The Closer You Get

by llamajoy

we've been circling for time baby
we're coming down to land tonight
the wait is over and now it's easy
everything is fine

-"closer," dido

She would know it was him, even if she missed the the familiar growl of Fenrir's engine powering down (everyone in Fourth knows the sound by now, curtains pulled back to peer from neighboring windows). Or if she could mistake the cadence of those boots on the porch stairs for Barret's heavy tread, when was the last time Barret dropped by without calling first? Cid might swing by for a chat, and whatever's cold on tap, but never afterhours; he's a man who knows what he likes, and Tifa kids him that she wouldn't see him much were it not that she keeps a bar.

Vincent, being Vincent, never drops by at all.

But even if it could be anyone at all (Rude and Reno, come to watch her mix the Lockhart Fireworks that she invented just for them?)-- she knows it's Cloud, and no mistake. Cloud always forgets that the third step is a little shallower, stubs his boot toe noisily against the rise, and half-swallows the exclamation on his tongue as he realizes (not quite too late) that the children are long since sleeping.

Tifa, for her part, is standing in the bathroom braiding her hair, pretending it's nothing unusual that Strife's Delivery Service is working late on a Saturday night-- Sunday morning, she checks herself-- and that the courier himself should arrive, unannounced, unexpected.

Deliberately she keeps her back to the stairs, and it's just as well that her fingers know the business of putting up her hair for sleeping, because her mind plays the traitor, straining in the dimness to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the medicine cabinet mirror.

By the time he's upstairs, he's remembered that the last step is too short, and his footfalls are quiet on the landing. She wonders if it's unkind to think of the sound as tentative, the cautious step that should have been a stride: a man walking into his own study.

His shadow passes and she loses sight of him; with a sigh, she hears him as he leafs through papers on the desk. He might glance at the bills and receipts, but he won't check the voicemail. That's her responsibility. Just as well there aren't any messages for him today, anyway. More hushed rustling: the flowers, probably, she thinks. Two white, large-petalled blossoms (or three, on the one day in April) cut carefully from the church garden to wilt quietly until Tifa throws them out, and Cloud replaces them the next time. Always the same dance, back and forth, no words ever spoken.

She ties off the end of her braid, decisively. She's not sure what she's going to say, but she's going to say something this time, or so help her Shiva she might burst. Cloud has already moved down the hall to his bedroom, so she turns to follow--

And there in the hallway she catches the tang of crushed grass, the clean dust of the open road. It smells nothing like Midgar. The flowers on his desk are freshly-cut, yes, but it takes her a moment to recognize the blooms, wild and bright, unabashedly colorful even by the light of the one smoky bulb.

For a while she just looks at them, until she realizes her eyes are stinging and all her words have evaporated utterly.

The boots that he's toed off outside his door are muddy with earth far away from here, honest and dirty. Her chest feels tight, something like a shout too long suppressed, fighting to surface. But his door is drawn nearly to, and the room beyond is quite dark. She recognizes the signs, of course she does; they've known each other more than long enough for that.

And though she stands with her hand on the knob for a full minute, she can't bring herself to break that truce.

Inhaling deeply, she crosses the length of the hall to her own room, and whatever solace remains to her. Not tonight, then.

...Except that Cloud Strife is sitting at the edge of her bed, with Marlene's newest kitten curled to a ball on his lap. Their eyes meet entirely by accident.

"I didn't mean to," he tries, before he realizes he hasn't even said hello, or offered any explanation for his appearance. The words are obviously hard in coming. "I just sat down, and--" apologetic, he spreads his hands, gestures to the cat that's purring on his knees. "...Well."

She doesn't laugh though she might want to. It would be something so simple as that, after all this time: don't disturb a a happily sleeping cat. There's a dizzy feeling spiralling up from the base of her spine; if she were a sillier woman she would have said she were feeling light-headed. One hand on the doorjamb to keep herself steady, she rests her head on that hand. "It's late, Cloud," is what she finally says, tongue tripping to keep herself from talking too much. "You've come a long way. You must be exhausted."

He makes a noncommittal noise, his hand thoughtful as it smooths along the kitten's fur, from the scruff of its neck to the curling tip of its tail. What strength he has is dormant there, but still apparent, untapped as his fingertips scritch into the deep fluff at the little cat's ears. He hasn't noticed her watching him, unselfconscious. "When did you get a cat, anyway?"

"Seems I have a thing about strays."

Maybe he watches her while she turns away, smiling helplessly against the back of her hand and trying to scrub at her eyes as she closes the door behind her.

"Tifa?" His face is lucid and transparent on the best of days; she can see the light flickering in his eyes as something occurs to him. "Are you closed on Sundays?"

And at last she does laugh, the tightness in her chest easing as the sound escapes her. "Well I'm closed this Sunday," she says. "So if it's a drink you've come for, Strife, you're out of luck."

Cloud chuckles, too, a sound she's not heard for years, and abruptly she realizes that she's forgotten to say Welcome home. He's shaking his head, though, faltering only for a moment as he reaches up to her. She's surprised that his hands are warm; the tiny kitten purrs between them. And in the strength of his fingers at the back of her neck, he says, I've come back.


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