(A/N: I think I got totally carried away by the fact that Vincent was drinking a glass of wine (?) at the start of Dirge of Cerberus, but...if he does indeed drink, then I can't imagine why he and Tifa can't have a conversation over that. This is platonic, though. Very.)

Ethanol

i.

Tifa had her first drink coming back from the hospital, the big fat gash still stretched over her torso, soft in the middle and splintering away at the edges like a truly horrendous millipede. She had to stop wearing tank tops for quite a while after that, but she didn't feel much like being a tour guide anymore, anyway. The touristy cowboy hat was crushed into the bottom of the backpack she carried, charred at the edges and reminding her too much of that night when she had lost everything: her master, her father (and she still felt a shocking bitterness every time she thought of that, still felt a crippling rage, which was unusual since Tifa had always been a nice girl), Cloud (who had saved her, but disappeared afterwards, and she had no idea what those Shinra bastards were doing to him anymore than she could think of a way to save him). The flames in Nibelheim had consumed any sort of hope she had left in the world.

She thumped down at the counter and asked for the strongest thing he could give her, although when she drank it she nearly threw up. It tasted awful.

"People drink this stuff?" She asked, incredulous.

"All the time, and gallons of it, too." The old man smiled kindly, something she hadn't seen in a while – Sephiroth's crazed grin was still burning in her mind, next to all the leering wolf-whistles she had received so far on her journey. This place was definitely the slums. "Myself, I don't drink much anymore, my age, you know, but my customers says it makes them feel better and I believe it. It ain't hard to mix up them drinks, after all, and it gets you decent pay and some good gossip, so why not?"

Tifa still didn't do drinking much afterwards, but if she wasn't ever going to be good at making tea she might as well make do with beer – and she learned fast, too, tequilas one day and martinis the next. So when she met Barret and cute little Marlene and found that they needed a cover for Avalanche, she was all too ready to set up a bar for their cause, even before Cloud turned up and broke her heart confusing his memory, even before the first few reactors exploded, even before the black-caped man reappeared to haunt her once again.

ii.

Vincent had his first drink when he was ten, fascinated with the big bottles of wine his parents had kept stored in their cellar, and when the holidays rolled over his dad poured him a full glass and told him that he should finish it all up since he ought to be a bit more manly (he was always a little sickly, as a kid, a little too shaky and skinny for comfort, even without all those horrible experiences). He quickly came to learn that that was quite true, and that if you declined to party with the Turks when they were in a particularly rowdy mood, you would swiftly be labeled a spoilsport and a sissy besides.

So he consented whenever they dragged him away from the office to the nearest bar, and he took in anything they offered him with a deadpan face, and got more and more accustomed to the texture of crushed gapes and alcohol on his tongue, until...

...well, until he quite liked it, actually.

But then there had been the drama, and then there had been Lucretia, and he still hated Hojo with every fiber of his body (which was a corpse, actually, he had to keep reminding himself that in case he forgot it sometime soon, he wasn't human anymore). And one would expect, in a basement as old and grand as the one in Nibelheim, there would be something wonderfully aged and delicious there, but the first time he had come out of the coffin (after scrabbling deliriously at the lid, wondering what the hell he was wearing and what the hell was that on his arm), there had been nothing to drown his sorrows in. The walls stifled sound, too, so he couldn't get drunk on his own screams. There were only tears, probably, but he couldn't muster even those.

And he gave up the vice for quite a long time, until Cloud and company jolted him out of sleeping – Yuffie laughed at his face while trying to discreetly wipe her palms on her shorts, and he knew he was monstrous beyond all hope when Cloud threw back an arm to protect his companions. Vincent Valentine was officially a beast.

But a useful one, or so he hoped anyway. He kept away from drinking, in any case, because he didn't want to seem any more unstable than they already thought him to be.

iii.

The tavern was dim and almost empty when Tifa stepped into it, peeling her gloves off and slapping them down on the counter as the door banged shut behind her. The bartender raised his head to frown at her, stopped halfway and stared, only making an effort to meet her eyes when she coughed in a very offended manner.

"What can I get for you, miss?" He asked, in the nectarine way she had come to associate with perversion. She scraped the bangs back from her face and started to retie her ponytail neater (fishtail, actually, as Yuffie called it – she was still surprised at how much her world had expanded since a few months prior). She walked away from the counter to study the drinks posted on the wall, had a sudden stroke of genius, and turned back to the bartender with her hands clasped together, ready to strike a deal.

"I'll run your bar just for tonight – free of charge, and you can get all the profit too. I used to have my own place, but it had to close down, and I miss it."

The man raised his single brow and leered. "Well, you'd attract a good lot of customers as my waitress, but –"

She ducked under the counter and grabbed the glass he was polishing, slipping it behind her back and over her shoulder into the other hand in one fluid motion. Ignoring his pointed gawk, she uncorked several bottles and poured different drinks into the glass, fixing up a nasty tequila in record time. "Yours," She grinned, pushing it into his hand.

"Yours," He agreed, eyes wide, gesturing to the bar.

iv.

The tavern was unusually full when Vincent crept away from the inn and clomped toward it, unable to resist, although he considered removing his cape before he entered in case he should encounter Cid or Barret sneaking a drink inside, too. Then again they'd all be guilty, he figured, so why bother, and he pushed the door open with his human hand and an itch across his face that might have been a little smile, although he would never admit that. He missed bars, actually.

Not the laughter, not the sound, not the smoke that hung like poison in the air. (Not that it affected him; not that he could die at all.) But he missed the sparkly liquid even if the red kind reminded him too much of his own strangely altered eyes. He missed reading the labels and he missed some of the drinks' names, too, those were truly quite fascinating, although not in the scientific way Lucretia might have enjoyed – he had stopped for a while when he met her, too, thinking she wouldn't like it. But Hojo drank a lot, all through her admiration, and that wasn't all he did, womanizer, murderer, the fiend...

Vincent caught himself deep in the past again, standing like a fool by the door of the tavern, although no one noticed him really until the door swung open and made him stumble forward. He used that push to sweep forward smoothly and settle by the bar. Drinks were much better for one's feelings than memories, he reminded himself. The experiments had made him faster in battle but a little slower out of it – more cold and humorless and less prone to reaction, the reflexes doing good for shooting, not for speaking.

Just one, perhaps.

He forgot to switch hands when he put one out to receive his drink – the first one in nearly five decades – so his claw scraped against the glass like tin and nails, but the louder surprise was in the bartender's voice, which sounded all too much like Tifa.

"Vincent?"

Apparently, neither of them had noticed.

v.

"I didn't know you drank," She said, quite merrily, although they both seemed a little surprised and uncomfortable. It was hard not to be uncomfortable around Vincent. He was polite and gracious, but he didn't smile and they did find him in a coffin after all. His pale face had smoothly contorted to allow a little gasp, then it had shrunk to his usual guilt, although she didn't know if he thought he was doing something wrong or if it was just the standard memories (they had all heard him say the name quite often now, although Yuffie complained about it the most, on account of Cloud pairing them together quite often in the backline – shurikens and pistols went together, unfortunately).

"I didn't know you mixed them," He said at last.

"I ran a bar before AVALANCHE started chasing Sephiroth," She answered.

"Oh."

"And you?"

He paused, evidently wondering if it was safe to answer. "I was once a Turk."

Explanation enough. She nearly laughed.

"You don't have to look so mortified, Vincent, it's not like we have anything against drinking. Go ahead, down your glass." She motioned for the real bartender to attend to the rest of the customers and somehow managed to get Vincent to sit down at the end of the bar while she fetched a soda from the fridge (she had gotten used to the place quick). He still looked like he thought he was doing something that needed a far worse punishment than good wine, but she tsked and he complied after all.

"Soda." He inclined his head a little at her glass.

"What? I don't practice the drunken first style –" This guy couldn't take a joke, could he? "– well, actually, I just don't like the taste, but I learned how to mix the drinks anyway. A capable girl likes her work, you know."

And girls had their beauty parlors or nail spas to go to, but guys had their bars, and Tifa figured that she and Vincent were probably here for a reason – a little solace, a little bit of escape, because Cloud had them training in the ridges of Cosmo Canyon that whole day – even Red, who was used to the heat, had gotten worn down after a while, as Yuffie and Cid argued over who could use Cait Sith as a towel, much to the cat's protesting. Tifa had managed a smile even while she was ignoring Cloud, still puffing at them to fight the punching, berserk-inducing chickens.

vi.

She fixed him another glass and told him to spill, because she'd listen.

And he did, although at first he spoke in slow deliberate grumbles around mouthfuls of drink – everyone had a little trouble translating his mumbling (Cid would shake him and yell at him to repeat himself, clearer, his raw expletives making Tifa cringe and Yuffie whoop with laughter). But true enough the wine worked its wonders, and his sentences started to flow a little smoother, like a dam had broken in him somewhere. Yuffie had told Tifa, often enough, about how he would recite the whole novella in his sleep ("Like a truly awful bedtime story, all drama and no humor," and she had countered, to stop the girl's insults, with, "Yuffie, you look at him in your sleep? That's some crush!" to which the poor little ninja could only sputter an angry, embarrassed reply), but it was different hearing it from the man himself. Different, but still familiar.

Lucretia had thought of him just as a friend. Lucretia had openly pined after Hojo in front of him. He had always been there, and she had never noticed. He had been betrayed, and he had been seriously hurt, and then, well, now she was gone and he figured it was all his fault.

"I should probably hate her," he said, too serious to be joking, and even Tifa had had two glasses by then, wondering how sober he probably wasn't, but she couldn't help pouring when he thrust out his empty glass at her. "But I don't. I love her still. I don't think I'll ever stop."

I should probably hate him, but I don't, I love him still, and I don't think I'll ever stop. Cloud was beautiful, too, in his own slightly boyish way; and Cloud was her eternal friend (but just, she thought, and she should have been happy with that but sometimes she truly wasn't); and Cloud pined after someone else in front of her, too, and...funny, but she never figured that there was something she and Vincent had in common beyond dark hair.

But that was the problem, she realized. She wanted to help and maybe she should try, but she knew that she couldn't fix him, ever, if she was chipped in the same places. They needed better plasters for their wounds than empathy – and anyway, Tifa didn't know how Vincent would take to pity if it wasn't self-induced. Besides, telling him to get over his broken heart and move on would be a serious breach of practicing what one preached, and Tifa did have a sense of justice. Maybe too much of it.

Someone else would do the job eventually, she decided. Cid was never one to stand for unnecessary gloom, and Yuffie was a little bit overbearing sometimes, but she did know a lot about how to make people laugh. And Aeris gave a good deal of counsel to everyone – even Tifa, although not about the things that really bothered her.

But right then there was only Tifa and Vincent, and a bar, and the same sort of sullen desperation running through them. (Cloud hadn't wanted to speak to her about the training, and that had made her cranky enough to leave and search out the tavern; and Vincent always needed a little mood-lifting, seriously.) Luckily she knew what would soothe him better than agreement, and she poured him another cupful of sin and ethanol.

"Cheers," She stated (and she tried to mean it, really), and they drank in unison.


A/N: I can never help myself. Yuffie and Cid wangle their way into anything that has Vincent in it; and the Cloud and Aeris conflict finds its way into Tifa's narrative, too. I took some liberties with their pre-FFVII pasts, as well (so, yes, I made those up, I don't really know how Tifa got into bartending or if Vincent's father had a wine cellar, for that matter). As for the setting of the last four parts, it's the tavern in Cosmo Canyon, in any of the training periods when you have the whole party already, but before Aeris dies. Ack.

Any and all comments are greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading. :D