A/N: Sorry, sorry, sorry. I know I show absolutely no consistency in how often I update this story. I'm really, truly thankful that so many of you have kept up with me and have shown me so much encouragement (despite my major fails). I'm really pressing on to get both this and THE KILLING HAND completed.

As an aside, if you've ever played Tales of the Abyss or watched the anime, check out my new drabble collection for that called IMPRESSIONS. I really, really think the characters are well done. Jade is probably the most entertaining video game character I've ever played and I'm trying to spread the Luke/Tear love. :)

In any case, now that my shameless plugging is done, here's the next chapter. Enjoy!


Chapter Twelve

In the end, my life takes on Greek play proportions when the deus ex machina that is Vincent Valentine shows up to save my ass.

Just as I ready to toss myself to the side (which, regardless of what movies may show you, does not stop you from getting shot—just keeps you from getting a vital organ hit), the mute thud from a silenced gun goes off and I'm confused because the sound did not come from Boots. Instead, Boots drops the gun and cradles his now shaking hand against his chest.

"Damn!" he snarls.

There's another muted shot and this time it's Freight Train who's in agony.


The deep voice is a familiar one, if totally unexpected. I look towards the front door that's now swinging wide open with a tall but lean frame filling in the doorway. I never thought I'd be so happy to see my informant/private investigator. "Vincent?"

Another two shots and the intruders are incapacitated and on their knees.

"Let us leave."

Geez, leave it to Vincent to speak like this is an every day occurrence. Then again, considering what I know about his job (or more accurately, what I don't know about his job), this very well might be normal fare for him.

I hobble my way toward the door and Vincent graciously helps me along. I look back and there's no blood on my carpet—at least no blood that's not mine—so I know that Vincent used rubber bullets. Damn shame. Right about now, I wouldn't have minded if he'd blown their brains out.

… … …

Okay, so maybe I would've minded, if only because then I'd have to pay some serious carpet cleaning costs.

A plethora of questions are currently running through my head, but I've retained enough good sense not to ask them right now. At least until Vincent gets me to the nearest hospital and they pump some blood into me.

Damn, that makes me sound like a vampire. Which I'm not. Actually, now that I think about it, Vincent looks a helluva lot like a vampire. I mean, he's pale enough with the freakiest red eyes. Well, they're not really red, but under the right light, they look it. Like I said, freaky.

Finally, we make our limping—fine, my limping way—to the parking lot where Vincent's snazzy black Beamer is waiting for us. I always thought his car is too souped up to be inconspicuous, but what the hey! He's the one with the career in snooping.

I'm barely buckled in when Vincent pulls out of the parking lot smoothly, joining a small smattering of cars on the road. Finally able to take a breath, I press my hand against my side and am glad to see that the bleeding has slowed. Still, there goes Vincent's leather interior.

"Why are you here?" I eventually ask.

"I mentioned that I ran across that young thief client of yours. I've been on her trail ever since that first time because I noticed that someone else has been shadowing her. Last night when she made her visit to you in the hospital, I realized that you're both in deeper than you realize."

No shit. I don't interrupt him though. I've never heard Vincent say so much in a row and part of me thinks that if I interrupt, he won't say anymore.

"Furthermore, I had made an interesting discovery regarding the Lockhart-Shinra case."

Now this is new. "What did you find out?"

"I've been splitting my resources between Ms. Lockhart and Mr. Shinra, and I happened to follow Ms. Lockhart to a meeting with the latter."

The thought that Vincent had been tailing Tifa leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, but I know there's no cause for it. Vincent was doing his job, at my request no less. Then it hits me what he'd said.

"Wait. Tifa had a meeting with Shinra? As in planned or they-happened-to-be-in-the-same place?" The latter is unlikely, I know, but I can't help but ask it anyway.


Oh yeah, now Vincent returns to his one-word answers. "What did they talk about?"

"I couldn't quite catch the finer details, but he requested that she return to him."

"What did she say in response?" I don't quite understand why, but my hands are feeling a little clammy and my stomach is a little upset. Please tell me she said no, please tell me she said no!

"She said to give her some time to think about it."

...Oookay. At least it wasn't a quick yes, right? Damn, what am I thinking? For better or worse, Denzel is their son, and they were married at one time. When push comes to shove, they are the ones who are really family. Me? I'm just the lawyer.

Then something comes to me. "So is this whole thing child-custody thing a power play by Shinra to get Tifa back?"

"Perhaps," Vincent replies, his voice as enigmatic as ever.

That wonderful sixth sense of mine that'd kept me from dying more times than once kicks in. "But…?"

"I believe there is more to this whole situation than Rufus Shinra wanting his woman back."

It irritates me to hear him call Tifa Shinra's but I bite my tongue and say nothing about that. "What do you think it's about?"

Vincent doesn't respond for so long I begin to wonder whether I should ask my question again. It's almost a surprise when he does speak. Even more surprising is the note of genuine confusion in his voice. "I'm not sure. My normal information flows are blocked. I need some time to get past Shinra's security blocks."

Yikes. That doesn't sound good. If Vincent can't get to it…

There is something comforting out of all this though. At least now I know I have some kind of ammunition against Shinra. He has a secret and I'm going to find it.

In the meantime, I have a confrontation to make.

One blood transfusion and a change of clothes later, I find myself back outside the Seventh Heaven. After some consideration, I decided that I should only make my appearances where there are a lot of people. At least, maybe with a crowd, the insanity that is Boots and Freight Train won't be so keen on plugging me with another piece of lead. That's the theory, anyway.

And even if the crowds don't deter them...well, I'm not honorable enough to care about getting innocents in the way of crossfire. So it might have been my duty at one time to protect civilians, but I learned a long time ago that it's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and I don't intend to get eaten.

As for why I'm here, well, there's definitely other reasons I would rather see Tifa for, but today is not a pleasure visit.

"Cloud, you're out of the hospital!" It's difficult to focus when Tifa's bright smile is turned my way, but I somehow manage it. Apparently Tifa can tell that I'm here for business because her smile dims just the slightest bits around the edges. I wish I didn't just make that happen, but I guess there's no helping it.

Then she frowns as she takes in the rest of me. "Are you sure you should have left already? You're looking a little pale."

Ah yes, take that masculine ego.

"Yeah, I'm fine. I just had a little minor incident earlier. No big deal." Great job self, lying through your teeth. No big deal, my ass.

Obviously, Tifa isn't convinced either by the suspicious look on her face, but she drops the subject. "Do we need to go somewhere to talk?"

"That'd be best, yeah."

She glances at her watch and nods. "Why don't you get some dinner first? My shift is over in about an hour and then we can talk then."

I nod my okay, and though I'm a little nervous at being in the same place for such a long time (oh gods, I'm becoming Yuffie!), truth is, I could really use the rest. My stomach growls. And the food, apparently.

Instead of staying at the bar like I usually would, I decide to grab a booth where both the entrance and the bar is in easy view. It's been a while since I've had to be so paranoid, but I realize some things you never forget.

I spend my meal alternating between spying on the entrance and spying—er, checking up on—Tifa. I love watching her, not in a creepy way, mind you, but just…watching her. She just…has something about her that makes me feel…warm. Yes, warm and at peace.

It should freak me out totally and completely, but I suddenly realize in that moment that I would do anything for her. Anything. And while the thought does scare me, but for some reason the knowledge that Tifa is my lifeline is surprisingly liberating, like something that's been out of sync all my life suddenly just clicks into place.

The hour goes by surprisingly quickly and I'm thankful that it's blissfully uneventful, even if I had to willfully keep my ass firmly planted on the seat when one particularly persistent idiot tried to hit on Tifa. Repeatedly. It didn't help that she looked distinctly irritated by the thirtieth pass or so.

I guess some people would say that he's got that whole pretty-bad boy look going for him, with his wild red hair tied back in a low pony-tail and a pair of goggles (who the hell where's goggles like that?) resting at the top of his head. He's wearing a suit, but it's so damned wrinkled, he'd probably slept in it for the last three days. Personally, I don't see the appeal of someone who looks like a slob, no matter that he's got a pretty face.

Not that I pay that much attention to guys. I don't usually, and I'm just noticing this time because he's trying to hit on Tifa.

Aaaannnyway, just when I think I can't take the asshole's persistence anymore and I see him try to physically make a grab, Tifa's hand shoots out in a blur and twists his arm back in what can only be a painful position. Good. Little sucker was asking for it.

She murmurs something to him, and he nods frantically. She lets him go, and he shoots up out of his seat with a glare which quickly melts into a lazy grin. I can tell that he wants to say something stupid, but Tifa folds her arms across her chest and tips her head towards a looming Barret. The guy's not small, but everyone looks like a dwarf next to Barret.

He swallows heavily and wisely chooses to retreat.

Without warning, my body stands up on its own and my feet take me to the bar. And if I so happen to pass by the idiot and knock into him hard, yeah, well, accidents happen, no?

He tries his whole glare thing on me, but I'm proud to say that mine's scarier because his face whitens and he picks up his pace a little more. Whoops...there goes that customer for good.

"Cloud! That was totally unnecessary," Tifa reprimands, but I can hear the note of amusement in her voice.

I shrug and wait until I'm standing in front of her at the bar before saying, "Unnecessary, but sweet, right?"

Tifa shakes her head, but she's smiling. "You're incorrigible!"

"Yup. And proud of it."

She lets out a quick burst of laughter, and my lips flip upward in automatic response.

I like that I can give her that sheen of happiness in her eyes. It grounds me.

She rolls her eyes at me and makes a shooing motion with her hands. "Stop bothering me for another twenty minutes, then I'm all yours."

I know when she said it that she didn't mean it that way, but damn if my mind—and body—didn't take it that way. Apparently she hears what it sounds like right away because her cheeks flush.

Even though all my instincts are screaming to take her up on that on a more literal interpretation, I force myself to be gracious and nod like I didn't think it sounded like an invitation. Which it didn't really sound like one and wasn't one. It's just that my brain (both of them) are being guys, and guys are just...like that.

I chuckle to myself when I see Tifa smack herself on her forehead out of the corner of my eye as I walk back to my booth.


Tifa and I decide to have our conversation inside Barret's flat. Tifa mentioned taking a walk outside since it was such a nice day out, but I nixed that immediately. Too many people pointing guns at me recently for me to be comfortable taking a stroll with no cover.

Besides, depending on what Tifa's been keeping from me, this conversation might be better somewhere where we can sit.

We've always been able to be upfront with each other before, so I see no reason to change things now.

As soon as we've both sat down with a mug of coffee in our hands, I get straight to the point. "You met with Rufus Shinra recently."

She stiffens, her dark eyes shuttering and whatever good humor was lurking there before is completely gone. I'm sorry for the loss, but some things have to be said. Very deliberately, she sets her mug on the coffee table and turns her body just the slightest bit, but I notice it because it's a defensive move.

"Is that a question?" she finally asks.

I shake my head. "No. My question is why didn't you tell me about it."

"I didn't think it was necessary."

"Not necessary?" I repeat incredulously. "Gods, Tifa, you've always struck me as an incredibly sensible person, but that's either the stupidest thing I've ever heard you say, or the worst excuse I've ever heard. If I remember correctly, I happen to be the guy that's trying to keep Denzel with you. Jeez, 'Not necessary,' she says. You had a meeting with your ex-husband, and he tried to use the custody case as leverage to get you back, and you think this is all irrelevant?"

She narrows her eyes, and I know she's zeroed in on the one thing I said that I didn't want her to catch. "You followed me?"

"No, I had someone trailing Shinra." And you. But she really doesn't need to know that.

"I can't believe you'd do something like that!" she exclaims, and that is just unfair. I don't know where she thinks lawyers get the grounds to build their cases, but it sure as hell doesn't just materialize out of thin air.

"There's nothing wrong with putting a trail on someone. How else am I supposed to know what he does on a daily basis? Besides, he put a hell of a lot more than just a trail on you. Don't tell me you'd forgotten about those punks who tried to mug us a couple of weeks ago?"

She looked like she want to spit fire, but she didn't say anything.

"You recognized them, didn't you? That's why you let them off so easily?"

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do. The same way you know that Shinra sent a freaking sniper to take us out."

"That's not true. Rufus might use some scare tactics, but there's no way he'd send actual gunners after us. That wasn't him."

I didn't think it was Shinra either, but Tifa just confirmed something else for me. My voice is soft when I say, "No, the sniper wasn't him, but the muggers were, weren't they?"

Tifa doesn't make a sound, but I know better than to think that she's calm. Her breathing is deep and even, and I know she's forcing herself to breathe like that in order not to blow up on me.

I know a part of her resents me for prying, but this is one situation where I can't not know. Personal reasons aside, if this whole thing between Shinra and Tifa is just one blown-out-of-proportion argument that's lasted five years, I goddamn need to know.

"Why didn't you tell me about this earlier?"

She refuses to meet my eyes. "There were too many variables."

"Damn it Tifa, that's what I do! I deal with the variables! I can't do my job if I don't even know what my variables are." Taking a deep breath myself, I try to continue with as reasonable a voice I can get. "Look, I need to know if I should continue taking this case seriously."

At that, Tifa snaps her wide eyes to me in surprise—and not a little hurt. "What?"

She's not going to like this, but I have to give it to her straight. "Is this whole thing—the custody battle, the divorce, these five years—just a phase? I mean," I quickly add when I see her murderous look, "do you really want to live a life with Denzel apart from Shinra? Or were you never serious about leaving him for good?"

All her meditation exercises aren't doing her any good right now because I can easily hear the ragged breaths coming from her mouth. She closes her eyes in an effort to compose herself, but when she opens them, I can see the rims are red. She's angry, but more than that, she's hurt. And I hate myself for making her hurt.

"Do you really think that of me? That I would put me and Denzel through so much pain and heartache just because I was playing some twisted game with my ex-husband?" Her voice is steady and I'm struck anew by how goddamn strong she is.

"No, I don't think that. But I need to know. And you're holding something back from me that could affect this case and the chance we have to keep Denzel. Do you understand? I'm trying to help you, but I need to know the facts so that I can cover every exigency. Do you know how bad Shinra could make this look for you? He could say that you're using Denzel as leverage to extort money from Shinra or maybe he could say you're tired of working your ass off every day and that you wanted him to take you back. God, if I hadn't known about this, I could have been totally blindsided in court, and any chance we'd have of winning rendered nil! Damn it, Tifa, I know you have a brain. Use it!"

She starts to speak, stops, and after a long moment's pause tries again—trying hard not to strangle me, I'm sure. "Rufus contacted me a few days ago saying that he wanted to meet with me. No lawyers, no third party. Just me and him to see if we could come to an agreement. Honestly, I'd hoped we could. About Denzel I mean. I had no idea that he'd ask me to go back to him. I hadn't heard from him personally since the divorce, so you can imagine this was a bit of a shock."

"And so you told him you'd think about it."

She nodded slowly. "Yes, but that's not the only reason. He...He also said that you're putting me and Denzel in danger."

I still for a moment because to my ears, that sounds an awful lot like an admission or a warning. Maybe both.

"Did he mention whom I'm in danger from?"

"I asked and I asked, but he wouldn't say."

"Then who's to say I'm not in danger from him?" Another memory strikes me. "Did he have anything to do with the break-in at your old apartment?"

If he did, he's a dead man. Coming at me is one thing; it's a whole other thing to try and terrorize Tifa and Denzel like that.

"He said that wasn't him."

"And you believe him." I don't state it as a question, but she hears my skepticism.

"Look, I know Rufus looks really suspicious right now, and you have every right to think that he's tried to kill you, but he's a good man. Back when his father was alive, Rufus made sure to stay away from any of the underhanded dealings that Shinra senior was involved with. He was determined to make his fortune the legitimate way, and that kind of determination was one of the reasons I fell in love with him."


She's looking away from me still, and I see something there that makes my chest uncomfortable. She's sad, but she also looks like she's remembering the good times she had with Rufus. From the sounds of it, they had many.

With a deep, heart-felt sigh, I give up. I give up on trying to convince her that Rufus is a nefarious bastard. I give up...I give up hope on something I hadn't realized I'd started hoping for. The reason Tifa never dated again after the divorce is painfully obvious; she's still in love with Rufus.

God, it hurts so much more than I thought it would to acknowledge that.

Still, even if she thinks that Shinra holds the stars up in the sky, I have to get her to be more careful. "However great you may think him, I doubt he—or specifically, Scarlet—will have any qualms about tainting your name in court. You need to watch your steps."

"Rufus isn't like that."

"Or so you think." I hold up a hand to stop her protest. "I know you know him better than I do. But it's always better to be safe than sorry. Maybe I'm being overly cautious, but being such a paranoid ass is why I'm good at my job."

She must sense something wrong with me because suddenly she looks at me in concern. "Cloud..."

I don't want her to ask, and I don't want to answer, so I cut in with a question of my own that's been bothering for some time. "Tifa, you don't have to answer me if you don't want to, but can you tell me why you divorced him in the first place if you still think of him so highly?"

She looks away. "I…He cheated on me. I tried to stay with him and work it through even after I found out, but it just didn't work out."

My heart squeezes painfully tight in my chest when I see how sad she is about her divorce, even now when Rufus and his entourage of lawyers are making her (and my) life miserable.

Do you still love him?

That's the question I really want to ask and for a while, I'm not sure if I didn't ask it out loud. But I must not have because Tifa gives me no indication that she heard me.

"I see," I finally reply because I do see.

Despite Zack's best hopes, after this case is over, there will be no me and Tifa together. We can be friends, but never anything more because if there's one thing I know about her now, it's that Tifa loves hard and she loves forever. She thought she'd found her forever once, but she was disappointed and severely hurt. Even with as big a heart as Tifa has, I don't think she's willing to risk that forever kind of love again.

I laugh a little inwardly. Besides, who I am to deserve that kind of love? I'm just a reformed druggie with too many ghosts in my past to help her get over hers.

It's better this way.

It doesn't make me feel any better.

A/N: Sorry I ended this chapter on such a downer, but it had to happen sometime.

Again, thanks for all your patience and support!

Shout-outs: CloudRed1988, Neyuchi, 1wingedangelX, riveting tale chap, Iris Irene, Ardwynna Morrigu, JC-zala, Wiinddance, Ciara-Dragon, hannehbuns, zeprincelini, roro, Roxa-XIII, drinktea, Emo-Chan the Awesome, Tiny Cherie, vLuna, MDLuffy, Chibi McFu, Diana Kim, BlUeFIAmE, N'Cole Strife, Jae. Lockheart, kimberly kim, cheeriolord, 11tiggers