It was a horrible thing, to be jealous of your best friend. Jealousy in any case is an uncomfortable emotion: one part resentment, one part greed. But to be jealous of a friend... well, that piled guilt on top of the whole, which – while it made you feel awful on its own – fed the resentment until you could barely stand yourself.
Which was how Cloud had ended up doing his level best to avoid spending too much time with Zack. Considering they were both SOLDIER firsts and shared an apartment, it wasn't an easy task. At present, however, working himself to exhaustion in the training simulators was vastly preferable to hanging around the apartment with his best friend. Not that he didn't like Zack – it was difficult to imagine anyone not liking Zack – or enjoy his company. No, Cloud's sudden desire to avoid the other man was due to one very simple reason: given half a chance, Zack would start telling him about his new girlfriend.
The self-same Tifa that Cloud had been infatuated with since the age of ten. The woman his every sexual fantasy and plan for the future revolved around. The impetus for him leaving home and joining SOLDIER in the first place, so he could make something of himself and be worthy of her.
A few months before, Zack had been sent on a mission to Cloud's hometown of Nibelheim. By chance, Tifa had been assigned as his guide around the mountain, and the two had quickly become friends. That friendship had only grown during the four weeks Zack was stationed in the remote town, clearing out monster nests. The two had exchanged PHS numbers before he returned to Midgar, and long distance chats had since become common.
When Cloud had asked Zack about his new friend, wondering which of the boys back home had hit it off with the other SOLDIER, he'd been enthusiastically regaled with details about his long-held crush. That turn of events had come as a surprise, leaving him unable to do more than sit there gaping. Of course Zack caught the expression, and realizing that Cloud knew the woman in question, had only warmed to his subject.
Through Zack, Cloud learned more about Tifa than he'd discovered living next door to her for thirteen years, and with every detail Zack divulged, Cloud's heart sank a little further. It was obvious his friend was as taken with Tifa as Cloud was, and – unlike Cloud – had managed to catch her eye in return. Only a man in love would take so much notice of little things like her preference for coffee over tea, or her favorite color, or the fact that she slept late on Wednesdays. Only a woman similarly affected would bother to share such details after such a short period of acquaintance.
There was an unwritten rule that you didn't lust after your best friend's girl, even if – in your head – she'd been yours long before said friend had ever met her. Knowing that didn't change the way Cloud felt. If anything, it fed the jealousy that was slowly starting to churn in his gut. Why in Minerva's name hadn't he told Zack about the girl back home whom he was hoping to marry? If he had, things would be so much more straightforward. If nothing else, he could deck the other man for beating his time, and feel better for the much-needed release of tension. Instead, Cloud was forced to acknowledge that Zack had no idea how he felt about Tifa, and that she quite possibly wouldn't have been interested in his advances, had he had the opportunity to make them.
Unable to dismiss his feelings, and unwilling to act on the surprisingly violent tendencies they aroused, Cloud took to making himself scarce. When he couldn't find a reason to be elsewhere, he learned to recognize the signs that Zack was in a 'sharing' mood, and perfected tuning out the painful words while still responding appropriately. Which was fortunate, because there were only so many times you could listen to your best friend proclaim he was in love with your dream girl before you broke and punched him in the eye.
Cloud had been skirting that line for far longer than was comfortable, and knew that sooner or later, something was bound to push him over.
Then, about three weeks after his return to Midgar, Zack told him Tifa was coming for a visit, and would be staying with them in their apartment. Cloud blinked and nodded with a smile plastered on his face, while inside he died a little more. Tifa's father would never let her come stay with a man in Midgar unless the relationship was serious.
Afraid he would snap if forced to watch the two of them interact in close quarters, Cloud had gone straightaway to see if there were any missions for which he could volunteer, that would keep him out of Midgar for the duration. To his great and vociferous frustration, things were distinctly peaceful on all fronts. Worse, he'd spent so much time training that it was no longer a reasonable excuse for avoiding the couple's company. Hell, he'd already beaten some of Sephiroth's scores in the simulators, a fact that had made no small stir on the SOLDIER floor. Even he didn't believe he needed to train anymore.
Zack also claimed that Tifa was looking forward to seeing Cloud again. It'd been five years since he left home, and although he'd written his mother regularly, he'd yet to return home to visit. With Tifa's professed desire to become reacquainted, Cloud couldn't, in good conscience, avoid her. Besides, no matter how much seeing them together would pain him, a very large part of him was desperate to lay eyes on Tifa again, too.
So it was that Saturday morning found Cloud staring moodily out the window when the apartment buzzer sounded. He hesitated, hoping Zack would answer it, only for that individual to shout a plea for Cloud to get the door. Sighing, he did his best to brace himself for the torturous week ahead, and pressed the button that slid the metal panel aside.
The woman in the hallway was petite, with long – very, very long – brown hair, and a figure that put the city's top model to shame. That was all he had a chance to register before she cried his name in a voice that spoke of longing and pleasure and excitement all rolled into one, and launched herself into his arms. He caught her more out of reflex than design, her hair sliding over his arms in a silky cascade. With her arms around his shoulders and her head snug against his neck, her warm vanilla scent rose about him in a flood, bringing with it memories of home. A second later the pressure of her breasts against his chest, and the caress of her breath as she exclaimed further greetings, started a chain reaction below his belt. Struggling with the sudden desire to hold her closer, he reminded himself that this was Zack's girl, and forced a laugh as he spun her further into the room, and into the other man's waiting arms.
Not wanting to watch what he expected would be a passionate reunion, he took his time gathering her suitcase from the hall and sealing the door again before turning. To his surprise, rather than kissing, they were both watching him: Zack with a perplexed expression, Tifa with a vaguely hurt one. Confused himself, Cloud arched an eyebrow at Zack as he put the bag down beside the sofa.
Wondering why Cloud looked like he'd swallowed something sour, Zack placed his hands on Tifa's shoulders. "Well, whaddya think, Spike? Did she grow up nice or what? Hey!" the last was said as Tifa elbowed him in the stomach, her cheeks pink but her smile back in place.
"Don't mind him, Cloud," she said, and her voice was as sweet as he remembered, if more mature.
Cloud just shook his head, well acquainted with Zack's antics. "Oh, I don't," he assured her, "at least, not anymore." The smile he offered was rueful with memory. "I met him about six months after I got here, and for the next six he insisted on introducing me as if I were some sort of protege, rather than just another SOLDIER cadet."
"Cloud," Zack protested, "the sword they gave you was taller than you were. That's impressive even if you have had the first set of injections."
The younger man rolled his eyes, prompting Tifa to laugh, and some of Cloud's tension dissipated with the sound.
"Congratulations, Cloud," she told him, her dark eyes sincere, "I know how much you wanted to make first class."
"Thanks," he responded somewhat shyly, one hand rubbing his neck in a self-conscious gesture. The promotion had come through two weeks ago, and he'd received his final booster injections just a few days before Zack announced that Tifa was coming to visit. It still didn't seem quite real.
"Spiky here isn't the youngest SOLDIER in history," Zack explained, keeping one arm around Tifa and dragging her with him as he crossed the room to drape the other over Cloud's shoulders, "but he's the first to make it all the way to the top in only five years." It was clear he was proud of his friend's accomplishment, and it was that pride that prevented Cloud from protesting the half-embrace and enforced closeness. "Now, how 'bout some food you two? I'm starved!"
"You're always starved," Cloud commented, falling into the rhythm of bantering with Zack and momentarily forgetting his discomfort, "I think Hojo gave your metabolism a bigger boost than the norm."
"Carbohydrates are my friend," Zack agreed unrepentantly as he steered the three of them out the door.
"And proteins, too."
"True. Very true."
Laughing, Tifa shared a glance with Cloud, her mouth quirking impishly. "Maybe we'd better find an all-you-can-eat buffet, so he has lots of choices."
He grinned back, unable to help himself. "We'll have to head to sector seven then," he replied, "the owner of the all-you-can-eat place in sector eight locks the door if he sees Zack coming."
"Oh ha-ha," feigning hurt, Zack folded his arms across his chest and fell back a pace as they walked along.
Ignoring him, Cloud continued toward the elevator. "He's partial to the churrrascaria in sector seven anyway," he confided sotto voce to Tifa, as if revealing a great secret. Without thinking, he reached to take her hand, the gesture familiar after the number of times he'd fantasized about it, only to remember that he had no right. Fingers curled into a loose fist and fell to his side instead.
Gaia, this is going to be even more difficult than I expected.
By the following Friday, he couldn't believe how prophetic that thought had been. After ten minutes in her company, he had already been fighting his impulses; by the end of the week, he was well on his way to insanity, driven there by the urge to touch her and smile at her and just... be with her.
Everything he remembered about her at thirteen, the age she was when he left Nibelheim, was magnified in her at eighteen, as was her effect on his hormones and body. She was smart, funny, kind and unconsciously sexy. She was also a fighter, strong and willing to take life as it came. As far as he was concerned, she was perfect.
Except that she was also already taken.
Not that she had any problems doling out affection to him as well as Zack. On Sunday, when Zack once again beat him at ping-pong, she'd rewarded the dark-haired man with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. That evening, when Cloud soundly beat Zack at pool, he'd been surprised to receive the same reward, her soft form pressing into his side as her lips brushed his skin. Surprised, pleased, and yet suddenly so fiercely jealous that he'd had to excuse himself for a few hours until he calmed down. All because he couldn't have her, and the scraps she so sweetly gave him would never be enough.
"Where did you run off to earlier?" Zack demanded when Cloud returned to the apartment. "Thanks to your disappearing act, Tifa's spent hours worried she did something wrong."
The only thing she's done wrong, Cloud thought miserably, is doing everything right.
"I'm not interested in talking about it, Zack," he'd said instead, "but I'll apologize to Tifa."
And he had. The same way he did on Tuesday when she and Zack dragged him into their pillow fight (he'd ended up flat on his back with her straddling him, the position having an immediate and obvious effect on his body), and then again on Wednesday night when she'd made a concerted effort to burrow into his shoulder during a particularly grotesque scene in the movie they'd been watching (because Zack was in the bathroom, and unavailable).
Thursday he'd come home to find her sitting on the sofa, reading a book and wearing some sort of skimpy little nightie. He'd abruptly turned on his heel and left again, heading to the training simulators and running the Wutai scenario until he managed to beat Sephiroth's best time by 0.4 seconds. Afterward, he'd expended his remaining tension through a visit to the recreation floor.
"Cloud," Zack started the next morning, eyes worried, "are you alright? You've run out on us so often I'd think you were a doctor!" The joke fell flat when Cloud tried and failed to smile at it. "Seriously... Tifa said you came home last night while I was out, and then promptly left again without a word. What gives?"
"Nothing's wrong," Cloud replied with a sigh, "I just went to use the VCG." Zack's eyes widened in a mixture of comical dismay and disbelief. "Don't give me that look," Cloud all but snarled in return, his frustration surging full-force, "you have a girlfriend. I don't. And I came back to find Tifa sitting on the sofa in a practically see-through pair of pajamas." Her unbound breasts had been obvious, the sweetly delineated muscles in her legs and stomach bared for him to look his fill. Faced with a choice of leaving or embarrassing himself drooling, he'd chosen to leave.
Zack's expressive features shifted to convey confusion in spades. "Cloud-"
"Don't," the other interrupted him tiredly, "just... don't. I didn't want to talk about it before, and I don't want to talk about it now." He pushed away from the table, abandoning his mostly untouched cup of coffee. "I'm on duty in ten minutes." Not that there was anything for him to do, but he was required to put in an appearance on the SOLDIER floor at Shin-Ra just the same. "I'll see you tonight."
As he walked out the door, he never noticed the almost grimly determined expression that settled over Zack's face.
After checking in with Lazard, Cloud took the opportunity to crash on the lobby sofa for a few hours of much-needed sleep. While the hard-working Nibelheim boy inside him balked at the blatantly obvious show of boredom, the man produced by five years of training in the SOLDIER program knew there was no real need for him to stay awake. If anyone wanted him, he'd be awake instantly at the first peal of his PHS. When he awoke several hours later, his nap unremarked, it only served to underscore how unnecessary reporting for work had proven.
When his duty period was over, he ventured out into sector eight to pickup carry out, hoping the food would serve as a peace offering if Zack or Tifa were still annoyed with him. It was surprise, then, when he returned to an empty apartment. Sighing somewhat morosely, he helped himself to some of the barbecue – no sense it letting it get cold – and then efficiently packed the leftovers into the refrigerator. Wherever they were, they might be hungry when they returned. Giving the bar a quick once-over, he tossed the sponge in the sink and went to take a much-needed shower.
An hour later, feeling refreshed and enervated, he exited his bedroom to find Tifa in the kitchen, surrounded by various sundae toppings, and struggling with a carton of vanilla ice-cream. He hesitated, but her dark eyes flickered up to catch his own, and the vaguely wounded look there was too much for him to take. Hurting her was the absolute last thing he'd wanted to do; he'd just wanted to avoid ruining his friendship with either her or Zack as a result of his unresolved feelings.
"Hey," he offered in greeting, slipping past her to grab a drink from the fridge, and then leaning against the counter with feigned casualness. He watched her efforts to dent the overly hard block with a metal scoop, and felt his lips twitch into a smile without his willing it.
"Hi," she grunted in return, flashing him a brief but triumphant grin as she pried a small portion free and dropped it in the waiting bowl. "I'm making a sundae," she explained unnecessarily, adding a second minuscule scoop to the first, "want one?"
"Sure," he agreed, lazily stretching to pull another bowl out of the cabinet, "I'll come back tomorrow, after you've had time to break off enough to feed us both."
His tone was teasing, and she paused in her efforts just long enough to stick her tongue out at him. Taking a deep slow breath at the sight of that pert pink muscle, he couldn't help but be grateful that he was wearing loose pants, concealing the effect she had on him. That brief glance of her tongue had started a chain of thought detailing all the other wonderfully arousing things she could do with it. Not that the act had been sexual in any way – if anything, it was blatantly adorable – but his brain seemed to have been pickled in testosterone, and could imbue almost anything with innuendo.
It would have been amusing if it weren't so very frustrating.
For the next few minutes, he waited patiently as she managed to scrape a few more pitiful curls out of the carton. When finally she bit her lip in frustration, he reached around her to place his hand over her own. "Mind if I help?"
Tifa shook her head. "No, I've got it," she answered, her expression stubborn.
"Ti-fa," he cajoled, wiggling the scoop experimentally, "you'll be here all night. I don't know where you've been storing this, but it's more like concrete than ice-cream." She giggled and he took that as consent, pressing the handles of the scoop together and digging deep into the carton.
"Cloud!" she protested, "I said I could get it!" Her fingers twisted under his, pushing his hand away.
A second later a blob of ice-cream hit him in the throat, as the spring on the scoop was abruptly released. If he were a suspicious man, he'd think she did it on purpose: her aim was uncannily accurate for an accident, landing below his Adam's apple but above the v-neck collar of his t-shirt. As it was, he blinked in surprise and rocked back on his heels, before dropping his eyes to watch the cold confection start sliding inexorably downward.
"I only just got out of the shower," he murmured absently, using his fingers to scrape it off his skin.
"Sorry," she replied, but her tone was unrepentant, and there was a mischievous glint in her innocently wide-eyed gaze.
His eyes narrowed, and then – acting on impulse – he very deliberately smeared the confection cupped in his fingers along her collarbone.
Tifa shrieked, and reached for the canned whipped cream to retaliate. Unfortunately, she didn't have time to shake it, and her weapon did nothing more than sputter, decorating her hand with white speckles. Cloud laughed, crowding closer while she was distracted, and pulled the can from her hand. "Now what?" he taunted, very deliberately shaking it so he'd be prepared to 'fire' should she make any sudden moves. "And don't you dare think of dumping those sprinkles on me," he warned, catching her sidelong glance at said container. With his hair still wet, he'd end up with one heck of a mess if she upended them over his head.
She wavered for a second, obviously weighing the pros and cons of heeding his warning, and then gave it up as a lost cause. Instead, she settled for sticking her tongue out again. It was childish, but so were food fights.
Cloud's reaction, however, wasn't childish in the least. Tensing against her, his blue eyes deepening to ultramarine, he very slowly leaned in to pin her against the counter. Setting the whipped cream aside, he bracketed her between his arms. "Don't do that again," he advised, his tone quietly pleading. Tifa blinked up at him, her tongue darting out to lave her full bottom lip in a nervous gesture, and he groaned. "Close enough."
The initial touch of his mouth to hers was light and tentative. When her fingers came up to cradle his face, keeping him close rather than pushing him away, he grew bolder. Gently catching her bottom lip between his, he carefully tugged, allowing the moist, silky inner surfaces to drag against her in a soft caress. Warm and insistent, he treated her upper lip to more of the same, and then began alternating between them. Slow, drugging kisses that courted her mouth until her fingers slid into his hair and she opened for him on a sigh. Only then did he allow his tongue to come into play, flickering lightly against her lips before gliding over her teeth to stroke along hers. Repeating the motion, he coaxed her tongue to respond and explore, wondering at her shyness. Surely Zack had kissed her this way before?
The thought caused him to jerk back in sudden awareness of what he was doing. Of what he shouldn't be doing. Tifa protested, tightening her grip on his hair, her mouth seeking the lost pressure of his. "We can't do this," he managed to gasp out, just before her lips brushed against his, sweetly tentative.
"Yes we can," she whispered in reply, one hand gripping his shoulder in an attempt to pull him back down to a more comfortable angle. "We really can. We should. I've been wanting to for ages."
That gave him pause. "But... what about Zack?"
"He's out with Aerith and won't be back for a few hours yet." Unconcerned, she pressed a kiss to his jaw, then strained higher to graze his mouth.
Absently, he dipped his head to meet her. "Aerith?" Cloud's tone and expression were puzzled. "Who's Aerith?"
Tifa poked him. "You know very well who she is! If he's told me about her, then I know he must've said something to you."
Several things bothered him about that statement. Brows drawing down in a frown, he took another step back. "Zack's out on a date?" Tifa nodded. "With someone he's known for awhile?"
"You're positive? He actually told you he was going out on a date?"
A crease was starting to form between Tifa's eyebrows, as her own confusion began to set in. "Yes, Cloud. It's actually not that unusual."
If anything, that seemed to upset him more. "And you don't care?"
Seriously perplexed, and clueless as to the cause of his agitation, Tifa hoisted herself up onto the counter and crossed her arms, keeping her gaze focused on his disturbed face. "Of course not! Why would I?"
Cloud's response when it came was a half-angry, half-wounded snarl: "Because you're his girlfriend!"
Her expression softened, and understanding flared in the depths of her eyes. "No, I'm not."
His reaction was almost comical. "Zack shouldn't be-" he began, only to stop himself mid-sentence with a look of surprise. "You're not?" She shook her head. "Since when?"
Laughing, she reached out to tug on his shirt, reeling him in closer. "Since always. I was never Zack's girlfriend, Cloud."
He stared for a long moment, before closing his eyes and resting his forehead against hers. "I am so confused," he confessed, in a tone that sounded more than a little lost.
Her amusement played against his cheek, strangely soothing, as her hands stroked over his hair. "Aerith is Zack's girlfriend," she explained, waiting until he nodded to continue. "I am your girlfriend. Or at least," and her voice dropped slightly, gaining a note of uncertainty, "I'd like to be."
Relaxing slightly, he wrapped his arms around her, and rested his chin on her shoulder. "Since when?" he asked again, only this time his tone was hopeful rather than flabbergasted, albeit still tinged with confusion.
Turning her head, she nuzzled against him. "Since a fourteen year old boy promised to be my hero, and left me with stars in my eyes and a kiss on my cheek." Twining her arms around him, she let her breath play over his throat as she spoke. "Five years later I was still waiting for him, more than half convinced he'd forgotten about me, when his best friend came to town." Pausing, she pressed a kiss to his throat, wet and open-mouthed, and delighted in the shivers it caused. "Zack said that you always keep your promises, but often get hung up on the details. Since you hadn't made first class yet, you couldn't come back for me." Another kiss, this one just below his ear. "So he decided to give you some incentive."
Groaning, Cloud felt his face begin to heat as confusion was replaced by embarrassed understanding. "He's been match-making? That's what he thinks he's been doing?"
"Yes. He's been very helpful." Fingers toying with the hair at his nape, she rested her head on his shoulder, seemingly perfectly content. "It was very reassuring to hear you hadn't forgotten about me, Cloud," she confided. "Zack said you were very attentive whenever he mentioned me, and that you started training even more. So it certainly seemed like he was right about how I should approach you."
A choked laugh escaped him at that. "Oh, Tifa," he sighed into her hair, "he was both very right and very wrong." In retrospect, he could see that Zack had been trying to test his interest. While he'd praised Tifa without end, it was more like a salesman trying to interest him in a new car, than as a man in love. If he hadn't been both shocked and jealous, he probably would have seen it from the start. Maybe. With another soft chuckle he pulled back until he could see her face, his own still flushed with chagrin. "Just to be clear: I never forgot you, I soaked up news about you like a sponge, and I planned to put in for leave once I got my promotion." Strong fingers curved under her chin as he shook his head. "You only had to wait a few more weeks.
She smiled back at him, not the least bit sorry for her impatience. "This is better," she answered, squeezing him tighter for emphasis, and hooking her ankles behind his knees for good measure. "I'd rather be here with you than back home in Nibelheim with Daddy. He finally agreed he was wrong about you," she added, "once he met Zack."
Briefly, Cloud wondered what that said about Zack's first impression: was it so good that – by extension – any friend of his must be a fine human being? Or had it been so horrible that her father now viewed Cloud as an upstanding citizen in comparison? Deciding that it didn't matter, he dismissed the thought so he could resume trying to make his point:
"Zack is a lousy matchmaker."
"He is not!" Tifa protested, but he could hear the restrained hilarity in her voice, and see it in her eyes.
"I was convinced he was in love with you," Cloud retorted flatly, "and I've been doing my best not to get in the way, or beat him up just for noticing how wonderful you are." Cocking his head, he smiled a bit sheepishly. "I started tuning him out whenever he mentioned girls in general and you in particular. I think that's why I completely missed that he'd met this Aerith he's dating."
"Oh, you didn't!" she gasped, cheeks pink from his off-hand compliment, only to burst out laughing when he nodded. "Well... okay," she agreed, once she'd stifled her giggles, "his approach wasn't ideal. It still worked!" Hooking a finger into the damp collar of his shirt, she tugged gently for emphasis. "The ice-cream was his idea."
"I thought your aim was too good to be an accident," he responded, narrowing his eyes playfully. "I bet you were only faking your difficulty with the scoop, too."
Tifa assumed a virtuous expression that proclaimed louder than words that he'd guessed correctly. "You were much more open when you relaxed around me," she said instead, "so we thought that if I could catch you off guard, you might forget to run." He cleared his throat at that, looking away awkwardly, and she reached out to turn his face back to hers. "When he told me that you had the wrong idea about our relationship, I didn't believe him."
Suddenly, Cloud was grateful Zack had confronted him that morning, remembering his friend's shocked expression and seeing it in a new light. Tifa had been touching and flirting with him on purpose, and neither she nor Zack understood his reaction. Not until he'd cracked and revealed his frustration. "Think you're that irresistible?" he teased, deciding not to worry over previous misconceptions.
Rolling her eyes, Tifa refrained from pointing out that she'd simply found it impossible to believe he was that dense. She'd had enough of him being uncomfortable around her; there was no need to prick his ego. "That's it exactly," she replied, "and now I'm worrying myself silly trying to figure out why you're not kissing me."
"My bad," he willingly conceded. "You'll have to give me some hints on how I can make it up to you."
Fisting her hands in his shirt, she gave an insistent jerk, pulling his body flush against hers. "That's a good start," she breathed, her lips brushing his mouth as her legs shifting to wrap around his waist.
"I think I get the idea," Cloud murmured in return, briefly pressing his lips to hers. When he pulled back, her eyes remained closed, lips slightly pursed. "I just have one more question, first."
Dark lashes fluttered open slightly, transforming her expression from bliss to mild frustration. "What?"
His thumb stroked over her cheekbone as his fingers tangled in her hair. Blue eyes bright and intent, his mouth curving with a slight smile, he ignored her pique. "Will you be my girlfriend, Tifa?"
When her limbs tightened and she arched to press her mouth to his, Cloud was fairly certain her answer was a definite yes.
This was written for a friend who requested: jealousy, Zack, Cloud, and Tifa.
If you're wondering what the VCG is, it's the plot device used in Safe Sex. I thought about giving it a name that was based on an acronym describing it's purpose, but the closest I could come to a real name was Phyllis (for Programmable Human Love Life Simulator), but that was just too silly.