A/N: Hey everybody I'm back. Now, to those of you who have been following the story, I'm SO sorry for not updating any sooner. So to make up for that, I made sure that this chapter was longer so there would be plenty for you guys to read! Well, I won't hold you up anymore, please so enjoy!
Disclaimer: I don not own any FF7 characters or places in this story. All rights go to Square Enix.
Tifa had always thought of herself as a very patient person, and prided herself in keeping her cool in some of the most trying of circumstances. She could hold her own against wild monsters, beat down deadly Shinra military robots, and was even prepared to challenge a Turk or two in a fight if she felt like it. But at the moment, it was taking just about everything in her power to keep herself from blowing a fuse. Ever since they left the hotel, Marlene and Denzel had been chattering back and forth about what they should be doing in the park first, hardly paying attention to any suggestions Cloud or Tifa tried to make. The first few minutes of it were cute, but after awhile it started to weigh heavy on Tifa's nerves. Even Cloud seemed to be having trouble keeping his temper in check, his jaw set and evidence of his agitation showing clearly in his eyes. His patience was clearly starting to weigh thin.
"I wanna go to the gondolas first!"
"No Marlene we have to go see the Battle Square first for sure!"
"Ooh, what about the chocobo races?!"
"I'm telling you Marlene, Battle Square! No questions asked."
"No fair Denzel, watching people fighting monsters is no fun!"
"It is too, it's cool!"
"It is not!"
Oh God, that was it. Tifa could feel her sanity cracking at that very moment.
Wait was that Cloud...what?!
The shout wasn't all that loud or startling, yet it held such a commanding tone that it absolutely demanded ones attention. Tifa looked up and found the kids both staring up at Cloud, with surprise written all over their faces. Tifa couldn't blame them; she never expected him to raise his voice like he did. Not that it was frightening or anything...it was just so unusual for him.
"Okay, now according to that sign," Cloud stated this calmly as he pointed to a nearby sign, "there's a chocobo race that's gonna start in about twenty minutes. If we hurry, we might be able to catch some good seats. But that's only if we hurry...so why don't we start with that? And Denzel, I promise we''ll get to go the Battle Square, sometime this weekend. Just be patient alright?"
It took a moment for the shock on the kids' faces to wear off, before they both happily agreed to the idea. And just like that the two went off ahead of them, laughing and all smiles all over again.
Huh, it was like the fight had never happened.
Tifa quickened her pace to catch up to Cloud, who was trailing the kids as they scampered off towards the Chocobo Square. Once Tifa managed to catch up to him, she tapped him on the shoulder, effectively grabbing his attention when he glanced her way.
"Thanks for the crowd control," she said gratefully. "For a minute there I thought I was gonna blow a fuse on those two."
Cloud blinked, before smiling lightly back at her. "Yeah I could tell." The smile quickly vanished though, replaced by a blank almost unreadable expression on his face. Tifa could tell by the look in his eyes that he was holding something back though, like there was something he really needed to say, but didn't quite know how to say it.
"Look there it is!" Marlene's outburst cut him off before he could finish, and for a moment Tifa suddenly remembered that they had two kids to entertain.
"Hold that thought will ya?" Tifa gave him another smile before jogging ahead of him to catch up to the kids, impatiently waiting for them by the entrance to the square.
The Chocobo Square itself was actually a massive four floor stadium, able to seat more than a few thousand people. Equipped with a state of the art virtual racing track that corkscrewed up the floors of the stadium, chocobos and their jockeys would run through various, and very elaborate, virtual environments as they made their way up the track. To add to the excitement, because the track was so large which made it impossible to see the chocobos throughout the entire race, a camera would follow behind the racers, broadcasting live-footage of the race on a large projection screen mounted at each floor of the stadium. It was the perfect way to ensure every spectator had a first-class view, and not miss a second of the action. It was still a good fifteen minutes before the race was scheduled to begin, so many visitors were still up and about throughout the stadium; some heading for concession stands for snacks and drinks, while others went to place bets on their preferred chocobos. But despite being surrounded by crowds of people, Marlene and Denzel were looking around with wide-eyed wonder written all over their little faces. But with the crowds came a very common and inconvenient problem: long lines. So it was another ten minutes of waiting in a ticket line before they actually managed to make it to their seats in the stadium, with only five minutes to spare before the race.
But one of the nicer things about waiting in line, was that the four of them ended up receiving private VIP booth seats on the second level, with a great view of the jumbo screen above them, as well as an awesome view of the race track. Another nice little bonus thanks to their Lifetime Passes. Tifa made a mental note to thank Reeve the next time she saw him.
"Hey Tifa, can we really bet on which chocobo's gonna win?"
"Yes but we're not betting Denzel."
"Aaaww, c,mon Tifa what if we win?!"
"The answer is no Denzel. Betting is an irresponsible way you can use your money, and we are not going to waist ours that way," Tifa answered firmly, "Right Cloud?"
Tifa looked at Cloud, who was seated next to her, patiently waiting for a response. For a moment though he was quiet, blinking back at her thoughtfully and clearly not expecting to be questioned.
"Well...now that you mention it, I was actually thinking about making a wager now. There's a gold chocobo registered in this race, and considering his breeding I'm pretty confident that he'll- what?"
Tifa could only blink back at him incredulously, not believing what she was hearing. She had asked him that question, confident that he would be backing her up. If there was one thing that she did not have a shred of patience for, it was gambling.
"...Tifa...?" Cloud drawled, his brows rising to his hairline with nervousness.
"Are you serious?!"
"What? I won't wager too much gil."
"That's gambling! We did not come here to waste our gil like that!"
"Tifa, it's no big deal, I've bet on winning chocobos before!"
"...Wait, when did you do that?!"
"The last time we were here..? Where do you think I got all that gil and extra gear from by the time we left?!"
"I don't care about how much gil or whatever you got! You are not going to gamble with any of our money! It's irresponsible, a waste of gil and it's not a good influence on the kids!"
"Tifa I don't see what the big deal is-"
A loud horn suddenly echoed through the stadium, followed by the roar of a cheering crowd.
"The race is starting!" Marlene cried out excitedly, sitting on the edge of her seat and leaning on the booth's glass window, with Denzel quickly following behind her.
Tifa quickly looked down towards the starting line, where sure enough, the racers were mounting their chocobos and preparing to take off down the track. She then looked up at the jumbo screen to get a better look at them. There were six birds lined up on the race-track, each of them a different color according to their breeding. Two of them were green chocobos, a breed that was known for their stamina; mainly used for mountain crossing. A blue river chocobo was also being prepped; a breed that's skill was used mainly for river crossings, and also noted for their stamina. Next up was a well-built yellow chocobo, however it didn't seem to be much competition for the other racers. The black chocobo lined up next to him certainly looked like he would be a challenge for the other competitors, until she saw the last one lined up on the track. A chocobo with bright golden feathers, stood in the last ring of the track; the feathers in the plume of his tail ruffled with anticipation. This was obviously the chocobo that Cloud had been talking about, and she began to see why he was so confident in its performance. Tifa had never really learned more than the basics on chocobo breeding-having heard it mostly from Cloud- but it didn't take an expert to know that gold chocobos were extremely hard to find, and even harder to breed. So seeing one on the race track was certainly an exciting prospect.
Soon an intercom blared throughout the stadium, announcing the start of the race. The racers quickly made their last-minute adjustments, before all six were mounted their chocobos.
3...2...1...the starting horn sounded with a roar throughout the stadium! The chocobos sprinted off up the track; their heads down and their tail plumes held high in the air behind them. The audience roared with excitement; the sound almost deafening, even through the booth's glass window. Marlene and Denzel were also cheering, watching the screen above them as the race continued. So far the black chocobo was in the lead, with the gold chocobo in second and following just behind him. Behind them were the mountain chocobos, with the river and yellow chocobos trailing them in fifth and sixth place. Even Tifa watched the screen in anticipation, being drawn into the race very quickly with Cloud also keeping an eye on the screen.
Soon though the scenery surrounding the competitors quickly changed as they rode on through the next level of the track. Tifa's anticipation mounted as she recognized the scenery on the screen; they should be riding past their booth any minute now. Hardly after Tifa finished that thought, the kids started shouting with more enthusiasm than ever, and Cloud patted Tifa's shoulder, drawing her attention down toward the track with vigor. Up came the racers and their chocobos, running as fast as their powerful legs would cary them. The black chocobo was still in first place, however the gold chocobo was now running just beside him, making it a tie for first. Soon the birds came running right past the booth, and Tifa had to admit, the image of the powerful birds up close as they ran past was absolutely exhilarating. Soon though, they vanished from view all too quickly, and all four pairs of eyes in the booth darted back to screen.
"Keep an eye on the gold one," said Cloud, a hint of excitement hidden within his voice. Tifa glanced to Cloud for but a second, and in that second she could see the fire of the thrill in his eyes, despite his face remaining as stoic as ever.
"The gold's in the lead! He's in the lead!" Denzel cried. Tifa looked back up to see that the gold chocobo had indeed passed the black bird, and now had a major lead in first place. In a desperate attempt to take back his winning spot, the jockey riding the black chocobo made a dash for it, forcing his chocobo into a sprint for the lead. Unfortunately though it turned out to be his downfall. By the time his chocobo had reached the gold's tail, he had used up all of his stamina, and had slowed down considerably, putting him all the way down in fifth place. This only made the crowd go wild, their cheers becoming even louder than ever, and Denzel and Marlene were both jumping for joy from their excitement. The race ended with a dramatic finish, with the gold chocobo winning first place with an impressive lead over his competitors.
It was ten minutes after the race was over when they left their booth and headed off for another destination. The two kids were still jabbering excitedly about the results of the race, and Tifa couldn't help but still feel the leftover sense of thrill at the prospect of watching such a great win.
"Exciting huh?" Cloud asked from beside her.
"Yeah really exciting. You have a good eye for the winners Cloud."
"Would've been nice if you'd let me wager on him wouldn't it?"
Tifa cocked a brow at Cloud, who had a smug little smirk on his face that had 'I told you so' written all over it.
She decided then and there, that she was going to wipe that smirk off his face. An idea quickly came to mind, and with it a mischievous little grin of her own.
"Oh I was serious Cloud, I think you have a good eye for chocobos." she replied teasingly.
The smirk on his face was replaced with furrowed brows and a hint of suspicion in seconds.
"What are you getting at?" he drawled.
"Oh I'm just saying...," she continued coyly, "that maybe you might have a bit of chocobo in you." And with that, she reached up and ruffled Cloud's blonde spikes playfully. "It would explain why your hair looks like a chocobo's tail!" she laughed.
"Ey, cut it out! And it does not like that!" Cloud countered, clearly not amused as he grabbed at her wrists in trying to stop her antics.
"It totally does!" Tifa laughed again, as she continued messing with him. She knew how much he hated it when people commented on his hair, and she decided she was gonna get a good laugh out of it.
"Tifa, knock it off! That is not funny!"
Two more laughs joined into the chaos; Denzel and Marlene had noticed what she was up to, and were now laughing their heads off at the scene.
"Get him Tifa, get him!" Marlene cheered on.
"Cloud, you better get back at her!" Denzel chided in.
"What do you think I'm trying to do!?" Cloud replied as he struggled to grab hold of her wrists. "Tifa, seriously knock it off!"
But Tifa wasn't about to let him stop her; she was just having way too much fun.
At least that was her intention anyway, until Cloud managed to snatch her wrists, pull them down to her waist, then twisted her around so she had her back to him. Before she could even blink or move he managed to pin both of her arms to her sides with his strong arms wrapped around her. Her laughing ceased right then and there, and she could feel her heart fluttering all over again.
"Cloud, what are you doing? Let go already."
"Not until you cut it out." Cloud stated this firmly and with absolute seriousness.
"I'm not making any promises Cloud."
"Then we can just walk around like this all night long."
"You can't hold onto me all night," she said, barely managing to keep her composure while in his arms. He was so close to her, she could probably give him a quick kiss if she could just turn back around.
No, no bad thoughts Tifa!
"Watch me," he replied calmly.
Those two words and the warm breath that tickled against her ear sent chills up Tifa's spine, and she could feel the heat rising into her cheeks. Her heart was thudding like a drum at this point; the warmth from his muscled arms inspiring fantasies of a kiss or more that began to fog up her mind.
"Eeew, I think they're gonna kiss Marlene!"
Well that definitely brought her back to reality. Denzel's comment seemed to have an effect on Cloud too, because as he heard the word 'kissing,' his body went rigid and his grip on her loosened, giving Tifa an opportunity to slip out of his grasp.
Outwardly she displayed a triumphant smile on her face, but inside she wished she didn't have to slip out of his embrace. And her stomach twisted in knots when she took in Cloud's reaction to that little comment. Whatever confidence he might have had appeared nonexistent; his face wasn't flushed but one could clearly see the embarassment on his pale face, and he was avoiding Tifa's gaze entirely. She knew he could be shy about things like kissing and anything related to relationships, because as far as she knew he had no experience in that department. But was the thought of kissing her really that humiliating? Her stomach knotted unpleasantly as the thought crept its way into her mind, and she could almost feel her heart drop in her chest.
"Hey guys, who's hungry?!" Tifa exclaimed brightly, deciding that she needed to drop the subject before she could let it fester in her and ruin her mood.
"I am!" both kids shouted eagerly.
"Can we get burgers?! I want burgers!" piped Denzel.
"I think there's a restaurant somewhere in the Wonder Square," Cloud put in.
"Well then what are we standing around here for? Let's go." Tifa replied leading the way with Marlene and Denzel in tow. It was a half an hour after a dinner of burgers, fries and sodas when the four of them decided they were going to have some fun in the arcade. When they entered the two-story arcade of the Wonder Square, they were welcomed by the sight of flashing lights, and the electronic buzzing and alarms of the many games inside. Again Denzel and Marlene's eyes lit up with wonder and excitement and they quickly ran off looking for a game that they could play.
"Cloud! Cloud play this one with me!" Denzel pointed to the center of the room towards the 3-D Battler, where two guests had just finished playing a few rounds.
"Alright, whatever you want kiddo," Cloud replied, then looked at Tifa and Marlene. "You gonna watch?"
Tifa was about to reply when she noticed Marlene wondering off toward one of the crane games.
"You two go ahead. I think Marlene might be wanting a souvenir," she said, pointing towards the crane game.
Cloud followed her finger to confirm what he'd been told, then nodded and smiled at her before he turned to join Denzel at the battler.
Tifa's gaze lingered for a moment on Cloud as he walked away, before following Marlene to the crane game where she was now attempting to grab a moogle doll that nestled among a mountain of other prizes. Judging by the scowl on her face, Marlene wasn't having any success in her endeavor and after another few failed attempts to retrieve the plush doll, Marlene let go of the joystick and let out a frustrated whimper.
"You want me to try to get that for you?" Tifa chuckled as she stepped in front of the joystick. She paid the required 100 yen, making the machine roar to life with florescent lights and lively carnival music.
"Are you sure? It's really hard to grab it."
"Yup, these games are pretty tricky," said Tifa, as she maneuvered the metal claw over the moogle doll. "But I have a few tricks of my own up my sleeve."
She positioned the claw just over the doll's head, just enough so that she could grab the signature red ball on its antenna. The antenna was sticking up out of the pile of toys inside the game, and Tifa figured it would be the prime target to aim for. All she had to do was lower it just enough, grab it at just the right height, and she could lift the doll right out of the pile. But this required patience, and she lowered the claw ever so slowly; watching it intently just to be sure it was in the correct position. She noticed it was just a bit too far to the left so she shifted ever so slightly to the right.
"Hey Tifa, do you love Cloud?"
Tifa started, accidentally pressing down on the claw's control button making the claw close and miss the red ball entirely.
"Of course I do," Tifa replied, "just as much as I love you and Denzel."
Tifa put in another 100 gil, suddenly very determined to get that darned moogle.
"No not like that! I mean do you love him!" It was more of a firm statement and not a question.
Tifa kept her eyes focused on the metal claw as she maneuvered again towards her target, hoping to avoid the topic entirely. She posittioned the claw as she did in her first attempt, and once satisfied that it was in the right spot, lowered the claw so that it hovered just over the red ball on the antenna. She pressed the control button, and watched with satisfaction as the claw closed over the target perfectly and lifted the doll out of the pile of prizes.
"See Marlene? Told you I had a few tricks didn't I?" Tifa piped as she took the doll from the prize chute and held it up for Marlene to take, hoping it would distract her from the topic. It didn't seem to work, because the girl only stared back at her with intent, perhaps with a bit of impatience, and payed absolutely no mind to the moogle doll that had just been won for her.
"Well? Do you love him or not?" Marlene's gaze never faltered, making it difficult for Tifa to ignore the subject.
"Well...I definitely care about him a lot, I mean we've known each other since we were kids," she replied finally. "But where is this coming from all of a sudden?"
"But..if you care about him than doesn't that mean that you love him?" asked Marlene, seemingly a bit baffled.
"And you two live together. I thought two grown-ups living together meant that they loved each other."
Tifa only sighed as she looked back at Marlene, really unsure of what to tell the little girl. For one thing, she was finding it odd to think that she was being basically interrogated about her relationship with Cloud, by a seven year old kid. The answers Tifa had given her really only sounded like excuses, and it seemed that unless Tifa was just a bit more honest with her, she wouldn't let the subject go. All Tifa had to do was be honest, and she knew that. But for some reason it became a lot harder to be that honest with another person than just herself, even if it was only to a Marlene.
"Well, that's not necessarily true. There are adults who live together all the time and they're just friends. But I get what you're saying honey. I do feel that way about Cloud but you see, I don't think he feels that way. And telling him about how I feel could make things really complicated for him and I. We probably wouldn't even be living together anymore. Do you get what I'm saying?"
Marlene didn't answer for a moment, and her brows furrowed with thought; obviously thinking hard about what Tifa had told her. Then she looked back up her and smiled softly to her. "Well...not really, because I'm pretty sure Cloud loves you too. You should tell him how you feel. I know you two would be really happy together."
Tifa couldn't help but smile at the sincerity in her advice. Although naïve, it was certainly very thoughtful of her to say that. She always seemed very perceptive for her age, and seemed to have that ability to put a smile on your face, even when you were feeling down. "Thanks Marlene. I'll keep that in mind." She held up the moogle doll in front of her. "Now do you still want this?"
"Yeah, thanks Tifa!" she exclaimed happily, beaming brightly as she took the plush doll in her arms.
For the next few moments Tifa felt just a bit at peace, having at least talked about a simplified version of what was going on in her mind and getting that bit of reassurance from Marlene. It didn't matter if it was just a seven-year old giving her advice. At least she had let some of the stress off of her chest. She was about to suggest that they head over and watch Cloud and Denzel's game, when Denzel suddenly ran past them, with both hands over his mouth like he was about to be sick to his stomach. Cloud quickly followed behind, with worry etched into his face.
"Is everything ok?" Tifa asked, just before Denzel stopped at a nearby trash can, bent over and began retching and emptying his stomach into the bin.
"Well, the good news is, he just has a bad case of the stomach flu," the park doctor stated as he finished looking over Denzel. It had been an hour since Denzel had first gotten sick, and by the time they had gotten him back to the hotel he had already been sick three times. Fortunately it had stopped by the time they made it to the hotel room, but he had still looked green in the face so they had called for a park doctor to come in and have a look at him. "The bad news is, his night in the park is just about over."
"Will he be okay?" asked Cloud, the worry still clear in his voice. Tifa couldn't help but be concerned also, as memories of Denzel when he had been sick with the Geo Stigma began coming back to haunt her. She knew it really wasn't as serious as that, but still...
"Oh he should feel better by tomorrow morning. I gave him some anti-neausea medication so he'll be able to sleep. He should feel up to going back to the park by tomorrow but I suggest keeping him away from the junk food for a day or so. But you both really have nothing to worry about, he'll be just fine."
"Alright thank you Doctor."
"No problem Ma'am, you all have a good night," he said with a reassuring smile before heading out the door and leaving the suite.
There was a long quiet before Tifa and Cloud both let out the breathe they'd been holding in, heading for the spare bedroom to check on their sick charge. Denzel had thankfully asleep by now, with some of the color coming back to his face after being sick so many times. Marlene was sitting next o him by his bedside, just like she used to do when he was sick back when they'd first taken him in. She looked up when she heard them come in and a small smile spread across her face.
"He's gonna be ok right?"
"He'll be just fine hon, he just needs sleep that's all," Tifa reassured her. "And you need to get some sleep too. It's past your bedtime kiddo."
Needless to say, like most kids, Marlene was reluctant to go to bed, giving both her and Cloud a number of excuses to try to delay the inevitable. But after about ten minutes of coaxing, she had changed into her pjs, brushed her teeth and was tucked into the covers for the night.
"Whew, great first day huh Cloud?" said Tifa, stretching and considering heading to bed herself. It had been a few seconds before Tifa realized he hadn't answered her, and she turned to find him still lingering by the door to the kids' room. "Don't worry Cloud," Tifa reassured him, resting a hand on his arm. "You heard what the doctor said, he'll be up and running by tomorrow."
Cloud didn't seem too reassured, but he didn't protest either so he reluctantly followed her back to the master bedroom. "I know Tifa I just...well."
"Thinking about his medical history right?" she asked knowingly.
"You too huh?"
"Yeah, but I'm sure it's just old habit. He'll get better Cloud, you'll see."
Cloud only nodded and an all too familiar silence fell between them. During those moments of silence, Tifa's thoughts had begun to wander again, and her conversation with Marlene quickly came back to her.
I'm pretty sure Cloud loves you too. You should tell him how you feel.
Tell him...for a moment, she actually considered doing just that. The two of them were alone, and what did she have to lose if she did tell him..? But that advice had come from a child. A child who, though well-intended, didn't know the first thing about relationships yet. Though it was a complicated situation for Tifa, Marlene just wasn't old enough to even see that. For Tifa, her feelings weren't just some little secret; they were something that, in a worst-case scenario, could ruin the friendship that she had with Cloud. She just couldn't imagine losing that.
She snapped out of her thoughts and found that Cloud was staring at the floor, or rather avoiding her gaze, with the uncertainty that she'd seen in the park in his eyes. Then she remembered he had wanted to say something to her. "Oh, Cloud about earlier, before the race...you wanted to tell me something?"
His eyes snapped up to her in surprise. "Uh yeah, about that. I wanted to apologize to you. On the road I made things tense...and I was afraid you'd be mad at me for that."
He's still worried about that?
"Cloud, I'm not mad at you, because you didn't do anything wrong. Besides you didn't seem all too worried about that in the park tonight," she replied with a smile. "Look, we came here to have a good time right? So how about we just put that behind us and enjoy the weekend. Alright?"
Cloud didn't reply for a moment, until he let out a small smile and nodded. "Right, now there's just one more thing."
"Yeah uh.." Tifa swore she could see a light blush on his face, "So who's taking the bed?"