Been a long time since I wrote much. Trying to write a little more. It's been pretty busy over here. Enjoy.

Disclaimer: I do not own Final Fantasy VII or its prequels, sequels, etc.

Poll Writing Challenge: #41

Set during Crisis Core, right around the time the Genesis clones attack Nibelheim's Reactor.

"Erm…So, how long have you been with Shinra?"

Her question was a meager effort to break the silence between them. Adjusting his mask further over his eyes, he turned away from her, facing the empty pathway before him. Sighing, she heaved herself down to sit on the steps, her elbows rested on her knees and her chin in her hands. He cleared his throat a bit and adjusted the scarf around his neck.

He wouldn't question orders, but it did seem quite a bit ironic to be on a mission to Nibelhelm in the first place.

Now, they were alone. Together.

Why was Zack taking so long?

He knew that this was important, but…

As if by cue, something rumbled in the distance. His gloved hands fingered the worn handle of his gun, his wrist shaking once or twice.

It came so fast, he could barely organize it in his mind. All he could remember was a flash of something malevolent and the petrified, frozen expression in her dark eyes.

"Come on, I'm right here. Can you stand?"

The air was cold, especially when she wrapped his arm around her shoulders and lifted him to his feet. No single thought arose in his mind as the fog of grogginess and disorientation clouded any semblance of rational thought process.

He vaguely felt the steady, rhythmic heat of her breath against his cheek. It was all he could do to stay on his feet. His breaths came in ragged heaves as his sight fazed in and out in dark and hazy flashes of color.

Her eyes held on him, and she frowned. She then glanced over at Zack, who was meandering behind them, watching their backs in case of sudden attack. Cloud could barely hold on to reality enough to help her carry him. It wouldn't be long before he zonked out completely.

A groan arose in his throat as he slipped back into consciousness. Wincing at the sudden pain shooting through his nerves, he inhaled sharply, his nose flooded with the smell of wool, wood, and a surprisingly familiar scent.

"Shh. Don't get up."

He nearly jerked forward at the sound of her voice, shuddering at the touch of her hand to his chest. Another groan of pain croaked from his throat. Suddenly, a sharp inhale whistled into his mouth as his gloved hands flew to his head, his fingers finally relaxing against the cool metal of his helmet.

Her voice came like butter from her mouth, wandering over his wounds and soaking into them, causing each one to burn and sizzle and fester in the skin of his heart.

"I said don't get up. Geez, are all you Shinra boys like this?"

He obeyed without question or reaction, slowly opening his eyes to stare at the ceiling through the lenses of his helmet, thankful beyond reason that his helmet was still there. He swallowed slowly, the vague scent of warm stew floating into his nostrils. That was just like her. He continued to hold his gaze on the ceiling, the sound of clicking utensils in his ears.

"Say, I know you're just an infantryman, but I was wondering…"

The tone of her voice sent a small hitch into his throat. She sounded…strange. It almost scared him.

"Have you seen a man, tall, with blond spiky hair?"

Cloud's stomach tightened exponentially. Good news was: she didn't recognize him. Bad news: how in the world was he supposed to handle her talking like this before he did something stupid? He was really feeling the urge to get up and run.

Unfortunately for him, she turned around to face the bed that he was laying in and sat down on the edge, once again pushing him back onto the pillow before he could get up. She slowly stirred the spoon around in the bowl and continued, "I'm sorry. I guess it's too much to ask…" He could barely stand to look at her. The expression on her face nearly killed him.

Something wrenched inside him. This whole charade…was it really worth it? Was it really worth having to see that horrible expression on her face? No. It was worth it. It had to be. Seeing her face like this would be much better. Much better.

He could bear it. The thought of what would happen. If she found out…

He was no hero. He didn't have the ability to fight. He wasn't capable…of protecting her. He couldn't be in SOLDIER. He just wasn't worth it. He was only able to become an infantryman, even after this long. Now, the blond had nothing to show for it; nothing that could prove to her that he was worth the duty and honor of protecting her. Why couldn't he be strong?

There was no way Cloud could come back to her and show her how much he failed. Then she would see his failure, his worthlessness. He wouldn't be able to take the sight of her face.

"Open your mouth."

Her voice stung him from the spiraling vortex of his thoughts, and he only had time to open his mouth slightly before he felt the warm liquid down his throat.

Cloud's eyes shifted to watch her as she blew on the next spoon of her culinary concoction. The corners of his mouth stretched against his teeth. She leaned forward, and he drank from the next spoon. She was silent for the next few minutes, and he noticed the strange expression on her face continued to get worse.

Reaching into the bowl again, she prepared to give him another bite, the frown across her mouth causing Cloud's stomach to turn. Unable to take it anymore, he reached out, gently touching her wrist. Tifa's eyes held on him, and he withdrew contact.

She shook her head, a light chuckle coming from her lips, "I just…Thank you…for saving me. I'm really sorry…this is all my fault."

With that, she stood to her feet and walked calmly towards the door, refusing to turn and look back at the man she felt she herself had wounded. Reaching for the brass doorknob, she hesitated, heaving a sigh and tilting her head towards the ceiling.

Slowly, she turned around again, walking decisively towards his bed and sitting down next to him. She took a deep, refreshing breath and smiled, "Okay."

Without saying another word or explaining herself, she resumed her duties. He willingly took the stew she gave him, and both were silent again. He presumed the stew was gone when she set it on the shelf next to the bed. Suddenly, a flash of the strange expression mixed with determination spread across her face.

The churning at the pit of his stomach returned. It did not stop as Tifa leaned forward, her right arm reaching over to his other side as her left arm rested on the side she was sitting on. Hovering over him, she bent down and closed her eyes.

His breath nearly stopped and his mouth went dry. Cloud only waited a few minutes before he felt her velvet lips against his mouth.

The blond's mind blanked at the same time a million thoughts shouted through his brain; he could only lay there while she kissed him, his Shinra mask shifting against his face.

What should he do? Was he dreaming? His mask was still on, right? Did it feel weird to her? Did he look as dumb as he felt? And, most importantly, what was she doing and WHO did she think she was kissing!

Pulling away, she breathed against his flesh as she slowly stood up, shifting her face away quickly to hide the slight flush on her face. Picking up the bowl from the shelf, Tifa stirred the spoon in the bowl, which apparently did have some stew left at the bottom. When she did speak, which was a good many infinities later, or so it seemed, her voice came out nearly hollow and cracking, as if he had stole the core of her vocal cords right from her mouth, despite the fact that he had not the sense nor the voice to speak.

"I always wanted to thank my hero like that."

His eyes widened behind the mask of Shinra he had worn for so long. A smile quirked against her lips, her face positioned away from him.

"I know it's you, Cloud. You can take the mask off now."

He froze. Cloud's breathing suddenly turned from shallow to extremely heavy in a matter of moments. Sitting at his bedside once again, Tifa watched for only a moment as Cloud's chest heaved up and down softly, his mouth inhaling and exhaling the air that so swiftly passed through his lungs in expectation and the complete obliteration of his mental capacity.

Taking a deep breath once again, this time as if to gather her courage, Tifa's eyes softened as she watched him, leaning over him again, in the same way she had before. And for a second time, she met his open mouth.

Cloud inhaled deeply. It didn't help even when he knew what was coming. The feeling of her lips moving against his own sent him nearly into a state of delirium. He couldn't understand.

How did she know? What should he do? He had let her down, and now she had somehow found out about it. He was ashamed. He didn't want to show his face, but…

He didn't want her to leave.

Finally, his resolve broke, and he leaned into her, his eyelids slipping closed as he rose only slightly to rest his weight on his elbows. When she felt him respond, she gripped him by his shirt and his scarf, her delicate hands tugging the scarf away from his face.

Finally, her hands went to his face, caressing his cheeks before her fingers gripped his mask. With that, she lifted his helmet from his head and opened her eyes just for a moment, taking in the beautiful sight of his features, the eyes she had longed to see for so long. This did not last long, for as soon as she ran her fingers through the locks of his matted blond hair…

Cloud kissed her.

Raising one hand to form his palm against the soft flesh of her face, he brushed some of the stray hair behind her shoulder. She sighed, and his blood boiled. His hand went from her face to her waist as his brain began to analyze the situation…weakly.

Tifa put all the affection and compassion she could into his mouth, both of them breaking only milliseconds in between. A low moan reverberated through Cloud's throat as he tried to speak, his husky voice crackling in between his connection with her mouth, "T-mm-T-Tifa…I…Tifa…"

Tifa reveled in another couple moments of her intimate lip contact with him, in which he could only continue to kiss her, before she thought about letting go. She brushed her hand through his hair as she separated from him, a flushed and slightly exhausted smile spreading across her face.

"Don't you get it, Cloud?"

And, for the first time in a long time, his cerulean eyes found the eyes of his best friend.

And a glossy liquid had formed at the edges of her eyelids.

"I don't care…what rank you are."

His eyes went wide, and her hand found his heart, her palm resting softly against his chest.

"Nothing they could ever say could take any worth from you."

Zack covered his mouth with his hand before rubbing the back of his head nervously. He wasn't sure if he should feel jealous of the female attention, guilty, or aggravated that his young, inexperienced, awkward, and innocent little sidekick had gotten more of a "reality check" in one afternoon than he had gotten in weeks. He hadn't even been able to talk to Aerith in such a long time, let alone a "pep talk" like that. Yet, he had to hand it to the boy, he sure did need a pretty convincing kick in the butt every now and then.


I got the big quotes for this one while I was at work…it was only later that I realized what the really big deep theme about it was. Brief behind-the-scenes will be on my profile. Thanks so much for reading. Praying for you guys! Take care!