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A Troubled Mother

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If Claudia Strife could ever name an instance where her son actually smiled—just a miniscule tilt of the lips—then she would've made it big and won the lottery already. She didn't know where he got such a hard and cold attitude from; his father had always been the one greeting the mornings with a smile first thing in the morning while she wasn't any different. So, when they gave birth to their only son eighteen years ago, they thought that he would be an adorable ray of sunshine that would share their happy outlook of the world.

Instead, they got a broody and moody teenage boy who sounded sarcastic with every word he spoke because of how flat his tone was ninety-nine percent of the time. There would be the occasional chuckles here and there when he found something amusing, but it didn't last very long before his permanent scowl took its rightful place. Claudia had advised him that he was going to get early-onset wrinkles if he didn't fix it, but he didn't seem to care and, instead, would just deepen the frown every time she mentioned it.

In summary, Cloud Strife was a hard eighteen-year-old to please and definitely a hard cookie to crack, but even with his don't-give-a-shit attitude, he was the greatest son Claudia could ever ask for. He was a good kid with the way he helped around the house whenever she showed the tiniest signs of back pain and the way he focused in school and cared for those around him deeply. Claudia had worried for him and his ability to make friends back in middle school because of his introverted, closed-in personality, but when high school hit, it was a great surprise to find him hanging around with a group of friends when she came to pick him up.

A group of friends with girls in it.

When Tifa Lockhart first came over to their house to hang out, the excitement of a mother seeing her son and his potential girlfriend together nearly gave her a heart attack when she saw the black-haired beauty. With smile so kind and personality so heartwarming, Tifa nearly got stamped with the future-daughter-in-law label if it hadn't been for Cloud's behavior. To say that Claudia was shocked to see her son play videogames with her and practice kickboxing with her and casually cursing with her would be a complete understatement. Receiving nothing different from his male friends, Tifa seemed more like a buddy to Cloud than a girlfriend. The response that Claudia got finalized it when she dared ask the question.

"Tifa? My girlfriend?" Cloud let out a laugh—one that was a bit too dark to be called true laughter—before his "smile" dropped, and back came his monotonic look. "Mom, you're funny."

An increase in age meant an increase in problems. Now, as she watched her son finish up the last year of high school, there was only one thing left on her worry list: his love life.

"Hey, Cloud," Claudia said one day as she washed the dishes of their earlier breakfast. Cloud, who was sitting at their kitchen table with a half-finished cup of coffee, looked over at her with a lazy, perked brow.

"What's up?"

"You've been at school for a while now, haven't you?"

"… Yes?"

Claudia stopped momentarily in her dish washing so that she could turn to look at her dear son, whose expression morphed into one of suspicion as he drank his coffee. He sighed, "What, Mom?"

"Are you going to bring home a girl anytime soon? I want to see my son get married."

Cloud nearly spat out his coffee as he harshly swallowed the warm liquid down his throat, coughing lightly into a napkin as he tried to clear it. When he finished choking, his blue eyes stared at his mom, stunned at what she just said.

"Mom, I'm not even in college yet, what are you on about?"

"Oh, sorry, dear, I'm just too excited!" Claudia squealed as she returned to washing dishes. "All these years, and I haven't seen my handsome son with a girlfriend; is it wrong to ask?"

"I'm not thinking about that stuff," he muttered, not enthusiastic to have this sort of conversation early in the morning. "I've been busy with school and swimming. It might not look like it, but I actually don't have a lot of time, Mom."

"So, you're basically saying you're not going to get a girlfriend ever," sighed Claudia, "because life's only going to get busier from here on out, kiddo."

"I'll think about it when the time comes."

"… Are you really not interested in Tifa?"

At this, Cloud wasn't afraid to let out a drawn-out groan, wondering how many times he had to address this misunderstanding over and over again. It was because Claudia didn't see him close with any other girl, so she kept zeroing in on the only one who visited them often. "Tifa's, like, my brother—c'mon, stop with this."

"Well, Mr. Strife, I've never seen a brother with such a slim waistline before and such big breas—"

"Mom!"

"What I'm trying to say," Claudia continued, turning back to teasingly glare at her son for interrupting her, "is that you must have some sort of unique tastes if you view someone like Tifa as part of the male gang."

"Which is true, by the way," Cloud scoffed. Claudia obviously hadn't seen the way Tifa threw her punches and kicks. "And honest to God, if you want to know about my tastes, then Tifa doesn't fit them. So please, Mom, stop lumping us together."

Claudia took a moment to let this all sink in as she let out a thoughtful hum. Drying her hands onto the towel once she was done, she brought over a plate and a knife to cut her son some fruits. Just when Cloud took her silence as a signal to finish up this conversation and go onto another one, Claudia wasn't dropping it just yet.

"You've made many friends over the years, haven't you, Cloud?" Claudia started off innocently, earning a suspicious and perturbed look from her son. "Which is a surprise, considering your personality."

"Wow. I mean, I guess."

"But you're pretty close to Zack, aren't you? I've been seeing his face around here since seventh grade!"

"… Alright, Mom, what are you trying to say?"

"You can tell me if you're gay, Cloud."

This time, Cloud didn't need his coffee because his saliva was enough to induce a raging coughing fit. With the way Claudia raised an eyebrow at him and his reaction, she was dead serious as she waited for her son to regain himself and give her a straight answer—one that he didn't know he had to ever give her.

"Are you kidding me?"

"Does it look like I'm kidding? You know, it's okay. You're my son, and I'll accept you no matter who you love, man or woman, so—"

"I'm not gay," Cloud spluttered incredulously, eyes wide with disbelief. "Nothing against gay people because Reno's an absolute blast, but seriously? And out of everyone you could've named, you name Zack?" A shudder ran down his spine when his mind started to go into the depths of his imagination per Claudia's words, and he shook his head furiously as he gulped down the rest of his coffee and placed it down roughly against the table. "If you're done interrogating me now, I'm gonna get going."

"Alright, have fun, and tell me if you see a cute girl!"

Cloud sighed exasperatedly, but he nonetheless kissed his mom on the cheek goodbye before he left to go to the arcade with his friends.

Watching his back leave the kitchen, Claudia sighed as she sliced the peel of an apple.

"I won't become a mother-in-law in this lifetime, will I?"

After that conversation, Claudia told herself not to place much hope in the future, or else she'd just be crushed by reality once she sees her son still single in college. Perhaps admitting to the truth that her son probably won't get a lover any time soon would quell her restless heart; at least she could rest easy knowing he wouldn't be too alone in life. Tifa and Zack already proved themselves to be his life-long friends, so once she left this world, at least those two would be around.

"Claudia, don't think so darkly," she patted herself on the cheeks to snap herself out of it. "He's only eighteen; there's still hope!" At least, not in high school.

Right when she was about to give up ever seeing her son in love in his teen years, something odd happened one day after a month—so odd that she nearly missed it while preparing dinner.

"Cloud," she called out as she fried the eggs, "Would you like your eggs fully cooked or—"

When she turned to look at her son, the words died in her mouth as her hands stopped moving. Eyes fluttering rapidly to make sure hallucinations weren't plaguing her vision, Claudia nearly dropped the spatula in her hand when she saw what was on her son's face.

Was Cloud Strife… smiling?

With one arm rested on the table, his other held the phone up to his face as a small smile played at his lips, threatening to become bigger as his blue eyes went back and forth to read whatever was on the screen.

Knowing her son since the day he was born, Claudia's critical eyes studied these unusual features—this was more important than the eggs nearly burning on the stove—and she couldn't believe what she saw.

Even his eyes were smiling as they became moon-shaped, making his usually-fierce gaze all soft and warm as his sapphire orbs twinkled at the electronic device. Cloud, who was too busy on his phone to notice his mother's intense staring, let out a breath of laughter before he brought his other hand up to rapidly type something on his phone, nearly causing Claudia to faint on the spot from his strange behavior. But there was no doubt about one thing.

He was texting someone.

Tentatively, she called out to him. "Cloud, dear?"

Cloud snapped out of it to tune back into the world as he raised an eyebrow at his mother, and just like that, the smile disappeared so fast that Claudia had a hard time believing that it was even there in the first place.

"Yeah, what's up?"

"Would you like your eggs fully cooked or runny?"

"Runny, please. Thanks. How much longer will it take?"

"Around fifteen minutes."

"Alright, let me go take a shower. I'll be right down," and Cloud left to go upstairs, all the while leaving his phone on the table without thinking too much about it.

Claudia tried to be a good mom and refrained herself from snooping around his device—Cloud would definitely give her the glare of a lifetime if he ever caught her. Respecting her son's privacy was the least she could do to be a good parent, but her morals came into question when she heard his phone vibrate against their marble table, just teasing her and beckoning her to come over and check it out. If she tried hard enough, she could even hear it.

I know you want to look at me, it said mockingly. Just a peek, it'll be fine.

"Cook the eggs, Claudia, cook the eggs," she muttered to herself as she folded the omelet over in half. "Eggs don't cook themselves. Ah, and let's not overcook them either."

Brrr!

His phone vibrated again one last time on the table, and that was enough for Claudia to snap.

"Oh, just one peek, just to see who it is!"

Once the eggs were done, she set it over to the other stove before she sneakily skipped over to the table to take a glance at what got his phone all crazy. When she saw the name of the sender, her eyeballs nearly popped out of their sockets.

Aerith3

Was that a heart symbol she saw?

It took all of her willpower to rip her eyes away and return to the countertop to prepare their dinner. Even though the messages were hidden, she could've easily accessed them since she knew Cloud's passcode (which was just six zeroes). However, that was a new level of low, and Claudia wouldn't want to do something that would upset her son.

Besides, seeing a girl's name with a heart next to it was enough to fill her with joy for a lifetime. A girl! When? How? Who? Claudia had so many questions as her mind went haywire trying to figure out when her son got a girlfriend; until today, his behavior never really signified any change. Was it even a girlfriend? Perhaps it was just one of his friends who put the heart in just for the fun of it—what if it was another Tifa? But that smile.

Cloud Strife never smiled like that, period.

"Um, are you okay?"

Claudia jumped when Cloud approached her from behind, spiky hair slightly damp as thin droplets hung at its ends. He had a semi-concerned expression on his face with the way his mother suddenly seemed so jumpy with her movements. Reaching out to give her a hand, he was more spooked when she suddenly shooed his hands away.

"Everything's fine! Just go sit down, and dinner will be coming right up!" Claudia laughed nervously, terrible at lying as she gestured towards the table with her eyebrows. "Just give me another five."

"… You sure?"

"Yup. Sit down, sit down!"

Without another word, Cloud heeded her orders as he placed himself back down and lazily picked his phone off the table to scroll through it. Of course, Claudia kept an eye out to see what his reaction would be once he had the device back in his hands, but his bored expression remained unchanged as his thumb swiped up to go through endless amounts of content. Puzzled, Claudia cautiously sat herself down once the dinner table was prepared.

"Thanks, Mom," Cloud said appreciatively as he put his phone away and began to dig in. He was unaware of the look Claudia gave him until he was met with an unusual silence. Pulling his head up to see what was the matter, he nearly jolted in his seat with the way he met his mother's observant gaze. "Um, is something on my face?"

"Oh," Claudia blinked, not realizing how she was just burning holes into her son. She covered it up with another meek laugh as she began eating as well. "Just looking at your handsome face. Is that anything different?"

"… If you say so."

"So."

Cloud didn't like the sound of that. "Yes?"

"Meet any new, er, friends, during your last year of high school?"

Cloud wasn't even fazed when he heard his mother's seemingly-random question. He perked an eyebrow up at her, wondering why she was suddenly asking before he slowly shook his head. "Not anyone worth mentioning, no. Why?"

"I was just wondering, you know. Anyone grabbing your attention?"

Claudia didn't expect any reaction from the harmless question. Usually, he would just act dismissive and brush her off whenever the topic of his love life came across the table, but this time…

His eye twitched.

A reaction.

"Not really," he mumbled, eyes suddenly interested in the eggs as he tore a portion off with his spoon and put it in his bowl.

Claudia grinned. "What was that, dear?"

"I said not really," Cloud spoke up louder, but its usual strength was diminished. He thought against saying what he had in mind, but when Claudia's curious eyes wouldn't stop with their shine, he gave in. "We… got a new manager. For the swim team. The other one quit becau se she got too busy, so she got replaced by someone else for our last semester."

"Oh?" Her interest piqued; Cloud Strife didn't mention little things for no reason. However, she didn't get the explanation she desired as he hurriedly finished his bowl of food. Once he was done, he placed it in the sink and washed it real quick before he grabbed his phone from off the table, ending the conversation prematurely.

"Thanks again for the dinner, Mom," Cloud said, and before Claudia could even say anything else, he sauntered back upstairs and into his room, escaping Claudia's interrogation as she let out a low hum under her breath.

"Suspicious."

It seemed like Cloud Strife finally had a girlfriend, and he wasn't telling his mom. But it was okay.

It was only a matter of time until he would bring her home.

Claudia laughed joyously as she finished the rest of her dinner alone, not caring if her son from upstairs thought she was crazy. She was once his age too; there was no escaping this cycle of life every teen had to go through with their parent. Claudia swore she was going to make it easy for Cloud though—really. So bring her home and let me meet her!

Her son was being difficult, though, when he showed no more signs of being involved in a romantic relationship for the next two weeks. If she hadn't peeked at his phone that day, she wouldn't have held on for so long with no hope in sight. Not wanting to be super nosy though, she told herself to wait, and that the time would naturally come for her to meet the mysterious girl that captured her son's heart.

At this point, she sought solace by imagining the type of girl that had ensnared her son. He was a hard one to get along with, so she was probably someone equally cool-headed and logical. Out of all the many friends Cloud had, Biggs seemed to be the one he respected the most (not that he didn't respect his other friends, but they were just a little bit questionable). Claudia wouldn't be surprised if Cloud liked a female version of Biggs. However, they'd probably get in many arguments though; Cloud wasn't one to bend underneath anyone's words easily, so if his girlfriend was just like him, she'd probably irritate him from time to time.

But that was okay—relationships were relationships. They'd work out in the end.

"I wonder if she'd warm up to me though," Claudia said to herself thoughtfully as she went out to buy some flowers. If her personality was just like Cloud's, it would take some time for them to get along. She had no fear, though, since she did raise Cloud for eighteen years; she had some experience under her buckle.

She giggled out loud to herself as she made her way to the flower shop. Wanting to buy another bouquet of flowers to decorate the table in their living room, she cruised by the fronts of the boutique, wondering what kinds of blossoms she would buy this time.

"Hello, ma'am! Just browsing, I'm assuming?"

Claudia looked up, only to meet one of the brightest smiles she had ever seen on such a cute and pretty girl. She wore the boutique's uniform apron, emerald eyes large as they twinkled at Claudia. With watering can in her hand, she effortlessly gave the plants by her feet their lunch for the day.

"Yes, I am," Claudia replied, heart already captured by the cheerful young girl. "The flowers here are always so full of life, aren't they?"

"It's because Madam M always takes care of them very well, yup!" the girl nodded happily as she settled the watering can down and directed her full attention on Claudia. "And because spring is coming, such beautiful flowers are blooming!"

The girl's pink ribbon that kept her braid together bounced energetically behind her head as she skipped around to roll over some bouquets that sat submerged in buckets. With a hand, she extended it out towards the flowers as she presented them to Claudia. "We have a huge selection; what kind of flowers are you thinking?"

"Hm, I always put some flowers in the living room? I always just buy a random bouquet though. I don't really have an eye for these things, and my son always says I buy the weirdest arrangement of flowers," Claudia laughed. "If you have any suggestions, then I'd be glad to accept them!"

"Seems like your son has his preferences, doesn't he?" the girl giggled, and her laugh sounded so angelic that Claudia had a hard time believing that such an innocent girl like her still existed. "Sounds like someone hard to please."

"Oh, don't get me started," Claudia drawled, eliciting another round of giggles from the flower girl. "He's a special one, that kid, but he's a good one. That's all that matters for my old, little heart. If only he could find someone special! So that I don't have to watch over his butt all the time—someone who would tell him when he's being a silly goose."

"From the looks of it, he sure seems like a handsome man, so I'm sure he won't have a problem finding someone. He probably got his looks from his beautiful mother!"

"Oh gosh, you're flattering me so much," Claudia said dismissively as she waved a modest hand in the air. "And you're such a sweet girl; I'm sure your boyfriend dotes on you all the time."

At the mention of a boyfriend, the girl blushed as she held a hand up to her cheek, meek and shy as another blossoming smile played at her lips. Claudia wasn't surprised; whoever had this girl as a lover sure was a lucky kid. She was even sunshine herself!

"Yes, he looks after me very well," the girl murmured. Embarrassed, she shook her head as she regained her professionalism and pointed to the flowers. "Will you allow me to arrange you a bouquet? I hope it will be towards your liking!"

"Of course, of course! Take your time; I'm sure my living room would be at joy with whatever you can arrange."

And so, the flower girl went off to do her job, leaving Claudia to sit in her thoughts. If only Cloud could have such a sweet girl as a girlfriend, Claudia's world would be complete. However, she kept these silly thoughts at bay; there was no way Cloud could ever get someone like her. Their personalities didn't match. She was too happy and cheerful while he was too broody and moody. He wasn't the type to get along with someone with a personality type like hers either (Jessie already gave him a hard time with her rowdiness). Believing that she could only get someone as blessed as the girl for a daughter-in-law in her next life, Claudia put her dreams to rest as she patiently waited for her bouquet of flowers.

When she came back home with the beautifully-arranged flowers, Claudia had had enough.

She needed to see the girlfriend now.

"I'm home," Cloud announced his arrival back home as he came through the front door. "Are you preparing dinner? Let me know if you need any hel—whoa."

Cloud backed away from his mom, who suddenly walked up to him from the kitchen and stuck her face out towards his. She didn't even put down the ladle either.

"Cloud. Girlfriend. I want to meet her."

"H-Huh?" Cloud stuttered. Not expecting to be suddenly put on blast, he frowned as he gave his mother a questionable look. "Girlfriend? What are you talking abou—"

"I've been waiting for this day; do not make me wait any longer! Bring Aerith here, I want to meet her!"

At the mention of her name, Cloud easily gave it away when a slight blush graced his cheeks, causing Claudia to squeal even more. He cleared his throat before he stuffed his hands in his pockets, but even with the glare that he gave his mother, the embarrassment that discreetly showed on his face severely countered it.

"You looked through my phone."

"Please, I only saw the name. Bring her over!"

"But—"

"My heart as a single mother is already frail and fragile, are you really going to—"

"But she's really—"

"Cloud!"

"Fine."

He huffed an exasperated sigh as he brushed past her shoulder to go back upstairs. The attitude he gave her didn't matter as Claudia hopped in victory, striking a pose with her ladle before she waddled back into the kitchen.

Finally!

~.~.~

Because it was finally the day that Claudia was going to meet the girl that had her son all smiley-smiley, she whipped up the special Strife-secret apple pie that had been passed down for four generations since her great-grandmother's time. Cloud said not to be an overkill, but Claudia didn't listen to him—how could she pass up on the opportunity to throw a grand dinner? Making sure she looked good for his girlfriend, Claudia neatly tied up her hair and wore some nice clothes for the occasion. When the front door finally clicked open, signaling his return along with the arrival of his girlfriend, Claudia made sure to keep her squeals to a minimum before she came out of the kitchen to greet them.

"Welcome back, dear!" she excitedly greeted.

"I'm back," came the less-excited response from her son. He propped the door open with his foot, and Claudia prepared her eyes to see the one-and-only. Would she be like Tifa? Or would she be more elegant and cool-headed? Someone to match her son's tastes—he was a hard cookie to crack after all. Claudia didn't know she could hold so much excitement in the three seconds she waited for the mysterious girl to emerge from the door.

And when she did, only confusion settled in her stomach.

It was the flower girl she saw a few days ago.

"H-Hello!" she squeaked, cheeks pink as she gave a slight bow with her head towards Claudia. "N-Nice to meet you!"

"Idiot, you're overly nervous," Cloud muttered to her, jabbing her gently on the side with his elbow. She jumped at his touch as she nodded furiously, getting worse as she clasped her hands in front of her. It didn't help with the way Claudia just boggled at the girl, wondering where the girlfriend was—it couldn't be her.

Because of her stupor, Claudia found herself saying something stupid. "Cloud… we are having dinner with your, uh, girlfriend, right?"

Not understanding what was getting his mom so stupefied, Cloud gave her a weird look before nodding slowly. "Thought that was the plan. Aerith, meet my mom," then, he jerked a thumb over to the girl, "And Mom, meet my… girlfriend, Aerith."

He kept it simple as he held onto his cool-guy act. However, the image was crumbling as a blush similar to Aerith's casted over his cheeks. Giggling, Aerith bumped her shoulder against his, only to take an unnaturally large step away from him once she remembered how she was under the eyes of his beloved mother. The two of them looked at Claudia, who still couldn't believe her eyes as she gave her them one hard blink.

"Nice to meet you, Aerith," Claudia finally managed to say, "Come make yourself at home." You can stay here as long as you want too, was what she wanted to add in as well, but deciding not to be a creepy mom right from the get-go, she held herself back from her excitement as she squandered back into the kitchen with a tiny skip in her step.

The flower girl!

Her mind had to re-organize itself as Claudia went ahead and put things in bowls and plates. Someone as cheerful and bubbly as her—as her son's girlfriend? How did he manage to get someone like her? Did they actually get along? And how did this girl crack past her son's cold exterior? Was his taste in girls always like this?

Claudia had so many questions, and she wondered if she was going to get them answered in the next half hour or so.

"This is a really lovely home!" Aerith exclaimed as she looked around the interior of their homely abode. "Feels so cozy."

"Sit before you trip on yourself," Claudia heard his son say as he pulled a chair out for her. At his comment, Aerith simply laughed as she graciously accepted her seat.

Is that how he talks to his girlfriend? Claudia blinked rapidly at the soup she poured out into the bowl as her ears tuned in to listen to their interactions. Already he seemed a bit snappy with her, but for some odd reason, Aerith took it very well as the smile on her face never dropped. What?

"Everything smells really good, Mrs. Strife," Aerith said shyly to Claudia as she patiently waited at the table with Cloud. "Thank you for having me over!"

"And thank you for coming. I've been wanting to meet you for a while!

"O-Oh, really?"

Aerith gave Cloud a look, which he returned with his own impassive one before he went back to staring mind-numbingly at his phone. Claudia wanted to go over there and whip his head with the ladle at the way he was so calloused with his girlfriend. She was such a ball of sunshine while he was just being a dark raincloud! Now dubious with how their relationship worked—and whether it even worked at all—Claudia finished setting up the table as she sat herself across the two, eyes replaced with curiosity more than excitement now as she glanced at the two.

"So how are your guys' last semester of high school?" Claudia opened up with a typical icebreaker as they began eating. "I bet it's busy, but relaxing at the same time isn't it? Now that college apps are over."

"Yup, we're just relaxing for the most part," Aerith took the lead with the conversation as she enthusiastically chatted with Claudia. Already she seemed like a talker, which Claudia did not mind at all; she liked a girl who held her ground in these sorts of things. Plus, she would fill in the holes her son gave her in their daily conversations. "Everyone's just having fun with each other before we graduate."

"Too much fun," Cloud grumbled, referring to his eccentric group of friends as he stabbed a part of his steak with his fork. "Everyone's already exchanging tears, but we still have a couple of months before graduation."

"Time passes fast when you're having fun, silly," Aerith cooed as she tilted her head at him. "You're going to cry too! And your face is going to be like this," and she scrunched her face up as she wiped fake tears off her eyes.

Claudia had to stifle her laughter by clearing her throat, thoroughly amused by Aerith's rather… unique personality. Cloud, on the other hand, seemed very used to it as he sighed a lengthy sigh, further accentuating his odd dynamic with his own girlfriend. If Aerith wasn't with them on the table, Claudia would've already given him some proper etiquette on how to treat a girl.

"She's right, you know," quipped Claudia. "I was once your age too—didn't think high school graduation was anywhere near, and before I knew it, I was moving into my dorms for college. These last few months are ones you're never going to get back."

"Right, along with every passing hour."

Aerith laughed again at her boyfriend's brutish way of speaking. She seemed to be amused by Cloud's personality as Claudia watched the ways her eyes twinkled at him with adoration. Spooked, Claudia found herself getting concerned for Aerith and what she saw in her romantically-stupid son.

"So, I know all of Cloud's friends," Claudia said in the middle of their dinner. "But I've haven't seen you around before, hm? Or have you just been avoiding the scene?"

She didn't know she was asking a sensitive question when Aerith turned another shade of red while Cloud, surprisingly, shared some of the sentiment as he began to uncomfortably twirl some pasta strands with his fork, eyes focused on his plate as he left it to Aerith to answer.

"It's probably because, well… we only met two months ago," Aerith shyly confessed before she covered her face with her two hands in embarrassment. She quickly recovered herself though as she took up her spoon again. "I met him when I became manager for the swim team."

Cloud wasn't faring any better as he allowed Aerith to just spill it to his mom, albeit with some reluctance. Claudia, on the other hand, became very amused as she gave a questioning brow towards Aerith.

"… Oh, so you saw my son swimming, huh?"

Claudia's wicked and suggestive grin laid itself across the table as Aerith burned even more. This time, Cloud wasn't as silent as he gave his mom a look.

"Mom," he let out warningly.

"Only two months? Then it hasn't been long since you guys got together." Claudia ignored her son's looks of protests as she grabbed her glass of iced water. She was going to have fun with this as much as she could before the night ended, even if it meant a week's worth of glares from Cloud.

Aerith awkwardly ate some of the mashed potatoes before she said the truth, and the truth nearly got Claudia spitting out some water out her mouth. "We've been together for almost two months now."

"O-Oh?" Claudia stuttered dumbly. Were her ears playing tricks on her? She didn't want to be that mom who kept prying into her kid's relationship, but she just had to get the facts straight as she did some mental math. "But you met two months ago?"

"… We got together after two weeks."

"Two weeks?"

"Mom, that's enough," Cloud hurriedly tried to staunch the conversation, but Claudia was already too deep in as her mind tried to wrap around the idea that Cloud Strife got a girlfriend after just two weeks of meeting her. Wondering what kind of magic Aerith casted to entrap her son so easily, she tried not to have the surprise so evident in her face as she gave Aerith a weak smile.

"I see. That's rather… quick."

"Yup! Because Cloud just couldn't wait, could he?"

"Aerith." He gave Aerith the warning glare this time as he clutched his own glass of water tightly in his grip, completely ignoring the way his mother popped her eyes out their sockets as she bore holes into him.

"What, hm?" Aerith gave him a teasing grin, not afraid to expose the beginnings of their relationship if it meant getting Cloud all flustered. "You don't want her to know how much you kept flirting with me in the hallways?"

"Flirting!" Claudia exclaimed, unable to handle her excitement anymore.

"And how much you wanted my number?"

"And number!" Claudia put a hand over her chest as she began to see stars. Was this really her son she was hearing about? No way.

Aerith didn't have any plans to stop there as she dangerously began to approach how Cloud confessed to her, but Cloud halted her in her tracks by clamping a hand over her mouth, ears hot as his blue eyes became deranged with embarrassment.

"Eat your vegetables," he growled before he let his hand fall back to his utensils. Just when Claudia was finally going to question how on Earth he managed to attract a girl like Aerith with his hard personality, Cloud scooped up some vegetables from his plate and nonchalantly passed it over to Aerith, who gave him a thankful smile as she stuffed the yummy greens into her mouth.

"I love the seasoning you put in this, Mrs. Strife!" complimented Aerith as she let out a hum of delight, doing Cloud a favor and dropping the subject on their relationship. "Honestly, everything's been very good. I'm glad I was able to come tonight!"

"There's more where that came from," assured Claudia as she smiled at the happy girl. She looked over at Cloud, who had his gaze downcast the entire time on his plate. However, she could see it—the tiny smile that graced his lips as he ate his dinner.

When it was time to wash the dishes, Cloud insisted on cleaning up along with Aerith. Wanting to take the backseat and observe things while she cut the apple pie and slice some fruits, Claudia didn't put up a fight as she watched her son and his girlfriend put everything in the sink and began soaping everything up.

Claudia could see the way Aerith tickled him at his spots as she casually bumped her side against his while cleaning the dishes with the sponge. Cloud responded by nudging her back, giving her a look which she returned with soft giggles. When some soap got into her long hair, Cloud went ahead and dried his hands against a towel before he collected it over her back for her to prevent them from just dunking into the sink. Claudia never knew his hands could be so gentle as he gave her a tight-lipped smile before returning to the task at hand. And while they worked, they wouldn't stop giving each other loving looks, not noticing how Claudia was observing their dynamics the entire time.

Surprisingly, Cloud was a lot softer for Aerith than she initially thought, now that she sat back and watched them from a third-person's point of view. She realized that while his mouth was still relatively the same, there was a gentle edge to it. If Aerith shared the same mindset as her, then she too also saw the fun in poking at Cloud and seeing him get all jumpy and flustered. Never had she seen anyone beat Cloud at his own game, so seeing someone walk all over him and pull him left and right was very refreshing to see.

Perhaps that was why Cloud fell for her—her strong spirit and adorable personality.

Cloud Strife, maybe you do have a romantic bone in you, Claudia thought to herself as she shook her head in amusement.

Happy that he was able to find someone who would look past his cold exterior and warm him right up, Claudia couldn't be anymore satisfied in meeting his girlfriend. Once the two finished up cleaning, she pushed the plates of apple pie and fruits towards their corner.

"Well, Aerith, it's been a wonderful time getting to know you. At first, I had my doubts that my son could ever get someone like you," at this, Cloud simply rolled his eyes, "But I can see how he managed to do it! I hope he doesn't give you too much trouble. After all, he's a sour candy sometimes."

"He's actually very sweet behind it all," Aerith giggled as she easily hooked onto his elbow. Cloud didn't feel exactly comfortable with the small amount of PDA they showed in front of his mom, but he didn't pull her off as he sighed. "But I think his yapping mouth is the best quality? Isn't it so funny?"

"It's only been two months, yet you know him so well," nodded Claudia approvingly before she stood up from her seat and removed her apron. "Well, stay as long as you want, Aerith! I'll be in my room now taking a rest—it has been a long day at work. And I promise I won't peek on you two!"

"Okay, okay, go away now," Cloud urged as he pushed his mom by the shoulders, earning a round of howling laughter as she left the two of them alone and allowed Cloud to finally breathe in some air.

Now that it was just the two of them, Cloud glanced over at Aerith before he signaled towards the stairs. "… Wanna go inside my room?"

Aerith blinked before she nodded excitedly. "Yes!"

The moment the door shut behind them, Aerith giggled loudly as she swung her arms around her dear boyfriend's neck, causing him to nearly trip and stumble onto the ground.

"What's with you?" he murmured into her ear as he held onto her arms. He pulled back, feeling mischief already brewing with his girlfriend as she grinned at him.

"You're such an uncute kid in front of your mom, you know that?"

"And you're one big loudmouth." He detached himself from her as he went through his bookcase for a movie they could watch since the night was still relatively young. Knowing how much she liked Disney movies, he fished out an old classic: The Lion King. "I knew something was up when I saw you all nervous—Aerith never gets nervous. But I guess it wore off during the middle to mess with me, didn't it?"

Aerith wasn't done attaching herself onto him as she hugged him from behind, swaying them lightly side-to-side as she followed his waddling footsteps over to his TV. "I was nervous because of something else, silly."

"What was it?"

"I think I saw your mom before—at my workplace," she said. "So when I saw her, I got really scared all of a sudden—what if she got a bad first impression of me when we first met?"

"Knowing her, she probably thought you were a blessed child," Cloud mumbled. His girlfriend was a unique kind: one born in every millennium. It was these exact charms that got him falling in love at first sight too. With the way she daringly felt his abs when she accidentally walked into him changing after practice to the way her smile was so genuine and bright everywhere she went, it was hard not to just stare at her form every time he caught her in the hallways. He didn't think he'd find love in the last semester of high school either, especially since everyone was preparing to part ways with each other once college hit, but with her, he didn't mind. Long-distance or not, he'd go through it; her spunkiness was worth it.

"You were so shy with your mom though, I was surprised. It seems like you never told her about me?" Aerith cooed as he played the DVD and led them over to his bed. Because she wouldn't let go of his back, he simply fell backwards onto her, causing her to yelp in complaint from his heavy weight. Laughing with her as he rolled off of her and sat up against the head of the bed, Cloud patted the spot next to him as the movie played.

"Why would I willingly have a conversation with my mom about my love life?" he scoffed. "Plus, I think I already have the tendency to avoid such topics because of how we've approached it in the past."

"Like how she asked if you were gay?" Aerith smiled as she got comfy next to his side. "I don't know—I think Zack and you look cute together. Tifa and I can stand to testify."

"Not you too," he groaned. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders, causing her to giggle happily as she draped an arm across his middle. "I got nightmares because of that, you know."

"Haha, I'm sure, I'm sure. Your mom though. She was so surprised when I told her how quick we got together! Bet she never saw it in you, eh, Casanova?"

"Don't make it sound like it was all completely me," Cloud scrunched his face up as he found themselves chatting with each other instead of watching the movie. "I saw the way you were checking me out during practice—don't act innocent."

"Oh, but I never acted innocent though," and she casually slipped a hand underneath his shirt to feel his stomach. Jolting from the touch of her cold hand, Cloud involuntarily flexed his muscles as he grabbed onto her wrist to stop her, giving her a brow.

"I've never met a girl like you."

"And I've never met someone like you. Your hard personality is so adorable, you know that?"

Cloud let out a sound of surprise when Aerith completely ditched the idea of watching a movie and swung her body over his, successfully straddling both his sides as she winked at him. "Didn't want your mom to know how you asked me out? I think it's a great story to tell, to be honest. The way you confessed in the car and everything after our lovely dinner together. And how you kissed me like thi—"

Cloud brought a hand behind her neck and pulled her in for a kiss, cutting her sentence off as she let out a hum of delight as she fluttered her eyes closed.

"Like that?" he murmured as he pulled away to look her in the eyes. Hers were already glazed as the movie rolled forgotten in the background. Nodding, she bit her bottom lip as she tied her arms around his neck once more.

"Yes, exactly like that."

And she kissed him again, tilting his head back as she pushed him against the head of his bed. She elicited a groan from him as his hands went underneath her dress to grasp onto her smooth and milky thighs.

"Aerith," Cloud muttered against her lips. "Maybe we shouldn't—mhm…" He gave up trying to say anything when he felt his girlfriend's tongue slip into his mouth. Clearly, she didn't have any troubles making out with him on her very first day here and everything.

His friends would probably be very surprised if they ever found out how much Aerith held the reigns every time they got hot and heavy in bed. Because of her innocent image, no one would expect her to be the one to push him down onto the sheets every time he sneaked into her house behind Elmyra's back or be the one to initiate the heavy make-out sessions in his car after a wonderful date. Cloud shouldn't have been surprised by any of this either, considering how she had the courage to feel up his abs on the first day they met. However, with her, there were too many surprises to count.

Including the way she grinded against his pants just now with her hips.

"Holy shit," he breathed as he disconnected their heavy kiss. His lips felt bruised as he took a moment to catch his breath, neck and ears red as he tried to catch up with her pace. Aerith wasn't making it any better with how much she seemed to enjoy it as she untied her ponytail and let her hair tumble out in elegant curls.

"What?" she asked innocently as she gave him another electrifying roll, causing him to hiss a bit in pleasure. "Cat got your tongue?"

"How about we continue this another time?" Cloud mustered every ounce of willpower left inside him to lift Aerith off of his lap and back down against his side, earning a questionable look from her as he ran a shaky hand through his hair. "We got a movie to watch here." And a knowing mother downstairs.

Aerith tucked some hair before she placed an ear against his chest where his heart was, giggling uncontrollably as she heard his rampaging heartbeat. Deciding to give him a break tonight, Aerith heeded his words and calmed down.

"Okay, okay. Didn't know you were a secret Disney fan."

"Idiot, I bought these DVDs just for you."

"How sweet."

And together, the two of them settled down as Cloud turned up the volume of the TV to hear the movie better.

Downstairs, Claudia already began to phone the relatives.

"You can't believe it. Listen, listen, my son—yes, Cloud Strife!—brought back home his first girlfriend! Oh, I can't wait, seriously! I wonder when the wedding day will come!"