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The Things We Hide (That Scars Us Deep)

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Title: The Things We Hide (That Scar Us Deep)

Characters: Cloud Strife, Tifa Lockhart, Marlene Wallace, Barret Wallace, Elmyra Gainsborough

Pairing: Cloud/Tifa

Rating: Teen

Disclaimer: I do not own anyone/anything from the forum Final Fantasy. Square Enix owns Final Fantasy and its characters. There is no copyright infringement intended. I do not make any profit/money or take any credit.

Summary: Cloud always knew he was missing time from when he fell into his coma. He always knew he never had the whole story. He just never expected the answers to start with Marlene.

Timeline: Post OG (Pre ACC)

Warning: Nightmares, Canon Compliant Violence, Angst, Fluff, OG Compliant, Remake Compliant (up to a point)

Author's Notes: This was inspired by a chapter that I was writing. Then I realize this is not really a topic that seems to be covered (as far as I know) so I thought, why not?

The Things We Hide

(that scars us deep)

Cloud punched the pillow in frustration. He tried to get it into a comfortable spot before grunting, letting his head fall back onto it, and stared up at the ceiling.

The streetlights cast a soft glow into the bedroom, filtering through the shutters he hadn't closed properly before he went bed and he found that he couldn't care about it right now.

There was no getting into a comfortable position, he thought miserably to himself, sliding a hand underneath his head as he turned to look at the space next to him.

The space that Tifa Lockhart usually occupied.

He discovered, quite early into their relationship, that he could not sleep properly without Tifa, which was just pathetically needy and bewildering.

He managed it simply fine for 21 years without her after all. 5 of them in a tube.

However, he had to concede. Tifa helped to soothe the nightmares, helped him to feel safe enough to fall asleep, knowing she would be there to have his back should anything happened.

And it was the reason why he always kept his trips short. No-one wanted to deal with a grumpy sleep-deprived, mako-infused man who just wanted to go home to Tifa.

Said woman who had been recruited by Cid and Shera on a mission – a mountain guide, she told him with amusement, excitement making her eyes sparkle.

They think they might have found an alternate source of energy to help them with their future but needed someone who could navigate mountains.

Cid suggested Tifa and she accepted.

So, Cloud put his deliveries on hold so he could stay at home with Marlene and help out with the bar when needed, Tifa had hired a temporary bartender who was currently looking for a job just to make enough money to leave Midgar.

Of course, Cloud had offered to come with Tifa, saying they could make it a family thing, but Cid had shot him down. They could only afford Tifa and even if Cloud were to do it for free, he was a menace when it came to Tifa being in potential danger.

Something that resulted in a glare from Cloud to which Cid shrugged off, patted his shoulder, and Tifa to smile fondly at the glowering blond.

Now here he was, in his bed by himself while she was on the other side of the world. The thought made Cloud let out a groan, returning to look at the ceiling once more.

Just as Cloud was about to give up on trying to sleep and get a head start on the day, a shrill and terrified scream shattered the silence,

"Marlene!"

Cloud threw off the covers, his feet hitting the ground and his door wrenched to the side, threw his hand out, slapping it on the wall to stop his momentum from crashing into the wall, his bare feet slipping on the polished flooring as he ran down the hallway toward Marlene's room.

With a hard wrench, the door slid to the side, making it clatter as his muscles coiled and tight, his eyes scanning the room for anything that dared to threaten Marlene.

After a few heartbeats, Cloud blinked bewilderedly around the room, seeing no danger, and looked at Marlene who was sitting upright, tears streaming down her face as she stared back at Cloud.

"Marlene?" Cloud's shoulders dropped as he realized that Marlene was not in any danger only for alarm to shoot through him as fresh tears welled up in her eyes.

"Cloud!" She broke down, sobbing into the covers she held to her chest.

"Marlene, are you okay?"

With quick strides, Cloud was at Marlene's bed, sitting down as he reached out to touch the sobbing girl's shoulder only for Marlene to throw herself into Cloud's chest, her little arms wrapping around his neck.

Taken back by the uncharacteristic display, Cloud's arms came around Marlene as she climbed into his lap, her sobs wetting his collarbone.

Cloud stood up, holding her close to him as he sighed in sympathy.

"Shh," He rocked her, rubbing her back, softly pacing her bedroom.

It took a bit but Marlene's tears slowly subsided and she sniffled before settling her cheek on his shoulder. Cloud turned his head to kiss her forehead, knowing she was not quite ready to talk just yet.

"Do you want to come and share my bed with me?" He asked. "It's kind of big without Tifa."

"Yeah," she whispered, nodding.

"Alright." Cloud made his way through the hallway and over to his room. He set Marlene down in the middle of the bed before grabbing the t-shirt that he threw over the chair when he got undressed earlier and pulled it on, very aware of the scars on his chest.

Marlene shifted over when Cloud got into bed next to her and waited for Marlene to settle next to him, shifting so she was curled up against his side and sighed.

Cloud ran his fingers through her hair, waiting for her to settle when she sniffled.

"Bad dreams?" He asked. Marlene nodded. "Want to tell me?"

"Can I talk to Tifa?" Her voice trembled on Tifa's name.

"Alright." Cloud reached over with his free hand, grabbing his phone, and flipping it open, pressing the first button before lifting it to his ear, listening to it ring.

Tifa picked up on the second ring.

"Cloud?" Tifa's voice was hushed yet he could hear the worry in it. He heard clicking on her end, then her gasp of surprise.

Despite himself, Cloud felt a smile cross his lips at the image of Tifa blinking, adorably and almost blinding herself, in surprise at the sudden brightness of her room.

"Marlene had a nightmare," he told her, and a hitched breath was his only answer. "She just wants to hear your voice."

"Give her to me."

"Marlene," Cloud turned to the little girl in his arms, and she looked up at him with wide eyes. He smiled and held out the phone which she grabbed and brought it to her ear.

"Tifa?" she whispered, almost fearfully only for a bright smile to cross her lips at the sound of Tifa's voice and she relaxed fully into Cloud's embrace.

Cloud tightened his arms around her before he settled down. He could hear little snippets of Tifa's voice over the phone and smiled softly.

They both had discussed this before she left. Tifa had fretted over how Marlene would react since this would have been the first time Tifa had left Marlene's side since coming back to her after saving the world.

Cloud was different. Marlene had his promise that Cloud would always come home, no matter how far away he went, and Cloud had been careful to make sure that his job never took him away from more than 3 days at the most (and that was pushing it since he hated being away from Tifa for a long length of time.)

Cloud had noticed that Marlene was a little reluctant to let Tifa go when Cid and Shera showed up with the Highwind but ended up giving Tifa a bright smile, a tight hug before clinging tightly to Cloud as they watched Tifa board the Highwind.

Leaving behind two people who found themselves having a hard time without her.

"Cloud?" Marlene's voice brought him back and he looked down to see her holding the phone up to him, looking happier and secure. "Tifa wants to talk to you."

"You feel better?" He asked as he took the phone from her, getting a short nod from her as she burrowed back into his side. Cloud lifted the phone to his ear.

"Are you okay? He heard Tifa ask him and he smiled softly. He doubted she will ever put herself first for once.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he assured her. "Bit of a heart attack but I think that comes with the territory with you two." He smirked at the sound of her huff.

"I miss you," she whispered over the line and he sighed.

"I miss you too," he whispered back. "But I want you to enjoy your mission. You always did love exploring mountains."

"I do," she agreed, and he could hear her smiling over the phone. "Would be more fun if you were here."

"Oh yes, having a heart attack while you pulled some risky move," he remarked sarcastically, getting laugher over the phone. "Be careful," he told her.

"Always," she assured him.

Tifa hung up the phone and he flipped his close, putting it back on the bedside table before settling back on his spot and he looked down at Marlene, who was biting her lower lip.

"Sometimes, it helps to talk about the nightmare."

"…does it work?"

"Sometimes," he admitted. "But I do find myself having the nightmare less after I've talked about it."

Marlene as silently for a while, leaving Cloud closing his eyes and feeling a little out of his depth here. He was usually the one having nightmares.

"Bad people were hurting Tifa." Marlene sniffled. Cloud stiffened for a moment before he sighed and kissed the top of Marlene's head.

"Tell me," he bit down the urge to tell her it was just a nightmare. He knew all too well how real a nightmare could be.

Remembering what it was like to hold Tifa's lifeless body. The blood, thick and slippery through his fingers as he tried, vainly, to bring her back. The way his heart stopped when she took her last breath, the shuddering and soft way she grew slack.

It had made him wake up with a shuddering gasp, his hands searching for her warm body, his heart almost stopping when he failed to find her.

Then her hands were cupping his face, her eyes wide with concern, assuring him that she was there, and she was real.

"Daddy and Tifa were being held by the men in uniforms. They were leading Tifa over to a dark room made of metal. Daddy was shouting at them, telling them to leave Tifa alone, to hurt him first." Soft hiccups came from Marlene as she twisted his t-shirt tighter in her little hand. "They pushed him to his knees, told him to be quiet."

"Marlene," Cloud whispered, understanding Marlene's fears now.

"They put Tifa in the room, trying her down to this chair. The lady in the red dress was mocking her, saying that justice was going to be done for them hurting people."

Cloud frowned at the mention of the woman in a red dress. There was only one woman he knew that wore a red dress.

"Did you see what happened next?" He tried to figure out the nature of her nightmare. Marlene shook her head.

"No, Mrs. Elmyra turned off the T.V."

Cloud looked down at Marlene, confused.

"What?" He shook his head. "When did this happen?"

"When you, Tifa, and daddy went to save Aerith."

Cloud felt his world tilt on its axis.

~_The Things We Learn_~

It was a gritty eye Cloud who made breakfast that morning, staring down at the bowl of cereal, doubting if he was allowed to give it to Marlene before it hit his tired brain that Tifa had bought it for Marlene because it was her favorite cereal.

He needed sleep, he needed Tifa, and he needed answers.

And all of those were on the opposite of the world.

Maybe.

Cloud scoffed as he turned around to see Marlene was already sitting at the table, watching him curiously.

"Do you want cereal?" He asked and she nodded. "Alright." He crossed the room, placing the bowl and jug of milk in front of her before he took his place on the chair across from her with his own bowl of cereal.

"Do you want to do anything today?" Marlene asked as she picked up her spoon, staring at Cloud curiously.

Cloud hummed thoughtfully as he stared at the cereal slowly moving in his milk when an idea came to him and he smiled softly, looking up at Marlene.

"I thought we could go by the church so you can check on her flowers?" Cloud suggested, watching as a bright and eager smile lighten Marlene's face before she nodded.

"Okay!"

Cloud smiled at her excitement.

"Did you have a better sleep?" he asked. Marlene's smile gave way to seriousness before she nodded, humming thoughtfully.

"Yep," She tilted her head at Cloud, "I guess talking about it made it go away?"

"Maybe," Cloud agreed. Marlene narrowed her eyes at him.

"Maybe?" she repeated with a pout.

"As I said, sometimes talking about the nightmare doesn't make it seem so scary anymore," Cloud reminded her, smiling as her pout deepened, and wasn't it funny how he was reminded of Tifa when she used to pout because he was 'ignoring her again'.

"Can I stay with you tonight then?" Marlene dipped her spoon into her bowl.

"Yeah," Cloud nodded, getting a pleased smile as she kicked her feet under the table, eagerly digging into her breakfast.

"So, we'll clean up after breakfast then we'll make our way to the church."

"Okay," Marlene nodded.

"Is there anything you would like for Tifa's welcome home dinner?" he asked.

Marlene hummed as she thought about it, her eyes wandering around the room before she met Cloud's eyes.

"Can we have your curry?" she asked. Cloud blinked before he rubbed the back of his neck, giving her a sheepish grin.

"Really?"

Marlene nodded furiously.

"It's really good and I know Tifa really likes it. She says it is one of her favorite meals. That it reminds her of your mom." Marlene's features softened as she tilted her head. "Did your mom make it?"

"Yeah, she did," Cloud managed to swallow the lump that formed in his throat at the memory of his mother.

He remembered what it was like to have her hands cupping his cheek, the scent of the perfume she liked to wear, and the way she would scold him when he teased her, smiling as she did.

"She said that I should learn to cook for myself, that eating fast food and rations wasn't good for a growing boy."

Marlene giggled. "So, she taught me her basic curry, but I liked to experiment with it and ended up making different versions."

"Hmm, it tastes so good," Marlene swayed on her chair. "And I know Tifa would be really happy to have it when she comes back."

"Alright," Cloud gave in. "I'll make the curry for her dinner when she comes home."

Marlene's cheers filled their little kitchen, banishing all thoughts of her nightmares as Cloud laughed.

~_It is Alright to Be Scared_~

Cloud could not remember the last time he had come to the church. Maybe it was when they told Elmyra what happened to their daughter and paid their respect.

After that, it was just too hard for him to be reminded of her, to be reminded of his failure to protect her when she needed him the most.

He knew if she knew of his feeling of guilt, she would shake her head and wag that finger in his face with that stubborn look on her face, telling him off.

The image made him smile before Marlene tugged on his hand, pulling him into the church, excitement, and happiness making her nearly vibrate and he remembered why he was here.

Allowing Marlene to pull him in, he followed her down the path between the pews and she let him go, running toward the patch of flowers.

Cloud sighed as he sat down on the nearest bench, watching as Marlene knelt next to the flowers, talking softly to them, and asked the one question that had been plaguing him.

"What do I do?" he asked, his voice barely higher than a whisper.

Poke

Cloud's eyebrow twitched in annoyance.

"Seriously?"

A giggle filled the air around him and he rolled his eyes.

"You already know what to do," her voice came from beside him.

Cloud shook his head.

"No."

"Don't 'no' me." He felt another poke on his cheek.

"I mean it Aerith," he raised his eyes toward the hole in the roof. "I go to Tifa, she'll shut me down. I won't get anywhere." He turned to look at her. "You know that."

It was always a little weird looking at Aerith. She never changed. She still wore the same clothes she did during their traveling.

Her hair was still bound despite him knowing Tifa had taken her ribbon to wrap it around her wrist, a reminder.

The green eyes that were up lit up with happiness or soft with knowledge were dark with sadness.

Aerith bit her bottom lip before she sighed, nodding and a pang tightened Cloud's heart that the knowledge that Aerith knew Tifa just as well as he did…maybe a little bit more.

"You need proof," she told him, "People who can back up Marlene." She lifted her eyes to meet his and he felt the air rush out of his chest.

His heart started pounding behind his chest, a cold sweat breaking out.

"You can't mean…" he looked away from Aerith as memories assaulted him, telling her that her daughter was never coming back, hearing Tifa trying to hold back her tears as she hugged the heart-broken mother.

They had tried, had told each other they would visit her once in a while but they found it hard to make it past the front door to visit her, pain, and guilt cling tightly to them.

Even more so for Cloud as regained his sense of self, had remembered what he had lost.

"How can I face her?"

"You will," Aerith's voice was soft, her hand warm on his shoulder.

"Aerith," he shook his head, looking at Marlene as she hummed, tending to the flowers as carefully and tenderly as she could with her small hands. "I…" he looked at her. "I failed to bring you back."

Aerith straightened, shaking her head.

"If you want to get Tifa to talk, you will need to talk to my mum."

Cloud raised his eyes to the roof again in exasperation.

He was doomed to have stubborn women in his life, that is for sure.

That soft sigh he heard from Aerith was enough to make him sigh and he looked at her, seeing her looking down at the bench between them.

"She misses you," Cloud told Aerith, who looked up at him.

Aerith smile softened and that look filled her eyes, making Cloud's heart clench. He always saw that look directed at Tifa when they were traveling, had always seen the way Tifa looked back at Aerith.

He knew something was going on between Aerith and Tifa when they were traveling. But he never asked, did not want to ask.

Whatever it was, it made Tifa happy for the short time they had Aerith.

Aerith reached out, her hand over Cloud's and they both smiled sadly at each other.

"You'll find a way to her, Cloud. You always do, no matter what."

"She never told me."

"She probably had a good reason to do so." Aerith hummed. "You always were protective of her."

"Shut up."

Aerith laughed, filling the air and Cloud found himself smiling.

It was always hard to stay down whenever Aerith was around, bound, and determined to cheer everyone up.

The world had lost someone important that fateful day.

"I'm going to go and see Marlene." Aerith stood up, making her way over to Marlene.

He saw the way her hand reached out, smoothing down Marlene's hair, and the way Marlene smiled, obviously sensing someone there with her when he felt something on his shoulder.

Something familiar, faded, like a lost memory and stiffened, his smile fading in shock.

"Cloud," the voice whispered, and Cloud shook his head, unwilling to look behind him.

"Not yet," he whispered, guilt making his heart heavy and the hand on his shoulder left, making Cloud close his eyes sadly.

That was another thing he needed to face and suddenly he knew what he needed to do.

"Let's go, Marlene." Cloud stood up, moving toward the pathway between the pews.

Marlene looked up at him and gave him a bright smile as she stood up, dusting off her knees, and skipped toward him, her small hand taking his outstretched one.

With one last look back at the flowers, Marlene followed Cloud out of the church and into the bright sunlight then glanced up at Cloud.

"Where are we going now?" she asked him.

Cloud wavered in his decision before he sighed then looked down, giving her a small smile.

"Actually, how do you feel about seeing Mrs. Elmyra?" He asked.

The bright smile on Marlene's face was all the answer he needed to help ease his nerves and settle his doubts for the time being.

If he wanted answers, he needed to face his fears.

~_So How Do You Know?_~

It felt weird walking through Sector 5, seeing the people Aerith knew but he noticed that not everyone that he first met was still here and he wondered.

Marlene's tug at his hand broke him out of his dark thoughts and he looked down to see her skipping next to him, her dark eyes taking in their surroundings and he marveled at the strength in her little body.

Marlene always managed to keep upbeat, to have a smile on her face and Cloud had to smile when he realized just where Marlene got it from.

There was only one person they knew that tried to keep upbeat, always have a smile on their face.

Tifa.

It always made his heart clench whenever he saw Marlene and Tifa together, the way Tifa would hold Marlene in her arms, both speaking in soft tones and soft laugher.

When he came home and found Marlene in their bed, wrapped up in Tifa's arms, both them blissfully unaware of the world.

He always felt at peace when he saw them together and he had to admit, it did make his mind wander in places it probably shouldn't go.

Like what a child of his and Tifa could look.

Cloud shut that idea firmly behind the door, refusing to look at the possibility.

It was too early for that kind of idea and to be honest, he was not sure of how he felt about the idea either.

Cloud came out of his thoughts when he heard children laughing and cheering, turning to see the kids were playing a game with a ball, passing it back and forth to each other.

Marlene waved at the group, who waved back when they spotted her, as they both made their way up the path that took them to Elmyra's house.

Cloud stopped in his tracks when the house came into view with all the flowers and Marlene's little gasp of pleasure met his ears and he looked down to see the pleased look on her face and felt guilty.

Because he and Tifa had felt guilty and ashamed, they had neglected Marlene in this little aspect, and he tightened his grip.
Marlene looked up at him, surprised before she smiled and tugged on his hand.

"Come on."

Cloud nodded and followed her, his heart rate kicking up a notch as nervousness started to settle in his stomach as they reached the doors and Marlene knocked on it, swinging their hands.

After a few nervous heart-beat moments, the door creaked open to reveal the features of Elmyra Gainsborough, curiosity on her face when she met his eyes.

"Cloud!" The shock was clear on Elmyra's face.

"Elmyra," Cloud nodded. He could not fault her for being surprised.

"Hi, Mrs. Elmyra," Marlene's sweet voice cut into the tension, smiling when Elmyra looked down and a fond smile replaced the surprise.

"And hello to you too Marlene." Elmyra squatted to Marlene's height. "And that is a lovely dress you're wearing." Her fingers touched the hem of the white dress with light pink frills. The dress reminded him so much of the dress Tifa wore as a child.

"Cloud bought it for me," She tipped her head back to smile up at Cloud, who smiled down at her.

"Well, you look very pretty in it," Elmyra told her as she stood up to her full height and gave Cloud a questioning look.

"I thought it would be okay to come and see you," Cloud told her. "It's been a while."

Elmyra stared at him for a moment then she nodded, stepping off to the side to let Cloud in.

"That would be nice," she told him with a smile.

Marlene beamed and Cloud gave her a relieved smile, both entering the house. "Would you like a cup of tea?"

"That would be nice," he told her.

"And Marlene, would you like some juice?"

"Yes please."

Elmyra made her way into the kitchen as Cloud pulled out a chair at the table, sitting down on it and helping Marlene into his lap.

Marlene got comfortable, resting the back of her head on his chest as she watched Elmyra move around the kitchen.

Cloud's eyes wandered around the room, taking in the pictures of Aerith at different ages and another wave of guilt hit him before he pushed it back, closing his eyes before he heard the sound of cups being placed on the table.

He opened his eyes to see Elmyra handing Marlene a glass.

"Thank you," Marlene told her as she took her glass of juice, being careful not to spill it.

Cloud wrapped his arm around her waist, his other hand going to pick up his cup.

"So, how have you all been?" Elmyra asked and they listened as Marlene launched into a story, giving Elmyra the update on their lives.

Cloud watched as Elmyra was fascinated by everything Marlene was telling and he wondered if they had done Elmyra disservice by keeping Marlene from her too and decided that he needed to talk to Tifa, to find a way through this wall they built up.

Cloud came out of his thoughts when Marlene squirmed in his embrace and looked down at her.

"I'm going to go and see the flowers," Marlene told them as she looked up at Cloud, getting a fond smile.

"Alright," he kissed her forehead before helping her off his lap. "Just watch the edge, yeah? I know you like fishes, but I doubt you want to swim with them."

Marlene wrinkled her nose at him, rolling her eyes.

"I'm not going to fall in the pond," she told him. Cloud just grinned as Marlene skipped out of the house, humming a tune that Tifa liked to hum when she was working.

He turned back to see Elmyra was looking at the door with a fond smile.

"She's grown up a bit," Elmyra told him.

"Yeah, she has. Still as stubborn though," he admitted with a rueful smile.

"With you and Tifa in her life, I do not doubt that. But I have a feeling that most if her stubbornness comes from her father."

Cloud ducked his head shyly.

"Can I ask you why you chose to turn up?" Elmyra asked as she picked up her teacup.

"Actually, I came here to find some things out," he admitted softly.

"Oh?" Elmyra took a sip of her tea.

"When you told me to leave Aerith alone, was there a reason for that?"

Elmyra's hands froze as she looked at Cloud over the rim of her cup.

"She told you?"

"Briefly," Cloud admitted. "She said he was the first man she ever loved. Told me he disappeared. She thought he left her."

Elmyra looked away. "But that was the reason, right?"

"Yes," she placed her cup on the table and crossed her arms, sitting back. "When she first met Zack, I wasn't supportive. He was Shinra and a Soldier."

Cloud nodded in understanding and a soft smile crossed her face. "Then I saw the effect he had on her. She smiled and laughed more. The loneliness that surrounded her as a child wasn't there anymore."

"He liked her for who she was."

"He made my girl happy, but I was afraid at the same time. He'd have missions where he would be away for a length of time." She shook her head. "They made efforts to keep in touch, but I could see the worry on her face."

Elmyra looked out of the window. "I didn't want her to feel the same as I did when I lost my husband."

"Then your greatest fear came to life," Cloud whispered.

"He disappeared." Elmyra scoffed. "Without a word. She tried searching for him but came up with nothing. Even the Turks did not have an answer. All I know that he left my girl without a word-"

"Zack never abandoned her," Cloud cut her off, surprising her and he let out a bitter chuckle. "He fought like hell to ger back to her, but he never made it."

"What are you talking about?"

"He was killed by Shinra on the outskirts of Midgar."

Silence descended between the two of them as a hand rose to Elmyra's mouth, tears shimmering in her eyes.

"What…" She swallowed, "What happened?"

"Zack and I were in Nibelheim with Sephiroth. Sephiroth found out the truth about himself, about his birth and he…" Cloud gritted his teeth, "He destroyed our hometown and killed our family. He hurt Tifa, bad."

Cloud laughed bitterly. "The man I came to see as a hero turned into a villain overnight. Classic story, right?"

"Cloud," Elmyra breathed. Cloud looked away.

"I fought him, hurt him. He hurt me badly in return and I do not remember much after I collapsed. Then I woke up, trapped in a tube, and there he was, on the other side."

"Who?"

"Hojo." Elmyra inhaled sharply. "I told you, we're just meat and number to Hojo. He took us, experimented on us. He did not like the fact that I was able to take down Sephiroth despite just being human. Funny what anger does to you." Cloud laughed bitterly. "We were there for 5 years, stuck in mako tubes."

"No," she shook her head.

"I…" Cloud closed his eyes. "I failed his expectations, and he gave orders to get rid of me. Zack somehow overheard and he broke us out. He dragged me all the way back to Midgar, saying he needed to get back to Aerith."

Cloud laughed softly. "I remember him talking about where we were going to stay. He said he thought we could stay with Aerith then he quickly back-peddled, saying you wouldn't let it happen."

Elmyra laughed at that, tears spilling free.

"He got her last letter. I do not know what happened to the others, but this one…it told Zack it had been 5 years since she last heard from him and that she was beginning to lose hope. That this would be the last letter she would write."

A tear slid free, sliding down his cheek and he wiped it away roughly.

"Oh Aerith," Elmyra whispered.

"We made it to the outskirt when we fell under attack. Zack put me in a safe place, and he took on Shinra's army by himself. He was heavily wounded, and I managed to snap out of my coma in time to see him die."

"Oh, Cloud." Elmyra reached over, her hand grasping his and he clung to it tightly.

"I…shattered under the trauma. The loss of my mother, my hometown…I thought I had lost Tifa," Tears filled his eyes as he remembered the loss he felt so deeply back then, "Then I woke up in time to see Zack getting gunned down in front of me."

He let out a bitter laugh, the pain still fresh deep within him.

It surprised him. He thought he had gotten past the pain, had talked it out with Tifa.

But this was new, it was someone who knew Zack, who knew Aerith. Someone who had a personal stake in the information he was giving out.

"I never got to tell Aerith," He admitted, his voice hoarse. "She kept prodding me for information. She must have recognized the buster sword. She'd ask me all these questions."

"And you didn't remember," she whispered. He nodded.

"I failed them both," he whispered.

"No," Elmyra's voice was tight. "You didn't remember it. You cannot hold yourself accountable for that. I bet you Aerith didn't ask you outright if you knew Zack."

"No," Cloud shook his head.

"That's because she was worried. If you had the sword, it meant that something happened to Zack and he passed it on to you."

Elmyra shook her head. "If anything, Aerith wouldn't have wanted to hear that something bad had happened to Zack."

Elmyra sighed as she took her hand back. "Did…did Zack ever tell you how he got his sword?"

"Briefly," he admitted, sitting back on his chair. "I know it belonged to his mentor?"

"Yeah," Elmyra nodded. "He forced Zack to fight him and he passed the sword over to Zack when Zack won the battle."

She looked up toward the ceiling. "I remember Aerith turning up at our house with him in tow. He looked…broken, I think is the word I would use. He looked like someone had shattered him." She smiled softly. "But Aerith's cheerfulness worked on him. She was careful too; I could see it in the way she reacted around him. She was gauging his mood. And I think that was the first time I knew that Zack was good for my girl, despite my reservations."

"He really loved her," Cloud whispered. "The way he talked about her. He knew the truth about her, but she never told him." Cloud shook his head at Elmyra's frown. "One of the Turks told him." A small sarcastic laugh escaped him, "Turks were quite talkative when it came to Aerith's Cetra nature."

Elmyra's lips pressed into a thin line at the thought. "But he said he didn't care. He'd wait forever for her to tell him the truth herself because that was when he knew that she fully trusted him with her heart."

Elmyra sniffled at the thought as they lapsed into silence.

"Thank you, for telling me," she told him.

Cloud cleared his throat, nodding before he sighed.

"I have to admit, Zack isn't the only reason why I came here."

"Hmm?"

"Did Rufus Shinra try to execute Tifa on live T.V?"

Elmyra looked at him with wide eyes before frowning. Understanding crossed her face then sympathy.

"Yes."

Cloud's world dropped from the bottom.

~_So, Take a Deep Breath_~

Marlene hummed from where she was sitting in the passenger seat of the van, her little feet kicking as she peered out of the window, recognizing their surroundings.

"Cloud," she turned to look at Cloud, focused on the road ahead of them.

"Hmm," he glanced at her out the corner of his eyes.

"Are we going to see daddy?" she asked.

Cloud just smiled and Marlene squealed as she turned to look back at the surroundings as Cloud turned onto a dirt road, letting her see the caravans and the machines Barret's team was using to dig.

Cloud was glad to see Marlene happy.

It had been a long night for Cloud, questions whirling around in his brain. Thankfully, Marlene never seems to cotton on as she slept peacefully at his side, not plagued with nightmares much to Cloud's relief.

However, that left him alone with his thoughts, his disbelief over what Elmyra had told him.

Marlene had been left alone with the T.V while she had been making the dinner when she heard Marlene's gasp.

Turning around, she found Marlene pressed up against the T.V and those people shoving Tifa into a room, strapping her down to a chair, and intuitively knew what was happening.

She had switched off the T.V and brought Marlene into the kitchen with her, anything to distract the young girl.

Unfortunately, the chaos afterward, Elmyra had been unable to find out if Tifa had survived or not. There had been rumors but nothing definite.

Which just left Cloud with more questions than he had answers but at least he had a starting point to talk to Tifa, but he needed more and there was only one other place he could get it.

Cloud pulled the van off to the side, parking it before he noticed that Marlene already had her seatbelt off and was opening the door.

"You do remember the rule, right?" Cloud asked her, trying to keep his tone stern as amusement washed over him.

"I waited until you stopped the car," Marlene said over her shoulder as she hopped out of the car.

"You were meant to wait until I switched off the engine," Cloud called after her as she slammed the door shut, making him wince before shaking his head, following suit in getting out of the car.

Cloud rounded the front of the van, taking Marlene's outstretched hand and they walked down the large road.

"Do you think Daddy's working right now?" Marlene took in the sight with wide eyes.

"Marlene?!" Barret's surprised voice filled the air and they turned to see Barret standing just behind them.

"Daddy!" Marlene ran toward her father as Cloud followed at a more sedated pace, grinning at the look of joy as Barret squatted down, sweeping his daughter into his large arms, and lifting her.

Cloud reached them in time to see the bright smile on Barret's face he turned to look at Cloud, shaking his head.

"What are you doing here?"

"Taking in the view," Cloud remarked, getting a playful scowl in his direction. "Distracting ourselves while Tifa is off with Cid and Shera."

"Ah." Barret nodded in understanding. "Well, come on in!" Barret waved his gun arm at the caravan he had just come out of. "I was in the middle of making lunch if you want to join me."

"Are you sure?" Cloud asked he followed Barret up the stairs.

"I got more than enough," Barret assured him. Cloud just smiled.

It was a lively lunch, with Barret and Marlene clearly glad to see each other again. Marlene was catching Barret on everything that had been going on with her life, Barret basking in the presence of his daughter.

Barret obviously had been pleased to show off the culinary skills he had picked up from Tifa, treating them a home-made meal. It was clear that Barret didn't get the chance to do this as much and Cloud indulged him, knowing how it hard is to be away from his family.

Once lunch was over, Marlene had skipped outside to meet some of the people Barret was working with, taking an interest in what they were doing, leaving Barret and Cloud alone as Barret started getting ready to do the dishes.

The dishes he waved Cloud off, telling the man to stay parked on his ass.

"You were pretty quiet during lunch," Barret remarked, throwing him a smirk over his shoulder, "Missing Tifa that much?"

Cloud just shot him a glare, making Barret laugh as he filled up the sink to put their dirty dishes in.

"I discovered something new recently," Cloud corrected Barret, watching as Barret started cleaning the dishes.

"Oh?"

"And I came here looking for answers."

Barret looked over his shoulder at Cloud curiously.

"Spit it out man," Barret huffed as he returned to his dishes, muttering, "Not like you to beat about the bush."

"I recently discovered that Rufus Shinra tried to execute Tifa."

Barret's movement stilled before he scoffed.

"Don't know what you're talking about," Barret muttered out. "Who the hell going around telling you that?"

"Marlene."

Barret froze once more before he turned around to look at Cloud, confusion written clearly on his face and Cloud clarified it.

"Live T.V."

He watched as confusion gave way to understanding, horror filling Barret's brown eyes, making them wide before they narrowed in a furious rage.

"THAT MOTHERFUCKING BASTARD!" Barret slammed his fist down onto the table. "He actually was going to show them killing Tifa?!"

"Why are you so surprise?" Cloud asked. "His father was going to show our death should the Air buster had completed its mission."

"This was different. He gave us a fighting chance – though he thought it would be a cakewalk for the Air buster." Barret raged. "His prick of a son had Tifa tied down. There was no fighting chance. It was a sacrifice, pure, and simple."

The rage seemed to evaporate, and he sat down on his chair, shaking his head before he looked at Cloud.

"Marlene saw it?" tears filled the big man's eyes and Cloud nodded.

"Elmyra switched it off when she noticed what was on the T.V but it was too late. Marlene saw you fighting the men, begging them to hurt you instead of Tifa."

"Damn it." Barret dropped his head into his hand.

"Because Elmyra couldn't get in touch with you, she didn't know for sure if the rumors of Tifa breaking free was true until we showed up on her doorstep."

Looking back on it, the relief on Elmyra's face when she laid eyed on Tifa spoke volume but all of them had been too caught up in their grief, and their guilt.

"Now it makes sense," Barret whispered, "The way Marlene clung to Tifa."

"Marlene had a nightmare the first night a couple of nights ago. At first, I thought it was a normal nightmare. I mean, it was the first time Tifa's been away from her since we came back."

Barret nodding, understanding.

"Then she started talking about the woman in the red dress and it hit me. She was talking about Scarlet. Then she said that Elmyra switched off the T.V. I asked when this happened, and she told me it when we went after Aerith."

"…shit," Barret whispered.

"I took her to Elmyra; I knew I couldn't go to Tifa. She'd deny it until she was blue in the fact and I needed to know if it was real and not just a nightmare."

Barret nodded before he sat back in his chair.

"Barret…what happened?"

"I…thought I was losing her, Cloud," Barret whispered as he closed his eyes. "After we lost you…when we escaped the Northern Crater, she suffered a head-wound when we boarded the ship, and she went into a coma."

Panic took a hold of Cloud's heart as his eyes widened. Barret shook his head.

"7 days I waited for her to wake up. 7 days I prayed to anyone listening that she would wake up." He chuckled mirthlessly. "Now I understand how you felt when she fell into a coma after she fell in the mountains."

"Damn it," Cloud pushed himself away from the table.

"She said your name when she woke up. I think she was expecting you," Barret sighed heavily. "You were always on her mind."

Cloud felt a stab of guilt as he looked away from Barret. "I think she was still in shock, to be honest," Barret sighed. "So many things happened at once then Tifa falling into a coma then waking up to find that she was to be executed…it was like she wasn't even there."

"She went inside her head," Cloud whispered, having seen it when he recounted his version of the Nibelheim incident. He remembered how she kept to herself.

When he tried to get answers out of her why they hadn't made the effort to spend time together, she just asked him for time.

"We managed to escape, pure luck if you ask me, and Tifa said we needed to find you. I…I have never seen her like that. Lost, confused, determined. She bound and determined to find you."

"And she did." Cloud had never told anyone that he had flashes of memories of Tifa looking after him. The feel of her hand on his face, in his hair.

Her whispers as she spoke to him, sounding like he underwater as he struggled to hear her.

Her tears. His heart always clenched painfully when he would remember her tears. He had never wanted her to cry because of him.

"She chose to stay behind, to look after you while the rest of us found a way to stop Sephiroth, or at least find out what Shinra was up to."

Barret scrubbed his face. "Whenever we'd stop by to check on her, she'd look tired. We offered to switch with her, to give her a chance to get some sleep."

"Let me guess, you got a no."

"Why it sounds like you know Tifa," Barret gave him a sardonic grin, getting a small one in return. "Yeah, she refused. She never was the best at accepting help. Unless it was from you or Aerith."

"But that doesn't explain why she never told me about what happened."

"Because we needed you to keep your head on straight, Cloud." He pinned Cloud with a knowing you. "You forget, I've been there since you and Tifa met up again. I know what you are like. If you found out that Rufus had sentenced Tifa to death, there would have been no stopping you."

"I…" Cloud found he couldn't argue with that, no matter how much he wanted to. He looked down at his hands.

"We did it to protect you, but I think it was also because of Tifa."

Cloud looked up, confused. "I don't think she's processed it, to be honest, Cloud. I think she just focused on what she needed focused and even now…it is almost as if it's one bad dream."

"It doesn't feel real." Cloud understood. Barret nodded.

"I mean, hell, I still have trouble believing that Rufus was going to have Tifa killed. And I hate the man." Barret shook his head. "Tifa probably doesn't see the point in telling you now. Rufus is dead. He's not a threat to us anymore. Hell, people know what Shinra really did and they're asking for retribution. Reeves has his hands full just trying to keep the peace."

Barret sounded tired and Cloud wondered how much the two men have conversed. He knew Barret was helping Reeves out on trying to find new energy to make up for the loss of Mako, but he hadn't realized that things had been bad regarding the public finding out about Shinra.

"Have you talked to anyone about what happened?" Cloud asked, narrowing his eyes at Barret. Barret was a lot like Tifa, not that he would admit it, preferring to hold things in rather than talk about it.

Barret reclined on his chair before giving him a shrug.

"I gave Cid the rundown when Cid saved us, and I've talked about it with Reeves. He apologized, you know, after the fact. He tried to stop Rufus from doing that but turns out that neither Shinra men were interested in listening to anyone outside their own voices."

Cloud snorted softly at Barret's description. It wasn't like he could argue with that.

They lapsed into silence, Cloud looking out the window at Marlene, who turned and waved at him before returning to what had caught her interest.

"How…how has Marlene been since…" It was easy to tell the waver in Barret's voice, the guilt, and Cloud looked at him.

"She's alright. She hasn't had a nightmare since then," Cloud assured him. "I don't know if talking about it or hearing Tifa's voice helped her."

Barret nodded before he sighed.

"I truly never thought…"

"I know, and I have a feeling Tifa didn't either."

And that was something that needed to be addressed. Cloud just hoped that he would be able to reach Tifa.

~_And Remember, Home is Where the Heart Is_~

It was a relief when Tifa Lockhart stepped back into Seventh Heaven, taking in the much welcome warm feeling of being at home.

Tifa tugged off her boots, leaving them at the door, before making her way through the hallway, hearing Marlene's talking and Cloud's soft laughter.

It made her heart swell as she rounded the doorway to see Cloud and Marlene were busy preparing dinner, Marlene was standing on her little footstool next to Cloud as he would pass her the chopped peppers to put into the bowl.

"So, you cook the onions first?" she heard Marlene asked.

"Yes, that gives it the flavor and allows the onions to be cooked thoroughly before adding in the other ingredients."

Tifa smiled as she crossed her arms, resting against the doorway as she watched them. She loved watching them together, loved seeing the way Cloud was with Marlene, the way Marlene would be so happy in Cloud's presence.

She had wondered if this would be a sight she would have ever seen back when Cloud re-entered her life and had sent Marlene scurrying away in fright. Cloud never meant to be scary, or a stranger, but sometimes…back then…

Tifa shook the thought away. It was a long time ago, back when Cloud was unsure of himself.

Now, she was blessed to have them in her life.

Marlene must have sensed her as she looked over her shoulder curiously only for her eyes to lit up as a bright smile crossed her face.

"Tifa!" Marlene's voice made Cloud look at Marlene then turn around to see Tifa leaning in the doorway with a warm smile.

Relief surged through him at the sight, settling deep within his stomach.

"You're home," He told her as she pushed herself off the doorway, wandering closer to them.

"Yeah, I'm home," she agreed as Marlene spun around on the stool and threw herself at Tifa's chest, her little arms wrapped around her neck.

"Welcome home," Marlene's voice was muffled against Tifa's neck, making Tifa giggle.

"Hey sweetheart," Tifa held Marlene close to her chest, pressing a kiss to Marlene's cheek.

"We missed you."

"I missed you too." Tifa kissed the side of Marlene's head before she met Cloud's eyes. "Both of you."

Cloud ducked his head down shyly before Marlene pulled away from Tifa, who helped her find her footing on the stool before Marlene picked up the chopped tomatoes, putting them in another bowl.

Cloud dipped forward, brushing his lips against hers, making her hum and smile against him before he pulled away and she looked over his shoulder, arching her eyebrow.

"Are you two making dinner?"

"Yep," Marlene's head bobbed, "We're making your favorite!"

"And I thought you could make us my favorite drink," Cloud's whisper made her shiver.

"Hmm, and what's your favorite drink?" she teased him.

"Beautiful Cosmo Canyon." A cocky smirk crossed his face and Tifa felt her cheeks flush at the memory and his smirk. He was a dangerous man when he wanted to be, and he knew it.

"Wait, what are you making?" she asked, and Cloud smiled, making her heart thump.

"Cosmo Canyon Curry," he teased her, making her roll her eyes in amusement.

"Dork." She pushed at his shoulder. Cloud just laughed while Marlene pinched Cloud's side.

"The onions are burning."

"No Marlene, they're not," Tifa assured the younger girl. "That's just mean they are ready for the next ingredients." Tifa reached for the rice but found her hand blocked as Cloud shook her head.

"And you're not cooking," Cloud told her, "You're going to go and run a bath to relax."

"Cloud…"

"Nuh huh," Marlene chimed in. "Bath time!" She peered up at Tifa. "Do you want me to run it for you?"

"I thought you were helping me?" Cloud asked her.

"I can be quick! Run the bath, dump some bubbles then come right back."

"Er, no, thank you though, sweetheart," Tifa stopped Marlene from getting off the stool. The last time Marlene had 'dumped' bubbles in, the bath had been more bubbles than water. "You stay here and help Cloud. I'll run my bath and relax then."

"Alright," Marlene turned back around and Tifa let out a sigh of relief, glaring at Cloud amused smirk. "How long until dinner is ready?"

"Whenever you're ready," Cloud assured.

"Fine." She rolled her eyes as Marlene shooed her away and she made her way through the house to get to her bath, listening to Marlene giggle and Cloud's whispering.

She was home.

After a long soak in the bath, she hadn't known how much she needed it, and in fresh comfortable clothes, Tifa found them setting up the table, Marlene handing Cloud the utensils and carefully passing the jug of water.

Cloud spotted her first, giving her a tilt of his head.

"Hey, enjoy your bath?"

"It was good," she said, reaching his side to press a kiss to the corner of his lips before she stooped over to kiss Marlene's crown. "Does this mean dinner is ready?"

"Yep, sit down and we'll get it out to you."

"I can still-"

"Sit down Tifa," Marlene and Cloud said together. Tifa gaped at them before she giggled and sat down, dutifully accepting the glass of water Marlene held out to her.

Cloud and Marlene worked in sync, getting the dinner set out, making Tifa's mouth water when the soft spicy scent filled her senses.

It had been so long since she had Cloud's curry and she wouldn't wait to dig into it, and as much as she loved Shera's cooking, Cloud's always reminded her of her childhood days back in Nibelheim.

After having their dinner, to which Tifa complimented them both on for it being tasty, resulting in a beaming Marlene and blushing Cloud, Marlene went into the living room while Cloud and Tifa did the dishes – despite Cloud's best attempts to get her into the living room with Marlene.

"You remember the rule, right?" Tifa teased him as she grabbed the sponge, "Those who cooked…"

"Don't have to clean," he finished with a roll of his eyes. "But this is different. This is your welcome home dinner."

"And it was wonderful," she told him, filling the sink up with water and bubbles, "But I'm not letting you do all the dishes by yourself."

Cloud just pinched the bridge of his nose as she bumped her hip with his, "So suck it up, I'm not leaving."

"Of course not," he muttered, giving up the pointless argument and conceded. Tifa just smiled as she started loading the dishes into the sink.

They worked in silence for a while when Tifa remembered the phone call she had gotten not long after she left.

"Did Marlene tell you about her nightmare?" Tifa asked as she handed Cloud the plate, who took it with a pensive nod. Concern ran through Tifa as she frowned at Cloud. "Was it that bad?"

"Yeah." Cloud sighed as he rested the small of his back against the counter.

"Can you talk about it or should I ask Marlene?"

"I can talk about it."

Tifa waited as she washed another plate, handing it to Cloud then she looked at him with an arched eyebrow only to discover him staring at her with a pensive look.

"What?" She shook her head.

"The nightmare was about you, Tifa." His voice was soft. Tifa frowned. "She dreamt of you getting hurt."

Her frown gave way to concern as she looked toward the living room to see Marlene was happily watching her program then looked at Cloud.

"I…" she shook her head.

"She had a nightmare of you being strapped down by Shinra."

Tifa froze, staring at Cloud who looked back at her with an unreadable expression and she swallowed then turned back to the dishes.

"That sounds like a weird nightmare," Tifa managed to say, clearing her throat. "I mean, why did she think that would happen to me?"

"Probably because she saw it," Cloud's tone was neutral as she stiffened, his words hitting her hard, chancing a glance out the corner of her eyes.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean Shinra put it on T.V. Marlene saw them."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Seriously Tifa,"' he threw the towel onto the surface in annoyance, "Do you really think that's going to work with me?"

"What do you mean Cloud?" She turned to look at him, shaking her head. "It was just a nightmare."

"A nightmare confirmed by both Barret and Elmyra," Cloud countered. Tifa was taken back at the expression on his face.

"You saw Elmyra?" she asked, her voice quiet.

"I had to," Came the gritted answer. "She was the one who would be able to confirm if what Marlene saw were true. And it was true. Shinra put your execution on live T.V."

Tifa felt sick. She felt angry. She felt sad. How long has it been since she felt just a multitude of emotions?

"Why did you go to them?" She shook her head then looked up into his eyes, emotion swirling behind the blue depths.

"Because I know you," he shot back. "I know you, Tifa." He ran a hand through his hair, glancing over to make sure they hadn't caught Marlene's attention – she was too curious, too smart then looked Tifa. "I knew you would deny it until you were blue in the face if I just came to you with Marlene's nightmare."

"So, you went to Elmyra and Barret?" her voice was low but harsh.

"Yes, because they told me the truth."

And didn't that sting? Tifa felt like she had been slapped as she took a step back from Cloud, wrapping her arms around her stomach as she did.

Cloud sighed, rubbing his hand over his face.

"Tifa, stop it."

"Stop what?"

"Stop thinking I'm blaming you for not telling me the truth during our travels. I know why you didn't tell me. You didn't know your own memories, how were you supposed I was just as fucked up?"

"Language," she murmured, and Cloud laughed softly.

"I know you as in I knew you would hide it. You would deny it because you wouldn't want to make me worry. And you wouldn't want to deal with it."

Tifa bit her bottom lip as she glanced up at him, his face soft with concern, his emotions clear in his eyes.

Times like this, he could be such an open book that she wondered how anyone could think he was cold, heartless.

Cloud sighed as he slid his hands over her hips, drawing her closer to his body. He gently butted her forehead with his, getting a small smile in return before she looked up at him.

"I just...you're always there for me, Tifa. Just...let me do the same for you. Please?"

Tifa sighed before she rubbed their noses together then closed her eyes when he rested his forehead on hers, his hands linking behind the small of her back.

"You're so stubborn," she whispered. Cloud just smiled, knowing he has finally gotten through to her."

"I have to be stubborn when it comes to you," he told her. She quirked her eyebrows up at him and he smiled. "Just like you're stubborn when it comes to me."

A small blushed covered her cheeks as she looked away shyly, biting her lower lip.

"It's not that I don't want to talk about it," she sighed, glancing up as Cloud arched an eyebrow, "I'm just not ready to talk about it, yet."

Cloud stared at her for a moment, just holding her close before he slowly nodded.

"Alright, but I'm here to listen if you ever need to talk."

Her heart swelled with love as she smiled.

"I know."

~_So, Open You Heart_~

Cloud was awoken by a soft gasp. He felt Tifa stiffen in his arms before she shivered.

He automatically tightened his arms around her and felt her nuzzle his neck for a moment before she slowly pulled away from him, making him shiver with the lack of body warmth before she pulled the covers up his chest.

He listened as Tifa slowly slid herself toward the edge of the bed, frowning when he heard her feet hit the ground and the sharp gasp as she tried to hold back her tears.

He opened his eyes, turning his head to see her clutching the edge of the bed, her shoulders shaking, and sighed softly to himself.

He had been waiting for this. He just didn't expect it to hit her during the night.

Cloud pushed himself up, watching as Tifa stiffened under his movement and she glanced at him over her shoulder.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you." Her voice was quiet.

Cloud slowly shifted, his legs sliding outside of hers and his arms coming around her body, pulling her against his and fitting his cheek next to hers, his chin resting on her shoulder.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Do you want to hear it?"

Cloud sighed as he closed his eyes and nodded, his grip tightening on her for a moment and Tifa leaned against him.

"I don't remember much, to be honest," she admitted. "I remember losing Aerith and the shock and grief that came with that. I remember losing you, watching you break right before my eyes, and knowing I was completely and utterly helpless to help you, save you."

Tifa shook her head as another tear slipped free. "I remember seeing you fall, and I tried to reach out, but Barret dragged me away, again."

A chuckle slipped free. "He's always dragging me away."

"Better to have you safe." Cloud tightened his embrace.

He remembered Tifa reaching out for him when the Air buster destroyed the walkthrough. He had ordered Barret to take Tifa away, to forget about him because he would make his way back to Tifa.

He had vague memories of falling backward into the Mako stream. Seeing Tifa reaching out for him, tears in her eyes.

We got on the ship and…" she trailed off, frowning. "I think I hit my head because, after that, the next thing I knew I was wakening up inside Shinra's building and I heard someone called my name. I thought it was you."

Cloud's breath hitched. "Then Barret stepped into view and everything came flooding back."

Another tear trickled free. "Remembering losing Aerith. Remembering you being scared and breaking down. Remembering Sephiroth using our memories against us for his own sick pleasure and gain."

"Tifa," he turned his face into her neck, soothing her.

"He knew Cloud, he knew you were there with us and he tricked us."

"He's gone."

Tifa took a deep breath then let it back out, slowly.

"Then I remembered losing you as you fell into the Mako stream then," a laugh burst free, "Rufus told us that we were to be executed on T.V for our part in the war. For summoning the meteor and dooming everyone." She scoffed. "The public demands blood, and I shall be the one to give it to them."

"…Seriously?" Cloud had to ask, lifting his head to stare at her.

"Barret was furious. I was in too much of a shock to process it." She tilted her head back, resting on Cloud's shoulder. "Then the next thing I knew, I was being strapped down on the chair with Scarlet taunting me"

"Yeah, I doubt she would have let it go without some sort of comment," Cloud agreed, his memories of the older woman from his time spent at Shinra coming back to him. "She's not the most…easy-going person to piss off."

"I felt like I deserved it." She laughed mirthlessly. "I thought it was karma. For not pushing hard enough to stop the bombing. I mean, I knew we had to make a statement but bombing?" she shook her head. "I could have tried harder, pushed harder but I let my fear overtake me and I backed down instead of standing firm."

"You tried."

"Not hard enough."

"Tifa, Barret was determined to get the reaction he wanted. I doubt all of us together could have stopped him."

"…Good point," Tifa conceded. "But at the time, I felt so guilty over everything, losing the people we lost." She shook her head. "I was so convinced we could change our fates, stop Sephiroth without any more loss."

"Tifa."

"Then we lost Aerith." Her breath hitched on a sob. "I mean, all of our plans and ideas and our talks of future, gone, just like that."

"Tifa…" he pressed a kiss to her cheek, tasting the saltiness of her tears as she clutched at his arms tighter.

"So, I got angry.

A small smile crossed Cloud's lips.

"You did?"

Tifa nodded.

"I got angry at Sephiroth for taking away our home, Aerith. I got angry at Shinra and the Turks. For dropping a plate just to get back at a small group of people. They killed thousands, Cloud, just to get back at us?!"

Cloud kissed her shoulder. "And Rufus. I got so mad at him. He funded Avalanche to kill his father. And he needed a scapegoat because of the meteorite even though he was there when Hojo explained everything."

A bitter laugh escaped her, and it hurt Cloud to hear it, but he knew she needed to let it out. That she had been letting it fester up inside of her.

"Scarlet's footman dropped the key as they left the room and I managed to get it, to unlock myself because I didn't let President Shinra try and execute me and there was no way I was letting his son do the same."

Cloud smirked at the tone of her voice, that stubbornness he grew up knowing.

"Besides, it was actually pure luck that the Weapon attacked us too. It allowed me to get out the side and jump to grab the rope to get back onto the Highwind. Though I did have to fight Scarlet too."

"You…you fought Scarlet?!" Cloud pulled away.

"She didn't want me to slip away. Any chance to show Shinra's strength."

"Of course, she didn't," Cloud sighed and Tifa giggled as she turned her head, kissing his jawline.

"You're such a worry-wart."

"I can't help it. You could be so reckless back then."

"Oh, and you weren't?" she asked, planting another kiss on his jaw.

"Fine," he tightened his jaw, "We both were."

"Probably why we matched well in battles." Cloud smirked at her.

"And outside it," he dropped her a kiss on her jawline, making her squirm in his embrace. "But that doesn't explain why you never told me."

"I didn't tell you because I needed you focused on Sephiroth. He was more important to stop."

"Tifa."

"Cloud," she rolled her eyes. "I know you and your protective nature. You would have wanted to go and rip Rufus' head off."

Cloud grumbled under his breath as she laughed softly, resting her head back on his shoulder.

"Besides, I had you back. That was all it took for me to let my anger go. I hadn't lost you."

"You could never lose me," he whispered. Then pinned her with a glare. "And afterward?"

Tifa smiled sheepishly before she shrugged.

"I guess it just didn't seem that important. I mean, Rufus is dead. Shinra is crushed, under dust and the weight of people clamoring for compensation - especially after it was revealed just how much damage Shinra had done."

"Jessie did say that the blast shouldn't have been that big, or far-reaching."

"And now we know why." Tifa sighed. "Plus, it never seemed like the right time to tell you, I mean…how would I even start the conversation?"

Cloud thought about it before he let out a chuckle, getting a curious look from her.

"I can imagine what Aerith would have said." He gave her a knowing look, making her smile. "Oh, by the way, Cloud, can you believe I was almost executed?! Some bodyguard you are."

Tifa laughed at his imitation of Aerith.

"That sounds like her."

"Come here," Cloud managed to get them onto the bed with getting tangled up in each other or the sheets, surprising even himself before they got settled, his head on the pillow and Tifa's head on his chest, running his hand through her hair.

"Impressive," Tifa ran her fingers up and down his t-shirt covered abs.

"I try," he teased her, kissing her forehead. Tifa sighed, turning her nose into his neck. "It was hell not sleeping with you," he grumbled. He felt the light puff of Tifa's laugh against his skin.

"I know the feeling." She nuzzled her nose against his skin. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. It's just…it was so long ago and all I cared about was finding you, making sure you were safe."

"I understand," He assured her. "But let's not hide things from each other because we're worried how the other will react." He felt Tifa smile.

"Okay." She kissed his neck. "Let us go to sleep. It's going to be so nice being able to sleep in your arms again."

"Same," he kissed her forehead. "But I'm not the only one."

"Hmm?" she sounded sleepy before the sound of the door opening made Cloud smiled.

"Our daughter probably missed you too."

He felt Tifa shift and turned his head, opening his eyes to see Marlene standing in the doorway with wide brown eyes.

"Bad dreams honey?" Tifa asked. Marlene shook her head, fidgeting nervously as she hugged the stuff Chocobo close to her chest.

"Come on." Cloud held out his hand and Marlene hurried over to the bed, pushing up on tip-toes, climbing onto the bed, Cloud giving her a helping hand, before she crawled over him and getting settled in the middle of them.

Tifa ran a hand over Marlene's back.

"I just missed you," Marlene whispered. Cloud sighed as he wrapped his arms around his little family.

"I missed you too," Tifa whispered as she held Marlene close to her, settling her head on Cloud's shoulder once more, and glanced up at Cloud. "We're home."

Cloud smiled.

Yeah, they were home.

Bonus Content

"Don't step on the flowers!"

"I'm not gonna step on the flowers!"

"It looks like you're gonna step on them!"

"Give me a little credit Marlene, I'm not gonna step on the flowers," Denzel told her as he skirted the flowers, reaching to the other side.

"Come on you two," Tifa spoke up from where she was sitting on the blanket, opening the basket. "Denzel knows to be careful around the flowers."

"Thank you," Denzel gave Marlene a pointed look, getting an eye-roll in return. "You keep rolling your eyes like that, they're gonna get stuck."

The sound of cooing had them both turning to see Cloud walking toward them with a baby in his arms.

Just over six months, Amelia was clinging to Cloud's top as she gazed at her sibling with wide carmine eyes. Fine blonde hair covered her scalp and dressed in a little Chocobo covered outfit.

She was the reason they were out in the church, visiting.

Cloud and Tifa had talked about it and had decided that they needed to go, to visit with their newest member of the family.

They had done with Denzel not long after he joined them.

So they waited for the perfect moment and landed on their lap, Yuffie all but shoving the family out of the door to 'take a break and be a family for one day', resulting in an eye-roll from Cloud, protests from Tifa, and laugher from the kids.

Eventually, Yuffie conceded and allowed Tifa to make up a picnic before she nearly enough threw them out of the house, leaving them with only one place to go.

"Well, now, aren't we noisy ones?" Elmyra's voice asked from the archway as she smiled at them.

"Grandma!" Denzel and Marlene ran toward her, tugging on her hands to bring her toward the blanket.

"Hello, children." She allowed herself to be pulled forward, the kids letting her hands go when they reached the blanket. "Hello, Tifa." She stooped over to kiss Tifa's forehead.

"Hi Elmyra, sorry about the kids," Tifa smiled sheepishly.

"It's fine," Elmyra assured her, turning to Cloud when he approached them. She gave Cloud a careful hug, immediately noticing the little girl in his arms, and smiled.

"Oh my, aren't you getting big?" Elmyra asked as she stroked Amelia's cheek, getting giggles as Amelia turned her head into Cloud's shoulder. "And shy too." Amelia arched an eyebrow at Cloud, who gave her a sheepish grin in return.

"She's getting there," Marlene spoke up from Elmyra's side, tickling Amelia's foot and getting a little jerk and more giggles.

"But we think she's just naturally shy," Tifa smiled up at them. "Cloud was the same when he was younger."

"Tifa." The man's cheeks turned red, making Tifa giggle as Cloud knelt on the blanket next to her, adjusting the child in his arms.

Tifa leaned in, kissing Amelia's chubby cheek before finishing emptying the basket of the food, leaving the dessert hidden carefully.

"Right, food is ready," Tifa called out.

Everyone got settled on the blanket, the kids already filling up their plates with food, arguing over who was getting what before Tifa's firm voice quickly cut in before it could get heated.

"Come on Cloud, tell us the story again," Denzel clamored as he laid on his front, eager as ever to hear the story again.

"Yeah, it's Amelia's turn to hear about the hero." Marlene curled into Tifa's side, getting a kiss pressed to the crown of her head.

"Alright, alright, give me a minute," Cloud teased them, adjusting Amelia so she was settled in the cross of his legs, watching her family.

Cloud looked toward the buster sword, embedded into the wood behind the patch of flowers, noticed the way the flowers intertwined the sword, and smiled before looking back at his little family.

"Once upon a time, there was a hero. And his name was Zack."

The End