It was when he kissed her that her heart broke.

It was a gentle gesture, his lips pressing feather-soft against her forehead, his hands laid lightly on her shoulders. It was almost over before it began; he stepped back, removed his hands and smiled at her. A ritual, this, repeated every morning--the traditional farewell, so long, I'll see you soon. It was different today. It had been different for quite sometime.

"Have a good day," he told her, his voice the same as it always was, the words so familiar in this routine they'd done a thousand times over. She smiled back at him while inside of her something knotted so tight she couldn't breathe. She smiled at him as her chest constricted, and kept smiling even as she felt that oh-so-familiar aching void burgeon into existence somewhere near her very core. Inside, she was dying. But he didn't know. She didn't think he ever would.

"You too," she told him and was relieved to find her voice still possessed a modicum of its usual tone. If she were to let slip her control only a little, however, she'd be screaming at him, begging him, pleading—

"I love you." He said then, just as he always did. She stared at him, thinking that maybe, just maybe in this moment, she'd learned what it was to hate him. He lied to protect her, lied to make it easier, lied because the truth was just too perplexing.

And in the midst of lies, she found she could only reply with the truth. "I love you, too." She said, and meant every word of it.

He left then, gathering his things and heading out the door. She stood where he'd left her, still able to feel the imprint of his lips upon her skin. There was no warmth in that spot, only a numbing cold that was radiating outwards and within, chilling her through and through. Outside, his bike roared to life, and with the loud crunch of gravel beneath his tires he drove out of the yard.

She got ready for work as she always did, finding in her daily customs the ability to stop thinking about that which made her feel as though life had swallowed her whole. It hurt less when she focused on the wet washcloth upon her face, on the sharp minty taste of the toothpaste in her mouth, on the strokes of the brush through her hair. When she'd finished she looked at her reflection in the mirror and was almost surprised to see heavy tears spilling one after the other down her cheeks. She watched them fall for a moment, watched them pool at the corners of her dark eyes, watched as they welled up and ran over, and knew that there would be many, many more to come.

As she dressed she thought about him again. She never stopped thinking about him. She had told him that once, back when words had mattered. Once, he'd valued her exuberance and she'd loved his pensive quiescence. She still loved it. She still loved him. She paused in doing up her shirt to notice a pair of his pants, strewn across the floor, and to notice the way his pillow still carried the imprint of his head from long hours of slumber. His body next to hers had for so long been a constant comfort, a reassurance she'd needed. And when he had touched her, and kissed her, and made love to her with all the gentleness and passion she'd needed, she'd thought she'd never be happier in her life.

She'd been right.

Once clothed, she moved through the rooms of the apartment as though in a daze. She left home and headed out to work in the beat-up pickup truck she'd owned since acquiring it from ShinRa Inc. all those years ago. Cloud's messenger-delivery service had picked up as of late, and Tifa was now doing fieldwork like Cloud. Marlene was old enough now to field the office work, and she had a definite penchant for it. Tifa went through her day as she always did, making her deliveries and carrying the messages, and in the time in-between she stared out the cracked and battered windshield of the truck and lost herself in thoughts she so desperately wished she could forget.

She got home the same time as she always did, noting that Cloud's bike was absent. That wasn't unusual; he usually got home after she did. She hopped out of the truck and slammed the door behind her before making her way to the house, her footsteps made loud on the loose gravel. Her mind was churning in rhythm to her stomach; countless days spent worrying had worn her out in so many ways. She needed a nap; maybe she could still a quick one and still get up early enough in the evening to do something entertaining, or at least make the pretense of wanting to be entertained. She inserted the key into the lock and jimmied it back and forth before the deadbolt loosened and slid home, and removing the key she stepped through the door.

The first thing she noticed was that his spare pair of boots were gone. She stared at the place they'd sat for the past year, at the outline they left in the light layer of dust, and for a long moment she was completely still. And then, sliding off her own shoes, she slipped off her jacket and let it fall to the heap on the floor before moving into the kitchen. She didn't have to go any farther into the house to know he was gone, but she did anyways. The bedroom door was open and she stood in it as she did a slow perusal, noting how anything of his had been removed. The only things that remained were hers, the only personality left here in the powder blue room, among the mussed white sheets and the haphazardly strewn laundry was hers, and she hated it, hated it—she moved numbly, looking for more. The bathroom was only hers now, too. Her toothbrush alone in the holder, looking so odd without Cloud's green one beside it. Only her cosmetics now, only her towels, only her face tear-damp in the mirror, eyes so wide and empty—

It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think. She blinked to clear her vision and swallowed past the hard, painful knot in her throat. She walked out of the bathroom, back through the bedroom and retraced her steps through the kitchen. In the entry she slid her shoes on again, opened the front door and stepped through. She didn't bother to lock it behind her; nothing inside mattered to her anymore. On leaden legs she made her way to the truck, and once inside with it started she slammed it hard into gear and spun it 180 degrees so hard that her tires screeched, sending up a spray of gravel.

She stopped thinking during the drive, leaving only enough of herself left in her mind to drive, locking the rest of herself tightly away from the agony and chaos that filled her up like she was just a vessel. She knew the way to her destination so well that she could almost find it without conscious thought, which was exactly what she did. And then she had arrived, she was out of the vehicle and knocking on the wooden door with hands she could no longer feel.

The door opened a hairsbreadth, and one dark eye regarded her from within. "Oh!" A voice said in surprise, and the door swung open. Yuffie regarded Tifa with her trademark mischievous grin, propping one hand on her hip while holding the door with the other.

"I thought you were Cid," the smaller girl said, sticking her head out the door only long enough to cast a surreptitious glance around before retracting it and explaining further. "I laced all his cigarettes with cayenne pepper today."

Tifa began to laugh, much to her surprise, and actual laugh full of humor and shared rascality, a laugh from the Tifa of long ago. Cloud had told her once that to hear her laugh was the sound he loved most in the world, and suddenly her laughter became great rasping sobs that threatened to make her collapse.

Yuffie, ever carefree and oft-times whimsical, stepped quickly forward to wrap her arms around Tifa and sank with her to the ground.

"He left," Tifa said between one shuddering breath and the next, her voice made thick and watery by her distress. Yuffie's arms tightened around her, trying to hold her together even as she fell apart. She cried as she had never in her life before, realizing that there was really nothing in the world that hurt the way this did, this rejection, this heartbreak. Maybe if she cried hard enough, all that she was feeling would be flooded out of her through tears …

"You'll be okay," Yuffie whispered more than once, stroking her hand down Tifa's hair, holding her close with the other arm. "Not today or tomorrow, but soon. Soon. I promise."

But soon wasn't enough. It would never be enough. To have loved someone so completely, to have thought you'd have their love so alike in return forever—to watch through days and weeks and months as that love began to fade and become instead just affection—to know that there was nothing, nothing she could do to fight for the single most important thing in her life—

In the end, all that mattered was that he'd left her. He no longer loved her the way he had.

"You'll be okay," Yuffie said again, her own voice wavering as she hugged Tifa tight against her. And Tifa, eyes shut tight and every muscle clenched in misery, wondered how she'd ever be okay again.

That night was the worst. She lay awake in Yuffie's guest bed and remembered Cloud in bed with her, remembered Cloud whispering to her, remembered the way his hands felt, calloused and rough and always able to give her pleasure. She remembered his scent, the way she would breathe it in deeply when she awoke in the middle of the night, the way she would reach for him and pull herself tight against him before sleeping again. She recalled the way his eyes would be, so bright even through the fog induced by slumber as he awoke to see her above him, the way his lips would curve in that little secretive smile she adored so much. She didn't sleep that night, or the night after; the day following that she had to sleep because her body and mind were so exhausted

Time marched on. She went back to the home she'd shared with him only once, to gather up her belongings before she returned to Yuffie's. The other girl didn't mind a new roommate; indeed, it had been her suggestion. The days, Tifa found, were tolerable if she kept herself busy and kept her mind occupied. The nights were what hurt the worst, because she had hours to dwell on what had been, what could have been, what never would be. She learned to hate herself in that span of time between sunset and sunrise; she cursed her temper, her selfishness, her mulishness that she refused always to relinquish. But she learned to hate him too, hating the way he'd left without at least giving her the truth, hating the way he'd led her on, wanting her to believe he still cared for her the way he always had. But mostly she hated him for leaving without a word and without explanation, even though she'd known he'd fallen out of love with her; he couldn't have given her even a farewell.

It was easier to hate than it was to realize she'd been partially to blame in driving him away. It was far easier to embrace rage and sorrow than it was to take a long, hard introspective look at herself and evaluate just what in her behavior had driven a wedge between herself and the man she'd loved so much. She rollercoasted through hating herself and hating him, through tearing herself apart and building herself back up again. The days went on as they had before, and eventually it came to be that each day it hurt a little less than it had before to think of Cloud and all he'd meant to her.

Friends came to visit often. Cid was not very discreet and tactlessly told her he'd never actually thought she and Cloud belonged together; Yuffie reacted to this bald statement by kicking the pilot square in the testicles and ordering him to apologize. Tifa, with a pained attempt at a smile, told Cid it was alright, and that obviously what she and Cloud had had wasn't meant to be, even though sometimes she still thought otherwise. Barret, predictably, had gruffly offered to find Cloud and kick his ass in such ways as to permanently maim and cripple him. Touched by the concern the big man showed, she gently shook her head and said no, that it would be okay. Cait-Sith/Reeve merely offered her a fortune that read "This too shall pass."; Tifa thanked the remotely controlled the robot and kept the small piece of paper with her at all times.

Vincent did not show himself until some months after Cloud had left. Tifa had reached a milestone of sorts; she could now get through her days without thinking at all about what had been. The enigmatic former Turk offered nothing to her in the way of condolences, and Tifa was grateful for that. He settled in for a few days at their small home; odd that he had stopped to visit at all, but the two roommates were happy to see him regardless. Yuffie did her best to drive him crazy in several ways, but he was eternally unruffled, or so it seemed, and eventually the ninja girl gave up. The three of them talked of the past and conversed about the present state of the world, not once did Vincent ever as the others had mention Cloud's name. Cid and Barret came to join them for a couple of nights, and for the first time in a long time, Tifa thoroughly enjoyed herself.

Vincent left six days later, citing that he was needed in Wutai on business. Yuffie, away on her own errands, was not there to see him go. Tifa walked him to the door and stood beside him outside. For a long time they were silent, both staring at Neo-Midgar rising up from the plains in the north. It was Vincent that finally spoke, his deep voice expressionless and contemplative. "You've healed."

She glanced up at him, surprised. He'd said not one word to her in relation to what had happened between herself and Cloud, and she had been grateful for that small mercy. Recovered somewhat though she was, his name still sparked things within her that were both painful and unpleasant. She was silent a moment, trying to formulate a response that would be blasé and unrevealing; all she could come up with was, "I guess I have."

"Love," Vincent said, "is a very fickle thing. But we're fortunate to find it when we do. For all the harm it does, there's a great deal more to it than we realize."

Tifa stared at him in partial awe; Vincent never spoke of such things. She considered his words, however, recalling his own story of love found and lost, and wondered maybe if he was right. She had loved Cloud and lost him, she'd had her heart shattered but had mended it on her own, she'd learned that you could heal through even the most devastating of things.

Surprising herself, she said, "I think you may be right."

He looked at her then, lips half curved in a small smile. "Sometimes it takes something like this to see all sides."

"Hopefully," she told him dryly, "I've seen them all now. I don't think I care to see any more."

He laughed a little at that, surprising her again. "I'm glad to know you're well, Tifa." He laid his good hand on her shoulder and squeezed before lifting it away. "I thought about you often when I first heard."

"I … thank you."

Another half-smile creased his face. "Perhaps I'll return once this task is finished. I've missed you all a great deal."

"We've missed you too, Vincent. Our home is always your home, you know?"

He nodded. "I do. Take care of yourself, Tifa. I'll see you soon."

She watched him stride to his vehicle, a black bike not unlike the one Cloud had ridden. But she didn't think of Cloud as she watched her friend speed out of the simple dirt driveway. She thought of Vincent, thought of his words, and realized that for the first time in a very long time, the void of loss was absent within her.

It was only when she lifted a hand to gently run her fingers across her lips that she realized she'd learned to smile again.