Disclaimer: Only thing I own is the cat. Poor overworked kitty. It should complain to the Symbolic Things Union.
When I was younger I saw things in black and white
Now all I see is sad, hazy grey
Sometimes I see a narrow flash of light
Sometimes I look and you show me the way
"Fields of Grey," Bruce Hornsby
The cat had taken to hiding inside as the nights grew chill, following him down into the warmer cellars and caves hollowed from the mountain like a honeycomb infection rotting it from within. Sometimes he fancied he could blow the whole thing down with a single shouted word, and his silences grew deeper as the cold drew closer. The cat liked to sleep next to him, curled up inside his larger circle of tangled limbs and tight-strapped leather. There were no beds, and the coffin was out of the question. He would not go back there, not until his last bits of self had fallen off and he could safely pull the lid on and sleep the years away, crumbling into dust without fear of waking.
The evenings were still warm, however, when the sun had come out from behind the mountains and angled light through overgrown gardens. The cat liked to go out then, and he would follow for lack of anything better to do. That was the only reason he saw her when she pulled up to the gate of the mansion, and it had been so long he nearly fled.
She had seen him, and was climbing towards the path carrying whatever tools she thought she needed this time as though nothing had changed – as though it hadn't been three months (not that he was counting or anything) and his heart wasn't inexplicably splitting at the sight of her.
"Hello, Vincent," she said, sitting in the half-dead grass next to him and he realized he'd lost time again, easy as blinking. These moments of suspended animation were happening more and more frequently now; a new infection in an old wound. Before it had only been his mind he was in danger of losing, not that the fractured remnants of his wits had done him much good in the years since his awakening.
She had been speaking. He blinked and looked up, a question in his eyes. She sighed.
"I said, I'm sorry for missing so many visits. There was a problem… nothing major, just Cloud being, you know, Cloud. And then Marlene got sick, and there was some sort of insurance problem with the bar…"
He ducked his head forward and let his eyes close. Her voice washed over him, color and light, rising and falling in gentle waves, not the quick, animated spikes that had driven him from civilization. It was easy to focus on her. She drove the chill away.
"…anyway, hopefully this'll make it up to you." He looked up again, asking another silent question, and she stared at him.
"It's your birthday, Vincent, remember? I made us a meal to share. I would have taken you back to Edge with me but I remembered you hate crowds."
A jolt of world-tilting panic smothered itself and became a single shake of his head.
"Well, then, this is a nice spot and it should be warm for a few hours more…" she turned to the basket she had brought with her and opened it, swearing under her breath – something foul, no doubt picked up from Highwind – when she saw she had forgotten a cloth. His fingers moved faster than his mind, taking off his cloak and offering it as a replacement before he could reasonably withdraw. She looked startled (please don't ask his face screamed without his knowledge) and took it, spreading it on the ground.
"Thank you, Vincent. Oh!" she said, pulling out a piece of thick paper with the covered dishes. "Marlene drew this. She misses you, you know – she knows I see you, and keeps asking when Uncle Vincent is going to come and visit."
He made no move to take it from her and she lay it on the grass beside him, where he gazed at it the same way someone might look at a particularly perplexing bit of tax form. It was a child's drawing, perspective skewed and colors scribbled every which way, but it was very clearly him, seen through a little girl's eyes. He was standing with what looked to be Tifa lying on the ground beside him (a torrent of blood coming from her head showed that the child was at least appropriately morbid for her age), his clawed hand – almost twice as big as he was – reaching out and tearing alongside a monster depicted as a shapeless mass of fangs and scales. Droplets of blood spurted from the wound, and the beast had little x-ed out eyes. Uncle Vincent saving Aunt Tifa from a monster was scrawled across the top in a neat, childish hand.
"Yuffie told her about that time… remember? In the forest, when I'd gone off and you came after me? I think that's what inspired that little masterpiece."
She turned her head away quickly, cheeks tinted red, and finished setting his cloak. He moved automatically, something like hunger stirring for the first time in years, and his mind wandered back to… how long ago was it now? Almost four years...
"Tifa's missing!" A frenetic ball of black hair and blades assaulted him as soon as he stepped from the dark forest into the little circle cast by their campfire. "She had some kind of fight, her and Cloud, and she left and now we don't know where she is and they're all looking for her and made me an' Red stay here in case she comes back and you gotta help, Vinnie, you gotta!"
He had backed away almost immediately, raising his hands to ward her off and nodding as he retreated back into the forest. Circling the campfire once told him which directions the others had set off in; a second and third circle brought him to her trail. She had muddled it nicely, criss-crossing and doubling back and going in wide circles, but Hojo had done more to his body then merely rearrange it for the convenience of the creatures in his bones. He could smell her scent on the wind, citrus and spice, and followed it until he could sense her radiant heat and hear the racing of her heart.
She screamed, and he began to run.
He found her in time to watch her fall. She didn't make sound, only sighed a little as her eyes rolled back in her head and something strained and snapped in his chest. He launched himself at the creature that had felled her – he couldn't quite see what it was, but it was no match for Death Penalty, and when it lunged at him, wounded and baying, he jammed the long claws of his twisted hand into its eyes and past them, destroying what brain it had.
All this he remembered later; when he came to himself again, he was crouched over her, cradling her body to his chest and sobbing like a child, lips pressed against her hair and tasting the salted copper blood trickling down her cheek.
…the others had never seen that. They had only seen him carrying her back into the circle of firelight and rushed around her, taking her away and healing her, and heard the story later. And he had never told anyone of that moment after the battle, when he had thought for an instant she was dead or so near as to make no difference.
He had forgotten it himself.
"Why did you leave?" The words fell from his mouth unbidden, a heavy anchor dropped in the pleasant froth of her self-sustaining chatter. She cocked her head at him, confused, and put down the remnants of the meal.
"Three years ago… in the forest. Why did you leave?" It was hard to dredge up the words to say what he needed to say from the grey maelstrom his mind had become. He was losing himself – skipping time and forgetting words and he knew without knowing that the only things holding him here were the promise of her visits and a small white cat. They would fade, though, eventually, and he could sleep again. Everything would fade, so there was no point in mustering the strength to understand why she kept him hooked into the world with all its bright cruelty.
She had fallen silent; for once he hadn't missed what she'd said while he wandered in his own mind. The day had grown dark and chill, and she shivered. He noticed – not for the first time – the elegant curve of her arms as she wrapped them around her knees, the graceful bend of her neck and the dark hair draped over her skin.
"Cloud and I…" she said finally, resting her chin on the top of her knees. "We… argued. It was stupid. It was about Aeris… well, about me. He accused me of trying to replace her."
Replace her…? Aeris was Aeris, and Tifa was Tifa. The Cetra had been… frail, somehow, translucent against the brightness of the world, while Tifa was solidity and strength, warm persistence sparking against the harder edges of existence.
"…foolish…" he said, nearly a breath.
"Wasn't it, though?" She wiped idly at her eyes. "Why would I even try? I couldn't have compared with her, I just wanted to make sure he was alright…"
He tilted his head slightly, watching as the cat left off harrying a field mouse and came to stretch between them. There was something backwards about what she had said, something very wrong, and he couldn't work through the words to find her meaning.
She began to pet the cat idly, long fingers stroking white fur to the animal's obvious delight. "Honestly, Vincent, do you ever pet her?"
"I pet her," he said, mildly indignant.
"Obviously not enough," she laughed shakily when the cat climbed into her lap. "Poor kitty, I left you with the grouchiest, most antisocial man on the planet, didn't I?" The cat settled happily, purring and kneading her thighs through her jeans, and she scratched at its ears.
"Did you ever name her?"
"Tifa," he said. She waited expectantly for a beat, then flushed and looked away. It was a half-truth – he never called the cat, so it didn't know it had a name (except for whatever name it gave itself), but in his mind… it was her, in a way, the promise that she would come back, something he hadn't thought he needed until she had stopped coming.
"You know, it's funny," she said idly, letting the cat bat at her fingers. "Cats have a terrible reputation for being aloof and snooty, but they're really very affectionate and loving. They're just picky. They won't cuddle up to just anyone, and you have to treat them properly."
He eyed her suspiciously, hiding under his bangs. "…I am not a cat, Tifa."
"Are you sure?" There was that brilliant grin again, piercing him and focusing him on her, and before he could react she had shifted to kneel closer to him – the cat deposited on the ground with an indignant squeak – and was running her fingers through his hair. "You could be hiding anything under that mess, even a pair of cat ears."
Lightning shot down his spine. She had touched him before, through layers of black leather, but never directly, never skin-to-skin. He closed his eyes, wrestling with some darker part of himself that wanted to do… something… something impossible, something he could never force on her, and inhaled sharply and leaned into her touch regardless. She pulled away, startled and perhaps aware she had crossed a line. He let out one shuddering breath and opened his eyes.
"There's something I want to show you," he said, the words he had been searching for thick and dry in his mouth.
She had the grace not to speak while he led her through the maze of stone, trusting his footsteps to take him where he wanted to go. She had startled once at the skittering of a cave-creature and grasped his hand. He let it stay there, bending his fingers just barely enough to brush the skin on the back of her hand. There was no light this far down; needing none, he hadn't thought to bring any and he felt her drawing closer to him as the darkness pressed down further.
"It's not far now," he said, pausing at a fork in the path. He felt more than heard her nod, and led her farther down.
Eventually the corridor opened into a wide cavern lit with a dim phosphorescent glow. Thin columns of stone caught what little light there was and sent it spinning; huge stone curtains draped themselves along the walls and drifted into a shallow glassy lake. The floor was scalloped with fossilized waves and thin fronds hung from the ceiling, frozen claws growing by millimeters a century.
She gasped and walked forward, letting her hand slide from his. He watched as she roamed around the cavern, sliding in and out of the thin forest of stone and draping a hand in the cold lakewater. She brought her wet hand to her mouth and tasted it; he knew the taste would be heavy and mineral on her tongue, almost dark and just a little bitter. Her skin glowed in the light, and when she turned to face him her pupils were wide and black, devouring her eyes.
"Vincent…" she said, then let the weight of the mountain smother her words. He stepped forward, too close, and his hands twitched and convulsed at his sides. Something writhed under the calm grey swirl in his mind, tugging and snarling at its bonds, and he saw –
he grabbed her tight around the waist, yanked her forward and crushed her against him, drank deep and pulled her down, stones pushing against his back and alive with stolen warmth
– he had stepped forward again, and her eyes widened. The tight band around his chest loosened; he rested the fingertips of his human hand on her shoulder, tucking his claw behind his back while his mind sang her name like a psalm.
It was easy then, terribly easy, to throw a sop to the writhing need and press his lips delicately against hers. Electricity surged through him and the writhing dark shouted triumph before he broke, stumbling away to press against the reassuring solid stone.
"I… I'm sorry."
"For what?" She pressed her fingers to her lips, wondering and heavy with the weight of what his actions implied.
"You must leave now. It isn't…"
"…monstrous…" he choked out, and let himself sink to the ground. For a blessed moment he thought she hadn't understood, that he had offended her, finally, made her leave, and then she came to kneel before him.
"You aren't a monster." And her tone made him look up, meet her dilated eyes and see the fire raging in the black. It was a flat and angry statement, devoid of pleading or pity. "I've met monsters, Vincent Valentine. One came to my home and destroyed it, and my family, and my life. Another took away the person I loved most and with him, my dreams for a future. Monsters ruled Midgar's slums… you're not a monster. And I should know. I've spent my life fighting them."
She smoothed his hair back from his forehead and he grabbed her wrist, meeting her eyes.
"Why?" he rasped.
"Who else will?" she said, and now there was an edge of bitter steel. "Yuffie? Cloud? Cid? You? No one else can hold us together."
"…there's no point," he murmured, dropping her wrist. A second later he flinched as she slammed a fist into the wall next to his head.
"Then tell me to stop! Tell me life would be better – they would be happier if I just let them go, let them wander off and live their lives and moved on with my own. Tell me you want me to stop, and I will. Tell me that's what you need, that you never wanted any of this, and I'll leave."
He had frozen under the wave of her resentment, fingers clutching the ridged rock beneath them.
"Do you think I didn't have dreams, Vincent? Do you think it's easy, always shouldering their burdens – no, Cloud, of course you're not to blame. Of course I still love you. Of course you're not a bad father, Barret, even though you're never around. Of course your dream is worth leaving Shera in the dust, Cid. Of course you're capable of ruling Wutai, Yuffie. We can do anything, right guys? Let's do our best." She spat out the phrase like poison, shaking, her fist still embedded in the stone. "And I'm selfish, dammit, because I won't let them go. I already lost everything once, and now this is all I have, I can't lose anyone else…"
She had kept her eyes on his as she spoke, and now he saw them well with tears, watched them overflow and trickle down her chin and she made no move to brush them away.
"… I won't let any of you go. You're all I have, and if I don't hold on… you won't hold on if I don't, and I can't lose anyone else. I can't…" Her voice broke and she bowed her head.
Leather scraped against stone as he shifted to his knees. He had left his cloak in the field, worlds away, where it was likely even now being mauled by the cat. Without a mask of cloth to hide behind he found himself staring at the hand and claw draped limply in his lap and hating himself. He couldn't find words; he tore at the cobwebs covering his mind, grasping desperately while the terrible darkness screamed at him to show her, to take her in his arms and cover her, drown in the reality of her.
He moved suddenly, leather creaking as he imagined his bones did, and wrapped his arms around her. She was too lost in her tears by now to struggle or care, so it was easy to draw her close, twine his fingers in her hair and settle his metal arm across her body.
"That you care for me, Tifa Lockhart…" he said, swallowing to clear his throat from dust and clinging to the clarity her warmth brought. "…is an honor. One that I hope, one day, I will deserve."
They walked back through the winding stone in silence, her breathing hitched and stuttering. She clung to his hand, fingers laced with his, and he knew without being able to say quite why that her head was bowed. The cat was waiting for them at the entrance to the cellar and wrapped herself around their legs, purring.
"I… I should probably go," she said, refusing to look at him. "It's getting late. Marlene and Denzel will worry."
He looked at her closely then, ducking his head to meet her eyes and looking so much like a curious bird in the process that a smile ghosted across her lips – a pale shadow of her usual brilliant grin. He saw dark smudges under her eyes; saw how her skin stretched pale and thin across her cheeks, and the deep lines marring her forehead.
The cat collapsed in the dust next to them and stretched, irritated at the lack of attention.
"Tifa…" he said, more breath than voice.
She looked up and he found himself trapped in her eyes, immobilized by the weariness in them. "Yes, Vincent?"
"Do you… need some help around the bar?"
"Well, yes, always, I… why?"
"I've… been thinking. It might be time… there's nothing left for me here, is there?"
He broke away, finally, stooping to pick up the cat. She nestled against his chest and began to purr, and he risked a glance. Tifa was looking at him as though she'd never seen him before.
"No…" she said, finally, hesitantly. "There really isn't, is there? Just ghosts."
"And it's no place at all for a growing cat. Unless it's an imposition…"
"No, never," she said hurriedly, shaking her head. "We have the spare room, after all, and I'm sure I can find work for you." She paused for a second, then tilted her head. "Do you…?"
"No," he said to her unspoken question. He didn't need anything and so owned nothing. The cat did her business in the grounds, ate from the bags of dry food he braved the town to secure and drank from a clean stream that ran through the caves. Nothing material had ever held him to the mansion.
"I guess we should go, then," she said, fiddling with a strand of her hair. She walked down the path, towards the truck; he followed, lingering near the edge of the driveway while she gathered up the remains of their meal. She found his cloak under a bush, where the cat had dragged it; it had become even more bedraggled, covered in grass stains and shredded by kneading claws, so he shook his head at her and she left it where it was.
A breeze slid quietly through the grounds as the old truck sputtered away, rattling gravel. It caressed the dangling shutters and waved through the trees, rippling the grass and fluttering a scarlet cape lying on the ground.