Disclaimer: All Final Fantasy characters are the property of Square Enix.

Warnings: Some graphic violence. Implied rape. Rated mainly for adult themes and language.

Setting: After Advent Children, before Dirge of Cerberus

Pairings: Cloud/Tifa, some Cloud/OC

Update 8/5/17: Just a few small updates to smooth out the rough edges. I would really appreciate any reviews to let me know if there's anything I could improve upon. Thanks for reading!


But I'm a Bodyguard

Tifa wiped down the bar counter of Seventh Heaven, waiting for the last lingering patron to leave. The lights were dimmed for closing time, the chairs were up on the tables, and Tifa was sweeping the floor, hoping the man would get the hint and finish his drink. He had been watching her all night, and she was prepared to give a polite, but firm rejection.

In her line of work, her looks were really a double-edged sword. Genetics had given her a huge chest and a pretty face, and years of disciplined martial arts had given her a perfectly toned body. If it brought in extra customers and larger tips, who was she to complain? But as a bartender, many a misguided patron assumed she was a piece of meat for them to ogle; she became a bet between buddies as to who could nail her first. Thus she had perfected the art of the firm rejection, and if that didn't work, her fists and her feet usually got the message across.

She sensed him moving behind her as she swept, but she continued her work until he cleared his throat pointedly at her back. She turned around with a polite smile. "Heading out? Have a good night."

The man smirked. He had wavy black hair and dark eyes, with piercings all the way around one ear, none on the other. She had the absurd mental image of him tipping over from the one-sided collection of metal. He was attractive in a bad-boy kind of way, probably used to getting his way with women, but he was going to be disappointed that night. He stroked a long skinny mustache in a way that reminded her of a chocobo's preening.

"It's awfully late for a pretty girl like you to be walking home alone. I'll just wait for you to finish up."

Tifa kept the polite smile frozen on her face. The nerve! He didn't even bother to ask for permission. Still, politeness was always her first line of defense. "Thank you, but it's not necessary. I'm not walking home alone." She opted not to explain that she actually lived upstairs, and wouldn't have needed an escort even if she decided to stroll around town in her birthday suit in the middle of the night.

He didn't seem overly drunk, but he had waited there for hours until closing time, so she should have known he wouldn't be that easy to dissuade. "Well then, maybe I could convince you to come back to my place instead?" The man sidled a step closer, tracing a finger slowly down her arm. "We could keep the party going all night," he whispered breathily.

Tifa resisted the urge to shudder at his creepiness. "No thanks," she said breezily, turning back to her sweeping. "I really do need to close up now, so—"

She felt his hand like a vice around her upper arm. Tifa spun around, her eyes glinting dangerously. Her fingers twitched. "Don't. Touch. Me."

Before he could respond, Cloud popped through the doorway at the back of the bar. "Tifa –" Cloud's eyes flickered between the two of them, quickly sizing up the situation. "Ah, Marlene is having a nightmare and she's asking for you. Can you go check on her? I can finish up down here."

Tifa pulled her arm deliberately from the man's grasp. "Of course," she said. She handed the broom to Cloud, giving him an I-know-what-you're-doing-smirk as she passed.

Cloud took the broom and continued sweeping, whistling as he worked and pretending to be oblivious to the annoyance radiating from the man and the eyes he could feel burning holes in his back. After a moment, the man turned on his heel and left.

Cloud smiled and began whistling as he finished cleaning up the bar area. In the past, he had handled such matters in a more protective, big-brotherish way, and Tifa had dragged him into the back to chew him out.

'For god's sake, Cloud, he's just flirting. I'm perfectly capable of scaring off men on my own. I've been doing it for years while you were off playing soldier…' Tifa had broken off abruptly, instantly looking sorry.

Cloud's eyes had darkened for a moment – four years of being experimented upon was not a time he liked to remember – but he had shaken it off. 'So am I supposed to just sit there and watch them pawing all over you?'

Tifa rubbed her forehead wearily. 'If it really bothers you, just… find a more diplomatic way to interfere.'

Since then, Cloud had gotten much more adept at controlling his protective instincts around her. He locked the door and flipped off all the lights, reflecting on her words of wisdom: 'It's easy for them to justify being an asshole if you start treating them like one.' She was right; it was far more satisfying to watch their impotent rage when he was being reasonable.


Tifa started the morning with her usual ritual: an hourly session of training katas, followed by a cool shower. She braided her wet hair with quick, practiced fingers, and then settled on the floor for meditation. As the sun peeked over the horizon she headed down the hall, surprised to see Cloud on the stairs ahead of her. He was rarely up before 10 AM, and even more rarely showered and dressed by then. He had a packed duffel bag in one hand and First Tsurugi on his back. "Cloud, are you leaving?"

He looked back over his shoulder. The light streaming through the window reflected off his pale skin and fair hair, but his intense blue eyes were what caught her attention as usual.

"Yeah. Got a gig. Kind of last minute, but it should be easy enough."

"Pay any good?"

"Definitely. I just have to play bodyguard for some spoiled princess."

He continued out the front door and Tifa trailed behind, shoving her hands in her pockets. He deftly separated the parts of his sword and secured them in their places on the distinctive black and gold motorcycle, lifted the seat and tossed the duffel bag inside.

"Hey, did you even tell the kids you were leaving? And have you eaten anything yet?" She put her hands on her hips and stifled the urge to continue scolding him like a mother hen.

Cloud adjusted his goggles and climbed on Fenrir. "Nah, I just found out last night. I'll only be gone for a few days, anyway. And I'll pick up something on the road later." He still refused to wear a helmet – probably didn't want to ruin that artfully spiked hair – but at least he'd compromised and agreed to protect his eyes.

She leaned back on her heels. "Fine, but can you at least try to eat something green this time? And don't forget about the sunscreen; you know you always burn after you've been riding all day. And remember to call when you get there. And-"

"Tifa," he interrupted, chuckling, "I'll be home soon."

She could have sworn he was reaching out to her, but he abruptly turned it into an awkward wave. Then he started the engine and was gone.

She shaded her eyes with her hand and watched his silhouette until he disappeared into traffic. Yes, there was still a bit of awkwardness between them; the few times they had been together without that tension only seemed to happen when they thought they were about to die. When they thought there was no future, they could drop all pretenses and just live in the moment. She thought about those times more often than she cared to admit.

Still, she wasn't complaining. The Geostigma had been eradicated, and Cloud had finally let go of the guilt he had felt over the deaths of Zack and Aerith. Now he was living in the apartment above Seventh Heaven, helping out with the bar and the kids and doing odd jobs. Together with Marlene and Denzel, they had become almost a family. It was more of a family than most people had these days, anyway.

As if summoned by the thought, Marlene tore out the front door, screaming. Tifa grabbed her arms before she could streak by.

"Marlene! What happened? What's wrong?"

Denzel pushed open the door before it had fully closed, chasing after her. "Marle—" He stopped when he saw her with Tifa, guilt flashing across his face. He quickly turned to walk back in.

"Freeze!" Tifa ordered. The little boy turned slowly around while she tried to comfort a frantic Marlene. "Spill."

She could almost see the wheels spinning behind his angelic little face, trying to come up with an excuse.

"It was just a joke—" he started.

"Denzel, what did you do?" she asked sternly.

Marlene lifted her face from Tifa's chest. "He put a rat in my bed. It was under the covers with me! It bit me and now I have rabies!"

Tifa raised an eyebrow at Denzel when he scoffed. "It didn't bite you—"

"Did too!" Marlene interrupted. "I felt it! And look!"

She held up her leg for Tifa's examination. Tifa searched vainly to find a mark in the flawless skin.

Denzel scowled at her. "It was made of rubber, Marlene. It's not even real! You're such a girl."

Tifa suppressed a smile. Ah, sibling rivalry. They really were like a family.


By the time Cloud made it to the hotel, he was aching from riding all day and he could feel the sunburn on the back of his neck. He'd have to make sure Tifa didn't see that. He parked his bike, got off, and stretched the stiffness from his limbs. He just had time for a quick shower before he had to meet with the client.

Thirty minutes later, he knocked on the door to the penthouse suite. A grizzled looking man with black hair, broken only by the silver at his temples, opened the door. He crossed his arms and stared at Cloud expectantly.

Cloud held out his hand. "Hey. Cloud Strife. I was hired to—"

"Lemme see some ID," he demanded in a fluid accent that didn't match his gruff exterior. He ignored Cloud's hand, so after a moment he dropped it, feeling foolish.

"Oh. Uh, sure." Cloud pulled out his license and handed it to the man. He examined it carefully, then grunted and handed it back, stepping out of the doorway.

Being a man of few words himself, Cloud could appreciate the silent type, but some guidance would have been nice. He stepped inside and closed the door behind him, taking in the details of the opulent suite. The entryway opened into a full kitchen and dining room. The dining room table was sparkling glass, a sharp contrast to the world-weary man who had sat down there to return to his card game. His card partner was a younger man with dark brown hair, save for an odd white streak in front. He flicked disinterested eyes at Cloud and then went back to his hand. A sparkling chandelier drifted above their heads.

Off to the right, he could see a large living area with a TV playing some kind of music video, and on the left were two sets of French doors, which he assumed led to bedrooms. Connected to the kitchen was a large bathroom.

"Alright if I check the place out?" Cloud asked.

The grizzled man waved his hand in Cloud's general direction. "Knock yourself out, kid."

The sound of his heavy boots on tile accompanied him to the first set of French doors. They opened up to a comfortably ritzy bedroom with walk-in closets, a mirrored vanity with lights, and a large flat-screen TV on the wall. Across the room, another pair of glass doors opened out to a balcony.

He made his way over to the balcony doors and examined the locks. Flimsy, as he expected. He stepped out onto the balcony. It was very large, filled with an assortment of expensive-looking furniture. He looked up at the roof. It was only about 15 feet above the balcony, which he figured any determined person could use to drop down and get inside the suite.

Another set of glass doors on the far side of the balcony led back inside. He opened those and found himself inside the other bedroom. This one was even larger than the first, with an enormous bed, a corner jacuzzi, a wall-sized TV, and another full living-room set. However, unlike the sterile cleanliness of the other room, this one had several open suitcases, cosmetics scattered over the vanity, and clothes draped on the backs of chairs. He stepped over some lingerie and opened a separate door to the master bath.

The room was dominated by a hot tub that had to be big enough for 10 people. Black tile gave a smaller feel to the huge bathroom, but there were shelves and closets that were bigger than Cloud's entire room. A door on the opposite side opened up to the first bedroom.

When he returned to the kitchen, the two men didn't even bother to look up, so Cloud crossed the dining room and entered the living room. The pop star, Aria, was sprawled out on the black leather couch watching TV. She wore yoga pants hung low on her hips, and a pale blue tank top that left little to the imagination. Glossy red hair showered across her shoulders.

A small smile quirked her lips when she looked up at him. She stretched gracefully as she stood, showing off some kind of circular tattoo around her belly button, and then sauntered over to him. Cloud held out his hand and she took it. "I'm Aria," she purred, staring deeply into his eyes. "And you," she continued, taking a step closer without releasing his hand, "are my date."

Startled, Cloud took a step back. "Excuse me?"

Aria ran a hand through her shimmering red locks, giving him a seductive smile. "Well, it's a VIP event, and you will be my escort." Her eyes raked over him appreciatively. "All you have to do is look pretty and act like you adore me."

Cloud scowled and crossed his arms. He was starting to understand how Tifa felt being ogled at the bar every night. "No way. That's not what I signed up for. The contract was for a bodyguard."

She patted his cheek. "Aww, aren't you cute." She strolled over to the coffee table and slid a cigarette from a sleek metallic case. "Don't worry; you will be guarding my body. Giles and Mack will be around too, but I need someone... closer. To protect me." She lit the cigarette and blew out a slim stream of smoke, and then she smirked, a challenge in her eyes. "What's the big deal? You can't act for one night?"

Cloud sighed, sensing that this job wasn't going to be as easy as he'd hoped. But he'd already driven all the way across the continent, and the pay was much better than his usual. He rubbed his temples, fending off an impending headache. "Is that a requirement?"

Aria smiled and leaned against the wall. "Yes. Either take the contract or go home."

Cloud eyed her critically, wondering if he was crazy to even consider it. He didn't think he was technically qualified to play any kind of role, but her people had called him and requested the services he offered, which did not include any kind of thespianism. So it wasn't his problem if he didn't make a believable escort for her. He just had to keep her safe. Finally, he sighed. "Fine. But if I'm going to do this, I need to know everyone legitimately involved in the operation. Starting with the men in the kitchen."

She stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray and shot an irritated look in the direction of the doorway. "They didn't even introduce themselves? Gods, they're such barbarians."

She grabbed him by the arm to lead him into the kitchen, which seemed completely unnecessary to Cloud. The two men at the table looked up respectfully when she entered, although the younger brunette man marked her hand on his arm with a scowl.

"These are my on-staff security guys. This is Giles," she said, indicating the grizzled man, "and this is Mack." She gestured to the younger man, who had his disturbingly intense stare now trained on Aria. "Guys, I need you to fill Cloud in on whatever he needs to know for tomorrow. I'm going to take a long, hot bath. Don't you dare disturb me unless the place is on fire. And if it is…" she added coyly, eyes skimming over Cloud, "send him in." She squeezed his arm and flounced off toward the master bedroom.

Mack glared at him with open hostility. Cloud stared calmly back. Giles cleared his throat, choosing to ignore the tension in the room. "Right. So, you're going to be escorting Aria to a red carpet event tomorrow night. As far as anyone knows, you're just a friend. Don't give any indication that you're there to guard her. Nobody's going to give a damn about you, so just leave the talking to Aria and stick to her like glue."

Cloud nodded, dragging his eyes away from the silent confrontation. "Fine. What do you have for the layout?"

Giles stared at him blankly.

"The layout of the place where we'll be tomorrow. Exits, security cameras, blind spots…"

"Oh, that." Giles waved his hand. "Don't worry, we'll handle all that."

Meaning, you don't know. Great. Cloud closed his eyes briefly, trying not to let his irritation show. He decided to let that one slide. "Fine. Then I need to talk to you about this suite. It's accessible from the balcony via the roof, and it's not easily defensible with those glass doors. I think we should move her to a better location."

Giles picked up his cards and examined his hand, effectively dismissing Cloud. "Yeah, I saw it. Don't even bother, kid. She's too stubborn to move, and there's no good reason to argue it with her."

Cloud scowled. "What are you talking about? Why would she hire three bodyguards and then not even bother to stay someplace safe?"

Mack spoke up for the first time, tone biting with anger. "There's no one after Aria. There's nothing to worry about. Just shut up and do your job."

Cloud let out a calming breath through his teeth, annoyed with their attitudes. He was trying to do his job, but Giles didn't seem to be taking it seriously at all, and Mack obviously had a problem with him. He set his jaw. "Then why am I here?"

"Why indeed," Giles said blithely.


Tifa was working through her closing task list. The glasses were all cleaned and put away, the tables wiped down, the floors swept. She pulled out the overflowing garbage bag and brought it out the back door to the dumpster. As the heavy door closed behind her, she heard the snap of broken glass under a boot. She froze, her senses on high alert. There was no crime in walking through the alley at night, but she had learned to trust her instincts, and right now, they were flashing a bright red warning beacon.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. She heard his footsteps coming closer on the gravel. He stopped just shy of the lights, a fedora shading his face from any stray illumination.

"Well, well. We meet again."

The voice tugged at Tifa's memory, but she couldn't quite place it. Whoever he was, he wanted to play it as a coincidence that he'd met her outside of her own bar, just after closing time? Everything, from his shadowed approach to his obviously rehearsed line, reeked of a setup. Calmly, she set down the garbage bag and pulled her black leather gloves from her back pocket.

The voice floated to her from the shadows. "I was hoping to run into you again, after our conversation was cut short last time."

The gears clicked into place in her mind: greasy mustache man. It had been several days since he'd been at the bar, but she recognized the sickly sweet tenor of his voice.

She silently slipped on her gloves. "Look, I'm really flattered, but I'm just not interested."

He sounded amused. "But you haven't even heard my proposition."

Tifa sighed. "It doesn't matter. I'm not—"

She stopped speaking abruptly when she heard the soft click of a gun hammer in the dark. He laughed softly. "See, I knew you'd want to hear what I had to say. Now, come closer."

Tifa weighed her options. It certainly wasn't the first time she'd had a gun pointed at her, but he stood in the shadows and she couldn't be certain exactly where it was. She took her time, slowly stepping closer to the man, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness. After another few long seconds, she saw the gleam of a revolver. Without warning, she whipped out her foot and kicked the gun out of his hand. He was startled as it flew over his head, falling back a few steps, but he recovered quickly. Anger rippled over his face as he clenched his fists.

"That…was a mistake, Tifa."

Tifa's closely attuned ears picked up another boot on gravel behind her. Backing towards the dumpster and turning her body enough to see the new visitor without taking her eyes off of mustache guy, she caught the glimmer of twin samurai swords.

Shit!

She knew she needed to get one of them out of the way before they converged on her, and mustache man was the obvious choice, since he no longer had a weapon. She jumped up to grab the bar on the dumpster, swinging herself around and using the wall of the building as a springboard, flipping herself toward the gunman. Startled, he brought his arms up, guarding his face from her fists, but caught completely off guard from the kick to his chest. He flew back with the force and skidded across the alley on his back.

Tifa landed lightly, facing the charging man with the samurai swords. She ran a couple of steps toward him and slid, knocking his feet out from under him. He hit the ground hard, one of his swords skittering away from his hand. She rolled back to her feet and ran up the steep slope of the building across the alley, spinning to pounce on him before he could get up. He rolled out of the way at the last second, grabbing her ankle and using her momentum to fling her the other direction. She hit the dumpster, managing to take most of the impact with her legs, but the container slammed loudly against the wall of the bar, buckling in the center where she hit it.

She leapt back to her feet again, launching an immediate attack on sword guy with a kick to the face. He brought his arm up fast enough to take most of the impact, but the force of his own arm against his face knocked him back a few steps. Tifa delivered a swift kick to the ribs and two jabs to the jaw before he could recover. Sword guy grunted, but didn't go down.

Tifa repositioned her feet and lashed out with a powerful roundhouse. As if suddenly remembering that he was armed with deadly weapons, he brought the blade of his sword down as she spun, ignoring her impending attack, slashing her left leg just as her right foot connected with his face. He flew backwards, hitting the ground like a ragdoll. He was definitely out of it, but it had cost her. She stumbled on her injured leg, and her head was jerked back roughly as The Mustache caught her braid from behind and wrapped it around his hand. He was a sloppy fighter, unfocused and lacking discipline over his emotions, but he had a significant advantage with her bad leg. She felt an alarming amount of hot blood pulsing over her knee, drenching her shoe, but she didn't think he had hit any major arteries.

He twisted her around to face him, unwittingly putting her back in an offensive position. He gloated down at Tifa, certain he had the upper hand.

"Really, buddy?" she taunted. "Pulling hair? Of all the cheap moves –"

She pulled back her arm and nailed his nose with the heel of her hand, feeling a satisfying crunch, and he yelped, releasing her hair and stumbling backwards, holding his hands to his face. She got in two more hits to the jaw and then swept his feet out from under him, ignoring the protest from her wounded leg. She was on him in a second, flipping him onto his stomach and pulling back his arm. He made a new, pained noise as she wrenched his shoulder and dug her good knee into his back.

Tifa ignored his wailing as she considered what to do with him. There was no real organized authoritative presence since Meteorfall, so the citizens of the Planet had to learn to deal with the lawlessness on their own. Tifa didn't have any real desire to kill the man, but if she didn't teach him a lesson, he would be back for her again. He might be anyway, with more backup. Maybe she should just break one or two of his bones. He would survive it, and maybe he would be scared enough to leave her alone.

She heard a soft sniffle over his cries. Her head whipped around, and she felt her heart stop when she saw the terror on Marlene's pale face. She was being held by a third man in front of a windowless van, a wicked looking dagger held tight against her throat.

"Let him go," the man said calmly, his cultured accent seeming absurdly out of place in the midst of this alley of violence. He was obviously a plate dweller before Midgar had been obliterated by Meteor, most likely a high-powered executive, and he reeked of entitlement.

Tifa released mustache man's arm and his cries subsided to whimpers, but she kept her knee planted in his back. "I'm not a patient man, Ms. Lockhart." To emphasize his point, he cut a small slice into Marlene's neck. Marlene let out an involuntary yelp as he kept the sharp blade against the damaged skin.

"Ok! Ok." Tifa stood up, digging her knee in one last time for good measure. She held her hands up in surrender. "Please, just let her go. I'll give you whatever you want. Just let her go first."

The man was tall and bald. He emanated quiet control. "After that little display? I don't think so, my dear. Jace, get up. Get the stuff." Mustache man got to his feet and stumbled toward the van. Tifa searched desperately for an opening, but Baldy never took his eyes off of Tifa, never relaxed his hold on Marlene. After a moment, Jace returned with a bottle and a cloth in his hand and hatred in his eyes. He soaked the cloth with the contents of the bottle, and Tifa froze as the scent of chloroform reached her nose. He pulled her roughly against him, again using her hair as leverage, and held the cloth over her mouth and nose. For the first time, Tifa started to panic. She was confident in her abilities, but she could do nothing if she weren't conscious, and it was too dangerous to try anything right then with Marlene in the mix.

She could only hold her breath for so long; she had to find a way to fool them. She held perfectly still for a few moments, and then started to struggle weakly. She didn't struggle enough get away from The Mustache, even accidentally. Baldy had already shown that he wouldn't hesitate to hurt Marlene if he thought it would stop her. After a minute, she allowed herself to go limp in his arms. The pressure against her face let up just a bit, but Baldy's calm, commanding voice brooked no room for argument.

"Keep it there, Jace," she heard Baldy murmur. "She's not out yet."

Damn it!

She continued to play possum, but soon she was out of oxygen for real. Her lungs began to spasm as she struggled to hold her breath, and soon her body betrayed her, forcing her to inhale.