Author's note: Sorry this next instalment took so long, I had to find my thread again, and to further deepen the metaphor, I couldn't see without my bloody glasses. The ending of this one was actually I dream I had. A darn good one, I'm sure you will agree. Please enjoy, and PLEASE review, I've had no contact for ages of anyone. Plus I've done a couple of one shots recently, so if you're a regular reader, please do find them and let me know what you think.
The guns had been firing well into the night. After a few hours, I could almost imagine they were heavy raindrops, battering against the window pains. With each shot, my fears grew. Had Vincent fired that last bullet? Had it in fact claimed him, resulting in that temporary lull, as his team mates dragged his bleeding corpse out of the line of fire, only to continue?
"Tifa?" Cloud called my name softly from the doorway of my bedroom. Relieved to be offered a reprieve from my turbulent imaginings, I passed out into the hall, gently pulling the door shut behind me; Marlene and Denzel were sleeping on my bed, curled up with the duvet tucked tightly around their sleeping forms.
"Any news?" I whispered, my arms drawn tightly across my body.
"No," He sighed, offering me a weak smile. "He'll be alright, Tifa, they've been taking heavy fire out there, but knowing Vincent, he won't go down without a fight. Don't give up hope."
He wrapped his arm briefly around my shoulders and pressed his lips to my forehead, though I drew neither warmth nor comfort from it.
As the night approached, I maintained my vigil at the window. Not a soul seemed to be out there; only the gunfire gave any indication that people sill lived and breathed in the city at all. Only dead men walked, it seemed. It would only be a matter of time, before the bullet claimed the life it was seeking. The gunshots were less frequent now, occurring in frenzied bursts intermittently followed by minutes of dead silence. And I couldn't decide which unnerved me the most.
'We've had no word as of yet from the civil…. holding off fire in the… regions… report… heavy losses…'
The background drone of the news report, spewing out of the badly tuned radio Cloud had set up downstairs, invaded my silence, and I was torn between seating myself in front of it, desperate for any scrap of hope, and picking it up and throwing against the nearest wall.
'Civilians are advised to prepare for several days of remaining…hide valuables… so… the gangs…. further violence…'
I moved from my watch post, joints aching, to seat myself at the bar next a dishevelled Cloud.
"I don't know how to cope, Cloud," I murmured, running my fingers through my tangled hair. He angled his body towards me, blue eyes weary, yet bright, trained on my face.
"Just sit tight. It'll be over soon."
"I hope it is."
"What are we going to do when this is over Tifa?" Cloud shifts in his seat, and I allow the silence following his question to lengthen. "I mean, we can't stay here. It's too dangerous now. Perhaps we should--"
"Cloud, Cloud…" I raise my palm, voice heavy with stress. "I know what should be done but… I feel that, like Vincent, we should be doing something to help."
"You mean keeping the bar open and contributing to the economy?!" He laughed harshly, and I cringed, eyebrows knotted angrily.
"I mean staying to see it through, help rebuild Midgar."
"Tifa, Midgar is… its like a phoenix. It will rise out of its own filthy ashes to live and die all over again. And it doesn't need us here to assure that."
"I don't picture a very bright phoenix." I smiled dryly.
"No. It's a sickly, grey phoenix with feathers missing, but still a phoenix." We gaze thoughtfully into nothing, the fading reception of the radio a background track to our conversation.
"Avalanche is not a phoenix. We are just… we are just people." Cloud sighed heavily, his fist a thud on the bar as he lets it drop. "I'm not sure that we are in the position to save something we were once in the process of destroying."
I nodded at this. I had said as much to Vincent, who of course, had not agreed. I heaved a sigh, trailing my fingers along the grain of the wooden bar top.
"D'you hear that?" Cloud said suddenly, straightening in his chair. I listened intently as he leant over to switch the babbling radio off, my ears strained for anything out of the blue. But there was nothing. Nothing. No gun fire.
The PHS rang shrilly into the silence, making Cloud and I jump. He fumbled with it for a few seconds, before pressing it to his ear with a shaking hand.
"Hello?" Cloud listened intently, while I hovered in front of him, nibbling my lip nervously. "Right… Yes, I understand." He cast a glance at me intermittently through his silence, as he listened intently to the person on the other end of the line. "Yes… Yes. I will-- thank you." He snapped the device shut. I bounced on the balls of my feet.
"Well?" I desperately tried to read any indications from Cloud's expression, but he betrayed nothing.
"Vincent is safe-" I heaved a sigh. "But the situation is still on knife-point. He wants Barret to take the kids to Kalm, and he asked me to help shift out other children to the nearby towns."
"He's sending somebody for you. He says to not open the door to anyone other that a civil guard officer." I nodded slowly. Cloud placed a hand on my shoulder awkwardly, before pulling me into an awkward embrace. "I want you to know that… you deserve better than this life, Tifa."
I frowned into his shoulder. "What?"
"I'm sorry I was never able to give you the security that Vincent has given you." I pulled back to gaze into his face, a face that I loved dearly. "I know I haven't been… the easiest person to live with over the years. And I thank you for being the support that I never realised I relied on so much."
"Cloud…" I fought against the tears that were threatening to spill, my throat burning. "I love you, and I will always be that support if you need it." I touched his cheek with my fingertips.
"I love you too, Tifa." He kissed my temple softly, his lips lingering there for a moment, before he pulled away from our embrace. "Wait here for Vincent. I'll go wake the others."
With that, he me stood in the bar, my head whirling. Vincent was safe, Vincent was safe. It became a sort of mantra that I repeated over and over to try and speed up time, spur me into an existence where his presence was definite, stood in front of me, tall and imposing as always. A world I didn't know I could survive without.
The hours slid by without my notice; I had thrown myself into packing everything away, mentally preparing myself to say goodbye to this place. This bar had been my home for three years, and they had been a happy three years, after a year of uncertainty, wandering, trying to find if I belonged in a world of quiet.
And the unrest had made me feel alive. Perhaps Vincent was right; maybe the city needed us. We slept while it grew, trying to find its place in a rapidly vanishing world, until it slipped, consumed by its own expansion. Then and only then, would we rise up and save it from itself. Was that our purpose? To keep our hands wrapped tightly around the heart of Midgar, ready to squeeze it repeatedly, mimicking its usual beating, keeping it alive, when it should be dead?
I glanced over the empty bar, the fans lazily turning above me, preventing the air from being still. I watched the dust particles float in and out of the sun beams filtering through the blinds. I trailed my fingers over the bar, along the backs of the chairs, letting them come to rest on the wall by a window. I moved about the room and opened all of the blinds to the light of day, squinting in the sunlight.
Over the city hung a shroud of fog; it could be from the pollution, it could have been a natural haze. I didn't know.
"Tifa?" Marlene's soft voice was at my side. I crouched so our eyes were level. "You are waiting for Vincent?"
"Yes. I will follow you soon." I reached out and let one of the girl's delicate brown curls twist around my fingers. "Don't be afraid, he will take care of me."
"You need to take care of him. Me and Denzel will look after Cloud and Daddy." I giggled a little. Another strong, independent woman in the making. I only hoped she didn't follow in too many of my footsteps.
Too soon I was saying goodbye, watching them load their belongings into the back of Barret's battered truck. I locked the door behind them and prepared myself for a wait.
I armed myself; just in case, I repeated in my mind, going through the procedure mentally, in the manner than I recalled Vincent teaching me. An indistinct memory from a campfire years ago. 'Safety off, ammo in place, raise to eye level, breathe. Aim, then fire.'
Daylight was beginning to fade, the sunset a fuzzy red haze on the city's skyline, symbolic of the blood that had been spilled. the PHS had sounded, though it was only Cloud telling me they had reached a safe house in Kalm, and that I should expect some new soon.
Then, a knock.
I opened the door without a moment's hesitation. I knew exactly who it would be; I could tell from the unhurried knocking, the tall dark shadow on the other side of the glass.
He burst through the door as soon as my fumbling hands were able to tackle the lock, taking me in his arms, and closing the door with his foot. I tugged him close by the front of his bullet jacket, into the empty bar. Silently, Vincent cupped my face in his hands and without any reservations, he pressed his lips against mine. I let a small moan escape; part surprise, part something else-- something that made my stomach flip violently within me, made my heart race in my chest, and made my hands hold him all the more tighter to me. There was a momentary pause- had he realised a mistake, that he shouldn't be kissing me?-- but it passed. His eyes softened, taking in my expression briefly, before sighing quietly and moving closer to claim my lips again.
I couldn't get enough of him; I held his face to mine, my lips moving against his with a hunger I didn't know I had been harbouring. He slowed the pace, biting gently on my bottom lip, drawing an involuntary moan from deep within me. And I realised with a sudden leap of my heart, that we were alone; that Marlene, Denzel, Cloud and Barret had left for Kalm.
"Vincent…" I whispered, as his lips moved to my jaw line, pausing briefly at my throat. I leaned back a little, my breathing heavy and erratic.
I shoved him roughly in the direction of the hallway, and he took no further persuasion; though I couldn't wait any longer, and we somehow ended up lying on the floor of the bar, my back pressed to the hardwood, his weight hovering above me as he placed gentle kisses along my collar bone.
"I'm so glad you're alright." I said, my voice thick, fingers entwined in his. He raised his eyes to meet mine, their swirling amber hues soothing me.
"I'm so glad you waited. Although you should have just gone to Kalm. I would have found you there." He tried to sound angered by my need to remain behind. I furrowed my brow.
"You didn't ask for me to wait?" In response, he shook his head. And I suddenly understood. Cloud was offering us time together. A gift I never thought I would appreciate so much.
"Cloud has had ideas for us, I see." He murmured into my hair, placing a gentle kiss on my forehead.
"Cloud has nothing to do with this. I could have gone to Kalm if I wanted. Your truck is outside." I smiled gently, reaching up to move a strand of hair out of his eyes. "I needed to tell you something."
"And what is that?"
"I'm staying here. You were right."
"I am about many things. Please specify." His eyes danced a little with a silent smile.
"Midgar's heart never really started beating after ShinRa. We need to finish what we started."