Author's note: I have this whole somewhat tortured line of reasoning that lets me claim they celebrate Christmas and call it that in the world of FF7 - the appearance of the church, for one, and one of the NPCs uses "Jesus" as an epithet, so why shouldn't I make a lousy translation work for me?

The bar's crowded, noisy - there's music somewhere, but he can't identify the source. Most of the volume comes from voices. Reno's holding down a table in the corner, feet in the other chair, and makes a show of not relinquishing his footrest as Rude stands over him. Finally he lets it go, and Rude sits down without a visible sign of exasperation. He's wearing a worn, dark-colored sweatshirt once navy blue, and faded jeans - he hasn't dressed this way in years. Reno looks as messy as ever. Rude can't seem to manage it, even in clothes chosen for the purpose, even after shooting a man in the back of the head and leaving his body in a walk-in freezer. The suit he'd worn for the hit went in a heap of trash in an alley. Some dumpster diver will find them when he's long gone.

It's New Year's Eve. There's still cheap tinsel around the bar, and there was a wreath on the door. He hates Christmas - office parties and sugary music in the background everywhere, and people don't even have the decency to drop it instantly once it's over. Reno gave him a tie, two days late. He gave Reno a flask of bourbon. He just wishes they'd take down the damn wreath.

"Done?" Reno asks.

"Done. You order drinks?"

There's the flask. Reno offers it, and Rude takes a drink, passes it back to him. "Service is pitiful. I was starting to wonder if it was self-serve."

"...only in your fantasy world. I know you've spent more time than that in the slums." The smaller man just shrugs. Rude leans back in his chair and scans the room. There's a jukebox against one wall, but the music he thought he'd heard is coming from a record player sitting on top of it. No wonder they can't get much volume. He sees the bar. He sees the girl. She's looking to someone near her, not facing him, and he sees the right side of her face as it crinkles into a laugh. Dark hair, dark eyes, a red sweater and a pair of jeans that hug her body, and he must have been staring because Reno kicks him.

"Take a picture, it'll last longer," Reno says, and Rude's not sure if he ever flushes visibly, but his face feels hot. "Go up and talk to her, dumbass. At least order drinks," Reno adds.

So he goes, and he orders drinks, and she smiles at him and says "I haven't seen you around," and he kind of grunts. "I'm Tifa," she adds, and he says "Hi," and she grins and passes him the bottle and the glasses.

"Stop smiling, Rude, your face'll freeze like that," Reno says, as he returns to the table.

"...I'm smiling?" He's not, exactly - he pulls off his sunglasses to check his reflection in the lenses - but Reno makes a disgusted noise as he pours.


The bar's almost empty, and he can see now how shabby and battered the mismatched furniture is, the care she's tried to take with the scuffed surface of the bar. He takes a seat at the end of it, looks down the way at the huge black man - scarred face, a hook in place of his right hand, and a perpetual scowl - and then at the broken jukebox, and then she says hi and he just looks at her. He thinks about love at first sight, which he doesn't even believe in, and about some stupid movie on cable last night where the guy tried reading poetry to some girl and of course he won her in the end, and he thinks about taking off his sunglasses. "Hey," he says. He leaves the shades on.

His business was in the Sector 6 slums, but he came this way for a drink. It's January, and down here it's cold - cold air sinks, he thinks, and the memory's in his mother's voice - but not enough for the heavy coat he wears against the wind and snow on the plate. It's dry here, and the air circulates because of ventilation systems, not because of weather. His tie is stuffed in his pocket, and he carried his suit jacket over his arm in the heated station lobby, though he needs to wear it in here.

"What brings you down here?" she asks. "You dress like you work on the plate."

"Business," he says. "And I liked your bar."

"Oh yeah, you've been here before..."

"Good memory for faces," he says.

"I didn't get your name, though."

He didn't give it. "Jackson Rudolph. People call me Rude."

Her mouth quirks. "They got your name backwards."

He almost smiles. "Yep."

"What kind of above-plate business brings you down here?" she asks.

"...the, uh, shady kind," he says, and she smiles a bit.

"I won't ask, then. As long as it's not Shinra, I figure it can't be too awful."

"...yeah," he agrees, and tosses back the shot.

He asks her where she's from, why she came to Midgar, and she says she wanted to get away from her tiny, backwoods hometown, "especially after the... the reactor fire," she says, and the hesitation and the way she slams bottles around for a bit until he asks about the music make him wonder if he ought to look in the files. She says she's from Nibelheim, and the name rings a faint bell.

She asks where he's from, and he says Junon. She asks what it's like there, and he thinks of fishing boats, fewer every year, and the mako wells being drilled, remembers the upper city overshadowing the village. Remembers his parents putting the house - old, but roomy - and the furniture up for sale, moving into a tiny flat with shabby furniture in the upper city, and coming home to an empty house after school because of the long hours his parents were working. "A lot like Midgar," he says. "In a way."

"Were you plate or slums there?" she asks.

"They didn't have a plate like that," he says. "My folks moved to the upper city later. Our apartment up there was a quarter of the size of our house down below, but you couldn't find work in the lower city." He never talks that much at a stretch - not to a pretty girl he barely knows. Not to Reno. Never.

"Why'd you come to Midgar?"

SOLDIER, at first. He'd enlisted at fifteen. Then special forces, and then the Turks. "...why not?" he says, finally.

She laughs mirthlessly. "I can think of lots of reasons," she says.

"Where else would you go?" he asks. He meant it as a real question, but it sounds like a rhetorical one once it's spoken.

"I don't know," she says, after a long moment.