A.N.: Um. Damn. I'm sure anything I could say here would just fall completely short of necessary, so I will just say that I'm so sorry it took me 11 months to post again (I hadn't even realized it been that long until the other day. Yikes.). I got really impatient at the end and posted without having anyone check the final draft for me, so… hope it's all right. Everyone is welcome to point out errors. Other than that, I hope you all read, review, and enjoy.
"Do you think she'll be all right?" Tifa asked Vincent after a brief silence.
"I would imagine so. It was my understanding that she was wandering alone in the woods when you first met her."
Tifa nodded. In fact, she remembered being both surprised and a little amazed that a girl so young (and so quick to fly off the handle) was so skilled in combat and was making it so well on her own. "But still…" she pressed, moving on to the issue that was of more concern to her. "What do you think she's up to?"
Vincent shook his head slightly, looking off into the distance, into which Yuffie had recently and most unceremoniously disappeared while spouting cryptic nonsense about visiting her 'old man' in Wutai. "I haven't the faintest idea. However, I think we are better off having no part in it."
Tifa wholeheartedly agreed. Between the search for Sephiroth and her own personal conflicts, she had enough to think about without trying to get involved with Yuffie's inexplicable shenanigans—let Cloud and the others handle it, whatever it was. "Right. So…" She scanned the horizon, squinting at the slowly setting sun. "Where are we going to go?"
She turned to Vincent and waited for a response, but he seemed to be taking a moment to consider their situation. The seconds ticked by, and she was starting to wonder if he was, for the first time in as long as she'd known him, unsure about what to do. She frowned at the thought. She hadn't realized until that very moment that she had somewhat been depending on Vincent knowing what their next move should be. Just when she was beginning to get a bit nervous, he finally spoke. "Hmm. Bearing in mind that we do not know where we are and the fact that Cloud was a bit premature in telling us to turn in for the night, I think we ought to head east."
Tifa, too, felt that packing it in now, with dusk still quite far away, was a fantastic waste of time, especially considering that they were perhaps farther from their destination than when they had set out that morning. "East? Really?" When he at last turned to look at her, she scanned his face for any sign of a jest, but found nothing. " You…You think Cait Sith was right?" She was admittedly taken aback, but she was sure he'd have a good reason.
He shrugged. "I have my doubts. Despite that, at the moment, east seems to be the most logical conclusion. We have traveled just about as far north on this continent as we can go without crossing the mountains, heading south would bring us back the way we have come, and Cloud has already gone west and found nothing. There is nowhere else to search but the east."
Tifa blinked at how quickly he had determined their next move, especially considering only a minute ago she'd been worried he didn't have a plan. He'd probably had every step mapped out in his head before they'd even left the Gold Saucer that morning.
Vincent continued, not caring about her lack of response. "Or, if you prefer, I want to go east because it is the exact opposite of what Cloud would do," he added with amusement.
At this, Tifa couldn't help but giggle, as well as appreciate all the other things that Vincent did that were the exact opposite of what Cloud would do.
However, this unexpected 'alone time' was turning out much differently than she had imagined. Being alone with Vincent at a hotel or near a lake or in an elevator wasn't nearly the same as being alone with Vincent while they were in the middle of making their journey. He was quieter, more focused, and much less playful. Tifa supposed this was a result of Turk training from years ago and it was quite fascinating and impressive to witness, to be sure, when Vincent was like this, but he wasn't nearly as much fun to have as company.
Without Yuffie around, the conversation had turned primarily to their mission, much to Tifa's disappointment. Although, while it wasn't one of the most fun topics she could have hoped for, she supposed it was necessary. They were gearing towards something very significant in their journey, she could feel it, and maybe taking some time to discuss that wasn't such a bad thing.
Either way, she figured things would pick up once they found a place to stay for the night. Even she wasn't entirely sure what things 'picking up' would entail, but she decided she would worry about that when the time came.
Even if Tifa had wanted to contemplate the night that awaited for her and Vincent, the terrible turn in the weather would not have allowed her to do so for long.
"When did it get so cold?" she found herself mumbling as the increasingly frigid and violent wind streaked by yet again. It had only been a few weeks ago that she was strolling by the water on a humid and sultry night.
As soon as that thought had crossed her mind, she was draped in something warm and heavy, Vincent's cloak suddenly shielding her from the wind and cold.
She looked up at him, surprised. "Thanks," she said brightly, thankful for something to break the silence that had settled in over the past hour or so.
All of sudden she was aware of how dark it was getting, far too early for sunset. Ominous black clouds were rolling in, obscuring the sun and turning the air even colder. Their situation was rapidly turning grim, and she let out a sigh of frustration when she felt the first icy raindrops on her face.
"Perhaps we ought to turn in earlier than we planned," Vincent muttered as they stopped near a small cave that offered some shelter from the downpour, and Tifa couldn't have been more relieved.
Unfortunately, there was a huge difference between deciding to find somewhere to stay and doing the actual finding. Tifa nodded in agreement with Vincent's sentiment for a few moments, before finally asking the obvious question. "But where? Where are we going to stay?"
To her immense surprise, Vincent looked almost sheepish. "Actually, I was hoping you had something in mind."
Tifa blinked. Sure, she didn't really expect Vincent to have all the answers, and had more been thinking out loud than actually looking to him for direction, but his lack of a plan still caught her off guard. Perhaps his planning prowess didn't extend to unforeseen circumstances. He raised an eyebrow expectantly, and her bashfulness was ten times what he'd displayed just a moment ago. She blushed and cleared her throat. "To be perfectly honest, I don't even know where we are right now."
Vincent smirked slightly. "That makes two of us. But I suppose that's what they make maps for?" he said with mild amusement as he searched their bags and brought out the aforementioned item. They both leaned over the unfolded paper curiously.
Tifa studied it for a moment. "So we're… here?" she said uncertainly, pointing to a peninsula in the northeast part of the continent.
Vincent 'hmmed' thoughtfully and nodded.
She pursed her lips. "Then we're near Costa del Sol," she concluded.
"Yes, it would seem so."
Just like that, Tifa's mood improved considerably. "Well, let's go there, then!" she suggested cheerfully. "We've got a house there, after all."
Vincent frowned a bit. "We?"
It had slipped her mind that Vincent hadn't been a part of their group when they first visited Costa del Sol and purchased a house with their collective funds. "Cloud. And me," Vincent's frown deepened, and she continued. "And everyone else, except you and Cid, I guess. We bought it before we met you," she explained, fishing her key out of her bag and showing it to him.
Vincent looked vaguely impressed. "It's big enough for all of you, then?"
She cleared her throat awkwardly. "Actually, there's only one bedroom. I… guess the idea was for us to stay there at separate times."
Vincent smirked at her again, but good-naturedly. "Suffering a bit of buyer's remorse?"
Tifa grimaced—he didn't even know the half of it. Lack of space aside, it had also been ridiculously overpriced.
However, despite the fact that the one-bedroom bungalow was extremely impractical and had cost a small fortune, Tifa couldn't have been more grateful for its existence at the moment. She and Vincent arrived in Costa del Sol well after nightfall, and it was amazing how different the resort town was than the last time she'd been there. During the party's brief stay a while back, the streets had been completely packed with tourists, street vendors, and sun-baked locals during the day, and at night, bars and clubs with brightly colored neon signs served even more luridly colored cocktails while pounding music drifted through the open doors.
Now, it was barely recognizable as the same tourist trap she'd visited a few months ago. It was what she could only imagine was the 'off season,' which seemed to contribute to the almost complete desertion throughout the city. She imagined the absolutely abysmal weather wasn't helping either. It certainly made her want to stay inside instead of hitting the town.
And she was hoping the 'indoors' part would come sooner rather than later. Vincent's cloak had been effective enough against the gusting winds, but it did little to protect her from the deluge. She was soaked right down to her skin and was starting to shiver from the rapidly dropping temperature. She hurried towards the door of the villa, digging out her key and fumbling for the lock with single-minded intensity. She was so concerned with finding shelter from the rain that it took a moment for the gravity of the situation to weigh down on her yet again. While she struggled briefly with an unfamiliar lock whose key seemed to get a bit stuck, she became suddenly aware of Vincent looming behind her, an equally exciting and foreboding presence.
Earlier, when it abruptly occurred to her that she was completely alone with him, she hadn't fully understood just how alone they really were. They were miles away from anyone they knew, from any interruptions, and she had just invited him into what was basically her home. It would have been different, somehow, if they'd been in a hotel—strangers sleeping in neighboring rooms, separated by walls too thin to provide any kind of privacy, or an opportunity to get two rooms instead of one, or even—
Or even two beds instead of just one, she thought to herself with mild trepidation as she made a beeline for the bedroom and dropped her things on the dresser, because she was so, so sure that when they bought the place there had been two beds in the bedroom…
She stared at the seashell-patterned bedspread, trying to make a decision, as Vincent walked in behind her and took note of the lone double bed in the middle of the room. She glanced at him as he, too, seemed to assessing the situation. It would be small to share, certainly, but manageable, and the idea of either one of them spending the night on the couch seemed completely absurd, after all they'd been through. And if a whole bed had gone missing, she figured she'd have to be really lucky to find extra blankets.
Vincent cleared his throat. "I suppose I'll sleep on the c—"
"—No, you won't," she cut him off, sharply.
He frowned uncertainly. "I wouldn't want you to be the one who—"
"—I'm not sleeping on the couch either," she said, with less confidence than before, nervousness settling in her stomach.
He watched her carefully for a moment, possibly looking for some sign of jest. "All right," he conceded, obviously finding her to be genuine, though he still sounded as though he expected her to change her mind immediately afterward. A few beats passed and he glanced at her again, appearing decidedly less serious. "Would it be terribly cliché of me to suggest we get out of these wet clothes?" he asked, with a distinctly sly undertone.
Tifa laughed, grateful for the lighthearted relief from the tension. "That would depend on your intention. If you're just voicing your concern about the possibility of us catching pneumonia, then I can't really hold that against you, now can I?" she said teasingly, unwrapping herself from his sodden cloak and handing it to him, before retrieving something to sleep in from her bag and heading to the bathroom.
She closed the bathroom door and blinked dazedly as she flipped the light switch. She frowned at herself in the mirror—the harsh florescent light was anything but flattering, and her rain-drenched hair did nothing to improve the overall look. She pulled out a brush to see if she could at least get some of the more severe tangles out, while once trying Cloud's number once more on her PHS. She'd been trying to call him since she and Vincent had made the decision to go to Costa del Sol, but his phone was either off or he wasn't answering. She sighed when she yet again got voicemail and figured it was time to finally leave a message letting him know where they were and that they were safe. When she hung up she turned her own phone off. If he decided to call back, it could wait until morning.
When she started to get changed, she hesitated. Habit of sleeping alone hadn't made her all too concerned about modesty when choosing her sleepwear. She pursed her lips at the flimsy fabric—perfectly all right when she didn't feel her decency was an issue, but another thing altogether when sharing a room and bed with someone else.
Of course, Tifa knew she'd have to be kidding herself if she were going to pretend that Vincent was like any other 'someone else.' Just as one voice was telling her that skimpy pajamas might give him the wrong idea, another voice reminded her that she'd been intentionally giving him the wrong idea for months and it didn't really matter how skimpy her pajamas were—it was highly unlikely they'd be staying on for long anyway.
She flushed at the thought and checked her reflection again, flicking off the lights and venturing into the darkened hallway. She walked slower than was strictly necessary, trying to pretend she was less tense than she really felt. She stopped briefly at the window, the one with the view of the neighboring countryside rather than the beach, watching as the intense lightning illuminated the ground and the fierce wind tore the withering blossoms from the trees. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and entered the bedroom.
Vincent had already found his way under the sheets and was gazing at the ceiling, seemingly in thought. With another embarrassed blush, Tifa couldn't help but wonder what he chose to wear to bed, and whether or not she'd soon be finding out. She walked to the unoccupied side of the bed to turn off the lamp and decided not to dwell on that thought, settling herself between the blankets without a word.
She found herself staring at the ceiling just like Vincent was, letting her eyes acclimate to the darkness. She chanced a sidelong glance in his direction, but he didn't seem to notice. "Vincent," she said suddenly, not even sure why she did it, her voice sounding strange as it broke the silence. He turned to look at her and his face came into clearer view as her eyes adjusted.
For a moment they just watched each other. It occurred to Tifa that she should say something. Something profound, or at least somewhat significant, though really anything was better than nothing at all. "I…" she attempted, but didn't know how to continue. Weeks' worth of fantasizing about this very moment had not been nearly enough preparation for when it actually arrived.
Of course, words had never seemed necessary in her daydreams. Maybe reality was like that too. She didn't know who initiated it, but they were slowly moving closer to one another. Their lips met and she was amazed at how different it felt from previous times. The first time had been careful, setting a precedent. Subsequent kisses had been rushed, frantic in an effort to prove a point or to get away with it before someone interrupted. This time it was deliberate, the implication painfully clear. There was no doubt about what this kiss was leading to. There was no chance for either of them to pull back, smile mischievously and retreat, leaving the other hot, bothered, and frustratingly alone. She couldn't back out of this if she wanted to.
But she wasn't just doing this because the opportunity was perfect. She would have done this a thousand times by now if circumstances had permitted. Fate wasn't forcing her into this, it was finally allowing her to have it. But when he pressed a bit closer, she pulled away. It wasn't meant to be a tease or a rejection. She just had to stop and catch her breath for a moment because this was actually happening. After months of unsubtly hinting and coyly denying that they both wanted it, it was happening.
"Tifa," Vincent murmured, seeming to take her hesitance as an attempt to torment him by backing out, "I am not playing around anymore." There was a slight growl to his voice and she couldn't ignore the way her body reacted to it.
She moved against him, closing the distance she created a moment ago. "Neither am I," she breathed, pressing her mouth to his once more.
So much time spent picturing this moment had her believing that the real thing could never live up to her imagination of it. She was never happier to be wrong. Her mind could never have accurately conceived what it felt like to touch him, to have him touch her after wanting to for so long.
And if she had forfeited the game by finally submitting to this, she certainly didn't feel like she lost, not when this proved to be as gratifying as her optimistic fantasies and Vincent's confident attitude had promised. But he had given in, just as she had, and she should have realized from the very beginning that there was no way either one of them could actually lose their twisted little game.
Later, lying next to him, feeling contentedly sleepy and sated, she undeniably felt victorious. Not yielding to this temptation would have been an excruciating loss indeed.
Waking up the next morning was very pleasant. Physically, she felt better than she had in a long time, both from last night's activities and the good night's sleep she managed to get in spite of them. The bed was cozy and comfortable and the room itself, despite the tacky beach décor, felt far more like a home than any of the sterile hotels she'd slept in recently. Nicer still was waking up with someone beside her. However, when she sidled over to snuggle up the warm body next to her, she only felt the mattress beneath her fingers. She wasn't immediately too concerned—the sheets were still warm—but the other side of the bed was disappointingly empty.
She tried to open her bleary eyes in confusion to figure out where Vincent had gone. As her mind came into sharper focus she realized there was some shuffling and muted words coming from near the doorway. Her vision was still fuzzy, but she could see Vincent packing his things and talking quietly into his phone. He glanced at her when she sat up.
"What're—" she tried to ask him, but he didn't seem to be listening.
"Yes, she's awake now. You can talk to her. One moment," he strode over to her and held out the PHS to her. She blinked at it, having awakened too recently to quickly comprehend that someone wanted to talk to her. "Cloud," Vincent explained. "He got your message and will be here with everyone else shortly. He says they know exactly where we need to go now. How soon can you be ready?"
"I, um… I don't know, maybe ten, fifteen minutes?"
Vincent nodded in assent, and then again to indicate the phone. "He would like to speak with you."
Tifa frowned slightly, not seeing the point. "Probably to yell at me for not having my phone on. Like he can talk, I couldn't get a hold of him all night."
"You'll find he actually has a reasonable excuse," he said, handing her the phone and moving to up one of the bags.
"He does? What is it?" she asked with interest, but Vincent just shook his head.
"I'm sure he'd rather tell you himself," he said flatly, leaving the room with his things.
"Hello?" she said curiously into the receiver. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped as Cloud began to tell her what had happened to him and the other party members in Wutai.
"Yuffie did what?"
Twenty minutes later she and Vincent had joined the others in the buggy, Yuffie looking sufficiently contrite for stealing everyone's materia, Cait Sith upside down and stuffed unceremoniously in the trunk to give the flesh and blood occupants more breathing room—all potential sympathy for him had been lost when they discovered he was a spy.
Looking across the car at Vincent who stared enigmatically back, Tifa finally started to acknowledge the fact that she was bothered by the way things had transpired that morning. She hadn't thought to hope for cuddling or anything of the sort and that somehow wasn't even what she really wanted, all things considered. And supposing Cloud hadn't called, she doubted they'd have had the time or good conscience to indulge in pillow talk or anything that was decidedly more intimate.
What bothered her was that he almost acted as if nothing had changed. If he had simply gone back to the way things had been less than twenty four hours earlier—the playful banter, the silences that were somehow comfortable despite the mounting and then unresolved sexual tension—that wouldn't have sparked the sharp pang of panic in her gut. It was the way he acted as if the past few months had never happened. As if they'd never had a relationship that was anything other than comrades. As if it were perfectly normal for them to wake up naked in the same bed. He hadn't even spared her a small smile or a few kind words as they'd gathered their things to wait for the others to arrive.
She wanted something. She didn't need heartfelt confessions of how special it was or how much he loved her, but she needed some indication that he even acknowledged it at all.
She turned her eyes to the window when she couldn't stand his unreadable gaze any longer. She was telling herself not to be clingy, that she'd known since the very beginning that something like this could and was likely to happen. But internal pep talks were of no use, because this wasn't right. She'd been so careful, been so sure that she wasn't going to end up being used. She'd made her vulnerabilities completely clear and had learned some of his in return.
It hurt, because it wasn't supposed to turn out like this.
The rest of the trip passed slowly and mostly uneventfully. Yuffie and Cid got into another loud argument until Barret shut them up with insults even more inventive than the ones the two of them were throwing around. A few times, Aeris tried to catch her eye and silently inquire what happened with her and Vincent, but Tifa just turned back to the window to watch the passing streams and mountains.
By the time they reached the hotel they'd be staying in for the night, her resolve had toughened considerably and she knew that pouting wouldn't get her anywhere. His indifference still stung a bit, but it wasn't like he'd gotten any more out of last night than she had. She was, she thought, still at the point where she could separate a physical encounter from her feelings towards him, so that's what she decided to do. She'd really enjoyed what she shared with him, however brief, and if it never happened again, then that was just how it was going to be.
She was slow dragging her things in, because she still had a lot to think about, but she still beat Cloud, who lingered behind to make sure the car was secure and double-check their route for tomorrow.
The innkeeper went into the back to find her the key to her room, while his son was kind enough to bring her bags to the second floor. While Tifa waited at the counter, she felt someone watching her and she had no doubts about who it was. She could see him out of the corner of her eye, but decided to pretend that she hadn't noticed him. However, he became harder to ignore when he slid up to the counter next to her. She thought it would probably be immature to give him the silent treatment, but if he wasn't going to say something first, she certainly didn't feel obligated to do it.
Reluctantly, she turned to look at him.
"…You're upset," he assessed with a frown, and the urge to roll her eyes was difficult to ignore.
Even so, she wasn't really sure what to say to that, and she pursed her lips as she tried to think of something.
Apparently taking her silence for assent, Vincent sighed and continued. "You have to understand—" he attempted, but she held up a hand to stop him.
"I do understand," she interrupted, because that really was the truth. It was easy to pursue someone who showed interest in you when self-worth was probably an issue. It was easy to sleep with someone you didn't technically love and then wake up the next morning and discover that it was a mistake. It was especially easy to do when you were hurting from a romance that didn't blossom and feelings that were never returned. She definitely understood. "It's fine. Really. I don't want to talk about it right now," she said hurriedly, trying to make her escape when the innkeeper returned and handed over her key plus a spare, eyeing them perplexedly.
She only made it a few steps until she felt a hand grab her arm and spin her around, planting her firmly against the wall.
"No, we are going to talk about this now," Vincent said quietly, but smirked faintly and lightened his tone when he saw the mild alarm on her face, "Because you don't seem to be listening."
Tifa relaxed only somewhat in his grip. She at least felt reassured that he wasn't angry at her, but such close proximity to him—despite the fact that their attraction had reached a physical culmination, or perhaps because of it—still set off butterflies in her stomach. Her heart was pounding in her chest, either from him or the shock he gave her or perhaps both, and she drew a shaky breath. "Okay. I'm listening."
"Good." He let her go, but didn't move any farther away. "Tifa, is this mission important to you?"
"I, umm…" she stammered, caught completely off guard by the question. "What?"
"Is this mission important to you?"
"Of course it is," she replied easily, now that she had time to get a grasp on what he was asking her. "I wouldn't be here if it weren't," she said fervently, and she really meant it. Putting a stop to ShinRa, Sephiroth, and everyone who hurt her in the past and wanted to hurt others in the future was more vital than anything. "But what—"
This time, he was the one who held up his hand to stop her from talking. "It's important to me, too. When Cloud called and woke me up this morning to let us know he knew where we needed to go, it was important. Taking the next step to completing this mission is vital. Staying focused is vital," He paused briefly, watching her with intense concentration. "And I think I would be correct in assuming that you would be just as disappointed in yourself as I would be in myself were we to lose sight of what we are here for."
Tifa watched him carefully for a moment before replying. "You don't want to get distracted," she said slowly, neither a statement nor a question.
"I don't. Do you?"
"No," she said shaking her head vaguely, and this morning finally made sense. She remembered what Vincent had been like yesterday as they traveled—more reticent, more serious—and she had chalked it up to unforgotten Turk training. She figured it would take a pretty lousy Turk to forget his duty because there was a naked woman in his bed. "The mission should come first."
"Precisely," he nodded.
Tifa had to admit she felt better. Vincent hadn't ignored her this morning because he'd gotten what he wanted and was no longer interested, he'd just received a literal wake-up call reminding him what required more attention at that moment. She was actually a little embarrassed at herself for not realizing that sooner. Maybe she had gotten distracted. It was disappointing, sure, if he want to put their relationship on hold or end it altogether because it caused preoccupation, but it wasn't like she hadn't gotten anything out of it. It wasn't like there wasn't still hope for later on.
"So you understand?" Vincent prompted.
"I understand. It's important to have our priorities in order."
"I certainly agree," he said, leaning close again, and she narrowed her eyes in confusion. "And the way I see it, we have them all sorted out…" She felt him reach behind her and slip something into her back pocket, "The daytime should be for fighting our enemies and traveling to our next destination, but the night is ours to spend however we wish."
Tifa gaped at him for a moment, trying to figure out what had just happened. "So you—so you're not saying we shouldn't—"
He silenced her with a kiss, a brief one, but thorough enough to make her properly shut up. "I am saying if we spent every night from now on the same way we did last night, I certainly wouldn't be complaining," he said slyly, and was gone before she even had time to fully comprehend what he'd even said.
She wondered distantly how he always got away with things like that. In the past few hours he had offered her what she'd been craving for months, given her the impression that he'd been regretting the entire thing, made her think he wanted to end it, then slyly let her know that ending it was the furthest thing from his mind.
She shook her head ruefully, but still smiling, the feeling of victory from the night before fading as she began to really appreciate the fact that Vincent was still a master of manipulation, and was just as unpredictable to her as he'd been from the very beginning. He'd taken her on a wild ride that frightened, confused, excited and frustrated and left her barely any closer to understanding him than she was at the start.
At least this time, she thought, smile widening as she took his spare room key out from her pocket and examined it, the torturous head games were an optional side trip to the main destination. She pocketed the key again, fully intending to use it as the soonest possible opportunity.
She was heading towards the stairs when she noticed that Cloud had been watching her. She stopped and looked back at him, wondering how long he'd been there and how much he had witnessed. But the interrogation she was expecting never came. Cloud didn't say a word or even seem to acknowledge that she had noticed he was there.
But Tifa could swear she saw a small, knowing smile on his face as he turned away, graciously acting as if he hadn't seen anything out of the ordinary.
A.N.: I can't believe it's over! But I won't say it doesn't come without a certain amount of relief. Everyone who has enjoyed and reviewed this story has just been so wonderful. Thank you so, so much. You have all been a joy to write for. You're the people I do this for : )
There is a small possibility of a small epilogue… but we shall cross that bridge when we get there.
For now, if you have something to say, whatever it is, then please review! I love to hear from everyone.
Thanks again. Much love.