Have you ever opened up your mouth only to have the stupidest possible question escape into an otherwise quiet room? Yeah? Welcome to life as I know it. The most beautiful man I'd ever seen in my life was being released from prison today, so it was obviously the most opportune time for me to stuff my foot in my mouth, clear up to the ankle but still keep on shoving. Alas, such foolish behavior tended to twine itself about the core of my nature, especially when he was involved. Despite my own horror at what I'd said –he'd been in prison for the last seven years; it was highly unlikely that he had been doing particularly well in a cage– and the absolute stupidity of it, along with the fact most people would have taken a swing at me and been justified in their actions, I watched as a slow smile pulled across his lips. "It's been passable, at best. I'm very glad to be leaving," Vincent informed me, the look on his face telling me he was having trouble restraining a chuckle. Glad to be taking you away, I wanted to tell him, but luckily for me, this time the thought stayed inside my head where it belonged. That smile warmed me through and through. Perhaps his time here hadn't changed him that much after all. I craved the familiar warmth of his smile, the play of his banter, the sound of his laughter. I knew he wouldn't have all of that when he got out, but maybe I could help him get it back. Maybe I wasn't as crazy as Shera thought for wanting to bring this man into our home. Cautiously, I eyed the effeminate guard who was trying oh so hard to be a bad ass. "Have we jumped through all of the hoops well enough to suit you? We'd like to leave now," I informed the guard. He nodded quickly in response to my question, like standing that close to Vincent made him incredibly nervous. Either that, or he was finding me intimidating. And while I had that ability, this guard had no way of knowing it, since I normally projected a particularly amiable personality. Aw, fuck. I hate it when she's right about things like this, I thought to myself, pretty sure the shit was going to be hitting the fan any minute now. Vincent wasn't one to slack off on his parting shots, and I had a feeling his barbs had only improved during his seven years behind bars. Vincent smirked at him, the smile all darkness and anger and spite and sharpness. "I guess you will have to find another bad ass to bark orders at so you can feel like a man, Norah. I think you should try Marcus –I left a good word for him. But I don't suppose you'll find his temperament to your liking. Ah. Oh well." The guard stiffened at the way Vincent wielded that name: like he was the gun and it was the hollow-point bullets. I also didn't miss the way he flinched at the words that had been sharper than most daggers and trembled at the force of the dark aura Vincent was radiating. Gaia above, what had those years in here done to the formerly gentle, quiet man that I'd had no choice but to fall for hard and fast? I had known he was beautiful. I knew what was likely to become of him here. I guess I just hadn't contemplated how he would step up to the plate to make them all back down. If he hadn't been a bad man going it, there was a chance he'd become one just to protect himself from others. Mentally, I waved that thought away like a wisp of smoke from my cigarette. I knew that Vincent was wholly incapable of being a bad man. He might have done some things he was less than proud of, but the Vincent Valentine I knew had a genuine caring heart. His father had raised him to be a good man, and I always believed that he had done will by him. Let's just hope that is the same Vincent you're picking up today, a voice in my head mocked. Now was not the time to be having second thoughts about him living with us. Since his father was dead and his apartment had been rented out to someone else, it wasn't like he had some other place to stay, since I knew he wouldn't want to intrude on Tifa, Cloud, and the kids. Vincent needed some place he could belong, some place he could lick his wounds in peace but not be completely alone. The home I shared with Shera would be the best place to meet all of those requirements, especially since we were both hardly ever home during the day. He could have solitude without being alone, the freedom to seek out company, eat what he wanted, and do anything he wanted to do on his own schedule: basically, everything he couldn't have in prison was available to him. Besides, all of his things were already in the guest room from when I had cleared out his apartment for the landlord. It looked like Shera and I were going to find out first-hand just how much this beautiful man had been changed by seven years of time and circumstances. I just hoped it wasn't anything we couldn't handle. I wasn't afraid of what he'd become: I was worried. After all of his efforts to find justice for his father, to make this city a better place to live, his faith in justice and humanity was probably now shot all to hell and beyond repair. To have spent seven years in a federal prison on a trumped-up drug charge for a packet of drugs they had to have been tipped off to search for would be more than enough to shake most core beliefs in justice to nothing but rubble. Not to mention, the man who'd tipped them off had also ruined his left hand, leaving the once expert marksman with quite a handicap. There would be no place for him to return to in the Turks, despite the high status he once held in the organization, because Rufus was pragmatic about his men. Not only had he been severely injured, he'd lost the only life he'd had since losing his father. After all of the things he once held dear were torn away from him, it would be a wonder if he didn't lose himself or fall into a depression. After all of my protests, I was starting to think that maybe Shera might have been right. Despite my earlier claims to the contrary, I wasn't so sure that I knew this Vincent Valentine. What broke my heart more was that there was a possibility that I couldn't help him find himself again. I shoved that thought aside. What I knew I could do was provide him a place where he could do what he needed to do. And that was why Vincent Valentine would come to stay with us: because he was my friend and he deserved any advantage I could offer him, even if it wasn't much more than a place to stay, some company, and his up-keep. Broken men do desperate things. I wasn't about to let him become one.