Tifa sighed and took a step back though she still held onto his hands. "Daddy, we've already been through this."

"Yes, and I'm still not satisfied with your reasoning. I let you move out on your own because you promised me that a change in scenery would help." He turned her arms over and ran his thumbs over the scarred skin of her wrists. His eyes darkened and Cloud knew immediately where Tifa got her expressive eyes from. "Baby girl, you're not getting better. Come home."

"Daddy…" She shot Cloud a look and it was only then that he noticed many of the residents watching the exchange out of the corner of their eyes, so fascinated was he by the rare opportunity to see Tifa interact with a piece of her past.

Clearing his throat to get Hart's attention, he stepped in. "Mr. Hart, we have a break room if you'd like to continue your conversation with Tifa there."

"Thanks Cloud," she said, smiling warmly at him.

It may have been his imagination, but he was fairly certain that Hart's glower at him grew harsher at the familiar exchange between him and Tifa.

Whatever was said in that conversation must have been to Tifa's favor because Hart only stayed in Edge for another day before he left Tifa to continue with her own devices. When Cloud asked her about it, she merely shrugged.

"He had a meeting to go back for."

Cloud only believed it halfway. After his encounter with Hart and being on the receiving end of said man's over-protectiveness, he had a difficult time believing that her father would really leave her—especially if it had to do with her well-being—simply for a meeting. But she didn't offer any more so he didn't question her more than necessary.

Life went on as it had previous to Hart's interruption for another few weeks. By then, Cloud had basically acclimated to life at Seventh Heaven. He still sought to get to know Tifa better, but he found contentment in the fact that she considered him a friend.

Even still, it came as a surprise for him when he received a call from the local hospital saying that Tifa Lockhart had put his name down as her emergency contact and that she'd been rushed to the hospital that morning. By the time he arrived, she was out of the emergency room, but her body was still very weak from the blood loss. However, she was conscious and allowed to have visitors, though limited to only one at a time.

A little awkwardly, he pulled up the chair closer to her bedside and took a seat. She looked so frail, so much weaker than he was used to seeing her. "Hey," he greeted.

She tried a small smile but it didn't go very far up her face. "Hey," she replied quietly.

Not quite knowing what to say, he decided not to and simply sat quietly by her side. She didn't seem to mind the silence or maybe she really was just tired because she fell asleep soon after. When she woke up two hours later, he was still sitting there quietly perusing a motorcycle magazine. She said nothing for a while, silently studying the man sitting by her bedside as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

"Hi..." she whispered.

Cloud looked up from his magazine and his eyes brightened to see her up again. "How are you feeling?"

"Okay, I guess." The nap must have helped because this time she had enough strength to scoot into a sitting position with his help. She cocked her head to the side as she eyed him curiously. "Why…why are you here?"

He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Apparently I'm your emergency contact."

Red showed more easily on her cheeks now that she was still so pale. "No, I meant…why are you still here?"

He was sorely tempted to continue playing dumb and bait her because it was rare to see her flustered so, but decided not to aggravate her so soon after her incident. "I just wanted to make sure you're okay."

"Oh. Thank you."

"It's no problem."

They fell into silence again, but it was a comfortable, familiar silence. She didn't offer any explanation of what had happened and Cloud knew her well enough by now to know that she would tell him if and only if she wanted to. He went back to flipping through his magazine and she stared sightlessly at her bandaged wrists.

"This is the first time I've ever had to go to the hospital for this."

Surprised, Cloud looked up to find her staring back at him, some unknown emotion coloring her eyes a deep burgundy. He placed his magazine down on the bedside table and scooted closer. "What was that?"

"I've never…had an accident like this before. I've always been very careful."

Cautiously, slowly, though his heart pounded at the prospect that she would finally tell him her story, he asked, "Can you tell me what happened?"

Her gaze lost focus. When she began talking, he quickly realized she was talking about her first incident, not this last one that sent her to a hospital.

"I was just shaving my legs in the shower—you know, a lot of girls do that—and everything was normal, my life was normal, better than normal even. Even though Mom died when I was young, Daddy made up for it by loving me enough for the two of them. I had a happy childhood, well-cared for, had everything I could ever want. I had nothing to complain about.

"But then the razor slipped and everything changed. It was so surreal, watching the bright red of my blood wash down my leg. It was like I was in a daze, just watching the water turn pink as it washed down the drain. When the bleeding finally stopped and the water ran clear again, I suddenly felt so empty. It was easy to go from being fascinated by my own bleeding to using the sting of cutting purposefully to find escape. Maybe it's because I was always so careful that it was easy to fool myself into thinking I didn't need help. I'm not suicidal you know."

She turned pleading eyes to him, begging him to understand something he couldn't quite grasp yet. "I don't want to die."

Seeing someone who was usually so strong and put together suddenly appear so vulnerable did something terrible to his heart. It pulled at it, to and fro, kneading it like clay. It made him want to cry for her.

Instead, his arms came around her shoulders and he tucked her head into the curve of his neck. It was an awkward position, with the lower half of his body not quite fitting on the bed but he ignored it as he rocked her gently back and forth, murmuring soft words of encouragement though he suspected neither of them really cared about the words he spoke.

It seemed to be the right thing to do because she suddenly began to weep uncontrollably, her slim frame racking with sobs and her hands curled up weakly against his chest.

He wondered how many years of confusion and pent-up tears she was now releasing. He wondered how hard she must have pushed herself and suddenly he understood. She never sought help and always tried to help others because she felt like she didn't deserve to be helped. Because according to all the numbers and figures ground out by sociologists and psychologists and every other "expert" in the field, she had nothing to cut herself over.

It was almost as if she believed that because she was raised a privileged child, she had no right to seek help. She felt guilty that she couldn't stop cutting herself, but feeling guilty about that made the desire to cut that much stronger. And so was the vicious cycle in which she was embroiled.

"Let me help you," he whispered into her hair.

He didn't know if she heard him in the midst of her tears, but he thought he felt her grip on his shirt tighten ever so slightly.

Tifa moved out of her apartment and became an official resident of Seventh Heaven when she was released from the hospital two days later. She never acknowledged her breakdown in the hospital and Cloud couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed that she didn't. As promised, however, Cloud did not say anything to her father—which, he quickly found out was why he was listed as her emergency contact instead of Hart—in exchange for her willingness to seek counseling for herself.

The first couple of weeks were difficult. Many times Cloud found himself wondering if moving in to Seventh Heaven and giving her unfettered access to the other residents was a good idea. He began to understand what Aerith meant when she said that Tifa gave too much of herself to have anything left. There were many mornings when he came in for work and found her passed out on the couch in the recreation room from trying to do too much, still trying to make amends for injuring herself when others who had been through far more difficult situations had the strength to fight on.

It was easy to forget sometimes that she was still so young. People grew up quickly—too quickly—in the slums and though twenty was technically already well-into adulthood, it really wasn't all that old, and he saw the truth of that day in her every day. How often did he see twenty-year olds such as her trying to pretend that she didn't have the burden of twice her age on her shoulders? Too often, he grimaced. Of course, he ignored the voice of reason that reminded him he was only turning twenty-five himself this year. If one were to speak of burdens, his own would be no lighter.

But people are not made to carry burdens on their own and one can only go so far trying.

The next time Tifa was hospitalized, Cloud found he couldn't take it anymore.

Perhaps it was a good sign that she was hospitalized for exhaustion and not for cutting, but Cloud knew that the root cause was the same. She was burying her contempt for herself behind her care for others. It pained him that she would not trust him.

He was livid with her on the car-ride back from the hospital, even as the sense of déjà vu left a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Fear fueled his anger. It terrified him to think that one of these days she might not survive the next trip back from the hospital.

The first half of the ride was conducted in complete silence, only broken by the erratic honks of impatient drivers fencing them in the atrocity known as downtown Edge traffic.

Tifa spoke first. "You're mad at me."

"I'm not," he replied shortly, quickly—too quickly. He was lying and they both knew it.

"Whatever happened to the virtue of honesty?" she returned, a little barb entering her tone.

"Honesty? You want to talk to me about honesty?" He bit back the cold venom in his voice, but that didn't stop him from muttering, "A bit like the pot calling the kettle black, wouldn't you say?"

"Who's the pot and who's the kettle?" she retorted, her gaze returning to some distant point outside the window.

It disturbed him that she acted like she didn't care, like it wasn't a big deal that she'd collapsed from exhaustion. Like she didn't care about how she was working herself to death.

Frustrated, he pulled the car to the side and threw the gear in park. Without another word, he shoved his door open and stormed outside. It was somewhat foreign, this feeling of such intense rage. He marveled at it; he hadn't felt the flush of anger course through his veins so acutely for many years. But it burned within him all the same even as he struggled to control it.

Why was she doing this? She hated herself for being weak so she did as much for others as she could to help alleviate that sense of weakness. He knew it and to an extent, he could even understand it. He understood it but he could not understand it. He could not wrap his mind around the fact that she hated herself enough to harm herself. He could not comprehend why someone so good, so caring would despise herself so much.

Taking in several deep breaths, he tried to calm himself. It didn't help anyone to react the way he was reacting, but it hurt so much. Every time he saw fall asleep exhausted on the couch, or that damned forced smile when he knew she was bone-dead tired, it twisted his insides and made it difficult to breathe. She did that to him and it scared him. Because he knew that if she were to really leave him, if death came to take her away, he truly may not be able to take it.

Several minutes later, he heard her come up behind him tentatively. "Cloud…?"

Without warning, he suddenly spun around and caught her up in his arms. "I…I just want to help you. Why won't you let me?" he murmured against her hair.

"Cloud…"

Her hands slowly came up underneath his arms to stroke soothing lengths down his back. "It's okay. It's going to be okay."

And suddenly he realized she was doing it again, the very thing he was trying to confront her about doing. Why did she have to be so damned compassionate? Why did she care so much more for others than for herself?

Reluctantly, he stepped out of her embrace but his hands did not leave her shoulders. "Why don't you trust me, Tifa?"

She flinched noticeably, but she hid it immediately. "I do trust you."

"No you don't. If you trusted me, you wouldn't lie to me like this. If you trusted me, you'd let me help you."

Something in her snapped and her eyes flashed with anger as she shrugged his hands from her shoulders. "I'm not one of you cases, Cloud Strife! Did you think I'd be a quick fix? That you could just waltz right in and patch me up? I'm trying, damn it! Do you think I want to be a walking time-bomb? I'm trying, but I just—I don't know how."

It was only then that he noticed her trembling and her straining to breathe steadily. She was scared, he realized with a start. Anger melted away, he brought a hand up to gently brush back her bangs from her eyes, eyes so torn, so confused that it broke his heart all over again.

"I don't want to help you because I think you're one of my cases. It's not about work or anything like that. I just…I don't like seeing you hurt and knowing that I can't take it away for you. I don't know why but it kills me when I see you hurting and I never knew I could hurt so much here"—he pressed her hand against his chest "—when you won't tell me what's wrong, when you don't let me in. I'm not…I'm not trying to fix you. I want to care for you, to…to love you, but you won't let me."

"…Love?" she whispered shakily.

He gave her a helpless smile. "Yeah. Love."

"You can't—you shouldn't…" She gave up that line of thought and instead asked with great incredulity, "Why?"

It made his heart break all over again when he heard the utter confusion in her tone. That she had such a hard time believing anyone would truly love her….

"Because…for all the love that you have for others, you don't have enough for yourself. Because your smiles, the ones that you use to deflect everyone from you, makes me want to scream in frustration but your smiles—those true, genuine smiles—make me feel like the world is right." He cupped her cheeks and murmured, "Because I want to be the reason for your smiles."

She tucked her lower lip between her teeth and her brow furrowed. He wondered if it was really so hard for her to believe that someone could and would love her. It saddened him to think that maybe it really was.

He could almost see the gears in her head turning round and round as she processed this and he couldn't help but think that maybe sometimes she tried to think through everything too much.

Finally she looked him dead in the eye and very seriously responded, "I don't want to be coddled. I don't want people checking in on me every five minutes to make sure I'm not dead yet. That's why I left home. I love my father and I know he loves me, but I couldn't stand it anymore that he couldn't trust me. I know he has no reason to considering what I've done to myself in the past, but I couldn't stand being treated like a glass vase. If I do this…if I start putting my trust in you, I have to know—really know—that you're going to trust me as well. Trust me that when I say I'm okay, I'm really okay. In return I promise that I'll never tell you that I'm okay when I'm really not. Promise me this and maybe…maybe we can try."

He didn't think his lips could spread so wide, but he couldn't be bothered to care about that as he suddenly swept her up into his arms and spun her around, loving the surprised shriek and the ensuing laughter bubbling from Tifa. "I promise."

He set her down and he drowned in her eyes. He knew that she couldn't say it yet, but he had to let her know. "I love you."

She smiled at him, the kind that made the world seem right.

For a time, they were deliriously happy.

Aside from a terribly nerve-wracking encounter with her father to let him know that they'd started dating ("Daddy, put the shotgun down!"), things had never been better. They continued working together with the residents at Seventh Heaven and while she still gave selflessly to a fault—that was something that would never change about her and part of the reason he loved her so—she was improving. No longer would she work herself to the ground and everyone could see the effects; her smile was brighter, her steps lighter, and she was just plain happier.

Unfortunately, while happiness lasts for a time, some things just do not go away so easily.

Things began falling apart when Denzel left the shelter to be adopted into the family of a man named Barret Wallace. Wallace, at first glance, had all the makings of a stereotypical gang-lord. He was a large man filled in with intimidating muscles and a temper to match.

But, he was also a good man; an honest man. A kindly widower with a seven year old daughter in tow who understood all too acutely the pain of losing a loved one and that it took patience and perseverance to make a family work. They would never be a perfect family—all three parts too broken to fit correctly—but they would be a happy one. That was more than most could afford.

So it was that Tifa—heartbroken as she was—kissed Denzel on the forehead goodbye as he followed his new family home. Tears were shed, but only as much as was expected in such a situation.

Nobody could have known that this one event would set off a rapid downward spiral.

Without Denzel in the shelter, Tifa was deprived of the primary recipient of her care. Suddenly finding herself with a surplus of time and the unshakable urge to take care of something, she grew restless. With the restlessness came a compulsive drive to just work. And so she did.

She worked and she worked and she worked…

It started with a lie.

Cloud began noticing the resurgent bags under her eyes about two weeks after Denzel's departure. He knew that she had taken the boy's leaving rather hard, but he hadn't realized just how hard until he noticed the bottle of caffeine pills nestled inside her desk drawer.

His brows furrowed as a sick churning stirred within him.

They were taking a leisurely night-stroll through a local park, hand in hand, when Cloud asked her about it.

Eyeing the content smile on her lips, he almost wanted to let it go. She was happy. He was happy. Why say anything that may interrupt that? But he knew he couldn't be as irresponsible as that. Not only did he have a professional duty to confront people showing signs of relapsing, he loved her too much to ignore something that could potentially destroy her.

"Tifa?"

"Hm?" she replied, a little distracted by the wrestling pair of puppies just ahead of them.

"I found something, when I was looking for some tape in your desk. There was a bottle of caffeine pills there."

He slanted her a quizzical look, but hoped that it still appeared non-intrusive enough. The last thing he wanted was to make her so angry that she refused to talk to him.

To his surprise, while she was startled, she wasn't upset. Instead, she immediately brushed it off with a laugh. "Oh that? I bought it back when Denzel first came to the shelter. I needed it to stay up during the day because I woke up in the middle of the night to take care of him so often." A corner of her lip turned up in amusement. "Were you worried that I was over-working myself again?"

He reddened ever so slightly at being caught so easily. Still, while her explanation was reasonable, the pit in his stomach refused to leave. "Are you?"

She tugged on his arm to stop walking. Stepping in front of him, she looked him in the eye and said, "I'm not over-working myself. I promised that if I wasn't fine, I'd tell you. But I am fine. Will you trust me?"

Cloud sighed. What could he possibly say to that? Leaning down to press his forehead against hers, his arms slid around her waist and pulled her close. "If you tell me you're fine, I trust you. But I want you to trust me too."

In response, she went on her tip-toes to give him a lingering kiss before pulling away to pat at his cheeks affectionately. "I'm fine, Cloud. I really am."

Tifa was not fine.

This fact grew increasingly clear as the days passed by. Maybe the rift in their relationship was partly exacerbated by the fact that Cloud was too well-versed in the world of cutters to not notice the signs in Tifa.

Winter made it difficult to tell whether she'd begun cutting again because the long sleeves covered everything. Besides, he knew that Tifa would be smart enough not to cut in such a conspicuous spot as her wrists knowing who Cloud was.

Despite all that and the growing awareness that Tifa was likely both physically hurting herself again as well as lying to him about it, Cloud was still shocked when Yuffie—who quickly became his best informant after Tifa as to how the residents were doing—sadly told him that she'd seen scars, fresh ones, on Tifa's upper arm.

Eyes narrowed and emotions running on desperate, it was probably a poor decision of his to confront Tifa immediately.

She was laughing at a comment one of the alcohol addicts—Reno, if he recalled the name correctly—had made, but her eyes darkened with worry when she saw his closed expression.

"Cloud, what's wrong?"

Ignoring her, he pulled her to his office. "You lied to me."

Wrenching out of his grasp, her expression immediately turned livid. "What are you talking about?"

"You lied to me about being fine." He pinned a fierce glare at her. "You're cutting again, aren't you?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," she huffed, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

"No?"

He took an intimidating step forward and she automatically backed away, but was met with the wall behind her. Shooting out his hands, he grabbed her arm and shoved the sleeve all the way past the elbow to reveal neat rows of fine red lines arching across her biceps. Suddenly shocked into a stupor at the sight of them, he could take his eyes away from the proof that she was hurting herself again, and that—it burned him to think about it—she really didn't trust him.

She took the opportunity to shove him away from her and she pulled the sleeve back down self-consciously.

Cloud shook his head. "I didn't believe it at first. When Yuffie told me—"

"You had Yuffie spy on me?" Her voice rose indignantly. "I can't believe you!"

"I didn't have Yuffie spy on you. She was concerned about you, just like I am!"

"You promised you would trust me!"

"And you promised that you would be honest with me! This…" he grabbed her arm and pulled her forward, though even in his anger he took care not to hurt her, "…this is not being honest with me!"

She twisted her arm from his grasp and cradled it against her breast, the position of defensiveness she automatically took paining him deep inside his chest.

"It was just one time," she mumbled defensively.

"Right now it's one time and you still kept it from me. When's the next 'one time'? When does 'one time' turn into 'several times'? Into 'all the time'?"

She locked her jaw and glared, but she did not respond.

"Tifa, I'm sorry I didn't trust you, but be honest with yourself, did you give me good cause to trust you? It's not that I don't want to trust you, but I can't…I can't lose you. I'm scared to lose you to this. And I know you don't want anyone smothering you and I don't want to make you feel like you're restricted in any way, but have you thought about how hard this is for me? I…I care for you so much that it scares me sometimes how intense my feelings are for you. I'm not expecting you to love me the same way right now, but do you even care for me enough that you'll let me worry over you?"

He watched her earnestly as she tucked her bottom lip between her teeth. The ache in his heart grew the longer she remained silent.

"This…isn't going to work."

He wondered if people could really die from heartbreak because he really didn't think he could tolerate the stabbing pain in his heart. Clenching his teeth, he tried to breathe in deeply through his nose, but oh how it hurt!

She tried to place a placating hand on his arm but he couldn't—he couldn't—let her touch him right now. He shrugged her off and took a step back. "Don't. Not right now," he pleaded.

He didn't think it was possible for his heart to break anymore, but the expression of hurt in her eyes cut him.

"I'm sorry Cloud," she whispered brokenly. "It's not that I don't care about you. I do! More than anyone, but I just…I can't…I don't know how…"

In a voice far calmer than he felt, he finished for her. "You can't let go of the fear. When it comes down to it, you don't trust me to keep your heart safe. You don't trust that what we may have is worth the risk."

"Cloud…" she whimpered, but she didn't deny it.

"I'm…I'm going to take a few days off from work. Please don't try to contact me for now. I…I understand. I really do. I just…I need some time."

She nodded, tears of apology streaming down her pale cheeks. He wanted to kiss the tears away, but he didn't think his heart could take anymore. So he turned and walked away.

The week he spent away from her was the worst week of his life.

He'd meant it when he said that he couldn't handle seeing her at the moment, but he hadn't realized that the alternative was no less agonizing. He missed her smile, her eyes, her touch, but mostly just her presence in his life.

It didn't help that he was plagued with worries. What if he made her worse? Triggered a bout of self-injury? How could he face her then? What if, what if, what if. Doubts and anxieties troubled his thoughts during the day and haunted his dreams at night.

He had reacted badly, that much he knew almost immediately. He didn't mean to give her such an ultimatum—unvoiced and unintended as it was—but he had. Simply put, he'd put too much pressure on her. He made her think that unless she could tell him everything, trust him, then he wouldn't be able to love her.

But that couldn't be further from the truth. For her sake, he knew—he knew—that no matter how many times she broke his heart, he would still stand by her.

By the end of his furlough, he knew what he had to do.

She was surprised, he knew, that the first thing he did the morning he went back to work at Seventh Heaven was to knock on her door. It tugged at his heart when he noticed that she opened the door looking listless and red rimmed her eyes.

"Cloud?"

He swallowed thickly. "Can I come in?"

Nodding silently, she stepped away from the door and closed it behind them when they were both inside. Unconsciously, she crossed a hand to rub her opposite upper arm. He wondered if it was because of the thin stripes that lay hidden beneath the fabric of her shirt.

Taking a deep breath, he was about to speak when Tifa's soft voice interrupted him.

"I'm sorry."

Blinking, his brows furrowed that she was taking his words. "Tifa, I'm the one who should be apologizing."

She shook her head and smiled at him a little sadly. "No, Cloud. You were right. I didn't trust you because I was scared. Or maybe I was scared because I didn't trust you. Either way, I guess I expected more from you than I was willing to give you, and that wasn't fair."

"Tifa…"

He made to take her in his arms but she shied away. "Let me finish. The thing is, Cloud, I can't...I don't know if I'll ever be able to give you more. And it's not fair—" her voice broke and his heart along with it "—it's not fair for you to keep giving when I can't be sure I'll ever give back."

"What are you saying?"

She tenderly cupped his cheek and he hated it because that was a gesture of goodbye. "Cloud, I called my father yesterday and…and he's going to come pick me up today. I'm going home. I guess it's a good thing you came back today because I didn't want to end things badly with you. I honestly do care about you and, if possible, I really want to stay in touch."

She turned hopeful eyes on him but he was struggling to process everything. Going home? Andthey can stay in touch? Is that what they've been reduced to?

"No."

"What?" Her voice was weak and she looked crushed.

Snapping out of whatever stupor that had him bound before, the words flooded out without a check. "Tifa, I don't want to just 'stay in touch.' I know you can't trust me completely yet, and that's okay. I'm sorry for ever making you feel like my love for you was dependent on that when it's not. I love you for you and everything that comes with it, even the scars and the hurt."

Swallowing thickly, he knew that this was it.

He rolled up his left sleeve with deliberate preciseness and bared it before her. The sharp gasp that escaped from her made him want to chuckle a little, but he kept his expression serious. A tattoo with the bold words of "I love you Tifa" emblazoned across the length of his forearm.

"I know it's kind of crazy, and I'll admit that I think I was a little drunk when I got this done, but Tifa, I want to be there for you for the rest of our lives and I'll do anything to show you that I'm serious about this."

He dropped to one knee and procured a black velvet box from his jacket pocket. Flipping it open, he revealed a simple but elegant silver band with a single diamond crowning the top. "I can't really afford much and I know I don't have much to offer, but I promise you that everything I do have, body, heart, and soul, I want you to have. Tifa, will you marry me?"

He held his breath as first shock, then confusion, and finally disbelief flashed across her face. Unnerved by her ambiguous reaction, he rambled, "I know it seems sudden, but I've been thinking a lot this past week and I really want to spend the rest of my life taking care of you and I know it won't be easy and I'm not expecting it to be but I—"

Tifa stopped him with her mouth on his. His arms snaked around her immediately, pinning her body against his tightly. Pent up emotions, frustrations, fear, anger, all melted away in the heat of their kiss. His mind went blissfully blank as lips moved fiercely against lips and the warmth of her body scorched him. Fingers tingled as they trailed up and down her sides and slender digits dug into his hair until he couldn't quite tell who the quiet sounds of abandon were coming from.

When they reluctantly parted, both were breathing heavily and a film of red colored her cheeks.

Frowning inwardly, he realized that she still hadn't answered him. Aloud, he said as much.

She smirked, and the sight had him wanting to lose himself in her again because it was so rare for the darkness in her eyes to fade away so completely. "Do you have a sharpie? There's no way in hell I'm going to get a tattoo, but maybe you can write 'love' on my arms everyday for the rest of our lives?"

He laughed and kissed her fervently in response.

Their story does not end with a fairytale happily ever after.

No, there were times after they married that the conflicts escalated so badly, they thought about separating. Indeed, the instances were few and far between, but there were still mornings when Cloud would find their bathroom sink flecked with hints of blood and days when Tifa stormed home to her father's place in a rage that Cloud was still smothering her.

Yet, through it all, though there were tears and arguments and heartbreak, always, always they returned to each other.

And so they persevered. As many shadows as there were in their marriage, there was twice as much light. There was laughter and there was devotion. There were nights of holding each other tightly to fend off the nightmares and there were moments of pure elation.

So no, their story does not end with fairytale happily ever after, but it does end with hope. It ends with love. It ends with life.


A/N: Perhaps people will wonder why I focused more on Cloud's character rather than Tifa's when it was Tifa's character who struggled with self-injury.

The answer is this: I've never been a cutter myself, though I have struggled with bouts of depression (I think we all do at some point in our lives). However, I have been that friend. I've been the one who wishes I could have done more; the one who stands by uselessly and in agony because I don't know how to help; the one who kicks themselves at night because I must have been able to do something; the one who worries that maybe the next phone call will be the one to tell me that my friend has committed suicide. I know how scared I was when I got an email telling me that one of my closest friends was found bled unconscious in her bathtub—alive, thankfully. While I can never truly comprehend what it is that causes a person to actually take their own life, I do know that the pain of those left behind is sometimes worse because they're the ones who have to find a way to live on. In that way, it was easier for me to sympathize with Cloud's character and to write through his perspective, which, in certain respects, mirrors mine.

In the end however, this is a fic written from the bottom of my heart imploring, begging people to see that, yeah, life is hard. But please remember that, as much as it sometimes feels like it and as cliché as it sounds, you are not alone.