Afterward, everyone agreed it was the most foolish, cocky, asinine thing Nate had ever done.

They also agreed he got exactly what he deserved.

Someone was sitting in his spot.

There were two places the regulars at Seventh Heaven knew were reserved. One was the booth in the corner closest to the bar, set aside for Tifa and her family. The other was the seat closest to the gate that gave access to the kitchen and house proper. That's where Cloud would sit once the children were in bed, keeping Tifa company until closing.

It didn't matter if the stool or the booth remained empty while the rest of the bar was packed. Unless she was sure Cloud and the kids wouldn't be using them, Tifa didn't allow anyone else to sit there.

She'd known he would be home, albeit later than he'd planned. He'd called to tell her, and to say goodnight to Denzel and Marlene.

Yet someone was sitting in his spot.

The someone appeared to be tall – at least as tall as Vincent – with close-cropped curly brown hair. His shoulders were broad under the material of his shirt, and the arms curled atop the bar were muscular. He also sported a beard and mustache, both kept short. No weapons were in evidence, but given his build, he could probably give the average person a run for their money in a fight.

Tifa was so far above average she stubbed her toes on it. Besides, it was her bar, and there were several other empty chairs to be had. Why was this guy sitting in his?

Why was she letting this guy sit in his?

Confused eyes shifted to the woman in question, and widened.

Tifa was flushed and... and... flirting with the guy sitting in Cloud's spot. Worse yet, she was being... she was wearing...

Cloud was very well aware that Tifa was a woman. It was obvious in her voice and her eyes and her emotions and her curves. It waved a red flag in front of him whenever he caught her scent or watched the way she walked. But when she wrapped herself in the leather and layers she normally wore in the bar, it was like she was donning armor. She was telling everyone that while she was a woman, she was also tough. Her clothing was a deterrent in and of itself. A shield.

Without it, she seemed vulnerable. Approachable. Available.


At least it isn't a dress, or anything like that little skirt she ran all over Gaia in a few years ago, he told himself. He couldn't count the number of times he'd wanted to punch someone's teeth out for smiling at her back then. Or claim his sword had 'slipped'. Personally, although she'd never asked his opinion, he'd been all for the do-not-touch-me-on-pain-of-pain feel the leather gave off, at least when she was around other men. Based on skin coverage alone it was a vast improvement.

What she was wearing tonight covered even more. That wasn't the problem.

The problem was the way it accentuated the fact that she was a woman, and completely obliterated the evidence that she was tough, and not to be approached.

So. The woman who held his heart was flirting with a man who was quite a bit larger and more impressive – at least to look at – than Cloud himself. She was letting said man sit in Cloud's spot. And, in some obscure way that probably only made sense to him, she was naked.

No, that really couldn't be right. Shaking his head to clear it, he closed his eyes, counted to ten, and then tried again.

Someone was sitting in his spot.

Cloud had kissed her. Cloud had kissed her. Cloud had kissed her. It didn't matter where she put the emphasis in that statement, it still seemed a bit unreal, and made her feel just a tad giddy.

It hadn't been the careful brush of his lips across her cheek, or the gentle press of his closed mouth against hers that had become common in the last few weeks. It had been so much more, a step forward. It had been sweet and lingering, hesitant at first but slowly growing ever more certain. He'd courted her lips for long moments, then left her breathless, leaning weak-kneed against the door to her room after he told her good night.

There had been heat and restrained desire in that kiss. Of course she dreamt about him.

When she woke she felt excited and hopeful and happy. Cloud had kissed her, with every evidence of enjoyment, and the expression in his eyes said he definitely planned to do it again. The thought kept her warm when she slipped from the covers, and made her grin foolishly while brushing her teeth.

Wrapped in a thick cotton robe, her hair still dripping from her shower, she padded back into her room. The clothes she normally wore were resting neatly on her chair, and she paused, suddenly realizing that she really didn't feel like wearing them. She didn't want to hide behind serviceable black and sturdy leather: they'd only weigh her down today. She wanted something softer. Something that would remind her she was beautiful and loved and a woman.

Besides, it was well into winter and getting too cold to bare her arms and legs.

Her closet, while not overfull, did contain a variety of other clothing – mostly things she'd purchased to please Marlene, with almost no expectation of ever wearing. Luckily, the little girl had excellent taste, and a practical streak. Velvety soft brushed cotton jeans in a warm cocoa color were a perfect match for the lightweight sweater in shades of brown and cream. The sleeves and body were a rich chocolate knit, cut high in the front and long in the back. A deep inset V extending from a point between her shoulder blades, as well as two wide ruffles around the bottom edge, were made of a fluttery cream fabric patterned with tiny orange, brown, and umber flowers. That touch, as well as the bow that tied at the small of her back, gave the whole a distinctly feminine feel, despite the dark colors. And, although the whole was demurely cut, the bottom ruffle just brushed the waist of her jeans, allowing brief glimpses of her tummy: a sight she had on excellent authority that Cloud enjoyed. Pulling her hair into a loose braid, and slipping her feet into a pair of cream colored sneakers, she was ready to face the day.

Marlene, of course, was thrilled at the change in wardrobe, hugging Tifa while sporting a smile that rivaled the ones Tifa herself had made while brushing her teeth. Denzel, though less exuberant, still quietly told her, in a manner similar to Cloud's, that she looked pretty. Things were off to a good start.

Unfortunately, by nine o'clock that night she'd begun to wish she hadn't changed her routine. There had been far more advances and disconcerting looks thrown her way, and somehow, without the shield of all that leather and the edge that went with it, she found herself at a bit of a loss. Take the customer at the end of the bar – sitting in Cloud's seat no less. She'd approached to tell him he needed to move, and the moment the words, "I'm sorry," slipped from her mouth, he was talking and taking control of the conversation.

"Don't be sorry, I haven't been here long, and with a vision like you to watch, I certainly don't mind the wait."

He'd winked and she'd blushed – actually blushed! – at the sound of that deep voice giving her compliments, ridiculous and over blown though they were. Part of her insisted that it was alright to feel flattered – the man was quite good-looking, after all. Another said she wasn't interested in compliments from a random bar crawler. Although, she was pretty sure she'd seen this guy before, occasionally drinking with a group of her regulars. Yes, she definitely remembered him watching her... he'd just never said anything before. Apparently he'd been emboldened by her change in dress, and the lack of Cloud's presence.

Not really the point, she reminded herself sternly. Regular, irregular, or completely new, she wasn't interested in flirting with the customers.

"You should wear your hair like that more often," he told her when she brought him his beer, speaking before she had a chance to try and explain that he needed to move. Really, she'd only brought him the drink in the first place because she was so flustered. Now she was even more so, as she reached self-consciously to touch her brown tresses. At some point during the day her braid had come undone, and the ribbon in the back had loosened and slid to the side. Escaping strands framed her face, while the bulk rested in a wavy ponytail on her right shoulder. "It looks nice," he assured her, as he raised his glass to take a drink, "softer than your usual style." Fingers, strong but not calloused, brushed a lock behind her ear and her eyes widened.

Pulling away and cursing her confusion – stupid, stupid, girlish reactions – she reached for the tray she'd been preparing and escaped the bar for a table across the room.

Cloud watched as the man sitting in his chair reached out and touched his Tifa. The sight made him growl under his breath. Obviously, the guy didn't really need those fingers. The fact that Tifa retreated from the touch soothed his ego somewhat, but only increased his agitation. She was obviously flustered and confused, but unwilling or unable to do anything about it.

He had no such problems. Tifa was his, and he was hers. No over-confident customer was going to interfere with that. If necessary, he was willing to make that clear to everyone, Tifa included.

Shifting the weight of his sword between his shoulders, Cloud strolled toward the bar, timing his approach to arrive just before Tifa, watching her out of the corner of his eye as she made her way – reluctantly – back toward the granite counter.

Nobody made Tifa uncomfortable in her own bar.

Reaching out, Cloud fisted one hand in the back of the guy's shirt, and lifted him bodily out of the chair. "Excuse me," the words were polite but the tone held a warning, "this seat is taken." Almost carelessly, he dropped the man to land on the next stool over, smirking at the cry of outrage when he just barely missed. His other arm curled around Tifa as soon as she was within reach, turning to face her as he half-sat, half-leaned against the now empty stool. One foot resting on the base of the chair, he snugged the other between her feet, and let his hands stroke over the soft fabric of her jeans where they clung so tightly to her shapely rear. Sliding them into her pockets, he dragged her closer, forcing her to straddle his thigh as her arms wrapped around his neck and she gasped his name in surprise. Ignoring the faint protest, and the crowd around them, he brought his mouth down over hers.

Unlike the night before, his kiss was hard and demanding and possessive, claiming rather than courting. Tifa whimpered and let him take more of her weight, then moaned as his leg shifted to press harder between hers. Keeping one hand firm against her bottom, pressing her close, he let the other roam: up her back and into her hair, curving along her nape to angle her head and vary their contact. Only when her heart was racing and her breath came in short pants did he pull back, just far enough to murmur against her lips. One word: mine. In the quiet that had descended over the room during their display, his soft voice was loud and carried to every corner.

Tifa flushed brighter than ever, and he smiled with pure male satisfaction. His lips brushed gently against hers, feather light kisses to calm her down. Then he withdrew and let her hide her face in his shoulder, while he turned those disconcerting SOLDIER eyes on the man beside them.

"I think maybe you should leave now," Cloud commented lightly, one hand rubbing slow, familiar circles on Tifa's back, the other still very obviously resting in her pocket.

Green eyes narrowing consideringly, the man finished his beer and set the glass down. "I didn't do anything but tell her she looks pretty today." The words were sullen, the tone a challenge.

"She's gorgeous," Cloud retorted easily, and felt Tifa stiffen with surprise at the blatant and willing compliment. "She's also taken." He shifted his stance just slightly, enough to call attention to the sword on his back. "Good night."

Grudgingly, the other did as he was told, dropping some gil on the counter and slinking off into the crowd. Cloud then picked Tifa up easily, settled himself more firmly in his chair, and spun around in his seat to put her down on the bar in front of him, legs dangling. She made quite a picture, with her face flushed, hair mussed, and lips kiss-swollen. Fingers curling around the edge of the counter, she leaned forward to rest her forehead against his.

"Yours?" she asked, voice soft and surprised.

Cloud shrugged a bit, and reached out to tuck her hair behind her ear – the same motion that had made him lose his temper when the other man had done it. "It's true," he answered, although his eyes held a hint of worry despite his confident tone. When she smiled, he shifted to kiss her again. "Besides," he whispered against her mouth, "I was jealous."

If anyone is wondering, the Nate here is the same Nate as in Hunger Persists.