There are still a few things in life Cloud has to figure out.
Cloud ignores him, turning away to hide the pink that comes to his face. He wants to tell Reno to quit talking out of his ass, but the Turk would only laugh and take it as some kind of admission. "I don't know what you're talking about," he murmurs and furiously dries the dishes.
"Come on, man, even you can't be that blind. She's been giving you the eye for weeks. Isn't that right, Rude?" Reno nudges his partner. Rude grunts an affirmative and hunches down over the double shot he's been nursing as long as he's been sitting at the bar. Cloud can't look Rude in the face either.
Reno knows the score. Reno knows way more than he should about the situation. Cloud is tempted to accuse the redhead of making the whole thing up, of drawing conclusions where there shouldn't be any, but the truth is Cloud really isn't that blind. Tifa has been giving him the eye for weeks and he's been doing his best to dodge it.
There's no real reason for it other than that it makes him uncomfortable. He never knows what to do with looks like that and the fact that it's Tifa makes it worse. Any random hero-worshipping stranger on the street he's free to pass by and pretend he didn't notice but he can't hide from Tifa. He's living in her house. He could always move, if it came to that, but this is the woman who had gone down into the mess of his own head to find him.
"Quit playing," Reno says again. "Because if you don't make your move, she'll move on to greener pastures, like Rude here." Rude downs his drink and sighs heavily, as if he's already decided he's lost. Cloud keeps drying the glass he's been drying for the past five minutes.
"Oh, just grow up already," Reno snaps, tired of going in circles. "The babe wants you, you're in the same house, hell, you're even raising a pair of rugrats together. The only problem there can possibly be is if you're into a certain class of irresistible redhead instead." He waggles his eyebrows speculatively. "I mean, I wouldn't blame you and it would definitely explain everything."
Cloud stops drying the glass. His shoulders tighten up despite his best efforts. Then with an annoyed sigh, he puts the thing back on the rack and leaves the room. It's just not worth arguing with Reno when he's in this mood.
"Hey, Cloud, where d'ya think you're going?" Reno calls after him. "Don't walk away while I'm talking to you! I'll drink up all your hooch just to spite you!" Cloud pauses for a heartbeat on the stairs but remembers that Rude is there, so even if Reno does follow through the tab will be taken care of.
He retreats to his 'home office' and shuts the door to lock out Reno's whining. There still isn't much in here. His bed is a dinky little fold-out cot, better than a wooden floor but not by much. The desk is a pleasant mess, natural habitat of framed photographs that must be in season from the way they've been multiplying lately. There is one he had not noticed before, Marlene and Denzel waxing his motorcycle. Tifa must have put them up to it.
He collapses on the cot, letting the springs creak as much as they will. "Grow up," Reno had said. Cloud wonders why he isn't grown by now. He's got enough years behind him for it and he's been through a lot in that time, more than most people ever will or should be. Maybe he's spent too much of his short time frozen in that one place.
Growing up is moving forward, sort of, he thinks. It's the best bet he's got at the moment. Thing is he's been so long mulling over the same old thing, he's not sure how 'forward' goes anymore. Maybe if he waits a while, it might come to him. In the meantime he hears glass breaking, so it might be a good idea to go back down and throw Reno out on his ear.
Tifa sends him shopping the next day. It's disturbingly domestic, but that's hardly the worst part. He attracts attention. There goes Cloud Strife with a shopping list. He must be running errands for his lady friend. Cloud wishes for a hat to pull over his hair, for normal hearing that won't pick up gossip, for the sense to know exactly when a cantaloupe is ripe enough. He tries a squeeze, smells a navel and ignores the scary old lady sighing across the way.
Tifa probably doesn't know what people say about the two of them. Or at least she's never mentioned it to him. Maybe she knows and doesn't mind. Hell, maybe that's where she got the idea. Cloud sets the cantaloupe down and wishes he could be anywhere else at the moment. Then with a sigh, he tosses the fruit into his basket and moves on. Wishing never got anybody anywhere.
He stops at the machinist's on the way back. Force of habit really. Fenrir is in good shape but there's always room for improvement. Right now Cloud has his eye on a sweet little upgrade coming out of Junon. Experimental, mostly. So cutting edge it's not even available yet, but it will be. Slotting a lightning materia in the engine, it's genius. Not exactly safe, but genius, if it works as well as the hype is promising. Expensive as hell even if you can provide the starter materia, but Cloud keeps his fingers crossed and thinks of limitless speed all the way back to the bar.
There's a commotion in the house when he gets back. "Thank god you're home!" Tifa meets him at the door, hair flying. "The upstairs toilet sprung some kind of leak and the place is flooded." Somewhere deep inside, Cloud feels the urge to say, "EEEEWWW!" But that kind of thing never got anybody anywhere either. He follows Tifa upstairs and tries very hard not to splash water up with his boots.
"I've already tried everything I can think of," Tifa is saying. Marlene and Denzel peek out from their room. "You two quit hiding back there and lend a hand."
"In toilet water?" Denzel protests.
Marlene gets right to the point. "EEEEWWW!"
Cloud sighs and tries to ignore the dark patch wicking its way up his pants leg. "I'll see what I can do."
"Thanks, Cloud, I knew I could count on you!" Tifa grins and that look is back. Cloud turns away and pretends to study the toilet. Tifa heads downstairs to set up shop for the evening. Cloud pretends to study the toilet. Marlene and Denzel tiptoe around the puddle and look up at him expectantly. Cloud pretends to study the toilet.
"Want me to get your tools?" Denzel asks.
Cloud blinks and considers it. Yes, that makes sense. Tools are for fixing broken things. Is there anything in his kit that could patch up a toilet, he wonders. He takes a wide step into the bathroom and peers into the open tank. There's a definite gurgle and a bubble and some rattling. Cloud jiggles the handle just to be sure. He has no idea what it means. Mako reactors, he knows fairly well. He's sure he knows everything about motorcycles by now. Toilets? Not a thing. Latrines, sure, every soldier knows those, but fancy flush toilets, not really.
"Um, get the phone book," he mumbles and Denzel dashes off, splashing up the water as he goes.
It's an hour before the plumber arrives, complete with accentuating tool belt. Cloud sends Marlene and Denzel downstairs because they're too young to see that kind of cleavage. The bill is hefty as these things go and true to repairman form, the plumber is recommending things about septic tanks and water mains that Cloud doesn't really understand but as luck would have it, the plumber has a buddy in the business who could take care of the whole mess. For a reasonable fee, of course.
Cloud thanks the man for his services and shoulders his swords as he shows the plumber out the back door. "I was just on my way to train a little when this happened," Cloud explains and suddenly the plumber can't get out of there fast enough.
"Toilet's working now," Cloud announces. The kids are busy helping Tifa make some kind of cocktail with a melonballer. Tifa smiles at him.
"Did you mop up or is the place still wet?" She knows the answer from his face. She's been able to do it for a while and Cloud has been wondering how. "Denzel," she says, "go mop up, will you?"
"What?" The boy scowls. "That's not a guy thing."
"Everybody uses the bathroom, Denzel," Cloud says before Tifa has to take Denzel in hand herself. The kid gets the point and leaves the room. Tifa smiles into her bowl of wined fruit. When she glances up at Cloud, the look is there again. Cloud doesn't run this time, but mostly it's because he's calculating how much longer it will take him to afford that materia upgrade for Fenrir now. Maybe it's for the best. Sephiroth's not likely to show for a while yet, if he ever does again and technology fresh off the shelf usually has bugs to work out. Getting the toilet fixed is more important at any rate. Everybody uses the bathroom.
"Cloud," Tifa says, "you seem distracted. Are you feeling okay?"
Cloud glances up and wonders where Marlene went. Tifa comes over with her bowl of winey melon balls, stirring in some kind of spice. "I sent the kids out to play a little while it's still light," she explains. "Could you give me some sugar?"
Cloud hears Reno's voice making a crude comment in his head and has to wonder how it got there. He gets the sugar though. Actual granulated sugar, pouring smoothly into the bowl for Tifa to stir. The little scoops of melon are turning sort of red. Cloud wonders what they'll taste like.
"Thanks for earlier, with Denzel," Tifa says as she stirs. "Oh, I know you think I don't have to say it, Cloud, but if I don't you take forever to figure it out on your own." Cloud stares down at the wooden tabletop. "He really looks up to you, you know. Marlene too."
Cloud glances up and can't find anything to say. Tifa almost looks flustered. "What I'm trying to say is... we're glad you're here now."
We're glad you're here. We're glad you're here. Reno's voice is making snarky comments in Cloud's head and Cloud wants to find that damn Turk and whomp him a good one for it. Bad enough Cloud still has voices in his head after all this. Why did it have to be Reno, of all people? Rude would have been much better. Rude hardly says anything. In between the buried homicidal urges, Cloud remembers to give Tifa something resembling a smile, but it's uncomfortable. She's giving him the eye again and it's warmer than before.
He clears his throat. "It's getting late. I'll go call the kids in."
They're playing tag through the alleys with some of the neighborhood kids. Denzel stumbles blindly into Cloud's chest as he runs. He blinks up at Cloud as he steadies himself and a grin spreads across his face. "Tag, you're it!" he yells and flies off again.
Cloud stares. Maybe something like this has happened before but this is the first time he can actually remember being invited to a game like this. He's too strong and too fast and maybe even too old to play with these kids but he can be careful. Besides, they don't look like they'll be coming in for dinner any other way.
The chase is on. He's bouncing through the alleys, ricocheting off the walls, spying them out, swooping down and tapping them all lightly on the shoulder. "Tag, go home now." The little old ladies at the market would give their dentures to see him move. The kids stare up at him in awe.
He saves Denzel and Marlene for last. Marlene squeals as he tosses her onto his shoulder. He grabs Denzel by the waist on the quick sprint home. He deposits them at the door and ushers them inside. Dinner's on the table already.
"Eat up," Tifa says and for once sits down to eat with them. She usually tucks in early so she can open up for the evening. The kids are still hopping from adrenaline and dinner is pretty animated, but it's not like they throw the rolls or spoon peas at each other. And as usual, the food is fantastic.
"It's good," Cloud says and the kids chime in after him. Tifa smiles and for once Cloud is sure that it's a smile for all of them, not for him. He likes this one.
"Whose night is it to do the dishes?" Tifa asks, heading out to the bar. Tonight is Marlene's turn to wash and Denzel's night to dry. It's Cloud's turn to watch that Marlene doesn't drop too many soapy dishes and Denzel doesn't break the crockery trying some fancy move. They splash soap water at each other while they work and Cloud would stop them except they're having fun and he's having fun too, oddly enough. So long as they clean up the mess afterwards, it's okay. Over their happy chatter, Cloud can hear the glasses clinking in the bar.
They play a board game after dinner. Cloud loses. Terribly.
"Wow, Cloud, you suck!" Denzel says.
Marlene pitches the dice at him. "He can't be good at everything!"
Denzel ducks and catches the dice. "Yeah, yeah, I know. He's good at what counts." He mimics a sword slash or two. The boy has good reflexes, Cloud admits, and he's been begging to learn swordplay for a while. It may be time. The world's not a safe place and the sooner the kids learn some real defense, the better. Cloud would lend Denzel one of his own swords for training but they would be too heavy for the kid at this stage. Decent practice swords aren't cheap but they can be had. Fenrir flashes into Cloud's mind, but that can wait.
He sends them to wash up and then to bed, then finds himself sitting in the silence of his room wondering how come they listen to him at all. If he listens, he can pick up the murmurs in the bar through the floor. There's nothing better for him to do so he heads down.
The damn Turk isn't in tonight, for which Cloud will forever be grateful. Tifa's just ushering the last of the patrons outside. Cloud's never sure if it's just his imagination but when he shows up around closing time, they always seem to leave double quick. He locks the door firmly once the place is empty, then makes the rounds checking all the windows. He checks the backdoor and upstairs too, looking in on the kids to make sure they're really sleeping and not monkeying around.
When he heads back into the bar, Tifa is washing up the glasses. "Thanks for locking up, Cloud!" He would mumble some reply except that he knows she's giving him the eye again even if he can't see it. He can feel it. He's not sure what to do about it but actually, since her back is turned, it isn't that scary.
There's still work to be done, though. He reaches around Tifa for the soap. Maybe he can wash a few steins for her at least. Tifa freezes with a sudsy shot glass in her hand. "Cloud?"
It's then he realizes exactly what he's done and where his hands are. Tifa can't quite turn around to look at him because he hasn't left her enough space. Well, that's a happy accident. He steps back a little, leaving the soap untouched. Tifa spins in place, nearly up against his chest. "The kids asleep?" He nods and there doesn't seem to be any point in hiding anymore.
The bedsprings creak and strain beneath them as they struggle to undress each other in the small space. Cloud gets impatient with Tifa's layers and his fingers are fumbling, but she seems to be managing just fine. She's got his shirt off and his pants undone, all with her eyes closed and her tongue in his mouth. He hopes he doesn't suck at this. Or maybe he should. He's not too sure what she likes.
The bed buckles a little as he lifts himself up and works his pants down. Just a little more to go and maybe they're moving quickly but still, they're getting somewhere. Then Tifa bursts out laughing.
For a moment Cloud is glad Aeris is dead because whatever it is must be exactly the kind of thing she and Tifa would have gossiped about and if he had to deal with them giggling over coffee while they stole glances at his crotch he would just ride right off Zack's cliff and join his friend in the happy afterlife. Then he kicks himself because being happy someone's dead isn't nice, even if he has seen for himself that Aeris is doing just fine where she is.
Tifa's getting it under control now, still sputtering a little, but trying to speak. "I'm... I'm sorry, Cloud! I know I shouldn't... but I can't- Oh, Shiva, I'm sorry, I just... I didn't think your hair would be spiky there too!" And she rolls over laughing, giggling like a damn schoolgirl.
Cloud wraps the sheet around himself and sighs, wondering what the point of it all was if he's left feeling like the only grown-up in the room.