Twilight was settling close to the horizon and firelight was flickering through the trees, its warm orange glow beckoning her back to the small clearing that currently hosted the party's camp. Overhead the shimmer of the half-moon and the dawning of the stars were rendered insignificant by the fiery light of Meteor as it hung in the sky, seemingly suspended there like atmospheric decoration.
Five days now, Tifa thought, sparing the monstrosity just a second's glance as she hauled the recently refreshed water canister to the clearing.
For two days they had been "tying up loose ends" as Cloud had called it, and preparing for the horrors of the Northern Crater. Cid had flown Yuffie to Wutai for a series of ritualistic battles and Barret had reluctantly accompanied them at Cloud's behest. Cloud himself had become taken with a rumor of an all-power summon on an island only accessible by golden chocobo and had gone to the Gold Saucer to race and breed his birds. Cait Sith had gone with him as his free ticket into the amusement park and its hotel. Tifa, Vincent, and Nanaki had meanwhile been tasked with exploring the forest atop one of the cliffs in the Cosmo Canyon region, the path to which had only recently been forged by the fall of Ultima Weapon’s lifeless bulk.
The journey had not been kind to them. Ultima Weapon's body had attracted all manner of hungry creatures. They had been exhausted before ever reaching the forest and found a headache of a puzzle awaiting them when they arrived. Though it had yielded rewards, Tifa's battered body had hours ago decided that they were not worth the trouble. Tomorrow they would have to retrace the fiend-infested path and walk to the village of Cosmo Canyon.
Tifa affixed a smile to her face as she crossed into the camp’s halo of illumination. Vincent had seated himself on the sparse grass near the fire, but he started to rise at the sight of her lugging the canister.
She waved him off with a slight broadening of her weary smile, though the expression was nearly ruined in a grimace as her stiff fingers complained. The seams of one glove had burst and the flesh beneath was broken across the hills of her knuckles and swollen in the valleys between. The icy stream had granted her only temporary relief, but it had also given her an opportunity to scrub away the dirt and blood from her body as best as she could without getting undressed.
Not that I have to worry about anyone here peeking. I think.
As she set the container by the other supplies she felt his attention like a heated hand across the bare expanses of her skin, dragging down the ache of her spine where she'd been thrown on her back earlier that day, fleeting along the soreness of her arms and the taut muscles of her calves. He was always careful about concealing his studies of her, and she was careful about concealing her awareness of it. The muted glint in his eyes when he looked at her this way was not something she could decipher. Vincent didn't leer at her with the naked lust of the slum drunks, or give her the lingering once-overs that she caught from a number of town dwellers. She couldn't even describe it as being the same guilty, halting glance she would occasionally receive from her other male friends.
Tifa looked down at herself as if she might find the answer to his peculiar behavior written along her body. There was nothing but the dark, shapeless blooms of blood forming beneath her abused skin. She sighed softly. Oh, of course the others took their lumps as well, but her style of combat required a close proximity to her enemies that worked to her detriment just as much as it worked to her advantage.
"Where's Red?" she wondered as she slumped down on a weathered log.
"He said he was scouting the area, but he has yet to return," Vincent replied. Now his attention was directed unwaveringly at the flames he had cultivated. "I don't think he's taking Bugenhagen's passing as well as he'd like us to believe."
"I think you're right." Her teeth sank into her bottom lip and she glanced skyward. "Or maybe he's just scared."
Her words were followed by a lengthy pause, a common occurrence during conversations with Vincent, but finally he asked, "Are you frightened?"
"I'd have to be crazy not to be," she laughed a little. That he'd asked at all had surprised her. Though the months of travel had loosened his tongue, it was still rare that he facilitated personal discussion. "You?"
"Are you asking if I'm crazy, or afraid?"
The unexpected response called a chuckle to her throat. The change in his demeanor was slight, his countenance still stern and his disposition mostly silent, but since Hojo's death it seemed that the almost visible weight he'd carried had lessened.
"I suppose fear is for those that have something to lose," he said. Just as Tifa was poised to ask exactly what that meant for him, he continued with, "It does place things into perspective, however."
"It sure does," she agreed. Beneath her breath, for the sole benefit of her own ears, she added, "Makes it easier to let go of what was never yours."
"Among other things, yes."
Tifa squinted at him through the wavering dark, as though by looking at him she could decide if his hearing was as unusually acute as his powers of observation, or if she had simply spoken more loudly than intended. A shrug cast the question from her mind. She opted instead for one of greater interest to her.
"So, what has it placed into perspective for you?"
He didn't answer her, but appraised her again with such candidness that apprehension fluttered in her belly. His unearthly stare focused on her midsection and she followed it there to find the pale of her skin mottled with shades of deepening blue.
"You're still injured."
Tifa hadn't exactly forgotten about that fact, but the languor in her bones had taken precedence and anchored her firmly to the log on which she sat. Over the course of their many battles, the dull throb of such miniscule wounds had merely become a second heartbeat, an affirmation of life when her body and mind were both certain that she'd crossed the threshold of death.
Before she could rouse herself to search for a potion or a restore materia, Vincent was on his feet with the box of medical supplies in his hands. He loomed over her, shadows playing across his features and nearly masking the stilted moment of something—hesitation?—that arrested his expression. Then he sank down on his knees alongside her.
His meaning initially escaped her, but his averted eyes did not. His head was bowed, as if in reverence, and it struck Tifa that this was not unlike a few of her more embarrassing pre-dawn dreams. It took several seconds of mental scrambling before she realized that he was studying her battered hand, and another sliver of a second to push aside the phantom of disappointment that he was not actually about to make some sort of grand romantic gesture.
Even knowing his intention was not quite enough to stay her surprise when he began to loosen the worn leather from her hand. Nor was it enough to stave off the blush that rose to her cheeks when his human fingers slipped beneath her sweat-dampened palm. They had touched before in the chaos of battle, passing supplies and helping one another up from the dirt. This contact, however, was more intimate than she had ever seen him offer anyone before.
In his metal claws he grasped a sphere of low-grade restore materia while his flesh thumb gently edged around her abrasions in a stroking motion that made her throat constrict. Magic flowed from his fingers in a wave of tingles and light, gathered into her wound until there was nothing left but the sensitivity of freshly healed epidermis and then dissipated before it could flood the rest of her body.
“Yuffie took the mastered restore materia.”
The sudden rise of his voice startled her, but her nerves dissolved into an airless giggle. “Of course she did. Little sneak.”
Yet, the surreal tension did not pass; he did not release her hand. The leather of his glove slipped against the creases of her palm, settled warm and smooth against the arcing length of her love line as his fingers curled around her and lifted the appendage. Breath ghosted in rhythmic caresses across flesh normally sheltered beneath her gloves.
Silence bound the moment, a lone, fragile seam holding reality from a messy undoing. To break it seemed blasphemous, no matter the questions dancing half-formed on the tip of her tongue, but to abide it demanded more strength than she could offer.
Meaningless words trembled from her lips in a bid for distraction. "I-I, um, I got pretty banged up, didn't I?"
His answer was an instant of contact so slight that it may never have happened at all, lips against the pink newness of recently mended flesh. The dangerous edges of his left fingers slid up her forearm and she couldn't stop the wince that twitched across her face as they came upon another bruise. When he tugged at the black half-sleeve that covered her, she allowed him to pull it away.
"You wear them with such pride," Vincent murmured, rough and so low that the words were nearly drowned in the crackling of the fire. The tip of one claw cautiously outlined the remnants of a blow she had caught along the outside of her lower arm. "A testament to your strength. Your endurance."
"We all have them," came her nearly inaudible protest.
"You wear them with a smile. No matter the pain, you bear it with a smile."
Though it was still insubstantial as a lazy breeze, the kiss he brushed across this mark was unmistakably present. Warmth whispered across her nerves and sank beneath her skin where it washed the hurt away in a swirl of glittering green sparks.
He sat back and dragged his gaze to hers with an unspoken question in the set of his brow. His usual mask of impassivity slipped just enough that she could faintly read the timidity, the anticipation of rejection lurking in the red of his eyes.
Shock paralyzed her, mentally and physically, and when her brain lurched back into action she immediately found herself trying to understand his motives. Lust? Loneliness? She'd been on the receiving end of such stares many times, and while there were fragments of both present, something greater was burning there before her.
Memories forcefully intruded her stupor and she thought back to all the times he had looked at her this way. Times when she had been sweating, dirty, panting, fresh from a fight and sporting shades of black and blue that she had earned while eagerly rushing her assailants. Times when she was still grinning in the thrall of adrenaline or forcing a smile to tired lips because no one else could muster the will or the energy to do so.
The idea that the ever-stoic Vincent Valentine admired her seemed so absurd that it nearly pulled laughter from within her chest. The initial amusement was dwarfed by disbelief.
They had never carried on a conversation for more than a few minutes at a time. She’d only known him a handful of months, and during that time had watched him carry tragedy like a cross hefted upon his back while she carried hers in the quiet confines of her heart. The hidden scars it gave them were at least partially tied to a pair of unwitting heartbreakers from which they both had yet to fully untangle themselves. In five days a clump of burning rock would destroy them, if a maniac and his blade had not already done so by then.
At some point, Red XIII was going to come back to camp.
The shadows had grown thick between the surrounding trees and the air shimmered, hazy with heat and frolicking light that wove a spell of intimate secrecy. The world outside their clearing, with all its logical reasons for why this moment shouldn’t happen, just didn't seem to matter. Not just then, not with him kneeling before her with vague offerings of things she'd never had.
His hand started to withdraw from beneath hers and that peculiar stare had fallen away again. He had taken her silence as her answer.
"Wait." With a shuddering sigh she pushed the hair from his face and cupped his cheek. "I've still got pain that needs easing."
He paused long enough that she thought he might be changing his mind, but he slowly took her hand again, found the next bruise banding half of her bicep, and let magic flow through his lips.
Vincent tended both of her arms this way, each phantom press of his mouth a tease against hyper-alert senses, each shot of ancient power a thrill buzzing in her veins. He found a scrape along her collar bone, took it with a swipe of his tongue that loosed a whimper from her throat. Then he was nuzzling along her jaw, where a right-hook from a Shinra soldier had never quite stopped aching, and his breath at her ear forced a shiver along her spine. Thought fled her mind. Blindly, she turned her head and sought his lips with her own. He froze.
She couldn't have imagined that this was a boundary she needed to fear crossing after so many others had been crossed, but he was rigid against her. His eyes flared wide, surprised, as if it had never occurred to him that she might kiss him, or even want to.
The idea of backing away with an apology drifted into her thoughts. It might be better if whatever was budding between them ended before it had the chance to truly come to fruition. It would be the sensible decision.
Tifa shut her eyes and pushed insistently into the touch. Sensible choices be damned this night; closeness was a craving now, and she was tired of running from fights.
He relaxed into it in increments until he was willing to follow the shifting pressure of her movements, until he was ready to cast his doubts aside with a drag of his tongue along her bottom lip.
He tasted like ether, like light and energy and incantations in a long-dead language, and though she knew no other kiss would ever be like this, she wanted to do it again and again, after all traces of magic had faded, until meteor or Sephiroth or both saw them parted. His body fit well with hers, between the spread of her legs, the way her hands fit snug into her favorite red leather gloves. She didn't know where they were going, didn't care. When he wrapped his arms around her, lifted her, deposited her in the grass, her body was a thing of hopeless longing.
It burned, the way he looked at her. The way he drew every inch of her, prone beneath him, into his memory. She fully expected to be ravished into the dirt, wanted it despite the discomfort and fatigue that still wracked her form, but he wasn't willing to overlook her injury as she was.
The removal of her socks and shoes gave them the span of several breaths to calm themselves before his mouth was gliding along the trembling muscles of her abdomen. His hands traced her sides lightly, every touch taunting. He forged a damp trail to her navel and her hips bucked, pleading where her words were ruined by needful gasps.
Vincent shifted lower and her flesh rose in goose bumps as his excited exhalations journeyed down her legs. The tips of his human fingers kneaded the tense muscles of one calf while he settled for merely cupping the other with his gauntleted hand. His tongue snaked briefly into the hollows behind her knees and she squirmed helplessly, captive to purposeful torture that was too sensual to be soothing and too gentle to be sating.
There was one final contusion marring the back of her left thigh where she'd been shoved into a rocky outcropping during battle. On any other night she would've been embarrassed by the sort of maneuvering required for him to reach it and the sort of view that it afforded him. As it was she only grinned as he growled into her firm musculature. His nose skimmed the minor injury before he tasted it with lips and tongue so maddeningly close and the magic penetrated deep in powerful, heated tingles.
She became trapped, cresting but never breaking, holding fast to pleasure that was neither purely physical nor purely sexual. Frustration brought the sting of wetness to her eyes, but it was the rain of soft kisses over the tops of her thighs and her knees when it was finished that finally pushed her over the edge. Tears slithered one after another from beneath her eyelids, dragged forth by the silent sobs shaking her body. The fist that had been clenching her heart for months loosened. Someone cared. Someone cared about the bruises and the scratches, about the lies behind the smile. Someone cared about the strength she had nurtured out of necessity to carry it all.
He was at her side, rubbing the salty slickness from her cheeks before she could calm herself. "Did I hurt you?"
The concern in his voice only struck at the unguarded soft spot in her heart again. She responded with wet, snuffling chuckles. "Not at all," she murmured. "You... you were..."
When words proved useless, she tangled her hands in his hair and pulled him down for another long kiss. He returned it with a tenderness that twisted her insides.
Vincent left her only long enough to unpack their sleeping bags and then they twined together atop the thin padding, beneath the drape of his heavy cloak. Tifa's head fit nicely in the crook of his shoulder, face against his neck. Speaking seemed a frightful taboo; it would bring about questions, explanations, and other such practicalities. Still, Tifa could not resist one small, whispered inquiry as they idled together in the gray spaces at the edge of sleep.
“Are you afraid?”
The kiss he pressed into her hair was such a vague sensation that she might’ve dreamed it in her state of semi-consciousness.
Five days. Tifa added a new reason atop her pile of others to pray for a sixth.
As she drifted off to pleasant dreams, a grinning Red XIII slunk out from the line of trees and quietly made his bed by the sputtering fire.