The best case scenario was that Cloud would reciprocate. They might talk it over, share a smile, maybe she would take him by the hand and let things go where they would. The worst case, she had thought, was that he would push her away, gently because that’s just how Cloud was, and tell her he didn’t feel the same.
She had not expected the freezing up and the shaking and the scramble to get away. Cloud was clinging to the counter for support, eyes wide and wild as he scrubbed at his lips with the back of one hand. Tifa could still feel her own lips tingling. She crossed her arms and turned away. “I didn’t think my kiss would be so repulsive.”
“Huh?” It was almost a chirp, high-pitched and terrified.
Tifa whirled on Cloud, ready to let loose the storm of weeks of contemplating and planning and pure frustration on him. But he looked so lost in the way only Cloud could that it all knotted inside her and left her feeling even more embarrassed about it than before. “Cloud, is it me? Are we just not going to be like that?”
Cloud blinked. “Like…?”
Tifa stamped her foot a little. “Are you that clueless? I mean, it’s so obvious even the bar patrons have a pool running on… Oh, my god!” Tifa stumbled into a bar stool and grabbed on for support. “Cloud, are you gay? Because, I mean, it’s completely fine if you are, I just wish you’d told me before I made such a gigantic ass of myself and come on, we live in the same house. After everything we’ve been through together can’t you trust me with a thing like that? I’d-"
“That’s not it,” Cloud said, straightening up. He swallowed. “You’re my sister.”
When Tifa finally remembered to blink her eyes felt like sand. “Cloud,” she said, “I have half a bottle of sixty-year-old whiskey on the top shelf. I am going to take it down. I am going to pour you a drink and I’m going to pour me a drink and you will explain to me what you just said.”
“Okay.” Cloud picked at a knot in the wood before pulling himself together enough to get a couple of shot glasses.
Tifa kept her back to him as she opened the bottle and kept her eyes on the task while she poured. She tossed back her shot faster than was right with aged whiskey, and hacked and coughed a little because she was not in the habit of drinking up her stores. She poured herself another and nursed it sensibly. “More?” she asked.
“I’m good,” Cloud said, letting his tongue touch the surface of the liquor. He took a careful sip, not sure if alcohol would improve the situation.
Tifa took a deep breath, then another and settled herself on a bar stool. “So, could you please repeat yourself.”
Cloud took a deep breath. “You’re my sister, Tifa. Half-sister.” He set his glass down to prevent any spillage. “I’m sorry. I thought you knew.”
Tifa buried her face in her hands. “You thought I knew?” she asked, rubbing her forehead.
“Up until a few months ago, anyway.” Cloud perched himself on a seat one over from hers, just far enough out of reach that taking a swing at him would be inconvenient. “You know, when you started…”
Tifa groaned. Cloud started to reach over but thought better of it. He waited until Tifa had pulled herself together. “So,” she said, swirling her own glass, “I assume this story has a beginning to start at.”
“I only got it in bits and pieces,” Cloud said.
“Well, I didn’t get it at all!” Tifa said. “Start talking.”
Cloud licked his lips and took a stab at it. “Your father and my mother had some kind of… thing.”
“Thing?” Tifa glanced sideways, just long enough to see a touch of color on Cloud’s face.
“You know.” Cloud touched the rim of his glass with one finger. “It didn’t last long, and it was before he married your mother. I know that much for sure.”
Tifa did the math quickly in her head. “That doesn’t add up. Mom always said she and Papa dated for years before the wedding. You’re not that old.”
“Yeah, well…..” Cloud took a look up the stairs, in case the chatter had woken the kids. “You know what people used to say about my mother and me.”
Tifa suspected she had never really heard the worst of it, being too young and too sheltered for the really heavy things, but she had known the adults talked. All the kids had known. There was no missing the whispers and the glares and the titters and derision and outright hate. It was one of the reasons, the main one probably, why Cloud had never really made it into her circle of friends. They had known that there was something objectionable about him even if they had not understood what it was.
“Are you sure it was my father?”
“My mom wasn’t a whore, Tifa,” Cloud said. “No matter what people said.”
“I didn’t mean it like that!” Tifa waved her hands for him to keep his voice down. “I mean, are you sure we’re actually related? We don’t even look alike.”
Cloud shrugged and finally took a proper sip. “You take after your mother and so do I.” Tifa rested her head on one hand and studied his face, as if searching for any trace of the man who had raised her. Cloud sighed. “Maybe there’s a test or something we could take, you know, if you want to be sure.”
“Test?” Tifa sat up. “We could do that.” She pretended that she didn’t see the slight tremor run through Cloud. “You want me to call Reeve in the morning? I’m sure he’d know somebody.”
Cloud nodded. “He would.”
It boiled down to a couple of cotton swabs and a few weeks of waiting. Tifa tried not to make things awkward in the meantime. Cloud was his usual self, quiet, doing the dishes, staying out of the way. Maybe he was even more relaxed now that Tifa had stopped flirting with him entirely. Still, there was an undercurrent of tension about them that had the betting pool contemplating just how bad Cloud must have been in the sack. Tifa couldn’t help blushing when she overheard but she made sure not to let Cloud know.
She couldn’t keep everyone from noticing. “Tifa,” Marlene asked one morning. “Did you and Cloud kiss?”
“What?” Tifa nearly dropped the spatula.
“Didja smooch,” Denzel put in. “You’re both acting like you got cooties.” Marlene giggled.
Tifa narrowed her eyes at them both. “You two….” She sighed and pulled her apron off. “Look, Cloud and I are in the middle of working something out right now. There isn’t any smooching involved.” She hoped the fluttering discomfort inside did not show on her face. “I promise you kids, whatever’s going on, we’re family, and we’re going to stay a family.”
“So something is going on, huh?” The kids smirked.
“Eat your eggs, you two.”
“One more week,” Tifa said, scrubbing down the bar.
“That’s what the lab says.” Cloud made his way backwards with the broom. Tifa watched him move and fought the slow build of nausea and uncertainty.
“Cloud,” she said, refolding the rag. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Cloud never paused. He hunched further over the broom and kept sweeping. “I thought you knew.” He turned away, swirling the dust on the floor. “When I figured out you didn’t I wasn’t sure how to tell you.”
“So you let me make a complete fool of myself all this time?” Tifa slapped the rag on the counter and scrubbed with a vengeance.
“I didn’t know how to tell you!” Cloud had turned to face her now and was edging away with the broom before him. “I thought if you didn’t get a response after a while you’d move on. I thought we could talk about it later when it wasn’t so awkward.”
“When is this ever not going to be awkward?” Tifa pursed her lips. Every romantic fantasy she had ever had now felt irrevocably tainted. Even if the test proved Cloud wrong things would always be strange now. “Did you always know? Even when we were in Nibelheim?”
Cloud ducked his head. “I knew, sort of. Mom always said to be good to family and I kind of always understood she meant you. I didn’t piece together exactly how we were family for a long time.”
Tifa set her rag aside and contemplated pulling the good whiskey down again. “How’d you figure it out?” Cloud’s eyes got that distant look they sometimes did. “Cloud?”
Cloud set the broom aside and sat down on the edge of one booth. “You really want to know?”
Tifa came out from the behind the counter and sat near Cloud. “Tell me everything.”
She had a feeling he was glossing over things. She dredged her memory for the pieces to fill in the gaps. It was true her mother had never been warm to Cloud’s mother, though they lived so close by. Instead she had been polite, so polite and reserved that for a small town it was cold. For all the names Tifa had heard whispered, she had never heard a peep of Cloud’s mother actually being near the town watering hole, had never spied that kind of traffic at the door. Cloud’s mother made her living selling eggs and knitting and nothing more. Yet the woman had a reputation, Tifa had grown to understand, even if she could never figure out how Ms. Strife had earned it.
“I think I only figured it out for sure thinking over what happened the night your father came over,” Cloud was saying. “It was after your mother’s funeral, and after you had fallen off the mountain and everything. I was still pretty bruised up from the licking I got for that so Mom put me to bed early and was making barley soup to cheer me up.” Cloud paused and picked at a groove in the table. His fingernails were short and neat but for the fine line of grease that never seemed to go away.
“I heard voices so I crept to the railing to make sure nothing bad was happening,” Cloud said, eyes on the floor and not seeing it at all. “And there was your father. I think he’d been drinking, he was lurching around a little bit. Mom was making sure to keep the table between them.” He glanced up at Tifa and looked away just as quickly. “He was saying something about picking up where they’d left off and that he could make things better for her and that it was okay now that Helen was gone.
“She told him he had no right coming to her for anything after laying into me like he had, especially since I’d only gone to try and keep you from getting hurt.” Cloud looked up again. “Fat lot of good that did.”
“You tried,” Tifa said simply, not wanting him to get distracted. “What did Papa do?”
“He said he could take care of both of us and that ‘little Cloud’ wouldn’t have to live without a daddy anymore. Mom told him that Cloud was doing fine without a daddy so far and didn’t need one who was so wrapped up in looking like the perfect father for one child that he went out of his way to abuse the other.” He looked up but not at her. “I didn’t understand right then, you know.”
Tifa tried to speak past the lump in her throat. “What did my father do?”
“He got loud,” Cloud said. “He did to her face what everybody else did behind her back, called her a drunk and a whore.” Cloud’s hand stilled on the tabletop. He still could not look at Tifa.
She reached out, barely touching his fingertips. “Cloud?” Cloud twitched at the touch but he did not jump away. He blinked a couple times and turned. “What happened?”
“She told him that whores got paid. Then she held the door open until he left.”
They sat there under the dim light until the clock made the awful ratchety click it did when the hour hand crossed ‘two’. Tifa sighed. "You want me to get the whiskey.”
Cloud smirked but it did not reach his eyes. “No, it’s fine.”
“Well, I need some,” Tifa said, rising. “Let me know if you change your mind.” She pushed the little stepping stool into place and went up. “I’ve been trying to work out the timing,” she said, licking her lips. "Whatever happened, it was just before my parents got married, wasn’t it?”
Cloud shrugged. “I guess. I tried to ask Mom once but she… she didn’t want to talk about it.”
“How come?” Tifa hopped off the stool with the bottle in hand and snagged two shot glasses, just in case.
“I don’t know, she probably didn’t want to tell a kid all the details.”
“Well, we’ll know in a week, right?”
“I guess,” Cloud said. “I’m not wrong.”
They took the truck to the lab. Tifa drove and pretended that she needed to concentrate on the road. The discomfort had grown all the while and now it lay somewhere inside, heavy as a stone. They parked and walked and waited in silence, Cloud leaning back in the seat, Tifa leaning forward, hands gripping the edge.
“Cloud,” she said, “I remember some things too, things my mother’s sewing circle used to say. Things that make more sense now.”
“About my mother?” he asked.
“Yeah.” She swung her feet out and back again, feeling like a child. “You want to know.”
“I remember somebody saying she had a lot of nerve causing trouble before the wedding. That it was her own fault she was in that situation.”
“That she was pregnant?” Cloud’s voice rasped.
“I suppose.” Tifa wanted to go screaming down the halls, anything to soothe the antsy feeling of a long wait. Instead she forced herself to be very still, the way her mother had taught her to be when company was over. “They said she had no business troubling a man who was already spoken for to help her out of her mess.”
“Did they say it was her own damned fault for being drunk too?”
Tifa coughed. “Not in so many words.” She did give in then, swinging her feet out a little before tucking one ankle primly behind the other.
Cloud took an audible breath beside her, lifting his head as a tech in a lab coat drew near, then sinking into himself again when she passed them by. “She used to work at the pub, you know,” he said, “before I was born.”
“Did she?” Tifa turned her head. “I never saw her near the place.”
“Me neither,” Cloud said.
“Miss Lockheart, Mr. Strife, this way please.”
They rode home in silence. Tifa envied the way Cloud seemed completely at ease. Of course he would be. She was the one who had to really get used to something she’d had a right to know since the beginning. She had half a mind to open the door and make him walk back home for holding out.
It was almost infuriating how he could go on like nothing had changed, though she supposed for him, nothing had. He helped her tidy up and made sure the kids ate their vegetables. It sickened her. An urge that had been growing since he had first come clean finally became too strong to ignore and she excused herself for a moment to wash her lips off with soap. It was done unknowingly, she tried to tell herself, and the whole thing had hammered home that there were worse things than a little unintentional emotional incest. Tifa nearly gagged but she pulled it together in time to pour her drinks and serve her bar food and work the worst of it off kicking the drunken rowdies into the street.
Cloud hovered around all evening, close enough to be helpful but still out of reach. They closed up for the night with barely a word. “Um, Tifa?” Cloud said, busy with his broom. “Would it be better if I moved out?”
“Yeah,” Cloud leaned heavily on the broom, bending the bristles. “If this whole thing is too weird….”
Tifa sighed. “We made it this far. Besides, where would you go? Back to the church? Stay here and sleep in a real bed. No matter what happens, we’re… family.” The rag slipped from Tifa’s hand. “We’re family,” she said again.
“That’s what I’ve been saying these past few weeks,” Cloud said and went back to his sweeping. Tifa watched him and out of the mess of discomfort and accidentally consanguineous feelings, something began to grow. It was small but it was there.
“I have a brother,” she said, more to herself than anyone else, but Cloud’s ears didn’t miss much.
“I know,” he said, still sweeping.
“I have a big brother,” Tifa said.
“I have a big brother and he’s a dork!”
“Huh?” Cloud turned around to see Tifa smiling.
“You kind of are,” she told him.
Cloud shrugged. “I guess you’re feeling better about it.”
“I might be,” Tifa said. “Want some of that whiskey to celebrate?”
“Um, can I just have a soda instead?” Cloud scratched the back of his head.
“Whatever you want, bro.” Tifa set a vanilla soda in front of him and settled for an orange one herself.
“You’re real happy about this all of a sudden,” Cloud said, popping the cap off barehanded.
“I’m getting used to it, maybe,” Tifa said. “I didn’t lose everybody in Nibelheim.”
Cloud looked up. “Yeah.” He brightened. “I didn’t either.”
Tifa lifted her bottle. “Here’s to my dorky big brother, who doesn’t say half of what he should, but still manages to look out for me. Most of the time anyway.”
Cloud shook his head. “To a little sister who’s apparently going to get all caught up on being a pest.”
“Yep. Cheers!” They clinked bottles and took quiet sips.
Tifa grabbed a couple of coasters and set her soda down. “This is still pretty strange for me, you know.”
“I know.” Cloud said. “What are we going to tell everybody?”
“What are we going to tell the kids?”
Cloud blanched. “Gaia….”
Tifa burst out laughing. “Relax, they’re sensible. We’ll figure something out and I’m sure they’ll understand.”
“I hope so,” he said, though he didn’t look particularly hopeful. They sat and sipped and watched ants start to gather around a ring of spillage from Cloud’s bottle until the clock made its ratchety click again.
“Got to get that looked at,” Cloud said.
“Yeah.” Tifa set her bottle down. “Cloud?”
“Are you gay?”