Having had no father figure growing up, Cloud hadn't really been sure what his role in the family forming at Seventh Heaven was supposed to be. He did know he'd been abysmal at fulfilling it – whatever it was – when he'd thrown himself into Strife Delivery Service in order to avoid turning down clients. Helping people stay in touch with distant family and friends had seemed important and fulfilling; and he'd somehow always had the impression that the "man of the house" was supposed to provide for everyone else. Floundering in untested waters, he'd latched onto the idea of extra income as being the way he was supposed to contribute. Barret certainly hadn't been sending funds to help keep Tifa and Marlene fed, clothed, and warm.

But the late nights he'd worked and the extra gil he'd brought home hadn't made any of them happy. Instead, he and Tifa had come as close as they ever had to actually arguing, something that had shocked him once he'd recognized the emotion coloring her words. Tifa had been lonely, Marlene had been sad, and he... he'd found himself coming face to face with his past failures.

He knew he'd been close to having the family thing figured out after he'd found Denzel. In many ways, the little boy looking for a hero to idolize was much easier to relate to than either Tifa or Marlene. He asked questions Cloud could actually answer, and his chatter revolved around things Cloud could remember being interested in himself – even if those memories seemed hazy and far removed from his current circumstances. With Denzel, he understood both what the boy needed from him, and how to provide it.

Curiously, finding that fit with Denzel seemed to make everything else fall into place, too.

Tifa was happy just to spend some time with him every day. Maybe not satisfied – they both wanted more from each other – but that first small step was a start. Marlene was happy as long as Cloud paid as much attention to her as he did to Denzel. Even better (to his mind) if the conversation strayed into what Denzel termed girly things – those same areas that made Cloud feel out of his depth – the fact that both males were confused and disinterested seemed to smooth things over: Marlene would huff amiably about boys and either go in search of Tifa or drop the subject.

Then he'd started showing signs of geostigma, and had to go and ruin whatever progress he'd made. He'd thought that by leaving he was protecting them. It had taken another world-in-danger crisis for him to understand he'd only been seeing half the picture – only filling half his role. No matter how strange it seemed, or how loudly everything in him screamed to protect and shelter and support the people he cared about... sometimes, he was supposed to accept those things, too. Doing so didn't make him weaker or a burden; it made them – both individually and as a family – stronger.

It was eye-opening and a hard idea to get used to, especially after spending most of his life trying to be strong and wholly self-sufficient. Still, he was ready to try, albeit quietly terrified he'd manage to mess up this "new start" the way he had all his others. Even though some part of him recognized that these people weren't going to give up on him, and would forgive an infinite number of well-intentioned mistakes.

So why was he sitting on Fenrir, agonizing over ones he hadn't even made yet?

"Cloud?"

Tifa's voice had his head turning almost automatically, finding her standing in the back door to Seventh Heaven, her brown eyes focused on him with a hint of old fears shining in their depths. "We're taking a picture out front. You coming?"

He winced internally, even as he dismounted the bike. He wasn't sure how long it had been since he'd pulled up at the bar, lost in thought, but it was long enough for Tifa to worry he was having doubts about coming home. "Wouldn't miss it," he answered, smiling, trying to allay her fears with positive words and actions. She nodded, still watching him with those sad eyes, and even the teasing he subjected Denzel to – ruffling the boy's hair as they posed for the picture – didn't completely put her at ease.

So he took her hand as the others filed back to their drinks and conversations, drawing her off to the side and lifting her up to sit on a beer keg before wrapping his arms around her. With a hesitance that pained him, she responded by slowly twining hers around his neck. He wanted his confident, spunky Tifa back – the one who would have answered his embrace with exuberance. Instead, he held a woman who was obviously bracing herself for bad news, and he almost – almost – asked her what she was expecting him to say. Her anxiety drove home just how much he'd hurt her: enough that he could hold her this tenderly, and she could still expect him to somehow wound her with words. "I'm home, Tifa," he whispered, letting one hand play with the ends of her hair. It was shorter than it had been when he left a few weeks ago, and he wondered again why she'd cut it. "To stay. I promise."

She relaxed slightly, although there was still a tension about her that silently asked: But?

"But..." he sighed, pulled back a bit to watch her face, "I'm still not really sure what I'm supposed to do – how I fit in here with you and Barret and the kids."

And finally she smiled, her hands finding and gently clasping his. "As yourself of course," she told him, catching his oh-so-expressive eyes with her own in an effort to convince him she was telling the truth. "It works best when you don't worry so much," and now she was teasing him, just a little. "Correct your mistakes as they happen, not before, okay?"

He blinked, flushing a little as he realized this latest miscommunication was all because of his tendency to over-think things. "Alright."

Hopping off the barrel, she headedback inside to join the rather loud festivities, pulling him with her. "Seventh Heaven closes once a week, you know," she reminded him. "Maybe Strife Delivery Service can do the same." Her words were a hint, a reminder, a little guide to help him make the right first steps this time around; but then the noise and their friends swallowed him up, and he didn't think anymore about it.

But a week later, when Barret gave him Yuffie's gift of a Closed For Business sign, it fell into place, and he called to arrange a day off to spend with his family.


Just a quick little note: I know the phrase is actually, "Two steps forward, three steps back." The point here is that he is making progress in the right direction, it's just slow going and probably somewhat frustrating.