A/N: So I've been working on this fic for—goodness knows how long

A/N: So I've been working on this fic for—goodness knows how long. I use the canon from both FF7 and Advent Children, but I really haven't played Dirge or Crisis Core or anything else, so if it strays from that canon I'm sorry.

Anyway, I really hope you enjoy. It's been awhile since I've taken on a fic of this caliber. Here's hoping I'm doing something right. Chapter 2 is about 85-90 done, so it shouldn't take me that long to get it out.

o o o o o

Strife's Delivery Service had once been about delivering vegetables, but things had changed since then. Now, Tifa continuously found herself entrusted with encrypted documents or Super Special Packages with Super Special Seals that tended to explode if prodded too much. Sometimes she would get something normal, like a care package from a concerned mother to her overseas son, but usually she was stuck with something that had dangerous beginnings. More often than not she was racing across the continent on Goldie, Strife's Gold Chocobo who had been named appropriately by the kids, with an ominous black envelope that smelled faintly of sulfur tucked in her satchel or a blue glowing egg that rattled like it was planning a revolt.

On trips like those she would go missing for days on end, moving nonstop and worrying continuously about Denzel and Marlene, who she would have been forced to leave under Yuffie's care. As much as she loved her younger friend, she was certain Marlene had picked up that nasty habit of snagging anything that looked like it was worth a pretty penny from Yuffie.

So Tifa was obviously less than pleased. when Cloud handed her a manila envelope that was addressed to Reeve, when she knew he was at Mideel helping out with reconstruction.

"Cloud."

"I'd take it, but I have prior commitments." He shrugged apologetically.

"He's all the way in Mideel, Cloud. Do you have any idea how long that will take?" Not to mention, she wasn't keen on the idea of running on the ocean for that long. There was only so much water she could handle without freaking out a bit. Tifa couldn't understand how Cloud could do it without batting an eye.

"Cid said he'd fly you."

Tifa made a distressed sound and set the box down on their kitchen table, heading towards Denzel and Marlene's door. It was open a crack and she could see Denzel's small form draped across his bed. Marlene was further in the room and out of sight, and she didn't want to push the door open at the risk of it creaking. She wasn't comforted. Even with Sierra, the trip would still be at least a week.

"Tifa."

She pushed away from the kids' room and sat heavily at the table. Not for the first time, she wished she could retire from Strife's Delivery Service and dedicate all her time on the kids. But it was impossible with the business expanding as quickly as it was. The harsh truth was that they were grossly understaffed and with more and more underground names learning of them they had more and more deliveries to do. Once upon a time this would have been entirely Cloud's responsibility, but demand forced the blond to include Tifa into the business. He even suggested renaming it to Strife & Lockhart's Delivery Service, but she had resolutely objected. Tifa liked to pretend that 'Strife' included them both, but claimed aloud that it was his company, so it should remain in his name.

"When does he expect it?" She was being selfish. Whatever business Cloud was doing was obviously important and besides, he probably had deep psychological trauma concerning Mideel. Not that she actively psychoanalyzed Cloud.

"He requested priority mail."

Priority mail. What a joke. Priority mail only existed with franchises. To Strife's Delivery Company, 'priority mail' meant that either Tifa or Cloud would miss a few nights of sleep and still take over seven days, especially for places like Mideel.

"I'll leave first thing tomorrow morning."

"This is important, Tifa."

Tifa looked up at him in surprise, frowning at the way his narrow eyebrows were pinched together and the way his lips were pursed in a thin line. He didn't want her to go.

She nodded shortly. "I'll be careful. When's Cid arriving?" Her voice was clipped and his frown deepened.

"I told him to be here by seven."

She snorted ruefully. He had planned everything out down to the time, even before she agreed to anything. Her acceptance of the mission was just for show. She never had a choice in the matter.

Cloud seemed to realize his mistake because his expression became stormier. Well, good. She hoped he would feel guilty and angry, sticking her with a job like this when she had the kids to take care of. It balanced out her own irritation.

"And Yuffie?"

"I called her earlier."

Tifa raked her fingers through her hair in frustration, a habit she'd picked up when her responsibilities jumped from being a barkeep to taking care of a dozen or so kids while running around the world to drop off possible contraband. Living with Cloud and his tendency to disappear whenever the fancy struck him didn't help her blood pressure, either.

"What did she say?" she tried patiently.

"That it was short notice, but she'd be happy to take care of the brats." Tifa looked at him sharply, and he shrugged. "Her words."

"And you'll be?"

He looked away. "Kalm."

Tifa hadn't expected anything less, but it still hurt slightly. She knew that Cloud cared about the kids in his own way, but he would never be able to sacrifice everything for them. Certainly not his work. That was too much to ask for, anyway.

"Well," she said quietly, standing up. "I should get an early night, then."

"Tifa."

Cloud wouldn't apologize, because Cloud didn't think there was anything to apologize for. She looked at him anyway, and for one stupid moment she felt as if the world was separating them and not just their small kitchen. He was looking at her intensely, those strange blue eyes glinting in the dim light. She was doomed to love him forever even though she couldn't reach him, and that sucked unbelievably.

It was obvious by the way he shifted from foot to foot that he wanted to say something but was incapable of the words. Finally, after a brief struggle, he looked away from her. "Goodnight."

She smiled wryly. "Goodnight, Cloud."

Priority Mail
Chapter One: Postal (Service)
by Clara

It was completely unfair of Cloud to give her such a short notice about the delivery. Tifa had spent the night packing and writing out a list of responsibilities for Yuffie, and by the morning she'd gotten about an hour of sleep and greeted Yuffie and Cid by swaying slightly and offering them coffee for their sugar.

"You all right there, Tifa?" Cid asked, lighting a new cigarette with the butt of his old one. He looked as haggard as she did. Cid was not a morning person.

"Didn't sleep much," she admitted, staring dubiously out the window at Yuffie's motorcycle. It was nice of the younger girl to give them a lift to Cid's plane, which was parked right outside of Edge City, but she trusted that bike about as much as she trusted Rufus Shinra.

"You can sleep on Sierra," Cid offered, stirring his coffee. Yuffie snorted in disbelief.

"Please, old man. Did age rot your brain? It's impossible to sleep on any flying contraption." Unlike Cid and Tifa, Yuffie seemed perfectly content to be up as early as they were. Cid knocked her on the shoulder, annoyed.

"Sierra's the image of perfection. Just because you have too many flaws to enjoy her proper doesn't mean you need to go on bitchin' about her."

Tifa stood to leave Cid and Yuffie to bicker about which was better, the air or the ground, and let herself into the kids' room. Denzel and Marlene were sitting on Denzel's bed, talking quietly, but Denzel noisily hushed Marlene when he saw Tifa. They both looked up at her with quiet trepidation.

"I'm sorry," she said honestly, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I don't have a choice. But your Aunt Yuffie will stay with you until I get back."

"Will she watch Seventh Heaven?" Marlene asked, warily. Yuffie's mixed drinks were notoriously bad.

"Yes."

Marlene sighed dramatically, then shrugged. "I like Aunt Yuffie. She lets us—"

Denzel clapped his hand over Marlene's mouth, and whatever Yuffie let them do was lost. Tifa frowned. She would have to pester Yuffie about it later.

"Cloud said you were going to Mideel." Denzel was very formal with Cloud, never calling him 'Uncle' or 'Father'. With Tifa, however, he had picked up Marlene's habit of calling her 'Mama', or when he was really upset, 'Mommy'.

"Yes. For a week."

"Will you bring us back gifts?" Denzel asked seriously. Marlene mimicked his stoic expression, and Tifa had to grin.

"Well, I don't know."

Marlene affected puppy eyes, but Denzel was above pleading. His way of getting what he wanted was by looking disappointed until Tifa or Cloud conceded. It was as effective as Marlene's cute looks.

She scoffed gently. "You two should go into advertisement. What do you guys want?"

"A chocobo!" they both cheered, startling Tifa.

"I don't know, you two. Isn't that a bit much?"

"Carly Perkins has a chocobo," informed Marlene, as if Carly Perkins's opinion was holy. Tifa frowned.

"I'll have to talk to Cloud about that." She stood up and beckoned the two closer, kissing their cheeks. "Be good, and if you need anything call me."

The two scrambled after her back into the kitchen to wave her goodbye, stumbling over their too-long pajama pants. The trio entered the kitchen just in time to hear Yuffie proclaim airships 'flying pieces of shit that smelled worse than they looked, which was B-A-D.' As soon as the ninja saw the two kids, she clamped her hand over her mouth and looked scandalized. Tifa just shook her head tiredly.

"Relax. They've heard worse." She snagged her bag and the package. "Ready to go, Cid?"

"Whenever you are, sweetheart." He didn't bother to offer taking her bag, knowing it could possibly offend the martial artist. The two women followed him to Yuffie's bike, and Yuffie rested her hand lovingly on the seat.

"I'll have to take you guys one at a time."

"Ha! That's another reason why airships are better than motorcycles! Not only are motorcycles limited to land, you can only take one other person on it!"

"If you asked me," said Yuffie, huffily, "that's a good thing."

Cid had nothing to say to that, and Yuffie lifted the seat for Tifa to put her bag and package in.

"Ladies first," Cid said, and Tifa hopped on the back of the bike. Cloud was a distance away, leaning on his own motorcycle. She could see the glint of his mako infused eyes as he watched their every move. When he caught her looking at him, he raised a hand to wave farewell, not even bothering to see her off with a hug or a few words. She turned away without waving back. Denzel and Marlene were watching her with identical somber expressions.

"Be careful, Tifa! We love you!" Marlene waved at her, unable to keep her face as sad as Denzel's. Yuffie crossed her eyes at both the kids, which caused even Denzel to smile, and the two of them took off towards the waiting Sierra.

The trip was longer than she expected; traffic leaving Edge city was bumper to bumper. The motorcycle was able to weave between cars easily, but had to move slowly at a risk of careening into the gleaming sides of nearby vehicles.

Even at seven-thirty in the morning it was warm and Tifa regretted keeping her thin sweatshirt on. Between all these cars, the air was humid and filled with fumes from the exhaust, making the heat even more unbearable. Sometimes a man would hang out his window and yell appreciatively at Yuffie and Tifa, and while Tifa would resolutely ignore him, Yuffie would pull a ridiculous face in his direction before speeding off.

Tifa was not a morning person, used to staying up at odd hours of the night to deal with straggling customers at her bar. While it was Tifa who tucked the kids in at night, it was usually Cloud who saw them off to school in the morning. It was a rare chance for her to be up and about his early. She appreciated watching people bustling quickly to work, chattering on their PHS about some big business things that absolutely could not wait for them to get to the office. She liked seeing the tired faces in their cars, men and women sipping their coffee while listening to the news or shouting for the kids to quiet down. Most people had their windows open to catch a morning breeze, and dozens of different radio stations shouted over the impatient blares of too many horns. She tried to picture herself in a neatly pressed suit with her PHS pressed to her ear as she rushed to her office in five inch heels and laughed a bit, knowing she would never survive a life like that.

"What's so funny?" Yuffie called over her shoulder. Yuffie's short hair was blowing in Tifa's face, but when she leaned back slightly or turned to watch everyone start their days it was hardly noticeable.

"Nothing. Well. Could you imagine yourself living like all these people?"

Yuffie thought it over for a moment. "I liked to pretend, once. I don't think I could do it."

"Yeah. Me either."

Soon enough, the city melted away into suburbs (Tifa smiled at the kids running to school), and then finally to a more rural area where Cid's plane was parked. Consequently, it was right in the middle of a farmer's wheat field.

The farmer was waiting for them with his hands on his hips and an unfriendly scowl twisting his features. He looked disdainfully at Yuffie and Tifa as the two hopped off the bike, but Tifa was used to it and Yuffie just shot him a blank look that spoke volumes to people who knew what to look for.

"Is this your plane?" the farmer spat out, rubbing at his morning bristles.

"No," Yuffie said simply and made a move to get back on the bike, but Tifa caught her wrist.

"It's our friend's," Tifa offered apologetically.

"Tell your 'friend' he owes me a year's worth of crops."

To Tifa's surprise, Yuffie scoffed loudly, putting her hands on her hips. "Please. The Midgar area has been suffering from a drought for several months now. With the heat and scant rainfall and limited water supply, your crops were ruined long before Cid parked his piece of crap on your land. And," she crouched down and sifted through the dirt, ignoring their surprised looks, "it looks like the seeds are already dried up or had started to germinate before they could be picked up. Unless you can find yourself a deity for a lawyer, then there is no holding to your claims."

The farmer huffed out his chest and puffed around for a moment, before stomping back to his house in the distance. Tifa stared at Yuffie until she shifted around and blushed. "Well, I am a princess, and agriculture is important for any country. Besides, the man was an idiot to plan so close to Midgar. The pollution is shit for crops."

"'Germinate'?"

"Well, they did."

Tifa laughed and grabbed her bag and the package, shaking her head slightly. Yuffie would never cease to surprise her.

"You'll be okay out here?"

Tifa looked at Yuffie oddly. "I think I can handle myself."

Yuffie shrugged and swung onto her bike. "I'll be back in twenty minutes or so. If the farmer tries to harass you again, just kick his ass or something."

"Or I'll try to have a civilized conversation with him. Call me if anything at all happens. Oh, and I left a list on the kitchen counter of things that the kids need. And—"

Yuffie waved dismissively at her. "I've watched them before. It'll be fine."

She gave Yuffie a shrewd look. "What do you let the kids do, by the way?"

That innocent look fooled nobody, yet Yuffie still tried for it every time. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yuffie."

"It's nothing bad."

"Yuffie."

"I just let them stay up later on Fridays."

Tifa sighed. "You know they go to bed at a certain time for a reason, Yuffie."

"Well, it's always good to spoil them once in awhile."

"What else do you do?"

"What?"

Tifa leveled her with a stern look and Yuffie looked heavenward. "I usually bring them candy."

"Yuffie!"

"What? Wutaian candy is way better than anything you can get in Edge City or Midgar. The kids appreciate it!"

"No, I mean, cut to the chase already, will you?"

Yuffie looked up at the sky as if she was waiting for something to fall on her. "Well, I mean, I've been teaching them some basic ninjitsu—"

"Yuffie."

"Well, I mean, come on! It's important for these kids to learn some basic self-defense moves in order to survive in this city, and you and everyone else are way too busy to train them. I'm not like, teaching them a hundred different ways to kill a person or anything."

Tifa sighed, rubbing her temples. She knew Yuffie had a point, but she couldn't help but to think these kids lived in a bubble and nothing could touch them, while at the same time freaking out a little on the inside every time they stepped out the door. She would have to talk to Yuffie about making their lessons a little more regular. "Okay. It's fine. Just don't go overboard, will you?"

"No way! Anyway, I better go back before Cloud thinks I crashed the motorcycle and starts thinking of different ways to murder me for hurting you."

"Yeah right," Tifa said so bitterly that Yuffie shot her an unreadable look.

"Right. We'll talk about it when you get back."

Tifa waved Yuffie off and sighed, sitting on top of her bag. Already she was feeling guilty for snubbing Cloud like that, especially since he didn't even know what she was so angry about. And at the rate they were going, he probably would never know. She sighed. That was her fault. If she had any guts to speak of, she'd approach Cloud about their problems instead of snapping every time it built up and then ignoring it completely. Instead she just sat around and felt sorry for herself. Frustrated, she hopped up and started towards Sierra, wondering if there was some way she could get in the ship in case Farmer Joe decided to come back for another round.

What met her was a tall, red haired man whom for a moment she was positive was Reno from the Turks. But his hair was too short and was messy instead of spiked, and though his eyes had that familiar mako glint, they were a bright blue instead of a toxic green.

"Excuse me." She wasn't sure what else she should say. The redhead blinked slowly at her and shrugged.

"You're Tifa?"

Though she was used to people knowing her name, Tifa narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Yes?"

The redhead smiled broadly. "My name is Brann."

"Um. Nice to meet you."

"The pleasure is mine." He stepped towards her. He was even tall like Reno. "I would like to discuss business with you."

"Go on?"

"You have something I want. A package."

Tifa frowned at him, straightening up (though her height was pitiful compared to the man in front of her). "I don't know what you're talking about."

The politesse façade was slipping and Brann's smile tightened around the edges. "This is not up for discussion."

She could practically see his temper rising. "I agree. I think you should go now."

Brann advanced on her, all pretenses of niceties vanishing. To her it looked as if an android was stalking up to her. Anything but human. His face was slack and his eyes flat, and his lips thinned to a straight line. "Give me the package."

She could almost see him with his arms jutted out in front of him. "Braaaaains. Braaaaaaains!" If she were a lesser woman, she might have laughed. It didn't help that there was a manic giggle stuck in her throat. "I don't think so."

There was a dull roar in the distance. She ignored it. The city was generally noisy and tuning out sounds had become second nature.

He didn't seem to find humor in the situation and she almost snickered. But any temptation to laugh was abruptly washed away when Brann's face twisted, lips parting to reveal straight white teeth and then mouth opening to reveal a pillar of fire headed straight to her midsection. She yelped and dove to the side. The flames that had been intended for her chest caught her arm and a sickening smell filled her senses.

It took her a moment to realize it was her skin being burnt away. Shock immobilized her. In any other situation she would have been wailing on him, but he breathed fire. Like a fucking dragon.

"Tifa!"

Oh. The roar had been Cid and Yuffie returning. That was good to know.

She sunk to her knees and gagged as the redhead ran away. He was gone before Cid and Yuffie reached her.

ooooo

Denzel took off towards Cloud as soon as Tifa and Yuffie disappeared, leaving Marlene to struggle after him on much shorter legs. She launched herself into Cloud's arms, unlike her adopted older brother who just looked at Cloud with those adoring eyes. Cloud caught her easily and hefted her up. Sometimes she thought Denzel was jealous of how easy it was for her to be affectionate with Cloud, but Denzel was stupid because Cloud would hug him too if he asked for it. Denzel said it was childish and stuck to nodding like an adult as a greeting.

"I think Mama's mad at you," Marlene said confidentially, cupping her hand around Cloud's ear. He cocked his head towards her for a moment, then sighed.

"I think so, too."

"Why?"

He shrugged, and Marlene looked at him shrewdly, trying to figure out if Cloud was acting grown up by being vague on purpose or if he really didn't know why she was angry. Deciding it was more of the latter, she clumsily patted his shoulder in a gesture of comfort she'd seen the adults do often.

"It'll be okay. Mama's probably just worried."

Cloud gave her one of his rare smiles and gently set her down next to Denzel, pausing to ruffle his hair. Cid clunked up next to them, clapping Cloud on the shoulder. Marlene liked Cid. He talked funny.

"All right, Cloud?"

Cloud waved dismissively. "Been better."

"You an' me both. I always thought things'd get easier after Meteor, but it just keeps comin', huh?" He wasn't really talking too Cloud, rather at him. Marlene had seen a lot of people do that. She saw Tifa talk at Cloud every day. It wasn't anyone's fault. Cloud was just sometimes so unresponsive that it was a given for people to carry on the conversation by themselves. Most people thought that it was because he was 'deep' and 'brooding,' but Tifa had told her that it was just because he was distracted by other things. "I guess that's life. You been working on the bike?"

Cloud shrugged.

"It looks nice. Don't tell Yuffie I told you that, though. She'll think she's right."

A ghost of a smile. Marlene still remembered the day Yuffie roared into their driveway and Cloud and Tifa's shocked expressions. She heard Cloud murmur something about how weird it was for her to have a bike, and then Denzel reassure him that his was cooler. It was indeed smaller and sleeker and lacked the ability to turn into a Swiss army knife, but Marlene liked Yuffie's motorcycle better. It was quieter and prettier. Yuffie had told her one day it was because Cloud's motorcycle was a big-rig on two wheels and her 'baby' was custom designed for a princess. She also told Marlene that she would teach her to ride one day, but to never, ever tell Cloud or Tifa.

"Tifa seemed mad. You guys not have a 'proper' farewell?"

Marlene didn't know what Cid meant by that, but both Cloud and Denzel turned a spectacular shade of pink which meant Cid had said something crude. She couldn't for the life of her figure out why a 'proper farewell' was anything bad, though.

"It's not like that."

Cid snorted and lit a cigarette, moving respectfully away from Denzel and her. He was funny like that. Cid sometimes forgot that they spent most their time in a bar. "I don't see why not. That girl's so stupidly in love with you she's blind to everyone else. But she ain't going to wait forever, you know."

"I'm not asking her to." Cloud's voice was quiet and seemed like he was going for cold, but hedged on the side of embarrassed, and Marlene looked uncertainly at Denzel. He was watching the two older men intently.

Cid hummed and shrugged. "Whatever you say."

When it became obvious that Cid and Cloud would continue to be silent at each other, Marlene tugged on Cloud's pantleg. Denzel gave her a disapproving look. He didn't think it was proper to interrupt grown ups when they were being snotty at each other. He thought it was best to be snotty with them. "I'm hungry," she tried plaintively, wanting to get away from the increasingly awkward situation.

On cue Cloud swept her up. For a moment she felt like she was flying. "Come on. I'll make you breakfast while we wait for Yuffie to come back." He caught Denzel's hand, too, because even though Denzel would object to being picked up, he didn't mind holding hands. Cid made a sound Marlene sometimes heard Tifa make when Cloud did something she didn't like.

"You'll see one day." He leaned against Cloud's motorcycle. Cloud hated that. Marlene had a feeling Cid probably knew. "I'll wait here."

A little while after Cid left, Cloud had settled Marlene and Denzel on the couch with a snack of crackers, cheese, and grapes. Denzel pretended like they were hers, because he thought they were childish, but continued to sneak a couple when he thought she was completely engrossed with the cartoon he resolutely denied that he was interested in. Cloud was at the kitchen table with papers spread across the surface, quietly mapping something Marlene figured was highly important. He was so caught up with his work that he jumped slightly when his PHS rang.

"Hello?"

Marlene twisted around to look at Cloud while Denzel acted like he was focused entirely on the cartoon. She could tell he was listening. They both jumped with Cloud surged to his feet, nearly knocking the table over.

"I'm coming down—" Whoever was on the other line interrupted him and he braced himself on the table. Marlene shrunk against Denzel, slightly frightened at the fury on Cloud's face. "Goddamnit, Yuffie—" But Yuffie was a quick talker and interrupted him again. He listened quietly, eyes unfocused. "She's awake? Let me talk to her."

Now both Marlene and Denzel twisted around, staring at Cloud with wide eyes.

"Tifa—" He paused and listened again, frown-line marring his eyebrows. He glanced at Marlene and Denzel, and the two jumped and turned around too quickly. "They're fine." Marlene grimaced when she heard Cloud clomp out of the room, shutting the door firmly behind him.

"Denzel?" whispered Marlene after a couple of seconds. "Do you think everything's okay?"

"Of course it is," Denzel whispered back, but held her hand anyway.

In his office, Cloud sat heavily behind his desk. "Tifa, are you okay?" When Yuffie told him she had been injured, his heart and skipped a beat and his insides either twisted or froze, he couldn't tell.

"I'm okay," Tifa soothed, but he could practically hear her roll her eyes. "I'm not exactly weak, you know."

He knew. He just felt better when he was there with her, in case she needed a hand. "What happened?"

"I got on the wrong end of someone with hot breath."

"Hot breath?"

"He spat fire at me à la Bahamut."

Cloud rubbed his forehead. That wasn't normal. "Are you sure he didn't have materia on hand?"

There was a chilly silence on the other end of the phone for a moment, and Cloud wondered how much further he could shove his foot into his mouth. Tifa had been angry with him for these past couple of days for some reason and he was doing a damn poor job of making things better.

"I'm sure. If you don't believe me, you can ask Cid or Yuffie. They saw it, too." Her tone had more edges to it than an octagon.

"It's not that I don't believe you," Cloud snapped defensively, worry making him testier. "It's just—that's not normal,Tifa."

"No shit. Look. I gotta go. 'Priority mail', and all."

"Tifa—"

"I'll talk to you later, Cloud." And then she hung up on him.

Cloud slowly shut his phone and scowled at the wall.

o o o o o

Almost immediately after Tifa snapped the phone shut on Cloud, she opened it again to call and apologize. Stress was making her act out, and it really wasn't fair for her to take it out on someone who was expressing concern for her.

She flipped her phone shut and sighed, pushing it into her pocket. Even though she knew she was being irrational, she couldn't prostate herself before Cloud just yet. She was in the wrong, sure, but Cloud wasn't exactly in the right.

Frustrated, Tifa dropped her PHS in her pocket and leaned against the railing, scowling at the beautiful scenery stretched out on all sides of her, pulling further away as Sierra lifted higher. Yuffie had a hand shielding her eyes and was leaning against her bike, watching them take off with a concerned look on her face. The wind whipped her hair and clothing around, and she squinted through the dust. Tifa waved down at her, and she waved back.

If Tifa knew what was good for her she'd—take a vacation or something. Get away from Cloud and all of her responsibilities for a little bit. Sort out her emotions and maybe finally confront Cloud with everything that had been on her mind lately.

She saw Cid's reflection in the glass before she felt his presence and smiled wearily at his worried image. "What's that, your tenth cigarette for the morning?"

Cid waved his hand. "You're starting to sound like Shera."

"She has a good head on her shoulders."

"Yeah." Cid exhaled a cloud of smoke, fogging the window in front of him and blotting the scenery out. "You doin' all right?"

"I've been better."

"Hmm." Cid flipped open his pocket ashtray and tipped his cigarette into it. "Well, I don't know the problems of young love, bein' a bit of a hermit myself, but I think it's important to remember that he cares for you, Tifa. Even though he's sometimes an idiot about showing it."

Tifa's lips quirked in an unexpected grin. For a moment she felt a surge of affection for Cid, and showed it by leaning her head on his shoulder. "Thanks, Cid."

Cid smiled down at her and reached up to pat her head. "It's nothin'. Careful, though. You don't want to be givin' this old dog false hopes."

Tifa laughed for the first time in what felt like forever and closed her eyes. "Well, you wouldn't be the only one."

"Oh?" Cid said, cocking an eyebrow and not really understanding. Tifa offered a wide, rakish grin that didn't quite meet her eyes and pointed to herself with her thumb.

"This old dog's been hoping for as long as she can remember."

"'Old' and 'dog' are not two words I would ever associate with you, hon."

Tifa rolled her eyes. "Well, whatever it may be, I think there's a time where you just need to gracefully accept defeat."

Cid hummed thoughtfully. "I'm surprised at you, Tifa. I never thought you'd be the one to give up so easily."

"Even the best martial artist knows when he's been beaten. I don't know, Cid—"

"Well, if you don't, then stop with this talk. You might end up regretting something you've said."

Tifa frowned down at the scenery and pushed away from her support. "Yeah, maybe. We'll see, I guess. I'm going to head to my bunk to take a nap. Wake me up if the world's going to end, or something."

Cid laughed. "What a thing to joke about."

"Defense mechanism, I guess."

end chapter one