Note: There is an "explicit" version of this chapter available off-site. The link is posted in my profile.
There are many different types of fear, with just as many and varied sources. Fear of being alone – ignored and shunned – had been a constant companion to Cloud growing up, all the more so because he lived with the reality of it everyday. Fear of failure was another with which he became familiar at a young age, his acquaintance with it growing stronger as he grew. When he was sixteen, fear of being helpless became another close friend, one that haunted him still: gifting him with nightmares in which he floated, paralyzed, in a sea of mako-green; or watched, a spectator in his own body, while another controlled his actions.
Although he was known several times over as a hero, he was no stranger to fear.
Despite the things he'd seen and done in his twenty-four years, however, his greatest fear revolved around his friends and family. Fear that they would be hurt, whether individually or collectively, physically or emotionally. It was a recent addition, one Cloud had only lived with for a few years, and whenever it struck he always found himself struggling to cope with the newness of it, with the fact that – in every possible way – this fear was just... more. Sharper, brighter, more angled, more urgent, more consuming. He hated it when Tifa or the kids were hurt or frightened. It scared him when they bled or cried or were sick. It had terrified him to find Tifa collapsed in the church after Loz' attack. Despite that, the sheer horror he felt when he arrived at the bar to find her bloody, nearly unconscious, and about to be gunned down was greater still. Every second it took to drive her attacker away, while her heart pumped blood out onto the floor behind him, was too long. Once the strange woman was in full retreat, he left Barret to restore order, and raced back to Tifa's side.
Relief engulfed him as her body responded to his use of materia. While he watched, bullets were expelled, and cuts and bruises faded, leaving only smooth, unblemished skin. A more intense glow gathered at her stomach, indicating internal injuries, but that too faded within moments. Unfortunately, the extensive healing took its own toll, pushing her over the edge into unconsciousness. He caught her close as she slumped forward, closing his own eyes and trying to force himself to relax. He'd made it. Tifa would be fine.
That's what he told Barret a few minutes later, when the larger man appeared in the doorway, and he repeated it to Denzel and Marlene when they came running in response to Barret's distinctive voice.
Still, it was worry fueled adrenalin that carried him through the next hour, as he and Barret worked together to organize the evacuation. The three WRO vehicles were large enough to accommodate everyone, but just barely. Tifa was placed on a makeshift pallet in Barret's truck, Denzel and Marlene earnestly promising to watch over her, but Cloud was forced to travel separately. That had, of course, been the original plan; but with the change in circumstances, he found it less than satisfactory. Much as he loved Fenrir and the open road, in this particular instance he would have preferred the stuffy cargo area and the press of strangers. Some part of him needed to see Tifa in order to believe that she was really alright. Instead, he made the trip to Junon with only his thoughts of what might have happened – what would have happened, had he arrived any later – to keep him company.
In Junon, Reeve had made arrangements for the evacuees to stay in empty Shinra housing. The children would sleep in the barrack dormitories, while the adults stayed in the nearby officers' quarters. Cloud and Barret claimed a small suite of rooms for their little family, and Cloud settled Tifa in one bedroom while Denzel and Marlene explored the other. Despite their earlier scare, spending the night in a new place was exciting, and they rushed around peering in drawers and closets as if expecting to find exotic treasure. When told they would be sharing the large bed, sides were chosen and subjected to a few test bounces that soon escalated into a pillow fight.
When the kids had exhausted themselves pummeling each other, Cloud made sure Denzel showered and changed into his pajamas, while Barret did the same for Marlene. Once they were tucked into bed, Cloud also said good night, leaving the older man to relax in front of the TV.
Although he was tired, sleep did not come quickly or easily. Stretching out beside Tifa, he kept silent vigil over her unnaturally still form. For the next several hours he held her hand, stroking careful fingers through her hair as he spoke softly of his meeting with Reeve, and told her how well-behaved the children had been on the journey. Anything he could think of to keep his mind busy, and to coax her back to him. It was after midnight before she relaxed from unconsciousness into normal sleep, curling against him and turning to snuggle her head under his chin. Only then, as her breath ghosted moist and warm over his collarbone, did his own tension begin to subside. She really would be alright. Letting that thought sink in and take hold, he succumbed to slumber himself.
So it was ironic, come the morning, to realize he wanted to shake her. Or spank her. Or something. He wasn't really certain what he wanted, other than for her to promise never to scare him that way again. Then he wanted to kiss her until he couldn't remember being angry with her in the first place.
Instead, he got to watch across the breakfast table as Barret scolded her for taking chances, blustering dramatically, and she simply smiled and brushed his concerns aside. Shaking her jumped right back to the top of his list of things he wanted to do, and he bit into a piece of toast to avoid grinding his teeth, or saying something he might later regret. He hadn't yelled at Sephiroth the last time he killed the bastard, and now he was upset enough – almost – to yell at Tifa. The very thought seemed like it belonged to someone else. Cloud honestly couldn't ever remember being this furious with anyone he cared for, let alone her. Frustrated and annoyed, yes. Anger, however, was generally reserved for his enemies.
Still... he was angry. Angry that she had scared him, and angry that she'd been so reckless. Angry that she didn't seem to understand how frightened they'd all been. And underneath it all, angry at himself for scaring her this way in the past.
Tifa was aware of Cloud's eyes following her throughout the day, his glowing gaze flickering through a wide range of emotions. Foremost were fear and relief, commingled to provided a far more potent – though nonverbal – scolding than Barret managed at full volume. It was obvious that she'd worried him, and for that she was sorry; but not as sorry as she'd be if any of the children had been hurt.
Far more distracting were the passion and possessiveness that lingered in the depths of his eyes, things she was accustomed to seeing when they were alone, not shining there for Barret or Reeve to notice. Her heart beat a little faster when she felt that heated look, her skin tingling, body eager. Perhaps it was that which kept her from realizing anger also lurked in the tangle of his emotions.
Whatever the reason, it was dinnertime before she saw it. She'd been standing at the table, milk jug in hand as she refilled Marlene's glass, when Barret decided to start up again. The first time he'd done it, she'd been touched that he cared so much; but after a whole day of scolding she just found it annoying. Turning her head to catch Cloud's eye, hoping he'd come to her rescue... she instead found him watching her with eyes that burned with muted anger. Although a great deal of it was directed at the situation, some portion was focused on her.
Cloud was angry with her. Cloud was angry with her.
It hurt, and her eyes widened with surprise, prickled unexpectedly. Cloud noticed, his mouth tightening and his head shaking almost imperceptibly. Denying his anger? Denying her hurt? Denying her tears?
Abruptly she spoke, interrupting Barret's tirade, though her gaze remained locked on Cloud, words directed at him. "What should I have done differently? Let her hurt the kids?" She shook her head, placing the jug on the table with more force than necessary. "You know I'd never do that." Brown eyes held a scold of their own, but detected no softening in either man.
"Of course not, Tifa!" Barret's tone was frustrated, as if she was missing the point.
"Then what? What are you saying? What do you want me to say?"
"That you'll be more careful!"
They stared at each other, neither backing down, until Cloud's quiet voice cut through the room.
"Why didn't you turn out the lights and stay with the others? Or wait out of sight in the kitchen?" Barret immediately subsided, mouth curving with satisfaction that the other man had finally said something. Tifa could only stare, open-mouthed, for it was a fair question. A reasonable question. And she didn't have an answer.
"I..." Her knees suddenly felt weak as her righteous indignation faded, and she collapsed into her chair. "I don't know."
Cloud's mouth quirked, just a bit, as he pushed his plate back and stood. "I do." Tifa's eyes snapped to his face, while Barret sat back in his chair to watch their exchange. "You got so caught up in protecting everyone else, you forgot about yourself." Hands flat on the table, he leaned forward, his expression serious and intent. "You're strong, and you've been trained, and you care so much about everyone. So it's natural to put yourself between others and anyone who would do them harm. But you didn't even consider that it might not be necessary." She opened her mouth to protest, and he shook his head. "Maybe it was and maybe it wasn't. She came looking for me," and his tone was bitter, conveying his sense of guilt over that, "so it's possible she would have kicked the door in regardless. I just wish you'd waited to see, instead of throwing yourself out there as a decoy." He straightened again, hands falling to fist at his sides, before unclenching slowly as if by conscious decision. "You're not expendable, Tifa."
The room was silent, both children too surprised to see Tifa getting scolded by Cloud – however gently – to fill the void with chatter. Then someone knocked on the door and the moment broke. Barret drained the last of his glass as Cloud went to answer the summons, showing Reeve into the small living room. As the WRO director began spreading out files and photos over the coffee table, Tifa finished her dinner and ushered the kids off to get ready for bed. When she passed Cloud he caught her hand, his glance asking if she'd be joining them. His gesture caused the knots inside her to ease just a bit. He was only angry because he cared.
"Fill me in later," she whispered, giving his hand a squeeze before walking away.
Once the kids were in bed and asleep, Tifa retreated to the shower, letting the hot water ease tight shoulders as she considered what Cloud and Barret had said. It was embarrassing to realize they were right, and she had been careless. Worse, she'd been dismissive of their concerns, leaving her feeling both ashamed and foolish. Knowing they would forgive her didn't erase her mistakes, or do much to soothe her nerves when she remembered the things she'd seen in Cloud's eyes. So she took her time, dragging out her shower and then blow-drying her hair to delay having to face either of the men. After more than an hour closeted in the small room, she gathered her courage and opened the door, only to freeze at the sight of Cloud. He'd turned the covers back, and was situated in the middle of the bed among the mound of pillows, propped up against the headboard. Like herself, he was dressed for bed, and she realized he'd also taken the time to shower.
He was also very obviously waiting for her, legs splayed out in font of him and arms folded behind his head. "I was beginning to think you were going to hide in there all night." He didn't turn his head as he spoke, but his tone was gently teasing.
She relaxed a bit more. "I wasn't hiding," she denied, "I was thinking."
At that he did turn his head, just slightly, and held out his hand. Hesitantly, she moved to join him, taking his hand and letting him pull her into his lap. "Deep thoughts?"
Snuggling close, her back against his bare chest, legs cradled between his, she shook her head, watched as he reached to turn out the bedside light. "More embarrassed than deep."
"Oh?" He spoke with his mouth pressed to her throat, lips brushing her skin. His fingers gently stroked up and down her arms, soothing more of her anxiety away.
"I'm sorry," she blurted out, and felt him still. "I didn't think. You and Barret were right."
Cloud sighed, wrapping his arms around her and resting his chin on her shoulder. "You scared me." A simple statement, no blame or accusation.
"I didn't mean to."
"I know." Another sigh, a kiss on her shoulder, and his hands were moving again, sliding down to twine his fingers with hers. "I never mean to scare you either." His tone was wry, self-deprecating.
"You haven't, not in a long time," she hastened to assure him, watching his long fingers rub along her more slender ones. "Not since you came back."
"That's good," he murmured, lips grazing her temple, well aware she'd spent far too much time worrying about him in the past. Still... thanks to his two bouts of mako poisoning, she'd always focused more on what he was thinking and feeling than on any physical hurts he might suffer. It took a lot to do him any real damage, and he healed so quickly the evidence of any injuries was usually gone by the time he got home, leaving nothing for her to be concerned over. So he couldn't help but think the kind of worry she suffered on his behalf had to be less nerve wracking than finding him in a pool of his own blood would be.
Whereas finding her in a similar state was all too real to him.
Releasing her fingers, he began drawing circles on the bare skin of her thigh with one hand, while she clasped the other between her palms. He gave a soft sound of pleasure and approval when she raised it to her mouth, nibbled at his fingertips. "Tifa?"
"Mmm?" Her inquiring hum vibrated around the finger she'd sucked between her lips, and he swallowed at the teasing sensation.
"Would you promise me something?" despite what she was doing, he kept his tone serious, yet soft.
She stiffened in his arms, let his hand slip down to rest in her lap. "It depends on what it is."
He trapped her fingers between his own before she could pull away, his right arm wrapping around her waist to keep her close. "Promise not to take anymore risks like that. Promise me you'll be careful." She was already shaking her head, and his hold tightened as frustration surged. "The woman who attacked you is called Rosso the Crimson. She's part of an elite Deepground group called the Tsviets." He spoke directly into her ear, voice tight with suppressed urgency. "She's an elite among the elite, Tifa. Essentially a SOLDIER first like Zack and Sephiroth, only she's been conditioned to be cruel all her life, and there are four more just like her." Although he couldn't see her face, he could only imagine her eyes were wide and shocked. He waited, wanting the facts to sink in on their own so he wouldn't have to say what they both knew was true: Tifa had no chance, alone, against one of the Tsviets. "Promise me," he urged.
Tifa hesitated, wanting to give him the reassurance he needed, but unwilling to promise something she wouldn't be able to do. Finally she bit her lip, sighing regretfully. "I can't, Cloud. I don't know what might happen in the future. I can't make a promise like that, I'm sorry." She waited, but he neither let her go nor pulled away. "Are you angry?" her voice was small and worried.
"No," his reply was calm, the brush of his hand against her side soothing. "I'm not angry." Disappointed, but not angry.
There was a pause, both of them falling quiet, lost in thought; and then she shifted a bit, tilted her head back to see his face. "You seem angry," she told him, eyeing his profile doubtfully.
Blond hair brushed her cheek as he shook his head. "I understand. I want you to be safe, but I understand." And he had to respect her for it, even if he didn't like it. Still, maybe they could compromise. "What if we both promise?" She relaxed a bit, head tilting in question, and he slipped further down in the bed, turning her to lie on her back. "When whatever is happening comes to a head, we'll stick together, so neither of us has to deal with someone like Rosso on our own." Their hands were still joined, and he shifted his gaze from their twined fingers to her face. "I'll watch your back, and you'll watch mine, and we'll both watch Barret's." That prompted a smile, for their friend was prone to being in the wrong place.
Stretching slightly, she pressed a kiss to his throat, and another to his lips, then tugged him down so he was no longer propped on an elbow, but pressed firmly against her.
It was enough.