(Author's Note: This is a rare serious one that I've written. Occasionally, I'll give myself one-word prompts to theme a short story or one shot on. The prompt for this one was 'Voice'. This takes place before the movie, so Cloud is still in his dark, doom 'n gloom attitude. This will probably be the only time you'll ever see me write him in that attitude, since I really have no taste for angst. But I do think that sometimes love can ache, as portrayed in this oneshot. Please feel free to comment and enjoy!)
Cloud gritted his teeth and ducked closer to Fenrir as he raced along the city streets, trying to make himself as aerodynamic as possible. He blew by a speed limit sign, going easily thirty over what it had posted. Screw the laws and screw the rules and screw the fines he'd be given if he got pulled over.
Tifa was in trouble.
He'd been out by the old sword again, brooding as his thoughts played over specters of the past. No matter how many times he played that scene over in his head, he couldn't conjure up a better ending, one where he took up a weapon and helped his friend fight to the death. All he could do was watch with unseeing eyes as Zack fought valiantly against half the Shinra army and be cut down by a fiery hail of bullets. It made his Geostigma ache every time he thought about it and yet he couldn't tear himself away from that place, from that dark memory. He deserved the pain - no matter how much he wished he could go back and change it all, he couldn't summon the will to change the situation he lived in right now.
Geostigma was proof enough of that. The Planet hated him. This was his punishment for all the failures, for letting down the people that needed him most.
And while he'd been too wrapped up in his own pathetic miseries, he'd gotten a call on his cell phone. The ID said Bar. It used to be Home, but he'd changed it. He didn't deserve a home, didn't want one or anything that came with such a haven. With his track record he knew he'd only lose a family all over again - it happened once, it would happen again. He wouldn't set himself up for loss like that again, wouldn't let others depend on him when the only thing he produced was miserable failure. The sins he bore already were more than enough; no need to go out and start compounding them. The only winning move in his sorry excuse for a life was not to play.
To that end, he'd left the bar, left the kids and left Tifa. And that had hurt the most. He carefully steered his thoughts away from her. If he thought about her too much, he'd be tempted to go back, to look into those large dark eyes that drank in his soul, to taste those lips that had so quickly become an addiction. Then it would start all over again, and he couldn't live with her blood on his hands.
So he let the phone ring and ring and ring until she finally stopped calling. After a long while, he opened the phone and dialed for the voicemail. It shocked him to hear Denzel's voice, not Tifa's.
"Cloud, you gotta come home quick. Tifa's sick. She hasn't gotten out of bed all day and she's coughing up blood. She said not to call you but we can't make her go to a hospital..."
Cloud stopped hearing after that, the frantic pounding of his heart drowning out all other sounds. He was on his bike and racing for the city in a blink of an eye. No matter how he felt about his own failures, he couldn't sit by and do nothing if Tifa was sick. Frantic concern for her brushed away thoughts for anything else.
By sheer luck or fate, he didn't care which, he got to the bar without being pulled over. He killed the massive engine, then went into the bar, eating way the distance with long, quick strides. Denzel and Marlene were waiting for him upstairs. Marlene stood outside Tifa's door, looking grave. The child was too serious, he thought. She didn't laugh enough. Probably his fault - he knew his leaving had hurt Tifa deeply, and kids can't help but pick up on things like heartbroken melancholy.
Marlene pointed toward the door. "She hasn't gotten up all day," she said.
Cloud nodded and gently pushed open the door. Denzel was there, trying to give Tifa a glass of water, but she was coughing too hard to even take it from his hands.
When her eyes lit on him, he felt his heart do an odd little skip and saw a weak glint of light in her eyes. She smiled weakly. "Cl-cloud..." She started coughing into a tissue again, wet, hacking coughs that shook her body.
Ignoring Denzel plucking at his sleeve, Cloud went over to her bed and knelt beside her. Taking off his gloves, Cloud let them drop on the floor and pressed his hand to her forehead. She was burning with fever, but she shook like she was freezing.
"Did you take her temperature?" Cloud asked Denzel.
The young boy started, surprised that his enigmatic role-model had addressed him. "Yeah. Hundred and two."
Cloud flung the sheets off of Tifa - a fever like that had no call for so many blankets. He could feel the heat radiating off her body. Tifa shivered violently in her pajamas, as though he'd just dashed her with a bucket of ice water. She coughed weakly into her tissue. "Tol-told them not... to call..." she gasped between coughs. "Justa cold..."
He shushed her, absently tucking her hair behind her ear. "How long has she been sick?"
"Um... about a week. Just a cold we thought..." Denzel volunteered after a moment.
Cloud nodded. "Denzel, there's some cold medicine in the bathroom. Get it for me. Marlene, bring me the phone."
The kids dashed off to do their duties. While they were gone, Tifa reached out and drew his glasses off his face. She smiled at his blue eyes and said, "You're home," before dissolving into another coughing fit.
He gently took the glasses from her and laid them on the table. "Yeah," he said, not daring to tell her he'd leave once she was well. "I'm home."
She grinned at him. "If I'd known..." More coughing. "Getting a co-cold was all it t-took..." She had to pause and catch her breath and cough some more. "Woulda... done it... earlier."
Cloud said nothing, stroking her hair, trying to hide his own worry. He'd never seen her this weak before, this sick. It scared him. "Everything's going to be alright," he said. Tifa smiled at him radiantly, and closed her eyes. Her hand squeezed his.
About that time, the kids came back. Cloud measured the medicine into the little cap and watched as Tifa swallowed it. Then, taking the phone from Marlene, he dialed the doctor and described the symptoms to him.
Cold medicine and fluids. Fine. Appointment in two days. Great treatment, doc, thanks. Cloud was sorely tempted to fling the phone across the room. Only the kids, watching him with big, worried eyes prevented him from doing so.
Instead he turned to Tifa, who had her eyes close and was panting for breath. "Tifa, can you drink some water?"
Eyes closed, she shook her head and coughed weakly. Denzel had exaggerated - she wasn't coughing up blood, but the tissue was stained with discolored sputum.
"Come on. Drink. For me." Her eyes opened and studied him. He had to control a shiver going down his spine. Even sick and feverish, those eyes were like pools he could so easily lose himself in. He so badly wanted to but he knew if he did, there'd be no leaving. Finally she nodded.
Cloud held the cup up to her lips but she was too weak to raise herself high enough to drink. So he gently looped an arm under her shoulders and propped her head up on his shoulder, then held the cup to her lips. With many pauses and coughing fits, she drank the entire glass and he lowered her to the sheets again. Tifa burrowed into the sheets and immediately fell asleep, exhausted by the effort. Cloud felt her forehead. Still hot to the touch, but she felt cooler now. He covered her up with a thin topsheet.
Just then he noticed the kids had been watching this entire process intently. "The medicine will help with the coughing. She needs rest." Standing, he gently but firmly ushered the children to the door.
"Are you going to stay?" Denzel asked. Cloud ignored him, just repeating that Tifa needed rest.
"Is she going to die?" Marlene asked.
That sent a shard of pain right through him. "No. She is going to be fine." The kids looked at him doubtfully. He couldn't blame them. He'd doubt his own words too, after hearing the uncertainty in them.
After ushering them outside, with instructions that they'd have to feed themselves tonight and to stay quiet, he shut the door. He stood there for a moment, staring at the grain of the wood, to calm himself. Tifa was terribly sick. Breathing was obviously an effort that caused pain and the coughing that wracked her body had a nasty wet quality to it he didn't like. And there was that rusty-colored sputum...
Grabbing the chair from the desk where Tifa took care of all the bills, calls and other things related to running a bar, Cloud carried it back to her bedside and sat down. He'd stay right here, until she woke up.
Tifa stirred and rolled over on her side to face him. She wasn't asleep yet, but almost there. One hand move weakly and he knew what she wanted. After a slight hesitation, he took her hand in his. "Thank you," Tifa sighed as she closed her eyes.
The day was almost over. Hopefully the meds would be doing her some good. She was having a hard time breathing, but not too much to keep her from sleeping. Cloud relaxed in the chair. It'd be a nice change sleeping here instead of on the hard wooden floor in the church.
Cloud sat there, absently rubbing the back of her hand with his thumb, lost in thought. If anything happened to her... His heart constricted painfully. No. No, don't even think about it. She meant more to him than he could possibly express. In spite of his self-imposed exile - which was only to protect her, that she wouldn't trust and rely on someone as weak and failure-prone as himself - he still loved her.
Occasionally, he listened to old voicemails, just to hear her voice again. Sometimes it was his only solace during the nights when the pain never stopped, when he was sure the Stigma was ripping him apart seam by seam, cell by cell. How many times had he awoken in the morning to find a dead and drained cell phone in his hand, the battery exhausted after replaying her voice all night long? Too many to count. He liked the early ones the best, when her voice wasn't so heavy with doubt and worry, when she was still thrilled to be living with him. Before he left.
Hey Cloud! I guess you're still out doing some deliveries, but I wanted to let you know that Yuf and I have been making some new recipies for the bar! They're great, I can't wait for you to try them! See ya!
Did he ever try those dishes she'd so eagerly whipped up? He couldn't remember. No doubt he would have loved them if he had. Tifa's cooking was divine. Though she was a dangerous martial artist - one of the best in the world - she certainly didn't let that fact get in the way of her femininity. She had a natural talent for cooking that rivaled the meals of his childhood. When was the last time he'd enjoyed a home-cooked meal? He couldn't remember.
Once, all he had to live on were memories. Now he didn't even have those.
Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday, Cloud! Happy birthday to you! Silvery laughter. I just wanted to sing it for you, first one for the day. Twenty third, right? I forgot if you like vanillia or chocolate so I just made chocolate cake. I know you'll probably get home late, but it's okay, we can all have birthday cake for breakfast! My mom let me have cake for breakfast and I intend to carry on the tradition. See you soon!
He'd missed that birthday. It still made him feel like an ass, having skipped out on that cake, on that party he knew she had organized for him. Barret had called him, tore him a new one for not showing up. He deserved it. But the sooner he cut all ties, the sooner he let them depend on someone else,the safer they'd all be. The less pain there'd be down the road.
His gaze shifted to her face thoughtfully. But was he really ensuring less pain? Or was he just causing it?
Hi, Cloud. I got your present this morning. It's beautiful. Thank you. A long pause. Haven't seen you for a while. I'd like to tell you how much I love it in person. So how about you drop by and we can talk? pause. Please come home, okay?
She still wore that necklace. He hadn't seen her without it, when he got it for her past birthday. He leaned forward, brushed her hair away from her neck. Yep. Still wearing it. The heart-shaped lock and the key pendents were hidden somewhere beneath her shirt. He's seen it sitting in the window of a jewelry store and knew he had to get it for her. It complimented her namesake perfectly. It had cost a tidy sum, but he didn't care. It was for her birthday and she deserved something worthy of her own beauty.
Cloud... is everything okay? The kids miss you something fierce. So do I, ha ha. Pause. If you ever want to talk, you know you can call me whenever you want to, right? Things are so quiet around here. Sometimes I find myself tiptoeing around and don't know why. . Come home? Please? Bye.
Cloud sighed and let his head fall back against the chair. She would get better. He was here now, he could take care of her. Staring at the ceiling, he replayed all the old voicemails in his head, having memorized them all by heart. Closing his eyes, he fell asleep to Tifa's phantom voice in his mind, not knowing he still held her hand.
The next day, Cloud stubbornly fed Tifa some oatmeal for breakfast, despite her protests. She was too tired to stay awake through an entire meal - his job consisted more of keeping her awake then actually putting the spoon to her lips. He did it anyways. It gave him an excuse to hold her. Tifa stopped complaining after a while and soon the bowl was empty.
Before she fell asleep, he gave her more of the medicine. It helped the coughing a little, but her fever was still high, and she shook with chills. Sometimes he could hear her teeth chattering as she curled into a ball under the sheets.
Marlene and Denzel watched mutely, dark eyes wide with concern and fear. He wished they wouldn't watch - it made him nervous. But he could understand that they'd want to stay near, so he let them be. One or both of them had asked the cooks in the bar downstairs to prepare meals for them throughout the day. The task was usually taken care of by Tifa, even though as a manager and owner she didn't have to cook or clean or even work in the bar. She insisted on doing it, though. Cloud knew that Tifa was one of those people that would go stir-crazy if kept still too long. She loved the interaction with customers as well, and her personality and cheer was a large reason for the faithful patronage the bar had acquired so quickly.
There was no cheer in her today, however. Tifa spent most of the day coughing up more rusty-colored sputum and complaining of a headache. Asprin didn't seem to help any and Cloud was at a loss for what to do. He went to the pharmacy and picked up the medicine the doctor had prescribed over the phone, but they weren't doing any good that he could see. Frustrated, he called the doctor again.
"She isn't doing any better," Cloud said.
"Still breathing hard?"
"Did you give her the medicine I prescribed?"
"Yeah. There hasn't been any improvement."
"Well, it can take a few days to see any sign of progress. It sounds like she's got pneumonia and those antibiotics should take care of the problem quickly. Give it a day or two and be sure to keep her hydrated."
And that was it. He hung up. Cloud stared at the phone in blank astonishment, fury crawling through his veins. This time he did throw the phone across the room and the kids jumped. Dammit. He shouldn't have done that. Too late now to lie and tell them the doctor said everything would be fine.
Sighing, he turned back to Tifa and helped her drink another glass of water. At least she drank without too much trouble, greedily gulping it down when he put it to her lips. He could very well imagine she'd be thirsty, burning with such fever.
The day passed by without much event. Cloud did his best to make her eat some soup at lunch but her appetite was nonexistent. With characteristic stubbornness, she pushed the bowl away and refused to look at it again after she'd eaten only a few spoonfuls. All attempts to wheedle another spoonful into her reluctant mouth were completely ignored.
For about two hours in the middle of the day, she was entirely awake, if a little winded. Lack of proper breath support didn't stop her from giving demands, telling them to do this and do that, to make sure the bar was locked down at night and the kids went to bed on time. She didn't make a great deal of sense at times, but they did their best to reassure her that everything was being taken care of. Once, she stumbled to the bathroom and back when Cloud had briefly left the room for a quick chore. She was extremely irritated when Cloud intercepted her in the hallway, snapping - when she had the breath - that she was perfectly well thank you very much,and he didn't have to shove her around all over the damn place like hopscotch.
Cloud, who'd been gently guiding her back to the bed at the time, just nodded and agreed with her nonsensical statements. He didn't dare point out that if she was so well, then why was she stumbling from wall to wall in the hallway like a drunk and panting for breath like she'd just run a marathon? Arguing with her only made her more stubborn and grumpy, so he kept it to himself. Sometimes she'd ask him questions that didn't make sense and he did his best to answer.
When it came time to give her the meds again, she was confused, asking what they were over and over even though he'd told her at least twenty times before. She still didn't seem to understand, but she took them anyway, with an added note that if she didn't have puppies because of the pills, she'd blame him. She'd always wanted puppies, you know.
Cloud just nodded and agreed as usual. That didn't satisfy her. She demanded he repeat it back to her. So he said yes, it'd definitely be his fault if she didn't have puppies because of the pills. Tifa just shook her head, as though he'd gotten it totally wrong and lay back down. She was asleep before he could even offer her more water. Her breathing was heavy and labored; the coughing still produced sputum.
Once again, Cloud sat in the chair at her bedside, watching, worrying. He'd cast a few cure spells on her, but they didn't seem to do any good. It helped the headaches at least, but nothing much beyond that. Once again, he mentally went over the old voicemails, trying to recall the time when everything had seemed brighter.
He missed her terribly. Even sitting next to her, he still missed her. He missed her easy smile and the jokes she gathered from patrons to relay to him each day. He missed the scent of her hair and the hug she gave him every morning. He missed... her; the energy she always had humming through her, no matter what, the vibrancy of life she carried so effortlessly.
When had life become such a burden for him?
Absently, he rubbed his left arm. The Stigma hadn't given him much trouble today, no agonizing episodes of mind-numbing pain. It ached though, all day long, a throbbing pain that wouldn't be eased. It was the kind of pain one can never get accustomed to. It always found a new way to torture, jabbing him with pain when he least expected it.
He sighed and made himself comfortable in the chair. As he drifted to sleep, he tried to recall the last time he'd heard Tifa laugh. Once upon a time, he could have easily recalled a recent memory. Now all he had were voicemails, playing over and over in his mind.
A strange sound, like tearing silk, wrenched Cloud from the depths of sleep. Blinking away the bluriness in his eyes, he saw the clock reading 1:46 in red numbers on the nightstand. The sound continued on. It had a strange quality to it, like... wheezing. Cloud fumbled for the lamp and at last turned it on. The light blinded him for a moment but when his eyes adjusted, he stared at Tifa in shock.
She had turned blue. Well, not exactly blue. Her skin had turned a dusky color with a bluish tinge. He'd never seen anything like it before. She was lying on her back, head tilted back as she gasped for air, trying to draw in deep breaths to no avail. Her hands fisted in the sheets, clenching and unclenching in the fabric as she struggled for air. That struggle had produced the odd sound that had awoken him.
"What's going on?" Denzel said. He appeared in the doorway, sleepily rubbing his eyes with a fist. "What's that noise?"
"Get back," Cloud ordered. That brought the boy to full wakefulness.
"What's going on? Is that Tifa?"
"Denzel, go back to bed." Cloud scooped Tifa off the bed with ease. Geez, she was so light. She felt so frail... her head lolled as he carried her out of the room, Denzel and now Marlene on his heels, and she kept gasping for air.
"What's happening?" Marlene asked. The kids watched, on the verge of panic, as Cloud carried Tifa downstairs. He didn't know what was happening. What he did know was that average ambulance response time was nine minutes. On Fenrir, he could get to the hospital in three.
"I'm taking her to the hospital. Stay inside," he said as he pushed open the back door. Tifa was oblivious to the world, wholly given to fighting for air. Utterly ignoring his instructions, the kids followed him downstairs and stood in the doorway, watching as he swung a leg over Fenrir, positioning Tifa across the seat in front of him.
Now, more than ever, he cursed the lack of a proper vehicle. Everything they needed was within walking distance and Tifa claimed it kept her fit, having to walk twelve blocks to go get to the nearest store for sundries. He knew there was more to it than that, that they couldn't really afford another vehicle just yet. So they all made do with walking or she asked him to pick something up on the way home if it was too far to walk. Now, the only means of transport was his bike. Hardly ideal for rushing someone to the emergency room, but it would have to do. He could hold her with one arm and steer with the other - he'd designed it to be easy to drive one-handed anyway.
Without another word to the kids, he started the engine. It rumbled to life underneath him. He zoomed out of the alley at breakneck speed, one arm wrapped around Tifa's waist. Thankfully, the streets were mostly empty at this time of night, so there wasn't much traffic to negotiate. He pushed the bike to its limits, as well as his skill in handling it. More than once he took a corner and nearly tipped the bike over.
The rush of wind in her face seemed to be doing her good. Tifa took deeper breaths, not so panicked anymore, but she still labored for air. "Hang on, Tifa," he muttered in her ear. "Hang on."
They made it to the hospital in record time. He didn't even bother killing the engine, he just stopped in front of the emergency room doors, lifted Tifa in his arms again, and carried her inside.
Cloud expected having to yell or cause a ruckus to get some attention. As he found out, that only happens in movies. By the second step he took past the door, nurses and medical staff practically dropped out of the ceiling, they were at his side so fast. A gurney appeared out of nowhere and he set her down on it. Questions were thrust at him and he answered automatically before he even registered what the question was. Several people rushed Tifa into another room while several more kept him from following. He'd taken a step after her before realizing that two rather large orderlies were trying to hold him back.
He shook them off with little effort, pushing one away who was most persistent in keeping a hold on him. "What's going on?" he demanded. "Where are they taking her?"
The staff gaped at him. He wouldn't know until later, but he had just shaken off two of the biggest, strongest men at the hospital without any trouble. A dark-haired nurse approached him.
"Sir, we're doing our best to help her right now. She's been taken to triage room four. What's your name? Do you have insurance?"
In short order, the nurse had him busy filling out forms cluttered with technicalities and questions asking for the most excrutiating detail. It was mind-numbing, complicated, and needed multiple copies. The paperwork did exactly what it was intended to do - take his mind off the emergency at hand. By the time it was done, it amazed him to see that more than an hour had passed.
When it had all been filled out, all he could do was wait. After turning off Fenrir's engine and about an hour of staring at the floor, he realized he should call someone, Barret or somebody, tell them what was happening. Wearily, he pulled his phone from his pocket and started to dial. When Tifa's voice came out of the ear piece, it startled him so badly he nearly dropped the phone.
"Hey Cloud! I guess you're still out doing some deliveries, but I wanted to let you know-" Tifa carried on cheerily. For a second, his weary mind couldn't comprehend what was going on. Then he realized. He'd dialed the voicemail automatically.
Though he should have closed the phone and started punching in a number, he didn't. Listening to her cheerful voice, to that sweet sound, was somehow fascinating in a horrible way. Here was her voice, just as real as could be, while in the other room she could barely breathe, was slowly suffocating from the inside out.
Cloud abruptly shut the phone, jammed it into his pocket, and covered his face with his hands. If something happened to her tonight... if they couldn't do anything... all he'd have left were those voicemails. Though they'd long been a comfort to him, he couldn't bear listening to them right now, couldn't even stomach the idea.
He didn't know how long it was until a doctor finally approached him. Cloud stood and listened as the doctor detailed what had happened and what they'd done to correct the problem. Tifa would be alright. The pneumonia infection was viral, and wouldn't be affected by the light antibiotics that had been prescribed. Tifa would be in the hospital for a few days, but she'd be okay. Would he like to see her?
Cloud didn't hear very much after the reassurance that Tifa would be alright. That was all that mattered to him. The moment he heard those words, it felt like a great weight was lifted off his chest and he could finally breathe easy. "Yes. I want to see her."
Nodding, the doctor gestured to a nurse, who led him to her room. Tifa was lying on her back in bed, an oxygen mask covering her nose and mouth. She was awake and he saw her eyes crinkle at the corners they way they do when she smiles.
"Hey." He went to her side and sat on the edge of the bed. One of her hands winnowed into his and he didn't pull away from the touch. If she wanted to hold hands right now, so be it. At least she was alright. "You okay?"
She nodded. "Be here... a few days..." Her voice was still weak, but at least she could breathe now, and her skin had lost that bluish tinge. "Be back... and kicking ass... before you know it."
Cloud gave her a small smile, knowing she'd want it. It was worth it, just to see her eyes sparkle with delight. She tapped his hand with one finger. "Interesting ride... over here..."
Ah, that. He ducked his head self-consciously and scratched his forehead. "Thought you were delirious on the ride here."
Tifa winked at him. "Saw enough..." There was a short pause as she caught her breath. Then, squeezing his hand to make him look at her, she said, "Thank you... For coming back."
He looked away. How could he possibly tell her it was a fluke, that'd he'd be gone again once she recovered? Best not to say anything, just leave and let her think he'd gone back home... back to the bar, that is. By the time she knew the truth, he'd be gone a week ago.
"I should go," he said, standing, letting her hand slip from his. "The, uh... kids are still there."
Tifa rolled on her side as he took a step away, caught his hand by the pinky. "Cloud."
He stopped. "Yeah?"
"Stay..." she gasped. "Please stay... a while longer..."
Cloud stood there, torn between staying and going. He pulled his hand from her weak grasp.
Then, dragging the chair closer to her bedside, he sat down in it. "Okay. I'll stay."
He pretended to not see the tears in her eyes. Tifa wiggled her fingers and, knowing what she wanted, he put his hand in hers. She gripped his hand tightly with both of hers and quickly fell asleep, her cheek resting on the back of his hand. Cloud watched her sleep, the rise and fall of her now steady breathing. Automatically, he went over the voicemails in his head. Never before had he realized how precious they were, how very dear the sound of his name passing her lips was to him.
Holding her hand, remembering, Cloud kissed her forehead and waited for the dawn.