If this ever goes the wrong way
Save me from the 'where are they now'
If they ever figure out
Let these chains be ashes….
I'm inside the blackest light
The outside is mine tonight.
Richard Walters, Escape Artist.
Chapter 5: Shifting shapes
Everything seemed to be moving. Not just around her, but inside her as well. Lights danced behind eyelids screwed tight shut, and the very air seemed thick like water, undulating around her in gentle eddies and waves.
When she opened her eyes, everything was blurred, shapes and light distorted into one continuous blue space… reminding her that she was in fact submerged under water. The plastic rim of the oxygen mask dug rather irritatingly into her cheek, her hand drifting up slowly to try to relieve it. Her skin was pale and ghostly in the water.
You need to calm down Tifa. Your vitals are dancing about a little.
The voice, as well as the odd shifting white or black shape outside of the tank was her only reminder that she wasn't alone. It unnerved her a little that they could most likely see her perfectly from out there. Her heart rate was most definitely spiking now, if it hadn't been before.
I promise it won't be for much longer. The dark shape was there, moving closer to the glass. A firmer outline came into view, not half a meter away, and yet they were separated by glass several inches thick. Under water, the tears were invisible; only erratic bursts of bubbles as she sobbed within her watery prison gave her distress away.
You can't cry. Water might get into your mask, or you might… He paused. Lucrecia will give you a sedative to calm you down. You need to stay strong, Tifa.
A few moments later and the sedative kicked in. She floated lifelessly, saline tears diluted a million fold in her water-filled prison.
Vincent sighed heavily, watching with difficulty as her figure slumped a little more. She was held semi-upright by a waist support, her limp wrists drifting at the level of her abdomen, tendrils of hair that had escaped her braid floated eerily about her face in wake of the constant stream of air bubbles from her mask.
"It's difficult to see her like this, I know." Lucrecia's heels clicks came to a stop beside him. He glanced across to see her squinting through her glasses at her clipboard. "She may be a little claustrophobic…" Her biro tip whizzed across the paper as she spoke.
"I don't think that would explain her initial distaste for the idea, do you?"
The scientist's lips pursed, though she said no more. Tifa's revelations concerning Vincent's supposed past/future involving Lucrecia and her laboratory had been difficult to process for them both. She had been incredulous to learn of what she had the potential to do, if she set her to it, and Vincent had always kept it in the back of his mind.
They both knew he would never fully trust her.
"This was the only way, and you know it, Vincent." Lucrecia sighed, reaching up to deposit her biro through her messy hair bun before rubbing at the spot where her glasses dug into her nose. "If we don't keep her stable, she'll just vanish. And we can't find out how to help her."
"—If there's any way to help her at all…" He leaned forward against a disused terminal, staring with unseeing eyes at the various textbooks that littered its surface. "You know, even now, two years since the day I saw her I… I can't believe it is all true. By now I should be locked in a basement and you—"
"-Should be dead, I know."
The gentle h um of the equipment in the laboratory provided a blanket over the silence for a moment.
"I still can't picture it happening." He shakes his head slowly, running a hand over his face, rough palms catching on the stubble there.
He'd been down in the dingy depths of the lab for days solid, barely eating, his staple diet being coffee and microwave pasta. He only remembered to eat that, because Lucrecia reminded him. All his waking hours, which vastly outnumbered those he spent asleep, were spent running simulations and keeping an eye on the computers. His programming skills had been refined over the last few years, helping out here and there where he could, but they couldn't hold a candle to Lucrecia's. Still, he felt he had to keep an eye on the scanners and various pieces of equipment that measured and displayed Tifa's vital signs, running algorithms on data… More than once he had woken in the perpetual eerie blue glow of the lab with the impression of a keyboard indented into his cheek.
He just couldn't lose her again. In and out she had sporadically appeared over the five year period since they had met. It had taken him that long to accept the truth and realise that he had to try to find a solution- or at least a means by which to reach one. Lucrecia was the only one who knew beside himself, and she was the only one with the know-how to help. That trust had taken a while to build up, considering how warily he regarded her for so long.
It took him until Hojo's 'disposal' as they called it to realise she was on his side. Together, in those tentative couple of years after first contact with Tifa, they found research material alluding to S-cells and the super being known as Jenova. They had uncovered evidence to suggest that he intended to start breeding super humans in this project, injecting a pregnant mother with cells—just like Tifa had warned. Hojo's predictions and hopes for the project were ambitious to say the least, yet he was unerring in his approach. It seemed Lucrecia made a good genetic match for the experiment, and it took all of her conviction to act unfazed at his attempts to woo her. He was clearly intent on creating suitable embryos the natural way—a notion which made Vincent's skin crawl.
With foresight provided by fragments of information Tifa had mentioned, they were able to conclude that to allow these experiments to happen would be nothing short of premeditating genocide.
Then there was the strange kind tension between himself and Lucrecia. Tifa had of course warned him of his alternate fate at the hands of Hojo and Lucrecia. She told him how he had been obsessed, how his failing to make her see sense had developed into a self-hatred so strong, it had destroyed him.
He guessed that they were out of the danger zone at least, yet he was always aware of the possibility and preceding implications of any attraction. Tifa's revelations must also have made an impression on Lucrecia, too; she was careful what she did around him, conscious of how she dressed.
Yet despite the care they had both taken, and their awareness of each other, there was still something hanging over them; a burning curiosity. All it had taken was one night alone, when Tifa was some other place in time and not on his mind for once, and an accidental overstepping of personal space and they were kissing. They had stumbled back, finding the edge of a table with fumbling hands before she was hoisted up, skirt hitched up to her waist. Trembling fingers battled with buttons and zippers, and all that tension and frustration was rather suddenly dissipated.
That had been several months ago. They had since avoided the topic entirely, and he had to admit that the curiosity was somewhat gone. The sex was just a means to an end. They needed it. Two adults working in relative isolation, with only each other for company… tensions tended to run high, and considering the both of them weren't necessarily experts in communication, he viewed the outcome as being inevitable.
He grunted, slouching back in his desk chair and running a hand over his rough jaw. His eyes were beginning to tire from staring for long hours at reams of data on a screen.
He needed sleep, and a shower at the very least.
On one of the rare days he had actually left the laboratory, he had returned to find her gone. The machines that usually blipped and beeped to measure her vitals were droning out flat readings, and the oxygen mask was bubbling gently within the empty tank. He had broken several racks of test tubes as an outlet—hadn't the damn point of the tank, weeks of testing and the sedatives been to try to keep her here, to try to figure out how to stop her disappearances from happening? All they had was the data obtained in the moments prior to her disappearance, and although Lucrecia told him it was very useful data, he couldn't help but be pissed off. He hated having no control whatsoever over the situation.
His days between her intermittent presences became blurs of time- days seemed to pass and meld into one grey haze. Until she returned, and everything would suddenly burst into beautiful chromatic clarity. Order was restored out of the chaos. He had comer to wonder what it meant, that his normalcy seemed to rely on the presence of a stranger, hiccoughing through time to burst intermittently into his existence.
Her sudden burst into existence in another time disturbs layers of dusts that she inadvertently sucks into her lungs. They respond with spasmodic coughing and spluttering, a sound that reverberated loudly in the now deserted laboratory. Through streaming eyes, she takes in her surroundings, eager for her coughing to stop. She knew what could lurk here in this mansion, and from what she could see, she could well have returned to her own timeline—she had not lingered down here long, then, but the same air of neglect and eeriness pervaded from each alien object and shadowy corner.
She is standing in what must have been the very same tank, which had not moments ago contained her within it. Now, it was but a husk, dust-covered fragments of glass clinging pathetically to its steel skeleton. She wondered what kind of force had managed to break it. The glass chucks scattered around the lab resembled broken ice, yet she dared not tread further lest she cut her bare feet.
A background hum, along with the chill in the air told of a draft coming in- perhaps the door that leads down into this godforsaken laboratory was open? A strange, pale light emanated from somewhere as well, suffusing the dust riddled air with pale amber light. She picks across the rubble and glass carefully, searching for the source- a discarded flare! Industrial or no, they could only last a day or so. Someone must have been here recently.
A loud clank from the passage way beyond the laboratory doors sets her heart racing, goosebumps rising all over her body. What chance did she have to defend herself in this state? "Who's there?" She finds herself calling out into the silence, her voice wavering in spite of her attempts to fill it with assertion.
Footsteps sound at her call, and the door is pushed open. A torch beam bursts through the gloom, though the user does not point it at her directly. Still, she shields her eyes, not quite used to the brightness.
Of course, it had to be. She couldn't quite make him out yet, his form hidden behind the intrusive sphere of the torch-glare. "We should get you out of here. It's not safe."
The torch is switched off, and they are plunged back into the dull orange glow of the dying flare. He picks it up from its position lying on a disused work bench, striding across the rubble-strewn floor towards her. She can't quite make him out yet, the flare's light distorting his features into shadow. The flare placed into her hands, he mutters an apology before bending slightly to scoop her into his arms. She notes how clean he smells, and how broad his back feels against her forearm.
They sidle through the laboratory entrance and make their way silently through the leaky passageway, traversing the spiral staircase with only minor difficulty. At the top of the stairs, he exits the room and makes light work of the sweeping stairs that adorn the grand entrance to the mansion. Still, her eyes battle to adjust to the shifting light. He is moving fast, apparently in a hurry to get her outside.
He shoves the front door wide with one shoulder, and they exit into broad daylight. The air temperature is pleasantly warm.
"I am setting you down."
She murmurs her assent, feeling soft grass beneath her feet as she is set upright. She closes her eyes for a moment, enjoying the sensation of a warm breeze tugging at her hair while listening to the birds singing as they flitted to and fro above her. For a moment, she forgets.
She opens her eyes to look at him for the first time; he is standing a few paces away to her right, tapping at the screen of a PHS.
He is wearing suit pants of slate grey, and a pale blue shirt, the sleeves rolled up and the collar loose. His hair is still short, gunmetal grey fading at points near his temples and ears to the colour of mercury. She couldn't put a number on him- maybe forty, yet he had proven himself to be in perfect physical shape.
He only glanced up briefly on noting her close inspection, before pocketing the device and turning on his heel. "We should get moving."
"But where are we going?"
He didn't answer, instead striding across the pathway, now long overtaken by meadow grass, and slipping through the gate, rusted open. She watches him, wondering if she were meant to follow him. At his pause and half turn, she scurries after him, the grass cool and still dew-damp beneath her bare feet. There is a car parked outside the gates, previously obscured by ivy growing over the crumbling stone walls.
He opens the door for her without looking, irises dispassionately scanning the town square before them. Feeling more and more as though she were inconveniencing him, she slips into the passenger seat, nostrils assaulted by the scent of clean leather. He takes the driver's seat silently, starting the engine and rolling the car out of town, towards the mountains. She wonders if the road has improved any.
"I get the feeling I have done something to upset you." She blurts out after a uncomfortable period of heavy silence. He exhales deeply through his nose, though she notes that he does look a little apologetic.
"I… I'm sorry. I just have a lot on my mind. We need to get you to Wutai, and then we can talk more. I promise."
"Wutai?!" She half turns in her seat, bare thighs clinging to the leather seats.
"I would advise that you get some sleep. It's going to be a long journey. There are some sedatives in the glove box, and some water."
He was staring hard at the road, so perhaps he couldn't see her scowl aimed in his direction. Figuring she would rather sleep than sit in strained silence, she popped the pills in her mouth and swallowed them down, turning away from him to lean against the window. She was asleep within fifteen minutes, so she didn't see his knuckles release their iron grip from the steering wheel, nor hear his loaded sigh.
She remembers only vaguely being wrapped in something soft and lifted from the car. It had all gone dark, but she could hear the soft whir of propellers.
"We are taking the airship to Wutai. We won't reach the dock until the early hours."
She was lying on a bunk in a metal cabin, and Vincent seemed to be talking to someone on his PHS. The ship's engines were roaring into life. She slipped out of consciousness again, lulled to sleep by the background whir of the ship's propellers and creaking metal. She dreamed of the Highwind, and a figure in black and crimson, stood alone on the deck.
She was awake, but still feeling the side-effects of the sedatives when they finally reached the airship dock in Wutai. She'd never seen a dock in Wutai before; perhaps a question she could ask Vincent later on…
…he didn't seem open to talking, even sat so close as they took a rickshaw across town. The little craft bore them over the vermillion bridges, through the deserted market, bare of their usual wares and bustling Wutaiin folk, and up into the hills where she knew the more affluent houses to be.
They came to a stop at a set of gates, flanked by towering stone dragons. As he helped her down from the rickshaw, thanking the driver in fluent Wutaiin, she realised that she was wearing his suit jacket.
They are greeted beyond the gates by a petite maid in kimono who escorted them into the house, built entirely of paper screens. She knelt at each door to admit them through.
They are finally admitted into a large room in which two futons were laid out. It is bare save for the rich reed mats that adorn the floor. She can hear the babble of water flowing over pebbles beyond the screens, and the shadows of flowers dancing in the breeze are cast upon the mats by the moonlight.
As the door slides shut, she wonders if he has been waiting to get here to finally speak to her. Instead though, He seems intent on his PHS, knelt by one of the futons.
"Is this how it's going to be?" She breaths, lungs burning with the effort to hold in the tumult she was experiencing. "I fall in and out of time, never knowing when or where I am?" the tingle of pain along her scalp as she tugs at her hair causes the gentle ring in her ears to abate. She pulls harder, letting out a slow breath as she sinks to her knees on the matting.
A tremor crosses his brow, lips pulled into a thin line at her words.
"You can stop taking care of me, if it makes you so unhappy. I will just have to do what I have always done, in this timeline as well as any other; Take care of myself."
"You don't make me unhappy." His voice was low and controlled, claret irises focuses on the woven mats on the floor. Strong fingers suddenly started to twitch, and he seemed totally at war with himself. She had never seen him like this, in any of his forms.
"I don't know what obligation you have to me, Vincent, but you don't have to do this! I don't know why you feel you have to protect me, why you are always there whenever I jump."
He raised himself up on his knees, leaning towards her. Before she knew it, cool fingers slid to the back of her neck, setting the hairs on end, soft lips meeting hers gently. She could only blink several times in rapid succession, her heart thumping wildly against her ribcage. As his body heat drew nearer, she felt her stomach swoop, lights danced behind her lids when she closed them.
The background music of the waterfall in the garden beyond the paper screens faded, replaced by all-consuming silence. Existence narrowed to a singular point, a finite clarity; his lips against hers, his palm against her back…
Light shifted, a thousand sunrises and sunsets retrogressing in a compressed particle of time. In the space of one breath, she can feel time contract, his body gone and yet his taste lingered on her lips.
It looks like dawn, or it could be sunset. The screen doors are open, and a raging glow bursts through, setting her eyes alight. A shadow gives her some reprieve, intercepting the fiery glow of the dying sun.
He is younger, perhaps not long after their first meeting. He doesn't seem surprised to see her there, kneeling in the centre of the room, wearing a man's suit jacket over her clinical gown, tears staining her cheeks. To him, they could be liquid ruby, refracting the atmosphere outside.
She stumbled to her feet, battling a sudden inertia, fingertips tingling still from her time-jump.
"Tifa, you need to try and calm down. Cortisol levels as well as adrenalin causes you to jump." His eyes were a little wider. The sudden movement seemed to turn on radio static in her head. Everything was going fuzzy…
"Stress and elevated heart rate induces your jumps. I can give you a sedative if you like?"
"Please, I… I don't want to jump anymore…" He catches her about the waist before she stumbles, removing a syringe from his pocket with his spare hand. Lowering her gently to the floor, he ensures she is still before inserting the needle's point into the vein at her wrist. The sedative takes effect immediately, and her breathing starts to regulate, becoming deep and slow.
"Does it really take you that long to tell me?"
He frowns, ruby irises hidden behind dark lashes. "I don't understand."
She only smiles placidly, reaching trembling fingertips up to touch his hair. She looks at it wonderingly, perhaps as if it is new to her. He finds himself wondering when she has come from, and what she saw there. Parts of Lucrecia's theories spiralled around in his head, forbidding him to both share and learn things about the future, whether it be his or hers, in case he disrupts the timeline. It was all such bullshit. It made his head hurt to think of it all.
Novikov self-consistency theory, the Grandfather paradox….
"That makes two of us, then."
All he knew was he had travelled half the way across the world just to see her again. All the anguish he had felt following her disappearance from the tank, all of the anger directed at Lucrecia because the experiments hadn't helped to keep her in one time, had all but vanished, forgotten and replaced instead by something much more lasting. Contentment.
This was where he needed to be.
I'll protect you from the hooded claw/keep the vampires from your door
When the chips are down I'll be around/With my undying, death defying love for you
…Love is like an energy/rushing inside of me.
The Power of Love (Gabrielle Aplin version)