Disclaimer: Definitely not mine; always returned to Square Enix only lightly traumatized.

A/N: Set post-AC but pre-DC.

Acknowledgements: A line out of the highly talented Kitsune13 (aka TamLin)'s 'Trust', a ficlet from her For Their Own Good collection sparked this bunny. I found myself nodding in agreement when Kitsune postulated that Cloud really left Tifa and the kids prior to AC because he was afraid that Sephiroth might take over his mind again and force him to attack his family.

Warnings: Angst with lashings of citrus.

Bouquets to my awesome betas, Ranuel and SilverOnTheRose.

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Hunted

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Tired.

She's so tired.

All she wants is a deep, undisturbed sleep, where she wakes up refreshed the next morning – even once or twice a week would be nice. Is that too much to ask? She doesn't ask for much, but apparently even this simple request is too much for the universe to grant because the nightly parade of disturbing images starts the minute she closes her eyes.

Darkness bleeds red and her heartbeat surges until rhythmic thunder fills her ears. A part of her is aware of what comes next, but is helpless to stop the terror that will send her hurtling out of bed and down the hall to make sure he's there – whole and safe. This has happened too many times before; drenched in sweat and hardly able to breathe, holding herself upright with a shaking grip on his doorframe until her heart calms down at the sight of his sleeping form. She only stays until her legs will support her, usually after she's thoroughly chilled, before quietly closing his door and returning to her own empty bed. Sleep comes, but it is neither deep nor restful, and she has to disguise the dark circles the next day. 'Night terrors' are an apt name, she thinks.

Tired.

So tired.

If only her anxieties would stop running wild and disturbing her present, but the past just won't let go of her… or maybe it's the other way around? She prefers not to examine that idea too closely, just like she prefers not to recall the one time he almost caught her. She barely halted her headlong dash in time to prevent a collision in front of his door. He smelled of night air and warm leather as he blinked down at her while she babbled nonsense about thinking he was an intruder – when no crook in his right mind would dare invade 7th Heaven – then calmly suggested that she go back to bed in his usual flat monotone.

She also doesn't want to think about what might happen if on one of these fear-soaked nights she finds his room empty. So far, she's been lucky, but she doesn't know if her streak will last, just like she doesn't know if one day he'll stop coming home again.

Tifa's not stupid. She knows that her nightmares are fed by the fears indelibly stamped on her consciousness, first by her mother's death, then her father's murder. Biggs, Wedge, Jessie - Aerith - her losses have all left their mark. She knows how tenuous life is, and she's afraid, so afraid of losing anyone else. Cloud's disappearance without a trace in the weeks before the Remnants made their move and then his death at their hands made the first few nights after his return a living hell as her imagination replayed that heart-stopping moment over and over again... but it's been almost six months. He's been punctual, reliable and always calls if he's going to be late – like he did the night when she was nearly busted – but it appears that her psyche isn't ready to believe that he really is 'back'.

Tired.

Tired of this. Tired of waiting. Tired of wanting.

She knows who and what she wants – has known it for years – but he hasn't given any sign that he feels the same way. Not since that night before Meteor, and now she wonders if that was nothing more than circumstance. He keeps a respectful distance, even though he's become enough of a fixture lately to have the rest of the regulars designate a seat at the bar as 'his'. It's obvious that they also think of Tifa as 'his' as well, and she doesn't discourage that impression because it makes it easier to discourage unwanted attention. She often catches him watching her, but there's nothing to indicate that he wants anything more than a smile acknowledging his presence. Sometimes, when she isn't being hunted by nightmare, she dreams of the scent of his skin, of his mouth on hers, of his arms pulling her close... and that's harder to take than the terrors.

Not long ago, she pondered why it had to be Cloud that soothed her, why the sight of Denzel and Marlene tucked safely in their beds didn't have the same effect, but then shook her head at herself. Because of a promise made ten years before and clung to tenaciously by her foolish heart. In moments of hard truth, she admits to herself that he only promised to protect her, not love her, but the small part of her that's desperate to hang onto something of her childhood fantasies before they were turned into smoking ash insists on twisting his words into what she wishes to hear.

The pounding in her ears accelerates to the point of discomfort. Clenching her fists in her sheets, her body tenses for flight… then strangely relaxes. Her racing heartbeat slows, her breathing quiets and she slides back into darkness.

Until pain explodes in her chest, literally knocking her off the bed and onto the floor. She can't move, can't think until it abates and she struggles onto her knees. Peering around her darkened room, she vainly searches for answers until phantom flames boil around her, scorching her lungs, searing her skin as a haunting shout fills her ears.

This is beyond anything she's endured both awake and dreaming, and she can't stifle her terrified whimper. Staggering to her feet, she lurches towards the door, seeking escape as much as comfort while agony envelopes her. Stumbling, she nearly falls down the stairs before crashing through his door, the sensation of being burned alive powering her momentum right up to his bedside. Trembling so badly that she braces one hand on his headboard to keep her balance, she gazes down at his peaceful face and prays that he doesn't wake up. She knows she couldn't flee in time to avoid detection, nor deflect the inevitable embarrassing questions in a convincing manner.

He's lying on his back, his nearer arm flung up over his head in an attitude of complete relaxation, his other arm resting at his side. His blanket is pushed down to his waist and he's shirtless despite the cold. Tifa's eyes are inexorably drawn to the large, vertical mark indenting his skin just below his sternum, the one scar that's never healed, the souvenir of that day in the reactor when he first fought Sephiroth. She wishes she could just lie down beside him, rest her head against his chest and listen to his heart, but that would cross far too many lines.

Tired.

So tired.

Of carrying the torch in a one-sided relationship. Of patching her cracked heart with fantasies. Maybe this nightmare, more severe than any she's had before, is a sign that it's time she let go of the past? Let go of her expectations of Cloud? Sliding to the floor, she draws up her legs and wraps her arms around them. Resting her chin on her knees, Tifa unhappily ponders this idea for a very long time before reluctantly considering the realities of a fresh start. Perhaps a new hair style? Marlene keeps pointing out women with red tints, commenting on how pretty the colour looks, but she's not sure if she's that brave. Shifting uncomfortably on the hard planks, she also thinks over the necessity of a new wardrobe. Her heavy leather vest is as much a visual warning as a form of protection; perhaps something softer, more frivolous... more feminine? She uses her outfit to warn off potential trouble – both romantic and professional – but if she's really going to look beyond her immediate circle for companionship, then she has to try to appear approachable instead of intimidating.

Wiping her damp cheeks, Tifa can't contain the sense of defeat that deepens her sigh as she glances at Cloud. His face is turned towards her, his pale lashes fanning across his high cheekbones. She admires his lightly pouted lower lip and entertains the idea of a kiss goodbye, but immediately dismisses it, because that's another immutable line. Uncurling her legs, she stiffly levers herself upright. She's freezing, and her empty bed holds few attractions; maybe she'll tuck herself in with Marlene and start the process of convincing her psyche that the promise she's made to the children to always be there for them is more important than Cloud's long-ago vow to her. Rolling her shoulders and straightening her nightclothes, she starts for the door.

"Another nightmare?"

His husky voice freezes her in her tracks, both with its startling suddenness and the implication that he's been aware of her nocturnal ramblings for some time – and she really doesn't want to think about that.

"I'm sorry to disturb you," she whispers and dives for the open door.

He gets there first.

The door slams shut and he throws the bolt while pressing her up against the wall, caging her with his elbows and knees. They both know that she could easily free herself with a well-placed punch or kick, but he gambles correctly that she won't break his limbs. Tifa focuses on the notch at the base of Cloud's throat and tries to breathe shallowly so that their chests don't touch.

"I'm tired of waiting," he growls.

Tifa bounces her head off the wall hard enough to hurt when she looks up, then wishes she hadn't because Cloud's blue eyes are practically snapping sparks. "W-what?"

"When are you gonna forgive me so that we can move on?" As her mouth drops open in shock, he adds, "I think I've proven enough times that I meant it when I said I was back."

Her hands land on his bare chest. "That's not...!"

His body tenses, expecting a shove. "Then why do you keep your distance?"

She flushes, drops her gaze, her fingertips fretting his skin. He waits, his harsh breathing ruffling her hair. "I thought you'd lost interest." she finally says.

"Lost interest?" he snaps. "Dammit, Tifa… what do you want? An engraved invitation?"

Her retort is edged with bitterness. "I'm not a mind-reader, Cloud. How am I supposed to know that when you say, 'I'm going to Kalm tomorrow', what you really mean is, 'I want you'?"

He lightly bangs his head against the wall. "What the hell am I supposed to do? Drag you upstairs and ravish you senseless?"

Tifa lifts her chin and glares at him. "You wouldn't dare."

Cloud scowls ferociously. "If I thought for half a second that's what it would take, I'd do it… despite the risk of getting my ass kicked." They face off for a long minute, and then his thumb tentatively strokes along her jaw. Tifa closes her eyes, and the tender contact moves across her lips. "I won't disappear again, I swear. If Sephiroth shows up inside my head again, I promise I'll tell you instead of taking off."

Without opening her eyes, Tifa flattens her hand over his heart as if to detect his sincerity, but she's really trying to deal with her whirling emotions when the man she's loved for longer than she cares to admit – the man of few words - speaks the exact words her wounded heart needs to mend. But first, she has to know. "Why would it be different this time?" Cloud remains silent; the fear creeps back and makes her voice shake. "I was so afraid to answer the phone, in case the call was to tell me that they'd found your body... and that was before I knew about the Geostigma. I th-thought you were suicidal."

Soft hair tickles her nose while softer words wisp over her ear, his lips brushing her cheek with every sound. "There was... so much darkness that I couldn't see another way out." The fingers stroking her cheek begin to tremble. "I couldn't protect you anymore and I was a danger to you as well. What if Sephiroth took my mind, and when I came to, I was covered in your blood? That fuels my nightmares."

The pain in his voice sparks compassion, and she's also humbled by the realization that she was too wrapped up in her own misery to give his suffering equal value... and that she's been punishing him by withholding the comfort that might have healed them both. Sliding her hands up over his shoulders and around his neck, she closes the distance between them and hugs him tightly. His arms lock around her, holding her so fiercely that she's briefly afraid for her ribs, but she forgets the discomfort as soon as he rasps, "I've lost too many people that I love... can't lose you, too."

Overwhelmed, Tifa focuses on the one word that makes her heart skip a beat. Pressing closer, moulding her body to his, she tries to show Cloud that she understands, that she's sorry, that he's forgiven – if he'll forgive her. He exhales, some of the tension leaving his lean frame, and his grip gentles. After a few moments, he murmurs, "Now that we've established that I am interested… how 'bout you?"

Cloud's taken aback when Tifa kisses him, mainly because it isn't a shy little peck but rather a full-on lip-tackle, but he quickly adapts. His hands drop to her hips, yanking her hard against him while his tongue demands entrance to her mouth. She opens to him, then returns the favour until they're both making needy sounds in the backs of their throats while clinging desperately to each other. Tugging gently on her hair, he tilts up her face. "No more waiting," he declares, but there's a tiny question mark lingering in his tone.

Tifa breathlessly nods, and Cloud grins wolfishly before lifting her off her feet. She wraps her legs around his waist as he carries her over to his bed, a nervous giggle bubbling out of her throat. He stumbles when she hides her face in his neck because her lips on his skin are highly distracting and he ends up precariously balanced on the very edge of mattress. They both laugh, until Tifa shifts in his lap, sending an inadvertent reminder that only two very thin layers of fabric are separating them; Cloud kisses her softly and deeply while pulling her firmly against his arousal. Breaking the kiss, she reaches down between them, but before he can wonder what she's doing, she whips her nightshirt up over her head and throws it on the floor.

He's startled by her boldness but he does his best to not stare like he's never seen her breasts before until she catches hold of his hands and cups them around her generous curves. Caressing her budded nipples, he feels her shiver while watching her eyes half-close, listening to her quiet moan. Despite how good his touch is obviously making her feel, he jumps a little when she returns the favour with quick flicks of her nails, but he's soon pressing his chest into her palms.

One of Tifa's hands quests lower and toys with the drawstring on his sleep pants, her finger tips brushing over the cloth-covered head of his erection. When he moans into her mouth, the cord tightens, slackens and then she's exploring his length, running her thumb over the sensitive tip and circling the shaft. Within a few strokes, Cloud's legs are shaking and she lets out a small squeak when she finds herself tumbled onto the mattress as he hastily kicks free of his sleep pants. Quickly following his lead, she works her pyjama bottoms over her hips. He whips the silky garment down her legs and off, tossing it to the floor with the rest of their clothing.

His knee is between her thighs and she's eagerly reaching for him, but Cloud stops and simply looks, as if he's engraving every detail on his memory. His hands follow his roaming gaze from ankle to shoulder as he learns the contours and textures of her body. Tifa's also looking and touching, stroking the muscles of his arms and chest and belly, tracing the pale blond trail leading down from his navel into the darker curls below until he shivers and rubs against her thigh. His cheeks are flushed – hers are, too – as she beckons and he sinks down into her embrace, both savouring the novelty of skin against skin.

Tifa sighs contentedly, hugging Cloud close, his breath skating across her collarbone, his nose bumping her ear. He's trembling, and while they're both chilled from being naked in an unheated room in the middle of the night, Tifa is pretty sure that Cloud's as nervous as she is, because the goose bumps prickling his skin won't go away even though she's doing her best to warm him up. She likes the way his weight presses her into the mattress, how his angles fit against her curves, and she especially likes being surrounded by his masculine scent. Sliding one hand along his shoulder to pet the short hairs on his nape, she confesses, "I love the way you smell."

Cloud nips her earlobe before rising up on his elbows. Cupping her face between his palms, his expression tight, he asks, "How did we get so far apart?" and she knows he means after they'd been close enough to do what they're doing right now, on that rocky plateau with the stars and the Highwind overhead. A lump rises in her throat and her fingers curl against his back, but he doesn't really need an answer; they both know how the silence and the hurt on both sides grew too great to easily bridge. "Never again," he says determinedly and she nods, the new pact sealed with a kiss that goes from tender to intense with breathtaking speed.

Stroking, caressing, licking and nipping, they explore each other's bodies, learning how to make breathing hitch, backs arch, hips undulate. Cloud nibbles her collarbone before moving lower, delicately rolling her nipple between his lips. Tifa stutters his name and grips his hair to keep him in place, so he continues teasing the peaked flesh while his hand slides down over her flat stomach to palm her short curls. He hesitates, so she rocks her hips against the pressure to encourage him, then risks being considered too forward by taking his hand and showing him how she likes to be touched.

He doesn't seem to mind, eagerly following her whispered pleas until her toes curl and she cries out. The powerful aftershocks are still spreading through her body when he settles between her thighs and enters her, making her whimper and buck against the erotic invasion. Setting a fast, hard rhythm that leaves her gasping and digging her nails into his shoulders, he lets out a long, low growl when he rapidly succumbs. They remain intimately entwined for several long minutes, until their heartbeats slow down and their sweat dissipates into the room's cool air.

Cloud reluctantly moves, because it's the only way to retrieve the blankets. Tifa barely has time to formulate a grumble before he's back, wrapping himself and the thick material around her. "That was worth waiting for," he sighs into her hair, firmly tucking her against his chest, twining his legs with hers. Lulled by his heartbeat and warmth, she mumbles her agreement before belatedly realizing that Cloud has her thoroughly and effectively restrained. She's obviously not going back to her own bed tonight, not if he has anything to say about it, and she mentally flails about the reactions of their family in the morning until he says, "I'm tired of the walls between us. Stay with me, Tifa," and completely derails her rising panic.

"S-stay?"

"Move in, shack up, get married... whatever you want. No more dilly-dallying." He's warily watching for her reaction, which is something more akin to confusion than joy, at least until she realizes that he's giving her the choice of deciding how deeply she wants their lives to be entwined.

"I'm partial to the 'get married' option," she quietly states, and is awed by the way Cloud's answering smile just about lights up the dark room.

The following kiss feels like a vow, and they prolong the sweet contact for some time, until he asks, "What was your nightmare about? It must have been pretty bad for you to practically climb into my bed."

"How long were you awake?" she asks, mortified.

Cloud chuckles low in his throat. "The entire time. You weren't exactly quiet when you took my door off its hinges." Tifa fidgets in embarrassment; his hand sweeps slowly up and down her back in soothing strokes. Not really wanting to go back into that darkness, she stalls, but he's patient, and she finally tells him. His embrace tightens as he curls around her. "No wonder you screamed," he says, and she wonders how she didn't wake up the entire household, then worries that she did.

"It was awful." Surrounded by his warmth, she shudders anyways.

"That was how I died."

The blunt statement makes her tremble again, but he won't let her pull back to look up, instead keeping her pressed securely against his body like she's his anchor. Relaxing by degrees, Tifa soon gives in to the simple pleasures of being exactly where she's always wanted to be... safe in Cloud's arms. The naked part is pretty nice, too, and she takes advantage of the situation to become better acquainted with his abs and that ridge of muscle defining his hip until he's making encouraging noises and his hands are also wandering, quickly leading to more sensual activities that don't end until the stars fade into the dawn.

Tired.

So tired.

Tifa can barely keep her eyes open the next day while she makes breakfast for the children and waits on customers, but she also can't quite wipe the brilliant grin off her face as she contemplates a nightly slumber disturbed only by Cloud's amorous intentions.

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