Through the Looking Glass Chapter 1
By Lucrecia Marionette
Night encompassed the mega-city of Midgar covering it with an impenetrable veil that only those darker than itself could see through. Only a handful of people dared venturing out of their homes to brave the inhospitable darkness and those that did spent their hours on the streets without another choice or in bars and night-clubs; wherever they could escape from the prying eyes hidden in shadow.
A slight breeze blowing down the middle of one of the main streets had the audacity to break the unnatural stillness moving leaves and litter down the pavement with an eerily loud rustling as they skipped and danced along the tarmac. The street lamps no longer fuelled by the once plentiful supply of Mako now stood useless; monuments to the city's former days of glory. Instead, small oil lamps swung precariously from the useless light-bulbs and cast out a dim, flickering light which only served to illuminate the path but nothing more.
A solitary figure strode down the road between the pavements as if avoiding the light. His movements were precise and never faltering; he had nothing to fear from the darkness or what lay ahead of him. It treated him as an old friend, not one to be disrespected or turned away. It enveloped the man with a cruel warmth and knew that it would never allow him to turn back; a one-way contract with no loopholes. Still, he didn't seem to mind. The shadows only served to help him in his morose meditations, helped him to organise his thoughts before facing the night alone.
He walked without purpose except for walking; it helped him to move in his moments of thought. It helped him to know that he wasn't the only one in the world although it often felt that way.
His head jerked up suddenly at the sound of movement down the street. One of the many pubs that lined the boulevard opened its doors momentarily as a couple came stumbling out leaning heavily on each other. They laughed raucously and almost fell over several times; walking in a straight line was obviously a challenge. They were both dressed up in expensive clothes; quite unusual for that part of the city and must've had too much to drink at a party of some kind.
They kissed under the light of one of the lamps and then with another drunken giggle, they turned and stumbled away from the shadowy figure who'd stood and watched the event. Not a single emotion crossed his stoic face and once they had disappeared from sight, he continued to press forward as if striving to reach an unseen goal.
He walked for only a few more minutes until he found himself stopping again outside one of the pubs. His strange red eyes flicked up and down the building which stood nestled between others along the terrace. It seemed brighter than the others did; flower boxes lined every window no doubt giving some colour to the otherwise dreary brickwork in day. It had none of the tacky neon advertisements pinned to its walls as many of the others did shedding harsh and unnatural light during the darker hours. A sign sat above the doorway with a dark green background and italic gold letters announcing the bar name. 'Tifa's Seventh Heaven'.
He took a step forward towards the bar and then hesitated and stopped for a while. Conflicting emotions ran through his mind all at once followed swiftly by a thousand different thoughts, most of them displeasing. Clenching his fists as if gathering courage, he took another stride, more purposeful and directed which was followed by another and then another until he stood beside the bar door.
Pausing again to fight a moments doubt, he put the palm of his left hand against the door to push it open. In the faint light shed by the flickering lamps any passers by probably would have been shocked and more likely terrified of the claw which took the place of a normal hand. The natural forearm of his left arm had long since been imprisoned by the cruel gold gauntlet but many years of living with it had taught him to use it as an asset along with the many other abnormalities which riddled his body even if he didn't agree with them.
He pushed the door gently and it opened on quiet hinges to reveal a fairly large but comfortable establishment. Tables surrounded by chairs were placed in no particular order around the large, square shaped room probably to encourage the mixture of people to allow new friendships. In one corner of the room there was a bar shaped like an inverted capital 'L' ringed by tall bar stools and backed by a large mirror and assorted bottles of drink; alcoholic and otherwise.
Only three people sat in the room. A couple sat asleep in one shady corner using their folded arms used as pillows against the hard wooden table top. Two empty pint glasses stood on the edge of the round table despite the occasional movements of the people who occupied the shadowy corner. On the opposite side of the room in another corner sat a man who looked to be no older than fifty toying with a half empty glass in his hands which rested on the table in front of him. He was staring blankly at something and seemed to be completely lost in whatever thoughts went through his mind. He didn't appear drunk, just reflective although his shabby clothes certainly didn't make him look the type who'd just had a hard day at work.
The air was heavy with the smell of a hundred different people with a hundred different lives who had visited the bar. There were one or two full ash trays on the tables indicating that it had probably been a busy day also backed by several used glasses of varying sizes in a neat line across the bar surface. It looked as though they'd been purposefully left in an orderly fashion waiting for someone to come along and clean them.
The silent intruder went by unnoticed as he moved easily through the confused scattering of tables and chairs and walked over to the bar. He carefully eyed a door behind the bar with 'Kitchen- keep out!' lettered in the same italic style as was on the sign over the entrance. He considered going behind the bar and seeing if anyone was home but eventually thought better of it and swung his legs over one of the bar stools and sat down. His long and unusual blood red cape which perfectly matched the bandages around his forehead and unnervingly coloured eyes hung down behind him, its hem brushing lightly on the polished wood floor.
He looked over at the collection of bottles over and around the large mirror directly in front of him on the wall although his eyes studiously ignored it. Every drink possible seemed to line the wall as if halfway through decorating someone had gotten bored and decided to put as many bottles as they could up instead. The effect was quite impressive seeing how some of the drink was hard to come by at that time. Rare liquors from other continents added colour to the collection with bright and almost gaudily coloured labels. Other bottles which he suspected were more expensive sat back away from the attention with green tinged glass and faded browning paper wrapped around their ample necks.
He drummed his fingers on the counter and waited patiently. If he had learnt anything in his long life it was waiting, after all he didn't have anything to hurry for.
His patience was rewarded eventually as the door to the bar opened behind him noisily and someone staggered through obviously carrying something heavy and awkward. He didn't turn around, he didn't have to. The frustrated mutterings of the person who'd entered so rudely were enough to alert him of their identity. There was a sudden cry of shock and a thump as they tripped and were sent sprawling to the floor. Whatever they'd been carrying was promptly thrown across the wooden surface and the sound of broken glass echoed throughout the room.
The dark figure who had sat calmly at the bar through the disturbance felt a nudge on his foot and looked down to see something had rolled up against it. He bent down without standing up and lifted it up off the floor where closer examination revealed it to be a harmless jar of Costa del Sol coffee. It contained small brown granules which were oddly pungent to his sensitive nose even through the glass and seal.
He swivelled around on the stool and leaned up against the bar with his right arm whilst clutching the coffee casually in his clawed left hand.
He watched the person who'd entered with odd curiosity. She wore a pair of tight jeans which revealed long shapely legs that ended in a pair of tough leather walking boots. On the top she wore a baggy pale-blue sweater that had been rolled up past the elbows and she remained on the floor on all fours frantically grabbing the contents of the bag of groceries that she'd been wrestling with. Her knee length dark-brown hair was swept over one shoulder where it persisted in getting in her way as she continued to collect the food. She muttered angry curses out of annoyance and embarrassment although none of the people in the bar except himself seemed to be interested in her plight.
Satisfied that she'd gathered all of the salvageable food and items out of the brown paper bag which sat innocently on the floor next to her, she stood up and surveyed the floor.
He held out his hand to her containing the coffee jar.
"Here you go." he said simply and although she looked up it was absently and she took the object with a mumbled thanks.
Holding the jar in her hands she continued to look on the floor but a sudden glimmer of recognition began to spark in her mind. The voice sounded so familiar and the golden claw certainly wasn't something you saw every day. Her mouth opened in shock and she lifted her head up slowly as if delaying the inevitable to look at the man who'd handed her the item.
Her eyes met with the stranger and widened alarmingly.
"Vincent!" exclaimed Tifa Lockheart as the jar slipped through her suddenly numb hands and smashed spewing its brown contents across the polished floor.
A broad smile quickly broke out across her face and before Vincent could react she ran over and threw her arms around him. In normal circumstances he would've blushed, but happy to see his old friend he embraced her in return. They stood like that for a few minutes eventually dropping arms and Tifa took a few steps back to stand where she had before.
She smiled warmly again and looked back at him carefully. He still wore the same attire he had done for the past five and a half years but not a tear or patch covered its scientifically altered surface. He still wore the same black shirt and loose trousers tucked the same way in his boots that he had the first time she'd met him. A thick belt hug around his waist with a gun holder and his beloved Death Penalty sat snugly inside. She didn't doubt for one second that he hadn't dared let a single scratch mar the perfect black barrel or a scuff-mark touch upon the polished wooden handle. The golden claw still hung at his left side as though it were too heavy for him to lift but she knew that in battle it was a formidable weapon. Around his forehead there were thick red bandages which she'd never seen him remove but they served in keeping his long, jet black hair off his face. The hair contrasted strongly with his deathly pale face that was framed from below by the neck of his sweeping red cape that he rarely removed. The overall effect was startling and terrifying for most but to her it was how he'd always been. She knew that deep down he was a good and loyal friend but many people didn't bother to look past his dark and some would say evil exterior. Either that or they didn't get the chance. Beneath his nightmarish appearance hid a terrible secret that only she and few others knew but it didn't bother them. Vincent was just Vincent and they'd come to accept him as thus.
She looked up to examine probably one of his more disturbing features, his ruby-red eyes but she found herself blushing furiously as she noticed for the first time that he was looking back at her. His eyes showed that he was examining her with even more scrutiny as though he was memorising every detail on her face and body from what she was wearing to how many strands of hair had come loose from her pony-tail. She found herself realising that he probably was; after all, he had been a Turk at one point and he had an excellent memory for detail be it the most worthless pieces of information to the most important.
Snapping out of her trance she put her hands on her hips in a reprimanding stature.
"Well? Are you just gonna stand there or are you going to be a gentleman and help me with this bag?" she asked with one eyebrow raised and her head tilted to one side.
He slid off the stool and lifted the offending bag from the floor while Tifa moved around behind the counter and disappeared for a few seconds into the kitchen. When she returned it was with a brush and a dustpan with a long handle to save the user back pains.
Vincent placed the bag carefully on the counter and watched Tifa as she quickly and almost expertly swept away the debris from her fall and tipped it into a plastic bag that she'd brought through with her.
She disappeared back into the kitchen with the tools and rubbish and brushing her hands down her front she came back through with a warm smile. There was a scraping sound as she pulled up a stool on the opposite side of the counter to Vincent and sat down on it wearily. She leant over to him with both elbows on the surface and looked at him expectantly.
"Well, what?" questioned Vincent as he looked back at her.
"Well, what have you been doing for the past four years? No one's seen or heard about you for ages. It was as if you'd dropped from the face of the planet or something." she laughed.
Vincent seemed thoughtful for a moment carefully choosing his words as he always seemed to before answering a question.
"I haven't done much really. Just drifting from town to town." he shrugged.
She continued to look at him, expecting an incredible story to suddenly spill out as he told her about near brushes with death and incredible escapes but after a moment she realised that she wasn't going to extract anything else from him.
"And that's it?"
She looked back at him dismayed but didn't push the matter any further unable to see the point. Making small talk with Vincent was like managing to persuade Reno into something without mentioning money; damn near impossible. She struggled for another line of conversation and then the obvious one fell on her.
"Why haven't you contacted any of us? We were really worried about you, y'know. We thought you might've died or something terrible like that." she said with sadness in her voice. "Eventually we figured that you'd gone back to that awful coffin in the Shinra Mansion."
Vincent seemed distant at the last statement but Tifa sensed the sadness which fell upon him at the mention of the nightmarish place and searched for another topic.
"So much has happened over these past four years." she smiled wistfully. "I don't know if you've heard about everything in your travels, but I can fill you in on all the important things if you want?"
Vincent's attention seemed elsewhere but after a while he turned to look at her and gave a slight nod.
"D'you want a drink? It's on the house of course!"
He thought for a while an eventually nodded.
"What's your poison?" she asked warmly.
Tifa spun around without seeming to think and reached into the copious rack behind to produce a dusty green bottle. In the bar she was in her element and Vincent didn't doubt that she knew every dent in the counter surface, where every bottle belonged and where they all originated.
It came as no surprise to him that she'd given up her bar in the sleepy town of Kalm in order to be one of the first to own an establishment in Midgar. As much as she hated it, she preferred the hustle and bustle with the variety of people that you met in a busy place such as the huge city. He remembered when everyone was first settling down and she constantly moaned about the pace of life at the small town and how unbearably dull and quiet it was.
Reeve had taken it upon himself to restore the city and had pulled together the plans for rebuilding a new Midgar to symbolise a new era. He'd had no problems with work and sponsors because such a huge project attracted a lot of attention. All of the work which had lovingly gone into it both manual and from behind a desk came easily with many people jobless and penniless after the city was first destroyed in Meteor's attack. He'd certainly outdone himself.
The top plate which had already been decimated by Meteor was dragged away to allow sunlight and life to once more reach the lower sections and slums that poorer people had lived in during the Shinra's reign. Whole sectors had been literally pulled to the ground and neat terraced housing with shops and services were put to match the prettiness of even Nibelheim or Kalm its next-door neighbour on the map.
The polluted and stagnant air that had once suffocated the land had been given freedom from entrapment under the plates so fresher air could once more flow freely. Monuments were set up in each sector for those who had lost their lives in the horrendous downfall of the place. Many of the people who now inhabited Midgar were survivors from that time although most faces were new to the wonders that Midgar had to give.
Plants now grew freely across ruins adding a beauty to the city which showed nature overpowering the arrogance of man. No one minded, in spring the plants burst with life and walls that had previously been covered in graffiti were now showered in beautiful flowers that lifted the most downtrodden spirits. Of all the sectors, only sector seven remained uninhabited but not completely useless. Instead of being designated as a housing area, everything had been taken away and the whole place had been transformed from a former place of death and sad memories to an oasis in the centre of a busy and thriving economy. Grass had been lain and flowers planted to create an enormous garden that was the pride and joy of Midgar's people. Known simply as the 'Sector Seven Memorial Gardens' or the 'Seven Garden', families would often visit and tell their children of the terrible day when fate cast down part of the plate above, destroying the town below.
"Here you go." said Tifa placing a glass down in front of Vincent dragging him away from his thoughts to the reality that he was in.
He took a sip and Tifa sat down next to him after pouring herself a glass from the bottle.
"It should be good stuff. It's one of the best in the bar."
She lifted the glass up off the counter and held it out in a toast.
"Cheers!" she said with a grin and put it to her lips.
The red liquid was refreshing and Tifa who'd been rushed off her feet all day suddenly felt more relaxed and cheerful. She set the glass down on the counter and ran her finger around the rim idly whilst looking over the cosy room.
"I wonder where Cloud and Cid are." she muttered although it was more to herself than her present company. "Cloud usually helps me clear up but he's been late back. In fact I left him in charge while I went to buy some late-night groceries. I wonder where he could be?"
"Yeah." answered Tifa surprised at herself for not mentioning it earlier. "He's just stopping for a few weeks with us. It's been a while since he's visited so he dropped by the other night."
"Perhaps they went to look for you." suggested Vincent after another drink. "How long were you out for?"
"Oh, not that long, only about an hour but me and Cloud usually leave things to the last minute so I'm always rushing out to grab food and items." she laughed to herself. "We really ought to be more organised but running the bar has been so hectic. I know I hated working in Kalm but it's such a huge change to suddenly be thrown back into the bear-pit after all this time. It's been at least six years since the first bar in sector seven was destroyed."
She took another drink and quickly thought back over the past few years.
One year during the Meteor Crisis... one year when AVALANCHE stayed together after that and four years since Vincent disappeared.
"Yeah. Yeah it's been six years." she repeated dreamily and then she smiled and looked up at Vincent. "That makes me feel old!"
Vincent said nothing but took another drink and looked behind him at the bars occupants who hadn't moved since he'd entered.
"When do you usually close?" he asked without turning around.
She looked at her watch.
"Usually about twelve... so we should've closed up an hour ago. Oh dear, I suppose I'd better do that now."
"Need any help?"
"Nah." she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "I'll just chuck these guys out and lock the doors. Cloud can clean up in the morning."
Vincent watched as she came out from behind the bar and clapped her hands loudly to wake everyone up.
"C'mon guys! You've all got homes to go to." she announced loudly. "It's way past your bedtimes and I'm closing now."
All three people that had sat so quietly in the room began to stir and groan their objections. Tifa didn't bother to listen and ushered them out of the doors and into the streets of Midgar. There were a few drunken 'Goodnights' called which were answered politely but when she closed the door she let out a sigh of exhaustion. Gathering her strength she turned around to bolt and lock the doors and walked back over to the bar clasping the key in one hand.
"They're a nice bunch." she replied to Vincent's unasked questions. "The night just drags on sometimes and they can get a bit of a handful. I must admit they were on their best behaviour today but I don't know if that had anything to do with your presence."
Vincent raised an eyebrow and Tifa laughed. "C'mon." she said warmly. "I don't want to sit here in this mess all night. Let's go through to the back room."
She lifted up the groceries and walked through the kitchen door opening it with her back awkwardly while Vincent followed carrying the wine bottle and glasses.
"Sorry it's such a mess." she apologised as they walked through the kitchen and into another room at the very back of the building. Her hand felt up one of the walls until she touched a light switch and with a click their vision was illuminated to show a small room that appeared to be a simple lounge.
There was a bookcase against the wall opposite them and an unlit fireplace which was obviously used often on their left. A couch faced the fireplace in the middle of the room away from the back wall on their right and a small coffee table sat in front of it. Tifa bustled into the room after putting down the grocery bag in the kitchen and proceeded to straighten out papers and plump up the cushions on the sofa in order to make everything look more presentable to her unexpected guest. Eventually satisfied she motioned for him to come in and sit down.
He put the bottle and glasses on the table while she lit and stoked the fire until a warm glow lit up the room eliminating the need for the harsh light from the light-bulb that hung from the ceiling. The fire shed a cheery glow that made the atmosphere much more relaxed and comfortable for the two old friends.
Tifa sighed and sat back among the cushions and rich red fabric of the sofa.
"Everyone's been so busy with their lives." she said softly and unprompted, returning to the topic they'd touched on in the bar. "I'm not sure where to start.
"Umm... well Red went back to Cosmo Canyon where he took on his duties as the Guardian. He seems pretty overwhelmed by everything but from what I can tell he's keeping on top of it well enough. It's been terrible for him to be given so much responsibility at such a young age but I think he's coping well with everything. Everyone's so supportive and he's surrounded by people who love him so I guess he's doing well.
"Cid and Shera finally got married." she said with smile. "That was about three years ago and they've been together ever since Cid settled down. It was a wonderful wedding! Shera looked so gorgeous in her dress and everyone in Rocket Town showed up to see. The party was brilliant too and I have a few funny stories I can tell you about later, most of them involving Reno and one of the waitresses at the Shanghai Inn!" Tifa laughed to herself but the mood quickly went serious again however as she found a sad smile touch her lips. "They even had a kid y'know? She's fine, she's doing really well but Cid wanted everyone to be there when she was born. We looked all over for you but that's when we figured that you'd gone back to sleep. We decided to leave it at that and couldn't see the point in searching for the rest of our lives."
Tifa let out a melancholy sigh and for a moment thought that she saw a look of sorrow flash across Vincent's face. As quickly as it had come though, it dissipated and she was left wondering whether he'd felt anything about what she'd said.
Not wanting to continue the gloomy mood, she smiled again and giggled. "Anyway, her name's Alicia and she's about three years old now. She's really pretty and she has Cid's hair colouring and Shera's eyes. When you see her, you'll fall in love with her straight away. She's one of the most beautiful kids I think I've ever seen which is kinda strange when you think that she belongs to Cid!" she grinned.
Even the thought amused Vincent and he smiled to himself. Tifa noticed, and spurned on by his unusual show of emotion began to think hard about what everyone else had been doing with their lives.
"Barret naturally decided to go back to Correl and he took Elmyra and Marlene with him. After he saved the town with Cloud and Red they certainly changed their opinions towards him. It seems cruel that it took such a near tragedy before they accepted him again." Tifa shook her head and took another sip of wine, feeling more and more comfortable although whether it was the drink going to her head or the familiar surroundings she wasn't quite certain. "He's really pulled the town out of the ground although I guess you will've seen it all if you've been travelling. He's sort of been made the unofficial mayor but he's a bit of a celebrity so everyone looks up to him now. Although him and Reeve have never really got on in the past, Reeve gave Barret loads of money to restore Correl so they've been 'best buds' ever since!" Tifa laughed at the absurdity of the situation seeing how the two had always been at each others throats in the past. "Speaking of Reeve, he's the one who's done all of this in Midgar. He refused to be made the mayor though; he's so modest! Instead he's some kind advisor to the guy who's running everything at the moment, Bret Redford. He's the face of the office that runs the city now but everyone knows that Reeve's the one who does all of the work behind the scenes. He actually has his own bodyguards now, the Turks can you believe it? All three of them! When they heard about Reeve's little venture they crawled out from the woodwork and appointed themselves as his protectors. They're fiercely loyal to him though and all of AVALANCHE has got to know them a helluva lot better due to it. Reno's still a complete jerk and we don't tend to talk much but Elena and Rude are okay. I think that Reno just misses the way that things used to be when the Shinra used to run things. Speaking of the Shinra, Reeve's actually thinking of restarting it except this time he'll be spending millions at looking into alternative energy sources. It would be brilliant if he could begin to start something like that once more because things like roads and some of the smaller villages around here are literally falling to pieces through lack of money which the Shinra used to provide. Like 'em, or loathe 'em, it looks like the people of this world relied too heavily on the Shinra." Tifa sighed and backtracked to find out where she'd begun to talk about such unnecessary things. Sitting up to attention as she realised, she ran her finger absently around the rim of her glass as she continued.
"Reeve lives over in sector one with Cait who he gave AI to. It's really creepy being around them sometimes because we're never used to see them together, now they're never apart. Marlene loves Cait, and Barret sometimes lets her stay with Reeve just so that she can get a taste of the world outside of Correl. Of course she used to live in Midgar but she was kinda young then and it was a terrible place. Now though she's eleven and she's taking a lot more interest in everything around her. I think she's actually staying with me and Cloud in a few weeks so if you stay around long enough you can say 'hi'.
"Yuffie's still up to her old tricks; stealing materia and ambushing poor travellers. She still insists on being a thief even though we gave her all of our materia at the end of the Meteor Quest. I guess it's just her wanderlust, I mean she's twenty-one now, the same age that Cloud was when the whole Sephiroth thing started so I can't blame her. Apparently, some Wutaneese guy called Silvas has been hot on her heels according to Godo, but Yuffie being Yuffie has been avoiding him like crazy. He's gonna have a hard time if he's intending on being the one to tame her!"
Tifa sighed and placed her now empty glass on the table. "I'm sorry, I've been talking for far too long. It's just been so long since I've seen you so there's so much to report!"
"That's alright. It's interesting to find out about what everyone's been doing." Vincent replied as he set his own wine glass down next to Tifa's breaking the silence he'd maintained during her hour-long speech. "What about yourself and Cloud? You both seem to be doing very well here in Midgar."
"Yeah. We're doing great. The bar's perfect even if it does get a bit rowdy at times. I couldn't stand staying in Kalm with all those old fogies and tired travellers. I missed my bar in Sector Seven where it was always so busy and life was so varied. When Reeve told me about this place and how he wanted to encourage other people to set up shop in the rebuilt city, I leapt at the chance. It wasn't hard to find a buyer for the old bar in Kalm and within a week of first hearing the offer, me and Cloud stepped over the threshold of this place. That was about a year ago now. I've been so busy recently that I haven't had enough time to even finish unpacking so there are loads of unopened boxes still lying around upstairs."
There was another long pause.
"Are you and Cloud... together now?" asked Vincent hesitantly.
Tifa blushed deeply and looked down at her drink.
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have been so blunt." Vincent apologised but Tifa shook her head.
"People always ask me that." she shrugged. "I guess I should be used to it by now but it just seems weird hearing it from a friend. I keep on forgetting that you've been away for so long.
"In a word... no. We're not together. It seems that way I suppose; we live in the same house and sometimes we can be really close... but sometimes he can just be so distant and we're just friends. It's weird. I, I know I have... feelings for him but we have such a close friendship that I don't want to destroy it. Sometimes I'm certain he feels the same way but then at other times it's like he doesn't even notice me. I don't know. There's nothing official and I think he just looks at me like a sister or something like that. I don't know." she sighed suddenly feeling embarrassed at having opened herself up so much to her companion.
They both finished their glasses gloomily as if the question had destroyed the happy atmosphere that had existed before. Tifa forced a smile and poured herself and Vincent another drink and thought back to where the conversation had abruptly ended.
"Anyway," she started once more with a lighter tone. "It's only taken Reeve four years to pull Midgar back up to its former 'glory' but there's still a lot of work to be done from what he's told me. Although the whole place has only been up and running for about a year, its almost impossible to buy a house or shop because everything's taken. There was a huge rush to get in when the city gates were officially declared open and within a month or so, every home had been sold and every shop was in service. Of course because I'd been given priority with this place, I got customers from the first day and the pace has only slowed a fraction ever since." Tifa ended sounding immensely proud in her achievements. "Cloud does odd jobs around the place, but he's part of this special task force that patrols around the edges of the city killing monsters."
She opened her mouth to continue speaking but as if on cue, there was the sound of keys being rattled in a door and loud laughter.
"That must be them!" Tifa said unnecessarily with a hint of excitement.
She stood up and faced the lounge door as it opened loudly and Cloud stumbled in, almost crying from laughter at a joke that Cid had probably told him. His companion wasn't far behind wearing a huge grin, his trademark cigarette hanging out of one corner of his mouth.
"Where the hell have you two been?" Tifa asked angrily and noting the tone in her voice, both Cloud and Cid straightened themselves out to look at her. "I left you in charge of the bar while I went out. Anything could've happened with none of us there!"
Cloud and Cid hung their heads between their shoulders looking down at the floor like naughty school boys who were being reprimanded by their mothers.
"Sorry, Teef." mumbled Cloud. "I was called away by the patrol and Cid came along with me."
Tifa dropped her firm stance and moved over to him. She punched him lightly on the shoulder playfully in mock anger.
"Yeah? Is that so? Well you had me worried you jerk! You should've left a note or something to tell me." she turned to Cid who was grinning happily that he'd avoided Tifa's temper but he ran out of luck as she pointed an accusing finger at him. "And you, Cid Highwind, should know better. You have a daughter to be responsible for and I don't need you leading poor Cloud astray!"
Cloud pulled a face as Cid pretended to be upset.
Tifa rolled her eyes. "You two are worse than Yuffie sometimes!" She sighed and put her hands on her hips. "Anyway, we have a visitor."
Cloud and Cid exchanged puzzled looks while Tifa coughed and nodded towards the sofa. The two men watched curiously and after a few seconds a dark figure seemed to rise up out of the shadows themselves and turn to face them.
A wave of fear suddenly overcame Cloud as he looked carefully at the tall and imposing intruder. He began to pick out features, a golden claw, a red cape that seemed almost black in the fire's dim light and set into a deathly pale face, a pair of red eyes that glittered like dying embers from the shadows.
Cloud grinned and stepped forward with his left hand outstretched to greet the stranger who had become suddenly familiar.
His hand was met by the claw which he shook warmly.
"Vincent Valentine." he smiled happily, patting his old friend affectionately on the left shoulder whilst leaning over the sofa that stood between them. "Long time, no see!"
"Hey, Vinny!" grinned Cid shaking Vincent's claw when Cloud had stood back.
"I thought I asked you not to call me that."
"Hell, it's been a while an' I don't tend to remember things like that." Cid explained knowing that even for him it was a poor excuse.
Vincent raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
Cloud peered over and noticed the bottle and glasses. "Looks like you two have been getting a bit friendly!"
Tifa nudged him in the ribs and he laughed back at her. "Hey, only kidding!"
"We were catching up on old times." she answered haughtily. "I've just been telling him about everything that's happened over the past four years."
"I believe that congratulations are in order." Vincent said, his eyes flicking over to Cid. "About the marriage and baby I mean."
"Thanks." smiled Cid brightly. "You have to come and see the kid some time. Her name's Alicia Highwind and she weighed in at a healthy 7lbs and 3ozs when she was born on the ninth of April this year." he finished with more pride than Vincent had ever heard in his voice when he talked about the Shinra no.26 or even the Highwind.
"Yeah, he'll show all of his photos later if you're lucky enough." Cloud whispered loudly to Vincent so everyone could hear. "He's got an album full in his wallet!"
Cid took his turn to poke Cloud in the ribs while Tifa looked on and laughed.
The old pilot jumped neatly over the back of the sofa and fell back into a slouching-sitting position in the middle spreading out as much as was humanly possible.
"So what've you been doin' for the past four years? We thought you'd been abducted or sumthin'." Cid asked jovially.
Vincent sat down next to him and leaned back with his legs crossed looking unusually casual. "Just wandering really. Moving from town to town, exploring. Nothing in particular."
"So if you've been walkin' round so much, how come you never dropped in to see any of us?" Cid questioned curiously.
Vincent took a while to answer and when he eventually did it seemed hesitant. "I just didn't want to trouble anyone I suppose. I've had a lot to think about recently and I needed some time to myself. I have many things to think over and I even attempted to find Lucrecia but I quickly realised that was futile. It looks as though she was finally able to return to the Lifestream and I needed to think about my own life... what I'm going to do now that the group has separated. I've missed over thirty years of my life and much has changed in that time. At least in AVALANCHE I was sheltered from so much difference but it would appear that I still have much to learn."
Cloud and Cid nodded solemnly, satisfied with the answer although still wanting to know more. Tifa looked at him curiously as if trying to sense his thoughts. Something in his voice, some undertone to it struck her as odd; it sounded like he was trying to keep something back from them. Vincent flicked his red eyes to her, a show of unexpected attention which caught her off guard and she coughed as if feeling guilty about her suspicions.
"Are you going to sit down?" he asked.
Tifa moved around to the sofa to sit down on the other side of Cid from him but she never broke her eye contact. There had definitely been something in his voice then; an unannounced emotion, almost like... anger. A silent threat which the other two seemed completely oblivious to daring her to speak her thoughts aloud.
Vincent turned away eventually and looked into the fire while Cloud came and sat down on the floor between Tifa's legs like a loyal guard dog. Although she didn't feel in any danger from Vincent's subtle threat, she felt immediately safer in Cloud's presence.
"So anyway," Cloud began to once more initiate conversation after a long pause. "What's made you come to Midgar? Why have you finally decided to visit us?"
Vincent shrugged. "I suppose that I finally decided I had nothing more to search for. I wanted to check on everyone; make sure that you were all okay."
Tifa was certain she felt the tone again, he was definitely hiding something but this time she avoided any eye contact with him as if afraid of what she'd see.
"Nice of you to remember us after all this time!" Cid laughed.
"It's difficult to forget some people." Vincent replied although whether he was joking or being serious, none of the three could detect. Vincent's sense of humour was odd at the best of times, often dry and inappropriate as he'd say things at the worst times and find morbid amusement from them.
"Yeah well... ." sighed Cloud wearily. "I'm kinda tired so I'll probably go to bed in a minute. Are you coming up, Teef?"
"Yeah, I'm exhausted after running around all day." she yawned. "Oh, Vincent," she started feeling slightly reluctant to talk with him. "Where are you sleeping tonight? We don't have a spare bed but the couch is pretty comfy if you want to stay here tonight instead of in one of those awful hotels."
"That will not be necessary." Vincent replied curtly and with a recognisable touch of embarrassment. "I have my own apartment over in sector four."
Everyone exchanged surprised looks.
"You have your own apartment?" Cid exclaimed. "Do you go for the gothic style of architecture, or are floral prints more your thing?"
Vincent looked at the pilot who laughed at the strange expression on his face.
"It's merely a place where I sleep and eat. Nothing more so I fail to see the point in... decorating I'm afraid." he said flatly.
"You'll have to show us it one day." said Cloud as he stood and stretched luxuriously.
"Are you sure you don't want to stay the night? This is Sector Six after all and it'll take you ages to get home even if you go on the train." Tifa pushed.
"I'll be all right." Vincent answered coolly and none of them doubted it. Even in the middle of day people tended to steer clear of their dark friend.
"I'll keep you awake no longer." he announced as he stood up and moved towards the door.
"Sure," said Cloud warmly. "We'll probably be seeing a lot of you then. Feel free to stop by any time, the door's always open to friends. In fact, you could come around tomorrow morning if you want? We can talk about old times seein' how we've hardly spoken all night."
"Oh no, Cloud Strife!" reprimanded Tifa. "You're getting up bright and early tomorrow to clear out that bar as punishment for leaving it alone earlier." she caught Cid grinning again and she spun around to face him. "You're no better either, so you can help him!"
Cid moaned and collapsed back on to the sofa while Vincent bade a goodnight and Cloud showed him out. When their friend had left and entered back into the night outside, Cloud came back into the lounge and slumped down on the sofa as the old pilot stood up.
"Well, as nice as it was to see Vinny again, I'm so tired I'm gonna keel over any second. I'm gonna go to bed now." he declared as moved towards the door stifling a yawn. "See y'all in the mornin'."
He left the room as Tifa sat back down on the couch and lay down using Cloud's chest as a pillow. He wrapped his arm around her front and twirled a few strands of her soft brown hair around his fingers absently as he looked into the sparking fire that was beginning to die down to a glowing heap in the bottom of the grate.
"It was weird to see Vincent, wasn't it?" he said eventually. "He didn't seem to notice how worried we all were did he? I guess he's like that. He always was pretty cold but over that year after the Meteor Crisis he lightened up a bit and he used to talk a lot more. I think he's just a bit untrusting really but that probably comes from working in the Turks. I suppose I don't blame him for going off on his own, after all maybe he felt as if he had to stay with us all after the whole Sephiroth thing. Sometimes, when me and him were on night watch, we used to talk about all sorts of things and don't ask me how, but I could always tell that he wanted to break away. It was like he wanted to sever all ties and put the past behind him so that he could make a new life." Cloud sighed. "Maybe that's why he wanted to go off and have some time to himself?" he ended rhetorically.
Tifa felt comfortable in Cloud's arms listening to him speak as she always did but the subtle emotions in Vincent's voice whenever she'd spoken to him rang clearly in her mind. Moments passed with pure silence between the couple although occasionally the embers in the fireplace would spark and crack loudly. Eventually noticing that it was up to him to find something to say, Cloud looked down at the beautiful woman in his arms and saw the look of troubled thoughts on her face.
"Is there something wrong, Teef?" he asked softly. "You seem kinda distant."
"Hmm?" she said jolting out of her mind. "N, Nothing's wrong. I'm just thinking."
"Just things. Nothing important really." she mumbled hoping that he'd drop the subject. She never had been very good at hiding things from him even though he seemed so oblivious to the thoughts of other people.
"What kind of things?" he pursued eventually. "You seem worried."
Tifa tried desperately for a way out of the situation; mainly because he knew that she'd worry Cloud over nothing but also because she couldn't help but think about the threat in Vincent's eyes at her suspicious thinking.
Unable to think quick enough she relaxed and sighed.
"It's nothing really. I... I was just wondering if you'd noticed anything weird with what Vincent said?"
Cloud thought for a second. "No. Not really, why?"
"I dunno. I think I might be imagining things but when he was telling us about what he's been doing... well, it was like he was hiding something. I thought about it for a while and then he looked at me as though he could see into my mind." she shuddered even thinking about it. "It was like he could see right through me, y'know? And then ever since whenever he's spoken directly to me... there was something else in his voice, like a warning. As if he was daring me to mention anything." she laughed softly. "I'm probably just going mad!"
Cloud frowned. "Vincent's always hiding something or other but I think I know what you mean. Why didn't he come to see any of us? I mean if he really has been wandering around for the past four years then you'd think that he'd bump into one of us sooner or later. Maybe he was avoiding us? After all, he did say that he needed time to think."
"No... It's all right, it was nothing." Tifa said, hoping that he was taking the subject lightly.
"Maybe I should say something... do you want me to talk with him about it?" he questioned kindly. "Are you scared or anything?"
Tifa felt a shiver down her spine but shook her head. "No, it's all right. He should be left to do whatever he wants. It's nothing to do with me or any of us really."
Cloud nodded, satisfied that she once more seemed at ease. "We should go and see him at some point. I want to see what his home looks like." he laughed. "I want to see if he really does have flowers on the walls."
Tifa tutted and rolled her eyes. "I never knew you took such an interest in interior decorating. Maybe I should get you to do the wallpapering upstairs for me?"
"C, Come to think about it... I don't care what he has up on his walls. It can be porno posters for all I care!" he grinned while Tifa burst out laughing and wiped a tear from her eye.
"Vincent with naughty posters!" she guffawed. "The day I see that is the day that Barret takes up flower arranging!"
The couple both laughed together and it dispelled the gloomy atmosphere that had been left by their visitor. When they had taken out all of their worries from that day, they sighed wearily and sat up, still with happy smiles on their faces.
"C'mon," said Tifa affectionately as she patted Cloud on the back. "Let's' go to bed. You have some early morning work to do in the bar and I'm not letting you sleep in."
He moaned exaggeratedly but she pulled him to his feet and they left the lounge, the shadows that had hugged the corners of room during its occupancy now rushed in to reclaim their territory.
Outside and above Midgar, the stars continued their endless spiral in the sky as faint colours of a new dawn began to appear on the horizon.
Deep within the depths of the earth, the Lifestream swirled on in an endless cycle of death and rebirth; everything was one and one was everything. The life of an individual amounted to the life of the planet and everything that lived upon it. Circling in the universe it was an insignificant, a pinprick on the vast scale of existence, yet everything existed in harmony. A balance that was so easily tipped, but, somehow it existed. Many didn't know; even more didn't care about the finely tuned state of the universe and perhaps it was better that way. Perhaps it was better for the trivialities of man to be kept separate from the very matter of existence itself. All are one as they existed in this perpetual state, all except a single life.
A single creature which had dared to isolate itself outside of the very workings of life.
He chose it to be thus.
He was the one who almost destroyed the balance, the one who almost tipped the scales too far.
He sat apart from all others, aware of his crime, forceful of his punishment. He pushed it upon himself; he was the only one who could. The powerful beings and forces that ran the universe were prepared to forgive, eager to let the natural order correct itself once more but he was not so quick to forget.
An eternity alone, forever without contact or understanding from anything else. It was less than he deserved, if there was anything more he could've done, it would've been carried out. He blamed himself. A weak fool driven mad by the prospect of power and the chance to become a god led by another power. No he frowned. It was his fault. No use blaming it on anyone else. It was all down to him and so he would atone.
He exhaled a deep sigh that was lost within the joyous and continuous song of life. A life even more insignificant than the planet's. He was nothing. No one would mind if he just waited there and stayed quiet. No one would miss him. No one would come out looking for him if he wanted them to. He was alone and would have it no other way... .
Another watched him, her eyes misted with tears. She reached out to him but his eyes remained closed in sorrow and thought. She called out to him but he ignored her and made no move to answer her pleas. She looked out to the heavens and prayed that whatever force kept the momentum going had some power over their lives. She prayed that it would keep her safe and she prayed that it would keep those she loved safe. Somehow she knew the words fell upon deaf ears. And she wept... .
Two days after the unusual and unexpected encounter with Vincent, Tifa found herself once more tending bar at Tifa's Seventh Heaven. It was the lunch break and the doors were closed while herself and waitress Jennifer found a precious few moments to sit down and relax.
"I suppose I'd better clean up these glasses." sighed Jen wearily after they'd rested for a few minutes. "They won't wash themselves and I've got a bad feeling it's gonna be busy this afternoon.
Tifa nodded in agreement. Days tended to vary when it came to the amount of customers that passed through the door to the bar but it had been hectic all morning and presumptions led to the conclusion that things weren't going to get any easier. Tifa sat at one of the small tables and looked over the room. In the brief hours that it had been open, already a layer of dirt from outside and trash had begun to appear on the floor.
I really should get the brush out here she thought absently whilst half watching the young waitress bustle around the room collecting glasses and ashtrays. The older woman made no effort to stand up and help. She was too exhausted to even attempt to move and the hard wooden stool seemed as comfortable as a throne made from silk to her tired body.
Nonetheless, no matter how much she wanted to shun the world the dustpan and brush were screaming for attention and wouldn't quieten down even to give her some peace. She stood up and stretched languidly, dropping her arms to her sides with a sigh.
"Cloud keeping you awake at night, miss?" asked Jen with a sly grin and a wink.
"Jennifer Andrews!" scolded Tifa half-heartedly. "That's terrible. You know we're just friends!"
"I know, Miss." replied Jen fondly as she began wiping down tabletops. "You know I'm just kidding."
"Hmph!" Tifa put her hands on her hips and gave a disapproving stare to her helper who laughed it off and walked into the kitchen carrying a tray full of dirty glasses and jugs.
Tifa was once more left to her thoughts and she continued to look around at the surroundings. She'd tried to make it as cosy and homely as possible; wood floors and panelling gave off a soft shine when the dim lights were switched on at night powered from the small generator in the basement. Several pictures of famous landmarks across the world hung on the walls showing exotic beaches from Cost del Sol and the elegant and magnificent pagodas of Wutai adding a touch of class to the establishment. Lighting came in the form of false candlesticks with bulbs instead of flames on the walls strategically placed between pictures making the overall appearance aesthetically pleasing and warm.
The looks of the bar weren't the only thing that attracted customers. The drinks could be as foreign or as usual as anyone wanted with one of the largest collections of beverages in the whole of Midgar. Meteor had destroyed many precious things when it attacked and as a result some items including certain kinds of alcohol were difficult to come by. Tifa being ever resourceful had made friends and contacts among suppliers and was one of the few who could ever hope to sell some of the drinks that she did.
She leaned back on the locked doors to the bar and looked over her achievements feeling her heart swell with pride at how well she'd done for herself. She started life as a coy young girl in a dozy country town and ended up as owner of one of the most popular bars in the whole of thriving Midgar.
"I hope you're proud of me, Dad." she whispered to herself barely audible as she thought about how much her father had meant to her and vice versa. Sometimes, late at night when she was on her own in the bar, she'd think about him and wonder how he was doing. Wonder what it was like in the Lifestream and wonder if he'd found her mother again. Thoughts that made her smile and feel glad to be alive. Thoughts that made her want to do the best for herself, to grow up happily and have no regrets.
"Just like Dad would've wanted me too." she said softly with a smile.
Snapping out of her daydreams, she stood up straight and began to move through the tables when strange sounds from outside caught her attention. It sounded as though there was some kind of fight going on and although it didn't have anything to do with her, she couldn't help but feel obliged to help. She was one of the 'heroes of the Meteor Quest' after all and if she couldn't sort out a petty dispute, then who could?
She turned around again and turned the key in the door lock with a click and pushed the doors open. She gasped at the enormity of the problem. It seemed as though the whole street had become involved in the ruckus in one way or another. It was market day and the cobbled street was lined with stalls of hundreds of varieties and every one of the stallholders had run to the opposite end of the long street to her. The browsers and normal people who had obviously been innocently walking up and down the street when the occurrence took place now stood as spectators acting as a human screen preventing Tifa from seeing the drama unfold. From what she could tell however, it was a simple fight that seemed to have roped in just about everyone possible into the fray. Angry shouts and curses carried clearly through the still air and Tifa found herself blushing at some of the things said.
"What is it, Miss?" enquired Jen as she walked up behind Tifa and looked curiously down the street. "What's going on?"
"Just looks like a brawl. You stay here and I'll go and see if I can sort it out." Tifa ordered as she began to walk confidently towards the scene of trouble leaving Jen biting her bottom lip nervously.
The fight itself was taking place outside of one of the many fancy cafes that lined the road and it seemed that the elegant metal furniture was being used as weapons by the people involved. Tifa cringed as she heard the huge pane of glass of the cafe's window smash as a white metal chair was hurled through it. As Tifa neared the voices of the people responsible for the problem became clearer.
The majority of noise was being made by men, one man in particular who was hurling threats and abuse like magic on a person who she couldn't quite make out through the tangle of bodies in front of her. Rolling up the sleeves of her sweater, she pushed through the mass and stopped suddenly as the person who seemed in the thick of the trouble suddenly leapt up out of the group and landed neatly on one of the cafe's outside tables.
Tifa inhaled sharply through her clenched teeth and a hand went to her mouth as she stumbled back in disbelief.
"C'mon you jerks!" screamed the source of the trouble as she stood with her knees bent in a defensive posture on the table, one hand behind her back clutching a weapon. "I'll take you all on if you're too scared to fight me one at a time like real men! I'm the daughter of Lord Godo, ruler of Wutai and you can kiss my ass if you don't like that!"
"Come down here you little thief and I'll chop your hands off!" yelled an angry stallholder waving a large knife threateningly.
"You dare to touch me with that and I'll shove it right up your fat, hairy..."
"Yuffie Kisaragi!" yelled Tifa furiously to the young girl before she could finish her insult.
The whole crowd immediately turned to look at the bar hostess who stood fuming with her hands on her hips glaring at the figure on top on the table.
"You know this brat?" asked the stallholder angrily as he moved away from the girl.
"Brat?" screamed Yuffie. "I'll give you brat you pompous piece of scum! C'mon! One more time, one more time!"
"Right! That's it!" roared the man consumed by rage as he turned and began to run back towards Yuffie whose expression changed from taunting to one of someone about to be run over by a steam train.
He raised the knife high above his head preparing to thrust it into her stomach but a loud and sudden gunshot rang out and the knife was shot from his hand. It flipped through the air and landed only centimetres away from one of the bystanders, it's blade jammed between two stones twanging loudly in the still air. The gunshot resounded down the street as the knife's owner cried out and held his hand in pain. Everyone's eyes looked down horrified at the knife and they slowly lifted them to look at the source of the shot and saw a shadowy caped figure standing well away from the crowd. Surprised muttering took the place of the stunned silence and Tifa walked quickly over to Yuffie who was trembling from shock. Tifa swept the young girl off the platform and carried her away from the crowd while Vincent gave a dark glance to everyone looking at him and swiftly followed on.
"Jen! Get me a small brandy, quickly now!" Tifa ordered as she kicked open the double doors of the bar and marched in holding Yuffie in her arms who was shivering violently.
Vincent followed Tifa as she walked past the bar and through the kitchen until she stood in the lounge where she placed Yuffie down gently on the couch. Jen bustled in seconds later carrying a delicate glass containing a soft brown liquid that Tifa took quickly and knelt down next to the couch.
"Here ya go, Yuffie." she said soothingly as she put the glass to the young girls lips. "Drink this slowly and you'll feel much better.
Yuffie's hand moved up quickly as she grabbed the glass and threw back her head, swallowing the brandy in one gulp and then regretting it as it burnt her throat and made her stomach feel as though it were on fire. She sat up and coughed as it went straight to her head and she blinked a few times to clear her vision.
"Yikes!" she wheezed. "That's strong stuff."
"Of course it's gonna be strong if you down it like that." Tifa admonished sternly but her expression softened as Yuffie continued to shake nervously. "Are you all right?"
She forced a nod and huddled into herself as if trying to keep warm.
"She's in shock." observed Vincent coolly giving Jen a fright; the waitress had never noticed the dark stranger standing in one of the shadowy corners before. "She should be all right if she's allowed to rest for a few hours."
Tifa nodded but didn't look up. "It's a good job you showed up. I felt as though my feet were frozen in place and even if I'd wanted to, I don't think that I could've moved to grab that knife before he attacked Yuffie with it." she said quietly running her hand through Yuffie's short brown hair comfortingly.
"Why was she in the middle of a fight anyway?" Vincent asked once the young ninja seemed more calm.
"I'm not sure." shrugged Tifa. "I just heard the noises inside the bar and ran out to see what was happening."
Yuffie looked up coyly and met the suspicious stares of the people in the room, all asking her for the answers.
"Umm... would you believe me if I said that I was helping an old lady across the street and he mugged her?" she asked hesitantly.
"Was it even worth you asking?" Vincent replied without a touch of amusement.
Yuffie coughed nervously and looked at her feet. "Well... umm... it's like this, y'see. I was walking down the street perfectly innocently, minding my own business, and looking at some of the stalls. All perfectly legitimate stuff." she added looking back up at her companions who remained expressionless. "Anyway, I happened to look at this one stall in particular for a real long time... long enough for some punk to come along and plant some materia on me. Can you believe the nerve of some people today?
"I, of course, was completely unsuspecting and I began to walk away very quickly because I saw the time and realised that this place would be closed for the lunch hour and I wanted to get here before it was opened again. Actually, I ran so I suppose it could look pretty bad, especially when the guy who owns the store yells at me to come back and calls me thief. Of course being as completely innocent as I am, I thought he was talking about someone else so I ignored him and carried on. In fact, I didn't want to get caught up in anything bad so I ran even faster.
"Unfortunately, someone mistook me for the real criminal and stopped me. That's when they found the materia that someone had slipped into my pouch and they presumed that I was the one who'd taken it. Can you believe it?" she finished with a hopeful grin looking up at everyone again trying to look as innocent as she could.
"Oddly enough... no." Vincent answered leaning back on the wall with his arms crossed drumming the fingers of his claw on his right arm.
"... No. I kinda figured you wouldn't." Yuffie mumbled forlornly.
"Tell us the truth Yuffie." said Tifa sternly. "Although I think it's already pretty obvious what the truth is from your story."
"I'm doing it all for Wutai!" the young ninja protested with puppy-dog eyes, trying to justify her actions.
"I can't believe I saved a common thief." Vincent muttered angrily.
"Hey! Who are you calling common?"
"That's enough Yuffie. You need to rest and I suppose that I'd better go out and talk to the people who own the cafe down the road and apologise." Tifa announced as she stood up and moved towards the door.
"It's all right, Miss. I'll go and speak with the owners if you want to stay here with your friends." offered Jen kindly as she followed after Tifa who stopped at the suggestion.
"Thanks Jen." Tifa sighed, allowing the younger woman to pass. "I owe you one. Just tell them to send the bill here and we'll deal with it."
Jen nodded and walked away through the kitchen leaving Tifa, Vincent and Yuffie alone. Yuffie seemed considerably calmer and overcome by weariness had curled up on the couch in a foetal position with her knees tucked up under her chin. Eventually soft snores emanated from the young girl occasionally wracked by shivering as she no doubt dreamt of mad men with huge knives chasing after her. Tifa touched Vincent's good arm lightly surprised at how cold it felt but hid her thoughts and indicated for him to follow her through to the still closed bar.
They pulled up stools on either side of the bar until they sat in the same positions that they had done a few nights before. Tifa absently ran her hand through her hair, twisting it around her finger out of habit and playing with the leather band that held it back with the other hand.
Vincent sat sideways leaning up against the counter with the elbow of his claw finding sudden interest in the picture of the Jungles of Mideel hanging opposite him. Tifa took the moments pause in action to take a good look at the friend who'd dropped by unexpectantly for the first time in four years only a couple of days ago in clear daylight.
His long, raven black hair still sat like a river of tar running down his back and over his shoulders an unnaturally pure colour. To him it was probably a curse; a feature that made his pale skin look more like a death pallor than a sickly colouring. The skin was flawless with no blemishes or colouring on its surface although there were the suggestions of shadows under his eyes. His eyes, yes, it always seemed to end with his eyes. They certainly were unusual; but then again she lived with a man who'd been showered so strongly with mako that his irises literally glowed in the dark with a pale blue iridescence. There was still something unnerving about Vincent's eyes however, something oddly fitting. She got the impression off him that they were simply 'stained with the blood of the many people he'd killed' but from what she knew they had once been a deep brown like her own. More than likely, whatever Hojo had done to him in the past had been the cause of the alteration in colouring although he never complained. In fact, he seemed to use them as one of his more potent weapons, using them to send fear rushing through his enemies so potent that he could literally freeze them where they stood, too overcome by terror to react. It wasn't any spell but just his appearance had the unfortunate ability of sending chills down even the spines of his friends. He hadn't changed at all; over the past four years everyone had altered in some way, if only slightly. Barret had begun to get flecks of grey in his black hair while Cid was beginning to get laughter lines and small wrinkles around the corners of his eyes. Even she could see a difference when she looked in the mirror; her personality and appearance had matured further making her seem less hot-headed than she once was. Vincent seemed to have a completely ageless quality about him.
I suppose that would have something to do with the fact that he's a sixty-six year old with the appearance of a man of twenty-seven she mused continuing to look carefully at his face.
No... Maybe she was wrong. Something had changed. Vincent's eyes were the only things that gave any hint to what he was feeling or what he thought about. Even in the past during the Meteor Quest when everything had seemed so futile, there had always been a glimmer, if only a small spark of hope hidden within the ruby depths. Now though, now it was gone. Completely obliterated by the waves of blood, extinguished forever leaving only the same sadness and sorrow reflected back into the world that had been there ever since Tifa had met him.
Deep down, maybe he always felt that there was some possibility that Lucrecia was alive. He did say that he'd been looking for her for a while over the past two years and hadn't found her. Maybe it's beginning to hit home she thought wistfully.
Sighing deeply she broke the long silence and Vincent turned to look at her seemingly finding it difficult to tear his eyes away from the picture. It appeared as though he had become lost in his own thoughts also.
"Hi." she smiled after realising that there hadn't been much time for pleasantries earlier.
She smiled happily. It was good to have everyone safe again; it was good to know that everyone was all right and that they were getting on with their lives.
"Where have you been for the past couple of days?" she asked conversationally.
"Are you going to question what I've been doing every time I disappear?" he responded with a touch of amusement.
"Sorry." she replied apologetically. "I'm just curious. I guess its hard enough thinking of you with an apartment, let alone what you do in it all day."
"Sleep, eat and read."
He looked at her blankly and she grinned. "I'm giving you another interrogation again, sorry."
"That's all I do. I have a lot of books and I suffer from insomnia so I tend to sleep into the day." he explained unprompted.
"Do you have a... job?" she continued hesitantly.
"No, not yet but I haven't been looking. With all of my travelling I passed through some areas that have become notorious for thieving groups and bandits. I got into a lot of fights so I acquired a lot of gil that way. I have no need for a job yet."
Tifa nodded. If he'd truly been wandering around for four years then it was easy to understand how much wealth he would've saved up. Over the year that the whole group had chased after Sephiroth they'd 'earned' enough money to set all of them up comfortably in their present lives without much worry about bills and rent.
"The cost of living in Midgar is expensive though, you'll need to get some work pretty soon. You'll need to pay the rent and bills somehow." she said unnecessarily.
"The place is my own so there's no rent to pay. All I have to worry about are food and basic necessities, things like that so I'm not in any hurry." he finished.
"Well someone who's as good with a gun as you shouldn't go to waste. This special patrol that Cloud works for is always on the look out for new and skilled people and he only works part-time. You'd probably be running the whole thing in a month." Tifa suggested seriously and Vincent seemed thoughtful.
"Perhaps. I haven't made any long term plans as of yet. I may not even stay in Midgar for more than a year."
"You won't?" she exclaimed. "Don't tell me you're just gonna disappear again after a few months?"
"As I said, I haven't made any plans." he repeated coolly, almost irritated at her questioning.
Noticing his desire to stop the conversation being completely about himself, Tifa sought for another topic. As long as she'd known him he'd always avoided mentioning anything about his thoughts or plans. To some he probably seemed cold but she was used to it and after four years it wasn't hard to slip into the same routines.
Tifa began to think more carefully and she sat up as an idea began to formulate in her mind.
"Umm, hey. What's your apartment like? How many rooms?" she asked pleasantly.
Vincent looked at her with undisguised suspicion. "Why do I have the feeling that this is leading somewhere?"
Tifa smiled sheepishly. "Well... We've only got one guestroom here and it looks like Yuffie's wanting to stay in Midgar a while. I was just wondering if you'd have a spare room so that she could stop with you for some time. If it's too much trouble then she can always stay here, but its like how I told you the night you visited. Apart from the room that Cid's staying in, we only have the couch and she's still pretty shaken up from what happened earlier so I'd prefer it if she had a proper bed to sleep in." she blurted out not allowing him the chance to interrupt or decline. She almost held her breath in anticipation of an answer but none came.
Vincent seemed very thoughtful as though he was wrestling with whatever demons inhabited his soul in order to find an answer. She'd expected him to say no immediately but it appeared as though he was giving the idea much more thought than she'd given him credit for. Eventually, although it was obvious that the choice pained him, he turned to her and nodded.
"Yes," he started hesitantly. "But if she gets on my nerves then there'll be no compromises. She's out and I don't care if she ends up sleeping on a park bench in the Seven Gardens or in the gutter.
Tifa grinned happily. This was the Vincent she was used to even though his secretive and defensive behaviour annoyed her sometimes. "I guess I should really ask her first, I mean she's the one whose gonna be passed around like a parcel."
Vincent nodded but his eyes suddenly flicked to the doorway behind Tifa as something took his interest. Curious, Tifa swivelled around to see a dozy looking Yuffie leant up against the doorframe yawing profusely with her eyes half closed.
"Who's a parcel?"
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