Disclaimer: I do not own any of these wonderful characters, places, or concepts unless otherwise noted.
She stared up at the flat ceiling, completely and astonishingly awake. Why can't I ever sleep in? She wondered to herself. She kicked her feet out in a vain attempt to straighten the sheets, vaguely aware that a pre–dawn glow was filtering in through the heavy curtains. The man beside her rolled over, grumbling at her movements, his unkempt hair sliding like satin across the pillowcase. She glanced at him, so deep into sleep, and felt the gentle rush of affection she had come to know so well. I wish I could stay in bed, just a little bit longer.
Tossing one more time onto her side away from him, she sighed. She wondered she was coming down with a fever. Slowly she rose from the warm bed, wincing as goose bumps rose along her bare spine. Giving him one more glance, she slipped into her pajamas and crept out the door. The hardwood floor of the narrow hallway was freezing, as normal. She wished she hadn't left her slippers downstairs. Her black and white cat greeted her with a short meow, and followed her into the bathroom. The light flickered before it finally came on, as it always did. Thank gods Barret found that oil field. Now maybe we can stop using mako. The clean, white counter reminded her once more of the man still sleeping. So neat and clean. Who've guessed? She leaned into the counter, running a finger over the dark half–circles under her brown eyes. The tap creaked as she turned on the cold water, splashing it over her face, relishing the icy bite. Mentally, she began running through the list of chores for the day. Seeing as there weren't many, and there was that festival in Kalm so many people were at, she considered not opening at all. She had so little business on this holiday weekend. Still, out of habit, she padded down the stairs to her bar.
She stopped briefly in the kitchen, putting the kettle on, once again amazed that the place stayed so clean. Barret had moved to Kalm, to be closer to his work. Marlene and Denzel had gone with him. She still kept their room for them, the twin beds with heavy quilts covering them, since they visited nearly every weekend. She missed them terribly. Marlene's colored pencils scattered across the polished bar top, Denzel's dirty sneakers always poised to trip someone right inside the door, their cheerful laughter. That was what she missed the most. Watching the way they trusted each other, trusted her and Barret and the others, loving how their world was once again safe and their futures filled with happiness. Though she knew that if the world was ever in danger again, the two would take the step up. The strength they had, even as children, amazed her everyday. Her heart ached with the absence of them as she pushed open the heavy double doors that separated the rest of the house from Tifa's Seventh Heaven.
Double–checking that the oak bar top was wiped clean, the hardwood floors gleaming, she sat down at the stool by the door, chin in hand. Tifa gazed at the crystal collection she prided herself on, rows of martini glasses and wine decanters and champagne flutes, all neatly arranged and sparkling in their place above the sink and register. Cloud had bought them for her, two Christmases ago, and she smiled when she remembered opening the gift. She recalled him reluctantly digging his toe into the carpet of the living room, as she stood eyeing the tower of boxes that had her name scrawled on them with Cloud's sloppy hand. It was such a sweet gesture. But what she loved the most was the slightly anxious look on Cloud's normally stoic face.
That shifted her mind to another memory. She raised her hand from her chin, eyes locked on the last booth against the wall, directly across from her. That was where she sat when she saw that look for a second time, when he told her he was moving out, to the other side of Edge. He had met someone, he told her. She realized his late deliveries hadn't been deliveries at all. Her eyes welled up with tears, and she wiped them away as soon as they began to fall. He can't cheat if you've never been together, she reminded herself harshly. Cloud reached across the tabletop, gently brushing her cheek. "Tifa, I never meant to hurt you." He lowered his head, hoping to catch her eyes. "You know I love you. You're the only family I have, the only connection to my true past. But I haven't felt this way since…" He trailed off, eyes up toward the ceiling. She nodded her response, unable to trust her voice. Since Aerith's death, she reminded herself, feeling the deep ache of her missing friend. Since you never blamed him, not once, I suppose I should attempt the same. Tifa rose abruptly and exited the bar, leaving Cloud to stare after her. Introverted, insensitive Cloud. Part of her was glad it was over, that maybe she could move on from her childhood hopes.
He left that night, gathering his few things, after explaining to Marlene and Denzel he would be back, every day, to see them. He gripped Marlene's shoulders in a hug, but his eyes were on Tifa standing by the doors to the house. Please forgive me, he pleaded with her. Please forgive me. If you don't, I won't be able to forgive myself. And I am still learning how to do that. Tifa lifted a hand in goodbye, unable to help herself. She could forgive him. Maybe not now, while the sting as so fresh, but she knew she would eventually, because he was Cloud. She listened to the roar of Fenrir as he drove away, to the girl he loved.
The kettle began its loud whistle from the kitchen. She rose immediately, trying to shake the bittersweet memory from her mind. She stumbled over her slippers on her way to the kitchen, and stopped to put them over her icy toes. She began putting together the big air–pot for tea, enough to last all day. She inhaled the steam as she poured the water from the kettle, and felt the headache she hadn't realized was there ease a little. She poured herself a large mug of tea, and returned to her stool in the bar.
It was not long after Cloud's departure that Barret moved the kids to Kalm. Now, almost two years later, they loved living in the smaller town, and Cloud was still on the other side of Edge. He had married the girl he met, in Aerith's chapel, barely six months after he moved out of Tifa's house. They were expecting a baby in a few months. Tifa had forgiven him over time, especially since he stayed true to his word, visiting the kids every day until their move. He visited every so often after they were gone, but mostly on the weekends they were here. She missed him, but not too much. After all, it was right after the kids were gone that Vincent had begun frequenting her bar, every night.
She had been so afraid of the loneliness, with her normally busy household empty of all but her. She had her friends, Yuffie and Reeve and Nanaki, and they all came to stay for periodic visits, but she knew that wouldn't be enough. She needed someone to talk to, to share her day and her energy and her thoughts with. She was terrified of feeling the way she did so long ago, after her mother died, with Cloud gone in Midgar, her neighbors moving because they were frightened of Shin–ra's presence in Nibelheim. The rumors of the human experiments Hojo had created, one of which was now sleeping in Tifa's bed upstairs.
On her first night alone, she had been so surprised when the bell above the door tinkled its welcoming chime and through the door walked tall, red–cloaked Vincent Valentine. She knew he had been skipping from town to town, visiting Cid and Shera in Rockettown, Shelke in New Nibelheim, Nanaki at Cosmo Canyon. Avoiding Yuffie's meddling at all costs, though they had become closer after what they went through together, with Deepground. He rarely answered Tifa's phone calls, and she hardly expected him to show up in Edge like this. But here he was, at her counter, and she was never so glad to see a familiar face, even if it was covered by his cloak and hair. He ordered a straight scotch, a double, and Tifa gave it to him on the house. He nodded his appreciation to her and sat in the last booth, pulling a thick, hardcover book from a hidden pocket. He sat there, reading and sipping his drink, until Tifa was finished with her cleaning, exhausted from her day's work. Once, she offered him dinner, which he politely but pointedly refused. He never made conversation. He came in right as business began to die off, and stayed until after she closed, every night.
After three weeks of this, Tifa began to wonder. And she realized his timing had not been coincidental. Of course he knew Cloud and the kids had moved out, he still checked his messages, didn't he? Was he here to keep her from her inevitable loneliness? Did he know her that much, care that much? Tifa paused, struck by his words from years ago. So glad you're alright, Tifa. She had been so wrapped up in her worry about Cloud and so shaken from her near–execution she hadn't thought about his words. But they came back to her now, seeing him sitting in her bar. Just how much did he mean by such simple words? And so she had become so used to his quiet, striking presence. She decided not to take advantage of it, always serving him drinks on the house, never disturbing his reading, always wishing him a warm goodbye before he finally left for the night.
She began to admire him from a distance as she did her dishes. The high cheekbones, long luminous lashes she envied, and his pale, flawless skin. She wondered why he still always wore his golden, clawed gauntlet, and the tattered red cloak. His book changed frequently, but they were always novels of some length. He never interrupted her work, but more than once she caught his scarlet gaze on her as she moved through the bar, laughing and talking with other customers.
She shivered, pulling her sweater closer around her body. Sipping her tea, she stared at the last booth, a place marked for change.
After nearly two months of Vincent's silent visits, just before he rose to leave for the night, she gathered her courage and approached him. She slid onto the bench across from him, heart pounding as if she was going to do something much more drastic. He glanced up at her, closing his book, dark red eyes locked with hers. Of course he would wait for her to speak first.
"Vincent…" Now it was her turn to be anxious. His expression didn't change. She barged on, despite her nervousness. "Would you like to move in here… with me?" She asked tentatively, eyes glued to the table.
He sat silently for a few moments, until she raised her head. "I would like that very much," he replied, calmly as ever. Her heart leapt to her throat.
"Well, while you go get your things, I'll make a bed for you."
"These are my things." His eyes still didn't leave her face.
She gulped. All right, he was a simplistic man. She rose to go upstairs, and he followed behind at a safe distance. She locked the doors to the bar behind them, and smiled at him as she turned to head up the stairs. Much to her surprise, he smiled back. Tifa was completely disarmed. For such a fierce character, he had a surprisingly gentle smile that reached all the way to his eyes, making them light up, just a little. She stood stock still for a moment, unable to control her pulse.
"Is something the matter?" Vincent asked her, smile fading away in what she guessed might be self–consciousness. Tifa, already recovering, gave him an even bigger smile.
"Nothing at all."
He stayed in Cloud's old room. Slowly, after a few months, she was able to get him to expand his wardrobe, even though the gauntlet and cloak always remained, and he still loved black. She taught him to cook, a little, enough to feed himself while she was busy, and somehow he managed to clean dishes despite his gauntlet. He called Shelke on a regular basis, always short conversations. Tifa, by now, knew that despite their length, they were meaningful ones. Vincent was nothing if not a man of great gravity.
And he always, always sat in the last booth every night as she closed, sometimes sipping tea, sometimes a double, straight scotch. She learned he borrowed his books from the local library, one at a time. He kept the house neat, cleaning up after himself everywhere he went, so Tifa barely knew he'd been there. She also learned he had a taste for orange juice, cleaned his gun Cerberus every night despite whether he had fired a shot, and enjoyed classical music enough that she often caught him listening to it, eyes closed, head back, fingers twitching, when he didn't realize she had come home.
She loved his quiet, unpretentious company. She talked to him, all the time, never expecting an answer, just airing out her thoughts and reflections. Most of the time, he never even lifted his head from his book, but she especially loved it when he shifted his gaze and watched her as she talked, his expression as inscrutable as always. She had even come to love that about him.
One night, after a particularly busy rush, Tifa stood behind the empty bar, washing her seemingly endless pile of dishes. Vincent sat in his booth, sipping tea and reading, as the first snow of the season began falling outside. Tifa had turned on the one CD she found in the player most often, and could hear him tapping out the complicated rhythm with his claw. Despite her chores, she found herself humming, losing herself to the weave of notes. She straightened to stretch her back and started when her shoulder ran into Vincent's chest. How long had he been standing behind her, listening to her hum his music?
He spoke before she got the chance. "Would you like my assistance?"
She glanced down at the gauntlet. "Can't wash my crystal with that on."
He stood still for just a moment, before reaching for the buckles along his forearm. His face held a peculiar grimace, one she had only seen once for herself, on the first trip to Lucrecia's crystal cavern. When he slipped off the gauntlet, she gasped, losing her hold on a wineglass. It shattered in the sink, a shard of it slicing into Tifa's thumb. She swore to herself and hurriedly tore off a piece of paper towel, blotting the blood. She looked up, and heard Vincent's footsteps on the stairs. He moved so swiftly and silently. She hadn't even heard him leave the room. He left his gauntlet lying on the countertop.
Guilt–ridden, she hurriedly finished the dishes, trying to comprehend what she saw. She needed to apologize for her overreaction, but part of her wanted to be angry. Shouldn't he have warned her? But she knew she was wrong. She had asked him to take it off. And it was Vincent. He expected her to be surprised, maybe even disgusted. That was how most people treated him. Had she hurt his feelings? She wasn't sure. Tifa dried her hands, determined to let him know she didn't think of him that way. The things that had been done to him had not been his fault; despite whatever sins he thought he had to atone for. She needed him to know she didn't think he was a monster; she knew he had a deep sensitive streak in him. She nodded to herself. She needed to apologize. She didn't know if it was enough, but she thought it a good place to start.
She locked the door to the bar and stood at the bottom of the steps for a moment. She could hear music coming from his room, much louder than normal. She imagined him briefly, sitting on the lone chair in his room, head thrown against the rim, bandana trailing down the back. She swirled the scotch in her hand. Peace offering.
Tifa was surprised to see the door ajar. She nudged it open. Vincent was standing with his back to her, hands in front of him, out of her sight. He didn't turn around.
"Is your hand all right?" He inquired, tone dark. Tifa swallowed hard. Isn't as easy as I think, maybe.
"I'm sorry… I reacted the way I did. I just didn't expect it, that's all."
He only nodded.
Something broke inside her. A familiar feeling washed over her. Cloud always said she was stubborn as a rock. I will not be ignored again. She set the scotch she brought him down, hard, on the bedside table. "Please, Vincent, will you just look at me?" She threw her arms out beside her. "I've tried so hard to be patient with you and your brooding!"
He finally turned to look at her, slipping his hands behind his back. "If I've disturbed you at all, I will leave tonight." His steely stance frustrated her more.
"No! I don't want you to leave! I don't want you to go at all! I want you to stay with me…" She was at a loss for words, trying to form sentences to express the depth inside her.
Vincent, for his part, stayed icily calm. "So you won't be lonely again? Without Cloud?"
She was shocked by his cold anger, the bite to his words. It was the last thing she had expected out of him. She felt the tears start as Vincent turned away from her once more. Could I hurt him that much?
"Cloud has moved on from his memories. And," Tifa was becoming indignant, wiping away her tears. "Despite what you might think, so have I. I'm not the same girl from Nibelheim that fell for him." She stuttered, wanting to say something that meant more to her. "I… I love having you here, Vincent. I love that I have to buy a carton of orange juice every other day. I love coming home to the sound of classical music, watching you relax in a chair, just listening. I love how I look up every night as I'm doing my dishes so I can watch your profile as you read. I love how you listen to me without saying anything. I love to hear your voice, even more to hear you laugh." Tifa shook her head. "It may have started as loneliness, but it's more than just that, now."
He still didn't turn back. "Would you like to know why I came here?"
She lifted her head at the catch in his voice.
"I was afraid that after Cloud and the kids left… I thought you'd never smile again. That's all I ever wanted here, Tifa. To see you smile."
She shook her head, tears clouding her vision over again. "We both got more than we bargained for, didn't we?"
This time he faced her, his hands still behind his back. So afraid… He can't go through this again, can he? This vulnerability? Can't let himself… She forgot all her anger and frustration. He needed to know that she… Do I trust myself enough to…?
Tifa held out her left hand, beckoning for his. Slowly, he held it out in front of him. She touched it gently at first, knowing that it had been years since it had come into contact with anything other than the cloth that lined the gauntlet. It was a mass of twisting, misshapen scars, from his long, slender fingers all the way up to his elbow. She traced the shiny, pink lines up his arm, across his wrist. Vincent dragged in a breath as she stroked the pad of her thumb across his palm. She raised her eyes to his, only to see his crimson gaze shining, the look on his face revealing it all to her. He was letting himself feel again, for just this little bit.
"Do you trust me that much?" She asked him softly, cradling his arm with her right hand, still watching her hand trace the scars.
"Yes, I do," he told her in the gruffest voice she'd ever heard from him.
Tifa glanced up at him, semiconsciously reaching out to stroke his cheek with her right hand. "Vincent… This doesn't scare me."
"Really?" He closed his eyes, because he was afraid of her answer or because he was relishing her touch, she didn't know. He wasn't quite prepared for what she did next.
Tifa rose to her tip toes, still cradling his cheek, and kissed him softly on the mouth. His lips were cool and smooth, like ice cream, and she pulled back for just an instant, to watch his eyes flare open, drinking in the woman standing so close. His lips parted, and she stopped whatever he was about to say with another kiss, pressing herself against his chest. She closed her eyes as she felt him give way, his arms going around her, gently holding her close. Returning her kiss with the fire she knew burned deep inside him.
He didn't spend another night in Cloud's old room. Later, as he was tracing the bumps down her spine as she lay sleepily next to him, he asked if she would like to know what happened to his arm. She woke up then, knowing this was not a moment to miss. He explained to her that when Lucrecia had exposed him to contaminated mako, the Chaos gene, that his body had been unable to handle it. Transforming into Chaos, he thrashed in the holding tank, breaking through the glass with his left hand. When he transformed back after receiving the protomateria, his hand remained scarred and twisted, even though he healed much quicker in Chaos form. "It's one of the few scars my body still holds. Even after all Hojo's experiments… they all healed without scars. But this," he held the arm in the faint moonlight. "It's my reminder of what she did to me, what she did for me. And what I didn't do for her…" She watched as he closed his eyes, long lashes resting against his impossibly smooth, pale cheeks. When she saw the tear roll down one of those cheeks, she reached out for him. His burden was vast. When had he ever been allowed to cry, to let him be awash in the pain of loss over thirty years old? Even if he had, had he ever had anyone to hold him, wipe the few tears he would let himself cry, and just rest his head? That's just what she did, cradling his head against her chest as he held onto her, eventually falling asleep together.
In the morning, he told her he loved her. It was probably one of the reasons she normally loved mornings so much. He always had his guard down slightly more than usual, especially when greeted with fresh bacon and eggs, the biggest mug of orange juice she could find waiting for him. But this morning…
Tifa stared out the front window, at the midsummer haze blazing through the remainder of the clouds. It had been almost an hour since she came down. The cat jumped onto the countertop, meowing for attention. She absentmindedly stroked its back, thinking about how much Vincent had changed. He'd opened up a little to the others, and opened up completely to her. She could almost physically see some of the weight lifted off his shoulders. She felt like hers was gone, as well. No more waiting for something that would never happen, no more torturing herself over her self–worth. She felt like she could face anything.
She sighed, a mixture of contentment and sleeplessness. Vincent had become a late sleeper, never up until long after dawn. She gave the cat a final scratch and kicked off her slippers, headed up the stairs. The bar wasn't opening today.
As she crept back into the dimly lit bedroom, she slipped off her pajamas and stood looking at Vincent for a moment. His back was to her, long legs curled up, blanket thrown off and the sheet barely covering his slender hips. His hair spread across the pillow, so dark compared to his complexion, and to her, he looked like a sleeping angel, soft lips parted slightly, eyelashes fluttering. He was so beautiful, even though Cerberus and his gauntlet lay on the nightstand a few feet from his face. She knew that if anyone else had entered the room, he would already have both weapons ready.
She sat on the edge of the bed, reaching across to trace the scars that patterned his shoulder blades, from where Chaos's wings emerged. He felt her touch and stirred slightly, and she slid back into their bed. He opened both eyes for a moment, rolling toward her, and her heart skipped at the first sight of his crimson eyes as it always did. He reached for her and she welcomed the embrace, lightly running her fingertips down the slight trail of black hair on his chest. He tightened his arms and pulled her close, gently kissing her forehead, always peaceful when mostly asleep. She felt a brief surge of pride, knowing she had done that for him.
"I love you, Vincent Valentine," she murmured into his chest.
"I love you as well, Tifa Lockhart."
She gazed up at him as well as she could, watching him fall back into slumber. She glided her hand over the scars on his back once more. They had never spoken of marriage, nor of children. They weren't sure if Chaos had returned to the planet, or if his other beasts went with him. They didn't speak of her aging while he did not. They lived for now, the moments like this, when they could lay in each other's arms and feel comfort. Besides, she had noticed a single silver strand in his raven–black locks, and they both took that as a good sign.
She tickled his ribs, giggling as he suddenly squirmed against her. His eyes flared back open. "That's it!" he exclaimed, rolling on top of her, challenge in his eyes. "You wake me up, Lockhart, and you can put me back to sleep again."
And, quite willingly, she obliged.