][Chapter 21][

Disclaimer: Don't own them. Tifa and Vincent belong to Square/Enix.

Author's Note: I don't normally care for these, but since it's been FOREVER since I updated. . .First, thanks to everyone who has asked about this fic. I have seen the reviews and received your emails. I'm sorry it took so long, and this update doesn't even really have much AeriSephy goodness. More of that is coming, but there are other characters to focus on for a bit. Vincent and Tifa have a rough road ahead of them, and don't forget about the rest of AVALANCHE!

Author's Note Addendum: This is important. As usual, if it hadn't been for Drakon, this chapter would never have seen the light of day. She talked out Vincent in the original version of this conversation, and I am continually remiss in thanking her for her insights into his characterization.

Good Dragon. *gives cookie* ;)

Thanks again for reading!



The clouds sped across the sky, highlighted by the moon. Vincent ran for the second time that night, only this time he was on his own mission. If someone had seen his thoughts, they would have been shocked at what raced through his mind.

Vincent Valentine had never liked Cloud Strife.

Hells, he hadn't really liked any of AVALANCHE. Nanaki had been the closest thing to a friend he'd had in the group; the beast had been levelheaded, intelligent, and knew when Vincent wanted to be left alone. But even his so-called friendship with the son of Seto would not have been enough to drag him from his solitude.

When they had woken him, he had been furious. Not at their intrusion, but at the situation the world had been put in during his years of slumber. He had gone with them out of some twisted feeling of duty, to make up for his failure to stand up to Hojo all those years ago. As if saving the Planet would somehow equal his continual habit of letting Lucrecia down. To fight and kill the child he had sworn to protect--just as he had sworn to protect her.

But he had done it, he had been there when Meteor was repelled, when Seraph Sephiroth had been destroyed, when Jenova had thrashed one last time and lay still.

And so here he was now.

He felt somewhat better about having helped Sephiroth this time around. For there were two other members of AVALANCHE he had liked in some ways, who he had felt the need to protect. One was, obviously, Aerith.

Although...she had had a fatal air about her, something that he had always been able to recognize. He knew from the moment he met her that she was ready to die, and she knew that he knew. It had always been an unspoken thought between them, and he had once found her cheerful personality merely sad. He did not understand how one could willingly sacrifice oneself. Even in his altered state, he had clung to life with a viciousness and tenacity that had made lesser men shudder. Perhaps it was a gift, perhaps it was a flaw. But he did not believe in giving up without a fight. He would cling tooth and nail to this life of his, if only to continue to atone for his past sins.

He leapt across a river, barely getting his feet wet in his speed. Now that Aerith was safe with Sephiroth, he could worry about the other person he had wanted to protect.

Tifa. . .

He almost stumbled at the thought of her name.

She would have been furious with him for even thinking of protecting her. But for all her fighting skills, and her street smarts, she was in many ways far more vulnerable than Aerith had ever been. She possessed a spirit that could stand up to anything in the world. . .with the exception of what Cloud was doing to her now. Vincent snarled as he ran, a red and black shape flickering between the trees.

Cloud Strife, the arrogant boy who had once led AVALANCHE, who had grated on his nerves from moment one. Once, Vincent had been willing to step aside and let Tifa be with her beloved Cloud, but not anymore. He would not let that boy lead her around anymore. He had had his chances. Now, it was time for Vincent to intervene before Strife destroyed her heart as surely as he had nearly destroyed Aerith's this time around.

Thank the gods that he'd reached Sephiroth before it was too late. But that was an unnecessary concern now. Sephiroth had been reunited with Aerith, and they were starting on their own journey together.

Tifa. . .

And suddenly, he was at her door, all other thoughts vanishing. He had found her house without even knowing exactly where she lived. He raised his hand to knock when it opened as if by silent command.

Tifa stood there, her wine-toned eyes red-rimmed with old and new tears. But who would notice that? Cloud certainly never did. Would he even notice how she held herself? How her jaw was set, her eyes angry?

She stood there for a beat longer then necessary. Her knuckles were bruised and bleeding from a fight in which she had no opponent. Finally, she brushed the hair from her face. "Vincent?"

He stared at her across her threshhold. "Tifa. . .what . . ." Rage began to build inside him. Red eyes narrowing, he glanced behind her. "He hasn't come back, has he?"

She backed up, opening her mouth for a moment to defend Cloud, then thinking better of it. She stared down at her bleeding hand. "Did you think he would?"

"No," he said, "And I don't know if I hoped he would be here or not." Vincent sighed. "Tifa, may I come in?"

She moved to let him in, almost absent-mindedly. "Don't mind my mess," she said lamely. It was all she could do not to slam the door behind him.

He ignored it, watching only her. Broken glass crunched beneath his boots. "What have you been doing since he left?" he asked bluntly.

She bit the inside of her cheek. "Thinking, I guess. You want a drink while I clean my hands off?"

"No, thank you." His words were clipped. He barely held his anger back. This was not the woman he'd expected to find. Right then, he made his plans.

She walked into the kitchen and poured alchol on her hands. She didn't wince, she made no sound. THIS pain she could bear. She could handle this. She laughed darkly. "You must think I am damned pathetic," she called from the kitchen. Hot water ran over the wound and washed the glass from her knuckle.

"I think you have a very creative way of letting out your frustrations." He stood in the doorway, watching her work. "What do you plan to do now?"

"Clean up my mess, as usual. And wait like a little puppy for him to come back. And pretend that I think he loves me." She closed her eyes and leaned on the sink. "You know, the usual."

"And then what?" he asked harshly, more so than he'd intended. "What do you do after that?"

Her eyes were still closed. "I don't know."

He saw the defeat and the pain in the slump of her shoulders, and it killed him. "What do you want to do?" he asked more gently.

Her shoulders straightened in anger. Whether it was anger at herself or at Cloud, or even at Vincent, he couldn't tell. "I want to stop feeling like--like--DAMMIT." She kicked the fridge, leaving a dent, and snapped up a towel to dry her hands. "I don't know. Why are you here?" She pushed past him to the living room.

"You don't know what you want, do you?" He stalked after her. "Why is that? Did you build all your plans around Cloud? Didn't you have a backup plan? Or any ideas beyond waiting for him to figure out you were the one he should be with?"

She whirled on him. "Who the hell are you to tell me about a backup plan?" One look at his face, and she was immediately sorry. "Look, Vin, I didn't mean that." She crumpled to the couch, the fight drained from her at long last.

"Yes, you did." He stood across the room from her. "And you're right. I didn't have a backup plan. But I wasn't given a choice. You were."

She pressed her hands into her eyes. "I have no right to yell at you for what I do myself." She felt that lump rise up in her throat. "There must be something wrong with me."

"Why do you still wait for him? When you know it will be the same thing all over again when he comes back? You must know."

"I thought that if I loved him he would love me, but he never will." Tifa stifled a sob. "Hell, he doesn't notice anything but Aerith. Dammit, Vin, she was my best friend when we were all together. I don't want to hate her for something that's not her fault."

"I know."

"And here I sit, like some damn puppy waiting for him to come home."

"Then fight it. He knows that if he fails, you'll still be here. So don't be here when he comes back. Because he isn't going to get her back, even if he tries."

"Everyone knows that but him." She sat, unwilling to move because she would cry. "Is that all I am then? A replacement for someone he'll never have?"

"You don't have to be."

She took a deep breath and steadied herself. "Why are you here? Why do you care?"

Vincent frowned. "I came because you called me, and because I am your friend. That is what friends do, is it not?"

She looked wistful. "Yeah, it is." Her eyes met his, then glanced away. "You're right, you know. I can't just pine away for him can I? I lost. I know when I lose. It isn't the first time."

He played his hand. "Then come with me. We can leave tonight."

Again she blinked at him. "What?"

He smiled with little humor. This would be her test. "You heard me. Pack your things, and leave. It's simple."

"No. No, really, it's not that simple. What if--?" but she herself couldn't think of a good reason except her own fear. Not fear of him, Vincent was her friend, but fear of what she really had called him for. Why had she called him, of all people?

"What if what? What if he comes back? What if he changes his mind?" Vincent was growing angry.

"No!" she snapped.

"Then what? Why can't you leave?"

The air between them crackled as she jumped up from the couch, energy returning with her anger. "You think it's that easy?" She cried.

"Yes, I do! You want to leave. Why is it suddenly so hard to?"

With a snarl she turned away and picked up a cracked vase from the floor. "If it wasn't always hard I wouldn't be here like a fool."

"Then make a decision, woman! You're strong as I am; use that strength on yourself for once!"

"You don't think I am trying?" She retorted. She slammed the vase down on its shelf so hard that the crack split it open.

Vincent fairly bristled, he was so angry. He was angry about her, not at her. He was furious at Cloud for ruining her heart and soul. "Try harder," he growled.

A strangled sob escaped her, a pathetic sound that only underlined her despair. "Tell me how easy it is to get over love, Vincent. Help me then, dammit." Her last words came out as a whisper. She looked over her shoulder at him. "If you're so damned sure and strong."

Without thinking, he closed the distance between them and pulled her into his arms. "I will help you," he promised, and then a heartbeat later, his mouth found hers.

It had been a gamble, he knew; he felt first her surprise, her denial, then her acceptance. Her own hands tugged him closer to her, giving tacit permission to go on. His tongue found hers, teasing her, taking over, his arms crushing her body to his. Carefully, he kept the claw from touching her skin, though his other hand tangled in her beautiful, long dark hair.

He pulled back, just enough to let her breathe. "Come with me," he asked again, voice hoarse. "Please, Tifa."

"Gods, Vincent," she breathed. "All you had to do was ask nicely."