What if Cloud hadn't wanted to waste time looking, chasing skeletons of the past, having enough to deal with his own? What if Tifa had been the one to find him, to give him a life back he didn't really know if he wanted anymore?
This has been revised due to some errors.
They'd found Nibelheim. In place of the charred ruins from her memories, or even perhaps a new settlement in her imagination, Tifa found no change from the town she remembered- it was as though it had never burned down at all. There were the tall, whitewashed buildings with slate tiled rooves. There was the well, the town's old truck that had been rusty all of her childhood. But she'd been there; felt the searing heat of the flames on her skin, evaporating the sweat pouring from her body, as she helped to find survivors. She'd inhaled the heady scent of smoke, felt the dry heat singe her airways, choke her. And she'd watched the houses buckle, collapse into clouds of noxious dust and debris. She'd watched the fires burn until the rain poured down, a little too late, dousing the remnants of the fire, washing away her childhood, her memories, her friends. Her home.
The only thing left was the mansion; she knew it had survived the fire, being out of the way of the houses of the main square. Its brickwork appeared more weathered, its roof more dilapidated, and almost no glass remained in the window panes. The garden was so overgrown, she could barely make it out from the street. Tifa had insisted on going inside, just for nostalgic reasons; despite its dangers, as a child she had explored it well. Perhaps it was the only thing of Nibel that remained that wasn't a fake, orchestrated by ShinRa. In their last journey through here, she had been too grief-stricken to even consider venturing within the shadows and cobwebs that lingered there.
This time, though, she felt braver.
It was darker than she remembered; ivy had grown in from outside, through the cracks in the glass windows, and had spread over the once beautiful wood panelling of the walls, and even the ceiling. Some tendrils had snaked around the magnificent crystal chandelier, and were dangling from it. The carpets had pretty much disintegrated, and the doors barely opened, for the rust at the hinges.
"C'mon, Tif, I don't like it." Cloud scratched the back of his head, looking around uneasily. "We should rest up, we're heading into the mountains tomorrow."
"Look!" She exclaimed, ignoring him. In her hands she held a note. The paper was yellowing, though it didn't seem to be that old.
"What is it?" His interest seemed piqued.
"It's a… there's a man trapped in the basement!- and its signed by Hojo." If you're interested, I've trapped the interfering Turk in the basement. A little game, if you'll amuse yourself for an hour or so.
"Tifa, Hojo hasn't worked here since before we were born. I doubt that, if there were anyone trapped here, they'd still be alive."
"You can't know that for sure!" She huffed, carefully reading through the note again. If you enjoy a little music...
"Tifa, we need to find out what's going on in Nibel. What with all these strange men shuffling around. It's a little more important than chasing skeletons."
"I guess so." She followed him back outside, squinting in the sunlight, though the shadow of doubt still plagued her for the rest of the afternoon. They were to stay in the replica of her old family home; unlike the other houses, it was not inhabited by actors, who denied that there had ever been a fire.
She lay on her bed, (but it wasn't really hers), staring at her ceiling. Well, not really her ceiling; ShinRa's ceiling, ShinRa's lie. Why would they do this? What good would recreating the bedroom of a sixteen year old girl do? Hm. She couldn't even begin to understand the evil that ShinRa condoned, carried out every day.
Chasing skeletons, Cloud had called it: Indeed. But if there were a skeleton, it would have once had flesh, and skin, and a beating heart; And a name. Perhaps he was married, or had been. Perhaps he still had living children, who lived in grief, never knowing what had happened to the father; Or maybe he was alive…
She sat up, turning her mind away from sleep for good. The moon was high, and her shadow was long as she crossed the deserted village square. She was wearing a white nightdress that reached her knees, and clung to her skin comfortably, found in one of the dressers in her house, alone on a silk hanger; Very much in the style of her mother's- But it wasn't her mother's. It was a fake; It was all fake. She had slipped her feet into her boots.
No-one else needed to know she was gone. She wouldn't take long…
The heavy door creaked loudly, opening just wide enough for her to slip through. When they had gone inside earlier that day, Cloud had caught his shoulder on a sharp protruding bit of metal. The hall was ethereal, beautifully frightening in the silver moonlight. A gentle breeze rustled through the ivy.
She unfolded the note in her hand, scanning the untidy scrawl in search of the first clue.
You will find the first clue where it is warm, and the sunlight gives life. She seemed to remember a greenhouse of some sort… what was it, an orangery?- Yes, up the stairs, on the left. The scent of soil, and rotting plant matter reached her before the moist, humid air did, and she found herself gagging a little. Once well tamed plants had either died, or grown wild. The air was sweating, and heavy. The glass in this room was intact and reinforced, though it was coated in a thick layer of grime.
she picked her way over tendrils and roots, searching for something, anything. The note had referred to a combination of some sort. She consulted it again. Where it is warm, and the sunlight gives life. Look to the source. The source- Of the sun? She craned her neck, trying to see past the creeping plants that had taken over. Ah!- There; written in black. Right 36.
She wrote it on the edge of the note.
If you enjoy a little music, the piano downstairs is no good. what to doe. Doe? She chuckled a little. Such a silly pun, and yet so inappropriate.
As it happened, she loved music. Before the fire, she'd had a piano in her room (not including the replica, no), and she loved to play. As she grew older, though, it took a back seat. Her training had become her only love, her primary obsession.
She located the dining room easily; it was on the west side of the building, and was perhaps the most beautiful. The once-ivory tablecloth still adorned the table, though instead of plates, silver and crystal, it was scattered with shattered fragments of coloured glass from the windows, glinting in the moonlight, and to her surprise, an owl sat perched on the back of one of the dining chairs. She took one look at Tifa with her wide, amber eyes before giving an indignant hoot and fluttering up to her perch in the rafters. Tifa smiled faintly, crossing the room toward the black piano.
Its surface was scratched, dented, and it was missing a few keys in the lower octaves. Seating herself upon the rickety stool, she began to play one of the only pieces she'd practiced to perfection. It had been her father's favourite, though its name eluded her; A beautiful, haunting song, almost a dirge, though it was uplifting as well as being mournful.
Her audience hooted softly in appreciation from her roost. After giving the owl a polite bow of the head, she stooped over the keys. Doe, Rae, mi, fa, so, la, ti, doe… until she reached one C that wouldn't budge- It was stuck, something wedged underneath it. Frowning, she then noticed the next clue to the combination; barely visible, but still there, scratched into the base of the key. L10.
What a sick man was Hojo, making a game out of another man's peril.
She hurried through the next few clues, her excitement growing despite the possibility of a morbid reward for her efforts.
R59, R97 were the next two numbers, and both were not too difficult find. She couldn't have been looking for much longer than an hour. She scoffed at Cloud's excuse for not looking; we haven't got the time. But of course, he'd had time to sit around, looking gloomy all day. Not that she didn't share in his grief. She had been rather fond of the flower girl, who had just so happened to be the world's only surviving ancient; A walking marvel, a living myth, and not to mention extremely beautiful, utterly captivating… she knew why Cloud had fallen for her.
And who was she? Just plain old Tifa- she had always been there, a steady, comfortable, and familiar presence. Stable, reliable, but nothing else; Just a friend, a link to his hazy past. She had been preparing herself for a long time to simply accept things the way they were, and she was learning to hide her hurt feelings and pained smiles. It would only serve to confuse Cloud, and increase his heavy burden of guilt. She didn't want that.
The safe was located upstairs, she knew, as she'd spotted it on her way to the orangery; a hulking black thing, with an old fashioned dial, and golden handle. It was solid, though, she thought, giving the handle a testing tug. She'd just have to enter the code and see what her reward would be. Her palm sweat as she leaned close, squinting trying to make out the tiny numbers, which were slightly faded. With each click she felt a swell of excitement. R59, R97…. CLICK!
The locking mechanisms gave a heavy creak as she turned the handle with some force. The heavy door swung open slowly, taking some pulling to encourage it open. She gazed inside the safe; upon stacks of musty looking files, the odd book and for some peculiar reason, a spoon, she located what she must be looking for; a golden key.
She took it between her quaking fingers, the metal cool to the touch. It was a beautiful, ornate key, with an elaborate swirling pattern etched around the barrel. Set into it was a red gem stone. She frowned, touching it gently with the pad of her finger; it was smaller than she would have thought, but it looked like materia. She'd have to wait for that part though, because right now, she was itching to find the door the key would inevitably open.
She remembered Cloud talking about the basement and its secret entrance, though she pertained a sudden reluctance to venture down there. She had grown up hearing shocking accounts and horror stories about the atrocious experiments that had gone on down there. Not to mention the tales of ghosts, and… She shook herself. She was not a child, and she wasn't afraid of monsters; because she knew they were real. Zanghan, her trainer, seemed to pop up before her. We only fear what we do not understand. If it is real, then you can hurt it.
She checked the remainder of the house regardless, finding only a few closets holding plates and pans, folded linen, and sometimes objects she couldn't or wouldn't identify, though nothing conclusive.
Only then did she resign herself to the obvious; The basement it was, then.
She tried a few of the upstairs rooms en-route, all of them bedrooms, the mattresses coated in leaf litter and dust from disuse and neglect, though she imagined that once, they would have been rather luxurious. In the eastern bedroom overlooking the square (or at least it would have, were there not a wild plant obscuring most of the window), she felt colder, as if there were a breeze coming from somewhere. She ruled out that it was coming from outside, as the leaves of the trees were still for the moment.
Feeling around, she came across the apparent source; a stone wall that seemed to be part of a chimney breast, or a bricked-up doorway. A few prods and pokes around the area revealed a loose stone, which then allowed her to move some of the larger ones out of the way, making a hole large enough for her to get through.
The air coming up out of the dark space beyond was cool, and smelled strongly of musty paper and stagnant water. Lucky she'd thought to bring a torch, she thought, turning it on with a click. Sweeping her torch light around in through the gap, she found stone steps, winding around a central column. She could hear the incessant drip, drip of water. Taking a deep breath, she scrambled through.
Her footsteps sounded wet, with the slight crunch of grit and dirt underfoot. She found she was breathing quietly, deliberately, as if she feared disturbing something. The key was still clutched in her sweaty palm. She reached the bottom.
She was standing in a long tunnel-like chamber, will earthen walls reinforced, though rather poorly, with wooden planks and stone. The stagnant water she had smelt before seemed to be permeating through the walls, dripping to form shallow pools in the recessions either side of the walkway, indicated by duckboards.
She made her way down slowly, her torch beam revealing two doors at the end of the tunnel. One of them was locked when she tested the rusty iron handle, and the other creaked open slowly at a push from her hesitant fingertips. Should she check this room, to clear her mind, and rule out any wild conjurations she was currently harbouring?
She stepped into what appeared to be a library- so that explained the musty paper smell- and there also seemed to be a lingering, bitter chemical odour. A little poking around revealed a large collection of bottles marked with inscriptions she couldn't understand, let alone read, and the large table in the centre of the room wasn't a workbench as she had initially thought; her torch light had revealed bloodstains, well established into the pores of the wood, and leather bindings.
She shivered, though this library-turned-torture chamber didn't seem to be the source of the cold she'd been experiencing; It must be coming from the space beyond the other door, it had to be.
She returned to the earth tunnel, The continuous drip-drop seeming suddenly louder in the cavernous space. The key didn't seem to fit at first, and she feared disappointment was imminent; that was until a dull click rewarded her persistence. The key turned reluctantly, so she resorted to using the bottom of her night dress to grip it better, as her sweating palms were no help.
The handle was rough and cool in her hand as she tugged at it, the heavy wooden door creaking typically. Her anticipation was now fit to burst, her heart thudding twice its normal rate in her chest.
The cold air hit her in full force as she gingerly entered into the dark room, though there seemed to be a dull red glow coming from somewhere. She found the source of the light, sweeping the room with her torch beam. it seemed to be a switch of some kind, obviously linked to the long black shape that was humming distinctively. A machine of some sort perhaps? Holding her breath, she pushed it. The light turned to green.
A sudden hissing sound nearby almost made her bolt for the door, but she realised that it was coming from the long black box she was standing beside. Her torch revealed a handle at the edge.
Thud-thud-thud went her heart. Oh, this was too strange and scary, perhaps she should call Cloud, or Barret and have them come with her, it was stupid to come alone to this place-
Then, cold vapour began to surge from beneath the lid. Wait a minute-vapour? Was this some kind of tank?
She reached out a shaking hand, closing her trembling finger around the handle and then pulling, holding her breath in her ready-to-burst lungs…
Then she dared to look inside.
A man, naked from the waist up, lay within, apparently sleeping. He was breathing; sudden, unsteady breaths, mist forming in the cold air of the chamber. He looked near death, though; So pale, his lips and eyelids tinged blue around the edges, midnight black hair framing his face. He had sharp cheek bones, sensitive, full lips, a straight and delicate nose…
She stepped tentatively closer to the open tank, placing her still-trembling fingertips at the pulse point at his throat, pleased that it thudded duly against her finger. He seemed to be waking; his eyelids twitching, a tremor in his lips, a sudden gentle convulsion of his fingers.
"C…can you hear me?" She almost whispered, her throat sore from her heart pounding against it for so long. He didn't wake or move, though his eyebrows twitched ever so slightly. "Please, listen to me. I'm here to help you."
His eyes opened slowly, revealed startling red irises. He took in the ceiling, the walls, and then he looked straight at her, her heart near-stopping in her chest. He took in her ivory skin, framed by long strands of chocolate hair, amber eyes almost emanating a glowing warmth from her gaze.
"To wake me from a nightmare…" He said slowly, his voice deep and smooth. "Are you…an angel?"
She chuckled, flushing a little. "Tifa. My name is Tifa. and I can assure you, I am no angel. Are you… I mean, what is this? Are you alright?" After testing his muscles, he slowly sat upright, his eyes never leaving hers. She placed a hand on his shoulder, almost withdrawing it immediately. His skin was freezing.
"I am… alive." He replied after a moment, surveying his pale hands, and gazing down at his body.
"We should get you out of here, somewhere warm."
"Where am I, exactly?" He seemed more alert, apparently strong enough to swing his legs over the side of his tank. She hovered indecisively, unsure of whether to offer her assistance.
"Nibelheim. Or at least, where it once was. This isn't the Nibelheim I knew." She shook her head sadly.
"Was? What happened?"
"It burned down seven years ago. A man named Sephiroth did it."
His startling red eyes found hers, confusion and anger emanating from within them. "Sephiroth? Tell me, how old would you say he was?"
She thought carefully. "It's difficult to say." She shook her head again. "Perhaps thirty."
He was on his feet, though at her words, he seemed to become unsteady. She reached out to grasp his upper arm, gripping only until he regained his balance.
"Thirty years…" He said softly, gazing at his feet absently. "I have been propelled into a future that I must set right."
"Set right?" She let go of his arm. "Future? How long have you been here?"
"I was… imprisoned whilst the baby was still inside it's mother's womb. So if what you say is true, then a minimum of thirty years."
"And this… tank, thing- it's kept you… the same age?"
"It would seem so."
"I need clothes."
"Oh, of course! I think there are some here," She had begun opening some of the random crates stacked up against the walls, and had found a black shirt, a pair of boots, and a travelling cloak. "Though they look a little old. Until we can get you some more, I guess they'll do."
"We?" He reached out a hand for the shirt, his movements slow, and a little disjointed.
"I'm here with my friends. We are an anti-ShinRa group, trying to stop Sephiroth."
"Anti-ShinRa…." He seemed to see the things she had presented him with for the first time, his eyes filled with sadness and a kind of bitter amusement. "These clothes were my father's. Ha. Funny Hojo."
"Hojo put you here, right? He mentioned in the note he left that you were a Turk."
"No. Not anymore." He said stiffly, buttoning up the black shirt. "I am done with ShinRa."
"Well, good. I kind of hate the Turks. Especially that stupid redhead…" She grumbled.
"Excuse me?" He raised an eyebrow, though he seemed amused.
"They seem to be following us. It's rather irritating."
"Hm. I see." He stepped into the boots, and after a moment's thought, threw the cloak over his arm. "Well, Miss Tifa… I would like to ask your permission to join you."
"I'm sorry, I should have been clearer. Sephiroth is partly my responsibility. I wish to help you and your… friends stop him."
"Yes… Well, I'm sure Cloud won't mind. But first, you should tell me your name at least." She interlaced her hands behind her back, tapping one foot. He gave her a gentle, whimsical smile.
"My name, is Vincent Valentine." He stopped himself adding 'reporting for duty'. Old habits die hard.
"Well, Vincent… We should get out of here."
"After you." He let her pass him, out into the earth chamber. She smiled at his gentility. Now that you didn't see these days.
She could already tell she was going to like Vincent.
Revised, and improved. JJ 13/11/10