Tifa has the Stigma.
She hides it as long as she can. It’s on her upper arm and at first it only looks like a bruise, which gives her a couple of days to track down a long-sleeved shirt. She moves Aerith’s pink ribbon down to her wrist, like a bracelet, and that’s that.
Soon enough, though, it starts to hurt. It wakes her up one night, a sting that goes through skin to muscle to bone. It feels like her arm is being torn from the socket and then set on fire.
She stumbles out of bed and paces up and down the tiny rectangle of floor between the bed and the door, panting.
But Tifa has felt pain before. She can handle this. And if it happens mostly at night then that’s good, it means that Cloud and the kids won’t notice. It’s important to keep this from them. Denzel is already so scared. Marlene is losing hope. And Cloud is so frustrated that he can’t help Denzel. He spends hours poring over medical journals and the dusty books he finds on deliveries, trying to find a cure or at least something better than black-market lidocaine to treat the symptoms.
Tifa remembers his face after Aerith died and thinks, He just can’t know.
The deception won’t last forever, but she’s going to make it work as long as possible. They’ve gained so much in the last two years. He’s so much more like the Cloud she remembers from Nibelheim: gentler, a little more eager for life’s myriad small events. It’s as if he’s looking forward, even with the darkness of Denzel’s disease looming. She has to protect him for as long as she can. And Tifa has always been good at simply going on.
So she does.
She never wants to eat but her body is constantly crying out for sustenance. She’s been making a lot of soup already because of Denzel, so it’s fine. She has to force it down, but it never comes back up.
Her joints start to ache. She’s cold. It’s like she’s an old woman. Of course it is: she’s dying, isn’t she? She buys an extra bottle of codeine off this black market dealer who comes into Seventh Heaven every third night for a vodka cran. It’s expensive, and Denzel’s painkillers are already taking up a chunk of money, so she splits each pill twice and parcels them out. She puts a sweater on over the t-shirt. She buys it from a woman who sells her weaves off a doorstep over on Ninth Street. It’s where Cloud buys his shirts. Her new sweater doesn’t look anything like his, but it comforts her to know that they’re from the same place. And she is a little warmer.
It’s the little things that get her through each day. She wakes up in the night from pain, and suffers through it for a couple of long pre-dawn hours, and then when it abates she sleeps a little more. In the morning she wakes up tired but still alive, and first thing she does it look out the window up at the sky. It’s usually gray, but sometimes it’s a brighter, bluer gray. At least it’s there, no Plate in the way to hide it.
She rouses the kids and savors the warmth of their bodies on her hands. She combs Marlene’s hair (it is so soft) and puts salve and a little lidocaine on Denzel’s forehead. He’s usually in good shape in the mornings; it’s the afternoons they have to worry about with him.
Cloud, if he made it home from deliveries the night before, is usually awake by the time she heads downstairs. She can see the shadows moving under his door when she passes in the hall. She makes breakfast -- oatmeal, usually; sometimes fried eggs or pancakes. She starts Cloud’s coffee going in the little stovetop percolator. Every third day she allows herself to make tea, with a spoonful of precious honey stirred in. It’s expensive stuff these days. So is the coffee, but that’s different: it’s for Cloud. He indulges in so few luxuries that even with the money that already goes to food and utility bills and painkillers, she holds back enough to make sure that she can buy coffee.
What will he do when I’m gone? she wonders one morning, watching Cloud bend over his cup. Steam rises into his pale hair. What will the kids eat?
The next morning, she gets Marlene and Denzel up early and teaches them how to make oatmeal. “Just in case!” she says brightly. She gets a notebook and makes a list of things that seem important to know - how to light the pilot on the stove, where to hide the keys, how to run the laundry machine, how to close out the register for the bar and how to balance its account books - and then she sits and writes out, step by step, how to do them.
Cloud surprises her at it once, busting into the kitchen from the garage under the cover of noise from the radio. Tifa jumps a mile and drops her pencil on the floor.
Cloud looks at it for a moment and then bends down to retrieve it. She flips the notebook over, hiding the page covered with instructions on how to winterize the pipes.
He hands the pencil back to her, amusement in his eyes. “Boo,” he says, and Tifa, heart still hammering, laughs harder than she should.
She has the kids start helping out more. She makes Denzel practice answering the phone. Marlene learns how to defrost the freezer. They start folding their own clothes and sweeping upstairs and changing the sheets on their beds. They grumble and complain but the ire washes over Tifa without a trace.
She bakes more, often enough through tears. She’ll really miss this. She loves the kitchen at Seventh Heaven, this big warm room full of food and memories with Cloud and the kids. It has been her haven after all the fire and the fighting. She hides cookies in Fenrir’s secret glove compartment where Cloud keeps his sunglasses so that he’ll find them at whatever ungodly hour he leaves on delivery. She writes down each and every recipe she knows. She wants to leave a trace: a taste of her in his mouth that he can have again after she’s gone. Like Aerith’s flowers or Zack’s sword. Tifa doesn’t quite believe that this will hit Cloud the same way those deaths did, but she means something to him. She is his oldest friend, and he is hers, and they have that, whatever else they fail to grasp.
Denzel continues to suffer, lying in bed all day sometimes, and Tifa’s heart squeezes like a fist when she thinks that he might well go first. He wasn’t very strong when he came to them, and he’s not very strong now. All the disease has to do is keep pushing for a few more weeks.
She’s been teaching him how to do all these things, but none of her preparations will matter, in the end. Marlene and Cloud will lose them both.
And who knew what Tifa would lose? She would die and she’d be lost inside the Lifestream. And so would Denzel, and when Marlene and Cloud died so would they, and none of them would ever find each other again.
But what if, she wonders, Cloud won’t care? If Denzel dies, if Tifa dies, all he has to do is give Marlene back to Barrett. Then he can be as free as he seems to long for.
Tifa is sinking.
She finds herself in tears more often, tired more often. She walks around with a barbed-wire ball of grief in her throat. The Stigma grows, reaching down her bicep and curling up towards her shoulder. Sometimes the pain comes during the day and she has to leave the kids at the table or the customers in the bar and go hide in the bathroom to suffer through it. She buys caffeine pills -- cheaper than more coffee -- and resists upping her daily dose of codeine. She doesn’t want her life to end in some kind of drugged-out stupor.
She is running out of time.
One night the pain is so bad she has to leave her room. The walls are closing in on her and the fire is burning in her bones. She wraps a blanket around herself and goes out into the hallway. The nighttime silence feels loud to her: suddenly her secret weighs on her, heavy and deadly. She would like nothing more than for one of them to somehow sense her agony, come out of their rooms and comfort her.
But this is an old feeling, really. As old as her mother’s death, at least, and as likely to be met now as it was then. Tifa takes a deep breath and steps carefully along the splintery wooden boards to the staircase. She thinks for the millionth time that she ought to find a rug narrow enough to fit the hallway.
Orange light from the single streetlight comes filtering in through the window blinds, gilding the stove and the kitchen table with a feverish glow. The door to the bar is just across from the foot of the stairs. The other end of the room is her makeshift living room, just a couch and a rug and a couple of chairs squeezed into one of the kitchen’s corners. Her home. It feels familiar but looks totally strange, draped in dark light and deep shadows.
Tifa’s out of her room and that helps, but she can’t sit still for pain. She paces up and down, wearing a path in the floor between the stove and the couch. Her feet are cold, which is a good distraction. She takes measured breaths and recites in her head the words to songs, poems from her schooldays, programs from the radio, anything she can think of.
For all the death she has seen, and all the times she has almost died, it is strange to her that here, now, she is coming to the end.
It really shouldn’t be. She’s seen a lot of death -- caused some of it. Sephiroth almost killed her at Nibelheim and gave her a scar that daily reminds her. She has been in many battles since. But Tifa is no longer a girl reeling from the loss of her home, chasing after a boy she thought she knew, fighting in a war that made her a terrorist and then a rebel and then a freedom fighter. She has Seventh Heaven, now. She has Cloud. She has two children. In some ways it feels like her life has only really begun; and already she has to lose it?
There is a whisper of sound out of tune with her pacing. Tifa freezes. Footsteps on the staircase, and she backs into the shadowy corner by the couch by reflex.
It is Cloud, in a pair of flannel pants and a t-shirt with holes in it and one of Tsurugi’s smaller swords in hand. He looks around the kitchen, his glowing eyes sweeping across the counters and the sink and the table and finally settling on the shadows where she stands.
She swallows hard. The pain is still beating at her and she’s so tired and she’s scared, and she doesn’t want Cloud to know any of that.
“It’s me,” she whispers, hoping the low tone will disguise any abnormal inflection in her voice. “I couldn’t sleep. Why don’t you go back to bed, Cloud?”
She sees the eyes vanish for a moment and reappear -- a blink. And then instead of going up the stairs, Cloud leans the sword against the wall and pads near-noiselessly over to the couch. “What were you doing?”
“Did you hear my voice? I was thinking out loud.” Tifa smiles brightly. Her heart is shivering in her throat, choking her.
“And walking?” he asks, skeptical.
“Yes, Cloud,” Tifa whispers, a little annoyed at this sudden perceptiveness. Half an hour ago she wanted nothing but him, but now she just wants him to leave. “Sorry if I woke you up, okay?” Go away, she thinks as the burning in her arm surges and her breath catches in her throat.
She squeezes her eyes closed and sees red flames on the insides of her eyelids.
Cloud notices. His shoulders tense but he doesn’t come around the side of the couch. “Tifa, what’s wrong?”
It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. She wanted to bear this burden herself.
She’s hidden it as long as she can. But she can’t hide it anymore. She can’t even stand. She puts out a hand, the one without the Stigma, feeling for the armchair, and lowers herself into it. Cloud rounds the couch swiftly and comes near to her, hangs over her.
“I just don’t feel very well,” she says, a last-ditch attempt to obfuscate.
He shocks her by kneeling before her and laying one hand on her knee. The heat of it is warm and strange. She can’t remember the last time he touched her. Nibelheim? Modeoheim? Surely since then, right? They live in the same house, after all.
It’s stupid. It’s stupid how much he means to her. But his eyes are so blue; they always have been, even before they glowed.
“It’s true. I’m sick.” Her throat aches. She is so weak: how much she wants to tell him; how much she doesn’t want him to know. She is scared of dying and she’s scared of him.
His hand tightens on her knee. “With what?” Full of dread.
How does she do this?
Slowly, she loosens the blanket covering her. The air is cool. She touches her left arm with her right hand. In the dimness of the kitchen, the darker patch of the Geostigma is just visible.
The breath leaves him. “No.” He leans on her knee and reaches over and grips her arm just below the affliction. Tifa cries out in pain and he flinches away, lets go immediately.
“Does it hurt?” he asks.
“Yes, Cloud,” Tifa grits out, suddenly angry, “yes, it hurts. It’s like fire.” His face, even in the darkness, is as terrible to see as she thought it would be, and she’s furious that he cares and relieved that he cares. Everything inside of her is tumbled up by the pain and the fear.
“I knew something was wrong,” he says. His hand is still on her knee, holding on tightly. “You’ve been so sad. How long have you-?”
“What does it matter?” she says. “It’s ending soon now. I wanted to keep it from you until the end.”
“Why?” he asks, quiet voice cracking.
She touches his hand on her knee. “What could you do, Cloud?” she asks, harsh words in a gentle voice. “It’s breaking your heart to watch Denzel. I didn’t want to give you more burdens. And-- I was scared…”
“Of what?” he asks.
Of you, she cannot say. Of you being glad to get rid of me.
She shuts her eyes to hold back tears. “I didn’t want to watch you watch me die.” Her voice is as steady as she can make it. “I’ve been so happy here. With the kids. With you. I wanted to think of the present. Not the past. Not the future. I was happy.”
He takes her hands in his. It is so unexpected and so longed-for that tears spill out from under her eyes. She crumples, bowing her head forward over their fingers, tears dripping onto her knees. “Tifa,” she hears him say helplessly in front of her.
“I don’t know what to say,” she whispers. “I don’t want to die, Cloud. I want to stay. But there is no cure for Geostigma.” She grips his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” Cloud says, suddenly fierce. “Tifa, you haven’t ever owed me an apology. I…” His voice trails off. He leans his head against hers. “I don’t know what to say either.”
So he holds her hands in silence until her tears stop, and the streetlight turns off and the sun begins to rise, and a new day at Seventh Heaven begins.