Just a ficlet. Should REALLY work on my other things but this bunny wasn't to be denied. Still need to bring up the quality on my stuff n stuff, but for now I'm pretty satisfied with the general shape of things.
I haven't played all the games, but I roughly kept what I knew of the chronology. Some artistic license was needed, so please forgive. Tried to make it seem like a natural progression, dunno how well that worked. Baaaah.
Disclaimer: Squeenix owns the characters, I just throw some paint on their canvas.
He had just walked in one day as if he had every right to be there, and Yuffie pointed out to her that he actually did since he was a paying customer and wasn't causing trouble or calling attention to himself. That first time Tifa had been on pins and needles waiting for the reasons to surface, or the plot to unravel. Rufus Shinra was a man who had survived natural disasters, multiple battles, assassination attempts, and geostigma. Everything he did he did to a purpose, and Tifa knew very well he could drink at home so why did he show up at her bar? It wasn't even the best or the classiest bar in town (she didn't feel self conscious about this because it was still hers even if it wasn't the most successful place around).
She had let him wait for a full twenty minutes before she even approached his table and took his order. When he ordered a particularly high end whiskey she didn't stock she was almost gleeful in how she refused him. Rufus hadn't been phased by her rudeness or responded in kind, even as he pressed the bridge of his nose in that pinch which signifies there's a headache in the works. He'd accepted a double of some lesser brand, slowly sipped his drink while silently contemplating something for the better part of an hour, and then left enough gil behind to cover his drink twice over.
Tifa had tossed and turned that night, trying to figure out what it all meant. He hadn't approached her, or bullied her, or winked at her, or do anything other than interact with her like a regular patron. It was all wrong, and Tifa knew that she wasn't probably going to be able to divine it just from that one visit.
When he came again a couple days later, she was even more edgy and on her guard. He had to be playing some sort of deep game, showing up as he did the time before with just two hours until closing. Rufus still gave every indication that he was only there to drink her cheap whiskey (another double) and take his leave when he was satisfied.
This time, hopped up on tension and with nothing else going on in the bar to take her mind off of things, Tifa studied Rufus closely. He still had that fine ash-blond hair swept back in a style that could have been carefully gelled because of vanity, convenience, or both. Rufus still had those intensely blue eyes, which seemed to effortlessly captivate her into staring. He was a sharpshooter, she recalled well, and even though he didn't seem to be paying attention to anything she wouldn't doubt he knew where every single object in this room was in relation to himself. Attention to detail was one of the things Shinra had been infamous for, as well as feared.
Tifa thought she was going to polish a hole into her bar that second night he was in, she was so vigorously swiping the bar and not looking at him. The not part was a reminder to herself since she was having so much trouble not not looking at him. Suspicion and fear still ran deep, no matter how he had helped them out last time. He had had his own sickness to fight and it just so happened that their battle and his battle had been one of the same.
When Rufus finished his drink, dropped down his money, and left for the second time Tifa was so deflated from the tension she had been holding in while he was there she had to close the bar early and get some sleep. Stress was exhausting.
It wasn't the third time he came in that she finally spoke to him, nor the fourth. The fifth and sixth times passed by with no incident and after that Tifa found she stopped counting (or marking them down on her calendar). The day she finally spoke to him other than asking to take his order was to volunteer some information he might not have known unless she said something.
"I got a bottle of Edna's Finest in yesterday. You asked about it once so I figured you might be interested."
He arched an eyebrow and opened his mouth to say something before thinking better of it and just nodding.
"The usual otherwise?" He nodded to her again and a corner of his mouth turned up in what might have been a smile. On someone else it would be a smirk, but this was a soft expression, disarming. Tifa found herself smiling fully in response and the night passed as all the others had before.
He never came on the busy days. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays she never saw him and never expected she would. Sundays she could almost always count on seeing him, and then either one or two more days in the week after that. The bottle of Edna's she kept around became "his" and once he came in and took his seat she simply took the liberty of pouring for him and bringing it over.
The same day he said "thank you" was the first time he stayed until closing. Tifa, with a bar towel slung over her shoulder, unceremoniously told him it was time to get home. The look he gave her said a lot about him still, that he didn't like being told what to do, that he had a lot on his mind, that he wasn't ready to face whatever it was waiting for him at home. It would take a lot more than a death glare to phase Tifa when she was practically professional at turning out belligerent drunks. One cranky sober one was pretty low on the list of annoyances.
About four months into this strange behavior of Rufus', Tifa managed to get herself sick. It was the middle of fall and the temperature had been shifting manically. Times like these she missed Denzel and Marlene, feeling like the apartment above her bar was too empty without them. Barrett had made enough money to set them up in a proper household, somewhere that wasn't a bar, and with a kitchen that could turn out a proper meal instead of one burner that barely functioned half the time and an oven that burned just about everything.
Yuffie came over to help a bit with the bar, but she didn't count on the ninja to tend to her sick self. It wouldn't do to spread what she had, and honestly Tifa didn't like being taken care of much. It made her feel weak, coddled, and she had spent most of her life trying to be strong.
This all seemed a little silly in retrospect when she was practically crawling towards the door, dizzy and soaked in sweat, to find a doctor on the other side. He told her she should have gone to the hospital ages ago, and pushed a bottle of pills into her hand while a curious Yuffie looked in from the edge of the door. As he parted he told the girl to go get some soup and force Tifa to drink more water.
"Thank you." Tifa said to him, simply. "I'll be able to pay you when I can get to the bank, if you'll just leave your address."
"That's been taken care of, Miss Lockhart. You just get better." He tipped his hat to her.
Yuffie just shrugged at her. "Don't look at me."
Weak, occasionally dizzy, but still functional, Tifa was back in her bar a couple days after the doctor came. It was a strange to be back in a routine after the disruption of sickness. When Rufus walked in he made a point of meeting her eyes, searching for something. Whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him because he gave her a nod and Tifa poured him his drink. She ascribed her breathlessness as she dropped it off to him to the last lingering bits of sickness.
That night when he stayed until closing, she didn't kick him out until she had wiped everything down and put up all the chairs.
"It was your doctor, wasn't it?" She said as she walked him to the door. His pulled on his thick white overcoat, eyeing the fog gathering outside. Rude materialized from it like a ghost to meet his boss. Tifa assumed a car was out there somewhere, too, no doubt driven by Reno. "I can pay you back."
Why that would upset him, she didn't know. But his brusque refusal and quick departure told her that he would take her money over his dead body.
"So why do you come here, Rufus?" She didn't know when they had gotten on a first name basis, but it rolled off her tongue so easily and he never seemed to mind it. It was easier than guessing at what his last name was right now. He'd had so many aliases after he had 'died' that she didn't think it really mattered.
"If you're going to be a smartass you can go on home." It had been an honest question, but there was no sting in her words as she responded to him. She wanted to know and it appeared he didn't want to tell her.
"Is it so hard to believe that I would come to a bar to drink?" He watched her as Tifa put up the chairs, a puddle of melted water from the ice that had been in his glass all that was left of his whiskey. Rufus absentmindedly swirled the liquid about.
Tifa laughed and wiped some sweat off her brow, she was moving faster that usual tonight, nervous at finally asking him the question she had been dying to from the beginning.
"I know drunks, Rufus, and you're no drunk. You come here, order ONE drink, talk to no one, and then leave! It's not the way any other of my regulars act and I wish you'd not try to talk me into thinking it's normal when you know it isn't."
As she walked over to his table Tifa undid the tidy bun that usually held up her long dark hair from getting in the way. It fell down over her back and shoulders, and she ran a hand through it to straighten it out and fluff it up. The past couple times, Rufus had stayed past closing and they had chatted a bit. It was mere days from winter solstice and Tifa was lonely for someone to talk to as dark day followed dark day. When you owned a bar you didn't see much sunlight, but you spent your entire life in darkness in winter.
Rufus pushed the glass away from him, and towards her. "You know who I am, Miss Lockhart, that's why I come."
"Egotism? Because you know just because you're a Shinra doesn't mean I'm going to treat you like royalty."
Giving her a look like she was an idiot, Rufus spun a gil on the table before slapping it down and giving her a particularly penetrating glare. "You've made your feelings about me abundantly clear time and again, but you're being uncharacteristically dense right now. Try again."
Autocratic bastard. "You're going to have to be a bit more direct. My work day just finished and I don't feel like puzzles."
"How many close friends do you have, Miss Lockhart?"
"Are we still on topic?" She wrinkled her nose, wondering where this was going.
"Yes, we are. I'm making it direct as you requested."
She decided to play along, sidelong glance at him tinged with a suspicious smile. "Barrett of course. Uhhh, well I guess I spend a lot of time with Yuffie. I visit Vincent now and then, Cid, too when the opportunity is there…" The name on the tip of her tongue was also the one she found impossible to add. Friends didn't just leave without a word. Friends didn't cut ties with no goodbye. Damn the man and his spikey hair. He'd rather pine after a ghost than be here with the people who cared for him. Tifa forced herself back to the present as Rufus' blue eyes caught her drifting and pulled her back in like an anchor to reality.
Rufus looked smug, as if he'd already won the argument. The fact that they weren't arguing didn't change anything about how irritating Tifa found that full mouth smirk he was giving her. "And how many of these close friends are people you met after Holy, or after the cure was found? How many of them know all about you? Who understands without being told?"
It felt profound, the silence between them now. It was the most personal discussion she had ever had with him, honesty with anyone in the past year, and she wondered why that was.
"Also, I don't stock my liquor cabinet. This is more convenient than you'd suspect." If she didn't know better, she'd think he had just winked at her. Tifa assumed it was grit in her eye, so she rubbed at it. Clearly time to close up for the night and get some rest.
The bar was closed for a total of five days as Tifa celebrated the solstice with friends and acquaintances. There was a large fruit basket waiting for her from Rufus when she arrived home late from Vincent's party. Tifa knew it was from Rufus because a freezing cold Reno was holding onto it like a lifeline.
Feeling terrible for the man, Tifa invited him in for something warm to drink. With a swagger somewhat marred by his stiff limbs and chattering teeth, he accepted and pretty soon the red haired Turk who she had faced in battle was sipping hot chocolate out of her mug with the faded kitten on the side. She loved that mug, it was one of the few things that had somehow made it from Nibelheim to here unscathed. Not a lot of good memories out of childhood, but at least the kitten brought a smile to her face every time.
"Want part of a pear? It was in the center of this, so I think it's probably not frozen solid."
"Nah. You're a cool chick for offerin' but I like my limbs on my body, and if I don't bolt this stuff and leave I'm a dead man. The boss was pretty clear about not botherin' you." Now that Reno was warming up, his cheeks were becoming as rosy red as his hair.
"You're not bothering me. Besides, it's a holiday. Time for charity and new beginnings and stuff like that." Tifa had started over so many times now, as a child taking care of her father, moving to Midgar, travelling the world, starting this bar, and all the while fighting. If it were any strand that kept her life consistent, it would have to be the fighting. "I'm sure Rufus won't begrudge you a quick snack."
Without asking him, she placed a few cookies and half a pear in front of him. Reno looked up at her with a toothy grin and ate everything up before giving her a little salute and taking off for whatever task Rufus had for the Turks on a winter's solstice.
At the bottom of the pile of fruit was a small box. The card simply said 'For Miss Lockhart, From R.S.' and inside the box was a braided gold chain. She dropped it like it had caught fire to her skin.
"What are you trying to pull?" she hissed at him as she slammed the drink in front of him. It had been a week since the Fruit Basket Incident (as Yuffie dramatically liked to call it) and Tifa hadn't seen Rufus until this very moment. If he had been keeping away hoping she had mellowed out he drastically underestimated the strength and longevity of Tifa's emotions.
"I'm guessing, Miss Lockhart, that the solstice gift was not to your liking. Customarily don't people just send bland think you notes and give the offending item to someone else next time around?" As he spoke he examined the front of his beige suit jacket to see if any of his drink had stained it when Tifa had nearly sloshed the entire contents onto him.
It was one of those moments where she wanted to spit fire she was so angry, but in the face of his stony calm it was hard to maintain the same level of righteous rage.
"If you find it that repugnant, you can always send it back to me. In the future I'll keep in mind your unreasonable dislike of jewelry." His voice had moved from cool to glacial. The hand that clutched the glass was white and shaking slightly from the force of his grip. If she had invested in less sturdy glassware Tifa was sure it would be in pieces under the pressure.
It was with actual shock that Tifa realized he was hurt by the fact that she wouldn't accept his gift. Unwilling to talk about it any longer, she turned about on her heel and marched back behind her bar to tend to the other patrons.
He left earlier than usual that night.
Tifa kept the necklace.
He started having food delivered.
Tifa gave him dark looks from the bar, but that didn't deter him. Elena would deliver it but she didn't appear to cook it, or so Tifa assumed due to her total disinterest about Rufus' reception of the food. No greasy bags of fish and chips or burgers wrapped in thin paper for the former president, it was all healthy looking and terrifyingly bland. Lean meats with no sauce, steamed vegetables with no seasoning or butter, and the rare bit of rice or pasta (no sauce)… Tifa thought that if that's all he ate no wonder he looked so lean.
His suits didn't hang off of him, but they could also hide any number of things from her view. When she realized she was contemplating Rufus' body she felt the blush start at her spine and sweep up and over her with such heat she wondered if she could scandalize someone from a distance.
Their fallout over the necklace had prevented him from staying after hours for chats as she had become accustomed to, and Tifa found she actually missed it. There had been few conversations of any consequence, but it was nice to hear about how Reeve and the WRO was faring in its quest to help the world recover from the cataclysm that had rocked all their lives. She barely kept up with current events outside of Edge, and he had whetted her curiosity.
If Rufus was perfectly happy to have taken two steps back, Tifa eventually found she wasn't, and one day in early spring she set down a bottle of hot sauce in front of the seared chicken breast he was delicately cutting into. The sort of table manners he observed even in her bar reminded her anew how he had grown up to a standard of society that she couldn't imagine let alone imitate.
"So, it's been a year, eh?" Close enough. If she hadn't thrown out her old calendar she could have found the exact day he first started coming here circled in red with big question marks around it.
He carefully set down his utensils and gave her his full attention. "Approximately."
Seeing as she had been the one to approach him, he waited for her to continue and Tifa found she needed to clear her throat and stifle a blush. Tucking a stray hair behind her ear, and eyeing a couple people at the bar who were mumbling to one another about their day working on a construction site she tried to think what exactly would be a good reason to interrupt Rufus' meal.
"Do you still do shooting practice?" If he was surprised at this line of questioning, she couldn't tell.
"Yes. More infrequently than I'd like. Interested in learning?"
"Actually, I was more interested in sparring. I guess I was hoping you had branched out with your fighting style." She had been thinking about no such thing and this was making absolutely no sense. "It was, uh, Rude who fights like I do right? Maybe he'd be interested in a match?"
"NO." Rufus was adamant and briefly ruffled but brought himself back in line as he continued. "Rude has a hard time fighting against… allies. Particularly female ones. I think if pressed he'd be more likely to allow himself to be beaten unconscious than to raise a hand against you, Miss Lockhart."
"I know your name."
"Yes, but I think it's time you started using it."
That half smile of his appeared, lighting his eyes as he reached for the hot sauce. "I'll only use this concoction on my dinner if you take the first bite."
"Relax, Tifa, or else the recoil will jar everything down to your toes."
If he thought she could relax a single muscle in her body when he was pressed against an entire side of her, his hand on hers guiding it to the right level to hit the target, he was insane. Other than hugs and casual touches from her friends, and the occasional friendly match with other fighters she never came into contact with people. The intimacy of this situation was honestly alarming, and she wanted nothing more than to drop the gun and create distance between herself and Shinra.
His smooth voice continued as if she had relaxed, but if anything she had seized up more tightly as his other hand came up on the other side to steady her hand. It was a mockery of a hug, with Rufus' breath stirring near her ear. Her muscles jumped as his fingers ghosted up them then down her sides to adjust her hip positioning.
When he pulled away from her she just about sagged she had been so tense.
"Pull the trigger." He ordered, and she responded automatically to the toneless authority in his tone.
She had heard the crack of gunshots thousands of times, but somehow it was different when it was a living thing in your hands. It was foreign and unpleasant, and she wanted to drop it and run out of Rufus' private shooting gallery. She was in his home, alone with him, humming with unwanted awareness of his proximity and mad at herself for being anything less than neutral.
"While shooting someone in the knee is actually exceedingly effective, I had aimed you at the heart. Maybe a smaller gun would intimidate you less."
"I'm not intimidated by the size of your gun, Rufus." Her brain ran that sentence by her a second time and she closed her eyes tightly as if she could reverse time by concentrating hard enough.
When he actually laughed softly and moved away to pick out a gun of his own to practice with, she was surprised and oddly grateful. Trying to give a little laugh of her own as if it had been a joke, she took the out he had provided.
Her aim didn't improve any as she exhausted her rounds, but then she hadn't really wanted to do this in the first place. Why she had accepted his invitation was a mystery to her. Tifa's inner competitor became that much more bitter when Rufus efficiently decimated a target at the other end of the range at a speed any SOLDIER would have found acceptable.
Turning to her after setting down his empty gun, exhilarated and more than a little cocky, Tifa wondered at how odd life was for her to be here with him like this.
"Would you like me to help you correct your stance again?" Somehow, when Rufus looked at her like that she felt like what he had asked was not entirely what he truly meant.
It was just an exhibition match, and she hadn't expected him to show up, so when she spotted Tseng by an exit and Rude mixed into the audience it didn't take too long to search out and find the reason for their presence.
He seemed displeased to have to share seating space with so many other people, but he had found a slightly less populated corner and his chair had more space around it than most of the others. She hadn't seen him when the first people were flowing in, but maybe Tseng and Rude had prepared the way for him. He never went anywhere in public without at least two Turks, which she had realized when she had taken the trash out one night at her bar and had nearly run straight into Reno patrolling around. It should have annoyed her, she thought, but instead it made her feel more secure in her own property.
When the match began everything else faded away. It was one of her old teachers, a solidly built man who had been an assistant instructor when she had been a beginner, and who now was barely past his prime as he threw himself into the fight. It was a furious pace he set, hoping to exhaust her cardio early, and they traded punches and kicks until she tried to do something flashy and he set her down with a blow to the head. Instinct and experience protected her from it being too serious, but the crowd still gasped and cheered. The starburst of pain focused her back onto her game plan, and eventually she wore him down enough to get the rear choke sunk in. He tapped and she collapsed limply before picking herself up and thanking him for a good match. The audience was exhilarated, and so was she, her adrenaline humming as she found her eyes scanning for someone in particular to share in her victorious joy.
He found her before she found him, and she sat in her corner of the ring on a stool. She became abruptly conscious of how terrible she had to appear, sweat dripping off of her and bruises already beginning to show.
"That was quite the performance. I should have brought flowers." He examined the cut on her forehead with narrowed eyes. She could feel the blood oozing down, but it didn't hurt yet. Catching the elbow like she did had been sloppy, but she knew it was because she had been trying to find him in the crowd. Stupid, stupid Tifa. What was happening to her good sense, or at the very least her self-preservation?
"I wouldn't know what to do with them anyway if you had." She said, thinking that even him saying it gave her an inner glow.
Rufus backed away as the ring physician finally located her and mopped the blood off her brow. By the time he was gone she expected Rufus to have disappeared, but he was still there, flanked by his men. Tseng gave her a nod in acknowledgement of her victory, and Rude gave her a starry eyed thumbs up before a quick narrowed eyed glare from Rufus had him relegated to a stoic scowl.
"Hungry?" Rufus said.
"Starving." Tifa replied.
She tried not to think about how predictable she had become when two dinners were waiting on her kitchen table. They ate quickly and Tifa talked about the bad old days when she was training all the time, dreaming of a better life but not being sure what that better life would entail other than needing to be stronger than she had been. Rufus just listened, and it was in that moment she wasn't sure that the feeling she knew was growing for him was so bad after all.
In the shower that evening it finally occurred to her that the door had been locked and he didn't have a key, so how had the food gotten in?
On second thought he was a horrible, presumptuous bastard.
Something had gone wrong. Rufus had to leave suddenly, which she wouldn't have known except Elena appeared outside her door one evening and refused to leave. She was under order, she explained, and until the boss returned she wasn't letting Tifa out of her sight. Somehow she convinced the serious woman to at least spend the night on Tifa's couch since she probably would have simply ended up dead on her feet at her doorstep otherwise.
A tense few days followed, and Tifa was in such an alarmed state that she closed up the bar and told her few staff members that she didn't know when she'd reopen again. Most of them were only there part time a few hours a week so she didn't feel like they were being put out too much.
Elena didn't have any information that would help put Tifa's mind at ease, but she did say that she was to follow Tifa everywhere and only intervene if she attempted to go anywhere in the vicinity of Midgar. Tifa made calls to everyone she knew, and quickly it became apparent that something big was happening with Barrett, Yuffie, Vincent and Cid at the heart of it. Reeve was impossible to get ahold of, and she wondered what it all meant.
Rufus appeared at her doorstep, bags under his eyes, suit obviously unchanged in several days. He had the look of a man who had seen a ghost and looked at Tifa with hungry eyes as she pulled him into the dark, empty bar and upstairs to her couch. Elena had disappeared, but she saw her from her second story window arguing with Reno in the street in front of Rufus' car. A misting of summer rain was covering them, but they didn't seem to care or notice.
"It never ends. My mistakes never end." Rufus looked sunken into himself, and Tifa wondered if he had any friends other than her of if all he had were minions, business associates, and enemies.
"I know whatever it is, we're all involved again. You'll have to tell me sooner or later, but right now you need a shower and some sleep."
"That's not what I want right now. There's too little time for games, Tifa." Even disheveled and dead on his feet he had enough strength and speed to pull her down next to him on the couch plant a kiss on her mouth that caught her as surely as a mouse in a trap. At first she went still, shocked, but before long her eyes closed and she became a very nearly aggressive participant in what was just the inevitable conclusion of the dance they had begun around one another months ago.
His face had some rough stubble, and he smelled of cologne and sweat, but the moment was too delicious to let go of easily. Rufus' hand was curled behind her head, his fingers twined in her hair. Tifa braced herself with one hand on his thigh and the other trapped by her body against the couch. The kiss was full of all the complex emotions they had been fighting, and Tifa welcomed it all with relief. No more questioning, no more worry, she knew where she stood with this man.
Rufus, with his infuriating protectiveness and his assumptions, had somehow wormed his way into the protective shell that had gone up when Cloud had left to go save the world again. It was time for her to step up to the plate as well, and she let herself get lost in the mildly self-destructive fatalism that went with her almost naive bravery. He was right, there was no time for them to circle around what they wanted.
Showered, tired, but not at all rested Rufus ran his hands through Tifa's loose hair and down the smooth bare skin of her back and explained about Deepground. He didn't bother to tell her it wasn't her fight, or not to get involved. It was the beginning of another war, and all her friends were already waiting for her to take up her gloves and join the fray. Reeve was expecting her to show up any day, and Rufus fell silent when she decided to combat his scowl with a soft kiss and invitation.
"I'll come back," Tifa said softly, unsure if Rufus was asleep or not and then feeling his arms tighten around her in response.
"If you don't, I'll buy your tacky bar and turn it into a parking lot."
She gave a snorting laugh. "Try again."
"I'll turn it into a love hotel."
Turning to face him, storm clouds building in her eyes despite knowing he was teasing her, Tifa poked him in the chest right above a long thin scar where a sword had struck him forcefully several years ago. She remembered that fight as if it were a dream now. "Last chance." She growled.
"Threatening me?" he said with mocking laughter in his voice. Without a gun he was defenseless against a fighter of Tifa's skill, but he'd never be cowed. "Just make sure you come back otherwise you don't know what I might decide to do."
He didn't talk about forever, and neither did she. It would be too cruel in the face of uncertainty. When he did fall asleep, the arms around her felt like a gentle prison that she was happy to be caught in. It was strange to think that she felt happy and at peace on the eve of leaping back into battle.
The next morning, as he was shaving the stubble off his face using foaming body wash and one of her dinky razors while dressed in nothing but one of her sea foam green towels, he said that while he hadn't planned things going this way originally he thought the outcome was really satisfactory. She told him that was the most unromantic thing a guy had ever said to her.
He said give him time and he'd think of something worse. Then he'd turned around to grab her and nuzzled all the foaming soap onto her while she squealed and laughed.
When she packed to leave, she didn't forget the braided gold chain.