Disclaimer: Everything FF7-related isn't mine.

A/N: Vincent/Tifa, attempt one. Getting my feet wet for the big fic I've got planned. I hope Vin's in character here - this is pretty much the first time I've written him ^_^;

Now even I felt at home. Night was a security blanket for me; I was just starting to realize that and it has been weeks since I've been awakened. But spending countless years locked away in repentance could do that---it made you forget things, even details about yourself. And naturally it messed with your eyes too: I still shunned direct sunlight like a plague, but in the twilight my eyes were falcon-sharp. Maybe they'd be like that forever; I didn't really care. All I knew then was that I was comfortable at last.

They looked at me like I was a monster---which wasn't far from the truth---when I didn't look sad at her passing. I thought I did a good job of telling everyone that I couldn't scrape up the effort to give a damn anymore, that the days when I could do so were long past and I wasn't about to resurrect them. It was too much of an effort to care, and ninety percent of the time it was wasted.

Cloud---the blond one, the loud knocker who simply couldn't leave me alone---buried her in the deep part of the lake. Bravo, you've just made her fish food. Certainly not the brightest among us, were you? Oh, wait, that was right, he was very emotionally shaken at the time. Still, I thought even I could've made a better decision then, perhaps buried her in the earth near the flowers she seemed to love. Hmmm. I should consider running a funeral home.

Everyone else's grief was proportional to my estimates. Cid and Barret had it written on their faces, but not in tears; the little ninja girl Yuffie was really upset and wanted to follow Cloud into the lake, but he told her to stay on the shore. The beast they called Red---now there was a smart one; why wasn't he leading the lot of us?---stood there as if on alert, watching, but with something deep reflecting in his eye. The Cait Sith robot was silent as stone, and Tifa, the least emotionally stable of all of us, sat near the shore close to Yuffie, weeping silently.

Amazing, how she could feel so much for someone who had formerly been competition. Even more amazing was how she had been willing to put her feelings for Cloud on a shelf so she could remain on Aeris' good side. Apparently to her being friends was more important than fighting over someone. Smart woman.

I wondered if she would stay smart. I wondered as I stood outside the abandoned house that was my place of rest for this night, shared with Barret and Cid, who were currently engaged in seeing who could snore the loudest. I was a very light sleeper.

The Forgotten Capital reeked of...not decay; no, that wouldn't be a good word, though all I had to do was turn to my left or right to see an example of that. This feeling went beyond decay. Death didn't quite sum it up either.

Hopelessness. There was the word. Despair, even better. The air sang with it, and not even the chorus of rotting debris could compete with that melody. I wasn't moved much by it, but the rest of them were. It affected each of them differently, with the exception of Cait Sith, who was out of touch, being synthetic.

Perhaps I was being over-observant when I noticed that Tifa was hit the hardest. All the sparkle in her eyes had fled and she looked even paler than usual, sallow, a shadow of her usually resilient self. She was very impressionable, not quite as strong as her appearance would let on. I often thought I saw in her something that was similar to me: she dwelled on something, brooded on it like a mother hen. It was just out of her reach, or so it appeared, but she was too timid to reach out and claim it. Or maybe it didn't want to be claimed by her, ever, like it had been in my case.

Smart woman, Tifa, choosing to be Aeris' friend rather than her rival. Smart woman, I hoped that you would stay smart. And I hoped I wasn't asking too much. Don't do it, I wanted to say. Don't do what I think you might and fall at his feet, grovel for his attention.

"Oh, God, I didn't see you there---!"

I looked over my shoulder, wondering if I wasn't endowed with some twisted sort of ESP. There she was, the smart woman, her light skin like milk in the moonlight, that endless cascade of hair a black veil from crown to thighs. Telltale trails glittered on her cheeks like liquid diamonds.

I might as well be hospitable. "If you want to be left alone out here, I can oblige you..."

She shook her head. "No, it's all right." A sliver of a smile. "You're so quiet, I don't mind. You and Red." She walked forward, closer to me, her feet---only in socks---kicking up the dried leaves and blades of grass that were strewn over the stone path. She continued on past me, then stopped. She laughed bitterly before saying, "Can you believe this? I don't even know where I'm going." She turned around, looking at me. "I want to be by the lakeside where he buried her, but at the same time... I don't think I could bear to sit there."

I nodded. I could understand that. "Your reason for being out here is more sympathetic than mine," I told her.

"Why? Why're you out here?"

"Because Barret and Cid's snoring contest shows no clear winner."

She chuckled. It was a pleasant sound; I always thought she had a nice laugh. Pity she didn't use it more often. "Yeah, I know about Barret already. I'm used to his snoring, actually."

I shot her a sly look, feeling suddenly coy. "Wanna trade rooms?"

She laughed again, but shook her head. "No." Then, "Silence seems nicer right now. There's too much going on in my head; I don't think I can take any more commotion."

Hmmm. I thought I should say something to that, so I blindly groped for some words. I doubted if comforting was my forte anymore, but I thought I had a decent grasp of it once. Maybe it would still answer my summons. "You shouldn't cry so much," I started. "I don't think she'd want it that way."

At that Tifa gave me a look I couldn't readily read. "It's not just that. It's about Cloud, too." Her pause there was deliberate. Her eyes were on me like she was waiting for a signal to continue. There in those dark depths was a dam waiting to burst. I knew what lay behind it, so when I gave her a verbal nudge---"Cloud?"---I was prepared for what came gushing out.

"I'm so worried about him. I mean, I was there when he---when he raised his sword---"

Raised his sword?

"...He had it up like this---" She mimicked a position, standing with her legs slightly apart, her hands gripping an unseen sword hilt. She imitated a struggle. Then she stopped, staring me right in the eyes. "He was going to kill her, Vincent. He was ready to...but Barret and I stopped him. That was when Sephiroth came down..."

Now that shocked me. Cloud, poised to kill Aeris? Someone he seemed to genuinely like? That didn't make sense, and I didn't even know Cloud very well. It'd been a mere couple of weeks since he had woken me up.

I was ready to ask something---I didn't know what, since I had so many questions---but then Tifa resumed speaking. "When I saw that, I knew it wasn't him. That wasn't the Cloud I knew. And I knew Cloud for a long time. Since we were little." She stopped again and looked away from me, suddenly shy. "I suppose you don't care, but it's really bothering me. Aeris is gone and something's wrong with Cloud, and I don't know what to do about any of it."

I put my knowledge of life and all its pain-inducing events to good use then. "That's perfectly understandable. Death isn't an easy thing to take. Neither is seeing a longtime friend in such a frightening light. But you're dealing with everything head-on. That's a good way to start looking for a solution." Just trying to be comforting.

Tifa's response was encouraging. She faced me again and smiled. Something about the tears on her cheeks and the vulnerable look in her eyes touched me. All the physical strength and muscle melted away and there was a very fragile woman standing before me. She was scared to the core and uncertain, but there was an inner strength stepping out, making her willing to face down her fears. It was the kind of strength that said, "I don't need to depend on anybody. I'll see this through myself."

I liked what I saw. So she had spine after all. Now I could believe her when she said she followed Cloud to save the Planet. Previously I simply thought she was tagging along after the man she loved. I knew better now; there was something deeper to her. I was impressed.

...So impressed that I nearly forgot about the uncomfortable silence that cropped up between us. We were just staring at each other. The poor moonlight reduced us to silhouettes, shadows whose only indications of existence were pairs of shining eyes. I knew what mine shone with, the fragments of my own internal struggles, but hers were purer and that made them magnetic.

I didn't say anything about it, but I also liked how she said my name then. It sounded nice. And I didn't think I would ever get to tell her that.

But then suddenly that became unimportant: Tifa's smile fell into a frown and she turned away. Her face fell into her hands with an audible clap and her shoulders heaved. Against the twilight her sobs were like thunderclaps. I feared she'd wake everyone else.

Maybe that was my excuse for approaching her. Or maybe it was the way she looked then: a frightened deer, pretty, graceful, and paralyzed by her emotions. I had seen Lucrecia look that way once, long ago, and being nothing more than her protection I could do nothing but watch as her tears rained down. I was not her husband. I was not her lover. I was just a watcher, a man placed there to make sure she was safe, she and the man she'd wedded. That was all. Not being able to do a blessed thing had cut through me mercilessly.

I was not Tifa's husband, nor was I her lover, but this time I could dodge the knife and be of some ease to her suffering. When I was close enough I wrapped my good arm around her.

She started up at my touch. "I...I---"

I shushed her. "No. Say nothing."

She whirled around, startled now, but then her expression changed. She paused for a bit, as though she was taking the time to see what it felt like to be so close to me (stranger that I was, practically), before her sadness overtook her once more and the crying resumed. She buried her head against my chest like she'd known me for years. Did she feel that comfortable? I hoped so, because around her I was starting to open up. I placed my other arm around her then, keeping the cold metal forearm away from the skin that her clothing exposed. Suddenly I became aware of just how heavy that damned thing was. How many times did I bother to raise it, to use it to hold anything, yet alone another person?

"Aeris is gone. There's nothing you can do about that," I began. "But Cloud... Maybe there's a way to fix whatever's wrong with him. I don't know. We'll just have to keep a close eye on him and find out what it is."

Her reply was muffled, given her position. "But what about right now? What do we do now? What can I do? I feel so helpless..."

"There's always the wait-and-see option. How patient are you?"

Tifa raised her head, sighing. "What does it matter? I doesn't look like I have much of a choice."

I smiled at her. A cynical streak, hmm? Not that I minded---she was showing some spunk again. It tickled me, I had to admit.

Tifa rested her head against my left shoulder now. Her hair felt nice against my neck, very soft. I sighed reflexively, then stiffened---I didn't want her to think I was relishing all this. That would be too sudden, though denying it would be a lie. I searched for something to say to chase away the persistent stillness. I went with something I'd kept locked away for a very long time. Now seemed like a good time to bear a little of one's soul. "You remind me of someone I knew, many years ago. She was hurting very much, and all I wanted to do was comfort her."

Tifa stirred a little. "Who was she?"

I could've just came out with it and said Lucrecia, but I didn't. Not yet, I didn't want to delve that deeply. "Someone I cared about ever since I laid eyes on her. A very lovely lady." A pause. I described Lucrecia then using similar terms, when Tifa and Barret and Cloud had stood before me, fascinated and frightened at discovering how much I knew about Sephiroth's past. Would Tifa remember what I said then, in all my careless reminiscing?

Her reply was a very cryptic "I see." Her right came to rest on my upper arm. "What happened then?"

"Nothing. I was in a bad position, so the only thing I could do was watch her suffer. I was useless."

Quiet descended on us both and I was starting to hate it. I would've given my right arm to know what Tifa was thinking then, I was so curious. She never said anything about what I told her. When she finally did speak up, it was something I didn't see coming.

"You have a nice shoulder."

I did? Well, if she said so. "Thank you."

And she chuckled. "You're welcome."

The silence wasn't so awkward after that. Just standing there, holding her, I thought that perhaps I was making up for what couldn't have been done way back when. A fragment of atonement, one sin taken off my shoulders. In its place now was the form of a woman who fit very nicely in my arms. I had been embracing a void for a very long time, a bunch of possibilities that never took to reality. Finally I had something solid here, someone with whom I didn't mind sharing a few things.

Again Tifa raised her head and looked up at me. She said, "I didn't expect you to understand so well. Not that I didn't think you could; it was just that you're so cold---or, well, you were, you seemed that way, but you're different now. I can see that."

It seemed we both learned something about each other tonight. "You and I are in the same boat. I see that now. I couldn't help the woman I loved, and you can't help Cloud..." The man she loved. Why, I would never know. He didn't reciprocate her feelings, not that I could see. His affections seemed to be geared more toward Aeris. Cloud and Lucrecia... I'd never thought I'd be drawing comparisons between the two, but here I was. The two of them were almost completely blind to the affections of others---well, partly blind in Lucrecia's case. She had been bound by duty. Cloud didn't have that excuse.

"You know, I used to go to Aeris with everything," Tifa resumed. Then she added, "Everything that didn't have to do with Cloud." Did I detect bitterness in her voice? "Then after everything happened... I swear, I got out of bed to go find her, and then..." She choked up there, but soon got a grip on herself. "I felt like the last person on earth. There wasn't anyone around that I was close enough to, that I could wake up and talk to without feeling guilty for bothering them."

"Well, if you feel you have to, you can talk to me," I ventured. Why I did so was a mystery to me, but it felt right. It really did. "I'm usually awake at nights. Twilight is a nice shelter."

Nothing more was said after that. I remained there, for a count of hours unknown to me, until the stars grew dim and light appeared at the edge of the horizon. Tifa broke down several times then, but she never had to worry: I understood her well enough to help her with the pieces.