Author's note: This chapter has been in my head since starting the story, but getting it onto paper has been a lot harder than I had anticipated. I have some ideas as to where I want it to go from here, so maybe an update can be expected in a month or two. Review and let me know what you think.

Disclaimer: I do not own anything. Only my imagination.

She counts the days through a haze of narcotic-laced cigarette smoke and the cacophony of sighs, moans, and various adulations. Each day is the same; wake up, wash down a meagre breakfast with a whiskey and a cigarette, because it numbs the mind as well as her sense of taste (a blessing), before clustering around vanity mirrors, surrounded by the other girls in various states of scantily-clad dress. It's the start of another day, where she must gaze up at the shaking ceiling with its fake crystal candelabra to make her wishes. There are no starry skies, down here, beneath the plate.

She applies a little blush to her cleavage, a dust of glitter beneath each eye, and applies a daub of perfume to the back of her neck- its less likely to fade there. She knows all of the ways to please the men who ask for her custom, yet she has never met one who knows hers. All she can think, as she lies on her back, making the necessary sounds to make her clients keep coming, is that there must be a way out.

-4. What we try to hide-

I knew she was up to something. The more I thought about it, the more it didn't seem to add up. I almost talked myself out of following her—she was an ex-prostitute, I had to remind myself. Her intentions may be pure, but her means of acquiring the money might not be. Did I really want to waste my time following her, only to see something I might come to regret seeing?

The justification I gave myself was that I wanted to see anything otherwise- to restore my faith, perhaps. Faith? Was I becoming less pessimistic all of a sudden, here?—here, where all virtue and innocence and all that is good is left by the wayside, sold or stolen, simply to get by in this vast underground dystopia?

Surely not.

It is my night off, and I am crouched on a rooftop adjacent to her bar, squinting down at the murky, befouled streets. I left her apartment an hour or so earlier, and had been maintaining my vigil ever since. If she were to slip out, I would follow her.

I almost missed her—I had rather naively been watching the doors; why would she sneak around, if she were simply practicing a trade that this godforsaken place did not forbid, but rather promoted?—but then a sudden movement caught my eye- out of the obvious glare of the neon signs, I had almost not seen her slipping out from a secret flap built into her roof. She was clad in leather, her hair pulled back and braided neatly and out of her way. I watched with barely contained fascination as she adjusted her utility belt, before leaping effortlessly from rooftop to rooftop, traversing the unseen paths of the city silently and with practised ease.

Where in Odin's name are you going?

Giving her a slight lead, I then made after her, employing all I knew of stealth to stay well out of her sphere of notice. Mako-enhanced eye sight meant that I could see must better through the dark and pollution than any normal man could.

I followed her over rooftops, down rusting fire escapes and through alley ways pervaded by the stench of rotting matter and human urine. My sense of direction, which was usually completely astute, was rather off the mark—we could have travelled across all 9 sectors of Midgar, for all I knew.

…but I just had to follow her… I had to know.

Perhaps the answer to my burning curiosities wasn't as surprising as it could have been. I watched her scale a building with the agility of a cat and slip in through a hole in the glass window. It was a wonder she didn't cut herself on the shards that still glittered in the frames. Here, in the depths of the slums, no neon lights pervaded the putrid air and darkness. I could hear male laughter, and apparent signs of merriment. So she hadn't been discovered, then.

my training had taught me to know many things, but one that stuck with me, aside from all the combat training, was that people always had something to hide. Whether it be the business man who makes the occasional trade on the black market, or the politician who accepts the odd bribe; a house wife who is having an elicit love affair behind her husband's back- Everyone had something they desperately wanted to keep a secret, and to me that represented only one thing; a weakness he could exploit.

I should know—I had a secret of my own that I kept buried within, the driving force behind my reasoning for coming here, to the slums.

When it came to her however, I had been lost, extensive training in human psychology and interrogation gone to pot in her presence. She couldn't possibly have anything to hide, all pretty smiles and so earnest and enthusiastic with her work. What I couldn't see, or what my blindness prevented me from acknowledging, was that she was like everybody else. She wanted recognition for her work, and at any cost.

I had learned that the hardest way of all.

-0-

I didn't wait around, instead turning back the way I came, this time sticking to street level. Following her had led me into the depths of the sector six slums—I knew my way from here.

As my boots splashed through stagnant puddles and crunched through patches of broken glass glinting in the neon gloom, my mind raced. She didn't want to be seen; a thief, then?—but then what was she stealing, from whom, and for what purpose?

I recalled the thick envelope that he had left upon her desk not so long ago, the very same envelope she had slipped back into my jacket pocket a few nights ago—by what means had she acquired that much money? Was she risking her life and her business for the sake of gil? Or could it be even more sinister than that? Drugs—no, I had never seen her make any dealings, and I had been working tirelessly at the bar for several weeks…

My footsteps carried me right up to her bar, and over the threshold— Natasha was working on the bar and seemed surprised to see me, though by no means displeased. The girls had quite taken to my being here, and had gotten used to my mostly silent ways. The bar seemed relatively empty, save for a few regulars, and I took my usual stool at the end of the bar, where I would normally place myself.

"It's your night off isn't it?" Natasha inquired, jerking her head behind her to the top shelf, where Tifa housed the whiskey collection. At my acquiescing nod, she poured me out a measure. "All pleasure and no business, then?"

"Not quite. Has Tifa… returned?"

"Returned?" The young blonde shot me a quizzical look. "She takes Tuesdays off usually—hang on, I'll call up."

Downing my whiskey in one, I waited for Natasha to call upstairs—could Tifa have beaten me back? Or was she perhaps lying dead and bleeding in that unsavoury-looking warehouse? I had waited for a while, yet hadn't seen her come out the way she got in. There were no signs that the rabble within were aware of her intrusion though… I had thought it best to retreat before I attracted any attention, hanging around near to the scene of the crime.

"She is upstairs, but she says can you wait for—hey!"

I set my glass down with a chink, and stride purposefully out of the building, pivoting on my heel to head down the side alley to the metal fire escape. I scale it easily, coming up on to the roof and locating the panel through which I had watched her exit earlier—It looks like an air vent, though it lifts with some encouragement, revealing a dark loft space within. I lower myself down through the vent, letting it shut after me. It is warm up here in the rafters of the building- it has been well insulated, and could be used as a room, were it populated with furniture. It takes me only a moment to locate the hatch which would undoubtedly lead me into her apartment proper.

I wonder what I am going to say to her—will I outright accuse her? Should I give her a chance to explain herself? I am struck briefly by the notion that I should not face her unarmed—she could be more dangerous than I had previously given her credit for—but I doubt myself. Have I truly become so jaded?

I lift the hatch, and gaze down onto her beige carpeted living space. I pause, listening carefully- I can hear movement from within, creaking floorboards, opening drawers… She is as yet unaware of my presence.

I lower myself through the hatch and down onto the carpet silently, unholstering my handgun and slowly approach what I assume is her bedroom. The door is stood ajar, and though there are no lights turned on, neon glare filters in through the curtains from the street outside. I can see a shape moving within, a form through the crack in the door. Taking one deep breath I step through and turn to face the room, weapon raised, just as she turns and sees me.

To her credit, she doesn't look afraid—probably because she is staring back at me down the barrel of a shotgun. I note briefly that I must have alerted her halfway through her undress; her leather jacket is strewn across her bed, her arms bare and pale in the sickly yellow glow from without.

"You could have waited downstairs." She stated coldly, flexing her trigger finger. "You have ten seconds to explain how you got here, and what the fuck you want."

"I watched you leave through your secret exit—and I followed you to sector 5. I assume that that is the reason for your 'trip'." I jerk my head towards the zipped pack, lying innocently atop her bed sheets.

She keeps her aim steady, though her gaze wanders. I take my chance, kicking upwards and hard. The barrel of the shotgun rises up and strikes her hard in the face, her fingers slipping form the trigger. Her hands rise to meet her face with a howl of pain, and I leap forwards, kicking the weapon into the shadows beneath her bed.

"I want answers, thief."

The look she gave me was murderous. "What're you going to do, Turk, shoot me? I'm not fucking scared of you,"

I chose to ignore her taunt. "What were you doing out there?"

"I was robbing a drug lord." She spat the words at me, arms crossed tightly over her chest, clearly not impressed with her predicament.

"Robbing?"

"Yes," She confirmed acidly, pivoting on her heel to glare out of the window. I kept my gun trained on her back, though as the seconds ticked by, I realised it was a pointless act. I wasn't going to shoot her. "This place survives on the filth that live here- the economy is powered drugs, sex and whatever else you can think of that's foul and corrupted. The way I see it, they make so much money, they won't suffer too badly having their safes emptied now and again. I'm a pretty good safe-cracker—by no means the best, but you'd be surprised at what they leave lying around, in plain sight."

She paused, rubbing at sudden goosebumps that had burst into life on her arms. "They think that hired muscle at the front doors is enough to deter most people—I'm not most people."

"But why? Why risk your life for gil?"

"Vincent…" She sighs heavily, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes sockets. In a momentary pocket of silence I can hear the hum of background noise from the bar- the gentle whir of the glass wash machine, the juddering of pipes, and the ebb and wave of chatter punctuated by chinking glassware. I relax at her apparent submission. Only a little.

"I would have thought a man like you would have seen it all." She lets her palms fall to rest at her sides, her expression weary.

I don't know what to say to that, so instead I remain silent. "I came here at sixteen. I was an orphan with no living relatives, no friends and no money. I came here looking for someone, a knight in shining armour that never really existed…" Her gaze drops to her feet. I am struck by how small she seemed to become, weighed down by the burned-out hopes of a stunted adolescence.

"I had nothing. Or so I thought," She scoffs, and bitterness contorts her otherwise innocent features. "Don Corneo found something that he could sell, in exchange for a place to live. I thought it was a fair deal."

"I imagine that's how he gets all his girls ," I realise I should be out there putting the bullet in his head, like she had asked me to.

She nods sadly. "My virginity was sold to some ShinRa fat cat for a considerable sum, and from that day on, a part of me switched off. I lived like that for three years, scrimping and saving every gil I could. Don wouldn't let a girl go unless she could afford to pay a release fee- For the trouble of having her. I saved more than I needed, because I knew he would up the price. I made a lot of money for him."

I swallow down an ache in my throat, unable to tear my eyes away from her face.

"Anyway, I got out but… other girls aren't so lucky. I do what I do- stealing from the drug barons and the pimps, and the arms dealers- so that girls like me can get free. Sometimes they work here for a while; sometimes they get out of Midgar for good…" A distant smile graces her lips, and I sense her passion and drive. She wants to make a difference—I suppose in that sense she wasn't quite unlike me. "That's what makes it worth the risk."

So she steals money from the drug barons and the whorehouse owners, and uses it to help girls get out of the brothels—a regular Robin Hood, but clad in black leather and operating in the shadows of this rotten and broken city. Immediately I understand her motives. Why would she wish others to suffer through what she had suffered? The extent of her selflessness was staggering. I had not expected to find it here, the cesspool of vice and despair.

"Tifa, I respect you completely for that but… Why do you let yourself suffer down here?"

She sighs heavily, standing and crossing to her window. Her back is to me, and in the silence I contemplate her profile. She was a rare wildflower, starved of light and water, struggling to shine on through the ugliness of this subterranean dystopia. She deserved better than this.

"Because… part of me wonders if the world outside could live up to how I remembered it. I've been in this place since… since before the meteor crisis. What if out there… it's no better than in here?"

I relax my hands, rubbing my thumb over the indentations that the handgun has left in my palm. What had this place done to her? "Tifa…" I step closer, not really sure why but still compelled to do so. "Its… there is so much more than this out there, for you."

"What is it you see in me that I don't?" Our eyes meet, and my heart does a strange gallop and leap in my chest at seeing tears swimming in her eyes of molten honey. The neon lights outside suck her of her colouring. She is pale, sickly; garish in their luminance.

"I…" I have to be able to save someone, I want to say. The same thing that drives her, now drives me. I want to know that she can move forward from this place, even after the hell she had been living every day. Because then… what would that mean for me? "I don't know."

I lie to her, because it is easier. I don't know why I lie, and I almost hate myself for disappointing her. She sighs, the stillness and tension dissipating as she slips into a clean shirt.

"Tifa…"

She stalls in the doorway. We are shoulder to shoulder, facing opposite directions, still stood in the dark and gloom. It suits us both better this way. "You aren't going to shoot me, anymore, right?" A wry smile twists her mouth, though I do not feel the mirth.

"Tifa I did not…I didn't distrust you. I… I thought… I had fears that your means of gaining funds were… much more sinister than they turned out to be. I feared for your safety."

Something in her body tenses at my words—what did I say wrong?—but then it is gone. She turns to me, her hand on my shoulder.

"I appreciate the concern. But really, you needn't worry. I haven't allowed a man to touch me since my last day in Corneo's hell hole."

A darkness passed over her visage, and I wonder what sordid memories her revelations have brought back to the surface. For a moment, I want to hear everything, as poisonous as it may be—if only to add fuel to the fire. I had already planned on killing him, and very soon.

Very soon.

She is in the kitchen, turning on the lights. The sudden intrusion of brightness causes me to squint, and the night's sordid revelations are cast into stark relief.

"The Don—I have been watching him closely. Tomorrow night I will make my move." I inform her, turning toward the door—no use in leaving through the hatch- but she stalls me.

"You would be doing the world a service."

"I'm not doing it for them." Her eyes go wide, and I press the envelope into her hands—she had tried giving it to me again days ago. She tosses the envelope aside, before throwing her arms around my neck.

"Thank you Vincent…" Her lips are a faint impression on my cheek. "Thank you."

That last night. She will never forget it. He knows she is to leave his service—all the necessary fees and bribes have been made—she was smart—no money until she is leaving the front door, and even then, only half. The rest, when she was safely at her new rental. She had seen too much down in this place to make such a mistake as give up her money so readily.

They had prepared something 'special' for her. No regular customers for her tonight—no, she would be serving her masters, all at once, one last time. When the don forced himself into her mouth, she wished she didn't have a gun pressed to her temple—otherwise, she would have bitten it off. Clean. Off.

-0-

The doctor shook his head, removing his rubber gloves. No way of knowing for certain yet, until the bloods came back. The tears would have to heal on their own; the bruises would fade. The sickness, there were pills he could give her to make it go away, but it would need to be soon. Leave it too late and…

No. she could never be so selfish to risk it, when she could be…

She would never touch a man again. She couldn't allow her past to steal another's future, a curse trapped within her flesh, given over in the most intimate of joinings.

She was tainted, spoiled, rotten. Something so cursed should never be allowed to leave the shadow of Midgar.

-0-

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