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Tifa always hated having to do things like this; but she knew she'd hate the consequences of inaction even more.

 

“Alright, buddy, I said outside!” Before the target of her ire could manage more than a muffled grunt of surprise, Tifa's hands were buried in the rough, stiff fabric of his work shirt, and she hauled him away from the table full of girls from the hospital with a neat pivot of her hip.

 

What the fuck you think you're--”

 

Shifting her grip to his collar, she propelled him before her with a straight-armed shove. Wandering patrons quickly hustled out of their way as she marched him resolutely towards the exit, and she carefully pitched her voice to carry over the thump of the jukebox and the dull roar of conversation, now peppered with cheers and catcalls as customers became aware of the floor-show. “You've been told and told about this,” she said disapprovingly. “You can't act like that in here!”

 

One of the waitresses spied her predicament, and hurriedly scuttled forward to haul the door open for her, which was just as well, for her captive was overcoming the shock of her abrupt interruption of his evening's entertainment. She got him over the jamb without a struggle, but he rounded on her as soon as she released him, his movements not as hampered by drink as she might have hoped, not with a surly, belligerent look on his face like that. “You can come back next week if you can figure out how to behave yourself,” she said, “but I don't want to even think I see you until then.”

 

She saw the way his feet shifted on the weathered, sun-bleached boards of the deck, and knew she'd gone too far; she'd never really gotten the hang of conflict resolution. She had only ever figured out one sure fire way to defuse situations like this, but it was never one she hastened to employ, and particularly not these days, when Edge was finally starting to see some regular police patrols again. With an internal sigh, she braced herself for the fallout from her patron's wounded dignity.

 

I dunno what the fuck you think's so special about this god damn dive you need to get all up in people's faces when they're just having a good time, there's a dozen different—”

 

Not bad. “Then maybe you ought to go to one of those,” she said reasonably. “Not here. Not now.” She swept her hand expansively around the deck that fronted the tavern, gesturing to the battered old stools that dotted it. “You can even sit out here, and I'll call you a cab.”

 

Like I need your fucking permission!”

 

Buddy, you need to get going. I'm not discussing this with you.”

 

There he went. She dodged the punch easily enough, but he was stronger and faster than even she'd been expecting; the reconstruction efforts had drawn all sorts of interesting characters into town, but this fellow obviously had a background. She caught his fist in both hands and forced it straight back, hoping that would communicate the realities of the situation to him, and raised her hands in what she hoped was a non-threatening fashion as he caught his balance. “I'm not angry,” she said softly. “I'm just not doing this. And you're not doing it here.”

 

His expression was mingled shock and anger, and she knew she was in for it. It was one of her biggest problems on the job: there were too many men in the world that just wouldn't take directions from a woman seriously. She wondered, as she always did, if what was about to take place could be considered as striking a blow for feminism.

 

He came in low, as they so very often did, trying to bull her over with his greater height and weight, never seeming to realize that the narrow rails on the deck were specifically placed to render it a moot point. She stepped aside; stepped aside again; shoved him; caught both of his forearms with steely force. “You really, really need to get going,” she hissed through gritted teeth, scarcely out of breath.

 

She wasn't expecting the head butt. The sharp, shearing pain across her brow bone was more insult than injury, and she finally decided she'd had enough. Usually she tried to string it out a little bit, let them feel they'd given as good as they'd gotten, walk away with their pride relatively intact; this guy, with his clever little street-fighting antics, had just bought himself an express ticket out of her life. She could feel the eyes on her back as she rolled her shoulders and slammed her bicep into his chest; best to get this over with before she attracted much more of an audience. Hooking her fingers into his belt loops, she let the momentum carry him up against the railing, and with a slight lift at his waist, sent him tumbling over onto the cracked pavement a few feet below.

 

You fucking bitch!”

 

You can still walk away,” she told him, leaning over to inspect the damage. He was already scrambling to his feet. “Just get going.”

 

FUCK YOU!” He clambered upright and shook himself.

 

You come back up those stairs and you're trespassing. I'll lay charges.”

 

That seemed to penetrate the haze of machismo and alcohol currently clouding what she charitably assumed was his better judgment. He stood, arms still raised aggressively, and glared at her so fiercely she felt a moment of gratitude that looks couldn't actually kill, but she met him stare for stare, the weary implacability of the footsore bartender proof against all but the most apocalyptic problems a busy weekend crowd could bring with it. With a final obscene gesture, he spun on his heel and stalked off into the slowly lightening darkness.

 

Tifa watched him for long enough to assure herself that he wasn't going to try anything cute before turning back to the onlookers she assumed were there; sure enough, the waitress and several interested customers were peering out at her expectantly. “No problems,” she said with forced good cheer, raising her hands. “Just a jerk. I'll be in in a minute.”

 

The waitress shot her a dubious look, but gently herded the curious patrons back inside. Tifa felt a momentary stab of guilt at being unable to recall her name; there was so much turnover due to the reconstruction boom it was hard to keep track of the new faces, but this girl seemed like she had a good head on her shoulders. Tifa gave her a reassuring smile, which earned a nod of acknowledgment before she hauled the door shut behind them.

 

She turned back to the railing with a sigh, leaning forward once more to ease the crick in her lower back. It was still easy to pick out her erstwhile opponent as he scythed his way through the sparse late-night crowds, his shoulders hunched and his fists balled into his pockets. She always felt awful when things got that out of hand, as they did more and more often these days. The rowdier types drawn in by the promise of handsome wages for construction work were as entitled to a good time as anyone else, but she'd always done her best to run a relaxed, if not exactly quiet, establishment. The nurses and relief workers were just as entitled to a night out, without the fear of being sleazed on by the likes of that.

 

She straightened, fisting her hands in the small of her back as she stretched, her eyes still following the departing troublemaker. Her forehead still smarted from the blow, but she needed to do her best not to let it spoil the rest of the night; all she needed was to gut it out a little longer, and she could fret in peace and privacy. With a sigh, she turned to make her way back inside, but cast one last glance over her shoulder before she did so... and stopped dead as she saw a bulky red figure hastily sidestep her recent nemesis.

 

It couldn't be. It couldn't be. But her jaw dropped as she watched Vincent Valentine pause to regard the rapidly retreating figure he had just dodged, then continue on his way with a slight shrug. She hurried back to the railing, peering into the uncertain light in disbelief, but there was now no mistaking the familiar figure making its way towards her. Baffled delight fizzled within her, and before she realized what she was doing, she had cupped her hands around her mouth. “Vincent! Hey! Vince!”

 

He paused again, and his head swiveled towards her with his usual uncanny precision. She raised one arm to wave excitedly at him, and was pleased when he raised his arm in a gesture of acknowledgment; even more pleased when he promptly cut across on a diagonal and began heading towards her.

 

A happy grin spreading over her features, it was all she could do to keep herself from vaulting the railing and running out to meet him; but she settled for hurrying down the stairs once he'd crossed the street. “Vincent! Hi!” He paused to regard her, something a little dubious in the set of his shoulders, but it didn't stop her from throwing her arms around him in a loose embrace of welcome. “It's so good to see you!”

 

She could feel him stiffen at her exuberant greeting, and realized that she'd managed to trap his arms beneath his cloak as he patted her elbow awkwardly. “Hello,” he responded evenly, looking down at her with a bemused expression.

 

Tifa stepped back abruptly, reaching up to tuck her bangs behind her ears as a cover for the blush she was certain was spreading across her cheeks. “Sorry, I just... I mean, it's been so long! What are you doing here?” Her brows drew down at the sudden realization of what must have drawn Vincent out of his habit of solitude; all she needed to complete her day was an impending holocaust. “Is everything okay? Is... did something happen? Do we need to...?”

 

He shook his head slowly, and something in the tone of his voice made her wish she could see his mouth as he spoke. “You asked me to come.”

 

“I... did! I just didn't think...” She shrugged. “You might've taken me up on it sooner,” she continued with a smile. “Can't blame me for assuming the worst, when you're such a stranger.”

 

He snorted. “Your personal gore crow.” He shook his head again. “If it's a bad time...”

 

“No, no!” she hastened to assure him. “I'm happy to see you – obviously! I just wasn't expecting you. We're still open for a little while yet; do you want to come in for a drink?” She stood on tiptoe and peered over his shoulder, as if expecting to find further company lurking in his shadow. “Have you got Shelke with you? I think we can make an exception for her.”

 

His eyes crinkled with what might have been a smile. “Just me. But I would like that.”

 

Her fingers interlaced of their own volition, her knuckles much more willing to communicate their tension than the rest of her. “Well, come on,” she said, tossing her head towards the entrance. He nodded for her to precede him, so she hesitantly led the way. “It's, you know, a bar. On the weekend. Noisy. Crowded. Kind of stupid.”

 

“I am not unfamiliar with the phenomenon,” he said, as he reached past her to open the door.

 

The crowd seemed to have largely settled back down, though she was greeted with a grateful high sign from one of the nurses she had lately rescued. Yet as she led Vincent through, she was a little disconcerted by the way conversations abruptly halted, only to pick up with renewed energy as they passed.

 

It was easy enough to forget in the daily hustle, since the locals had largely grown used to she and Cloud, but none of the old group were without a certain reputation. She sincerely hoped that none of her patrons drew the same conclusion she had initially come to at Vincent's appearance or, even worse, decided to try their luck against the celebrated gunslinger, as they so often had with her in the early days. Her frequent customers were well aware of just what a dim view she took of weapons in her place and, even more importantly, how emphatically she would express her feelings if she discovered one, but that didn't mean some bright boy wasn't going to try.

 

A quick glance revealed that Vincent seemed largely oblivious to it, though, so she did not bother to make a comment until they had bulled through the press surrounding the bar and made it to the relative solitude of the waitress gate. “I'd send you upstairs with Cloud, but I'm afraid you just missed him,” she said as she flipped the portcullis open and stepped behind the bar, sliding her own stool out for him. “You'll probably want to stay here.”

 

“The natives seem restless,” he agreed, the sweep of his gaze taking in the numerous faces now eagerly watching them for signs of incipient heroics.

 

Tifa bit her lip; it was shoddy hospitality, but she couldn't imagine he was appreciating the scrutiny. “I could maybe throw someone out of a booth for you,” she offered, scanning the sides of the room for openings. “Or maybe the office, if you just want to relax. I can bring you something back and sit down for a few minutes.” She shrugged helplessly. “I'm sorry, it's just...” She swept a hand to indicate the mostly amiable chaos engulfing the room.

 

“That might be best.” He raised a hand to indicate the narrow hallway to their right, and she nodded.

 

“Past the toilets, but not the last door, that's the cellar.” She beckoned him to bend down and braced her elbows on the bar, leaning forward for a vague approximation of privacy. “Just lift the knob and twist it really hard; the lock's never worked,” she admitted sheepishly. “I'll be back in, like, two minutes, okay?”

 

He nodded and turned without another word. It was only as she saw the last scarlet shreds of his cloak disappear around the corner that she realized she hadn't bothered to ask him what he wanted.

 

Great.

 

She could have kicked herself; the man finally crawled out of his hole, and the best she could do was hustle him off into a glorified broom closet. She sighed, ran her hands through her hair, and then clapped them together in front of her. Stressing about it wasn't going to fix the faux pas; she just needed to get the immediate fires put out, and then she could go apologize as graciously as she could manage.

 

But as was so often the case, plans, even ones as simple as that one, tended not to survive contact with the enemy. The barback had drastically misunderstood the importance of precision when attaching a new carbon dioxide canister to the keg stand, resulting in a truly spectacular amount of foam to wade through behind the bar, and leaving the other two bartenders very deep in the weeds as they attempted to keep up with orders despite the almost total lack of potable beer. Tifa had the new kegs up and had swabbed out a respectable quantity of suds when voices raised in a scuffle required her to go over and scowl ominously at the disagreeable parties until they realized the error of their conflict. By the time she made it back to her station, a crowd of garrulous students had swarmed in to beat last call, every single one of them wanting some sort of time-consuming, sticky mixed drink.

 

Smiling rather fixedly as she gave serious thought to insisting that their blender was broken, so sorry, her hands darted beneath the bar and came up bearing a trio of bottles each. She earned an appreciative whistle as she upended all six at once over the glasses the barback had set up for her, and struggled to keep the smile from turning into a smirk. She often felt she was being a little disrespectful of her hard won hand-strength and agility when she did things like this but, cheap as it might be, it was still a good trick, and it would get this over with sooner than later. Then she could go see Vincent, make her apologies, hope that she hadn't completely turned him off the idea of visiting ever again--

 

--hey!”

 

Her hips barked painfully against the edge of the bar as the ungainly weight slammed into her back, and she scrambled desperately to keep from sending the glasses skittering over the other side. The bottles held high at her shoulders spoiled her center of balance too much; something was about to shatter on the floor--

 

--until a pair of hands grabbed her forearms and yanked them upwards, giving her enough momentum to stagger back and flip the bottles upright, sugary, unnaturally colored alcohol slopping down her wrists. The watching youngsters applauded as, baffled, she realized that cool metal was biting into her right arm, and she was looking into Vincent's alarmed face.

 

“Good save!” someone crowed, and she burst into laughter as she gently pulled free of Vincent's grip and set the bottles down. One of her coworkers was already apologizing, a tentative hand laid on her shoulder; the slippery mess on the floor had sent him crashing into Tifa's back as she poured.

 

Mats. She'd have to put down mats, just in case this ever happened again.

 

“It's okay!” she assured him hurriedly, then turned back to Vincent, grabbing bottles to pour more judiciously as she did so. “If you at all doubted that your timing was impeccable, you just saved me somebody's dry cleaning bill,” she informed him with a wink.

 

He nodded carefully. “I had no idea your profession was so... kinetic.”

 

She laughed again as she switched bottles. “Oh, you know how it goes; everything is fine and normal until you need it to be.” She slid a pair of glasses to the waiting server and started on the next set. “I really didn't mean to lock you up in the office, things just got... kinetic. ” Slide. Next set. “This is awful. I'm a terrible hostess. But I swear we're just about done with the hard part here.”

 

He shook his head. “I came unannounced.”

 

She set the bottles back on their shelf decisively. “Let me at least get you that drink I promised. What'll you have?”

 

Vincent raised the back of his right hand to his face and sniffed it; Tifa's eyes widened in amazement as he tentatively licked it. “This should be fine.”

 

She blinked in dumbfounded confusion; then it clicked. “Oh!” She blushed furiously, and fumbled beneath the bar for a stack of napkins to thrust at him; she hadn't realized the spouts had dribbled that badly. She snatched one for herself to dab at the stickiness on her forearms. “I'm, I mean, I--”

 

He shook his head once again, but he was smiling faintly this time. “Vodka would not come amiss.”

 

“Sure, let me--”

 

“When you have a moment.”

 

Embarrassed and unaccountably piqued, she whirled around and scooped up a shotglass in the same movement she snatched a bottle from the top shelf. She poured three fingers of liquor into it, managing to spatter her hand in her haste—she never did that—and set it in front of him decisively. “Just bear with me, please,” she entreated, “we're almost done.” He raised the glass in salute, and she spared a moment to marvel at his forbearance before she turned away, clapping her hands sharply above her head as she did so. “ ALRIGHT, FOLKS, LAST CALL! COME ON IF YOU'RE COMING!”

 

The ensuing rush was enough to capitalize most of her attention, but she couldn't help stealing the occasional glance at Vincent as she filled her orders. He'd divested himself of his cloak and bandanna, presumably in the office; in head to toe black, his hair falling loosely over his shoulders, his sleeve pulled down over his golden arm, he was almost inconspicuous--which was exactly the point, she realized. She could have done without the pistol strapped to his thigh, but he leaned against the bar in such a way that she only saw it because she knew to look for it... and she didn't exactly feel she was in a position to chastise him for it, regardless. He seemed content enough to watch the crowd, which seemed content enough to give him his space, so she resolutely pushed the guilt from her mind and set about thinning the herd.

 

The last rush was always the worst but, after what seemed like an eternity of pulled taps and hastily polished glasses, the bar was finally cleared. Happily enough, most of the crowd had merely sought one more for the road; as she toweled her hands dry, she was pleased by the small number that had chosen to stick around and nurse their beers. They ought to be easy enough to shoo out in half an hour or so.

 

Tossing the towel over the lip of the sink, she rolled her shoulders to ease their tension as she ambled back over to Vincent. “It's a living,” she said with a shrug. She extended a foot to drag her stool over before she realized she'd given it to him, and settled for balancing her hip against a cooler. “So, what brings you?”

 

“I am just come from Midgar,” he responded. “I ended up with a layover, and thought...”

 

“I'm glad you did,” she said, once she realized that was all he intended to say on the subject. “But... Midgar? The reactors? Still?” She paused. “You are still with the WRO, right?”

 

He nodded, and drained his glass. “A few loose ends needed tidying. Corel, next.”

 

No kidding? That should be fun!” She laughed. “Well, nice, anyway; Cloud headed that way yesterday. We're hoping Barrett is just being super-precautious as usual, but, well... you know. Had no idea he'd called in quite so much cavalry, though! He hasn't sent Marlene up to stay with us, though, so he can't be that worried. You ought to be able to catch up with the guys.”

 

It was Vincent's turn to shrug. “It's a living.”

 

She snorted and shook her head. “He asked me to come, too, but with all of this, I can't get away.” She pointed to his glass. “Another one?”

 

“Fine.” He watched her curiously as she poured. “Do you miss it?”

 

She looked up, startled at the question; but Vincent had never been one to mince words. “Not really,” she said finally, setting the glass before him. “It's kind of nice having things like that be other people's problem for once. I mean, at least you guys are opting in this time.” Tifa smiled, a little surprised at how wistful she felt. “And besides, there's so much going on here, now... have you even been back, since the last time?”

 

“No. It seems much changed.”

 

“Yep!” She resumed her place on the cooler. “For one, we're an actual civilization now; we've got laws, government, the whole shebang. The elections were just two months ago; I can't believe Reeve didn't tell you!” She giggled at the recollection. “He wasn't running, of course, he's busy with the WRO, but he was nearly elected mayor anyway; people were writing in for him in droves.”

 

His mouth quirked. “He must have had a fit.”

 

Well, I don't know about that... but he did have to write a very carefully worded letter to the newspaper about it.” She deftly stepped aside as the mop slid past her feet; the barback was fighting the final engagement against the slop on the floor. “It was nice to see him get some recognition, though, even if it was like that. He's really done wonders for everyone since the Crisis, and it's good to see that people realize it.” She shook her head. “Hard to believe I wanted to kill him, once upon a time.”

 

“We got it back. He had his reasons,” Vincent said, raising his glass; it stopped halfway to his mouth. “Join me?”

 

Oh... I really shouldn't,” she murmured automatically, but checked herself; if Vincent turning up at her doorstep and attempting to socialize wasn't a special occasion, she didn't know what was, and there had to be some advantage to being the boss. “Guys?” she called, turning to face her staff. “Can you just start closing on your own? We'll start chasing the stragglers in fifteen or so.” At the round of assent—not terribly grudging, she was pleased to note—she grabbed the bottle and a fresh glass for herself. “C'mon,” she told Vincent, “let's get out of their way.”

 

He followed her to the isolated booth she chose, and slid in opposite her once she'd sat down. “Oof,” she sighed as she set her burdens down, “it is so nice to get off your feet at the end of the night.”

 

“I can imagine.” He grasped the bottle very carefully with his left hand, metal clinking lightly on the glass, and unscrewed it with his right, before switching hands to pour for her.

 

“Thanks!” He nodded. She sipped contentedly at the clear liquor, inordinately pleased at having ducked her responsibilities. “So... what else?” she mused, trying to think of news Vincent wouldn't be aware of and might possibly be interested in. “Well, I haven't got most of the kids any more. We had social services up and running before we really had a society to service—again, go Reeve!--and the new orphanage facility got finished almost four months ago.” She sipped again. “It's actually a really great set up, a wonderful building, and they're doing such great things with it. There's still too many live-ins, of course, but they're also operating it as a creche; free childcare for anyone working on the rebuilding, at least until they get the tax situation sorted out—that's probably going to be our next referendum. Not enough room to go around, naturally, but it's a huge help for more... normal people here.”

 

“Denzel?”

 

“Oh, he's still with me, of course!” Tifa's laugh was tinged with chagrin. “He's... actually there this weekend. The hours I keep, and with Cloud gone... they're having a lock-in this weekend, you know, they let them watch movies, sit up all night and giggle. He was really looking forward to it, and he hasn't called begging to come home, so...” She sighed. “I never thought I'd say this, but they grow up so fast!”

 

“Mmm. That must be different.”

 

Well... don't get me wrong, I don't regret a minute of it, and I wouldn't do a thing different if I had to do it again... but it's like I said earlier: it's nice having it be someone else's problem, for a change. I volunteer whenever I've got a moment, but I won't say it isn't a bit of a relief not to have all those little lives depending on me.She shook her head, leaning forward to set her glass down. “I'm sorry, here I am yammering on about... what have you been up to? How's Shelke?”

 

He shifted in his seat, folding his arms as he settled into the battered padding. “Fine, I think. She was with Shalua.”

 

“Oh.” Tifa snatched her glass back up to cover her embarrassment. “I hope... has there been any change?”

 

“None.” He frowned. “She is as well as can be expected. They both are.”

 

“Oh.” She spun the glass between her hands. “Is... everything else going alright with you guys?”

 

His brows drew down in puzzlement. “I presume so.”

 

She had a sudden suspicion that she'd either put her foot even more wrong than she'd initially realized, or that Vincent was very deliberately ignoring a situation he didn't wish to discuss. “You two just seemed so... close... I thought...”

 

He arched an eyebrow, lips twisted with quizzical humor. “I suspect you are laboring under a misapprehension,” he said finally.

 

“Oh, I didn't mean to imply—you just seemed—I mean, she's so much younger, but I thought, well, with her... her programming...” she trailed off helplessly. “I'm sorry. It's really nobody's business but yours. It's not like we're gossiping about you guys, or anything...”

 

Vincent surprised her with a short, deep chuckle. “It's... considerate of you. But no. We possessed certain similarities; that is all.” He smiled. “I have not actually seen her since she's taken residence. She prefers not to be out of doors.”

 

Tifa nodded sympathetically. “At least she's getting a chance at some kind of life now.” She bit her lip. “I just... oh!” She seized on the sudden recollection, eager for a change of subject. “Speaking of life! I know you haven't heard this yet!” Bounding to her feet, she hurried back to the bar, slipping past the waitress gate to rifle through the file folders stashed beneath the cash register. Riffling through them, she grasped the glossy sheets she sought and rushed back to Vincent, slapping them down in front of him. “Red and his wife just had another litter! Bugenhagen just sent me the photos two days ago. No, three!”

 

He spread the three pictures out on the table before him, bending over to inspect them carefully. “I'm amazed they let them be photographed before their eyes opened.”

 

“Well, he was really frightened the first time. I understand; Denzel and Marlene and... it's really scary, and he's under a lot more pressure than I've ever been.” She beamed as she leaned over to catch another glimpse of the orangey-brown fuzzballs curled against their mother's side. “But since the first pair didn't catch fire or explode, he's probably mellowing out. You learn to relax.”

 

Vincent tapped a claw on the knobby stub that capped the tail of one of the kittens. “I believe they are meant to catch fire.”

 

You know what I mean!” She smiled wistfully, propping her chin on her fists. “That's Keketi in the background of the second picture. They're getting so leggy!”

 

“And only four years old.” He shook his head wonderingly. “Nanaki is... fifty-one? And claimed youth only a handful of years ago. You would think their adolescence would last longer.”

 

I know!” She pouted. “I just hope I can get out for a visit while they're all still young enough to want petting. Red always gets so grouchy about that.”

 

“He isn't a housepet, Tifa.”

 

“He shouldn't go around being so soft and strokeable, then!”

 

Vincent looked up at her beneath his lashes, a secret smile playing around the corners of his mouth. “You're trying to touch his neck, his ears, his face...”

 

Tifa regarded him uncomprehendingly, taking in his muted amusement, and raised a hand to her mouth as realization dawned. “You're—you don't mean—has Red thought I've been coming on to him all these years?”

 

“I don't think he views it that way. But I can see why he might find it disconcerting.”

 

“I just...” She giggled, half-horrified. “I mean, he's... he's my friend, but... he's just a big kitty!”

 

Just?”

 

“Well, he never had any problem asking for help when he needed new feathers braided in--”

 

“Tifa?”

 

They both turned at the interruption; the new waitress stood a respectful distance away, looking mortified at her own presumption. “Sorry, you... you said fifteen...”

 

Tifa smiled reassuringly. “Of course I did!” She shot Vincent an apologetic glance. “I'm sorry. This is the last, I swear--”

 

“Go.” He waved her away.

 

Clearing out the last of the patrons, at least, went fairly easily, and exercised a skill she had honed to razor sharpness: a sodden night-shift worker wanting to linger over his beer had absolutely nothing on a seven year old boy angling to stay home from school. That done, she hopped onto a stool at the corner of the bar, hauled the two tip jars over, and began the business of sorting the tip-outs as the rest of the staff began putting up chairs, sweeping, and all the other miscellaneous housework closing down for the night entailed.

 

She stacked coins and shuffled bills with nearly mindless efficiency. She had gotten so practiced at cash-handling over the years she probably could have done even divisions merely by feel, but she still counted each bundle twice; she had seen some truly legendary feuds get started over a gil or two, and didn't want to risk anyone feeling slighted. After that, it was simply a matter of handing them out and wishing everyone a good evening.

 

She ambled back to the booth and plopped down, resting her temple against the heel of her hand. “Wanna do that again?” she asked with a toss of her chin at the bottle, then quickly straightened and snatched it before Vincent could reach out for it. “I'm sorry. I've been such a jerk.” She poured for herself, and topped him off out of habit. “It's just been one of those nights. I really am happy you came. Thanks for being so patient.”

 

He clinked his glass against hers. “You were busy.”

 

Cid's going to be so jealous when I tell him you were here. He was mad when you didn't turn up for Holy Day.”

 

“Cid can cope. Cid can come to terms with the fact that not all of us can cross the continent on a whim.”

 

“He would have come and gotten you, if you'd asked. Shera does mind-blowing barbecue.”

 

Vincent shrugged. “Busy.” He raised his eyes to scan the rafters, searching the room carefully. “I had no idea what effort such an establishment required.”

 

Tifa grinned. “Oh, I still have the trash, and the books, and the bank deposit, and... a whole bunch of stuff that can wait,” she amended hastily, laying a hand on his when he straightened. “Seriously. There's always something to be done, but nothing else that can't wait for an old friend.” She squeezed. “At least, I've been your friend for a long time.”

 

“I know.”

 

I admit, there were a lot of times in the early days when I wondered. You seem a lot happier now, though; I don't think you've scowled at me once tonight.” She giggled, retrieving her hand to cover her mouth as she did so. “I'm saying this after I've talked to you for, oh, maybe twenty minutes so far. I'm sorry.”

 

Vincent actually smiled for a moment before the glass obscured his mouth. She laced her fingers on the table in front of her, embarrassed. He picked at once of the monogrammed napkins with a claw. “Shouldn't it be the Eighth Heaven?”

 

She giggled again. “It almost was,” she said with a sigh, leaning back and stretching her legs out beneath the table. “And some day there's going to be a Final Heaven, preferably somewhere warm and sunny. I think I could handle Costa del Sol in my twilight years.”

 

He blinked. “Not planning on retirement?”

 

Oh, people like us never really retire, Vincent.” She nudged his foot with her own. “You even managed to skip out on getting old.” His face froze at that remark, eyes narrowed carefully, but she missed it as she turned to survey her domain. “But, yes, I really was going to name it that; seemed like a nice bit of continuity. We'd already started building when they first started salvaging in Midgar, and one morning, we came to the site to find the old place's sign leaning up against the foundation posts, just as nice as could be. You want to talk about continuity?” She smiled reminiscently. “Cloud swears he didn't do it, but... well. Couldn't turn a bit of providence like that down, could I?”

 

“Someone wished you well.”

 

“He'll never admit it...” She shook her head, unwilling to broach the subject further. “It's nice. A little normalcy. This place is so... I mean, we haven't even got insulation in the walls, everything had to go up so quickly. We still get puddles during bad storms.” She settled back in her seat. “You never did see the old place, did you?”

 

“Actually...”

 

She looked up sharply, struck by the sudden hesitancy in his tone. “Back then?” she asked softly. “I know it had been open for a long time before...”

 

He smiled briefly. “No. No.” He pursed his lips. “I... hope you'll take this the right way.”

 

She frowned. “What?”

 

He exhaled heavily through his nostrils. “I have been in Midgar lately, as I said,” he said slowly. “Things are much more accessible than they once were.” He reached down to fumble in one of his pockets. “I thought I'd... have a look. I also thought you... might like to have this back.” He carefully proffered his hand, fingers splayed.

 

She leaned forward cautiously, trying to make sense of the dull gleam of metal in his palm. She reached out and took one end of it, slowly lifting the string of beads into the light. “Oh,” she breathed.

 

“I wasn't looking... it was... well. I couldn't imagine why else something like that would be where I found it.”

 

She ran the necklace through her hands, the mold-marks on the cheap silver beads catching against her fingertips. It was a shoddy thing, really, just a tacky bit of costume jewelry, but it was the best she'd been able to manage, and it had been given so freely... “This was Jessie's,” she said, blinking back the tears that burned in the corners of her eyes.

 

“Oh.”

 

“She... she lent it to me.” She worked the beads through her fingers, touching each one, seeking some memory they might be able to impart. “I'd... told her about Cloud. You know. Girl talk.” She licked her lips. “And when he came in with Barrett, we... I didn't know what to do. I just... I never expected it.” Nine, ten, eleven, twelve... “She did, though. She thought it was sweet. Fate and destiny and... she gave me this. So I could be... pretty. Catch his eye. You know.” The laugh she forced ended in a stifled sob. “I never had the nerve to wear it. It seemed so... calculating. And then she, she...”

 

“I'm so sorry.” She looked up, and was wounded anew by the distress on Vincent's face, touched by the way his hand was still extended to her. “I thought... I didn't realize... it seemed like a trinket...”

 

No.” She seized his hand roughly, squeezing his fingers tightly. “No, this is... this is great, Vincent. Seriously. Thank you.” Unwilling to surrender the necklace, she released his hand to grab a napkin to blot at her eyes with, hating herself for falling apart like this. “I just never thought I'd... that's what makes me so mad.” She sniffled. “Nobody remembers them. Her and Biggs and Wedge and... I mean, I was just angry. They believed. They really cared, and they really were trying to help, they did the work no one else even dared to try, but now... we get noticed, we get thanked, they want to put up statues of her... and hardly anyone even knows their names.”

 

“Change that.”

 

“What?”

 

He leaned back, folding his arms. “If I still get sought for interviews, you must be inundated.”

 

“Oh, I don't... I don't speak to the media...”

 

“Start. Speak about them.”

 

“But I...” She swallowed thickly. “I just... how do you do that, really? Should I just call one of the reporters back and say I want to tell them about my friends? I try pretty hard to stay uninvolved with that kind of thing...”

 

“Yes. A gripping expose of the early years of AVALANCHE in Tifa Lockhart's own words ought to make the pull-out section.” He shrugged. “It's better than being unhappy about it.” Smiled. “Take it from me.”

 

Tifa laughed in spite of herself, propping her cheek on her fist as she set the beads down. “Pot? A Mr. Kettle calling?”

 

“If I may carry the metaphor that far, let us say that I am trying to burnish my shine.” He emptied his glass. “Shelke is collating Lucrecia's work,” he continued softly, “with some of the... new information I've... gathered. It should be out this fall.”

 

But that's... I mean, that's great news--”

 

“We cannot always give them what they wanted, or even what they deserved,” he told her seriously, “but that does not mean they need be abandoned.” He looked away, carefully examining the grain of the table top. “It does no good to brood. None.” The corner of his mouth lifted. “I have explored that concept to its depths.”

 

“Who are you, and what have you done with Vincent?” She giggled at his blank look. “I'm sorry. It's easier to laugh it off than to take you seriously, because you're making a lot of sense. It's just...”

 

“It's easier to give advice than to take it.”

 

She looked up at him, reaching up to brush a stray lock of hair out of her slightly swollen eyes. “I don't think we've ever talked like this,” she said. “It's nice.”

 

He flicked a finger against the bottle. “You've never sat up drinking with me.”

 

She snorted. “True. Very true.” She shot him a mischievous glance. “Is this what you and Cid used to get up to? Yuffie had some interesting ideas on the subject...”

 

“Yuffie needs a spanking.”

 

Okay, I'm not sure I'm up for your interesting ideas on the subject,” she said, and giggled even harder at his mortified expression.

 

“I meant--”

 

“I know, I know.” She patted his claw reassuringly, knuckling her eye with her other hand. “But I'm a little... could you excuse me for a moment?”

 

“Of course.”

She scooped the beads up and pocketed them as she rose, leaving Vincent with an awkward nod. As odd as the whole night had been, this was turning out to be a much more pleasant conclusion to it than even she'd predicted. The necklace was a light, tantalizing weight against her hip; that must have been why he'd come, she realized, and with the thought came a tricky mixture of embarrassment and pleasure. He couldn't have known , of course; the appalled look on his face at her outburst had spoken volumes. What had he said? A trinket. And he'd still come all this way to bring it to her. Taken advantage of the layover he'd mentioned, at least. It was still nice.

 

She found herself wondering how he'd come by it as she shouldered her way into the bathroom. She'd never had the heart to go and see the ruins for herself; the pitying look Yuffie had given her after they'd returned from the Crater, the subdued description of “not good” she'd given in response to Tifa's hopeful inquiries about Sector Seven, had said all that needed to be said. Most of her worldly possessions had been in the tiny basement apartment beneath the bar; her photos, her competition trophies, her father's sheet music... it had seemed better not to dwell on it, and so she had refused to allow herself to.

 

And now this.

 

Fresh tears stung the backs of her eyes, and she cursed herself for a fool as she ran the tap and splashed cold water on her face. The man goes this far out of his way—literally!-- to do her a good turn, and she responds by getting depressed and weepy; no wonder he was such a stranger. Rubbing her eyes tiredly, she resolved to do better; truth be told, she was having a lot of fun talking to him, if only for the novelty. She had never imagined being able to tease him without him clamming up and stalking off in response, and she suspected she'd learned more about his emotional state in the last hour or so than she had in all the previous years. Burnishing his shine, indeed. She was happy to help.

 

She tore off a bit of paper towel and dried her face, examining herself critically in the mirror. She looked... well, she looked as if she'd just washed up after having a bit of a cry. She felt better, anyway. Smiling shyly at herself, she tossed the debris into the wastebasket and headed back out--

 

--only to nearly crash into the opposing wall as her foot caught on an unseen obstacle. She swayed to her feet, and gritted her teeth in frustration when she saw what had caused it. Some one had decided that hauling the trash bags near the back door was an acceptable substitute for taking them out; four black bags crowded the hallway, and she was only amazed she hadn't tripped over them on her way in.

 

Peeking around the corner, she thought for a heartstopping moment that Vincent actually had stalked off in response to her crack about Yuffie, but the light gleamed faintly on his hair as he turned his head to inspect the posters behind the bar. The trash would only take a moment, and it would be one less thing to do before bed; he probably wouldn't realize she hadn't simply been in the bathroom.

 

Feeling guilty, she fisted her hands into the thin plastic and hoisted the bags. Crammed with the napkins, straw wrappers, fruit peels, and other effluvia a tavern generated, they weren't heavy, but they were unwieldy, and she bit off a growl of frustration when one of them snagged on the wall molding. Realizing that Vincent would probably—and quite rightly—be offended if he got the impression she was sneaking off to do chores, she simply let it drop; she could come back and disentangle it when her hands were free.

 

Dropping the rest of the bags at the back door, she quickly shot the bolts and opened it onto the chill and somewhat fetid pre-dawn alley. The dumpster lid was already open, something else she highly frowned upon, but she couldn't find it in herself to be too irritated as she quickly tossed the bags in. Hurrying quietly back down the hall, she eased the recalcitrant bag free of its mooring and soft-footed her way back to the alley, where she swung it up--

 

--and froze, dumbfounded, at the sight of the sickly orange flames that had begun to dance along the pile of trash.

 

The bag dropped from her nerveless fingers as her mind, hazed by alcohol and exhaustion, struggled to make sense of what she was seeing. Instinct kicked in as the first wash of heat hit her; she spun on her heel and pounded back down the hall.

 

“Tifa?”

 

“Hang on!” she called distractedly, skidding to a halt beside the waitress gate. She worked desperately at the fittings for a few precious seconds before yanking the fire extinguisher from the wall and charging back to the dumpster. Her hand was already fumbling with the release as she crossed the threshold, and she immediately directed the spray of quelling foam at the burning garbage. It died almost instantly, and she cudgeled her brain for an explanation as she worked the stream back and forth: a smoldering cigarette butt? Wouldn't it have happened sooner? How had it taken this long?

 

Her train of thought was abruptly derailed by something hard and heavy smashing into the base of her skull.

 

She cried out as she fell forward, but swept a leg out behind her as she did so, and connected sharply with something yielding that gave a rough grunt of pain. The extinguisher hit the ground with an echoing clang; something heavy hit the ground behind her like a sack of potatoes; her palms hit the pavement, and she bounced upright with a fluid grace that was spoiled by the arm that wrapped around her knees and hauled her backwards. She pinwheeled her arms for balance, realized it was a loss, and flung them behind her to break her fall--

 

--when another arm circled her waist and lifted her up. She heard the wet, meaty crack as the arm around her legs let go and she eeled around in her assailant's grip, ready to strike--

 

--and managed to refrain from belting Vincent in the face by a hairsbreadth.

 

He flinched back, releasing her, and she pulled her raised fists close to her collarbone in momentary dismay. An apology rose to her lips, but rather than voice it she whirled away, as he was already doing; they stood back to back, scanning for further dangers.

 

The dumpster still smoked gently, but did not seem to conceal any other attackers; her end of the alley was as empty and innocent as might be expected at this time of night. With a weary sigh she relaxed her stance, and turned to see who or what had just happened to her.

 

The face was hard to recognize at first, being somewhat obscured by the blood trickling steadily from its smashed nose, and her vision swam in time to the pulse of her throbbing headache. She squeezed her eyes shut, took a few deep breaths, and opened them again; much better. She crouched down beside the sprawled form; the face still wasn't ringing a bell, but the short, shaven hair, the stained, one-piece coverall...

 

It started as a slight shaking of her shoulders. She bit her lip to stop it trembling. She wrapped her arms around her midsection in an attempt to hold it in, but it was all to no avail. Before she knew it, she was seated on the pavement, laughing like a madwoman; giddy, half-hysterical peals that wracked her body. It was just that kind of night.

 

Vincent squatted down opposite her, eyeing her cautiously, but showing no inclination to interrupt. Finally, when her laughter had died down to breathless giggles, he ventured a comment. “Good time?”

 

She sputtered with renewed force, raising a hand to plead for indulgence. “He.. ah ha... he... hee hee... he was in here earlier,” she wheezed, clutching her ribs. “Got loud with some of the ladies, and I had to... hah!... show him the door. I guess he took that p-pretty s-s-seriously--” She gasped for breath, fighting to get the grim hilarity under control. “Oh, wow. Rising to her knees, she bent over to re-confirm that her erstwhile patron was still breathing; seemed in fact to be largely alright, save for the obvious consequences of having a large boot introduced to his face at a high rate of speed. She slapped her hands against her thighs with a sigh. “I'm going to have to call the cops.”

 

“Why?”

 

I can't just leave him here.”

 

“You've never had drunks sleeping it off back here?”

 

“He's hurt! And—I'll need to make a statement about what happened--”

 

Vincent shrugged. “He fell down. Or,” he added as he extended a claw to inspect one of the man's pockets, “he got mugged.”

 

“Vincent!” She clapped a hand to her mouth to stifle another onslaught of giggles. “We can't just take his wallet!”

 

“Why? He owes you a fire extinguisher,” he said mildly, continuing to rifle through pockets.

 

Still trying to restrain her laughter, she slapped his hand away. He subsided with a wicked grin, settling back on his haunches. He regarded the fallen man for a moment, then very ostentatiously turned to regard the narrow lip of the dumpster.

 

“He wouldn't fit!”

 

“He would if I broke his collarbone a few times.”

 

Vincent!” She levered herself to her feet and cuffed him on the shoulder. “Come on in. I don't trust you out here with him.” She softened the statement with a grin, but she had the sudden suspicion that he wasn't kidding as much as she might have liked to hope he was. “I'll tell them I was here alone,” she continued, as she ushered him back into the building. “I completely understand if you've had enough fun and games for the evening.”

 

“I don't understand,” he said, as she made her way behind the bar and stooped down to rummage beneath the cash register. “This man has apparently assaulted you twice now, and attempted to set fire to your premises. You needn't do him any favors.” He was peering at her with concern when she surfaced. “Are you... well?”

 

She set the plastic bottle on the bar with a rattle of pills, and fetched one from the back wall to go with it. “Oh, I'll be fine. Two aspirin and plenty of clear fluids.”

 

“I don't think they meant gin.”

 

“Says you.” She ran herself a glass of water to swallow the pills with, and added a healthy dollop from the bottle once she had. She sighed heavily, pressing the cool glass against her cheek. “Is there a full moon tonight? I mean, honestly.” Her head still throbbed, but the ache already seemed to be subsiding; she was almost as upset about having fallen prey to a sucker punch as she was about the actual pain. That might have gotten ugly had Vincent not, quite literally, stepped in.

 

She bit her lip as she looked up at him, unsure what to make of the muted distress he regarded her with. She'd be lucky if she ever saw him again, at this rate, and a gnawing sense of shame told her she'd already soaked up far more of his patience than she was entitled to. The poor guy had just wanted a quiet drink and a bit of catching up, and walked into the mess this evening had been instead; she couldn't even imagine how to go about smoothing this over... and she was too wrung-out to try. “I'm sorry,” she said tiredly. “You should probably get going.”

 

“I'd... like to see you home,” he said quietly. He arched an eyebrow. “Or take the first watch.”

 

She smiled, touched, as she reached over to drag the phone closer. “This will probably take awhile...”

 

He laid a hand over hers as she made to lift the receiver; she froze, startled, and was even more taken aback by the entreating look he gave her. “You don't need this now,” he said. “It can be someone else's problem.”

 

That's... really sweet,” she temporized. “I just... I can't just leave him out there.”

 

“Are you going to press charges?” His fingers were surprisingly soft, she realized, so light on her wrist his touch was barely perceptible.

 

“I haven't yet,” she admitted. “Seems silly to get people in such trouble over a little stupidity.” She shrugged. “I can deal with escalating stuff... I just don't like to.”

 

“You're not worried, then.” She supposed that made sense. He wore a glove most of the time; he probably wanted to look after the one he had left.

 

No, no.” She laughed humorlessly. “It's not a really bad night until somebody pulls a gun.” He tone softened. “Which I appreciate you refraining from, by the way.”

 

“So there's no need to see him incarcerated.” The thumbnail that trailed across the back of her hand elicited a surprising shiver. She was embarrassed by such a response to a simple shift of his grip.

 

“Not really, no. But he still needs to be looked at.” She shrugged. “I suppose...”

 

“Yes?”

 

She smiled shyly. “I suppose I could just... I could say I just saw something. Heard a noise, maybe.” Then she shook her head. “But I check those myself. And I bring the drunks in to wait until a squad can get around to picking them up.”

 

“So? Let them do their job for once.”

 

She bit her lip again, choosing her next words carefully. “Are you... worried? About the police?”

 

He snorted, squeezing her hand lightly before he withdrew. He drew breath as if to speak, then shut his mouth with a snap, shaking his head. She frowned, apprehensive at his reaction. “I mean... if you are worried...”

 

“About you,” he said shortly.

 

“But I--”

 

“Have had a filthy night, and don't need to waste time making statements to the police.” He spread his hands. “That's all. He's not worth it. And he won't dare tell them what really happened if he's half bright.” He paused. “On the off chance he remembers.”

 

Vincent...” Her voice caught in her throat. “I...” He was so frustrated, so dismayed. She preferred this to finding out he was on the run for some reason, but had just as little idea what to make of it.

 

“Do not let me sway you, if you feel you must. But...”

 

“That's... sweet of you, Vincent. Really, really, sweet.” She looked away, considering. Finally she exhaled roughly through her nostrils, lifted the receiver, and dialed.

 

Yes. Yes, hi, it's Lockhart, over at the Seventh Heaven. Yeah, thank you! Listen, I'm about ready to lock up over here, but I keep hearing some kind of, I don't know, clanging out back.” She turned back to Vincent and tipped him a wink. “I haven't seen anything out there, but I keep... yeah. Yes. Could you? That'd be really great. I just—yeah, you can't be, these days. Thank you so much! Sure. Okay. Bye!” She set the receiver back in its cradle decisively. “There. You'll have me playing hookey next.”

 

Vincent nodded in acknowledgment, folding his hands behind his back. “A little shirking can be good for the soul,” he said. “You're opting in.”

 

Her glass halted on the way to her mouth at the repetition of her own words. “I suppose you're right,” she said, after she'd taken a swallow. “Were you always this smart?” she asked teasingly.

 

He smiled briefly. “No.” His gaze flicked uncertainly around the room. “I can still go, if you wish.”

 

No! I mean, um, if you want,” she amended hastily. “You probably want to. I mean, I understand. I just, well... I'm having fun.” She smiled as winningly as she could. “Except for. You know. The not-fun parts.” She laughed in chagrin. “I'm so sorry. You didn't need all of this nonsense. I'm such a mess. It's not like this, usually. Often, anyway.”

 

He gave her a searching look, then stepped forward to perch himself on a stool. “I could send Cloud back tomorrow, so you could join us at the reactor.” He slid closer. “You might find it soothing.”

 

I might! No, except for the last bit, this has pretty much been a regular day at the office. I'll have to take you out on the town one of these nights, so you can see what happens when it really gets crazy.”

 

“I, ah. Hmm.”

 

She sniggered, polishing off her drink and turning to refill it at the sink. “Anything?”

 

“For me as well.”

 

She filled a second glass with water and made her way around the bar to take a place on the stool beside him. She lifted the bottle of gin and made as if to top his glass off, but he waved her away; she shrugged, and did her own. “More for me.”

 

They sat quietly for awhile, and Tifa found herself enjoying how companionable the silence seemed to be. Cloud had fallen into the habit of deliberately not noticing altercations in the bar. Barrett, back when they all still worked out of the bar, had had a tendency to put troublemakers through walls; the last time he'd come to visit, it had taken every ounce of speed she possessed to keep his helpful intervention from landing three people in the hospital. She couldn't exactly call a wounded man unconscious in the alley an improvement , but it was certainly less dramatic. He wasn't that badly hurt. Surgeons could do wonderful things with broken noses, these days.

 

“So... do you often get arson attempts?”

 

“No, no. Mostly they like to break bottles and slash at each other.”

 

“Colorful.”

 

“Funny thing.” She swirled her drink meditatively. “They tend not to smash in half, like you see on television. The shards--”

 

Vincent abruptly lifted a claw for silence, puzzling her; she hadn't thought such an anecdote could disturb a man who had been discussing breaking a foe's bones so as to better stash his body in apparent seriousness a few moments before. He pointed to the hallway and, straining her senses, she managed to make out the faint crunch of tires on gravel.

 

Guilty panic gripped her for a moment; the nagging realization that she could still head back there and explain what had happened—claim it had taken place after she'd called—just so happen to 'discover' him as they came up—

 

--and opt in.

 

She lunged across the bar, fumbled painfully beside the register, and palmed the switches, plunging the room into darkness. She felt Vincent straighten beside her, and flicked the one that brought the back lights up; if that showed from the outside, it would be only faintly. She felt a thrill of unease at her own misbehavior as she grinned at him, keeping her ears open for further sounds from the alley. They didn't typically get much traffic at this time of night, but on the off chance it wasn't the police, she could easily rush out there and break things up.

 

A slamming door. Footsteps. A long pause; long enough that Tifa began to grow anxious, the recollection of Vincent calmly going through his pockets slithering through her memory.

 

Then came the light rapping on the door. “Ms. Lockhart?”

 

Her shoulders sagged with relief. Vincent shot her a knowing look as the knocking came again.

 

Shit.”

 

She stifled a fresh outburst of hilarity at the aggravation in the visitor's tone, hugging herself tightly. She and Vincent sat quietly, listening carefully to the shuffling, dragging, and aggrieved mutters coming from outside until, finally, they heard the engine growl back into life.

 

“See?” he asked, with no little amount of smugness. “Handled.”

 

“Until they come back tomorrow to arrest me!”

 

“Tifa Lockhart, Crisis veteran and pillar of the community? Please.”

 

You're bad.

 

“I'm pragmatic.” He shifted uncomfortably. “I... was sincere about seeing you home. To a cab, at least.”

 

“That sloshed, am I?” She took another swallow and eyed him challengingly.

 

“You seem as if you've had a tiring evening, which I doubt being hit in the head improved.”

 

She propped her chin on her fist with a sigh. “I appreciate it,” she said, “but I'm still upstairs. I think I can manage the staircase by myself.” She shot him a sidelong look. “You really can get going, if you want.”

 

“I don't wish to keep you.”

 

“Then how about we both pretend we're telling the truth and stop worrying about putting the other out?” She chuckled. “I admit, I'm being selfish.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“It's kind of interesting having someone try to look after me... and you're about the last person in the world I expected to.”

 

“Oh.” He shrugged. “What are friends for?”

 

“Indeed.” She idly trailed a finger through the tracks left by the glass, suddenly uncertain. “Not like it's the first time, now that I think on it.”

 

“Quite the other way around, as I recall.”

 

What?” she almost squawked in surprise. “You mean... but that's just tactics! You weren't going to get a whole lot of shooting done if you were busy getting dogpiled!”

 

“Nevertheless.”

 

“And, anyway, it was in all our best interests to keep you from getting smacked around too much.” She sat up, rueing her incautious tongue. “Not that... I mean...”

 

“Those were interesting days.”

 

“That's one way to put it.” The silence drew out between them, not as welcoming as it had been. “Does that... still happen?” she asked hesitantly.

 

“Yes.” He finished his water. “Some of it.”

 

“I don't mean to pry...”

 

“Of course you do.” He smiled, albeit a wry one. “I'd rather you speculated about that than Shelke.”

 

Oh!” She ducked her head, blushing. “I didn't mean... I certainly didn't have a problem with the idea. It was... nice, actually.” She tucked her bangs behind her ears. “You've had a pretty tough go of it. It was nice to think of you being happy with someone.”

 

He was silent, and still in that practiced way that suggested it took concentration. “I can't fault you for that,” he said softly.

 

I... I'm sorry. I'm emotional and grumpy and taking it out on you.” She spun her glass between her hands. “I guess I do miss it,” she admitted. “This is... this is great, you know? This is everything I thought I ever wanted. But it's so much harder than it used to be... and it seems like it adds up to so little. People get their beer, idiots get a second chance, Denzel gets to enjoy being a kid... well, Denzel is a totally different story. But the rest of it... we were doing something, back then. And... there were some attractions to tromping through the wilderness and crashing at inns. Different responsibilities.”

 

“I wouldn't know a thing about that.”

 

She snorted. “I suppose you wouldn't. You could at least get a box at the post office, you know.”

 

“Why? I have the phone now.”

 

“Yeah? Are you going to start answering it when I call you?”

 

He paused to think about this. “Probably.”

 

“You're honest, at least.”

 

“I try.”

 

“I could barely believe it was you when I saw you across the street tonight. I mean, really. You always turn up in a pinch, but I was starting to think...” She sighed morosely. “So, instead of enjoying your company, I drag you into a maelstrom of chaos and anarchy, and polish it off by whining at you.” She leaned forward, burying her fingers in her hair. “I'm really not winning here, am I?”

 

“I don't mind.”

 

“...really?”

 

The hand settling onto the bent curve of her neck was a shock, but the firm, steady pressure it exerted felt so good on tense, taut, muscles, it did not occur to her to flinch. She sighed happily, instinctively arching into it as Vincent began to knead. “Really.”

 

That's great,” she mumbled indistinctly, bracing her elbows against the bar as he obliged by rubbing harder. “You're... mmf...” She had reached the weary state of exhaustion where her entire skin felt a fraction too tight, and the merest brush was pleasant; this was nigh euphoric; but at the same time... “You're rubbing my neck.”

 

His knuckles brushed against the sore spot at the back of her head, and she winced unconsciously. His palm slipped down the back of her neck, cupping the curve of her shoulder. “I'll stop.” But he did not remove his hand.

 

“Far be it from me to turn down a massage.” She laughed nervously. “But this is, um...” Something niggled at her, some recollection beyond the inherent weirdness of the situation. “...petting?”

 

“Mmhmm.” He stroked her lightly behind the ear, his fingertip leaving a delighted trail of flesh in its wake.

 

“Not just a big kitty, then.”

 

“...no.” He traced his thumbnail across the curve of her jaw, and she could not repress the shiver it brought. “Are we... having a misunderstanding?”

 

“Oh, Vince.” She exhaled slowly. “This is, um... this is huge.” She licked her lips. “I mean... I never...”

 

His touch withdrew, as insubstantial as her response seemed to be, now that she'd spoken it. “I'm sorry. I had to know.”

 

“No, I...” She straightened and turn to face him, bringing her knee into contact with his, which she certainly hadn't intended; but she was not going to embarrass them both by scooting away. Hands folded in his lap he looked, if anything, sheepish; not quite able to meet her gaze. “This is just so sudden.”

 

“So much for my impeccable timing,” he said lightly.

 

Not long on romance, are you?” She could have bitten her tongue as soon as the words escaped, but he surprised her by laughing, actually laughing. She wasn't sure she'd ever heard more than a soft chuckle out of him before, and the deep humor in it both unnerved and pleased her.

 

“I mostly abandoned the idea once I'd managed to make you cry,” he admitted, “and finding out you think I'm a pedophile nailed the lid on that mostly shut.” He gestured to the hallway. “But I figured your night couldn't get any worse.”

 

She bit her lip, the realization of just how badly she'd bungled things striking like a hammer blow; whatever he saw in her face spurred him to reach out to comfort her, but he checked himself. The short, painful finality of that aborted gesture was too much; she took his hand between both of hers. “Oh, Vincent.” She tightened her grip when he attempted to pull away. “I thought you were just being nice!”

 

“I was.” He smiled briefly. “I thought it might go over better than flowers.”

 

“Why didn't you say anything?”

 

“We were rather busy at the time.” He met her gaze for the first time, a fond look in his eye. “There is much to be said for a beautiful woman who can get up laughing after being spit on by a marlboro.”

 

“A...?” She swallowed as the enormity of that sunk in. “All this time?”

 

He shrugged. “Surprise.”

 

She smiled, squeezing his hand, and his expression took on a wistful tinge. Her mind raced, still barely able to come to terms with the idea, and the realization that most of the years they'd known each other needed to be looked at in a different light was staggering. “But you never...”

 

“You never seemed interested. And I was... not in a good frame of mind.” He looked down at their entwined hands, his jaw set. “Cid had told me... what had happened with... that's why I didn't come, that day.” His hair swept forward to obscure his features, but his tone left no doubt as to his feelings on the subject. “The last time I tried something like that... well.” He raised his eyes, seeming to peek out at her from behind his bangs. “I... hope you take it as a compliment, at least.”

 

Tifa's breath caught in her throat, her heart aching for him... for both of them. “You have no idea how much I do.” He was shy , so much so that he'd nursed his affection in secret for all these years, too frightened to reach out to her in even the slightest way. Yet he was still so devoted that even so much later, without the slightest hint of encouragement, he could grow that angry on her behalf.. and still refrain from giving any sign of it, for fear of discomfiting her.

 

She marveled at that, a little unnerved, but mostly awestruck. She'd never thought she'd ever inspire that depth of feeling in someone; had largely given up. To find out that she had, even in such an unexpected source... She flushed at the thought. He'd always been kind, on the occasions they'd spoken; to learn now that there was likely a very particular reason for the scarcity of his presence...

 

“Thank you for talking to me,” Vincent said softly, rising to his feet.

 

She quailed internally; of course he would have taken her immersion in her thoughts in the worst possible way. “Hey.” She pulled at his hand, refusing to let him turn away. “I... I didn't say no.”

 

He sighed roughly. “Tifa. Spare me a little dignity--”

 

Sit down, Vincent.” She looked up at him imploringly. “Please.”

 

He stood motionless for long enough that she was certain he was going to leave anyway, probably for the last time; another missed chance, another lost opportunity, more needless hurt for both of them. Then he very carefully lowered himself back onto the stool; poised as if for flight, but still there. Still touching her.

 

“You can't blame me for being a little out of it,” she said finally. It seemed safe.

 

“Your silence speaks volumes. Tifa--”

 

Yeah, it does,” she interrupted firmly, “to me.” She cupped his hand in hers, running her thumbs across the heel of his palm. “I was thinking. About how oblivious I've been, and for how long. About you. About... how different things could have been.” She grinned wryly. “Give me a little credit. Were you expecting me to leap into your arms?”

 

“No. But it's fairly--”

 

“We've been friends for a long time, Vincent...”

 

“I understand. So if you'll--”

 

“...so I think we can skip some of the preliminaries.”

His mouth drew down for a brief moment before his expression grew shuttered. “Is that the liquor or the concussion talking?”

 

She couldn't resist a tired laugh. “Ouch!”

 

“I don't want your pity, Tifa.” It was barely a whisper. “Anything but that.”

 

“You're not getting it,” she replied, just as quietly. “Remember... remember earlier, when we decided we were going to pretend we were each telling the truth? Could we keep doing that now?” She extended a finger to carefully trace the path of the big veins in his wrist. “I... could do with a little more... petting, while we talked.” She smiled invitingly.

 

Vincent lowered his head once more, brooding, perhaps; perhaps merely watching her touch him. He drew breath as if to speak, but made no comment; finally, he shook his head. “No.”

 

“Vincent--”

 

“No.” He rose to his feet, finally pulling free of her grasp. She clasped her hands together, stricken at the loss, but couldn't think of what else to do, how else she might convince him of her sincerity.

 

His hands settled on her shoulders, cool metal and warm flesh. “If I'm going to foul this up,” he said unsteadily, “I'm going to do it in spades.” Tifa looked up, half-smiling, uncertain; his quiet humor in the face of humiliation was the last thing she'd ever expected, but she found it easy to appreciate. He squeezed her left shoulder gently, pressing the steely palm of the other against her.

 

Vincent kissed her.

 

She scarcely felt more than the tickle of his hair on her cheeks, so light was the touch of his lips; cautious, unsure, but undeniably there. She'd expected it, almost, but the reality was so different she could scarcely encompass it; so shy, so hesitant, so very, very sweet. She tilted her chin up, strengthening their contact, and delighted at the slight tremble that ran through him.

 

His knuckles brushed her throat, rising slowly until his fingers wound themselves into her hair. Studiously avoiding the sore spot, he pulled gently, and it was her turn to shiver at the pleasurable tingling of her scalp. His lips parted slightly against hers as he leaned in, just a fraction; she laced her hands together behind his neck to pull him closer.

 

He pulled back, eliciting a moment's dismay, but he merely raised his head to nuzzle her temple, his breath hot and enticing against her cheek. “You don't do anything by halves, do you?” she murmured.

 

This close, his answering chuckle was little more than a breathy rumble. “No.” He kissed her lightly, turning to trail his lips along the curve of her ear. He drew back a little further, and the happy, hopeful look on his face was almost too much to bear; she smiled back, winding a strand of his hair around her finger to tug gently.

 

The next kiss was bold, hungrier, more insistent; she sighed against him as his tongue teased her lips, and she opened for him gladly, burying her fingers in his hair to pull him ever closer. He was eager now, his left arm around her shoulders, his right hand stroking her flank, describing the curve of her breast. Kissing, caressing, seeking, he still did not press her; seemed to take pleasure simply in exploring her responses, and she reveled in the ease of their interactions. No expectations. No demands. Just them.

 

When he drew back this time, his breathing was hoarse.

 

“I... think I should still go,” he panted, then darted forward to nibble her earlobe. “But... I could come back.”

 

Tifa grinned, turning her face to kiss his cheek. “Who says I'm done?”

 

“Hmm.” Without further warning his left arm encircled her waist, and he lifted her up; she squeaked in surprise as he set her down on the bar. “I'm getting a crick in my neck,” he said with a self-conscious shrug.

 

Oh, poor you!” Laughing, Tifa flung her arms around his neck, pulling him close. Most of Vincent's height was in his legs, and this way, they were nearly eye to eye, a largely unique experience for her. She laid her palm against his cheek, and the way his eyes closed as he leaned into the caress was too much to resist.

 

He braced his hands flat on the bar as their mouths met again, and groaned harshly as her fingers dug into his neck, a delightful, intriguing sound. Her fingers moved downward, working the knobbed ridge of his spine as his mouth sought her neck; she arched against him with a gasp as his teeth found her throat. “You're really,” he growled, pausing to nip her jawline, “not making it... easy ,” he gasped against her shoulder, “to do the... right thing here.” He lapped at the delicate flesh beneath her ear, scraping it with his teeth.

 

“Really?” She pressed him harder, drawing her nails along the ribbed fabric of his shirt. “And here I thought I was making it easier,” she whispered, hooking an ankle around his knee. She was beginning to empathize with his strange jocularity; it was much easier to joke and be coy than it was to consider the realities of the situation too deeply. This was exciting, it was impulsive and new and different... but it was not going to go away if she reconsidered matters in the morning.

 

His own thoughts seemed to run in the same track. Nuzzling her neck, he gently eased his hips between her thighs, making his erection unmistakably evident. Not pressing or prodding, she noted with approval, simply making her aware of it, but the unspoken question his still form asked was loud and clear: how far was this going to go?

 

She exhaled shakily, her fingers tracing small circles on his shoulderblades as she thought. This could still stop, with no harm done in either direction. He could come back, as he'd offered, and they could discuss things in a more traditional setting—perhaps even a date! Or this could simply become one of those strange, unexpected things that sometimes happened, a passing madness never to be discussed again—at least, not where anyone else might hear. Not that she'd likely ever get the chance, knowing Vincent; she was fairly certain his unprecedented sociability had been purely for her benefit, and doubted he'd continue if he didn't see a point to it.

 

But he was here now, and it was good to have a man in her arms again; warm and solid, eager and ardent. No negotiating, no unspoken regrets, no coaxing—not much, anyway, she admitted with an internal smile. And it was Vincent, who'd apparently spent so much of their acquaintanceship worrying what she'd think of him she'd scarcely gotten to know him. There had to be something to that, didn't there? All that care and caution...

 

Maybe it was the liquor talking. Maybe it was boredom; loneliness; feeling nobody cared; but Tifa liked to think she was better than that... and sometimes, you needed to opt in.

 

She slid her palms up his back and fisted her hands in his hair, pressing his face against her neck, and hissed as his teeth sank into her shoulder. He clutched her tightly with his left arm, cupping her breast with his free hand, and after that, she wasn't entirely sure; just bodies pressed close, sliding against one another, and the increasingly urgent need to keep going , hands, fingers, mouths, touching, tasting, learning...

 

The next thing she knew she was nearly supine, her legs wrapped around his waist, his arm supporting her, and he had broken off kissing her clavicle to unzip her top. His tongue followed the zipper's trail a few tantalizing inches before he stopped to look up at her, and she didn't like the sudden concern in his eyes. She laid a finger against his lips as he opened his mouth to speak. “Do you really want to find out if the third time's the charm?” she murmured.

 

He laughed breathlessly, and she felt a perverse thrill as he slowly licked her finger, drawing the digit into the warmth of his mouth for a too-brief moment. “Upstairs, you said?”

 

She was surprised at the twinge of disappointment she felt at the question; she'd never actually managed it down here, and as it seemed all bets were off tonight... but that was probably a little much. “Yep!”

 

She sat up as he stepped back, and squealed as he slipped an arm beneath her knees and hoisted her into his arms. “You complained about the lack of romance,” he said reproachfully, and she could only giggle as she nestled her head against his temple.

 

She kissed him lightly, and slipped an arm around his neck. “Over there.” She pointed. Vincent obediently carried her to what must have seemed a perfectly nondescript corner of the barroom, for he made a noise of approval as she reached out to slip her nails into a crack in the paneling and pried open the carefully disguised door.

 

“Tricky.”

 

“A locked door is a back-handed invitation,” she said, pleased at his surprise; Cloud had thought she was nuts, though it had thus far escaped detection by any inquisitive patrons.

 

He had to turn sideways to get them through, and there was a brief moment of awkwardness as he tried to work out how to allow one of them space to close the door before she nudged him. “It'll keep.” Wordlessly, he began to climb the stairs in silence, despite their combined weight. The landing gave out on a long hallway lined with doors, and she pointed once more to the one that led to the bedroom.

 

As he shoulder open the door, she was surprised at how much time had passed; the indistinct gray light of a new morning filtered through the blinds, lending the familiar scene a hazy unreality—though not enough to ward off the stab of regret at not having made the bed. Vincent shut the door with his foot and stood, hesitating; she hid a smile in his hair as she imagined the internal debate he must be having, but was disappointed when he carefully set her down.

 

“Not going to throw me down on the bed and ravish me?”

 

The sudden force with which he pulled her against him took her breath away. “I could,” he bent down to growl in her ear, and there was no denying the shiver of anticipation that raced through her at the deep rumble in his chest. “But I... didn't think to... bring anything...”

 

Tifa rested her forehead against his chest, biting her cheeks to keep from laughing at the sudden change in tone. “Didn't you?”

 

He eased away, and the backs of his knuckles brushed the rise of her pubis, the touch luxuriant even through the leather of her shorts. “There are options,” he purred, so enticingly that she was half-tempted to leave him hanging simply to find out what he might come up with; but she couldn't be that cruel.

 

“Taken care of,” she assured him, pressing her palms against his chest. She wasn't sure if she was more pleased or annoyed, but it was sweet of him to be concerned.

 

“Mmm.” His hand withdrew, and a moment later there came a soft metallic thump. She looked up at the sound; he had unstrapped his gun and set it on the dresser. He followed her gaze and smiled. “If you say one word about being happy to see you--”

 

She cut him off with a quick squeeze of his package, delighted by the high, startled grunt it elicited. “Seems pretty obvious,” she said teasingly, running her fingers along the bulge. He shuddered, and she heard the clicking of his left hand clenching; she was finding a puckish joy in seeing him lose his composure. She stroked him as best she could, slipping a finger down his fly to ascertain how it fastened, but his hand lightly circled her wrist and drew her gently away.

 

“I'd hate to disappoint,” he said unsteadily, his smile winsome enough to make her knees weak. He held her wrist poised for a moment, almost considering; then he very carefully slipped it beneath the tail of his shirt. “You might find it... startling,” he whispered.

 

She puzzled at that, as her fingers slid along the taut flesh of his abdomen, until she brushed against the smooth, thick skin on the left side. She explored it delicately, surprised at its width, until she recalled just what a gunshot wound looked like, and knew what it must be. A dismissal rose to her lips, but something held her back; as her hands sought upward and encountered the heavy ridge following his sternum, she was glad she'd refrained.

 

Tugging his shirt free of his waistband, she continued to raise it; Vincent caught on, and leaned back to shrug out of his sleeves. His claw, though fisted, still managed to snag, and he looked sheepish as he worked it free. “You should see me with cufflinks,” he muttered, then pulled it over his head.

 

Tifa was glad she had a moment to school her expression as he shook his hair out of his eyes. It was not so much the scars themselves, though they were terrible, as it was what they represented. She did not know what made him different, but she knew that he healed faster than any SOLDIER. She had seen him stand up after blows that should have crushed his spine; she had watched as he'd held savaged flesh together, waiting for it to knit if it were a mild inconvenience. She understood it must have happened before—during—whatever had been done to him; but the still-livid marks of such obvious, evident agony were shocking.

 

Vincent had, quite literally, been taken to pieces.

 

She knew he was nervous, knew she was staring, and so she embraced him, pressing her cheek against one arm of the gruesome Y-shaped scar that dominated his torso. He laid a hand on the small of her back so tentatively she squeezed her eyes shut. Seeking to reassure him, she trailed her fingers up his spine and realized that it, too, was a relic of torment; though the skin was soft and flexible beneath her touch, no vertebrae were that hard, that sharply defined. “Oh, Vincent.”

 

She didn't know what to say, couldn't think of how to joke her way out of this, and settled for hugging him tightly. “I don't mind” seemed a bit inadequate, “You're gorgeous anyway” disingenuous, and he did not want her pity. But the touch on her back was still barely there, and she could sense him tensing, preparing to draw away, perhaps even to flee. She had to do something.

 

Stepping back, she reached down to let her apron slither to the floor. His guarded expression narrowed into something even less readable as she unzipped her top the rest of the way. She let it drop, holding her arms crossed modestly before her torso for a moment, then slowly reached up to unclasp her bra. The cups parted, releasing her, but she did not bother to shrug out of it; she merely straightened her shoulders, letting him see. “You're not the only one who can't wear bikinis.”

 

His fingers mapped the course of the white weal that rose from her hipbone, running in an almost geometric diagonal across her belly, culminating in a less distinct rip on the curve of her left breast: the legacy of Zangan's frantic response to the Masamune's bite. She waited patiently, and when he finally looked up, there was something like wonder in his hooded red eyes. “This is nothing.”

 

“Says you.” She scuffed the floor with a toe. “I used to look really cute in crop tops.”

 

His thumb stroked her breast, and she felt the nipple tighten in anticipation; his expression softened at the sight. “You're not ruined.” He shook his head. “You just... survived.”

 

“Yeah.” She smiled up at him. “So did you.”

 

His arm slid around her waist once more, the metal a cool shock against her bare skin, and she nearly sagged with relief; she was already reaching up to encircle his neck when he bent down to kiss her.

 

That changed things, surmounted some barrier, and she let herself fall into the moment with abandon. Gone was the awkward, teasing uncertainty; this was slower, more deliberate, but so consuming she could scarcely breathe. She let the bra slip from her shoulders at his prompting, carefully walked backwards as he urged her towards the bed. He sat beside her, following her movements carefully, not breaking their kiss until he gently pressed her backwards.

 

His attentions were thorough, almost contemplative, and she was thrilled to be the recipient of such all-inclusive regard. His teeth, his tongue, his hand, even the cold, careful touch of his prosthesis were a revelation; he followed the causes of her gasps and cries to their sources, exploring and practicing. She was urgent, now, wet and ready, but she could not bring herself to distract him from his ministrations, just as eager to revel in whatever he would do next. It was such a relief, such a release to simply lie back and let him please her. She tried to stroke him, caress him, show him as much consideration as he did her, but it was almost too much effort beneath the overwhelming stimulus of his touch.

 

He was nibbling her navel when his hand finally slipped beneath the waistband of her shorts, and the muscles of her stomach clenched with longing as he began to undo them. She raised her hips to let him slide them down, shamefully piqued when he drew her panties with them. She shifted her weight and raised her legs, exulting at the sensation of his fingers trailing along her thighs—and then sputtered in embarrassment as they got tangled in her shoes. “It's always something,” she laughed as she sat up and bent down to untie them.

 

“Often.” He ran his palm down her back, nuzzling her hair as she struggled with the laces, and she was struck by a pang of unexpected intimacy. It seemed silly, considering what they were in the middle of, but she was touched by the calm, warm ease with which he reacted.

 

He kicked off his own boots and rose to his feet, unbuckling his belt and sliding it free of the loops. He shot her a sidelong glance as he began to unfasten his fly. “It's not worse.”

 

Tifa finished pulling off her socks before running her nails delicately up his inner thigh, enjoying the eye-shutting tremor that elicited. Lying back, she propped herself on one elbow and drew her legs up, trying to give every evidence of enjoying the show.

 

She was rewarded with an abashed dip of his head as he eased his trousers past his hips. She wasn't sure she agreed with his definition of 'worse,' but she was prepared for it this time, and the rings of proud flesh banding his joints seemed almost—in a good light--decorative. As for the rest of it... she couldn't resist a pleased grin as she reached out to take his hand.

 

He joined her on the bed, stretched out on his side; she thought for a moment, then grabbed a pillow and laid it on his left arm before settling down herself. He chuckled. “Where were we?”

 

“Not quite like this...”

 

“No, but...”

 

She gasped as his fingers dug into her hip, as his teeth caught her lower lip; just that easily, the moment was recaptured, with the added bonus of the whole of him to explore. They weren't scars beneath her hands, they were merely texture; slick, ridged places for her nails to catch, trails to follow in pursuit of pleasure. He was so tall, long and lean; she'd never realized just how whipcord thin he was, how narrow and precise his musculature. It was so easy to wrap an arm around him, to pull him close, to stroke him...

 

She clutched him tightly as he pressed her onto her back, half-whining a protest at the loss of contact; but her grip tightened and the timbre of her cry changed when his fingers sought access to the slippery warmth behind her labia. She bit her lip, rocking her hips gently against his deft caresses, and linked her hands behind his neck as she squeezed her eyes shut. This was good, this was rapturous, this was--

 

He drew away slowly, fingers trailing along her folds with a tantalizing insufficiency. She reached out for him, but he raised himself on his elbow, and met her longing gaze with avid, wanton scarlet eyes as he began to stroke himself. She watched, torn between the desire to spectate and the urge to grasp him herself as his fingers circled his glans, leaving him glistening with her own fluids. He arched an amused eyebrow at her, and she had a stunned moment to recollect that this was Vincent before he was kissing her deeply; before he was easing her thighs apart; before he was on top of her.

 

His lips were soft on her temple as he held himself poised above her, an endless, aching moment of hesitancy, and she forced the sudden trepidation from her mind, made herself surrender fully to the inevitable pull of her own desire.

 

They both moaned as he entered her.

 

He sagged against her, his weight on her body inescapably real, warm and human, almost more so than the depth to which he penetrated her. She dug her fingers into his shoulder blades, kneading the base of his neck, and nuzzled his chest as she drew her legs back further to grant him better access. He sighed, such a quiet, contented sound her muscles clenched with bliss; this was good, this was right, this was comfort and warmth and ease...

 

She bit off a whimper as he began to thrust.

 

So very, very strange; she felt stretched, pinned, impaled, but his movements were so cautious and gentle they were barely enough. He raised himself on his elbows, his hair spilling over his shoulders to tickle her face, and she thrilled at the change of angle, bracing her palms against his hips so that she could arch against him. Burgeoning heat slowly began to uncoil itself within her, but his tender efforts fanned the flames so slowly she could barely stand it. Thighs trembling, she wrapped her legs around his waist, digging her nails into his sides in an attempt to urge him on.

 

She could hear him now, soft, hurt sounds that seemed to escape despite his best efforts, and she writhed against him, glorying in the simple gift of his voice. She had never imagined him so unbound, so free, and the knowledge that he found such release in her arms was almost as euphoric as the feel of him within her, moving, sliding, rubbing, so good, so full, so close.

 

Riding the cusp was almost agonizing; she strained against him, eyes squeezed shut, searching for the release that hung so enticingly out of reach. She was moaning now, too, high needful cries that she did not bother to restrain, could not bring herself to try to. She tried to let go, to divorce herself from her urgency in the hopes of soothing the tension that built so inexorably within her, but there was no surcease to be found; just sensation, stimulus, tactile overload driving her toward... toward...

 

“Please...”

 

Vincent's breathing hitched, and he buried his face in her hair as he drove into her roughly with a long, ragged gasp. She clasped him tightly, arching up to meet his thrust and preparing to abandon herself to the cessation of need... but he did not thrust again.

 

She lay beneath him, heart hammering, scarcely able to comprehend what that meant; finally he raised his head, lips brushing her cheek, and could barely contain her startled disappointment as he carefully raised himself up on his elbows. She unwound her legs with a sigh; felt, as she always did, that curious sense of loss and emptiness as he withdrew.

 

But he curled up beside her, gently tugging the pillow from beneath her head to once more shield her from his prosthesis, and she was pleased to be gathered into his arms. She reached up to stroke his temple, lightly sheened with sweat; he smelled tantalizingly of musk and sex, and was large enough to easily enfold her when she snuggled against him. It was good simply to lie with him; to feel the slack, languid ease of his body upon hers, to enjoy the simple, secure pleasure of human warmth, as heartbeats slowed and breathing eased.

 

They lay in silence for a time, too stunned, or perhaps too exhausted, to speak. Tifa stretched luxuriously, her toes curling; his hand slipped down her flank to knead the small of her back, and she rested her forehead against his chest, grateful for the soothing touch. Of all the things she might have imagined inviting him into her bed would lead to, this had not been one of them, but the physical dissatisfaction was surmountable; these things generally took time, after all. She blushed, though she could not have said whether it was chagrin, or the realization that she was already planning for the next time.

 

His hand slid higher, tracing the curve of her spine until it came to rest on the nape of her neck, once more resuming the simple touch that had led to so much more. “Incomparable,” he breathed into her ear.

 

Tifa smiled, unaccountably pleased at the simple, brusque honesty in his voice. She propped herself up on an elbow, and her smile widened as she met his gaze; the look of lazy, indulgent satiation, the droop of his heavy lashes... he'd probably be out like a light. “When do you need to catch your transport?” She only realized how awful that probably sounded when his expression transformed into one of mute horror; laughing, she kissed him thoroughly enough to dispel any wrong ideas he might be entertaining. “So I can set the alarm, silly!” She paused. “You... are staying, right?”

 

“If you... yes. Yes. Three, please.” She leaned across him to fumble with the clock, the programming of which she found a little difficult due to his languorous nuzzling of her breasts. The banked heat of her arousal fanned anew at that, but she made herself cuddle against him as chastely as she could, given the circumstances; there would be time for that in the days to come, and there was no point in spoiling the moment.

 

Vincent pulled her close, then reached down to shake out the tangled sheet and draw it over their forms; she slid an arm around his waist and relaxed against him. The rise of his chest was slow and even and she thought for a time that her guess had been correct, until she heard him draw breath to speak.

 

“Tifa,” he said quietly. “I've... wanted this for a long time.” She felt a pang of tenderness at the uncertain softness of his tone, but he continued before she could respond. “If this is all there ever is...”

 

“Hey.” She cut him off with a kiss, running her fingers gently through his tangled hair. She drew back to regard him, struck again by the earnest entreaty writ large upon his face. “We've got... all sorts of stuff to talk about.” She kissed him again, simply for the taste of his mouth. “But right now... right now, I just want to be here with you.”

 

His lips quirked ruefully, but he stroked the length of her body as they did. “I suppose I can accept that.” He lingered over the curve of her hip. “No discussion at all?”

 

“Well, you can tell me when you're going to come and see me next,” she said with a smile, easing her hips forward in encouragement. “Or...”

 

“Or?”

 

She bit her lip, ducking her head as she met his amused eyes; there was no harm in asking. “Well... earlier... you said something about options...”

 

“Mmm.” His hand slipped over the swell of her buttocks, his fingers teasing the sensitive juncture of her thighs. “You didn't think I was going to use all of them at once, did you?”

 

Tifa grinned mischievously. “Do you think you could?”