What about now – forget about tomorrow, it's too far away
What about now – don't talk of yesterday, it's too far away
I'm coming out of these shadows, I'm getting off of this one-way street
Blue memories, they just gather dust
Leave 'em in the rain, they turn into rust
"What About Now," Robbie Robertson
It was a few days later that he reminded her they still hadn't discussed anything she'd said they would – the kiss, and the warped panicked moments leading up to the ambulance and the hospital. She flushed and turned away, hands clenching and unclenching around the dishtowel.
"…can't we just forget about it? I sound like such a coward, but I… I want things… I'm tired of wanting what I can't have."
"As am I." His voice was still and even, the monotone he'd almost forgotten. Inside he was lurching, grabbing at straws and almost nauseous with the enormity of it all. "Tifa."
Her name tasted like long summer evenings. He took a step closer, deliberately invading her space, breaking the fragile détente again. "Keep your eyes open?"
Then she was in his arms, oranges and smoke and strawberry lipgloss. He saw her eyes flutter shut and pulled away for a second to murmur an admonition; they slowly opened again and fixed on his as he kissed her with all the delicacy he could muster, nerves singing under her hands braced on his forearms for balance. Bewildered at first, then apprehensive, then finally, blessedly understanding.
He couldn't breathe and had to break the kiss, sucking cool air into tortured lungs.
"Only you." When had he decided to speak? "Only ever you," and he pressed his mouth against the crown of her head.
She was still, but didn't push him away.
"…oh. I see. I…" A step back. He let her go, yearning. "I… oh dear. Why did things have to get so complicated?" She gnawed on her thumbnail anxiously, hugging herself.
"I didn't exactly plan this," he half-lied.
"I know. Can't… I need to think."
"Is it me?"
"No. I mean, more – what if it is you? I mean, really you. Who I – " She fell silent and he took a step away, as content as he could be; at least now she knew, and he could choke back the frustration. Somehow.
"Yes. Think about it. As much as you need to." No anger there, no impatience, only a dreadful honesty. "I will be here." He had waited this long, already.
And he was.
A year passed.
The door to Seventh Heaven swung open. Tifa didn't look up from where she had been propped on one elbow, nailing the new bar into place.
"Sorry, we're closed."
"Should I come back later, then?" A dark tenor, half-laughing, heartbreakingly familiar and she had to look up, knowing it was impossible because no one had heard a word from him since… since…
Very carefully, she put the hammer down. She would not let it fall from her hands. She was not one of those fainting girls in the horrible romances Marlene had taken to reading. She was… she was…
She was going to kill him.
"Cloud?" was all she could rasp out, hoarse with shock.
"It's been a while." He paused on the threshold, fingers wrapped around the doorframe. "Can I come in?" Am I still welcome?
Tifa stood, not bracing herself in any way whatsoever on the new bar. The old one had been destroyed the other night – a drunken brawl, nothing special except that one of the fighters had made the mistake of swinging at her when she went to break it up. It had been so long she had half-forgotten her own strength.
"Where have you been?" An absent gesture. Come in.
"Here and there. Nowhere."
She found herself sitting in one of the booths across from him almost like a memory, or the dreams she used to have.
"What were you doing?"
"Thinking. Things I should have done to begin with." Gods, he'd barely aged a day. "Where are the kids?"
She realized the silence had ached too long and shook her head to clear it. "Oh! Um, with Vincent," she said, suddenly shy. "There's a carnival – I'd be there too, only…" she gestured at the new furniture.
It took a moment before she realized he wouldn't know and another moment to be shocked at how casual the thought felt. Vincent was with the kids, making sure they didn't eat anything too suspicious or spend all their allowances, enduring the noise and crowd and lights with a slightly pained half-smile because hell, they were having fun. He would come back at the end of the day, holding Marlene's hand with Denzel trailing behind or ahead (too old to cling and too young yet to walk besides). The kids would go off to bed (not that Denzel seemed to get any proper sleep anymore), they would talk a little and go to their separate rooms. He didn't spend the early night in her room anymore – she could sense him through the walls. Morning would come, and he would still be there.
"He's been living with – he's been living here for a while now."
"How long?" There was a pained quality in his voice, a sudden slow blossom of understanding as he read her eyes.
"Since a few months after you left… why?"
His lips tilted in something too filled with irony and regret to be called a smile. "Guess I'm too late, then."
Not a question.
"I'd thought – I'd hoped – maybe you'd…"
"…oh?" and then: "Oh!" Her eyes widened. A moment grew between them, ripe with possibilities.
She realized – wondering, resigned, bewildered, half-expecting it – that it simply wasn't in her anymore.
He shook his head, no malice in his eyes. "Figures."
The moment died when he turned to leave so she shot up. "Wait! You can't leave – the kids – you just got here!"
"I'll be back tomorrow." He didn't turn around. "I promise."
"…right. Right. Sure." Open bitterness for the first time, and he winced. Then he thought of something and dug in his pocket. The keys jangled as he lay them on the new bar.
"I'm staying at an inn," he said to the question he knew was on her lips. "Walked here. These are the keys for Fenrir."
He looked back over his shoulder and met her eyes. There was love there, yes – love had always sung between them, would tie them together until the end. There was also regret, and scarred-over pain, and memory and loss and in that moment they saw each other truly.
She smiled, brilliant and unafraid. "You'll be back tomorrow."
He smiled back.
She was playing with the keys at the bar, the day's mess still scattered around her, when Vincent came back as she had known he would – behind Denzel, who clutching his stomach and groaning, holding Marlene's hand. She looked quite perky and clutched an enormous stuffed… something. Tifa took it in for a moment and her heart gave a strange little twitch at how completely he seemed to belong, gauntlet and all.
"Was it the funnel cake or the tilt-a-whirl?" Tifa asked.
"I suspect the hot dogs, actually. I warned you," he told the miserable teenager.
Denzel glared at him and stalked up the stairs to his bedroom. The door slammed behind him.
"I am sure I was never that ill-mannered as a teenager," Vincent muttered. There was an unmistakable look of relief in his eyes and he winced slightly as she watched, letting go of Marlene's hand to press his to his temple briefly.
"I think it's almost bedtime for you, Marlene." Tifa slid off the barstool, bracing for the slow process of chivvying the girl to bed; to her surprise, all Marlene did was tug at Vincent's shirt and peck him on the cheek when he knelt.
"Thank you for winning me the moogle toy," she said, solving the mystery of what the giant plushie was supposed to be, and vanished up the stairs. Tifa watched her go, then turned back to Vincent.
"So what was it that did you in?"
"Is it that obvious?"
"Maybe just to me." He blinked at the roundabout admission of how close they'd become. "Give me second down here? I was just taking a break before cleaning up."
"You have installed the new bar?"
"Yes. There will be no banging."
"Ah. Good. I will just go lie down for a while." He also vanished into the living quarters above the bar, rubbing distractedly at his temple. She slid the keys in her pocket and began to clean up, wondering how best to go about things now, in the wake of her new understanding.
Cleaning up didn't take long. The shadows were dimming into darkness broken by streetlights when she followed her family upstairs to their home; she paused a moment before her bedroom door, blinking away habit, then turned and opened Vincent's. He was lying on his bed with the curtain closed and a wet cloth over his eyes.
She glided over to him in her stocking feet and sat down on the edge of the bed. He made a quizzical noise and she smiled though he couldn't see her, starting to run her fingers through his hair.
"…that feels nice," he murmured, half-asleep, a goofy smile twitching the corners of his mouth. "What did I do to deserve it?"
"Everything. But I have some news."
"Must be bad, then."
"Well, I don't think it is." Insecurity scrabbled at the corner of her mind and leaked into her voice.
"Spare my aching head the mystery, if you please."
"Cloud came by today." He sat up, instantly grave, and she pressed a finger against his lips; he stayed silent, bewildered by her sudden intimacy. "I'm not done. He was just here for a few seconds – he's coming back tomorrow, he left his keys, and I suppose we'll really sort things out then. But I realized something."
"Tifa, you don't have to do this." He drew back, knowing what was coming and retreating in advance of the storm.
"This… there was never a promise between us. I always knew – if he should come back, to stay – the odds…"
She couldn't help laughing a little. He took the cloth off his eyes and just looked at her, bruised by her mirth and gentle smile and searching desperately for some reaction – this was inexpressibly, impossibly cruel.
Which was when she kissed him. Swift, almost shy, but definitely a kiss, and when she was done her fingers rested lightly on his cheek and scant inches separated them.
"What was I was going to say is I realized that I… well, I do love him. And if he wants to be part of my life, of the children's lives, he's welcome. Only he'd have to be part of your life, too, because when I think of all that, you're always there. Not on the sides. In the heart of it."
She pressed her forehead to his, suddenly afraid to meet his eyes. "What I'm trying to say is, I… love you. And I'm in love with you, too. And… well, that's it." Her hand dropped down and squeezed his before she sat back, waiting for his response.
He stared, fireworks and white noise going off in his brain, and wondered if she would be offended if he asked her to pinch him. The seconds ticked by unbroken and she fidgeted, half-afraid she had been too late after all, and come to love him just after he'd let her go.
After an eternity, he reached out and brushed a strand of errant hair from her face as he had uncounted times before. This time he let his hand linger, sliding gently down the side of her face, a little ways into her hair before cupping the back of her neck. She closed her eyes, shivering, then opened them again. He'd tilted his head slightly.
"Thank you," he whispered hoarsely, and they met in the space between. It was slow and unhurried, an exploration and a gift, going on forever without air, a blur of lips and hands and skin and deep, steady breathing. When it ended they were on the bed together, him on his back and she on top of him, gazing at him with hooded eyes.
"What about your headache?" she murmured, teasing as her hand wandered down his body, lower, until she reached the waistband of the sweatpants he'd changed into and then slid under…
"Miraculously cured," he had just enough breath to gasp before they surrendered, together, and flew.
They lay twined together, after, pleasantly unsure as to where one body ended and the other began. He'd had his face buried in her neck for the past few moments and seemed quite content to stay there; she'd discovered that she liked him that way, the weight and the solidity of him. It had been a bit awkward at first, one-armed that he was, but then…
She hid her smile in the curve of his shoulder and sought out his hand. It was frustratingly out of reach so she nudged at him, ignoring his protests, until he rolled over and she could snuggle against him properly. He didn't respond when she curled her hand around his under the covers; puzzled, she looked and they realized at the same time she'd taken the dead one, the one he'd remembered to hold away from her even as they'd forgotten everything else.
He twitched away from her and she didn't let go, bringing it up from under the covers and kissing the palm.
"It doesn't upset me, Vincent."
"It upsets me." She let go and he pulled his shoulder back, wincing as it flopped down his side. "Dammit."
Without a word, she crawled over him and settled on the opposite side of the bed. He turned to follow her, adjusting his bad arm, and wrapped his good one around her.
"One of us has to be."
He raised an eyebrow. "And I suppose I'm the one who'll have to get a lobotomy?"
"Wouldn't you rather have a bottle in front of you? Since I run a bar and all."
He glared and she dissolved into giggles. "If I'd know you got this silly…" It only made her laugh harder and seeing no alternative, he kissed her warmly with open eyes and gloried in the love he saw there.
"What would you have done?" she asked sleepily when they broke off, nestling her head against his shoulder.
"If you'd known I would be this silly."
"Gagged you," he said promptly, and braced himself for the smack. She snickered instead.
"Kinky. Ball or cleave?"
"How on earth do you know that?"
"How do you?"
"Good point." He smiled to himself and shifted to lie on his back, closing his eyes as his thoughts drifted farther apart and sleep beckoned. She followed, still resting her head on his shoulder. "I don't usually break out the whips and chains until the fourth or fifth date, but in this case…"
"We skipped so many of the preliminaries, after all."
"Do you regret it?" he said around a yawn.
"Nope." She kissed his shoulder idly, playing with his hair. "Go to sleep."
Her only response was a rumble, and she realized he already had. Tifa yawned hugely, knowing she was tired and still not quite wanting to give in – wanting to remember this moment, with this man, in case it never came again.
Though that was silly, she realized as soon as she thought it. Of course it would come again – not in this exact form – but it would come, again and again. In that moment she saw the future stretching ahead of her, an endless series of moments with this man, in this place, with family and with friends, in a long-earned peace.
Her eyes slid closed and she let herself fall. Outside the noise of the city swirled and settled into its quieter nighttime rhythm, light and life turning inwards in comfort behind closed doors until morning. The stars danced, the clouds drifted, and the moon gazed warmly down while the planet held its breath, waiting for the new day.
Extended Author's Notes:
Well, I am less than happy with the last two chapters - I always feel like my writing's gone to shit when I have to move plot - but I tweaked and tweaked and finally gave up. Hopefully the epilogue makes up for it, though it lacks sex.
I do have another fic in the works, which will be titled Jenova Cooties and involve, among other things, wet dreams, telepathy, haunted houses, and creepy alien parasites. It's supposed to be horror/humour/romance - think Shaun of the Dead, but Lovecraft instead of zombies. Let's see if I can pull it off. VinTi, of course.
Looking over this fic, there's quite a bit I'd do differently, but we live and learn. Etc. I hope you enjoyed this little foray.
Onwards and upwards, always
Ayezur E. Draca, Commander of the Pillowfort.
P.S. Ah, I almost forgot. Rach was the one who pointed me towards the Wintersleep song, and she was introduced to that band by Ms. Tijuana Pirate, loveliest of reviewers, and so I owe TP two debts now. How would you like them repaid?