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Flushed Cheeks

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He had never really thought much about the girl living next door. Just someone a year younger than him with whom his mother wanted him to get along. He would catch a glimpse of her passing through her yard, watering the flowers, or when she was leaving for school with her friends. Sometimes when he was sitting in the living room, he would hear the sound of a piano drifting in through the open window. He would look over the rim and find her sitting in front of a piano in her own living room with her back to him.

It wasn’t that she didn’t know about him. Though they rarely ever talked with each other, at least she was friendly toward him. If, by chance, they passed each other on the street, or saw each other at school, she would always smile and give a little nod of greeting.

If only he could return the sentiment.

But Tifa was always surrounded by a group of people, especially those three friends that sometimes acted as bodyguards. Well, Tifa was cute and Cloud knew at least a handful of guys in his grade who had a crush on her. Cloud didn't blame her friends for wanting to protect her. 

The first chance Cloud had came as a perfect coincidence, or, if one were to be sentimental, one could almost call it fate, because, if Cloud thought about it now, that encounter was probably the start of their relationship.

On that particular day, because of one thing or another, Cloud went home from his elementary school alone instead of with his friends. He was thinking about what he would do after he got home—play some games, maybe, or read some comics—when he saw Tifa sitting on a bench just off the sidewalk, at the small park between their neighborhood and school, drawing shapes on the ground with a long stick.

Cloud froze.

What’s she doing there? was the first question that came to his mind.

He looked around and couldn’t find those three figures of her friends. Tifa was perfectly alone.

What should he do? Cloud wondered if he should go up and talk to her or maybe he could avoid the situation altogether by walking straight away without looking back. She hadn’t seen him. If he could just make a clean escape…

But his thoughts were cut short when Tifa suddenly looked up. The moment their eyes met, Cloud felt as if an electric current was running down his spine, jerking his body and zapping him up to full attention. All thoughts of running away suddenly vanished from his mind.

Recognizing him, Tifa gave a small smile and a small nod like always, and that was when Cloud noticed the red-rimmed eyes and tear-streaked face. Even her smile wasn’t like her usual smile—the corners of her lips seemed to tremble at the effort. She was wearing a white shirt and brown skirt, and just beneath that skirt, Cloud could see that her knees were scrapped, blood oozing from a bit of an open wound.

Without thinking, Cloud walked up to her and asked, “You okay?”

Tifa blinked in surprise. It was the first time Cloud talked to her.

“Oh—umm…” Tifa looked at her knees. From the way she was favoring her right leg—the one that was still bleeding—it seemed that her knees hurt a lot. “I kind of scrapped my knees when I fell,” she said quietly.

Cloud frowned at the bleeding knee. It didn’t seem like she’d be able to walk well. At least he should stop the bleeding for now.

Cloud looked around and saw a convenience store just across the street. “Wait here, okay,” he told her, and off he went back down the path out of the park and to the store across the street. He bought some gauze, a mineral water, and a bandage tape with pictures of the cartoon Cloud knew Tifa liked. He also bought a couple chocolate ice creams.

When Cloud returned, Tifa was still sitting where he had left her, having gone back to drawing shapes on the ground with the stick. She noticed his approach at a half run and her eyes widened at the white plastic bag he was carrying.

“Here,” he said, handing her the chocolate ice cream. “Ice cream,” he added, at Tifa’s questioning look. “It hurts a lot, right? It’ll help ease the pain.”

Tifa blinked once, twice, before she accepted the ice cream with a soft “Thank you.”

“Let me see your knee,” Cloud went on, crouching before her and opening the plastic bag to reveal what else he had bought.

“W—What?” Tifa said, flustered. She instinctively moved her legs away and immediately winced and groaned at the pain.

“It hurts so much that you cried and couldn’t walk,” Cloud said matter-of-factly. “At least let me clean it up and after you finish your ice cream, I’ll walk you home.”

“No, that’s all right—I mean, thanks for the ice cream, but you don’t have to do so much,” she said, a bit too quickly that she seemed to be tripping over herself. “I’ll just rest a bit and then I’ll be able to walk on my own.”

Cloud stared at her without so much as a blink, and Tifa found herself squirming. It didn’t seem that Cloud would leave, and Tifa’s knees did hurt a lot, and they lived side-by-side, so it was actually more reasonable to let Cloud help her. But they had never really talked before this and it was kind of making her nervous.

Cloud stared until Tifa relented and moved her scrapped and bleeding knee toward him. Cloud nodded in approval. “It’ll sting a bit,” he said, as he uncapped the bottle of water and splashed some over the wound. Tifa winced, her knee jerking at the pain. Then he pulled out a gauze and pour a little of the water on it before dabbing it over her knee.

Tifa hissed, her nails digging into the wooden bench underneath her and the ice cream on her hand. Noticing that, Cloud dabbed the gauze more gently, while cleaning away the dirt and debris that had gotten stuck to her skin. With another gauze, he pressed it gently over the bleeding.

“Press down on it here,” Cloud told her. When Tifa hesitated, he added, “It’s okay. It’s only to stop the bleeding. You don’t have to press so hard. It’s only a scrap so it shouldn’t be long before it stops.”

Tifa bit her lip then nodded, taking over the untended gauze on her bleeding knee as Cloud moved to her other knee and began the process from the start. Her left knee wasn’t as badly scrapped as her right, so it didn’t hurt her much as Cloud started cleaning away the dirt and dabbing at the wound.

“You’re used to doing this.” A statement, not a question.

Cloud shrugged. “My mom taught me,” he said. He paused, wondering whether to say anything more, then decided there was no harm done talking about it. The whole neighborhood knew about his family anyway. “I often get myself hurt, so I figured I should be able to clean myself up if she’s not around.”

“Oh, right, your mom works, doesn’t she?”

Cloud nodded. His mother had always raised him by herself. Cloud didn’t even have any conscious recollection of his father.

“You should eat your ice cream before it melts,” Cloud said.

“Oh, right.” Tifa let go of the gauze on her knee and Cloud noticed the surprise and happiness on the lines of her face—that slight widening of her eyes and parting of her lips—as she saw the state of her previously bleeding knee. “It looks so much cleaner than it did before!” she exclaimed. “And the bleeding’s stopped too!”

Cloud tried hard not to smirk. As he continued to clean Tifa’s left knee, he kept watching her from the corners of his eye—as she put down the gauze on the bench beside her and opened the ice cream; as she took her first bite of it and squealed at the softness and coolness of it. “You’re right, Cloud! It does lessen the pain!” she said, and the way she said it made him want to laugh because he didn’t think she would really believe him about the ice cream easing the pain on her knees. It would only distract her from the pain, hopefully long enough until he finished dressing her wounds and bring her home.

But Tifa was looking at him, her eyes so bright, her grin so wide, and for a moment, Cloud forgot where he was. The way her black hair fell over her shoulders, framing her face; the way her eyes suddenly lit up; the way the afternoon sun seemed to cast an orange glow around her; it made his face suddenly feel really hot, and before he knew it, he was already scrambling to his feet, saying, “It’s done. Come on, hurry up and finish your ice cream so we can go home.”

But Tifa suddenly looked into the plastic bag and said, “You bought an ice cream for yourself, too.”

Crap!

Tifa patted the space next to her. “Come on, eat your ice cream first before it melts.”

It didn’t seem like Tifa realized just how flustered Cloud was. He didn’t even know why he suddenly felt so flustered and embarrassed and all he wanted was to leave and hide beneath his blanket because his heart wouldn’t stop pounding. Tifa’s bright smile was suddenly etched into his mind.

Tifa cocked her head to her side. “Why is your face red?”

Cloud’s eyes widened in shock, and before he could stop himself, he snapped at her, “None of your business!” And he plopped himself down on the bench, carefully putting some distance between them, and grabbed his own ice cream from the plastic bag. He basically tore the plastic in two.

Tifa, on the other hand, could only stare at Cloud’s sudden change in attitude in confusion.

 


 

Someone was shaking his shoulder awake. “Cloud?” the voice called. A familiar voice.

 Another shake of his shoulder. “Hey, you’re going to get cold sleeping here like this.”

Cloud’s eyes fluttered open. In front of his face was a blurry image of a girl with brown eyes and black hair. The girl sighed in relief and pulled away.

Cloud blinked sleep away from his eyes and looked around. He was in a bar—that was apparently closing soon. Everyone else had left except for him and a few of the staff, and Tifa was standing beside him, her hands on her hip, and a scowl on her lips. She had changed out of her uniform and was now sporting a white turtleneck beneath a brown overcoat with black trousers and boots.

Now he remembered. He had been waiting for her to finish her part-time job while he tried to do something for a class assignment he had to submit by the end of the week.

“Sorry, I guess I dozed off,” he mumbled, as he closed his laptop and put everything away in his bag.

“You didn’t get a lot of sleep last night?” she asked.

Cloud’s answer was a noncommittal shrug. Tifa sighed exasperatedly but didn’t press on.

“Let’s go,” Cloud said, standing up from his seat.

With one last withering look directed at him, Tifa bowed to the rest of the staff and bid them goodbye, and Cloud did the same, before they exited the bar.

Silence stretched between them on their way to their apartment building a few blocks away. But it was a comfortable silence, one they often had when both of them only wanted to feel each other’s presence by their side. Cloud nonchalantly took her hand and he could see her smile from the corner of his eyes as she gripped his hand back.

“It’s kind of chilly tonight,” Tifa commented.

Cloud replied with a grunt. “I just had a dream of when we were kids,” he said instead.

“What’s it about?”

“When you scrapped your knees on your way home from school.”

Tifa cocked her head to the side, before the memory hit her, and she said, “Ah! Yeah, I remember! You suddenly looked so scary for some reason.”

“Yeah? And whose fault was that?” Cloud countered.

“Are you saying it was mine?”

“Of course. You suddenly made me feel all flustered and embarrassed and fluffy and warm—”

“Fluffy and warm,” Tifa snorted a laughter.

Cloud glared at her, but that reaction only spurred her laughter even more. An idea struck him then, and without giving Tifa any chance to prepare, Cloud pulled her close and planted a quick feather-light kiss on her cheek. It ended the moment it began but it cut Tifa’s laughter short, and when Cloud pulled back, he could see her cheeks were flushed deep red. She was rendered speechless. Cloud smirked.

“W—what was that?” she stammered.

“Payback.”

“For what?!” Tifa was now trying to glare at him but failed and her inability to form a coherent response made him laugh.

He pulled her into his arms and rested his cheek against her head. “For what you did to me,” he said softly.

Tifa was silent for a while before Cloud felt her arms going around his back, returning his embrace. “You’re really bad for my heart, you know,” she murmured. He knew she was still blushing fiercely without looking at her.

Cloud chuckled. “That should be my line.”

It had been twelve years since that day. Back then, he had never imagined things would turn out the way it had. But there was one thing he was quite sure of since the day he witnessed her smile up close: that he would do anything to keep that smile on her face.

~ END ~