Another Rufus/Tifa fic? How many are you going to do? Sheesh!

You may very well be asking yourself that. A few may know the answer. I don't imagine many people read this pairing, but I'd like to think I've provided a decently substantial amount for those who enjoy this guilty pleasure.

This one is for Zelda, yet again, (oh boy aren't you raking up the dedications here in my FF7 works). Oh so much crack in my head over this pairing. I wonder if anyone bothered to make a C2 of them. . . hm. . . I might have thought of that but I used my C2 for, um, something else.

This got cut off while I was recovering from a car accident. Had to pick it up again in the thick of the action. Rather upsetting that. If it seems odd, that would probably be the reason.

But I ramble. Here is the oneshot. Please enjoy.

Disclaimer: I don't own Final Fantasy 7 or any of the characters in it. This is just a writing exercise, don't be a hata'. I don't edit well. Um. Word.

Around the Mulberry Bush

There wasn't much left to Midgar these days except for cracked roads and shattered windows in husks of buildings. More of the plates had collapsed, or had been collapsed, and those places above plate that hadn't been razed to the ground by the mobs in the wake of Meteor had been covered by strangely lush vegetation as a result of Holy. Tifa thought to herself that since Midgar had dug the deepest and suffered the most pollution that Holy had overcompensated. An urban jungle indeed.

People who were too poor to move to one of the towns and villages that hadn't been destroyed in the panic or by Holy's influence stayed in Midgar and tried to make a living. There was a remarkably large shanty town in the middle of the cement jungle and some of the people there made trips out selling scraps that they scavenged. Midgar was now ringed by the planet's biggest flea market. It was dirty and miserable, but this is where Tifa had found herself nearly a year after she had helped save the planet. It didn't seem like she and her friends had saved these forgotten people from anything.

Of all the things she had done for good causes, one she could not forget or justify was the destruction of one of the plates in Midgar. She had been part of that destruction, a catalyst for the beginning of the end for this miserable town, but Tifa felt the debt she owed here more keenly than in other places and the blood on her hands.

There hadn't been many skills she could offer when she first arrived. All she had known was fighting, bartending, a little bit of amateur guide work. None of these things would help a town that was slowly disintegrating. While she felt she was absolutely useless on first glance she was determined enough to stick to her goal to help despite protests from her friends scattered around the globe who wrote to her and offered her a place to stay and time to build a real life for herself. What she insisted when she wrote back was that she had built a life for herself, one that she was becoming content with.

At the time all she had noted was how Cloud's invitation was noticeably missing. He had had his own demons to fight, and they had parted on terms that made her cry still, rarely, in private. He was haunted by ghosts she couldn't help him with. So instead of being there for the soldier she loved, she would lend that love to those who received none. It filled that void in her, but never entirely. Friendship and constructive energy couldn't erase her longing for a romantic attachment that she acknowledged she should have grown out of as soon as she could legally drink.

It was all those invitations, and one missing one, that eventually inspired Tifa as to what she could do. She had traveled extensively, and she knew every major town on the planet as well as could be expected of her. Single handedly she planned to relocate every person who needed or wanted a job in Midgar to one of those towns. It was an ambitious project, one that probably wouldn't be finished within her lifetime, but her burning idealism attracted helpers. Eventually she had files prepared and other guides ready to lead people through the wilderness of monsters and Holy changed geographic features to their new homes. The money for all this came from the cut of gil she had taken when her group of friends parted ways. There were a couple rare materia tucked away for when she needed more money, and after that she could always find credit if she needed it. Tifa wasn't hurting for cash, but she didn't have nearly enough to do what she wanted to as quickly as she wanted.

This was as perfect a situation as she could create. She trained guides to fight so that they could lead people through monster infested areas to get to towns that needed skilled labor. Everything but her bartending experience came into play. Those days were behind her, and gladly. Two years passed like a breeze in her mind, three years since Holy, and Tifa became notorious across the world. Homeless people were actually coming to Midgar to have her help them.

It would have overwhelmed her if not for the fact that her staff was amazing, particularly her second in command, Alan. He was formidable, haughty and cold but remarkably thoughtful when you caught him off guard. There was an added edge of mystery to him due to how he came to her employment service and because she had never seen his face. She had suspicions, but she had made it a policy to ask no questions. Everything was made new by Holy, she felt, so everyone should have a second chance. There had been very few people who had let down her expectations. Those who did become a problem had to face Alan, and few enough people talked to him a second time.

Sometimes people referred to her as Mayor. It had started out as a joke, but the title was catching on at an alarming rate. Mayor of a shantytown and a jungle, it was humorous in a way, but she and her staff were truly all that could be called a government in this place. Her guides were trained to fight and often acted as security or police when they were needed. The core of the operation, the people who took care of the assigning of jobs, were almost all displaced members of the Shinra corporation. No one would touch them with a ten foot pole, let alone give them a job, and they knew how to plan for hundreds and thousands of people and organize planet wide operations. They were reviled but invaluable, and she felt like she could trust them because all of them had been screened and recruited by Reeve, formerly Cait Sith. Cait Sith had not been her favorite member on the team, but he had been there up until the end and that counted for something.

At this point things had grown beyond her power to manage them. She felt more like a figurehead than a leader, but Alan had told her that a leader's job was to be an example. Micromanaging was inefficient and not worth her time. Big decisions still had to run by her, but the one on one human element of this process began to fade into the background. However, much to Alan's displeasure, Tifa began to make sure to greet people every day who were waiting in line for assignment or to be put on file in case a job opened up. She held babies, awkward from lack of experience with them, and listened to stories, most of them sad and all too similar. Old soldiers, displaced factory workers, orphans, and every hard luck case in Midgar wanted to see her bright pretty smile and feel her big heart ache for them. It wore her out quickly, and the activity became limited to twice a week at most.

It really was exhausting, endlessly she did penance for all the death and destruction that she had wrought three years ago. The whole process was making her feel old, weary, but the value in what she did was undeniable. She was the best thing that had happened to Midgar since Holy. As Alan had pointed out, she was expected to set an example. So long as Tifa was famous and loved, then people in towns all over the world would find places for her forgotten people. That was enough to get her tired body out of bed in the morning. Those days she felt sick of living for other people, all she had to do was take a look out her window at the collapsed plate and the steel core inside of her forced her to keep moving forward.

"You smell like a pig sty."

Tifa fell heavily into her chair. It was still weird for her to have an office, complete with desk and chair. All the items had been scavenged and the chair would sometimes snap back and dump her on her head, but Alan had insisted that it was important to have a tangible seat of power that people could visit her in. A baseless leader was a lost one. An office gave her the power of a static location. She had smiled and nodded at the time, not really listening, and a couple days later she had had an office. Alan was amazing, if presumptuous.

"Well, it was raining today and I slipped on a patch of mud near the door. Some old lady thought I was waiting to get a job too and told me I should go home and clean up first." Tifa lifted a limp strand of hair and let it drop again, feeling her hand come away almost slimy. "She patted my hand and everything. It was very sweet."

Alan handed her a glass of water, knowing she was probably halfway to collapsing as she always was by the time she ran the gauntlet of people to her office. Not just the people in line demanded her time on these days, but also her staff because of whatever emergency was happening at the moment. There was always something.

"Thanks." Tifa looked at his gloves, their black leather cracking a bit after so much use. He never took them off, just as he never took off the cloth bindings that covered every inch of skin that his hat and suit did not, which basically left his face. The only sign of a person in the mummy wrapping was a pair of icy blue eyes and a fine set of lips that were curled into a sneer more often than not. He even covered up his eyebrows. "You need some new gloves."

Alan glanced down, sighed, and then took the empty glass whose contents she had practically guzzled. "So I do."

"Do you really have to take that day off tomorrow? I just know this whole place will come down around my ears if you're gone for a day." Tifa knocked on her wooden desk for luck, half expecting it to finally give up the ghost and become rubble like so much of the rest of the city. "I still find it creepy that I have to set up shop in the old Shinra building. . . Maybe I'll move while you're gone tomorrow. That would serve you right."

"What's left of it is structurally sound, and it's central to Midgar so it made sense. We're not having that discussion again."

"Why do you always call our arguments discussions?" Tifa shook out her hair, feeling it begin to dry off. That gritty feeling down the collar of her dress was kind of gross, though. The grime that infested her past travels seemed to follow her into her new life. Those boots she liked so well must be bald of traction on the bottom. Buying new shoes seemed like a waste of time, but after slipping on the way in the idea was gaining merit.

Alan smiled, and Tifa felt her mood brighten. It was rare that she could get him to smile. "You are the only one who feels the need to yell when we discuss things."

She mumbled to herself. "I'm just making sure you can hear me. . ."

"Regardless, I am taking tomorrow off and you cannot get me to change my mind." There was a finality to it when he used that tone of voice, the one that made her memory prickle. It was a tone that told her she wouldn't be getting her way; then again she hadn't been trying particularly hard. The main reason she had even brought it up was because she was concerned about him.

"All I want is for you to talk to me. Everyone else is—"

His voice was a lash over her senses. "Don't treat me like one of your cases. I don't need your pity."

"That's not how I meant it, you know that."

Someday, Tifa swore to herself, Alan would tell her his story of his own accord. She burned to hear it, to learn why exactly he hid his face and name away. Alan had shown up shortly after Tifa had appealed to Reeve about needing to set up an organization to keep track of the people who approached her. Alan had been immaculately dressed in a pressed suit and tie, fine leather shoes, and a stylish hat, but what made Tifa stare impolitely at Alan from the very beginning was the way his head was wrapped so that all you had to tell he was a living breathing person were those sharp eyes and even sharper tongue.

Reeve had said, somewhat hesitantly, that if she needed someone to help her get things started that this was the person to turn to. He had been high up at Shinra and he knew how to keep people in line and get things going for her. Tifa had been glad for his help, even if his lack of a last name or of a willingness to share his past had given her a bad feeling. Alan had proved himself a thousand fold in the past two and a half years he had worked for her.

The vacation request worried her, as it always did when he asked for this. He only wanted one day. A measly amount, and she would have been glad to give him a week, but he only wanted a day. Somehow that made it more sinister, more emotionally loaded. Tifa didn't want to let him go and brood over whatever it was that hurt him enough to disrupt his work. Alan was important to her, had become the person who was closest to her, and even then she couldn't claim that she knew him well or understood him beyond the basics.

". . . hello? Anyone in there?" Alan was trying to get her attention. Tifa must have spaced out as she reflected back on those early days when she had hated and mistrusted Alan for his Shinra past. Like the rest of her prejudices, she had had to let that go or else face failure in her attempt to help people. That's where the clean slate came into play. Everything had been made new with Holy, and that went for Shinra employees as well. They were just people. That knowledge had brought on a whole different category of guilt as she thought of all the security guards her team had 'taken care of' on their trips to Shinra HQ.

"Guess I was caught up somewhere for a moment."

"Glad you're back now, I. . . we wouldn't want to lose you."

If his slip of the tongue had meant anything to her, she tried not to show it. Alan did not mix his professional and personal life. Their friendship had always been one sided, with Tifa making overtures and Alan rejecting them. Tomorrow, she decided, it was going to be different.

The weather had not seemed to agree to her determined assessment. The mud was deeper than ever and helped along by fat raindrops, surprisingly cold considering it was late spring. She asked herself again why she was doing this, why she felt the need to press her attention on a person who was about as emotionally well connected as a robot. The answers that her brain offered were unsatisfactory. What it seemed to boil down to was the desire to get to know him better, and a faint feeling inside of her that she had again developed unrequited feelings of some sort. The generalized nature of those feelings, whether friendship or something more, also troubled her.

Alan had become so important in her life and her work. Maybe the impulse that drove her to seek him out was simply a case of too deep a familiarity with a person. Inside, Tifa was a romantic and couldn't help but be fascinated by those who seemed loveless. Everyone could be renewed; everyone could find their lost path and become better for it, couldn't they? The core inside of her that had demanded she remain true to a childhood sweetheart despite a grim day to day reality allowed her to harbor rosy thoughts. Alan would call her silly and soft hearted, and she would agree. It kept her human. It was an easy guess because they had had that 'discussion' before. All he had done was grunt after she retorted.

It was one of the few times she had ever come out on top in an argument with Alan. Tifa would take her victories wherever she could.

With the kind of skills he had, even with that eccentric habit of bandaging his head, he could have worked anywhere else on the planet. Tifa felt lucky to have him working with her. She hoped that he would finally recognize that and acknowledge her concern as that of a friend, and not because it was her job.

There was something of the stiff pride in herself that had led her here. One of the defining characteristic she had prized in herself was the way people naturally trusted her and opened up to her. Alan remained aloof, annoyingly picking at her confidence in ways he was most likely well aware of. The man was sharp.

She knocked on his door, her brain firing rapidly and her heart pounding in her ears. It had only been slightly unethical to use his file at work to find his home address. There was no phone listed, simply an address and the usual stock photo that was on the files of all her employees. In her mind she thought that he looked sadder back then, or something along those lines, but it was hard to tell with all those bandages.

There was no answer so she knocked again, this time with greater force. The building was large and seemed to be drafty if the number of gaps in it were anything to judge by. At one time it could have been a mansion, or some sort of fancy public building, but now it was consumed by vines and the runoff from the roof fell into holes as often as it found its way to the gutter.

"Alan! It's me! I'm coming in!"

The door wasn't locked. While his not answering the door did not surprise her, the lack of a lock caused her more than a little alarm. That wasn't at all the kind of person Alan was, trusting that is. Silly girl, she told herself, with all these holes what good would a locked door do him? Tifa felt her heart calm down to a mere flutter when she stepped inside.

The umbrella she carried was needed inside as well once she realized the foyer was missing most of its roof. Cracked marble tiles led her down a hallway and past a mostly intact kitchen, shiny from steel counters catching the light. Tifa examined the clean pots and pans only long enough to note that they were not decoration and smiled at the single plate and bowl sitting in a strainer on the counter. It was tidy in here, clean in a way that only Alan could manage in such a dilapidated environment. This place must have been truly grand once, before Midgar fell, literally and figuratively if even the kitchen was this fancy.

She backtracked into the hallway and then past doors where the building had caved in and blocked it with rubble. There was a small courtyard, overgrown on the edges but meticulously cared for in all of the beds. Alan's touch was everywhere here, controlling what it could and leaving what was unnecessary. He wasn't the kind of guy who wasted his time. A smile pulled at her mouth and Tifa remembered the disdainful way his mouth would pull when she took on a particularly difficult case. Why did he stay, she wondered, if he thought her work to be too idealistic for his tastes.

The sound of running water from a tap finally caught her attention. It was distinct and unlike the sound of runoff from the eaves and holes in the ceiling. She followed it until she found a bathroom where hot water poured into a large porcelain tub, fissured badly around the edges but seemingly sound. There was a doorway across the hall from the bathroom that lay open and, caught up in the unreality of the moment, she walked in without knocking.

Sitting on the bed, immobile, sat a man with his back to her. He was naked from the waist up and his arms were planted on either side of him, bowed out as if he were going to stand up but not actually making the motion to do so. Tifa was not shocked by the sight of a half naked man, that was nothing new to her after her time traveling with a party mostly made up of men for some time. No, it was the badly healed and angry looking scars that ran all over the skin she could see.

His arms shook a little under her gaze, and the scars looked painful from the back. Some were longer than others, some shallower and less gruesome, but it must have been a horrible accident or series of accidents to leave him looking like that. Not even his head was spared, she saw. Parts of his hair stood out as if it were covering more scars turned to thin bald lines. Stepping closer, she saw that where his body wasn't scarred, there were every so often slick patches as if he had been burned as well as lacerated.

"You couldn't even give me one day to myself, could you?" If she couldn't believe it before, she had to now. It was Alan's voice without a doubt.

Tifa didn't know what to tell him. She was trespassing, and she had seen something that obviously shamed him enough to hide it from everyone he knew. There was no way she could apologize for something like this. It was a gross violation and she felt ill over her callousness, her naïve assumption that her innocence was an excuse to do what she wanted and that nothing bad could come of it. As always, she had acted before properly planning for the consequences. The road to this hell had been clearly paved with her good intentions.

"Seen enough yet, or must I carry this farce to the end?" She saw that he was missing his left index finger when he ran a hand through his hair. Tifa never would have guessed it about him, but then Alan had been so good at hiding himself away she hadn't even thought to ask.

Rooted to her spot by the doorway, Tifa watched as the man she had known as Alan for two years turned to glower at her with the face of an old but not forgotten enemy. The worst of the damage to his body had been to his back it seemed, because the scars on his belly, chest and face were all slim and white, clean cuts that would have been slow to heal. That must have been more painful than his back. He pointed with a snarl to his still handsome visage. His right hand was missing the last joint on his pinky.

"What a joke, isn't it? I faced the blast thinking the glass that came at me would be my end. Worst mistake of my life, all it did was cut me up and fell me for when the roof collapsed on my body. If I had been disfigured no one would know me and I could try to live a normal life with the rest of the forgotten wounded. But who could forget this face, barely scarred, like it was in the papers, pictures. . .television even?" He rested his hands on his hips, eyes narrowed at Tifa with an emotion not unlike hate. "If Rufus Shinra were alive, everyone would want a piece of him. Everyone else was content to let him die. But you just had to come here, uninvited. So take your bleeding heart and get out before I really lose my temper. I've got enough blood on my hands for a lifetime."

"Stop right there!" Tifa was not going to stand there and be browbeaten. She knew she was in the wrong, but this was going to get out of hand if she didn't do something. "Stop looking at me like you know what I'm thinking or feeling. You're the one so deep into your own self pity that you can't bring yourself to show even a scrap of skin to other people. You think you're the only one with scars? The only one with blood on your hands?"

His words had hurt her more than she would ever admit. In the end, her hope for this visit had been to finish building that bridge to his thoughts and feelings that she had assumed was so close to completion between them. The sudden disabusing of that notion was more than a small shock. That he had once been her enemy was nothing; that he was refusing to be her friend was everything.

"You want to see my scars? You want to see the extent of my vanity?" She pulled open her shirt, popping a button or two in her snapping anger, not caring about how indecent she was making herself in her haste. "See this? This is the gift Sephiroth gave me when I was just a child. Take a good look." It was ugly, jagged, as it should be since it had been made on a developing girl with an enormous sword a decade plus earlier. The scar was ugly, but there was more, such as the way her ribs had not healed precisely right from the impact. The unnaturalness of it did shame her, marring her mentally and physically.

Not to be outdone Rufus pointed to his left eye, poking it in a manner that made Tifa fear he had finally lost his mind and was about to gouge it out. "See this? It's glass. I was facing the blast when it came. The healing magic was too late to save this or to improve upon my scars."

A glass eye! Not to be outdone, Tifa took off her own fingerless gloves. Her hands looked gnarled, covered in calluses and scars as well. "See this? I didn't get dainty hands like this because I wanted them. I broke fingers training, I hurt them by punching and kicking every manner of threatening beast. No one would ever mistake me for a lady with these!"

"Oh yeah!"


They stared at one another, half dressed, fearsome, posturing like small children trying to outdo one another on the playground. The very childishness of what they were doing hit them almost simultaneously, and Rufus' mouth twitched. He schooled his features and crossed his arms in his attempt not to let himself crack again, but his break had been enough to tip the balance in Tifa. She burst into peals of laughter. The laughter echoed in the hollowed out building down the hallway and continued on as she clutched her sides and sank down in the doorframe. Her back against the wall, she tried to get air enough to laugh but only succeeded in looking pained from mirth. Rufus smiled as he watched her, unwilling to laugh but not without an appreciation for the stupidity of their encounter.

When her laughter subsided and all they could hear was the water pattering on the roof as well as the tap continuing across the hall, Rufus came over and offered her a hand up. While it could have been seen as a somewhat empty gesture, a common courtesy, to anyone else, Tifa saw it for what it was. The odds were good that he had not touched another human being since he was scarred in the blast from the Weapon. She thought she might have imagined that his hand trembled a tad as he waited for her to take it. Tifa didn't leave him waiting long, and once she was up he led her down more hallway, past waterstained walls, and into something that could have been a sitting room of some type before the place was a ruin.

Rufus left her there, and she wasn't sure anymore what she was supposed to do. It had all seemed clear before, but with him like this. . .Tifa waited in the humid room, trying to fiddle with the popped buttons on her shirt. The man she had been yelling at moments earlier sauntered back in, tucking in a clean white dress shirt into his pants. Once he had her attention, he tossed another one identical to it at her. Gladly, she slipped off her old shirt and put the new one on. The loss of modesty for a moment was nothing compared to what they had just gone through, she justified.

"I am sorry you know." The useless shirt was a mass of wetness, twisted about in her fists.

The silence sat thick in the room, worse than humidity. Tifa was grateful for the rain which filled up their minds when words didn't.

"This really explains a lot. . ." She said half to herself. At that Rufus, standing near a table with an oil lamp perched on its center and looking out a window that had no view but of more rubble, snorted.

"I'm not going to quit, if you're worried about that."

His words were a relief, but she hadn't even thought of that. "You seemed a lot closer to quitting that one day when I forced you to walk that two year old boy to the restroom while I spoke with his mother."

"He cried the whole way there, the whole way back, and blew his nose into one of my favorite suit jackets before he rejoined his mother." Even if it had filled him with pure annoyance at the time, somehow telling it to Tifa now brought a faint smile to his lips.

Tifa looked around, noted the bookshelf, partially charred books sitting on it, and a table in a far corner with a large gun lying disassembled upon it. "He was afraid of you."

"They all are. I used to cherish those looks." He didn't add anything else. It was understood, even though his casual tone belied it, that being feared no longer brought him the same pleasure.

"People fear what they don't understand, right?" Tifa's eyes darted about, coming to rest on him finally. "And I don't think anyone has been given the opportunity to understand you, correct?" She was afraid she was staring at his glass eye. It was difficult not to, now that she knew. They looked exactly the same to her, where had he gotten one that so closely matched? That his eyes were so hard even glass could imitate his looks. . .

The tight, sardonic smile was back on his face. So long it had been an independent feature, the only human thing among a mass of white-grey bandages. Today she saw how the muscles around the mouth pulled too, the arch of his eyebrows. "No one? Not even you?"

"I want to try."

"And it doesn't matter to you that I'm Rufus Shinra?"

It was nice to know that his ego was still fairly intact. "It doesn't matter to you that I'm Tifa Lockhart?"

The smile softened, humor touching his eyes, making them crinkle. How expressive a face was! She didn't mind the scars; they barely registered in her mind. Years of focusing on his eyes and mouth when speaking to him made her brush them away entirely from how she formed her picture of him.

"While, I admit, you've brought some unsolicited excitement to my vacation, I'm afraid I'm still going to have to ask you to leave. Today is my day. You'll see me soon enough." He sauntered over to her, so close, looking down at her not unkindly.

His proximity made her gawk a little. "But not like this. . ." That sounded bad. "You should let me visit more often. It would be good for you. Less time to brood."

"Your buttons are misaligned." The evasion to her question was blunt. Don't push your luck, was his unspoken reply.

While he proceeded to make her squirm in her seat, tapping the top button of her borrowed shirt, she heard something that made her feel more at ease. "And your bath is running over."

"Oh hell. . ." He ran out of the room to attend to his inundated bathroom while Tifa gladly fixed her buttons.

The rain was more a drizzle today than the full fledged storm it had been for the past couple. The difference was big enough that people didn't even bother to carry an umbrella, and instead brushed misty droplets out of their hair every so often. Tifa was no exception as she walked into the office, only she had a lot more hair to shake water from. It put several people near her in mind of a dog stepping out of a river. However, no one was about to mention that analogy to her face.

"A pack of. . ."

". . . and you have to sign it before. . ."

"I can't find it, dear gods! Why today?"

Normal office sounds didn't exactly sooth her, but they created a renewed sense of stability. Ever since she had seen Rufus. . . no he was Alan now, she couldn't afford to start thinking of him otherwise. . . three days ago her thoughts had been in a maelstrom. His day of vacation and the weekend had passed, but the feelings of awkwardness she had felt on first bursting in on him remained.

As usual, she found him in her office before she got there, stiff and bothered by something gone wrong. No doubt there were more things to be signed that she had forgotten last week in her haste to find his personal information and escape before anyone discovered her nosing around in Records. Alan was in his suit and hat but, sadly, also in his bandages.

"Stop standing there like a chocobo caught in headlights. There's not enough hours in the day." She half expected him to follow with something like 'time is money', but he knew as well as she that her business was probably permanently in the red and glad of it.

Edging around him as if he were a dangerous animal, (and she the handler!) Tifa sat down in her chair and eyed him carefully. If he could play this close then so would she. Nothing had happened; they were still Tifa and Alan, two people who worked together and little else. Fury built inside of her, a tantrum clouding her consciousness.

"Do you have to be such a hard ass? All I am is an overgrown stamp for my signature so far as you're concerned." Furiously she scribbled said signature over a document that may or may not have needed it. Thoughts of Cloud drifted, unbidden, to the forefront of her brain. Rejected again. But had she really tried? Was she trying even now with Rufus and failing. . . er. . . Alan rather? Rufus died in that blast, she reminded herself.

Alan glanced over the documents she thrust at him with gritted teeth. He seemed more amused by her than anything else. "I don't think that this will do, Tifa."

"Why? Not good enough for you? Is anything good enough for you!" She had almost added 'anyone' to that last sentence. Careful, girl, you already gave too much away. That had always been a problem for her, giving too much away in every manner.

"Not that I particularly have a problem with it, but I don't think people will find it a very good joke that you signed your name 'Tifa Shinra'."

Well, damn.

"I. . . urg." Breakfast suddenly felt like a bad idea as it made her stomach tying knots in itself simply go slower, elongating her pain.

"This is getting ridiculous."

"I don't know what you could mean. . ." She watched the way he moved, a big cat stalking prey, and decided she didn't like it. Tifa was not a skittish woodland creature, and she prepared herself for what would probably be a scathing remark from him about forgetting things and going on as they always had. If only she could shut out his words now, but she knew he was probably right.

He wandered over to lean on the desk in front of her and hunch over to lock them in eye contact mere inches apart. To her credit, she managed to steel herself so that there was no flinching, but she did arch back from him to open up breathing room.

"Next time you interrupt my bath," The voice he used was low, husky, for her alone and dripping with inflections that she had never suspected would enter his voice. "It had best be for something better than 'discussion'." He pulled off a glove and brushed his fingers from her cheek to her neck. Surprise was the least of her emotions.

A blush didn't even have time to spread on her face because as she gave a startled twitch her traitorous chair dumped her backwards with sudden force. Tifa was tipped head over feet onto the ground, hair barely cushioning the sound rap to her head she got from the wall behind her. One of her feet hit an amused Rufus' knee as momentum and gravity took hold but the other hit the desk that finally folded under him with the snapping of wood. Tifa allowed her own dull amusement to overshadow the throb in her head and jaw, (she had bitten down too hard when her head hit the wall) because he had been sitting there to intimidate her and it seemed just that they bother suffer.

"I knew this was at least a year too early," he groaned from his ungainly position on the pile of wood that had been her desk.

It was all too evident now that they had been suffering together. Rufus, Alan, whatever. . . he wasn't the sort who acted impulsively. He was a planner. Tifa's little stunt had tried his patience and upped his timetable at the same time. It galled her that she had been part of some overarching scheme of his, but at least she knew he felt something for her. What that feeling meant, on either side, was still a tenuous line of possibility.

People rushed into the office and stood in open amazement at the state of it. It was starting to gather quite a crowd, as much to see the wreck of things as because Alan's hat had fallen from his blond hair and one of his bandages had slipped from his forehead to obscure one eye. He had hid the naked hand in his pocket on instinct when the door had burst open. Workers holding coffee cups, pencils, folders, whatever, stood there while Tifa picked herself up and rubbed the side of her head. Everyone seemed to think there had been a fight, and no one knew what to make of it.

"Stop being useless and someone find a new desk and chair." Alan's command went unheeded for a moment as workers tried to process his words in that sluggish way that the morning brings with it. "Move. Before I get irritated." That was enough to galvanize people.

Tifa offered to help him out of the heap of desk but he refused it, preferring to pull himself up. "You might as well leave off the hat now, everyone will be talking about it. By tomorrow, half of Midgar will know what the infamous Alan's hair looks like."

"Fabulous, I'm that much closer to a lynch mob."

"I doubt that anyone would guess who you really are based off of that little detail."

He shook his head. "I'm already suspicious. Think about how I came to you, what I do here, my reputation."

"I wouldn't let them take you." Tifa, moved by the worry he was hiding imperfectly due to his sudden exposure, hugged him impulsively. "You're mine now."

Briefly, he tried to extract her arms, but they were strong and the angle he went at them was not advantageous. Finally, he capitulated and accepted the sign of affection until she was done.

"You mean, I'm one of yours. Like all the rest of your hive workers."

"Stop trying to start an argument." Tifa crossed her arms over her chest, but thought better of it and rubbed her jaw gingerly.

"But you must know how much I adore our discussions." He said with sarcasm dripping from each word like heavy syrup.

They stared at one another, sizing the other up with tight mouths. Then, with a flash of understanding, it was ok again. For a moment Tifa had been afraid that things between them had changed, and they had, but it hadn't altered the fundamentals of their dynamic.

"You owe me lunch for breaking my desk."

"It's a date." He said before he could monitor the words escaping him. They both found something interesting on the floor to look at almost instantly. There was plenty there, what with desk and chair littering the small space along with the miscellany that had been on top of the desktop.

. . . hadn't altered the fundamentals of their dynamic, yet.