part of the "Warming Up" FFVII series
'Warming Up' is meant to be a series of couple-centric pieces from FFVII. Warmup applies to both (1) people warming to each other and (2) seventhe warming back into another fandom before FFVIII swallows her whole.
Warning: the entire purpose of this is to attempt to twist the characters a little past their stereotypes. Don't go screaming 'OOC OMFG' cause I won't listen, also cause you'll look like a moron.
Tifa Lockheart - normally buoyant, cheerful, and ethereally selfless to a fault - stood at the door. It was Nibelheim and it was cold. She didn't feel buoyant, she didn't feel cheerful, and (in her ratty pajamas, and with her nose running) she sure as Sephiroth didn't feel ethereal.
Tifa Lockheart was horribly confused, shivering from cold, and: potently, selfishly, angry.
Vincent Valentine was lying on her doorstep. He was pretty much dead.
She didn't understand how Vincent had known she was there, since she didn't even live in Nibelheim anymore. The house was hers, in name, a gift from Shinra's Nibelheim Deception Agency. But Tifa didn't live there; she hadn't lived there for years, and she was not about to move in now.
It was only a short while after Meteor, months maybe, and they'd spent their time in Midgar, digging through the rubble and broken limbs and buildings and pieces of plate, all the rubble still glowing with Meteorbits and Makojuice. It had been all of them, and for a while the death and despair and the stench - rotting Makobodies, even blessed with Holy, still carried the scent of a mad decay with them - had been a greater battle than that last one in the Northern Crater.
She lived in Midgar now. She lived mostly alone. Barret was in Midgar as well; he had become the loud, noisy, black-angry head of a rescue organization which was working through the remains of the rubble and raising money for Meteor's orphans. Tifa had been a part of his team while all of AVALANCHE was there. Now everyone was gone and she had decided to open up a new bar.
Their camp in Midgar had become a pseudo-suburb: a launching place for families who wanted to come back and pay their debts and respects to the dying rubble. People were coming back - not permanently, for who would? But those who had left the remnants of their past in Midgar's ashes were returning for one final look. Tifa thought these poor slumpeople deserved a warm place to do it from: somewhere with good food, a well-stocked bar, and someone's shoulder to cry on as they washed the Mako-glow from their dirty hands and moved on.
She had already decided to call it The Great Gospel. Barret said that it was too religious for an alcoholic establishment but Tifa didn't care. She was naming it for Aeris because running the bar was something they could have done together: Aeris the angel, healing everyone's soulwounds, while Tifa smiled and mixed a fierce martini for the wounds even angels couldn't heal. Beautiful, ethereal Aeris, who was everything good and pure and everything lost and everything that ate at their stomachs in the dark of the night saying couldn't we have done something?
The bar would just be a bar, but there would be a café as well, and the café would have flowers: soft, graceful white churchflowers, big noisy bright Wutain blossoms, tiny medicinal blooms from Cosmo Canyon which healed poison. This part would be the real Great Gospel. She would bring her piano, the only memory from that broken house, and maybe people would come to play.
She still didn't know how Vincent had remembered her house (had he ever even been in the house?) or how he had known to come to her. She hadn't told anyone where she was going. Fate was a strange thing- maybe he'd seen her come in, or seen the lights on, or something?
She never meant to come back to Nibelheim: it hurt too much. She was cutting off all her ties with it, all her ties with her past and with Cloud and with everything she'd had to remember. She'd been angry to see Vincent, because she had been ready and prepared and she was moving on, out of this town forever, out of the past, So Long Good-Bye Don't Send A Postcard.
However: she'd never say no to a friend in need, and somehow Vincent had known this; and he had come to her (somehow, strangely) for help. And there she was, tied-down Tifa, and smiling.
She wasn't supposed to be here. She'd only come back to sell the house.
Two days and seven rounds of healing spells later, Vincent woke up. Tifa watched as the Life spell finally found something to grab onto, and grabbed - Vincent's breathing hitched, and his eyes flickered a bit.
He opened his eyes. Red glow and nothingness: Tifa had seen plenty of despair in her life, but she had never seen it look quite so empty. It occured to her to be a little alarmed, and so she said: "Vincent, can you hear me?"
His eyes focused on her, slowly, and because she was so mesmerized by the red glow she saw the flash of surprise. "Tifa?" His voice was dry, a bloody rasp against the blankness of his eyes.
Tifa shushed him as she would one of Barret's orphans. "It's going to be okay, Vincent. I found you outside the house, thank the gods, and I think you're going to be alright. You were pretty beat up, but I think in a couple weeks, you'll be healed."
Vincent said nothing. The light in his eyes had dimmed, almost darkening, and his eyelids flickered closed. "Okay, Vincent, get some more sleep," Tifa said, her voice hushed. "I'll take care of you." Funny, wasn't it, how fast one switched back into familiar behaviour.
Three days, four full curative spells, seven potions, and one bath later, Tifa found out the truth.
She'd just settled Vincent back onto the couch and taken off the Float spell which had helped her get him to the bath in the first place. Vincent had been silent since he had awoken, and so when he started to speak, Tifa was surprised. Vincent had never been one to initiate conversation, anyway, and so it was doubly surprising.
"Tifa," he said, his voice still dry and choppy and un-graceful, Vincent who was never graceless. "I - your help is appreciated, but it is - unneeded. I will remove myself from your presence and care as soon as I am able."
"Vincent, don't be daft," she said, clicking a fresh Cure materia into her Premium Heart. "You're no inconvenience at all. I'm just so glad I found you in time. I don't even live here anymore, you know."
"I know," he said, and his voice was a whisper, and it was almost as empty as his eyes. "I know, Tifa."
She lifted her arm in a casting gesture, but Vincent raised his own arm. "No," he said. "I don't - I don't deserve it."
Tifa put her hands on her hips, giving Vincent a motherly sigh and launching into her familiar lecture. "Don't be silly. It has nothing to do with what you 'deserve' and everything to do with me wanting to help you. I know you don't want it, but it's okay."
He looked up at her then, and the blankness in those normally vibrant eyes was enough to make her pause midway, her arm upraised in a strange defense pose.
"Have you not guessed?" Vincent's whisper caught her, just as his eyes drew her in. They'd always glowed with Vincent's fierce guilt and penance and revenge; when had they emptied?
Tifa shivered, in spite of herself, and asked in her own whisper: "Vincent, what?"
He sighed, deeply. "I know you do not live here, Tifa. I knew that. I was counting on it." His voice was a monotone, toneless, empty, not forlorn or despairing. "This is why I chose your house."
Her arm lowered slowly. "Chose for what?" It was a breath.
His eyes were locked on hers and she felt herself trembling with the truth as Vincent said, still emotionless, "To jump."
This was when Tifa got truly angry.
She knew she was angry with Vincent, but it took her a while to discover why. She couldn't stop thinking about it: it had invaded her thoughts and her movements, it rode around in her belly like a lead weight. She was obsessed with thinking about it, even though the thinking was a sick sort of feeling that made her slightly nauseous.
She knew exactly what had happened to Vincent - exactly what had driven him to this point.
Vincent's story is this: not long ago he woke up and realized that life was not his. His body bears many scars that are not of his making, and many more that are his own fault. His penance is useless, because Vincent realizes that it did nothing to stop Hojo, or Sephiroth - and had he not slept a thirty-year dream, he might have been able to change it.
His past is a lie and a dream, combined. He has lost his love. He has lost his revenge. And with Sephiroth defeated and a wounded world on the mend, he has lost his purpose.
It's like a mountaintop, the coldest and worst one up in Icicle Town, bereft of anything, and you're high on a cliff, looking down. Below you, you've got nothing. It's just white on white, some artist's idea of a joke. You have fought and kicked and screamed and eaten dirt and starved and sacrificed and lost sleep and friends and limbs and years and you expect to see something, anything. Even darkness would do: in darkness there is at least mystery. This is blank, an empty canvas. White is not, apparently, the colour of hope.
Vincent stood at that point, Tifa knew. Stood and looked downward. Tifa knew because she stood there herself. She has spent years of her life coming to this worthless point, staring into white and wondering, while her hands clenched rock and her feet pedaled fiercely to keep their traction. Tifa stood at this same peak only months ago, when Cloud vanished and left her only a short note and a little white flower. White as bleak as her future. An empty colour.
She knew the colour Vincent saw when he opened his eyes. It is because she has faced the same peak, but she chose - violently, desperately, defiantly - to live.
This is what made her so angry. Vincent and she had lost the same things - why did he get to give up?
The house was in good condition, only dirty, and with a small leak in the roof and a couple windows to be patched. Tifa launched herself into repairs with a desperate fervor. She purged rooms, sending small boxes of valuables to her address in Midgar and burning the rest in a strange symbolic ritual. Vincent watched her, his empty red eyes tracking her movements, her fever: watched her turn her fury into a pseudo-healing energy.
It was Mother Tifa all over again, healing the sick, fixing the broken, caring for the needy. It was a part of her character and her soul, yes, but she was ready to move on, into someone else. Someone who didn't come from the mess that was Nibelheim, someone who didn't come from Lies. It chafed.
She was in her study, packing old books into old boxes, when she heard Vincent's slow walk-drag behind her. Tifa spun, surprised that he'd be up, that he would seek her out.
His eyes were blank as she looked at him, but his voice was courteous. "May I be of service, perhaps?"
She sighed, trying not to look too encouraging or pleased. "It might be good for you to move around, actually," she replied. "I need to pack up all these books, I'm going to donate them to the library."
Vincent bent slowly and moved opposite Tifa; reaching for an empty box, he began to stack the books inside. They spent the afternoon in a peaceful silence: a new kind of silence, not the one which had reigned since Vincent's words. Tifa watched from the corner of her eye, noting Vincent's subtle winces as he twisted or lifted. Altogether, however, he was healing well.
By dinnertime, the room has been emptied; cardboard boxes were stacked against the far wall and the windows shone. As they left the room, Tifa found herself saying: "Tomorrow, if you feel alright, we'll start tearing down this wallpaper."
Vincent gave her no reply. That night, at dinner, they had their first normal conversation. Vincent inquired as to the house-cleaning. Tifa explained about needing a down payment for The Great Gospel, and how the house would have to be in good shape to sell on the market.
When Vincent offered his assistance, Tifa merely nodded vaguely, and said, "That'd be nice."
She was up on the roof, hanging on by fingernails and knees and strange braced angles, hammering in the shingles she had found in the shed. Vincent, below her, was too weak to help on the roof, but was strong enough to lift shingles up to her from a ladder, as long as he rested in-between. And wore sweaters and a jacket, by the gods: it was cold in Nibelheim.
She finished pounding the last nail and bent herself, contortionist-style, praying against anything that Shinra construction was sturdy enough. The strange thought flashed through her mind: If this roof can hold Vincent and his million-pound boots, it can surely hold you, and she exhaled under her breath.
Vincent was there as she turned, panting slightly but holding the new slab of shingle in his hand. Tifa braced her feet again and reached for the piece. Her eyes met Vincent's, and she stopped mid-movement. He looked tired, yes, but there was something back inside that fierce red glow of his, some small and tiny piece of life.
"Tifa," he said, and she realized that his voice was almost back to normal: dark, smooth, and quiet, but definitely not empty.
"Hmm?" She turned briefly to line the shingle up with all of its brothers and sisters, then returned to Vincent to receive the handful of nails.
"I -" He paused, his hesitancy uncharacteristic. "I must thank you."
Tifa dropped her hammer and shot him a look. She hated to be thanked, almost as badly as Vincent hated to be helped. "Vincent, whatever, it's okay -"
"Not only have you been ... most kind," Vincent continued, "... but you have never once asked me ... why."
Tifa turned away as she broke into a smile, a real smile, her first real smile in days; she felt it cover her whole face and wondered why her whole heart felt light.
Later that evening, once dinner was finished, Vincent began talking. They'd eaten Costan pasta, and the half-empty bottle of red wine stood on the table between them, a sentinel.
"I appreciate your ... discretion," he said, continuing the conversation he had started on the roof. "I have not been ... conversational."
"We all have our demons, Vincent," she said in return. "I don't need to know yours." I suspect mine are similar anyway.
"Demons," he repeated, cautiously leaning back in his chair. She was surprised that he was even drinking the wine, but his glass was nearly empty. "What would one like you know of demons?" he asked, in a voice that made her think the phrase was not meant to be spoken out loud, and Tifa sat up straight.
"One - one like me?" she asked, her tone part incredulous and part angry. "What are you talking about?"
Vincent swirled the wine in his glass vaguely. "I did not mean to insult."
But Tifa felt the anger bubbling to the surface, and though she knew she would regret it, she spoke. "Do you think you have a monopoly on anguish and guilt, Vincent? Your whole life has been torture, so nobody can compare to your depths of despair? I'm sorry, us mere mortals get hurt sometimes too."
"Tifa, forgive me," Vincent said, and she snapped her eyes to his. They glowed, crimson, but now they were full of emotion, mostly remorse. How much of that wine is he drinking?
"You are so strong," he continued, his eyes still locked on hers, and she felt warmth spread across her face. "I forget that your strength can overcome your pain - it comes from your pain. Mine has only brought me weakness."
Tifa looked away, brokenly. She didn't know what to say to this Vincent. Her heart ached. "You're not weak, Vincent," she began, but he cut her off.
"And which parts are not?" His voice was so full of quiet hurt that she looked up at him again; his eyes, so beautiful-full, were fixed on his glass. "I hid in a coffin for scores of years, dreaming away my guilt. I could barely stop the man behind all this madness. And then - I was not even strong enough to live," he whispered. "So I bound my demons and I ... I sought death."
"It - death can seem like a sweet release," Tifa whispered back to him, not knowing where the words came from, only knowing that her heart was swelling with pain for this beautiful sad man across her table.
"There is nothing," Vincent said, curling his hand into a fist on the table. "It is all empty."
In a sudden reflex, Tifa reached over and grasped his hand in both of hers. "Vincent," she began, but her voice choked. He looked up at her, and their eyes met: glowing scarlet meeting tearful mahogany over red wine and clasped hands.
"How have you done it, Tifa?" His voice was raw now, empty, and Tifa realized that she had seen the true Vincent Valentine, the one beneath all the capes and cloths and covers, the one who was in so much pain life seemed bleached from it. "How do you stay so strong?"
She squeezed his hand again and dropped her gaze to her wine glass, because she had nothing to say.
"Sometimes," Tifa said, glancing out the window at the rain, "you can't be strong."
They'd finished the roof the day before, thank the gods, because Nibelheim had released a fierce storm, full of wind and freezing rain. They were burning the remains of old musty linens. To her surprise, Vincent had pulled out another bottle of Costan Merlot. She was warm from both the fire and the wine.
"Sometimes," she continued, swirling her glass pensively, "you're not strong at all. You're just stubborn."
"How is this different from strength?" Vincent asked. They were both seated on the floor before the fire, backs leaning against a couch too worn to be comfortable. His legs were stretched out, slightly away from the fire, his brassed shoes shifted slightly out of the reach of the blaze. She was curled in a ball, legs tucked up and arms tucked around.
"Because it has nothing to do with overcoming anything," Tifa said, frowning. "You don't fight, you don't win. You just turn around and go somewhere else."
She took a mouthful of the merlot, feeling it burn on the way down. "You never have to run out of paths," she said bitterly. "If you're stupid enough."
"The mind cannot always comprehend this," he replied softly. "The mind does not always see the way out."
She opened her mouth to reply, but Vincent asked: "What would you have done, Tifa?"
She shook her head, laughing bitterly, taking another sip of the wine, craving its warmth. "It's not a 'would have', Vincent. You think I haven't been there?"
She turned her gaze to the window, then back to the fire. "Cloud left Midgar, some weeks ago. Left me a note and a flower. I hadn't even realized that I was counting on him - always being there. But Cloud leaves, and what do I have? A bunch of memories, a dead city, and an angry black man." And one tiny, white flower, summing up the blankness of her life.
Vincent's lips twitched upwards. "I assume Barret was ... displeased?"
Tifa chuckled. "That's a light way to put it." She sighed, watching as Vincent topped her glass off once again. "And a lot of the memories involve things I'd rather not remember. Like Sephiroth. And Aeris. And the fact that I lied to Cloud, a lot." She took another sip, trying to swallow the old tears and sadness with it. "I had created an imaginary little future - I'm such an idiot - and I never stopped to consider that it was all banking on something that didn't exist."
There: she'd said it, she'd admitted it. She bit her lip, trying to keep the old stupid tears at bay.
"And yet," he says, filling his own glass as well, "you did not find yourself on a Midgarian roof seeking respite. You found yourself another path - a way out."
She stared into her glass and something broke inside her, some strange kind of release. "Oh, Vincent," she said, leaning over tentatively until her head rested against his shoulder. "I'm not a self-help book - even I don't know what I'm doing anymore. I wish I could tell you something - anything." His shoulder was warm and she breathed deep, taking in the scent of fire and wine and Vincent and realizing it felt strangely like peace.
"We are much alike, you and I," he said, shifting slightly in order to support her head and still remain comfortable, "and yet very different."
Tifa sighed, drinking another sip and relaxing into him further. "Alright, Vincent," she said, her voice as soft and gentle as she could make it, "why did you jump?"
She felt him stiffen beside her and she sat up, thinking she had alarmed him; but he gently reached up and tucked her head back into place on his shoulder. "It is only fair that you ask," he said. "But I am afraid it feels foolish to discuss."
"I already feel foolish," Tifa replied, a flush across her cheeks. "It's your turn."
"Very well," Vincent said, and she felt him drain his remaining wine in one long gulp. "The mansion ... suffered from structural instability. There were a number of secret passageways and holes in the walls. When I returned, I meant to re-enter my sleep." He paused, as if it were the punchline to a joke. "The basement was nonexistent. My ... room ... had been destroyed."
Somehow, it was the punchline to a joke; Tifa managed not to laugh, for the laugh would be bitter. She did, however, shiver. "I tried to live as a normal man," Vincent continued, shifting his weight and wrapping one arm around Tifa, pulling her closer, for his comfort as well as her own. "But it was too difficult for me to face my demons. Not even for the few weeks I was here. It was hard enough for me to keep them ... at bay," he said softly, "so that I could jump."
He glanced down at her. "My mind could see no other paths."
"And now?" Tifa asked, trying to make the question as light as humanly possible.
She was so close to Vincent, she could feel his sigh through her own body. "I still see no other paths," Vincent said. "It is as if - you have come to the end of a path expecting some triumph, but nothing is there. No continuation, no reward. There is no meaning. All of your purpose - it is as if life itself has been bleached of substance."
"Everything is white," Tifa murmured into his shoulder, her eyes closing.
"Yes," Vincent sighed, "everything is white." His fingers came up to graze against her arm slightly, running up and down her skin. "However, I had a chance to speak with someone I admire," he said, his voice an amused murmur in her ear. "And sometimes you do not need a purpose - all you need is to carry on."
When Tifa woke up in the middle of the night, the fire had dimmed to embers. She lay up against Vincent Valentine, her head tucked into his shoulder, one arm curled against his chest. He was leaning against the couch, his chin resting on her head, his arm holding her close.
Still groggy, she readjusted her head into the warmth that was Vincent's chest. He must have felt her shift, for she felt his head rise off of her own.
"Tifa?" he whispered, his voice deep with sleep, and Tifa lifted her own head slightly to look up at him. His eyes had dimmed with sleep, resembling the embers in their fireplace. She smiled sleepily at him; Vincent returned the smile, and she suddenly realized how close their faces were: she felt Vincent's breath against her cheek.
She continued to gaze at him, and he at her, and their smiles slowly melted into another look; Tifa felt Vincent's hand come up behind her back, his fingers brush hesitantly against her bare arm, and a faint tingling feeling started to spread through her body. She shivered slightly, and he tugged her closer, his fingers tracing patterns on her skin.
She must have still been half-asleep, because she leant forward, brushing her lips against his own gently, a tender gesture. When her eyes fluttered back open, he was staring down at her, with the surprise and shock so evident in his face that she froze and lifted her head, saying, "Oh, gods, Vincent, I didn't -"
But then Vincent's mouth came down against her own and her eyes flicked shut against their own accord, her lips moving against his, her hand coming up to graze across his face, bury itself in his hair. He tasted of sleep and wine. His arm tightened, pulling her closer as the kiss deepened, his tongue flicking out against her lips. She pulled his head closer to hers and responded as his hand ran slowly up her back and teased the nape of her neck.
It broke, suddenly, and Tifa was no longer sleepy: her heart was pounding as she looked at Vincent. Their eyes met and this time she felt that both of their eyes were on fire, that muted red-burgundy glow expressing everything. She blinked. An apology was so obvious on his face that she leant in, again, and deliberately pressed her lips to his, running her own tongue against his as his lips began to move with hers.
She leant back, then, and instead of saying a word, allowed Vincent to pull her close as she nestled her head inbetween his neck and shoulder.
Tifa looked down at the cheque in her hand. The realtor had appraised her house highly, even in small slow Nibelheim, and she had gotten a good amount for it. She breathed a sigh of - culmination. The Great Gospel was in her hand: this was her beginning. Nibelheim - her past - could finally be over.
She heard a soft shifting behind her, and turned to see Vincent approaching. He held something out to her, a small slip of paper, and as she took it she couldn't help but gasp: it was a similar cheque, from the realty.
"Vincent?" She looked up at him, puzzled. "What's this from?"
"I have sold the mansion," he replied, in that emotionless, casual way of his.
An eyebrow rose. "You're the owner?"
"Apparently," he said, and this time he couldn't keep all of the humour out of his voice. "No one has laid claim to that mansion for over forty years. Rumour has it that it's haunted. Once I revealed that I had been a resident there for thirty-some years, my identification was enough proof of ownership for the salesman."
"Vincent, that's great," Tifa said, smiling; she reached out to hand the cheque back to him, but he took a step back.
"What are you going to do with it?" she asked, flourishing it at him insistently, waving the little piece of paper like a flag.
He refused to take it. Finally, she walked up to him and forcefully pressed it against his chest. "Vincent, take your money."
He looked down at her, and one hand tentatively lifted to clasp her upper arm. "I thought I might invest it," he said cautiously. "Perhaps go into business somewhere in Midgar."
The look on his face was so unsure, but Tifa's own face split into a wide grin. "You want to come with me? Vincent, that's even better! Although," she said slyly, "I am still not taking your money."
"I do not ... desire to be here," he said softly. "If I am not a bother, I would like to come."
"A bother?" Tifa looked up at him through her lashes, still smiling. "You're the only one I know who can get away with that word. But yeah, I would rather you came," she said, gently, "than stayed here alone. I'd worry about you, you know."
Vincent nodded. "I ... I do admire you, Tifa. Perhaps I will be able to learn to ... keep the emptiness at bay."
It's not empty, Vincent: it's only white. You just need to learn to see that. Tifa stepped in, wrapping her arms around Vincent and smiling into his shirt as his arms came up around her.
"Vincent," she said, "as long as you learn how to mix drinks, we'll be fine."
This is probably, like, the fourth version of this story, and that doesn't include the editing. Yarg. This was damn hard, for some reason.
I've realized why these pieces are so long: I'm a firm believer against love-at-first-sight, and I like to show some development before everybody just starts snogging. Sadly, that implies buttloads of development, but hey - spare me.
The idea comes from the fact that I have read a lot of T-V Tifa-Almost-Commits-Suicide fics (a handful of which are very good, the rest cheap imitations) and I thought "Hey, what if..." Initially it was meant to be a multi-chaptered installment. However, I am very lazy.