The door opened smoothly, despite the hinges creaking in concert with the carefully contrived squeaks in the floorboards beneath his feet. Engineered lightning flashed outside the window with calculated irregularity, briefly illuminating the gloom and allowing mako-bright eyes to discern the shapely form under the blankets on the bed. Something tight and uncomfortable inside Cloud relaxed at the sight.
She was curled into a ball, as if to make herself as small as possible. It was a protective position, although whatever hurts she was suffering weren't physical but mental and emotional. If she managed to go to sleep that way – which was doubtful – her body wouldn't thank her for it in the morning.
Sighing soundlessly, he stepped into the room, closing and locking the door behind him. Tifa shouldn't be here, in a room on another floor and in a completely different wing of the hotel than the rest of their party, isolated and alone. Especially when he knew she hated solitude, the destruction of Nibelheim having left her with scars other than just the one on her chest. Experience had taught him there were only two impulses strong enough to lead her to sequester herself: the desire to avoid confrontation, or the need to hide her hurt.
Tonight, he figured it was a little bit of both.
He wanted to be annoyed that she hadn't sought him out. Hadn't he told her to come to him when she was hurt? At the same time, he was frustrated by the fact that the situation was at least partly of his own making: if he'd stayed in his room, Tifa would no doubt have stayed in hers.
As always, it was a mystery to him as to why he'd given in to Aerith's insistent persuasion in the first place. For all that the Cetra was both charming and pretty, Tifa was the only one he wanted. Yet somehow, as often happened when Aerith teased and flirted, he'd found himself powerless to resist her whims. Which meant he'd spent an awkward few hours attempting to enjoy the sights and sounds of Gold Saucer with the wrong girl, while the right one... ran away.
Bending, he untied the laces on his boots. Although not a nightingale floor by any stretch, the hotel had expended a great deal of effort to make sure anyone crossing the room would be heralded by an impressive collection of creaks and protests. Cait Sith claimed it added ambience to the haunted house theme; Cloud just found it irritating. Unslinging his sword with one hand and carrying the heavy shoes in the other, he moved to the empty side of the bed. Propping the blade against the wall where it would be within easy reach, he let the boots fall where he could find them easily in the morning. An unexpected pause in the simulated storm rendered their disparate thuds audible.
Her back to him, Tifa tensed slightly, listening.
Placing one knee on the bed, he leaned over and grasped her shoulder as she started to move in reaction to the shifting mattress. Immediately, she froze, trained reflexes overruled by the almost instinctual recognition they shared; but in the darkness her expression was shocked and her eyes wide.
The realization that she had absolutely no expectation of him coming for her frayed his temper. After what he'd gone through to find her at Don Corneo's, how could she think he'd just ignore it when she went missing?
The urge to shake her was suddenly very tempting.
"Stay put," he ordered, keeping his tone flat to avoid betraying either waning relief or new found irritation. He waited to be certain she would do as he said, then released her to pull back the covers.
While shaking her for her ridiculous assumptions had a certain appeal, he hadn't come after her to argue. Holding her would be both far more satisfying, and a much better way to disabuse her of her misconceptions.
He slid across the cool sheets until he nudged up against her, then leaned over her to drop his key on the night stand, glancing down briefly to take in her stunned expression. Straightening, he inched under the covers, the cheap sheets dragging and bunching against his clothes, making it awkward to get comfortable. Beside him, Tifa remained anything but relaxed, spine ramrod straight and limbs still drawn up protectively.
The rough noise that escaped him was part exasperation, part amusement.
Slipping his arm around her waist, he aligned his body to hers, ignoring the way she stiffened at the contact. Her surprise would fade soon enough; he was far more concerned with impressing upon her the fact that he was there. Real and warm and solid, his chest pressed to her back, her bottom snug against his groin, their legs spooned together.
It wasn't enough. He wanted her burrowing into him, absorbing his heat and strength and sharing her own.
He wanted to feel whole.
Touch familiar and blatantly possessive, he tucked her slender form into the shelter of his, sending messages her body understood even though her mind was still struggling to catch up. A gloved palm rode the curve of her hip, sealing her tight against him. A muscled thigh settled atop both her legs, tangling their limbs together. Lifting her slightly, he slipped his other arm under her to cradle her close, his hand curving over her clenched fists and insinuating his fingers between hers. His other found its place on the bare skin of her stomach, fingertips pressing gently, and finally he was satisfied.
With a soft exhale, he let his head fall against the pillow, the blade of his nose just brushing her nape, filling his senses with the mingled scents of soap and woman.
"Cloud?" she whispered his name, the word emerging as the barest breath of sound.
He grunted in response, his body already starting to relax, and smiled internally when first her feet and then her fingers twitched in an abortive attempt to fidget.
"How did you find me?" Her voice was soft and almost plaintive.
"I asked." His was calm and rather blunt.
Silk teased his cheek as she shook her head, the gesture slight due to the way he'd cocooned himself around her. "I told the clerk not to say."
Did she really think that would deter him? He'd been unstoppable the moment Yuffie told him Tifa's things were gone. His lips twisted, expression briefly wry. "Tifa. I asked." Politely, too. It wasn't his fault the clerk found him intimidating. At least not at first.
"Oh... oh!" Understanding mingled with a note of sympathy in her reply, the silence that followed seeming somehow even more hesitant. When next she spoke, it was only one word – a question, couched so softly that he wasn't sure he was supposed to have heard it: "…why…?"
When he was wrapped around her so tightly they might as well be one person, how could she ask that? Wasn't it obvious?
Why? Because she was alone, and hurt, and needed him. Because she took precedence over everything else, and always would.
Because she made him feel comfortable in his own skin, something he needed after Aerith's strange words on the gondola.
Because she always helped him remember who he was.
"Tifa," he kept his voice low and quiet to muffle any hint of inner turmoil, pausing for another long moment to consider how to explain his unease, "am I here with you?"
"Um… yes?" her answering whisper was confused, and her fingers wriggled against his in another vain attempt to fidget.
Words always failed him when he wasn't giving orders or arguing with someone. Determined, he tried again: "Not somebody else? Me?"
Her head shifted on the pillow as she managed to twist one hand free from his confining grip. "Cloud?" she asked, fingertips ghosting over his arm, simultaneously soothing and inflaming, briefly raising goose bumps in their wake, "I wouldn't be letting anyone else touch me this way but you, would I?"
"No." It ripped from him in a near growl, abrupt and definitive. Without conscious thought, his arms banded tighter, fiercely possessive, and his fingers captured hers between them again: Tifa was his. A moment later he relaxed, however slightly, at the realization that she'd acknowledged that fact for the first time.
Nuzzling the curve of her shoulder, he closed his eyes and let her scent ease his lingering tension, her presence give him the courage to address what had unsettled him earlier in the evening. "I don't… remind you of anyone else. Do I?"
It was the crux of his fumbling whenever Aerith turned her wiles on him. From her words tonight, he reminded her of someone else... and occasionally, he felt like someone else. Someone who was far more cheerful and outgoing than he knew himself to be. Someone who was better with words and with women. Someone who wanted to return her attentions in kind, and clamored to do so like a child begging for a favorite toy.
His alter ego – that foreign voice with its compulsive urges – had made itself known the moment he learned her name. Resonating inside his jumbled thoughts like he'd heard them before, the syllables roused feelings tinged with guilt and obligation and a vague sense of pain.
As if someone had told him to protect her. To find her and keep her happy.
There were still blanks in his memory, large chunks of time about which he could remember nothing. Perhaps, for reasons unknown, he had agreed to such a request during one of them.
Regardless of whence the conflicting impulses stemmed, they were always disconcerting, briefly rendering him little more than a spectator inside his own body. Aerith seemed to recognize that – to at least be aware that his attentions were both more and less divided than they seemed – and it had him off-balance. Shaken.
He needed to know Tifa saw him only as the person he believed himself to be. That she wasn't searching for or seeing someone else in his place.
"Tifa?" he prompted, when the silence had dragged on longer than he cared to acknowledge.
Shaking her head barely enough to be noticeable, she let her fingers trail over his arm again, drawing indistinct patterns. "You just remind me of you, Cloud. Nobody else."
Soft and assured, the whispered words diffused his remaining disquiet. Feeling a bit like he'd been holding his breath, he relaxed, allowing himself to slump more fully against her. "That's right," he murmured, lips brushing her skin, "I'm Cloud. You said so yourself. I'm Cloud. You would know."
Better than anyone else, she knew him. Whatever had happened – or was happening – Tifa would be the first to realize if something were wrong. Surely her certainty absolved him of any need to doubt himself. She trusted him, and that was enough. Coupled with the feel of her in his arms, it was more than enough.
Except she was still resisting the lure of sleep, the comfort he'd originally come to offer.
And he still had one more question.
"Tifa," he murmured her name without otherwise moving, enjoying the feel of her satin skin under the brush of his lips.
Cloud hesitated at the drowsy reply, wondering if she were finally starting to drift off, lulled by his heat and his presence and the quiet sound of the rain. After a moment he decided not: her shoulders were still actively pushing back against his chest, her body not yet gone boneless and yielding, heavy with sleep. Was she merely comfortable, or was she trying to dodge further conversation?
Considering that he was usually the reticent one, it was ironic that he suspected the latter.
"Why didn't you come to my room tonight?" The words were uninflected, but he didn't quite manage to strain all feeling out of his tone. His voice emerged low and husky, sounding hungry and frustrated.
In his arms, Tifa started and then froze, turning rigid and still, much as she'd been when he'd first joined her in the bed. Once again her eyes were wide, her profile betraying surprise.
At the question? Or the implication that he'd been waiting for her when Aerith had knocked on his door?
"Aerith…" She whispered the other girl's name, her tone embarrassed, and then faltered to an awkward stop.
Willing to let her take her time, Cloud waited, patiently resolved. She hadn't pulled away - was in fact seeming to take solace from his embrace, if the palm rubbing back and forth over his arm were any indication – and there was nowhere else he needed to be. Nowhere else he wanted to be.
"Aerith wanted to take you," she managed after a long pause, confirming what he'd already suspected. It was easy enough to guess that inviting him to explore the amusement park had been the Cetra's idea: with the exception of Yuffie, Aerith was the member of their team least mired in the seriousness of their task. Of course she'd be the first to decide to play.
That didn't mean Tifa couldn't act on the decision as well.
"I thought – I thought–" she faltered again, and he surmised that she was only now grasping the fact that she hadn't thought at all, just reacted. It didn't really matter what Aerith wanted, or whose idea it had been, if Cloud didn't want the same thing.
And he didn't. That fact was – hopefully – abundantly clear now.
"I thought you'd have fun with her," she concluded lamely, her voice small.
Satisfied, he made a noise low in his throat, acknowledging her response. She tensed a bit at the noncommittal sound, then relaxed again when he snugged his chin into the curve of her shoulder, his head resting against hers with only the mingled strands of their hair to separate them. Tucking her closer still, he leaned into her lithe form, letting her take just enough of his weight to feel sheltered by it; crowding her into the mattress but not pinning her there. Then he closed his eyes and let her sweet scent lull him toward sleep, while his mako-heightened body heat did the same for her, seeping into too-taut muscles and relaxing her all the way down to the bone.
Easing toward slumber, he had the fuzzy thought that Tifa might need or want some reassurances that nothing had happened between he and Aerith on their 'date'. He'd implied it, but he hadn't actually stated it... His drowsy mind was then struck by the memory of the one humorous point in his whole evening. Aerith hadn't appreciated the joke, but Tifa would. Especially if he told her it was the safest and most appealing choice he'd been offered. He let his amusement play against her cheek as he mumbled the punch line.
"I kissed the dragon."
Smiling and humming agreeably, she let him know she understood.