Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts, its characters or storyline. This collection is mine, as are McCallister, Mikayla, and James. This is the final chapter for this collection and the final prompt fulfillment. It is set around a year and a half after my other story T Minus One Year, and around one year after the sequel to TM1Y, titled Sentient Midnight. Due to this, there are some spoilers/teasers sprinkled throughout this final chapter. It's mostly subtext and teasing though. Enjoy!
030 – After the End
(For Caterina; Prompt: 'Cloud looks after a kid for a while.')
Cloud kept his eyes narrowed and gazing hard at his opponent, moving the tiny metal hat six spaces forward around the perimeter of the game board. His opponent remained just as impassive, arms folded on the edge of the table, watching his every move. The eight year old boy had an unbelievable poker face, but as soon as Cloud set his game piece down a final time—
"That's 50 munny. Pay up." The kid beamed.
Cloud hummed in annoyance and forked the blue paper munny over. "I passed Go, so give me my 200, squirt."
The child, James, happily did so, having assumed the banker role since the beginning of the game hours ago.
"Why are you so smug?" Cloud took his 200. "It's just 50."
"Yeah, but you land on it every single time, dude!" James snickered.
Cloud grumbled. This was a stupid game.
James took up the dice with both hands, shaking them. The eight year old had turned up in Radiant Garden's main town that morning. Seemingly out of nowhere, Cloud had become suspicious when he spotted the boy talking to every stranger that he came across, pointedly so. Being a stranger himself, the kid had eventually hailed him as well, bombarding him with questions. James was an orphan from a children's home in the second largest town of Radiant Garden. He had run away and managed to make his way here to find his birth parents.
After the end of the war over a year ago, the return of the impassable walls surrounding the worlds had caused a population surge in Radiant Garden. The main town had grown seemingly overnight, as people were returned to their home worlds and wound up stuck there. Now, there were nearly five cities across the world of Radiant Garden. The original remained to be the largest and most populous, but the second town—from where James had come—was only just the second largest.
It was also a six hour train ride away, which made James' little trip both impressive and terrifying to think about. But, Cloud mused as James did one of those elaborate dice dances to bring him luck on the roll, the kid seemed pretty normal. A little outgoing for a kid his age, and kind of a smart mouth, but a good kid. Cloud had been keeping an eye on him most of the afternoon while Aerith made frantic calls to locate where the boy belonged, and James hadn't spoken once poorly of the orphanage where he came from, nor given any negative reason as to why he had run away.
He just wanted to find his parents.
Well, if anybody could understand that, the Restoration Committee could understand that.
"Will you just roll already?" Cloud said, finally exasperated.
"Okay, okay, keep your pants on." James chucked the dice across the board.
The first one came to a dead stop after two bounces in the free parking area on the board. The second one, however, took a rebellious roll off the edge of the table and plopped to the floor.
"Ah!" Cloud snapped as James went to fetch it. "Play it as it lands."
"Aw, c'mon!' James complained. "It went under the couch!"
"You made me play that five that went behind the computer," Cloud shot back. "It's legitimate."
James grumbled and they both leaned away from the table, looking at the fallen die.
"Four." Cloud announced, snatching it up and setting it back on the board.
The kid moved his metal car piece the appropriate number of spaces, and it came to rest directly on the corner for the free parking.
"Yes!" James scooped the pile of munny toward him from the center.
"Wait." Cloud counted his spaces backward, just in case James had cheated on his move, but he hadn't. "Ugh…that was lucky."
James proceeded to hop out of his chair and do a little victory dance, mostly consisting of a bad Robot impersonation. Cloud regarded him flatly, tempted to trip him just to teach him a lesson. James was almost as bad a winner as Tifa was at video games.
The door to Merlin's house opened, and Tifa walked in. Her and Leon's two year old daughter Mikayla trailed after her, holding her mother's hand.
"Speak of the devil." Cloud pushed his chair away from the table, but didn't stand.
"Oh?" Tifa prompted, "Surely you weren't talking about me."
"No, but I was reminded of you—" He gestured to James, who abruptly stopped his ridiculous dancing at the woman's entrance.
"Y'know, he might be a better dancer than me." Tifa smirked. "What's your name, kiddo?"
"James." The kid introduced, suddenly behaving like a gentleman.
"Nice to meet you, James." Tifa greeted. "I'm Tifa."
James regally took her hand and shook it.
Cloud rolled his eyes and sat forward, abruptly spreading his arms and shouting in an intentionally gravelly voice. "Mikayla!"
The little girl smiled and darted from her mother's side. She ignored James and pounced up onto Cloud. He scooped her up and held her tightly. Then he started the routine that he had used on her since she had learned how to walk.
"Wait!" He continued in that gravelly voice. "This looks like a little girl! Cloud Monster likes eating little girls!" He started making nom-nom noises into her neck.
Mikayla squealed and thrashed against him. "Clou…Clou, stahppit!" She shrieked.
Tifa remained where she was, arms folded. "Are you done?"
Cloud straightened Mikayla up on his lap, resuming his normal voice. "Yep."
"Great…So, would you mind watching Mikayla for a while? I've got a meeting, and Leon got called in to talk to Aerith about something."
"Was it this something?" Cloud gestured to James.
Tifa lifted her shoulders, "I'm not sure, but he almost left a Leon-shaped hole in the door on his way to meet her. Whatever it is, it's serious."
Cloud nodded, "I don't mind. I'm just watching this squirt until Aerith gets back anyway."
"I'm not a squirt!" James sounded indignant.
"Squir!" Mikayla pointed.
"Mikayla, that's not nice." Tifa reprimanded lightly.
Mikayla snickered and just turned her face up to look at Cloud, who stuck his tongue out at her.
Tifa exhaled, "All right, well, I'll call you when I get out."
"Right-o." He saluted with one hand, keeping an arm around the little girl with the other.
"And…behave. You too, Mikayla. Be good." Tifa blew her a kiss. "I'll be back soon."
And with that, she left, closing the door after herself.
"Okay, you win." Cloud nodded toward the board.
"No, I didn't. I just got the pot!" James gestured to his unsorted mountain of munny.
"Close enough." Cloud said.
He hated losing, but he more wanted to clear away the tiny game pieces that the two year old Mikayla might be tempted to put into her mouth.
James groaned dramatically but started putting away the munny…by the fistful.
"Hey, hey, Banker," Cloud stopped him. "You have to sort it out. You can't just toss it in there pell-mell."
"Why not? S'the way we clean it up at the orphanage." He piped up.
"Well, this is Leon's set. He's a little…ferocious when it comes to organizing things."
"Tch, is he your brother or something?"
"Just a good friend." Cloud clarified. "And you take care of your friends' stuff, right?"
"I guess so." James begrudgingly started sorting the munny correctly by color. "Was that your wife or something?"
"No…just another good friend." He clarified again.
"So…do you have any brothers or sisters?" James pressed.
"No." Cloud replied, standing and setting Mikayla on the floor.
"Do you have any kids?" James asked.
"…No." Cloud faltered with that answer, putting the lid back on the game box.
Though it wasn't for lack of trying. He and Aerith had been married for nearly a year now, and with the end of the war and the return to a peaceful Radiant Garden, they had decided to start trying to have a child. That decision had been two months ago, but nothing so far had happened. The doctor had said it would take time, but both Cloud and Aerith had figured that it wouldn't have taken this long. Being Mikayla's godparents and also frequently babysitting her or otherwise being around her, it was constantly on their minds.
"Oh." James muttered, "So you don't have any family around either, huh?"
Cloud looked at him. "Not by blood, no. But I have friends that are even closer to me than brothers or sisters or parents. They are my family."
James didn't look entirely placated by that, but he didn't press further.
Over the next few hours, Cloud managed to keep James occupied with video games and Mikayla with some of the plethora of her toys that had ended up loitering at Merlin's during her visits. However, by mid-afternoon, the little girl had conked out on the couch, and James had his nose in a puzzle book. Cloud figured he had had worse babysitting days…
His cell phone buzzed and he snatched it up on the second ring. The caller ID said it was Aerith.
"Hey, what's the news?" He greeted.
"Come outside." Her voice was strained.
Red alert immediately went off in his head, and Cloud sat up from his seat. "Are you—"
"Just…right now, please." She said tersely.
Concerned, Cloud stood, looking to James. "I'll be right back. I need to take this call outside."
James bobbed his head and got back to his word search.
Cloud stepped outside of Merlin's front door and found Aerith standing there, holding her phone to her ear and nibbling on her thumb nail. They both hung up the phone, and Cloud crossed over to her.
"Is everything okay?" He asked.
"No. I mean…it's not…there's nothing 'wrong', but…" Aerith was pale and she looked shaken.
Cloud didn't push her immediately, but after a quiet moment asked. "Tifa said you called Leon."
"Yeah. He's…" Aerith drew a calming breath and looked at him, more collected now. "I had to go over the records with him, since she was his soldier for so long…but the paperwork didn't lie and…I've never seen him go so pale so fast, Cloud…I had to call Tifa out of her meeting just to calm him down."
Utterly confused now, Cloud touched her arm. "What are you talking about?"
Aerith glanced toward the window to Merlin's house. "We found his parents. Well, his mother. There's no father on his birth certificate, and the orphanage said he's never been adopted before."
"Aerith," Cloud said clearly. "What did you find out?"
She looked up at him painfully. "James' last name is McCallister." She said quietly. "Tabaeus was his mother."
The bottom fell out of Cloud's stomach. "She had a child? I never knew—"
"Neither did I. She didn't tell us. She didn't tell anyone, not even Leon." Aerith ran a hand across her hair. "He's a wreck, Cloud. This just brings back all the memories of what happened, and—"
Cloud put his arms around her then, pulling her close. "I know."
Aerith didn't break down or cry, but she just reciprocated the embrace. "What are we supposed to tell James? That poor boy travelled all this way to find his parents…How are we supposed to tell him…"
She trailed away, and Cloud couldn't think of anything to say.
James was eight years old. Private Tabaeus McCallister had joined the Allied Radiant Garden military roughly seven years ago. That would mean that she had enlisted almost immediately after giving birth to him. He had been in an orphanage ever since, going through who knows what with the war going on and especially the massacre near the end of the war…
"Do we know why she gave him up?" He asked after a moment.
"No." Aerith shook her head against his shoulder. "Nothing. I scoured all of the documentation, but there's no reason listed or any kind of reason that I can figure out. She was financially stable and when I spoke with her family after the war…they seemed like very understanding people who couldn't have kicked her out for getting pregnant out of wedlock…"
"So she was never married." Cloud tried to find logic.
"No, but she was only 19." Aerith straightened, rubbing her jaw. "Maybe she just wasn't ready—"
They would never know, and it wasn't like they could ask Tabaeus, Cloud thought, but he kept that thought to himself. It would be too painful for Aerith for him to say out loud. The only people who would possibly understand Tabaeus McCallister well enough to even begin to answer those questions were Jake Alms and Leon. Jake hadn't spoken to any of them since the end of the war, and for Leon, McCallister was a very, VERY tender subject.
"James is a smart kid." Cloud finally said. "And he's her kid, so he's going to figure it out whether we tell him or not. He can handle it."
"But we can't send him back to that orphanage. Tabaeus was one of us. That would be like sending Mikayla away if something were to happen to Leon and Tifa." Aerith looked overwhelmed.
"We'll figure something out." Cloud assured her. "I'll talk to him. Mikayla is sleeping on the couch. Could you watch her while I—"
"Of course." Aerith nodded fervently.
Cloud drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly, heading back into Merlin's house. "Hey…squirt."
James looked up, armed with a comeback about being called 'squirt', but his expression grew serious when he saw Cloud's face and registered his suddenly-somber tone.
God, Cloud realized now that he knew, James looked like her.
"What is it?" James closed the puzzle book, standing from his seat. "Did you find my parents?"
Even as he asked it though, Cloud could see that the kid already suspected the answer.
"Let's go for a walk." Cloud nodded his head toward the Borough. "You've been in Radiant Garden Main Town all day and all you've seen is the inside of this dusty old place." He started to smile, but couldn't make it happen.
James looked suspicious, but he crossed over and stepped out of Merlin's house, eying Aerith as he spotted her. "Hello, ma'am."
Aerith swallowed and did manage a smile. "Hi, there, sweetie. I'm Aerith."
James looked to Cloud, "So is THIS one your wife?"
It was a defensive maneuver of conversation that Cloud knew all too well, and he had to give the kid a rough snort for his efforts.
"Yes." He acknowledged.
Aerith chuckled dryly and ruffled James's hair, giving Cloud a strengthening look before going into the cottage to watch Mikayla. Cloud looked down at James, who was staring determinedly at the Bailey wall while trying to appear nonchalant and casual.
"C'mon, let's start this way," Cloud nodded to the right, "The Restoration Site is a good place to start."
"You know, you aren't very subtle." James muttered as they started walking.
Cloud paused, looking at the top of James's head. The kid deserved a straight answer. "Sorry, James…Let me start again…" He inhaled. "Your mother was probably one of the bravest women I've ever met. She was a soldier in the Alliance. One of the best. Do you remember when the darkness came at the end of the war…"
A/N: Thus concludeth this collection.
It's been a blast writing these prompts for you guys. I hope that it was an entertaining read. Thanks for all the awesome requests and feedback. For more Restoration Committee shorts, check out my chronological Alliance-verse collection T Minus One Year. TM1Y is a lead-in collection to an upcoming trilogy that I'm mapping out, part one of which will be titled Sentient Midnight. This trilogy will wrap up my Kingdom Hearts Alliance universe, after nearly four years of writing on it…Should be a good time.
Thanks for reading!