Luminous dust motes floated all around her, countless fairy particles of powdered gold suspended in the motionless air, dazzling her eyes where she stood in a warm column of sunlight. In stark contrast, the murky foyer that stretched beyond seemed as coldly uninviting as the chilly depths beneath the sunlit surface of a quiet pool, and a great reluctance to submerge herself therein stayed her firmly in place, until Maya gave her a little nudge, and Nessa forced her feet to move from the certain safety of the open doorway. Hesitantly, she walked across the dusty surface of the intricately patterned floor, careful not to make a sound that might disturb the unseen denizens of the manor. Even though she didn’t believe in ghosts, really, there certainly was no point in testing her disbelief by waking them.
A stray movement caught her attention and drew her gaze to the magnificent chandelier that seemed to have been playfully nudged by an unseen hand and now swayed gently to and fro, the frosty globes and spidery gold filigree spokes festooned in a cloudy film of gossamer cobwebs. The filmy veil lazily floating in the soft stir of air suddenly brought to mind the delicate lace curtain that she’d once seen draped over an open casket at a wake in Mideel years ago. Unconsciously, she wrinkled her nose at the pervasive odor of dust and mildew and some other underlying smell that she couldn’t immediately identify even as she marveled at the thinly veiled beauty of the richly appointed light fixture, the jaded grandeur still eliciting her wonder despite having seen the chandelier decades ago when the once magnificent mansion yet stood in the height of her glory.
Suddenly, she felt like a disrespectful intruder under the disapproving eye of the now decadent mansion, and a feeling of strong repulsion filled her, as though she’d suddenly found herself treading the fertile soil on the wrong side of a headstone, on hallowed ground, and her whole body went tensely still beneath the chandelier, even as her eyes wandered to the expanse of floor to ceiling panels of leaded glass that stretched along the length of the balustrade. More fairy-like dust motes danced upon the beams of muted sunlight that reached long fingers through the queue of ornate posts. A whispery movement brushed the periphery of her vision, and her head snapped around, her eyes narrowing on a shadowy doorway to her right. Although she stared hard, she couldn’t see a thing. If something had been there, it was gone now. A shiver coursed through her body, and she nervously folded her arms tightly around her waist as the chilliness in the grand foyer touched her skin.
“Pretty dusty in here, isn’t?”
Nessa visibly started, every muscle in her tense body jerking in reaction as the young woman’s lightly voiced comment sliced sharply through the thick silence. She might have felt a bit foolish at having forgotten that Maya stood just behind, but Maya’s words had also startled the silver and white bird, Angel, and he cried out in a reprimanding squawk amidst a wild flutter of his wings.
She clutched a fist to her viciously pounding heart as she turned to find Maya gently stroking the birds ruffled feathers as he settled, once more turning his beak into her hair. She watched the two of them with careful eyes until Maya looked around with a rueful smile, and then Nessa finally spoke, her tenseness not revealed in her calm voice.
“I don’t believe anyone has lived in this house for a number of years.”
Maya silently nodded her agreement and moved up beside Nessa as the older woman turned back to scan the confines of the expansive foyer, her intent eyes slowly sliding across each shadowy doorway, all the tarnished light fixtures that lined the walls, and every piece of dusty furniture. Her inventory didn’t take long. Despite the size of the two-story high foyer, there wasn’t much left to see. All of the statuary and artwork had disappeared, along with most of the rich furnishings. Her appraising gaze finally came to rest on the very first riser of the curving staircase.
“Where shall we start?” Nessa wasn’t entirely sure she wished to begin, even though she had come on a mission, one that wouldn’t let her rest peacefully until it was done. She had to come to terms with what she’d done before she died. Until that moment, she could not let go.
At Nessa’s query, Maya glanced around at each open doorway, searching her mind for something to guide her. A hint of a memory. A trace of a feeling. Even something out of place that might serve as a random omen. But nothing jumped to the forefront, no fortuitous visions appeared in her mind, and all the passages seemed equally foreboding. Even the stairs didn’t look particularly inviting to her. She decided to pass the decision back to Nessa.
“What are you looking for here?”
Unmoving, Nessa answered. “Something I didn’t find before.”
“So, you’ve been here before too.”
“Yes, a very long time ago.”
“What were you looking for then?”
His…room…his…place…where I might find him…
“And you didn’t find it?”
But she hadn’t been able to look everywhere either. She had answered an advertisement in the local weekly newspaper for a housekeeper, and despite Myron’s vociferous protest, she had taken the job. Valiantly, she’d entered the dragon’s den at great risk of her own life, and Myron’s too, just to find an answer. Shinra people were everywhere. She’d lasted one day, and she hadn’t found a sign of him. Not a single indication that he’d ever been there. One glimpse of that hateful man’s face, that Shinra Turk, peering over the balustrade railing, had sent her stumbling in shock into the relative security of the corridor beneath his feet, her heart pounding in her throat as she worked her way through the rooms, wondering if he’d recognized her, almost hearing his footsteps behind her, her shoulders tight, waiting for the shout, the bullet. But it hadn’t come, and she’d finally found herself within close proximity of the front door. With her whole body atremble, she had forced herself to cross the short distance in a guise of cool casualness, until she managed to slip breathlessly around the half open door, and without a single backward glance, she had raced frantically to the inn to collect Myron, not caring that she drew strange looks from every person she passed. Not only had she fled the mansion. She had taken a terrified Myron in tow and fled Nibelheim. And she’d never come back. Until now. To be in the last place he’d been. To die where he had died.
Nessa didn’t speak her thoughts aloud. She couldn’t have shared the memories in her mind in a steady voice, even if she’d wanted Maya to know.
“What is the room you are looking for?” Maya tilted her auburn head inquisitively.
“I don’t know,” she answered woodenly.
What hope did she have of finding anything after all this time? None really. Maybe it would just be enough to visit the spaces that he’d inhabited at the end of his life. Maybe it would have to be enough.
Maya wrinkled her brow in puzzled thought. “Then you aren’t really looking for a room, but something else entirely.”
Nessa shrugged dismissively. “Perhaps so.” She shook herself from her troubled thoughts and turned incisive eyes in Maya’s direction. “What are you looking for?”
“I’m looking for the reason I feel like I’ve been here before.”
Nessa smiled wryly. “Well then, since these nameless things that we both seek seem to be similarly insubstantial, I suppose we’d better get started. We’ve little daylight left, and I really don’t want to be here when the sun sets. This house is full of ill will.”
Maya silently nodded, totally in agreement. She could almost hear whispers within the musty air, although she knew that the murmurs could just as easily spring from her own mind.
Nessa inclined her head toward the watchful bird. “Perhaps we should ask Angel.”
Maya smiled widely as the word filled her mind. Nessa hesitantly returned her smile. “What?”
“He’s already answered you. I think he’s trying to be funny.”
“And what did he say?”
“He thinks we should start outside.”
The smile fell from Nessa’s face. “Perhaps he’s not being humorous.”
Maya’s smile faltered. She tuned her mind to Angel’s. Why do you say outside?
…But I don’t want to go. I want to look around. I want to find out why this house seems so familiar.
Nothing good here…we go…
I have to look. I have to find out or I will go insane.
Maya shivered as the word touched her mind with ominous portent. Still, she steeled her resolve.
A weary sigh soughed through her mind. Then stay I
Maya cried out when Angel suddenly erupted into a flurry of motion, his wings flapping noisily in the deathly quiet as he launched himself into flight. Nessa followed the bird with curious eyes, Maya with anxious ones. His silver wings working hard in the stagnant air, the bird flew from one end of the room to the other. After a thrice of passes, he briefly settled on the balustrade railing before he abruptly dove through a doorway on the left and disappeared from sight.
Maya took a tentative step toward the dimly lit passage, and then paused to look back at Nessa’s bemused face. The older woman smiled slightly. “Looks like as likely a place to start as any.” She dropped her arms from around her waist and strolled past Maya with forced nonchalance. “Let’s go find that bird.”
Tifa drew the blanket back and shakily sat up, gingerly setting one bare foot, and then the other, to the cool concrete floor, her body tensing in anticipation of the resultant shiver that slipped through her. Unfortunately, the chill set off a veritable flurry of shivers, a solid indication that her fever hadn’t abated. Still determined to rise from the bed no matter how the warm covers might beckon her or how much her limbs might tremble, she purposefully dragged the topmost blanket around her and scooted to the edge of the bunk. On one monumental inhalation of cool air, she hefted herself to her feet. Then, carefully straightening her legs to stand weakly with the back of her knees firmly planted against the metal frame of the bed for support, she turned a tentative gaze toward the table where she knew that a silent Vincent sat in the corner. Although she hadn’t yet looked at him directly, she hadn’t failed to glimpse his silent and darkly clad presence from the corner of an eye.
She wasn’t sure what she had expected. Maybe to find him watching her with his cool crimson eyes, every bit as chilly as the room around her or the concrete under her feet, or maybe to find him studying the piece of paper he’d been so intensely interested in earlier, to the exclusion of all else. She certainly didn’t expect what she found; Vincent’s tall frame slumped into his chair, his head tilted back against the cinderblock wall, his long legs stretched out beneath the table, his prosthetic arm limply dangling down his side, out of sight, and his ungloved fingers splayed across his stomach. Asleep.
She was struck by how normal he appeared in slumber. With his metal arm and his eerie red irises hidden from view, he seemed unremarkable, like any other man. Well, maybe not just like any other man. She had to admit that he would probably still turn heads, but for a quite different reason.
Fascinated, she cautiously moved away from the bed and took a couple of shaky steps closer. She’d never seen Vincent Valentine asleep before. Not even just roused from sleep. Heaven forbid he might even look like he’d been sleeping. She had smiled at Yuffie’s silly remarks that Vincent didn’t sleep because vampires didn’t need sleep, but secretly she had wondered if he ever did. He had always been the one to volunteer to stand watch while the others slept, whether it be at one of their impromptu campsites on the trail or on board the Highwind. Even at one of the inns where they’d stayed, she’d gone restlessly wandering in the middle of the night, her rumpled bed and tangled covers holding no interest for her, and she’d come across him where he sat stretched out on the wide window seat of one of the many undraped windows that lined the long, unlit corridor, his motionless form starkly silhouetted against the silvered panes, reading a book by moonlight. She’d stumbled to a startled halt at sight of him, and then, unreasonably afraid to walk past him to the stairway that would take her outside, she’d quickly and quietly retraced her steps before he took notice of her, even knowing that he’d no doubt taken note of her presence there, as well as her reaction, and had just chosen to ignore her.
Holding her breath now, not wanting to make the slightest sound that might wake him, she drank in the relaxed features of his face, the lips slightly parted in slumber, the inky eyelashes starkly feathering his pale cheeks, the high cheekbones and strong line of his jaw, and even the shell of an ear, all exhibited for her view as his thick locks of ebony hair had fallen back over his shoulder and left his face unobstructed. Her eyes drifted down to his bare hand where a subtle glint had caught her eye. Intrigued, she carefully slid her foot forward and leaned closer to study the delicate tracings on the narrow gold band that he wore on his little finger, a ring that normally would have been hidden beneath the black leather of the glove he always wore on that hand, and she wondered at its presence there, her mind fairly blossoming in questions and speculations at what his life might have been like before…Nibelheim.
A soft, indistinguishable murmur whispered from his lips, and Tifa abruptly straightened, her head spinning dizzily at the sudden movement, her face flushing hotly as a strong feeling of shame assailed her. Suddenly, she felt like a voyeur, or maybe a thief, taking something from him that she knew instinctively he wouldn’t be willing to give her, or anyone, when awake.
Ducking her head, she twisted the blanket tighter around her shoulders in a fisted hand and slowly shuffled away, still careful to make no sound. She didn’t want Vincent to awaken and find her hovering near him. And knowing. Would he be angry if he knew? She didn’t know, but she did know that she didn’t want to find out.
Her mouth dry with thirst and a newfound anxiety, she thought about trekking to the tiny bathroom for another attempt at a drink from the tap, but she feared the sound of the water definitely would wake him, so she opted to set course for the interesting monitors at the other end of the room, the farthest point from Mr. Valentine she could manage right then.
She thought her legs might give out under her before she could get there, but she finally made it, mostly intact but for the slipping blanket. Planting her right elbow against the shelf of the control panel, she gingerly let herself down into the metal chair as her last vestige of energy vanished beneath the effort required to keep from falling noisily into the seat. Slumping down against the tall metal back, she dragged the blanket around her again as she focused her attention on the first monitor, all thought of Vincent ebbing away beneath her astonishment at sight of the mirror of sparkling moonlit water depicted in the rectangular glass. A distant curving eyebrow of mountain ridge darkly rimmed the far horizon to the left, and the strange serene sea of light stretched endlessly in every direction as far as the camera’s eye could see.
Her gaze slid curiously to the second monitor, and the third. To her disappointment, both were shut down. Impulsively, she released her tight hold on the blanket and reached for the control panel with the intention of finding the means to turn them on, but the image of Vincent’s sleeping face suddenly sprang into her mind, and she jerked her hand back. She did not, absolutely did not, want to set off some noisy device, like the radio or computer printer, that would wake him.
Somewhat bemused at her own reluctance to rouse Vincent even now, when he couldn’t know that she’d been studying him with undue interest, she smiled deprecatingly at the soft reflection of herself in the blank mirror of the second monitor. She also appeared almost normal with her features and her injuries muted in the subtle curve of the colorless surface. Even her long tresses…without all the tangles…fell straight and silky alongside her face. She could feel a blush creeping into her face at the memory of Vincent sitting behind her on the bed, combing her hair. She couldn’t believe that she’d even found the nerve to ask him to do it. Maybe because he’d offered…maybe that’s why…or maybe she’d just been desperate to…to…
Have her hair combed out; to return her appearance to some semblance of normality, that’s what.
You know the truth Tifa Lockhart, so don’t lie to yourself now. The real truth is that you just didn’t want to feel so alone.
Irritated at her chiding thoughts, she forced Vincent and his grooming of her hair from her mind, and she pointedly returned her speculative gaze to the alien sea in the glass. If she didn’t know better, she might think she was watching some otherworldly drama such as a few she’d seen broadcast on the tiny television tucked beneath the bar at the Seventh Heaven, but the unchanging vista and the jutting impediment of the retaining walls just visible at the edges of the screen told her otherwise. The entrance to the Sleeping Man cave. Proof of Vincent’s assertion that this place, this unfamiliar room, lay somewhere inside, somewhere behind the cave. And the Sleeping Man. Where had he gone?
An absent smile touched her lips as the image in the monitor swam out of focus, giving way to another scene that played out behind her eyes, in her mind. Cloud Strife. Narrowed blue eyes, glowing with Mako fire, leaning over the prone body of the Sleeping Man. Bending with hand on hip to give the poor man a good poke in the side with one gloved finger. Then turning with a delighted smile at his own compulsive action, his cool facade easily falling away as his eyes found…her. Aeris.
How often had she seen their gazes lock, one pair of eyes unerringly, and probably unconsciously, finding the other? How often had she seen that tiny smile pass between them, almost like a secret. Too many times to count. Too many times to deny what she knew. That Cloud had loved her. Aeris. And that Cloud would never look at her that way. That Cloud would never feel about her that way. She only had to look back to that night on the rim of the crater, the huge bulk of the airship hovering ponderously overhead, for evidence of that.
She had hinted, hadn’t she? As obvious as she could be without actually saying it. The most she could force herself to do, her shyness proving too huge an obstacle to overcome. He had adroitly sidestepped the opportunity, or simply ignored it, or maybe just didn’t see it because he had someone else on his mind at the time or, more probably, because he didn’t view her that way. Sure, they had talked for a while, sitting together on the rocky ground. Sure, they had fallen asleep against each other, still sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, dark head resting against blonde. Cozy. Companionable. Teammates. Friends.
A pervasive sense of sadness crept into her mind, and laying her arm along the edge of the console, Tifa absently rested her cheek against her forearm as her thoughts continued to sift apart the memory, her eyelids slipping closed as her throat prickled with unshed tears.
How quickly he’d wanted to leave when he’d awakened. Shaking her awake. Not in the least reluctant to part from her. Maybe even eager to be on the move. Not recognizing that she didn’t want to end the contact just yet, even though he’d humored her when she’d asked to stay there for a few moments more.
But then, what could she expect? Maybe their relationship would forever be tainted by the bitter vestiges of their childhood. Or maybe that was just her guilt at the way she’d treated him then. He certainly didn’t seem bitter about it. Certainly, not since they’d worked the knots of the past out on the fragmented stage of their childhood Nibelheim in the ethereal green depths of the Lifestream. But she still felt guilty.
What did it all matter anyway? Even if Cloud would ever be with her, something that she could never expect to happen in this lifetime, she would know that she was second best. He would only be settling. She had always acknowledged that fact. And before, she might have been willing to be with him under those terms. Settle. But now, she just didn’t know. Something had changed for her. Maybe it had been his words in the crater, when he murmured to her even as they’d clung to the edge of a cliff, suspended precariously above the roiling pool of Lifestream, his thoughts still with Aeris even then, and his revelation about how he might find her in the Promised Land. Wherever that was. And she had promised to help him find her. And she would. She would personally breathe life into Aeris’s still body if she had that power, just so the two of them could be together, just to see the happiness in Cloud’s eyes. Even just to have her back. A rival, yes, but a friend more. She would. If Cloud thought that Aeris could be found, in the Promised Land or somewhere else, she would be the first to look.
Unless he had already found her…
Unless he was gone…
Along with the Highwind and all of her friends…
She could hardly entertain the thought…
Barrett…her best friend…a surrogate father of sorts…she would have floundered and drowned in the sludge of the slum world beneath the plates if he hadn’t taken her under his wing…her confidant…the only person in Midgar that she had learned to trust enough to tell her innermost fears to…what would Marlene do without him? What would she do without him?
Red Thirteen…Nanaki…so fierce looking…so gentle…so wise…the last of his kind…Protector of the eternal flame…a child still…really…afraid for his own sanity…fearful of that unknown thing that Hojo might have planted within him…unsure of his own strength. She’d told him to be strong. But she hadn’t needed to. He was strong. So strong…
Yuffie Kisaragi…almost grown…tough without a doubt…opportunistic…proud…yet looking for a friend…lonely…insecure at the core…finding friends despite her self-centered nature…she was so different the times they talked below the deck of the Highwind where the ninja girl usually went when her chronic airsickness kicked in…where no one else was listening…when she talked of her fear of the future…of her lack of desire to return to her home and conform to the life expected of her…to the arranged marriage that her father threatened…a life without love…full of duty…lacking in spontaneity…death knell to the nomadic life that she thrived on…Tifa just could not see her as ruler of Wutai…a spirit so free…
Even the comical Cait Sith…funny-faced robot cat…enemy…friend…the faceless Reeve who she’d only seen once from a vent overlooking a Shinra boardroom…she didn’t know if she’d recognize him if she met him face to face…a man with deep convictions despite his Shinra ties…a man who cared about his city…his people…had he survived Meteor? She didn’t even know. She hoped so, with all her heart.
Cid Highwind…crusty….prickly…gruff….sweet…he would surely have gone down with his Lady Luck…Captain of his hijacked ship to the end…but no…no…Cid would never let his ship go down…not without a fight…he would have done something…pulled something…some hidden switch or emergency mechanism…he always did…surely there was room for another old pilot’s trick up his capacious jacket sleeves…surely…
Her eyes still lightly closed, Tifa’s lips curved in a satisfied smile.
Yes…they were all still fine. A-okay. Somewhere out there in the real world. She believed it. She did. And she would until someone proved otherwise. But no one would, because they were all just fine. And soon, she would find a way to escape this strange…room…and find them all again. Find a way to go home.
Well…she and Vincent…would…
She still had him, after all. As much as you could have a person who chose to pretend that other people didn’t exist most of the time.
She lifted her head and looked over her shoulder to find him still sleeping soundly across the room. And silently too. Just as silently as he moved. Just as silently as he lived. Except for that imperceptible murmur, he’d not made a sound. Such a puzzle. How did that saying go? An enigma wrapped in a riddle or some such. Then probably bound inside a trunk with at least fifty padlocked chains and dumped into a bottomless sea. Try to find out what’s inside if you can hold your breath that long, if you can dive that deep. Not likely.
She still didn’t really understand why he’d jumped from the ship to save her. She thought him capable of impassively watching her fall with his cool gaze and shrugging. What will be will be. In fact, if someone had ever posed the scenario to her, hypothetically of course, if someone could imagine such a terrible thing, that’s what she’d have said he would do. Stand calmly and indifferently in the storm’s eye of everyone else’s tears and pain. But he hadn’t. He’d come for her. As the creature he called Chaos, he’d caught her. And he’d stayed with her. Taken care of her. She was very grateful. No doubt about that. But…she didn’t understand.
Wrinkling her brow in a small frown of dissonant displeasure, she settled her head onto her arm again and closed her eyes. She decided that she didn’t want to understand him. Understanding him took up entirely too much thought, and she just wanted to go back to sleep. If she weren’t so tired, she’d make the journey back to the bed, but she was too…tired. So the chair and the console would have to do for the moment. In a minute, she would go. Get up and go. In a minute or two…
Vincent’s face suddenly sprang into her mind. Not the innocuous sleeping one this time. Not the mostly normal one. No. The one that had held her rebellious glare over the rim of the mug. The same one that had made her stay beside that lonesome splinter of a dead tree on the rain washed mountainside even when he walked away, and she’d wanted nothing more than to get up and follow him, just to prove that she could. Yes, that face. The one with the cool, unrelenting crimson gaze. The stubbornly set jaw. The Vincent that brooked no argument. The bossy one.
Go away, Vincent…
A dreamy smile touched her lips as the persistent fingers of sleep managed to get a tight hold on her mind and inexorably draw her down into a warm quagmire of muzzy drowsiness, her last thought before surrendering completely one of gratitude that Vincent couldn’t and didn’t hear her thought. That he wouldn’t leave. Somehow, she knew that, no matter what, he wouldn’t leave, even if he had heard her…stubborn man…he wouldn’t leave…she wouldn’t be alone…hungry for…conversation.…maybe…but alone…no…
Nessa spotted him first where he perched in the one shadowy corner of the softly lit room, preening his feathers on the top of a wide shelf that lined the wall behind the dusty grand piano. Maya might have noticed him too, if all her attention hadn’t been drawn to the beautifully etched windows that virtually dominated the entire space and bathed the room with the muted light of early evening. Nessa halted in place as she realized that the sun had already set behind the jagged spurs of Mt. Nibel, stealing away the last brilliant rays of sunlight from the sky. The lateness of the hour gave her pause.
The young woman didn’t answer, and Nessa tore her eyes away from the vista beyond the window to Maya’s still form where she now stood peering raptly down into the mansion grounds below, both hands clutched to her chest.
“Maya. It’s getting late. Perhaps we should go and return tomorrow. In the morning.”
Nessa’s firmly voiced suggestion failed to impress the fascinated girl, but the bird responded with a chirping whistle. Nessa smiled grimly. Apparently, Angel still felt that a timely retreat was in order as well. However, Maya paid no heed to the bird’s opinion either.
“Come look, Nessa. There’s a wonderful garden out here…”
Reluctantly, Nessa started across the room to join Maya at the wide window.
“…a beautiful stone terrace…and rose trellises…an old fountain…no water, though….I’ll bet it’s so beautiful when the water’s turned on…
Nessa started when Angel suddenly erupted into motion, his wings fluttering madly as he flew past her to a perch on the windowsill beside the girl. Maya continued as though she hadn’t noticed his arrival at all.
“…and all these hedges…rows of them…”
Nessa’s steps slowed.
“…it’s hard to tell…they are so overgrown…but I think…yes…maybe the hedges might have been…one of those…you know…mazes...like the one outside the President’s Manor in Midgar….”
Nessa spun away and headed for the grand piano.
“…I wonder if there’s a way to get out there…”
“I don’t know.” Nessa answered her tightly. “If I could find the stairs to the third floor, I’d be elated.” She swept a hand across the dusty piano bench, and then carefully sat down and lifted one slender hand to the yellowed keys.
Surprised, Maya looked around, finally drawn from her enchantment with the mansion’s backyard. “The third floor?”
Nessa absently nodded as she brought her other hand up and reverently stroked one ebony key. “Yes, that’s where his room…will be...”
…the room he would have chosen…as high as he could get…because he was drawn to high places…to see far away…just like the apartment in Midgar…the very top floor of the tallest apartment building he could find…overlooking the entire city…with an unobstructed view of the Rain Gardens…
Maya wrinkled her brow. “Whose room?”
Ignoring Maya’s query, Nessa absently traced the outline of an ivory key with one nail. “…He tried to teach me to play…but…I was just too…restless…”
She tentatively touched a few keys with her right hand, creating an unrecognizable ditty of random, tinkly musical tones that danced into the motionless air around them. Then she lifted her other hand and picked out a few lower tones to add discordantly with the others, until she hit a dead key. Sorrowfully, she let her hands fall to her lap and shook her head.
“This piano was in better condition the last time I was here,” she softly lamented.
“When was that?”
“Um…I don’t know…I was eighteen…a long time ago…”
Wisely, Maya remained silent since she didn’t really know how old Nessa was now. She was a beautiful, statuesque woman who might be in her late thirties or early forties, but she couldn’t know for sure. With the silver streaks in her hair, she might even be older.
“Um…I guess maybe…twenty-six years ago…no…twenty-seven years ago.” Nessa nodded with certainty. “Yes…that’s right…” Her mouth twisted in a wry smile. “I guess it has been a long time.” Nessa gave Maya an appraising look. “I doubt you were even born then.”
Maya slowly shook her head. “No, I’m only twenty-two.”
Nessa’s dark eyes took on a speculative aspect that made Maya shift nervously.
“You remember how old you are?” Nessa finally inquired after several seconds had slipped away.
“I…” Maya suddenly smiled with happiness and some surprise. “Yes, I guess I do! I’m twenty-two years old, and…and…my birthday is February the 7th!” She clapped her hands together with delight. “I do remember!”
Nessa smiled slightly. “What’s your name?”
The happy smile fell from Maya’s face, and her eyes dropped to the dusty floor. “I…don’t remember…”
“Where are you from?”
“I don’t remember.”
“But you have been to Midgar…”
“I don’t remember.”
“You’ve seen the President’s Manor apparently.”
“I…don’t…ah…yes I have…the grounds…anyway…”
“When was that?”
Maya silently shook her head, her brow deeply creased in concentration as she struggled to retrieve more of the memory from her stubborn brain.
“Did you live near there? On the upper plate?”
She shook her head hesitantly. “No…I don’t think so…I didn’t belong there. There was an open gate….I…think…yes, I sneaked into the gardens, through the gate.”
“I…wanted…to…” She paused and closed her eyes as the memory tickled the dim edge of her thoughts, darting playfully away when she tried to bring the image fully into the light. Then her eyes brightened as the picture of a stone arch, completely encircled in flaming red blossoms, exploded into her mind. “I wanted to touch the flowers.” She turned a smile in Nessa’s direction.
“Flowers? What kind of flowers?”
“I’m not sure…I think…yes… scarlet flamenias…”
“Where did you go when you left?”
“I don’t remember…leaving...”
Maya drew in a sharp breath as the memory played a little further, and she recalled the rush of adrenaline that leapt through her bloodstream the moment the gloved hand fell on her shoulder.
”Looks like I’m gonna have to place you under arrest, young lady.
Her heart had lodged in her throat. She didn’t want to see the inside of a Shinra jail cell. They would realize who it was they had, and she would never be free again. The horror of ending up in a Shinra laboratory again had forcefully taken her mind, and she’d been in the middle of deciding if she wanted to make a run for it when the rest of his words had finally penetrated her stunned mind, and she realized she had no worries at all.
”Bein’ more beautiful than the flowers is definitely a crime.”
“I…I got caught.”
Maya slowly sank to the windowsill, oblivious to the intent gaze of the bird still perched there. In her mind, she turned in wonder, seeking out the face of the man with the smile in his voice, but just as she reached the point where she might have seen him, the door slammed shut on her memory. Pursing her lips in concentration, she tried to retrieve the scene again from her uncooperative mind, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t gain even another glimpse. In fact, the sustained effort was beginning to make her head pound just between her temples.
Sorrowfully, she looked up to meet Nessa’s curious eyes. “I…I don’t remember anymore…”
“Hmm…do you remember anything about how you came to be where I found you?”
“I…no…I don’t remember…well…just a dream…sort of…”
Nessa’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “A wall of eyes?”
“Yes. Staring eyes. Hundreds of them. Thousands of them.” Maya pressed a hand to her mouth, her eyes widening as though she could see them watching her now.
“No, a place. I have to find it. Zafallah. I have to go there. With Angel.”
“Where is this place?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about it!”
“Then how do you know about it? Did Angel tell you?”
“No, my mother told me.”
“Your mother…” Nessa arched a brow in surprise.
“She said she was my mother. She was so beautiful. I didn’t want her to go, but she couldn’t stay. She left, and I was there alone.”
A single tear traced the curve of Maya’s cheek. Nessa almost decided to put a halt to her questions, especially as she was beginning to feel a bit like a Shinra interrogator in the face of the girl’s growing distress, but she seemed to be getting some answers of a sort, so she decided to continue.
“So, your mother left you there. All alone. Why?”
“She had to go, but she said someone would come. And you did. She couldn’t stay. She was…wasn’t…alive…anymore…”
“Something happened to her?”
“I don’t know…yes…she died…a long time…ago…I don’t remember…” Except, didn’t that have something to do with a lab too…?
“So you are saying her ghost visited you there?”
Maya slowly shook her head. “No, not a ghost. She came from the planet…from Lifestream. She had to go back.”
Nessa chewed her lip in thought. During an extended stay in Cosmo Canyon, she had learned all about the alleged connection between the mako beneath the ground and the mythical Lifestream where all souls, indeed all forms of life, supposedly go when they die. To say she had been somewhat skeptical would be an understatement. “Are you saying that she came from that tiny pool of Mako?”
“The pool?” Maya nodded uncertainly. “Yes…I was there…I think I…came from there…too.”
Nessa’s whole body went still. “You think you came from the mako pool?”
Maya suddenly lifted her head to meet Nessa’s disbelieving eyes. “Yes, I think I did.” She gasped as the realization of what she’d just said sank into her mind. She lifted a trembling hand to press against her mouth. “Do you think I…died…too…that I’m…dead…too?” A mournful coo came from the wide sill behind the vexed girl.
Impatiently, Nessa jerked her eyes away from Maya’s face to glare at the bird. His obsidian eyes met hers full measure. Stubbornly, she turned back to the piano and suddenly slammed her fingers against the keys, the discordant clamor a reflection of the turmoil in her mind, her thoughts whirling in violent rebellion at the idea that Maya might be a ghost.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Maya,” she bit out. “You are most certainly not dead. You are not a ghost!”
If a ghost could be so substantial, then a very irritated ghost should be sitting beside her now, quietly chiding her for abusing the ivory keys.
“It was just a dream, Maya. A nightmare. Nothing more.”
But then, how did one explain that damn bird? “He killed me in another life.” She’d said that, hadn’t she?
“Do you really think so?” The girl’s voice came tremulously, strained with tears and hope, so ready to trust Nessa’s words.
Nessa lifted her chin in defiance at her fanciful thoughts. “Yes, that’s what I think. I think you wandered there, probably from Rockettown, or maybe even from here, Nibelheim, sick and out of your head, perhaps the survivor of some unknown event that your mind needed to forget for a little while. I can tell you that I’ve been all over this planet, and I’ve never heard of a place called Zafallah or heard of such a sight as you’ve described. I don’t know about all that Lifestream mumbo jumbo either. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it isn’t. But even if it is, the Mako is so depleted up there…”
But then how did one explain the girl’s ability to conjure dragon-proof shields and her magical touch with flowers and her insight into things she couldn’t know and her odd moments of sagacity?
“Lifestream is real. Zafallah does exist. I have been chosen. The daughter of the Cetra. The evil remains and the other cannot prevail alone.”
Startled not only by the sudden strength in the girl’s voice, but by the monotone chant of her words as well, Nessa whipped her head around to look at her, thinking that maybe the girl was indeed a ghost and another phantom had just displaced her. But Maya still stood there in the same blue skirt and snowy peasant blouse, her unsmiling green eyes focused somewhere far beyond the room.
Intrigued, Nessa shifted sideways on the piano bench and watched her for a moment before pursuing any of the questions raging in her mind, but the girl didn’t seem aware of her perusal.
At the question, Maya looked at her in mild surprise. “What?”
“The evil you just mentioned. What is it?”
The girl shook her head in confusion. “I don’t know.”
“Then…who or what is ‘the other’?”
“What other? I don’t know what you are talking about. Why are you asking me that?”
“Well, you just said it,” Nessa prompted carefully. “Don’t you remember?”
Maybe the girl had been momentarily possessed. The idea made Nessa more than a little uneasy.
Maya stared wide-eyed in her confusion. “What did I say?”
“Hmm…you said…’The evil remains and the other cannot prevail alone’…or something like that…”
She vehemently shook her head. “No, I didn’t say that! They did!”
“Who did?” Nessa gave her head a little shake to clear away the numbing fog of unreality that was steadily creeping into her mind.
The young woman wrinkled her brow, wringing her hands together as she replayed the last few minutes in her thoughts. Finally, she dropped her eyes to the floor. “I did say that, didn’t I?” Her words slipped from her trembling lips in a strained whisper.
“Are you all right?” Nessa felt compelled to ask.
Maya straightened her shoulders at Nessa’s concern, and lifted her eyes to meet the older woman’s gaze full force, pointedly wiping away her tears with her fingertips. “Yes, I’m fine. But I didn’t say that. They said it. I was…repeating…what they said…what I remember they said…I mean. They said I had to leave because I was the chosen one.”
Nessa smiled grimly. “Now we are making headway. Had to leave from where?”
Maya turned her thoughts inward once more, chewing her lip as she tried to make sense of the fragmented images teasing her mind. “I don’t…well…where I was…floating…so peaceful…I think…yes…the voices…then the one voice…said that…I think…but I don’t know what they meant.”
“Who is ‘they’? Who chose you?”
Suddenly, Maya’s face erupted in a bright smile. “The Planet.”
Nessa lowered her dark eyes to hide the skepticism there. “Ah…I see…”
Maya’s smile suddenly disappeared behind a look of dismay.
“You do think I’m crazy,” she accused.
Uncertainly, Nessa turned back to stare down at the keyboard, the uniform pattern of ivory and ebony serving to tether her senses in a churning sea of unrealities. Finally, a rueful smile touched her lips.
“No Maya. I don’t think you’re crazy. Because if I believed you to be crazy, I would have to admit that I am also crazy, and I’m not ready to do that just yet.” A feeling of déjà vu struck her, as though she had said that or thought that before. Still, she spoke the truth. She wasn’t ready to diagnose herself insane.
Maya’s breath sighed from her mouth in exasperation. “I just wish I knew for sure that I’m…really…alive…”
Absently, Nessa caressed the piano keys with the pads of her fingers, as though in apology for the injury she’d inflicted earlier. She realized that all her speculations, although based on a broad range of experiences, could hardly explain what she knew of this girl. And the more she learned, the less she knew. In fact, she was beginning to believe that she wasn’t really here either. Maybe she had already grown so ill that she now lay in a coma, her mind balanced on a razor’s edge existence between living and dying. Maybe she was living inside a dream, and Maya was a mere figment of her imagination. Maybe she was dreaming coming to Nibelheim, entering the mansion, attempting to confront her own pain, her own guilt, to somehow connect with him and find peace, finally. Dreaming a chance to do what she hadn’t had the courage to do in her life.
Wouldn’t that make things easier? If only she could just dream a resolution, but she knew life was never that simple. Besides, she could not have dreamt the depth of the pain in Myron’s eyes or in his tortured voice, and she couldn’t possibly have been dreaming the pain that twisted through her insides in the middle of the night, and sometimes during the day now too. Not in her worst nightmares.
“Maya, I believe you are alive. I only wish I could reassure you on that score. In my opinion, you are as real as I am, but you speak of things of which I have no knowledge.” Nessa touched one key experimentally, raising one eyebrow at the dull thunk that echoed beneath the raised piano lid. “Have you asked Angel? Perhaps he would know.”
Didn’t birds know everyone’s secrets. How do you know? A little bird told me so. Except the bird in question was not so small. Well, the size of birds would be a matter of relativity. Maybe one person’s secret telling bird was larger than another person’s bird. Nessa smiled wryly at her inane thoughts. Then she realized that Maya hadn’t answered her, and she looked over her shoulder, only to find that the girl had returned to her position in front of the window, beside the silvery bird.
Nessa shivered at sight of the vivid green irises and the incongruously intelligent black eyes locked in silent communication. Purposefully, she turned her gaze back to the piano and sent her fingers moving lightly across the keys in a futile attempt to make the soft tones into a song that would weave her tumultuous thoughts into a comforting blanket of calmness. She didn’t want to think about what Angel might be relaying to the girl in her mind. She didn’t want to think about where the girl she called Maya, after her own mother who she barely remembered, might have come from. And she certainly didn’t want to think about where her own soul might go when she died. Somehow, the idea of fading away into the dying rays of a sunset to blink out into nothingness had been more comforting to her than the notion of being unceremoniously dumped into a great stream of amorphous life energies, only to be reborn as someone else entirely, all memory of who she had once been wiped away like so much scribbling on a chalk board. Here today. Gone tomorrow. Forever. She didn’t want to think about it. She didn’t want to deal with it. Suddenly, everything, all of it, seemed too close to home.
He stood poised in indecision, frozen in place with his hand flat against the door. He did not want to set one foot on the other side. He did not want to travel the length of that soulless hallway. He did not want to cross the threshold of the painfully bright room at the other end. He did not want to see what he knew awaited him there. The black letters, embossed in frosted glass, burned into his brain until his eyes could focus on nothing else.
M. O. R. G. U. E.
Oh, he’d been here before. Many times. He had put more than a few people here as well. Dead people did not bother him. After all, the ability to efficiently dispatch those that President Shinra deemed unworthy of living was part of his job description, among a whole host of unsavory talents like kidnapping, blackmail, extortion, and etcetera. He’d known all along that eventually his sins would come back to haunt him, but he had always expected to be the one to take the brunt of Fate’s retribution. Not her. Please not her. She didn’t deserve this. In fact, life owed her. For all she’d been through. She could not be down at the end of that hall.
He forced himself to swallow past the knot in his throat. No. She wasn’t. Not there. All of them, they were all wrong. Every single one of them. Dead wrong. It wasn’t her. She could not be in there, cloaked in all the familiar smells of that place. Formaldehyde, the metallic aroma of blood, the vague stench of death that clung to everything. She was too full of life. Too stubborn. Too headstrong. Too damn young. No, she wasn’t there. He knew it.
A comforting hand squeezed his shoulder. “Come on, Vin. I’ll be with you, friend. You know that, don’t you?”
Numbly, he nodded, but he didn’t move. The black letters danced in his mind. Held him in captivity. Chained him in place.
With an exaggerated huff of impatience, Lewis finally tired of waiting and shoved the door aside, pressing a firm hand against his spine to urge him through. Woodenly, he moved forward, and Lewis drew alongside to mirror Vincent’s ponderous steps, their joined footfalls echoing loudly in the narrow space. The taunting black letters behind him now, Vincent centered his mind on the distant incandescent glow from the square of glass set in the door at the end of the hall, the next obstacle he would have to summon the courage to pass. Or so he thought. Before the first door creaked ominously ajar in that endlessly long hallway of doors.
Vincent looked askance at the bald headed man who leered out at him around the doorjamb, and he abruptly halted when the man broke out into guffaws, pointing at him with a fat finger bedecked in a huge gold and diamond ring. “Serves you right, killer!” The man snickered. “She’s dead because of you!” He burst into laughter again. Vincent narrowed his eyes. The man looked familiar didn’t he? Yet, he couldn’t quite place him. Of course, he could know if he wanted. After all, he was the Turk with perfect recall. He just didn’t want to think about it. Coolly, he drew his eyes away as he walked on, closing his mind to the man’s endless chortles. Maintaining the facade even as his innards threatened to shake apart.
He lifted his chin as the man’s laughter finally faded behind him, determined to keep his senses about him, to resist any assault on his carefully constructed fortress. He could not allow Lewis to see how the man’s words made him tremble deep inside. He stepped up his pace just a bit, to put the man well behind him, but not too much, because then he would reach that door at the end of the hall too quickly. Certainly, sooner than he wished. But then, anytime would be sooner than he wished.
Vincent started when a door on the other side of the hall swung inward. He told himself he would not look. He wasn’t going to look, was he? But then he did look, and he wished fervently that he hadn’t. A woman poked a head from a doorway on the other side, her long golden hair falling over her shoulder as she leaned out. She gave him a little wave and a sad smile.
Machelle. The instant and undeniable recognition of her stopped him dead in his tracks. He felt his mouth drifting open even as he hooded his eyes to hide his shock.
“Oh, Vincent, you brought this on yourself,” she chided sorrowfully. “You should have known. You should have. I tried to tell you.”
Forgetting himself, Vincent reached out a pleading hand. “Machelle, I didn’t want…I didn’t mean…” he choked. “…I didn’t have a choice…I couldn’t stop it…please…please…oh gods…forgive me…”
“Shut the hell up, Valentine!” Lewis snapped as he grabbed his elbow and purposefully dragged him away. Lewis made sure several feet of hallway had passed beneath their shoes, and Machelle’s melancholy face had fallen away behind them before he finally glanced into Vincent’s ashen face. “Get a grip, Vin. Pull yourself together. You’re acting weak. You aren’t going to waste one second worrying about her are you? I know you liked her, but hell. You didn’t listen to her, did you? What does a lowly Shinra secretary understand about what we do? Not a thing. Besides, she shouldn’t have been photocopying confidential Shinra papers for that nosy reporter. She knew the consequences.” Vincent numbly rotated his head to stare blankly into the opaque lenses of his friend’s sunglasses as he stumbled along beside him.
Not willing to let him escape so easily, Machelle called after him, and he twisted his neck to keep her in sight even as Lewis relentlessly towed him stumbling alongside. “Vincent! You always had a choice. You did. You thought you had to do it because of her, but now she’s dead because of you.”
At her last words, Vincent pulled his elbow free from Lewis’s grip with a sharp jerk and slammed to a stop. He wrapped his arms tightly around his chest. “There’s no need for me to go down there, Lewis. She isn’t there.”
Lewis walked around in front of him, drawing his dark shades from worried sapphire eyes. He crossed his arms and wearily sighed. “Vincent, old friend, I told you. She is down there. You have to go down there. You have to identify her. You are the only one who can.”
Vincent stubbornly shook his head. “No.”
Lewis sighed heavily and ran a gloved hand through his hair, tossing back a shoulder length fall of unruly sandy locks. “Do you want me to call Jonas?”
Vincent’s lips thinned in a tense line. “No.”
Lewis tilted his head in query. “Hey, do you want me to i.d. her, man? I’ll sign off on it. You won’t even have to look at her. I’ll be glad to do it for you.”
Vincent’s brown eyes widened in alarm. “No! I have to see. For myself.”
“Vin, friend, you’re making me dizzy.” He turned away, returning his shades to his face in one quick movement. “Let’s go then.”
Vincent bowed his head and stared down into the glossy polish of his black shoes, his long ebony bangs sliding forward across his cheekbones to shadow his face. “I…I can’t.”
Lewis wheeled back impatiently, planting a hand on one hip. “And why not?”
Vincent lifted his fretful eyes and nodded toward all the jeering faces that waited in open doorways all along the corridor, all the way to that last door where the golden light shone through to make a rectangle on the dull, red tile floor. “They are waiting for me.”
Lewis snorted in derision. He poked a finger into Vincent’s chest. “Hmph. They are only there because you, Vincent Valentine, allow them to be there. You’re the one who lets them taunt you. Tell them to go away. Send them packing.”
Vincent stared at them as their jibes echoed in his mind.
Heeeey Vinnie…what goes around, comes around…
Hey, Vincey…ole bro…didn’t you see…didn’t you know…no matter what you do…no matter where you go…you will always…always…reap what you sow…
…How does it feel…murderer…when it’s one of your own…
…You always had a choice, Vincent…why wouldn’t you listen? Why?
“No!” Vincent squeezed his eyes shut, bowing his head as he pressed his hands to his ears to shut out the hateful words, but the mocking voices simply grew in his mind, joined by others, speaking louder and faster, until the words reached a crescendo of chaos, a tangled litany of accusation that sought to drive him mad.
Lewis planted a hand against Vincent’s black silk tie and gave him a hard shove that sent him stumbling back, his hands flying into the air as he struggled to maintain his balance.
“Tell them to go away, Vincent,” the sandy haired Turk snapped. “Right this second!”
“H…how? I…I don’t know how.”
Lewis flung his hands out to the side. “Damn it, man! Do I have to do everything for you?!”
Without another word, Lewis whirled around and broke into a run, wildly waving his arms and yelling like a berserker, his blue suit coat flapping behind him. All of the faces instantly fell away in alarm and vanished from the doorways, one by one, along with the jeering voices, replaced by a chorus of slamming doors that clamored painfully in Vincent’s mind.
With a smug smile of satisfaction, Lewis turned smartly on heel at the end of the corridor and reached up with both hands to straighten his tie. Then he crooked a finger at the silent Vincent. Almost of their own accord, Vincent’s feet began to move. His eyes focused on his fellow Turk, his friend, Vincent walked slowly at first, then more rapidly as he could almost sense the faces peeping tentatively at him through cracked doors. He had to get there before they grew so bold as to accost him again.
A door suddenly creaked wide. His heart skipped, but he didn’t run. He made himself walk. Cool. Confident. Intimidating. Face forward, he resisted the temptation to look, yet, from the corner of his eye, he thought he could just barely glimpse a length of shiny black hair and one almond shaped coffee-brown eye and delicate slender fingers reaching toward him.
…Vincent…my sweet son…what have you done…
His laboring heart swooped into his tight throat. He could not face her. She couldn’t see what he’d become. He ran.
Lewis snatched him to a stop as he came alongside, almost causing him to fall as the hard soles of his wingtips started to slip out from under him. Lewis yanked him up and brought his snub nose to within an inch or two of Vincent’s thin one. “Vin! Friend! What’s the matter with you? You’d think all the demons of hell were hot on your heels.” Purposefully, he turned the panting Vincent to face the door. “You know. Sometimes I really wonder how you found your way into the Turks. You really need to lose that conscience, man. It’s going to be the death of you someday. If it doesn’t drive you mad first.”
Vincent didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. Horrified, he stared at the row of draped gurneys framed in the glass. In his distress, he’d forgotten why he had come. What he had to do.
Indifferently, Lewis reached around the motionless man and pushed the door wide, crowding in behind him to force him through. Then, without any hesitation whatsoever, Lewis walked directly to a white-coated man and spoke to him, out of Vincent’s earshot. Not that he was listening anyway. All the sirens in Midgar could have been sounding, and Vincent would not have heard. All his senses were held in thrall to a white foot jutting from beneath the first table in the row, all his attention diverted to making out the writing on the toe tag without moving one step closer.
Somewhere inside his mind, Vincent watched the white-coated man and Lewis walk across the room toward a row of metal doors. He knew what they were, of course. He just didn’t want to go just yet.
“Vincent! Get over here!” Lewis urged irritably.
Vincent forced his eyes around to find that the pathologist had already slid a tray out of the refrigerated unit. His pulse throbbed relentlessly at his temple as his eyes traveled over the slightly built, too angular, form draped softly by the ghostly white sheet.
Suddenly, with no memory of moving, he was standing there, between Lewis and the lanky pathologist, a man whose complexion seemed as pale as the sheet-draped corpses around him. The man reached bony fingers for the edge of the sheet, and Vincent unconsciously tried to back away, only to find his feet glued to the floor. He sensed, more then felt, Lewis’s hand on his shoulder. He looked around at his friend, seeking his blue eyes, wanting solidarity, support, connection, but his eyes again collided fruitlessly with the opaque, hollow-eyed lenses of his friend’s sunshades. He brought his hooded gaze back to the corpse and squared his shoulders.
“Show me,” he spoke softly.
“The body is badly burned,” the monotone voice of the pathologist rumbled across the tray. “Are you sure you want to look? You will probably not be able to make an identification.”
Vincent turned an accusing glare on his friend. Lewis shrugged. “Yeah, I guess I should have told you already. That warehouse fire over in the factory district, that’s where we found her.”
“What would she…be…doing…there…she wouldn’t…be…there…” Vincent choked. “It can’t…be her…”
Lewis shrugged again. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Vin. You know how willful she was more than I do.”
Vincent jerked his eyes back to the still form on the tray. “Show me!”
At the Turk’s strangled shout, the fearful pathologist drew his hand away. “Look. We can identify her through tests. You don’t have to do this.”
His eyes wild, Vincent shot out a hand and ripped the sheet back with one spasmodic movement.
His throat painfully clinched against a convulsive gag as the repulsive stench of burned flesh overflowed his nostrils. His mind struggled to tear free from unwanted reality even while his assaulted eyes were held prisoner to the sight of the blackened, twisted limbs, and the raw patches of exposed tissue along the seared torso. The alien figure hardly looked human. Fear burned acidly in his throat as he sought out her face. He gasped. The features were completely obliterated. Melted away into a shapeless mass of twisted, black skin. Only a few long strands of singed hair remained attached to the skull. His jaw clenched, and he mulishly folded his arms. “That’s not her. It’s…she’s…too small.”
“There would have been some tissue shrinkage,” the pathologist tactfully suggested.
Vincent shook his head stubbornly. “No, it isn’t her.”
Lewis leaned toward him and whispered in his ear. “The ring, Vincent. Look at the ring.”
He shook his head in mutinous denial even as his eyes traveled to the end of the twisted right arm, to the hand that had mostly escaped the fire, to the third soot smeared finger, to the golden band that gleamed in the white light of the morgue, to the entwined dragon’s tails delicately etched into the soft metal. He knew their sinuous bodies traced the curve of the band until the sleek dragons’ heads met on the opposite side where their slender necks interlaced one around the other.
“No…” he whispered hoarsely.
“Vincent…” Lewis squeezed his shoulder, partly in reassurance and partly in admonition. To no avail.
“Sweet Shiva, no!” His tormented cry shattered the dead space around him as his thoughts fell into incoherence. His legs went weak beneath him, and he started to sink.
Lewis wrapped an arm tightly around his friend’s shoulder and nodded at the pathologist. “It’s her.”
Vincent huddled into his own arms as the barrier of his own denial finally collapsed beneath the crushing weight of his loss, followed immediately by the suffocating realization of his own culpability.
…Oh Gods! He should have been there. He shouldn’t have left her alone….
“I killed her!” He choked out.
Lewis tightened his hold. “No you didn’t, man. She shouldn’t have been there. It’s not your fault. She did it. She got what she deserved. The price of her disobedience.”
“No, Lewis!” He quaked in mind-numbing incomprehension, his legs trembling so hard that his friend’s arm was the only thing holding him upright.
A second hand clutched his shoulder, the fingers digging into the bunched muscle in a grip a bit too tight to be comforting. A conspiratorial whisper brushed his ear. “Heh heh, you know the truth, don’t you Valentine? She got what you deserved.”
Thunderstruck, Vincent jerked his head around to encounter smiling gray eyes peering at him over the top of a pair of wire-rimmed glasses.
“You hypocritical monster,” Hojo added with a smirk. “Make no mistake, they’ll all get everything that you so richly deserve.”
Shaking his head in horror, his mouth moving silently in a mad and fruitless scramble for words, Vincent tore away from Lewis and Hojo, whirling blindly around to run, to leave that room of death, to put that terrible sight behind him, to seek out the darkness of innocence, to run back two minutes, two hours…no…two days, but his feet would not move. No matter how mightily he strained to tug a shoe free from the gelatinous tile floor, he couldn’t lift so much as one foot to flee.
Unexpressed sobs tore at his throat, catching up to acidly burn there. He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry, but the well of tears seemed all dried up, indeed, had dried up years ago. He wanted release, but the huge fist of his pain was buried deep in his throat, suffocating him as he tried to drag in a breath of air. Gripping both hands to his neck, he gagged and choked, gasping for air, watching in stunned disbelief as the red tile floor rippled beneath his feet. His eyes stared unblinking at sight of a huge bubble that roiled to the surface of what had become a crimson sea beneath him. The bubble silently popped and resolved into a spray of viscous, serpentine tentacles that whipped around his shoes, and then twined around his legs, surging up his body and around his torso, reaching for his face. He struggled anew, still choking madly for air, but he could do nothing to stop the tendril that slipped into his gaping mouth to coat his tongue with the taste of blood, or the one that poked tentatively at one unblinking eye to flood his sight with the color of his sin or the one that pierced the wall of his chest to wrap a vengeful fist around his heart to unmercifully wring the life from that useless organ along with the final remaining ounces of strength left in his struggling body and the last stale breath from his aching lungs. He could not run. He could not breathe. He could not move.
Through the filter of the red haze that filled his eyes, Vincent could see Hojo standing there, a huge rifle in his hands, one gray eye squinted into the sight, coldly hollow barrel searching for him.
The Death Penalty…he knew he deserved it…yes…monstrosity that he was…
...Merciful heaven…end this agony…and let her live…eye for an eye…tooth for a tooth…life for a life…make me pay and let her live…
Tifa’s head flew up at the sound behind her, a strangled, choking cough that easily snatched her from the twilight of her slumber. With hardly a thought, she sprang from her chair, the blanket falling away to the floor as she stumbled drunkenly across the room. Her head swam sickly, but she hardly noticed as her bleary eyes sought out Vincent’s face. She could see that he still sat huddled with his head back in the corner, his mouth gaping wide as he seemed to struggle in futility for a single breath of air.
On the verge of losing her balance, she careened against the edge of the table, sending the legs scraping across the floor as she fought to keep from falling. The screeching sound brought Vincent’s eyes wide, and he bolted gracelessly from his chair, almost falling himself when the toe of his boot caught a table leg, immediately recovering his equilibrium even as he unconsciously ripped his gun from his shoulder holster and unerringly swept his arm up to aim the gun sight at a point right between Tifa’s startled eyes, all in one lightning move, a reflexive action born of survival instinct and long experience.
Tifa froze in an instant, both forearms flat against the tabletop, her wide, unblinking eyes unswervingly fixed on the round black hole at the business end of the pistol. Even if she could have stirred a single muscle or produced a single word, she wouldn’t have, for fear that any response on her part would be misinterpreted by his nightmare-ensnared mind. If he squeezed that trigger, she was dead. No doubt about it. There was absolutely no way that the bullet would miss her. She was too close. His aim, too true. Even so, she wanted to speak his name, to maybe bring him back to his senses, and she even silently formed the word, frozen lips just barely moving, but her voice wouldn't come, strangled into helplessness by the abject fear that even that simple utterance might set him off. Her heart pounding so loudly in her ears that she couldn't have heard anything else in the room if she'd tried, she forced her eyes away from the heartless depths of the gun barrel to seek out his face, and her breath locked up hopelessly in her lungs at sight of the wild incomprehension in Vincent’s wide eyes.
Endless seconds ticked by along with each painful, labored stroke of her heart as she stared into the wilderness of his alien gaze, wondering what horrible thing he saw as he blindly gaped at her, what godawful image had replaced her in his mind that put that terrible expression in his crimson irises. Mentally, she prayed, with great fervor, that he would recognize her before his trembling finger tightened to pull the trigger of his gun. And somewhere even deeper in her mind, despite her inability to draw a single breath, despite her overworked heart, despite an ensuing lightheadedness, despite the numb bloodlessness of her paralyzed limbs, and despite the fatalistic dread that grew exponentially with each passing second, a curious detachment held sway as she wondered at the unprecedented manifestation of deep emotion in his distraught face and in the depths of his glazed eyes.
Still, she could barely do more than just note the matter for future reference, not even acknowledging a slight shift in her subconscious preconceptions about Vincent Valentine. She had reached the point where she didn't think she could take the suspense anymore, the ponderous seconds stretching on and on as her prospects for the future grew ever more tenuous. In fact, an insane idea flickered into her mind, a random thought, born from futility and frustration, to just tell him to shoot. To get it over with. To end it before her heart exploded under the pressure. Before she suffocated from lack of air. Before she went mad from the uncertainty. But thankfully, the urge didn't take hold, and in the next moment, the idea became moot anyway when, finally, Vincent blinked, very slowly, as though waking from a hypnotist's trance, and Tifa watched warily as the first semblance of intelligent thought seeped into his crimson irises. Still disoriented, his normally smooth brow wrinkled in troubled bewilderment, and he lowered a disconcerted gaze to the tabletop as the nightmare slowly released him from its stranglehold. Then, with a tiny shake of his head in mute denial, he squeezed his eyes tightly closed as his arm fell limply to his side.
Almost giddy with relief, Tifa blew out her cheeks as she noisily released the pent air and slumped bonelessly against the table.
Dragging in a harsh breath, Vincent weakly sank into his chair and leaned forward to rest his elbow against the tabletop, lifting his hand to press the cool metal barrel of the Quicksilver against his cheek, partly to ground him to the real world and partly to hide the trembling in his fingers. Sickened with disgust at his actions, he struggled with the terrible picture that still resonated in his mind, that of Tifa Lockhart, terribly inert eyes glued to his face over the barrel of his gun, the fingers of her good hand convulsively digging into the unyielding surface of the table as she waited for the shot.
Desperate to rid himself of that distressing vision as well as his crippling emotions, and determined to regain his composure and clarity, he forced himself to breathe evenly, and he slowly, but certainly, began to exile the most gutwrenching remnants of the nightmare from his mind, and at the same time, worked tensely, with some difficulty, to draw his customary mantle of calmness around him even as he bowed his head so that his bangs would fall forward to hide the chilly beads of sweat that cooled his brow and even as he tightened his muscles to still the quaking in his knees, and all the while, he let his thoughts skim superficially, analytically, across the actual content of the dream, hoping that when he had revisited the entire thing to its end, the images will have lost their power to eviscerate him. However, he found his emotions not so willing to fall into line with his attempt at objectivity.
The nightmare…a madman’s concoction…that unbearable memory of…of… and Hojo…and all of the fantastical, tormenting ghosts that constantly haunted him…
His mind rebelled at actually thinking about the event, the circumstances behind the terrible dream, but he couldn’t quite bend his thoughts to his will. The memory of that burnt corpse, that piece of human detritus that could not be her, suddenly flashed in his mind, and he almost choked. With a slight shake of his head, he commanded the image away, but his stubborn thoughts traveled on, replaying the unwanted memory across the screen of his mind.
There had been no wronged spirits waiting for their chance to accost him in the corridor that day. Only those that ever taunted him in his mind. And, in actuality, the walk had been short. He hadn’t come apart either. Not then. He’d coolly made the identification, with a mere nod of his head, numbly, with ice flowing through his veins, and then he’d turned on heel and left. Put Lewis and the pathologist, who bore no resemblance to Hojo whatsoever, behind him, and that…thing…on the tray that his heart said could not be her, but his mind told him otherwise, he put that behind him too. And he’d shown nothing to the world. Felt nothing, really. Until he’d quietly closed the door of his apartment behind him. Until he’d walked into the pristine kitchen to take a glass down from the cabinet and fill it with ice from the refrigerator and water from the tap, as he would do everyday, mechanically, by rote. Until he walked through the door to seek out his favorite chair, his waiting book, only to face the echoing silence in the room. Hoping beyond hope, he’d softly called out her name and waited for the slightly irritable answer that didn’t come echoing down the hall. And then, the glass had smashed against the wall, and from some distant place, he’d watched it break apart to fall into the carpet in a glittering shower of water droplets and glass. Then, something inside him broke too, and like the glass, he’d shattered into as many jagged, tormented pieces, falling to his knees to dig his fingers into the plush carpet as he’d wept away the agony in his heart. Not even the frantic knocks at the door could bring him back. Not even his beloved Lucrecia’s concerned voice calling his name persistently through the wooden door. Even she could not see his…shame.
With great difficulty, Vincent forced his mind away from the past, that horrible day, and back to the present. He would not think about that day anymore. He’d managed not to think about it for a long time, and he could certainly manage not to think about it again. Ever again. But the nightmare…the nightmare had been bad, the worst he’d had in a long time. One of his Pre-Nibelheim nightmares revisited. And he’d nearly added an element of reality…
He could feel her eyes on him as he straightened in his chair and numbly slid the gun into its holster, pointedly snapping the hammer strap securely into place as though in reprimand at the gun’s proclivity to leap so easily into his hand. Somewhat uneasily, Vincent lifted cool eyes to meet her wary gaze head on. She had dropped into the other chair and now huddled into the safety of her folded arms, watched him with a bewildered frown, her uninjured hand fisted to her chest, probably to still her racing heart. He gazed at her as his mind searched for the appropriate thing to say, but he couldn’t gain even a tenuous grasp on what he was feeling at just that moment, much less find any words to mitigate the situation. In fact, his emotions were so tangled he didn’t know how he felt, other than trapped. He felt like a small rabbit, frozen in still life at the end of a hunter’s gun, so utterly still and quiet but trembling like a leaf in the wind, inside. Every nerve in his body screamed at him to bolt, but he refused to surrender to the impulse. His pride would not allow him to make a cowardly retreat or even to look away from her troubled face, his gaze emotionless despite dwelling in the remaining shadow of his nightmare, despite the lingering touch of his memories, despite the guilt that threatened to rise above all his other emotions to consume him.
Tifa shifted uneasily in her seat, increasingly uncomfortable beneath the chilly crimson eyes. “Er…are you okay?” She finally asked him with some hesitation.
His expression unchanging, he stared speechlessly at her for a moment more, somewhat taken aback that her first concern would be his welfare just after he’d leveled his gun at her. Only the slightest contraction of his trigger finger and…
Irritated at the picture that rose in his mind, Vincent impatiently turned his eyes to the table and curtly nodded. “I’m fine.”
“Um…well…you certainly scared me,” she chided softly as her eyes fell away to the tabletop.
“Please forgive me,” he replied in inflectionless monotone.
Intently studying the shiny collection of foil wrapped candies and cartridges scattered across the slate top in front of her, she took a long breath and made herself speak. “No…I mean…I thought you were…sick…or….something…um…I’m sorry if I…startled…you….”
Vincent darted a quick look at her averted face, the surprise evident in his face for the flicker of a moment, before he again looked away. She didn’t seem the slightest bit concerned that he’d aimed his gun at her. She was only worried about him. He gave his head a little shake. He should have expected no less, he supposed. After all, Tifa Lockhart had always been a person who cared a great deal for the well-being and sensibilities of those around her, more so than her own he’d wager. In this case, she simply didn’t understand that he wasn’t worth her effort. Pointedly, he unfisted his hand from his thigh and reached for the map.
Vincent had been still for so long that Tifa almost flinched at his abrupt movement. With contrived casualness, she lifted a finger and nervously tracked the length of a long scratch that marred the slate tabletop. “Um…that must have been a pretty bad nightmare.”
He didn’t respond to her observation, not even after she let a few seconds tick past on the huge clock on the far wall. She didn’t really expect a reply. She well knew that Mr. Valentine didn’t seem to feel bound by generally accepted rules of polite conversation. Eventually, she brought her liquid brown eyes up to find that he’d turned his entire attention to the paper that had so intrigued him before. She knew she should let it go. She should just leave him alone, forget about the whole thing, but she felt like a moth drawn to a flame, knowing full well that she was headed for disaster but helpless to turn from her path. For some reason, she felt compelled to find out what had distressed him so. What quirk of his dream sleep had given rise to the first startling evidence of real emotion that she’d ever seen in his face?
She forced her lips to move. “Would you like to…talk about it?”
“No,” he bit out testily, pointedly drawing the paper closer to him.
Tifa drew a series of invisible interlocking circles with one fingertip before she decided to persist. “You know, they say if you talk about your nightmares, sometimes it, you know, takes away their…power…to….to…” Finally overcome by her natural shyness and his continued disinterest in the conversation, her words failed her.
Suddenly he looked up at her, crimson eyes narrowing on her face. “Who is ‘they’?”
“What?” She asked uncomprehendingly.
He didn’t respond, but he didn’t look away either. Her eyes nervously shifted away from his intense stare. Then it came to her what he meant, and she tried to meet his steady gaze but found she could only manage to focus on the end of his long, thin nose.
“…ah…you mean the ‘they’ that…yes…well…just people…I guess…I’ve heard it said a lot of times…I guess…or maybe saw it on…tv…” Her voice stumbled to a stop again.
“Is that so?” He inquired softly, the lack of intonation in his voice indicating a studied indifference.
Feeling completely foolish, Tifa decided to let it rest. If she had the strength to kick herself for even opening her mouth, she would. With a sigh, she made a mental point to hurry up and get well enough to leave this place. She was beginning to accept the fact that if she spent too much more time in Vincent’s company, she would probably go insane. Nervously looking for something else, anything else, to discuss, she let her eyes travel across the scattered contents of the tabletop. Her eyes fell on the discarded comb, several strands of her dark hair still entwined in the closely set teeth. She really should thank him for what he’d done for her, even though she was almost afraid to broach the subject. She drew in a quiet breath and steeled herself to speak.
“Um…thank you…for combing out my hair.”
Vincent abruptly pushed the paper away and shoved the chair back with a loud scrape. Moving around the table, he halted beside her and leveled cool eyes on the top of her head. Feeling more than a little intimidated by his towering figure, she hesitantly looked up into his face, at his chin, just short of his eyes that she suspected were as frigid as a winter gale.
“I’m going out,” He curtly informed her. “Is there something you’d like me to do for you before I go?”
“Going out? Going out where?” Her voice rang sharp with her surprise. She forgot not to look into his eyes.
Vincent raised one dark wing of an eyebrow, and it suddenly occurred to Tifa that she sounded like a petulant wife, annoyed at being left behind. Well, certainly she wasn’t his wife or girlfriend…lord, what an idea…and he surely didn’t have to answer to her…but she was annoyed at having to stay behind. She wanted to go too. She didn’t want to stay in that room alone.
She sighed and looked down at the bandaged hand in her lap. “I mean, where is there to go?”
If she had looked up, she might have seen the briefest glint of amusement deep in his crimson eyes, but the flush that had spread across her cheeks led her to keep her face discreetly averted.
“I’m going to search the crates in the storage area, outside that door…” He fell silent and waited for her to look up at him before he inclined his head toward the door. “…For anything that we might use. Military rations.” He let his eyes travel the length of the gown, pausing on the pool of satin around her bare feet. “Perhaps some clothing. Medical supplies that I can use to redress your injured hand.”
Her eyes had already fallen to her lap again, and he watched the top of her head for a response. Finally, she gave a simple nod.
“Is there something I can do for you before I go?”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“A cup of water, perhaps?”
“Yes, that would be nice.”
He retrieved the mug from the table and carried it to the bathroom. She listened to the sound of him rinsing and filling the mug without lifting her head. She didn’t look at him when he returned to set the cup down on the table either, and she didn’t speak until he pointedly slid the cup in front of her.
“Will there be anything else?”
Hesitantly, Tifa shook her head, but, this time, when the silky strands of her long hair brushed against her cheeks at the movement, she remembered that she couldn’t tie her hair back with only one hand. She knew that if she left her hair loose, the thick, wayward tresses would only get in her way as she struggled to move around, eventually becoming tangled again. As long as her hand was out of commission, which she figured would be well into the foreseeable future, she wouldn’t be able to comb it out again. Better to opt for the lesser of two evils now. Still studiously examining the clumpy bandage, she again forced herself to ask another thing that, under other circumstances, she wouldn’t ever in a million years ask Vincent Valentine to do for her.
“Um…could you…do you have something…to tie my hair back with…since I…can’t…can’t…do…it.”
Vincent stood silently beside her for so long that she wanted to tell him to forget about it, to apologize for even asking him. In fact, if she could have made herself look up at him, forced her lips to move, she would have done just that. Told him to go on. Leave. Do his thing. But she couldn’t.
Every muscle in his body tense, Vincent stared down at her. He should have already gone. But no, he’d tarried, like a brain dead fool, and now he was cornered. There was not a single, justifiable reason he could invent to refuse her simple request. Numbly, he reached into his trousers pocket and gathered the wad of string in his fingers. Then he bent to retrieve his knife from his boot, pausing in consternation when he didn’t find it, until he remembered yanking the knife from the sand of the Sleeping Man Cave and dropping it into his other pants pocket.
Knife in hand, he flipped the blade out and precisely cut two uniform lengths of string. Then he tossed the knife and the remaining string onto the wrinkled, oil stained section of newspaper. At the clatter of the knife against the table, Tifa woodenly lifted her gaze to take in the details of the loosely wadded ball of string and the open bladed, bone-handled knife in front of her, almost wincing as Vincent stepped in behind her. Impulsively, she bowed her head and squeezed her eyes shut as he worked to gather her hair in his right hand only to open them again when he stopped at the discovery that she was sitting on a good portion of her hair.
“Can you stand?”
She only nodded at his tightly voiced inquiry, and she pressed her left hand flat against the table to push herself upright, sidling away from the chair to give him access. Her muscles tensed as he reached around her neck with both hand and claw to drag the long, silky locks back over her shoulder. Inadvertently, his cool metal digits barely grazed the nape of her neck as he clumsily gathered all of her hair into a ponytail. Instinctively, she flinched, and he paused in his movement.
“Did I hurt you?” His question held the slightest hint of strain, although Tifa didn’t really notice as she was struggling with embarrassment at her reaction.
She held her head carefully still. “No. I’m just not used to…someone else…doing this for me…” She didn’t want him to think that the metal fingers had repulsed her. She wanted to tell him that she had just been startled by the touch of the metal tips, though unnerved might be a better description, but she couldn’t bring herself to mention it for fear that she would only make matters worse.
Vincent accepted her explanation and silently returned to his task of gathering her hair, more careful to avoid touching her skin at all. Somewhat nervously, he drew the piece of string around the bunched hair in his hand and bent to the formidable process of tying the thin piece of string into a bow. He had not yet mastered the fine motor movements required to tie strings with his metal digits. He didn’t know if he ever would. Certainly, the situation wasn’t helped by his desire to leave the room, to get away to think, to completely recover his senses. Remnants of the nightmare yet remained, leaving him feeling somewhat shaky despite his ability to maintain his cool mask. He wanted to laugh at that thought. Cool mask? Who was he fooling? His facade was slipping. He had almost snapped at her, which was the main thing that had led to his sudden decision to leave, but then she had lightened his spirits and might have brought a smile to his face, if he could remember how to smile. If he’d ever known…how… He gave his head a barely perceptible shake at his nonsensical thoughts. He had come to the point where his beleaguered mind was driving him insanely around in circles. Still, he would go. His plan was still sound. He needed to retrieve a rifle or two and look for the items he’d mentioned to her, especially the medical supplies. He’d expended everything the Sleeping Man had in his medical kit. Better to go now than later.
In his reverie, he almost dropped the string. Moving closer, he tried again to tie the string into a bow. Frustrated at his awkwardness, he irritably blew out a breath of annoyance that tickled the top of Tifa’s head and made her flinch again. He paused and opened his mouth to apologize, but decided that he’d best not. Stubbornly pursing his lips, he chose to forgo the bow and settled for tying the string into a double knot. That done, he let the ponytail fall and bent to tie the second piece of string around the other end, also opting for the double knot method. Immensely relieved that he’d finally accomplished the task, although with a great deal of clumsiness, he let the soft ponytail slide from his reluctant fingers. Then, he hastily stepped away, and without another word to her, he strode purposefully across the room, pulled the door open, and stepped through without a backward glance. Tifa peeped up through her lashes to watch the door fall shut behind him with a soft shush.
Bemused, she raised her head to stare openly at the featureless door for a full minute as though she thought he might reappear and invite her to go, but he didn’t, and she finally lost interest in the door and Vincent. Idly, she glanced around the spartan room. She really didn’t know what she wanted to do. She could climb back into her bed and sleep, but she had grown weary of the bed. She felt like she’d been asleep for years. Vincent had brought her water, so she didn’t need to make that trip to the bathroom just yet. She could journey to the cabinets and search for something to assuage the hunger pangs in her neglected stomach.
The thought of food spurred her into motion. She was hungry, and she wanted something to do to take her mind off the sudden emptiness of the space around her. She just hoped that she could find something besides that noxious stuff Vincent had poured down her earlier.
She actually did take three shuffling steps toward the cabinet, but somewhere along her path, her feet took over and turned her toward the door. Suddenly, she decided that she wanted nothing more than to see where the ever-elusive Mr. Valentine had gone. She wanted to see what was on the other side of that door. And she wanted to go, well, just because she could. Maybe.
Tifa laboriously crossed to the door, which suddenly seemed further away than she’d first thought, and weakly tugged it open. She nearly gasped when her feverish eyes collided with the brilliant white light beyond. Very cautiously, she slid her feet forward against the metal surface of the landing to bring her out of the alcove and right up to the edge of the very first step. She reached for the end of the railing and held herself there as she looked out into the over bright light. Her jaw fell slack as her eyes slowly adjusted, and the details of the immense chamber full of machines and laden shelves swam into her mind. Strangely, she thought she could even hear the muted rush of water somewhere far away.
With her thought processes completely engaged, she unconsciously stepped down one step and sank to the metal floor, her left hand firmly clasped around the railing to soften her landing. She absently sent her rapt gaze traveling over the fallen shelves and the tumbled crates until she found the distant and familiar form of Vincent bending on one knee as he apparently rummaged through the scattered contents of one of the boxes. Comforted by his presence, she let her eyes travel over the dismantled helicopters, tanks, and planes to land on the huge bulk of an airship, a bit smaller, but somehow more decorative then the Highwind. Then she let her wide eyes travel up, way up, into the bottomless darkness beyond the banks of fluorescent lights, a never-ending depthlessness that seemed to rival the very vault of the heavens. Finally, she released her captive breath in a wondering whisper.
“Gods…what is this place?”
“I think I’ve found it, Nessa! Over here!”
Nessa turned sharply at Maya’s excited words. “What did you find?”
“The stairs to the third floor!” Maya gestured toward an opening in the wall. “Come look!”
Nessa stared. She’d just passed through the second floor hallway twice, once going to, and again returning from, what once must have been an office but had now become a storage room of sorts, full of jumbled office furniture and boxes. Another day, she might have inspected the contents of the room, but not today. Her anxiety about the diminishing light inside the mansion had grown to the point that all she wanted to do was go. At any rate, she certainly had not noticed a door.
“Where did that come from?” She asked suspiciously.
“It was always here.” Maya reached in and pulled the door closed. “It’s just designed to blend in with the panel, but I noticed this little latch here, and I just turned it and it opened.” To demonstrate, she turned the latch, which looked more like an ornate gold wall hook than a doorknob, and the door silently fell inward. Maya turned to Nessa with a satisfied smile.
Nessa eyed the open passageway. A wry smile touched her lips. “How clever.”
Maya tilted her head invitingly. “Well, do you want to go see?”
The older woman stared at the door silently. Maya clasped her hands behind her back and leaned slightly forward to peer into Nessa’s guarded face. For her part, Nessa wanted nothing more than to go up the stairs, but the hour had grown so late that she feared the shadows that increasingly encroached into the spaces inside the mostly unlit mansion. Although the structure seemed to have an ambient power source of some kind, most likely mako driven, most of the light bulbs had apparently burned out, and the mansion was growing murkier by the minute.
“I don’t…know.” Nessa chewed her lip anxiously. “Perhaps…we should come back tomorrow…” Still, she took a step toward the door.
Maya straightened and grinned mischievously. Then she dove into the dark aperture. Nessa took another step forward, but halted in her tracks. A moment later, Maya peered around the edge of the frame at her. “Come on, Nessa,” she urged cheerily. “Why wait? No time like the present, right?” Then she disappeared again.
A flutter of wings, loud in the close space of the hallway, signaled the arrival of Angel. For some unknown reason, the silver and white bird had lingered in the storage room they’d just left, but now showed his eagerness for Maya’s plan, subsequently vanishing into the dark opening as well, no doubt to inspect the third floor ahead of her.
The aged stairs creaked loudly beneath Maya’s feet as she started up, and Nessa shoved away her trepidations and dashed the last few steps to the doorway, pausing in place at the touch of the chill, musty air against her face. She took a careful step into the tiny space at the foot of the stairs and turned to squarely face the narrow stairway that ran up along the other side of the hallway partition.
She tipped her chin and stared up into the almost impenetrable darkness, hardly touched by the fading light from behind her. She couldn’t see or hear any sign of Maya or the bird. She set the sole of one sandal on the edge of the step, but couldn’t make herself move any further. Already, her heart had picked up its pace, and her skin crawled at the back of her neck. Even though she only stood in the muted shade at the periphery of the darkness, she could feel the insidious miasma of black air from the stairwell seeping around her. Unconsciously, she let her foot slide from the step and slowly shuffled backward until her back bumped into the wall.
“Come on, Nessa!” Maya called cheerily from somewhere above. “Hurry up!”
Nessa slowly shook her head even as her eyes searched vainly for even a glimpse of the slight girl. “I…I…can’t,” she croaked into the dead space.
“Why not?” Maya called back.
“I…I’m…I…just…can’t…go up there…I…I’m…”
Terrified out of my skull of that narrow dark hallway. That’s the problem. Like the little girl that knows the boogey man wraps himself in shadows and waits. The boogey man that eats little girl bones for brunch. And he has his hot, greedy eyes on me. But of course, there really was no boogey man clad in the garments of the night. Boogey men weren’t real. It was the monster outside the locked door. The ungodly shouting and the wretched cries of pain and distress that seeped like a fog under the door, through the keyhole, through the tiny hands pressed to her ears…
“Nessa?” Maya’s concerned voice floated down the stairs. Then a series of creaks announced her descent.
The older woman stared wide-eyed into the stairwell, waiting for Maya to appear, but flattening her back against the wall, pressing a hand to her pounding heart, fully expecting the grinning skeletal face of her own death to loom from the hungry shadows that dwelt in the stairwell. But in the end, only the girl appeared after all, her blessedly sweet face full of worry for Nessa. Hesitantly, Maya reached out and drew Nessa’s limp, clammy hand into her own. She tugged slightly and smiled up into Nessa’s fearful face.
“Come on, Nessa. I’ll walk with you. You won’t be alone.”
Nessa’s mind registered the girl’s words even as a painfully familiar, almost playful voice spoke in her mind.
You need never fear the darkness while I’m with you. I’ll chase those loathsome shadows away.
Yes, the shadows ran from you…but…you aren’t with me, and you never will be again…the shadows got you…in the end…
Maya gave her hand another gentle tug. “Nessa? Are you coming?”
Nessa blinked and lifted her clouded eyes to the girl’s encouraging face. Then, she finally nodded, and Maya’s smile widened. She gave Nessa’s hand an encouraging squeeze, and the woman let herself be pulled away from the wall. Gingerly, she set her foot on the first step once again, and even as she struggled against the suffocating tightness in her chest, she let the girl who thought herself a wraith draw her into the darkness, one canted riser at a time.
Vincent reverently lifted the rifle from the overturned crate in hand and claw, and carefully examined all the surfaces and mechanisms of the sleek, black gun. Then, he raised it to sight down the barrel. He much preferred the sharpshooter’s rifle to the multitude of rifles he’d already found, all various models of standard Shinra military rifles, fully automatic. All would provide ample defense if needed. After all, one really didn’t have to aim all that carefully. No refined skill needed on the part of the shooter. Just point and pull down on the trigger. Probably the reason more than a few Shinra soldiers managed to shoot their own feet as well as each other. Vincent didn’t care for weapons of that sort, guns that could spray a multitude of bullets in mere seconds. Victims of such guns were often chosen indiscriminately. Until now, he’d found nothing that suited him better, and the incident with the black mountain cat several days ago clearly delineated the need for something more deadly than the chrome Quicksilver or the disabled Peacemaker, so he’d laid one of the automatic rifles aside. Now, of course, he would take this rifle instead. Still, he’d have to locate the requisite ammunition for that particular rifle. The automatic weapon ammunition wasn’t the right caliber, and the nearby box of massive machine gun cartridges would simply not suffice.
With a slight shrug, Vincent turned and carefully added the rifle to the growing pile of items he’d been collecting over the last half hour or so. In the end, finding most of the things on his mental list hadn’t been as difficult as one might think. As it turned out, the shelves were filled from top to bottom with anything an army might need on the march. Tents, tarps, backpacks, tinned food, military ration packets, lanterns, sleeping bags, canteens, rifles, ammunition, medical supplies, rocket launchers, hand grenades, and so on. What Chaos hadn’t playfully strewn around for easy picking, he’d discovered in the clearly marked crates that remained intact, crates that he’d handily pried open with the tips of his claws.
With a critical eye, he inventoried his loot to determine what else he might search for, besides cartridges for the rifle. He’d already gathered an armful of military garments from the various crates that Chaos had destroyed. The trousers, t-shirts, socks, and button down shirts were all black, as had been the uniforms of the Shinra army in his day. Recalling the blue uniforms of the troopers he’d seen recently, he wondered when the Shinra army had switched to the blue garments that the soldiers now wore. Of course, as long as he’d been out of the picture, Shinra might have changed their uniforms several times by now.
He shrugged again and looked over the rest of the stuff; a couple of sleeping bags and two army backpacks with canteens attached that he’d appropriated knowing that a long walk awaited the two of them at some point if he managed to find a way out of the cavern, an oversized medical kit that he hoped would contain everything he might need to treat Tifa’s injured hand, a stack of canned food that he’d taken from a box on the shelf, and a half dozen metal containers filled with foil packets of dehydrated or irradiated army cuisine, nothing particularly mouthwatering, but hopefully something that would suit Tifa’s palate better than the powdered broth she’d so vehemently disliked.
At thought of her, Vincent swiveled his head to bring her into view where she still sat, faraway from him, on the top step, hunched into her arms with her head against the railing. He’d mostly ignored her presence when she’d first emerged from the control room, centering all his attention on his self-assigned task. Still, he’d surreptitiously checked on her sporadically as he’d moved through the racks, just to ensure that she didn’t need his help, somewhat grateful that she’d inadvertently freed him from worrying about her by coming out onto the steps where he could keep an eye on her.
Yet, she hadn’t so much as moved in all that time. He might have thought that she slumbered where she sat, but he could sense her watching him, even though he couldn’t make out the details of her face from that distance. He could see that she cradled her bandaged hand against her chest, and wondered how greatly the injury pained her, now that the aspirin was gone. Although he knew that the aspirin hadn’t alleviated the pain much, the simple medication had eased her fever and helped her rest. She was probably cold too. The air inside the cavern was much chillier than the climate controlled air inside the control room. Perhaps the time had come to turn his attention to caring for her again. Indeed, the time had long gone. Unconsciously, he’d been avoiding the forced interaction required to clean her hand, assuring himself that she needed to sleep more or that he didn’t have what he needed to care for her injury and that he’d only make things worse. But he knew better. Even just the act of cleaning the wound and changing the bandages could only help. And of course, he now had a field medical kit, firmly negating his feeble excuses.
Purposefully, Vincent bent and lifted the heavy metal box at his feet, straightening as he locked his metal digits tightly around the handle. He started to turn away, but almost as an afterthought, he bent again and gathered a silver food packet from one box and dropped it into his shirt pocket. Then, he grabbed a small silver can marked only by the cryptic word “fruit”, and he crammed the can down into his trousers pocket where the hard rim dug into his hip.
A feeling of great reluctance, even dread, swept over him as he jumped over a jumble of liberated camouflage pants and rounded a large, upturned crate of flak helmets, cautiously wending his way through what seemed a scattered herd of netted turtle shells plotting to tangle his feet and bring him to his knees. A few more minor obstacles later, he finally gained the uncluttered concrete path on the other side, and he raised his eyes to find himself much closer to the steps where she waited, and as he walked nearer, his inner turmoil only grew more intense, swelling inside him to tighten his chest and speed his pulse, although completely unrevealed by his determined step and steady gaze. Even when she lifted her head and leveled her dark eyes in his direction, his heart skipped a beat, but his step did not falter. He merely squared his shoulders and lengthened his stride.
When Tifa realized that Vincent was most certainly headed her way, she reached up to grip the metal bar of the railing with her left hand and tried to rise, only to find that her bloodless legs didn’t want to cooperate. Still, she was determined to stand on her own feet, to step from his path and meet him face to face. So she threw herself diligently into her struggle, almost gasping aloud as her movements awakened the nerves in her numb legs, igniting the not quite painful prickling of pins and needles.
Despite that, she actually made some progress, managing to lift herself up and draw one lifeless limb up beneath her, until her calf muscle lodged a less than civil protest and knotted up in a hard spasm. Then the gasp did slip from her lips, and she released the railing to let herself collapse back against the step. Biting her lip against the pain, she closed her eyes and straightened her leg out, forcing her bare toes inward to pull the cramp out. Slowly, but certainly, the muscle unclenched and the pain eased, and when she opened her eyes and lifted her head, Vincent stood before her, two steps down yet towering over her. She’d wound up in exactly the position she didn’t want to find herself in again, feeling infinitesimally insignificant, huddled at his feet.
Nervously, she peered up into his shadowed face, his crimson eyes partially hidden behind the curtain of hair that had fallen in feathers across his cheeks when he’d bent his head to look down at her. Unconsciously, she chewed her lip, unaware of the uneasiness written clearly in her face for him to read. Unable to hold his gaze, she let her eyes fall to the box he carried, and she opened her mouth to ask him about it, but the words wouldn’t come.
With an impatient toss of his head, he threw his hair back over his shoulder and reached his hand down to her. He’d decided not to waste words in polite conversation, preferring to get directly to the point of the matter.
His voice, though quiet, rang with firm command, and she lifted her head to study the offered hand with a bit of trepidation. Then, she hesitantly laid her hand against his palm. Instantly, he closed his fingers around hers and lifted her to her feet, releasing her to stand unsteadily on the first stair. She found herself looking directly into the cool crimson eyes, face to face as she’d wanted, for just a second, before the muddled contents of her head seemed to dizzily tilt and her legs went rubbery beneath her, and she fell forward with a startled yelp, grabbing at his shirt to keep from falling even as her body came to rest against his motionless form and her forehead bumped against his cheekbone as he turned his head to the side.
With a mental sigh, Vincent turned his eyes toward the ceiling as Tifa pushed against him with her one good hand in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to regain her step. Her face burned with embarrassment, and she averted her own eyes to one of the buttons on his shirt.
Vincent lowered his gaze to the top of her bent head for a moment before he reached up to gently grasp her upper arm in his fingers, carefully setting her away from him as he sidled around her to stand beside her on the top step, holding her in place until she’d managed to get a tight grip at the top of the railing.
Once he thought she might maintain stable footing, he released her arm, and she ventured a quick look at him. He arched one elegant eyebrow in question. “Can you walk?” He queried with a hint of skepticism in his voice.
Numbly, she nodded and, as though to prove her capability to him, she abruptly turned for the door, a mistake of course. Her head swam sickly, and her wobbly legs tangled, and she fell against the smooth wall of the alcove, her bandaged hand slamming into the cinderblock as she tried to catch herself.
Unseen by Tifa, who had drawn her throbbing hand against her waist and worked to swallow the whimper that had fortunately stuck down inside her throat, Vincent shook his head in exasperation and bent to set the case on the landing, and then he simply wrapped his arm around her waist and lifted her clean off her feet, swinging her tightly against his side to hang like a sack of potatoes or a bag of dirty laundry. He reached for the doorknob and swung the door inward as Tifa, startled at the move and suddenly supremely annoyed, grabbed a fistful of his shirt to hold herself steady and immediately kicked out with her bare feet.
“P…put me down!” She sputtered her indignation. “I…I can walk on my own!”
“I don’t have time to wait for that event,” Vincent pointed out, seemingly indifferent to her struggles despite the fact that her flailing feet had landed several blows against his legs, making the process of carrying an adult female through the door and across the room doubly difficult.
“Vincent! Put me down!”
“In due time, Miss Lockhart.”
Suddenly conceding her defeat, Tifa went still, unconsciously turning her flushed face into his chest to hide her red cheeks, her embarrassment complete. “Please put me down…” she whispered.
“As you wish.” Vincent halted beside the chair and twisted to ease her down into place. With only a cursory glance to ensure that she wouldn’t fall from her seat, he wordlessly turned his back on her as before, crossing the room to slip through the door, but this time returning momentarily with the medical kit in his hand.
Tifa shyly turned her eyes to the table. She didn’t look up when Vincent carefully set the large metal box against the table with a soft clunk, and she didn’t look around when he picked the chair up from the corner and carried it over to set it down on the other side of her. Curiosity did get the better of her when Vincent sat down and scooted the chair forward, and she turned her head slightly to peer through her lashes, watching him as he drew the box closer and flipped up the latches to lay the lid back. Her interest grew as he started to rummage through the contents of the box, and she lifted her head to watch him openly as he set out bandages, medical tape, and a bottle of betadine. Then, Vincent lifted a small glass vial from the box and studied the label.
His face had been hidden from her behind his fall of hair, but as he set the small bottle atop the packet of bandages, he suddenly turned his head to look at her. Startled, she averted her eyes, but immediately look up again when he reached back into the box. Her eyes widened in alarm when he drew out a capped syringe.
“What are you going to do with that?” The anxious question tumbled from her lips before she could think.
Vincent didn’t look up, setting the syringe aside to continue his perusal of the contents. “I’m going to clean your wound and redress your hand.” He quietly remarked as he lifted a small tin box in his fingers to read the label.
At the fear in her voice, Vincent turned his eyes on her again, noting the pallor of her face.
“Your hand must be cared for,” Vincent patiently informed her.
“No!” Tifa swallowed hard to stifle her unreasonable fear. She took a deep breath and spoke again. “I mean…yes…I know. I knew you were going to, but I meant the…needle. What are you going to do with that?”
Vincent dropped his eyes to the object of her alarm. Then he lifted the small vial and turned the label around for her to see. “This is lidocaine. If I inject this around the wound, the medication will deaden the nerves, and I can clean your injury more thoroughly.”
Tifa stubbornly shook her head. “No, you can’t.”
He set the vial aside and tilted his head quizzically. “Why not?”
Her wide eyes wholly focused on the needle, she drew in a ragged breath. “Do you even know how to use that thing?”
She whipped her head up to glare at him. “Well, you can’t.”
“I…I…don’t like needles…” she stammered beneath his steady gaze.
“You are afraid of needles?”
“Um…we…ell…yes. Yes, I guess I am.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Huh?” Tifa knitted her brow in confusion at Vincent’s abrupt change of topic.
“I’ve brought you something to eat.”
Tifa watched him warily as he reached down and straightened his leg out to work the small can from his pocket. Eventually, he set the silver tin in front of her, and she stared suspiciously at the word stamped on the front. Then he deposited the square foil packet on the table beside the can, and she transferred her puzzled stare to that, speechlessly studying the Shinra military logo.
“Unless you would prefer some more soup?”
Tifa grimaced at the thought. “Well, it depends on what’s inside.”
Vincent reached across and picked up the packet, deftly tearing it open to reveal the four cereal bars inside. He returned the open packet to the table in front of her.
At sight of them, Tifa’s stomach grumbled. “Um…those look pretty good.” She reached out a finger to poke at one. “Where did you find them?”
Vincent straightened his legs out in front of him and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms as he studied her face. “There are many crates of military food stored outside.”
“But…um…is it any good? Not spoiled, I mean?” She didn’t want to wind up puking up her heels with food poisoning on top of everything else.
Vincent shrugged. “None of the crates are more than a couple of years old. I would guess the stock is updated occasionally.”
All her doubts laid to rest, Tifa wasted no more time. Her neglected stomach wouldn’t let her wait anyway. Oblivious to Vincent’s watchful gaze, Tifa drew one of the bars from the foil and lifted it to her mouth, hungrily taking a huge bite. Chewing quickly, she swallowed. The food couldn’t get to her stomach fast enough.
Delighted, she turned a happy smile in Vincent’s direction. “These are pretty good! I hope there’s more.” Happily, she took another bite.
He inclined his head in response. “There are.”
Vincent watched as she devoured the first one and reached for another. Then he straightened in his chair. At his movement, Tifa looked around again. Suddenly, she realized that she was hogging the food. “Um…sorry…would you like one?”
Vincent shook his head and laid his hand flat against the table, palm up as she took another bite. “Give me your hand.”
“What?” She mumbled around a mouthful of cereal bar. A flicker of irritation flashed through her eyes.
“Give me your hand. I want to remove the bandages.”
Gulping audibly, Tifa swallowed. “No needles.”
Vincent shifted uneasily in his chair. “Miss Lockhart, I guarantee you that the needle pricks will not hurt a fraction as much as what you will experience when I clean your wound.”
“I don’t care,” She replied stubbornly. “No needles. You do what you have to do, but no needles. I won’t make a sound. Okay?”
Their eyes clashed for a few seconds, one pair stony, the other pair mutinous. Finally, Vincent conceded with a slight nod.
Untrusting of so small a sign of agreement, Tifa scanned his still face, her eyes rife with suspicion. “No needles, then?”
“No needles,” Vincent responded coolly. “Now. Give me your hand.”
“Well, okay.” She hesitantly raised her bulkily wrapped hand to the tabletop, and Vincent reached to draw her hand closer. “As long as I have your word…”
He worked one golden digit into the center of the first of several tightly bound knots. “You do.”
She watched him closely. “You promise?”
Vincent clamped his lips into a stern line, mostly to lay waste to the ghost of a smile that hovered there. “I promise.”
“Well, okay then…” Tifa reached for another cereal bar, but she wasn’t about to take her eyes off of him. Maybe she trusted him. Her eyes fell to the syringe that still lay close to hand. Then again, maybe she didn’t.
Nessa’s feet slowed to a stop in the center of the gloomy hallway, and a bemused smile touched her lips as she watched Maya dart back and forth across the hall, her auburn hair flying as she flung one creaky door after another wide to let in the wane light that softly radiated through the single dormer window that dominated each room on the third floor. The young woman was determined to chase away as many of the shadows as she could, all of her efforts bent to easing Nessa’s claustrophobic fear of dark, closed spaces, the fear that the girl who thought herself a wraith had absorbed and realized through some sort of mental osmosis. Certainly, Nessa hadn’t voiced her fears aloud. The bird, Angel, flew in her wake, fluttering from room to room as though to chase out any stray shadows that dared to linger behind.
Nessa swiveled her head to the left where one of the doors remained unopened. Maya hadn’t progressed this far back down the hallway as yet. She looked over her shoulder at the hall behind, and then back in the direction Maya had gone. Certainly, this door could open on the room that she sought. He would not have chosen a room that faced the mountain and impeded his view. His room would definitely be one that faced the square.
She nervously shifted her feet against the threadbare carpet of the narrow hallway, her mind filled with indecision as she absently kneaded her long braid in fretful fingers. She wanted to open the door, to look inside, but she was almost afraid of what she might find. Maybe all her firmly held beliefs were no more valid than any other’s. Maybe there were such things as ghosts. Certainly, many people claimed to have seen them.
No matter. Even if his ghost did linger, he would never hurt her. Alive or dead. No matter how angry she’d made him. No matter how much he might have grown to hate her before he died. He wouldn’t hurt her. She knew that. Didn’t she? Of course, she knew that. She didn’t believe in ghosts anyway. She lifted her hand to her lips to stifle a sudden impulse to giggle despite a growing sense of unease and a hint of nausea.
Maya appeared in front of her eyes, as though she had dematerialized in one place and merely rematerialized just there. Nessa blinked. She’d been so buried in her thoughts that she hadn’t even seen her coming down the hall.
Maya’s smile faded at the strain in the older woman’s pale face. “Are you okay, Nessa? You don’t look well.” In truth, Maya could sense that the woman didn’t feel well.
Nessa nodded vaguely.
Maya leaned closer to look directly into Nessa’s eyes. “Are you sure? Maybe we should go…”
The lines at the corners of Nessa’s dark eyes crinkled as a spontaneous smile formed at the uncharacteristic seriousness in the younger woman’s face. “No, Maya. I’m fine.” She inclined her head toward the closed door. “I’ll just look in this room, and maybe a couple of others. Then we can go.”
Maya answered Nessa’s smile with one of her own, and then she reached for the door and turned the knob, sending it falling open on loudly protesting hinges with a gentle push of her hand. “There you go.” She moved toward the open door on the other side of the hall. “I’m just going to check out the garden from up here. See how it looks from this high up.”
Apprehensively, Nessa turned her eyes to the open door, her gaze traveling across the dusty floor, up over the aged wainscoting and yellowed wallpaper covered in twining trails of faded flowers and ivy, to finally come to rest on the smudged sectioned panes of the dormer window, framed by dingy white curtains gathered into hooks on each side. Her feet moving of their own volition, Nessa slowly walked toward the window, her sandals tracking the undisturbed dust of many years as she crossed.
“Nessa,” Maya called out from across the hall. The older woman paused in mid-step, turning her head slightly, although her eyes remained on the window. “Nessa, call me if you need me.”
Nessa nodded slightly and started forward again. She didn’t stop until she came abreast of the window. Woodenly, she lifted the hem of one stained curtain panel in her fingers and rubbed the delicate cloth against the pane in an attempt to daub away the cloud of soot and dirt so that she could see. Of course, her efforts didn’t amount to much as most of the grime coated the outside of the glass. She let the curtain slip from her nerveless fingers, and reached for the window latches instead. To her pleasant surprise, the latches gave easily, and she gingerly pushed one wing of the window aside, leaning a hand against the wide window ledge to draw in a cleansing breath of the sweet evening air. Then she shoved the other half of the window open and clambered onto the window seat, drawing her legs to her chest as she settled the full scarlet skirt around her, smoothing the soft cotton material across her bare toes. Crossing her arms on her knees, she rested her cheek against an arm and hooded her eyes as she watched the silent, empty square of Nibelheim spread out below her.
Her vacant gaze meandered over the dark windows of the abandoned buildings as she imagined how the village might have been like at this time of day, all those years ago. The windows warmly lit, the soft glow just visible in the failing sunlight. Children playing one last game of tag in the square before being called in for supper, their laughter floating up and filling the air with their happy play. Maybe an elderly couple rested on the bench in front of the general store, shoulder to shoulder, soaking up the last rays of sun. Perhaps a young couple stood just inside the Nibelheim gate, pausing for a last moment alone after running in from the meadow, he touching her hair, she lifting her face for his lingering kiss. Or maybe all the men coming in from their work, weary and bedraggled. What did the people of Nibelheim do for a living back then. Mining maybe? No, rock quarrying, she seemed to remember. So long ago.
He would have sat in this window just as she did, his long legs drawn up, a book resting on his knees. Reading, but watching too. Even in his idle time. Taking everything in. The people who came and went through the main village entrance as well as those who passed through the wrought iron gate onto the mansion grounds. Even those who entered from the mountain pass would have to travel beneath his window to gain the town square. He could have seen everything and everybody, anyone arriving and anyone leaving, all the way to the sea. She needed to look no further. She knew, without a doubt in her mind, this had been his room. If she closed her eyes, she could almost see him here, sitting in the place where she sat, peering down into the square through her eyes. The knowledge gave her comfort.
Maya stood just outside the door, silently watching. Nessa worried her, despite her seeming calmness. She well knew that Nessa held her emotions tightly in check, carefully hidden away from everyone. Yet, Maya could even now feel the peace that filled the older woman’s mind as she rested on the window ledge, peering quietly through the window. Reassured, Maya moved away, only the subtle creak of a board beneath her sandals betraying her presence.
Nessa knew that Maya stood there, but she ignored her, not looking around until the young woman had gone. Only then, did Nessa straighten to lean her head back against the wall, letting her eyes travel over the bare furnishings and the tattered throw rug, the only items that remained in the room. Whatever possessions he might have brought to Nibelheim with him had been removed. All of it disposed of long ago, no doubt.
Wistfully, she closed her eyes and tried to picture him once again, hoping that this time it would be different, but no matter how she searched her mind, his face wouldn’t come. She could remember how he looked dressed for work, his attire sharply pressed and his appearance meticulous. She could remember how his hands looked as he held a book, his heavy ring glinting in the lamplight, and she could clearly recall his voice that last night, trembling at the edge of his control, hard with his anger and disdain. His face, that night, had been one she did not want to remember, and couldn’t. She’d seemingly erased the mental image from her mind. And the face she did want to remember continued to elude her grasp. Her punishment, perhaps, for bringing him to the teetering brink of his reason, for sending him to his death.
”It’s not your fault, Nessa. Please stop blaming yourself.”
Myron’s worried face filled her mind, along with his softly pleading voice. A bitter smile touched her lips. She’d sent him away, another act of selfishness on her part. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d been apart for more than a day, maybe never. Certainly not long enough to discover how much she might miss him. And heavens…she did miss him. She wanted nothing more than to have him with her in that room. Still, she knew he didn’t understand why she couldn’t let the past go, why it continued to haunt her over the years, and she knew that as long as he was in Nibelheim, she would never have set foot inside this mansion, and coming here had been something that she had to do. For her peace of mind...
Myron was wrong too. All of it was her fault. Solely. She had been the one to set the gears in motion. If she had never defied him…if she hadn’t made that call…if she hadn’t opened the window and slipped away into the misty darkness…if she and Myron hadn’t raced through the night on his motorcycle to the top of the bluffs overlooking the sea…
…If she hadn’t slapped him in the face with her ingratitude for all he’d sacrificed for her…and now from the distance of many years she knew how much he’d sacrificed for her…maybe even his very soul…
If she had known where that path would lead, she would never have set foot on it, and if she had never gone there, then…then…she would never have been involved…and Myron would never have been involved, and then he would never have been involved…and he…he…wouldn’t have died….
…She didn’t deserve what he’d given her…wasn’t worth what she’d cost him…
Her heart twisted with anguish, and she buried her face in her hands as her tortured plea burst from her lips. “Please…please…forgive me…”
“Nessa,” Maya spoke softly from just inside the door. “Nessa, you’re just going around in circles…”
Nessa jerked her pain-filled eyes around to glare accusingly at the worried young woman.
“What would you know about it?”
Maya took another step into the room, drawing her clasped hands against her chest. “Nessa, you are feeding your own pain. For a little while, you discover a tiny oasis of peace inside, and then you willingly throw yourself back into turmoil. You will never find lasting peace until you release the pain from your control. You have to stop blaming yourself for things that you couldn’t know about, and were too young and innocent to understand.”
Nessa shrugged off her words and turned her eyes back to the window, to the lonely village below. “Hmph…I suppose you can read my mind now?”
Maya silently crossed the room to stand behind her, to look through the window, to see what captivated her so, but her eyes found only the long shadows cast by the rickety water tank that stretched eerily across the empty cobblestones and the bright flowers dancing lightly on the breeze.
After a long moment of stilted silence passed between them, the young woman drew away to lean against the wall, oblivious to the cobwebs that wafted from the curtain rod above her head, stirred by a current of sweet evening air. “No, I can’t read your mind, Nessa. It’s not like that. It’s more like…like…feeling…your…feelings…”
Nessa stiffened at Maya’s candid admission. Maya noticed and hastened to explain. “And that just comes and goes…anyway…” Although, the feelings seemed to be coming more often than just a few hours before…
Purposefully, Nessa set her feet on the floor and rose from her place, carefully brushing the skirt into place with a steady hand despite the queasiness that now seemed to have taken up permanent residence in her stomach along with a creeping weakness in her limbs.
“I’m sorry if…I upset you…” Maya added sorrowfully, thinking that she should have left the woman alone to her thoughts no matter where her mental torture might have led her. She shouldn’t have butted in. Nessa would have to find her own path to acceptance. Sure, maybe she could help. If Nessa wanted her help. Maya guiltily bowed her head. She couldn’t even find her own way. Why would Nessa welcome her help. Besides, as she’d already learned, Nessa Blackwood preferred to go it alone. Sensing the older woman’s interest, Maya looked up to find Nessa watching her.
Nessa’s lips curved in what she meant to be a reassuring smile, but the sentiment didn’t quite reach her eyes, and Maya returned her melancholy gaze to her feet.
The older woman reached out and brushed the girl’s limp hand with the tips of her fingers. “Really, it’s alright. You’re right of course. I know I must find a way to let the past go. Nothing in this old mansion will ever grant me peace. I just thought that if I could connect…or…recall…” Nessa’s voice trailed off as her thoughts turned inward momentarily. Then she purposefully shook herself back to the present. “In any event, we should go if you want to finish searching the second floor. We are losing our light.”
As though her own reminder of the encroaching darkness had spurred her, Nessa abruptly whirled away and strode with determination across the room, only to halt just outside the door when Maya suddenly spoke her name. Nessa half-turned to watch the young woman lean into the ledge to draw the windows closed.
“What is it?”
Maya bit her lip at the hint of impatience in Nessa’s tone. Carefully, she snugged down the latch and moved across the room to join the older woman in the hall. She noticed that Nessa had one hand pressed flat against her stomach, and she also thought that Nessa’s face seemed to have lost even more color, but that might be a trick of the greatly diminished light. Maya studied her silently.
Nessa casually let her hand slip to her side. “Was there something you wanted to say?” She could almost hear the wheels turning in Maya’s head. She well knew the girl had something to impart, and Maya confirmed her notion with a simple nod of her head.
“Well, I was just thinking…you see…about the thing that you are looking for here…and I think that thing is…forgiveness.” Maya paused for Nessa’s reply, but the woman merely met her gaze with cool, unquestioning eyes.
Maya decided to continue despite Nessa’s lack of response or invitation to discussion. “Um…well…you know…that only you can grant you the forgiveness…you’re searching for.”
Nessa pointedly turned toward the end of the corridor. “A simple solution it would seem,” she blandly remarked. She heard the scuff of Maya’s sandals against the gritty floor as she hesitantly fell into step behind her, and Nessa suddenly realized that she hadn’t seen or heard the bird in a long while. “Where is your angel bird, Maya?”
She sought out Angel’s presence in her mind, but no hint of his consciousness remained. “I think he flew downstairs,” she added uncertainly.
The bird already forgotten, Nessa stared into the dark depths of the stairwell, the nearly impenetrable blackness marred only by a faint smudge of wane light from the open door panel below. She hadn’t even really taken note of Maya’s reply to her question. She could feel the beads of sweat popping out on her forehead as her heart began to race. Even the gnawing pain in her guts, that had diminished somewhat, suddenly returned with a vengeance.
She tried to force herself to place her sandaled foot down on the first step, but she couldn’t even make her white knuckled fingers release the doorframe on either side to move. She knew how many steps she would have to descend to reach the bottom. She had counted them on the way up. Twelve. Only twelve narrow stair steps, and she would be down and that much closer to the front door. She was more than ready to find the warmth and light of the kitchen in the inn. If only she could make herself move into the stairwell when the very thought of immersing herself in the seething darkness made her feel nauseous and weak.
Maya leaned around Nessa’s taller frame to seek out her ashen face, starkly pale in the deepening gloom on the third floor. “Nessa, let me go first,” the young woman offered. “You can hold onto me.”
“No!” Nessa’s sharp voice reverberated hollowly in the stairwell. “No,” she continued more quietly. “I can do it.”
She drew in a long, fortifying breath and let her fingers slide down the wooden frame as she tentatively set her foot on the top stair. Then she laid one hand against the paneled wall just inside the doorframe. Now all she had to do was close her eyes and count.
“Well, I’ll be right behind you,” Maya reassured. “You will break my fall if I trip, won’t you?”
Despite her anxiety, Nessa almost smiled at Maya’s giggle. “I’ll certainly do my best.”
Vincent studied Tifa’s averted face as he gingerly applied a gauze patch to the dollop of antibiotic ointment he’d squeezed into her palm from the tube. True to her word, she hadn’t made a peep to indicate that he’d hurt her during the cleaning of the inflamed wound, but her trembling lip and her bloodless face and the fingers tightly fisted around the small can of fruit all provided ample testimony to the ordeal he’d made her endure. In fact, she hadn’t said a word either, all her efforts apparently bent to keeping her promise.
He turned her hand against the table and applied the ointment to the other side and deftly applied a folded square of gauze there as well. Then he released her hand to tear a long piece of medical tape from the roll.
Greatly relieved that Vincent had finally finished with the worst of his medical procedures, Tifa slumped weakly against the table as she let her tightly held muscles relax, and she turned her head against her outstretched arm to look up at him, more interested in his activities now that the act of holding the pain silently at bay behind her clenched teeth no longer held a monopoly on her thoughts.
He gently gathered her fingers in his metal talons and carefully wrapped the tape around her hand several times as she silently watched the light slide across the surfaces of the gold digits and playfully glint against the delicately engraved band on his right hand as he worked. Again, she wondered where the ring had come from, and a thought occurred to her, stunning in its simplicity. It seemed to be a woman’s wedding band after all.
“Were you ever married, Vincent?”
Startled at her question, asked completely out of the blue as it were, he actually paused for the barest second or two before continuing his wrapping.
“No,” he replied tersely.
For her part, Tifa was aghast that she’d let the question that had popped into her mind slip right off her lips without a thought. Her cheeks flaming with her embarrassment, she turned her face against her arm so that if he were to look up at her, he couldn’t see anything but the unrevealing back of her head. Still, she thought she should explain. He would wonder what in the world had made her ask him that.
“Um…I was just asking…because of the ring…I noticed…the ring you’re wearing…it looks like a wedding ring…I thought maybe it had belonged to a…a…wife…or something…” Lamely, she brought her stumbling words to a stop, and waited for a response, biting her lip as a thick silence grew between them.
“I see,” Vincent eventually replied, a rather chilly tone in his voice.
Now was the time to apologize for nosing into his business. In fact, it was a wonder he hadn’t informed her to mind her own damn business already. She opened her mouth to do just that, apologize, profusely, but nothing came out except for…
“Maybe it was your mother’s then…”
Lord, why had she asked that?!
Vincent rubbed the end of the tape into place with one finger and then turned her hand to and fro, meticulously inspecting his handiwork. Satisfied, he laid her hand to rest against the table and busied himself with returning the medical supplies to the large kit, taking care to replace the articles exactly the way he’d found them.
“No,” he finally replied.
She still couldn’t look at him. And she couldn’t make her wayward tongue behave.
“Was it…um…Letitia’s then?”
She slammed her eyes shut in dismay at her audacity.
Vincent shot a glance at the back of her head as he placed the still capped syringe in the box. “Who do you mean?”
“Um…your old…um…you know…the lady that you….from…Nibelheim…” Tifa decided that she had finally gone mad from lack of conversational stimulation or too much bed rest or perhaps from the pain. Or maybe it was the fever. That must be it. She decided that to be the best explanation for her compulsive inquisitiveness about Vincent’s ring.
Unseen by her, Vincent raised an eyebrow and stared at the back of her head in mild astonishment. Yet, his bland voice projected no emotion whatsoever.
“You are referring to Lucrecia.”
Tifa nodded against her arm. “Yes, I’m sorry. Lucrecia.”
Why would it be Lucrecia’s anyway? What a silly question! Why didn’t she just shut her mouth?
“No.” He responded shortly.
“Oh,” she sighed.
“The ring was my mother’s wedding band, an heirloom passed down from her family in Wutai.” Vincent idly remarked.
Her turn to be startled, Tifa forgot her embarrassment and straightened in her chair to look at him curiously. “…But I thought you just said…”
He curtly interrupted her. “I misspoke.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “Mis…spoke?”
Sure, he misspoke. More like he derailed the subject. But then, she supposed she deserved that. She shouldn’t have asked him anyway. But then again, why not? If she had been stranded with anyone else from Avalanche, she would have carried on such conversations without even thinking anything about it. But Vincent was different. He showed no interest in carrying his end. His typical ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ didn’t offer much fuel for discussion.
Vincent finished repacking the medical kit, and he snapped the latch shut with a smart click. Then he shoved the case aside and nodded at her bandaged hand. “How does your hand feel?”
Tifa’s gaze fell to the snowy white tape that bound her injury. She was pleasantly surprised to find that even the terrible throbbing left in the aftermath of Vincent’s ministrations had faded, apparently while she’d been absorbed in poking into Vincent’s business. “Not too bad.” Then she grimaced as the memory of her first distressing sight of the inflamed and festering wound rose in her mind. “It looked pretty bad though.” In fact, she had to admit to herself that her hand would probably never be the same. Tentatively, she curled her now freed fingers only to be rewarded with a sharp stab of pain. With a wince, she drew her bandaged hand into her lap and out of sight.
“The wound has greatly improved,” Vincent pointed out.
“Then I’m glad I didn’t see it before.”
Vincent studied her pensive face. “I hope I didn’t hurt you too much.”
She wearily shrugged and looked down at her hand. “It’s not like you didn’t warn me.”
Vincent didn’t respond with an “I told you so” or anything else, and when she looked up, he’d retrieved the ever present rumpled sheet of paper once again and seemed to be completely captivated by its contents. Whatever they were.
“I guess it’s pretty silly to put up with the pain just because I’m afraid of a needle.”
“Hmm…everyone is afraid of one thing or another,” Vincent replied, somewhat preoccupied.
“Yes, I suppose so…”
She watched him study the paper for long moments and wondered what Vincent Valentine might be afraid of. After all he’d been through, she couldn’t imagine he’d be afraid of anything. On the other hand, maybe he was afraid of everything. She gave her head a mental shake. No. She’d never seen him show any sign of fear. Besides, a man who would jump from an airship thousands of feet up was afraid of nothing. Of course, she well knew that even if you were afraid, you shouldn’t show it, at least to your enemy. Then your fear became your weakness. He used to be a Turk, too. Surely, a Turk would be trained to show no fear, even if he were shaking in his shoes. Come to think of it, she had seen fear on his face, just a short while ago, when she’d inadvertently roused him from a bad dream. Fear and distress. So fleeting that she’d barely recognized them as such before his face had returned to its usual expressionless state. Maybe he was afraid of something then. Of his nightmares. Maybe that was the real reason he didn’t sleep much. He was afraid of his nightmares. But then, wasn’t everybody? Your nightmares were your fears, magnified under a mental microscope.
Tifa lifted her hand to her forehead. Her brain was beginning to hurt. She was tired of her own muddled thinking. What did she care what Valentine was afraid of anyway? Or where his ring came from? He could keep all his little secrets. She didn’t care. None of her business anyway….
“Are you all right?”
Tifa looked up to find Vincent watching her, the indifferent expression in his eyes in direct variance with the concern inherent in his question. She decided, then and there, that she wasn’t all right. She was tired. Mentally and physically. Although the army cot with its tangle of blankets didn’t interest her much, she wanted badly to retreat into sleep and forget everything for a while. Forget her wretched hand. Forget Vincent Valentine. Forget…herself…
“Um…I’m a little tired. I think I’ll just go back to bed.
Vincent nodded and started to rise from his chair, with the intention of helping her, she knew. She shook her head. “No. I can manage to get to the bed, I think.” Besides, she didn’t feel like being unceremoniously dumped in her bed like a sack of taters. Her lips twitched at the thought, even though she knew she wasn’t being fair.
Vincent sank back into the chair and watched her closely as she wearily lifted herself from the chair and pushed away from the table. Although she didn’t look his way again, she could feel his gaze on her, assessing, ensuring that if she should falter, he would be there in an instant. Vincent in vulture mode again. Ready to swoop down and take matters in hand. The thought of Vincent the vulture perched on a high tree limb did make her smile. She had to admit, the fever had finally baked her brain cells into a scrambled soufflé.
Vincent didn’t take his eyes off her until she had shambled the few steps to the bed and almost tumbled onto the mattress, not until she had drawn the covers up to her chin and rolled over on her side to put her back to him. Only then, when he knew she could come to no harm, did he return his attention to the poorly drawn map. Once again, he studied the roughly drawn maze of intertwining lines that looked like the work of a mapmaker gone mad or some sort of child’s meandering scrawl. With the tip of one finger, he lightly traced a tangle of lines to a three-way fork that seemed to converge with the first of three wavy lines. Then he tapped his finger in the center of the wavy lines. Abruptly, he shoved his chair back from the table and stood. He had conceived a compelling idea.
Nessa stumbled back as the bird dove at her from the shadows near the ceiling, a feral predator from the dark, his screeching piercingly loud in the close hallway. Before she could gather her senses, the bird swooped away and dove again. Nessa threw up her hand and ducked away as the outstretched talons came alarmingly close to her face. Lord, it wasn’t enough that she’d braved the darkness of the stairwell and managed to make it to the bottom with only a pounding heart, but she now had to stave off this mad avian attack. Her breath locked in her throat as the screeching bird made another direct attack on her bare head, and she fell back another step. Somewhere behind her, Maya grabbed her elbow and dragged her back through the doorway onto the long balustrade.
“What’s the matter with you, Angel!?” Maya’s cry rang with her fear and surprise. “Have you gone mad?! Stop it!” She cried out when the bird dove again, swooping very close to the crown of Nessa’s head. The two women jumped back another couple of feet. Then, as suddenly as it had all started, the bird dove to a landing on a wall sconce just opposite the spot where they uneasily stood, and he settled down there, swiveling his head to pin them with one implacable obsidian button of an eye.
The two women stood perfectly still, Maya looking over Nessa’s shoulder with the older woman’s elbow still in her tight grip. Both of them watched the bird suspiciously, but he seemed to have lost interest in his assault and in them, even tucking his head to preen his feathers as they stared. Yet, when Nessa took a tentative step forward, his head popped to attention.
Nessa held her hands out innocently to her sides and retreated back. “Okay, Maya, what’s wrong with your bird?”
“He’s not my bird,” she reminded Nessa.
“Well, forgive me if my memory fails me, heaven knows my mind isn’t as keen as it used to be, but didn’t you tell me that bird is supposed to be protecting you?”
Maya nodded, although Nessa couldn’t see her. “Yes, I did. He told me so.”
“Well then, was he deceiving you?”
Maya hesitantly shook her head. “No, I don’t think so.” Slowly, so as not to startle the bird, she slipped around Nessa’s tall frame. “I’ll see if he’ll tell me what’s wrong.”
Maya started forward, but Nessa grabbed her elbow this time. “Be careful,” she warned her.
The younger woman simply nodded in agreement and stopped just short of the threshold into the hallway.
”Angel, why are you acting like this?”
The bird cocked his head. ”Mean…no…harm…no…go…downwell…”
“What do you mean ‘downwell’?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Downwell? Down the well?”
“Steps down? You mean…like down a…stairwell?”
Nessa moved up close behind Maya as though to listen even though she knew she couldn’t hear the conversation inside their minds. “What is he saying?”
Maya held a finger to her lips. “Just a minute,” she whispered over her shoulder.
“What kinds of bad things?”
Maya absently took a step forward, and Angel frantically flapped his wings. Nervously, she immediately retreated.
Go back. Go back.” Angel flapped his wings again.
Maya half turned toward Nessa. “He doesn’t want us to go that way.”
“He says he can’t protect me that way. He’s saying something about monsters in a basement.”
“There’s a basement?” Nessa leaned forward to examine the last doorway down the hall with more than a little interest. “But we’re on the second floor…”
Pointedly, Maya took Nessa’s arm and drew her away. “Come on. We haven’t checked the rest of the second floor. He’s not going to let us go in that room anyway, so we might as well move on.”
Nessa surrendered to Maya’s direction even while she pondered the implications of a basement beneath the mansion. Both women walked away through the muted glow of pre-dusk light that veiled the entire length of the balustrade. Unmoving, Angel watched them go.
Vincent searched as he moved through the great cavern, his feet going where his interest drew him, down aisles he’d not yet ventured to eventually trace an alternate route around the outer perimeter beyond the giant airship where the carcasses of old war machines rested. He well knew that following through on his idea was no doubt a colossal waste of his time, but then he had the time to expend, and he was secure in the knowledge that Tifa would come to no harm where she slept. Even if she did awaken, she had recovered to the point where she could manage to move about without hurting herself.
He paused to examine the markings on the side of a trackless and gunless tank. The symbol embossed on the steel flank definitely branded the dismantled behemoth a Shinra war machine. He wondered what battlefield’s soil the iron monstrosity had ground beneath its tracks, what human targets had fallen beneath the destructive eye of its now absent cannon. Then, the realization occurred to him that the tank had probably been used in the military campaign to take Wutai, the once powerful warrior nation brought to its knees by one greedy megalomaniac and his vast army built with the billions of gil siphoned from the blood and sweat of the common people.
Wutai. His mother’s homeland. She’d always wanted to go back someday, to see her family again, a family he’d never known, but she never had. She hadn’t been…allowed. No matter how she’d pleaded. Vincent’s throat tightened, and he forced his thoughts away from the path they’d taken. The ultimate destination was not one he wished to revisit.
Instead, Vincent replayed the bemusing memory of Tifa’s persistent questions, and he stretched out his fingers to reexamine the ring that had so interested her, the ring that, in a long ago past, he would often twist around his little finger with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand when lost in thought, the ring that represented the whole of his family history, the only tangible artifact that remained of the tattered remnants of his life.
He let his eyelids drift partially closed as he visually traced the faint outline of the dragons’ slender bodies. She had brought his thoughts to this place. Tifa, and her questions. He might have been surprised at how steadily he could think of these things, but in actuality, he’d long lived with the events that lead to the demise of his family years ago. Well before Nibelheim. He could manage a certain amount of reverie on the past, as long as he didn’t delve into his memories too deeply...
Pointedly closing his mind to that avenue of thought, Vincent let his hand fall, and raised his eyes to find that his wayward feet had carried him onward the entire time he’d been lost in thought, and now he found himself standing in almost the precise spot that he’d lightly landed, with much amazement, from his mind numbing leap hours before.
His eyes traveled to the wide elevator platform that abutted the rocky wall. Perhaps he should reexamine the huge steel doors at the top of the cavern with a cooler head…and a light. He clearly recalled the stygian gloom at the terminus of the chute.
With a slight nod to himself, he turned in the direction of the crates and his accumulated treasures to retrieve the hand torch he’d deposited there. If he could find egress to the outside world high above, then his tenuous idea would be made moot.
“Wow! Look at all the beautiful green plants!” Clearly excited, Maya brushed past Nessa to enter the room full of plant life, and reverently reached for what seemed to be a fern of some sort.
Despite Maya’s obvious delight at finding several pots of greenery in the dusty old mansion, Nessa leveled dark eyes to stare at them with a great deal of suspicion. “Maya, how can they live in here? Where do they get water to survive?”
“I don’t know.” The young woman tentatively traced the outline of one waxy leaf with a gentle finger. “Isn’t this one lovely?”
A whispery rustle of sound brought her eyes to her right where she found a scattering of papers ruffling in a playful breeze. She lifted her eyes to the open safe that sat squarely in the middle of the bare wood floor. Maya and her newfound plant friends slipped from her mind like so much water down a drain, and Nessa found herself standing on the other side of the threshold, inside the musty room.
She lifted her face into the breeze, and turned to find that one of the small leaded windowpanes had been broken out. A scattering of glass shards refracted the stray rays of remaining daylight and glittered against the dark, rain warped floorboards beneath the sill. Apparently, the window had been broken a long time ago, if the rain damage were any indication. Perhaps a bird had flown down from the high cliffs that girded the house on that side and smashed against the glass only to flutter lifeless to the ground below.
Nessa turned her head to peer down into the safe. Even in the diminished light, she could see that the safe held nothing but dust and three or four sheets of paper, probably the counterparts of the papers that must have slipped out onto the floor. Pressing her hand against her stomach in an attempt to sooth the pervasive gnawing ache inside, Nessa bent to gather the papers into her fingers. Laboriously, she straightened up and gasped as a knife suddenly twisted its jagged blade in the center of her stomach, and she clutched a fist to her waist, unconsciously crumpling the papers in her hand as she fought for breath.
Bent beneath the agony, she shuffled across the floor to the window and leaned into the wall beside the sun-weathered frame, her eyes blindly seeking the grounds below to focus on the weed choked track of a cobblestone walkway winding through the ancient pines below. The grove dominated the narrow stretch of isolated earth between the fieldstone wall of the mansion and the towering cliff that imprisoned and dwarfed the great house, much like the fire inside imprisoned her mind and dwarfed her existence to a mere pinpoint of light in the midst of a suffocating darkness. Stubbornly, she forced her lungs to draw in a full breath which she held until the pain finally began to ease, and she released the breath slowly as a great relief encompassed her mind, and some time later, after several interminable minutes where her thoughts, released, traveled through and around the creaking boughs, a frightened squirrel on the fly, she finally came back to herself and remembered the papers in her hand.
A shaky sigh slipped from her lips as she carefully smoothed the papers in both hands and lifted them into the soft glow of light from the window. The pages were covered in tightly written scrawl interspersed with formulas and scientific notation. She didn’t read far before she knew that she wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of most of it. She understood that the inky script seem to detail an experimental procedure on a specimen noted as ‘V’. Beyond that, she became bogged down in jargon.
Rifling through the rest of the pages, she found more of the same, so she shook the pages together and crossed the room to lay them on the dust covered desk, carefully squaring the corners neatly. Then her lips twisted in a wry smile as her eyes skimmed the clutter of notebooks, pens, and office paraphernalia that littered most of the desk. So much for her organizational tendencies. She tilted her head in thought. Perhaps she should return the papers to the safe. She was positive that’s where they’d been. But then, were they really that important? The papers were without doubt the jottings of Dr. Gast or that horrible Professor Hojo or any one of the many Shinra scientists who had been here, and she had no interest in any of it.
Dismissing the matter out of hand, she slowly turned on heel to take in the rest of the small room, and her curious eyes fell on a cobweb-draped bookcase tucked back in the corner against the far wall. She’d never been much of a reader, partly because she’d rarely had time. She and Myron had been on the run too long, moving from place to place, changing jobs almost with the seasons, long hours of work interspersed with the rare and precious moments of play. But he’d been an avid reader, with several books stacked on his bedside table and at least one book resting close to hand on the end table beside his favorite chair, with the odd scrap of paper marking his place. She wondered if he’d read any of the books here.
Fairly leaping across the room, she leaned down to scan the titles on the book spines, but she found that the room had become too dim to see them very well. So she dropped to her knees on the grimy floor and leaned close. Unfortunately, all of the books turned out to be specialized texts of a scientific bent. Although he might well have resorted to reading them, she would not.
She rose to her feet and started to turn away when her eyes fell on a large book that had been shoved in backwards at the very end of the top shelf. She almost dismissed the idea of investigating any further as she could guess that the book was just another mind numbing science book, but her curiosity got the better of her. She reached for the book.
Maya suddenly raised her head to look around. How long had she been sitting here among the plants? How long had it been since she’d heard so much as a word from Nessa or even the whisper of a thought from Angel. Several minutes, she knew.
Tossing her thick auburn hair over her shoulder, she stood and brushed the stray crumbles of pot soil from her skirt as she turned to face the entryway where she’d last seen Nessa. Of course, she had gone. Nervous at finding herself alone in the unfriendly mansion, Maya swiftly crossed the room and turned onto the balustrade. Angel watched her from his perch on the wide railing halfway across to the other side. Extremely relieved at finding him, she walked out a few steps to peer down into the grand foyer below.
“Nessa?” She called softly. If there were restless spirits here, she certainly didn’t want to rile them up with a lot of racket.
“I’m here,” Nessa called back, her voice coming from the room behind her. Maya gave the bird a little smile and turned back to the doorway, unaware of a sudden tension in the bird’s demeanor as evidenced by the still alertness of his tilted head and the intent wariness in his obsidian eyes as he stared into the shadows at the end of the balustrade that led to the hidden basement door.
Nessa turned the book over in her hands and a soft smile touched her lips. Philosophies of the World. Gold leaf on black leather. He would have been drawn to such a book like a bee to nectar.
She heard Maya’s step behind her as she turned away to carry the book to the window, and she inclined her head in a little nod of greeting. Eyes bright with inquisitiveness, Maya trailed her across the room.
“Did you find something, Nessa?”
“Hmm…only a book,” Nessa replied absently as she balanced the heavy book in one hand.
Maya leaned against the frame to peer out the window. “I found out how the plants get water. Nothing magical about it as it turns out.”
Nessa looked up from the book and quirked one eyebrow. “Oh really, how?”
“The pots all sit in trays that are fed water through tubing that comes from a small rain barrel that’s hanging on the outside of the house where it can catch runoff from the eaves.”
“Well, that sounds like a clever setup.” She gingerly lifted the cover of the book. “What if it doesn’t rain?”
Maya daintily shrugged one shoulder. “Well, I don’t know. That’s a pretty good question.”
Nessa didn’t answer, and Maya turned her mind to the problem, only to quickly decide that it must rain enough, as the plants were all green and healthy. She opened her mouth to inform Nessa of such, but a sharp cry of pain came from her right. Maya whipped her head around to watch the book tumble from Nessa’s hands and fall to the floor with a solid thunk.
Nessa’s face seemed drained of all blood, and her stricken eyes welled with tears. Alarmed, Maya reached over to grab one limp, trembling hand. “Nessa! What’s wrong?! Are you ill?”
Woodenly, Nessa shook her head, apparently in unconscious response to Maya’s question, because her eyes seemed far away. Suddenly, Nessa tore her hand from Maya’s light grasp and whirled away toward the door, breaking into a stumbling run as Maya called out after her.
“Wait, Nessa! I’m coming too!”
Maya moved to follow her, and then she remembered the book. Was it the book that had upset Nessa so? Purposefully, Maya bent down and picked up the book and clumsily smoothed the pages that had been abused in its collision with the floor before she slapped the cover shut. Then, clasping the book tightly to her bosom in both arms, she ran through the door and out onto the balustrade. Leaning out across the railing, she stared hard down into the grand foyer below, but she could hardly make out anything in the gloom beyond her feet. The hour had grown much later than she’d thought.
“Nessa? Are you down there?”
Only her own tremulous voice echoed back in response.
Frantically, she looked around to ask Angel if he’d seen where Nessa had gone, but the railing where he’d perched was empty. The bird had vanished too. She was alone.
Vincent stood at the edge of the concrete pool with only his sudden flash of inspiration left to him. After the long climb up the hundreds of ladder rungs, he had indeed found the manual controls to the thick riveted steel doors in the wash of the torch beam. Bolted to the steel bulkhead, the device resembled a type of combination lock that required the selection of one number from seven rows of digits. He’d spun the first inset dial with his thumb, only to discover that the numbers ranged from zero to 99. He’d immediately switched off the light and resigned himself to the long trip back to the cavern below. He well knew that the possible permutations of combination numbers were endless. He and Tifa would probably not be leaving that way.
Perhaps, if it came down to it, he would search for the combination. The Sleeping Man might have recorded the numbers somewhere. But for now, he still had his idea. Shifting closer to the edge so that the mythril tips of his boots jutted out over the softly rippling mirror of water that filled the manmade tank nearly to the brim, he leaned out slightly to peer down into the depths. Unfortunately, the surface simply reflected back the dark, elongated shape of his own frame silhouetted against an undulating backdrop of the bright fluorescent tubes of light that hung over his head and marched all the way back to the doorway behind which Tifa slept. He couldn’t see the bottom of the pool at all, which didn’t concern him overmuch. The pool of water was not the object of his interest.
He stepped back from the edge and raised his eyes to the waterfall. The tumultuous roar of the enormous volume of water that gushed from the top of the cavern and cascaded over a series of ledges to crash into a misty spume at the far edge of the tank drowned out all other sound around him. That fact made him somewhat uneasy, because he knew if Tifa should come out onto the steps and call out to him, he wouldn’t hear her. He decided to commence his investigation immediately. The sooner he began, the sooner he’d be done.
He sharply turned on heel to spin to the right with military precision and purposefully set out along the rim of the pool. He intently studied the cascading water, letting his feet find their own way as he moved from the far limits of the fluorescent illumination into the deep shadows toward the back of the cavern, well beyond the bank of lights.
Of course, he’d postulated that the three wavy lines on the primitive map might be the falls, and he speculated from that premise that the three lines that converged where the alleged falls began might possibly be three forks of a river that tumbled from a cleft high above to create the waterfall. If a river flowed into the cavern, he knew the water had to follow a course, a course that might well guide him and Tifa back to civilization. Certainly, he knew that such an escape route would be fraught with hazard and offer little chance of success, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d involved himself in a venture with poor odds.
The spray from the falls coolly misted his face and hair as he neared the far side of the cascade. Blinking against the moisture on his lashes, Vincent peered out across the water into the dark space between the curtain of water and the precipitous cavern wall. Stunned at what he saw, he halted in mid-step. Impulsively, he pulled out the hand torch and flipped on the switch. The brilliant beam clearly spotlighted what his preternatural vision had already recognized. A pipe railing, coated in a wet sheen of misty spume, barely jutted beyond the fine spray at the edge of the ribbon of water.
Vincent switched off the light and tucked the torch into his waistband as he set his feet into motion once again, still following the rim of the pool. As he neared the railing within a dozen feet, the concrete floor beneath him began to taper in towards the wall until he found himself facing a ledge only a couple of feet wide. By this point, his proximity to the waterfall had left his hair and clothes soaked through, and the concrete lip that hugged the wall to the point where he could reach the railing looked slippery with water.
Planting his back against the wall, he slid along with one careful step after another. He certainly didn’t want to fall into the unknown depths and become trapped beneath the powerful down surge of water. Despite his physical agility, he didn’t know if he could escape. Not without transforming. And he didn’t want to release Chaos again. Less than a minute elapsed before Vincent covered the space and was able to grab the railing with his metal digits, despite his diligent caution. Here, the concrete ledge gave way to a rust pitted metal catwalk that seemed to be bolted directly into the stone, a rickety looking structure at best. Still, when he set his boot on the metal grid and gave a good push, the flooring didn’t give at all.
Not wanting to waste another moment lingering there, Vincent swiftly traversed the metal catwalk to the place where the walkway seemed to disappear around a bulge in the wall. However, when he reached the spot, he found that the catwalk actually ran into a crooked fracture in the stone, an opening that he instantly realized would be completely hidden from any other angle of view.
Again retrieving the torch, Vincent stepped sideways through the cleft into near total darkness. A normal person wouldn’t be able to see their hand in front of their face, but Vincent could make out the first three or four steps of a metal stairway that dropped in an acute angle a few inches beyond his toes.
He flipped on the light and aimed it toward the bottom of the steps, only to find that the staircase vanished through another asymmetrical fracture in another rock face further down.
At this point, Vincent actually pondered the idea of turning back. He was well beyond the point where Tifa could hope to find him, and he really didn’t want to risk leaving her alone for very long, especially when he didn’t know what sort of circumstances he might encounter if he should venture further. Yet, the question of the three forks still remained to be answered. He had to know if the forks converged down below. So he could make plans.
Uneasily, he began to descend the stairs, careful to set the soles of his boots silently against the metal risers so as not to disturb any bats that might be sleeping in the dark reaches above his head, the brilliant beam of the torch angled downward to find the end of the stairs, an end that wasn’t to come so soon. The stairs first descended fifty feet or so through the second fracture in the rock, only to then level out onto another metal catwalk that ran a length of about twenty feet before reappearing to spiral down into a well of rock that seemed nearly as endless as the metal rungs he’d climbed down from the top of the helicopter shaft.
Vincent’s uneasiness grew with each foot he descended until he’d nearly reached the point in his mind where he knew he should turn back, and he would have, had the flashlight beam not finally discovered the very last step of a hundred plus steps.
With some relief, he set foot on the stone floor and moved away from the spiral staircase as he flashed the beam around the smooth rock walls to his right. Unlike the jagged stone passages that enclosed the first expanse of steps, the circular walls of the stone well look chiseled, as though made by a machine of some type. He suspected that to be the case.
Directly across from the staircase, he discovered an oval opening, and he wasted no time passing through. On the other side, he found himself facing a circular chamber with not one, but three openings in the rock. Quickly stepping to the first, he lifted his light to trace the chiseled passageway that curved out of sight. Then he moved to the second opening to find a passageway nearly identical to the first but for variations in the rock. By the time he flashed the light into the third, he knew what to expect.
So the three lines on the map did not represent three forks of a river, but three tunnels cut into the rock, tunnels somewhat reminiscent of the Mythril Mines down south, but without the characteristic green hue in the rock. He could only conclude that all the lines on the map depicted a maze of tunnels meandering through the mountainside. He could only hope one of them would lead outside. Certainly, he would need to study the map more thoroughly, with a new perspective. At any rate, he’d explored as far as he intended for now. When next he passed this way, if he passed this way, she would be with him.
A sharp cry of distress from below set her feet to flight. Without a moment’s thought she flung herself down the wide staircase, the heavy book still pressed to her chest with one hand, her other hand sliding the length of the curving banister as she raced precariously down the steps. When she hit the bottom, she looked wildly around, but she couldn’t find her missing friend in the gloom.
“Nessa! Where are you?!”
Another cry came from across the foyer, along with an eerie chattering that not only seemed familiar, but also set her teeth on edge. Maya tightened her fingers around the edge of the book and forged ahead, her eyes detecting some movement ahead of her as her pupils adjusted to the miniscule light.
She moved faster, and in seconds she was in the middle of the fray, purposefully swinging the book at the obnoxious creatures with the strange pumpkin heads that danced on the air and spewed out toxic mist. Nessa stumbled to and fro, batting at them with only her hands. She seemed to be bewildered, striking out at thin air, apparently already suffering from the confusing effects of the creatures’ attack.
Maya connected solidly with one of the grinning attackers and sent it into the wall with a satisfying thunk, where it tumbled to the floor and lay still. “Nessa, just get back! I’ll take care of these things!” She jumped in between Nessa and another of the pumpkin headed things. She swept the heavy book around and the slippery thing danced away. She jumped forward and swung again, but she missed again. She could hear Nessa moaning somewhere down on the floor behind her.
Frustrated, Maya grabbed the book in both hands, and bowing her head in concentration, she jerked the book downwards, and a brilliant bolt of electricity shot out from thin air to zap the creature into oblivion. The technique worked so well that Maya happily bowed her head to perform the spell again, but a piercing screech brought her around. Wings folded, Angel dove into the attack with a second challenging shriek that would be enough to curdle the blood of anyone foolish enough to still be in his way. The last pumpkin creature didn’t stand a chance.
Maya turned from the ensuing carnage to search Nessa out in the murky gloom. She could still hear her softly moaning, and she quickly found her where she’d slumped against the wall with her knees drawn up tightly to her. Maya could immediately see that she was suffering great pain, and she doubted that her physical distress arose simply from the attack. Maya fell to her knees beside her and hesitantly touched fingers to her sweat soaked brow.
“What’s the matter, Nessa?”
“I…I…don’t…feel…well…” Nessa punctuated her stumbling words with another low moan as she drew her knees tighter against her. Maya set back on her heels as Angel dropped heavily to the floor beside her, his distress immediately palpable in her own mind.
We go! We go!”
“What? Why?” Maya spoke aloud.
“Some…thing…coming! We go! Now go!”
He hopped toward her and snagged a length of her skirt in his beak. He gave a sharp tug and let go. Then he flapped his wings. Now! No find us! We go!
“Okay, okay,” Maya muttered under her breath. She slipped an arm around Nessa’s shoulders. “Come on, Nessa. We have to go. Can you get up if I help you?”
“Wait…just a…minute…” Nessa pleaded through her clenched teeth. “The pain…should…ease…”
“I don’t really know if we can wait.” Maya looked around at the visibly distraught bird.
”NO WAIT! GO NOW!” Angel screamed in her mind. Then he screeched aloud for good measure and took off into the air, his wings frantically beating as he flew towards the closed door.
“Come on, Nessa, we better go.” Laying the book aside, Maya tightened her arm around Nessa’s shoulder and helped her climb to her feet where she stood swaying like an elderly woman stooped with age, her arms wrapped tightly around her waist. With one hand on her elbow to steady her, Maya bent and awkwardly lifted the heavy book with her other hand. Clasping the book to her chest as before, she slipped her arm about Nessa’s waist and guided her toward the door only a few feet away.
Angel flew to and fro from one side of the foyer to the other until Maya opened the door and drew Nessa out into the stone entryway. Then the bird flew through the door and came to roost on the gatepost.
Nessa drew away from her and placed one hand against the fieldstone wall as she forced herself to straighten to her full height. Her arm freed, Maya instantly whirled to close the door.
“What is going on, Angel?!” Maya could hardly contain her frustration with the cryptic bird any longer, although she believed that his difficulty in communication rose from the limits of his avian brain.
”NO SPEAK! NO HEAR! GO!” He cried in her mind again. Again, he threw himself into flight, pulling himself high into the air only to swoop down to a roost on the edge of the water tank.
Suddenly anxious, Maya reached for Nessa again, but she waved her off. “I can walk now.”
Maya’s finger sprang to her lips, and she shook her head at Nessa. Then the young woman pointed her finger toward the gate. Her dark eyes full of query, Nessa nodded and stepped out of the entryway onto the cobblestone path. The terrible pain that had assailed her during the attack of those things had finally faded back into the previous gnawing ache, a level of pain that only slightly impeded her hasty retreat to the gate, as long as she held her hand hard against her stomach. She didn’t know what compelled them to haste, unless maybe a whole herd of those unpleasant creatures were converging inside the manor. Whatever the reason, she certainly wasn’t going to stop to ask just then.
Maya followed quickly in Nessa’s footsteps. Angel’s tension filled her mind along with a strange mental heaviness, as though her brain were being slowly filled with a black, odiferous sludge. Was this then what Angel sensed within his own mind? She picked up her pace, and it was all she could do to keep from stepping on Nessa’s heels.
Remembering Maya’s silent admonition to keep quiet, Nessa cautiously opened the gate and winced when the uncooperative gate squeaked despite her care.
They both slipped through the gate, judiciously leaving it ajar, and the two of them had barely taken two steps when a shout came from somewhere near the inn. Both women looked up to see Myron hurrying toward them, his brows drawn with his concern, already opening his mouth to shout again. Without even thinking about it, Maya flung her hand up and shouted “Silence” in her mind. In the next moment, Myron stumbled to a stop and clutched his throat. He couldn’t manage to make so much as a sound, much less a single word. Fruitlessly, he struggled to clear the strange impediment that had suddenly afflicted him. To make matters worse, Angel suddenly swooped down from the water tower and dove toward Myron’s head with talons outstretched. The bird broke off his attack just inches from Myron’s nose, and the startled man stumbled backwards and landed ignominiously on his rear end.
Unable to utter all the choice words he wanted to direct at the evil bird, Myron settled for shaking his fist as the bird returned to his perch. Maya might have laughed, except that the ominous presence in her mind had stripped all capacity for humor away from her.
Myron climbed to his feet and raised puzzled eyes to meet Nessa’s own bewildered stare as the two women halted almost in unison before him. Again, he tried to speak, but his voice just wouldn’t come. He tried to clear his throat again, but that didn’t work either. Nessa lifted a finger to her lips, and he narrowed his gray eyes on her ashen face. Then Maya touched his arm, and he shifted mildly accusing eyes to Maya. She silently lifted a hand and pointed toward the house. Myron didn’t know what to think. He knew they’d been inside the mansion, and if he could have given them a piece of his mind he would have. That is, he would, if Nessa’s appearance didn’t worry him so. Her thin face looked weary and drawn with tension. He wanted to ask her what had happened, to hear her tell him she was okay, but he still couldn’t form even the first syllable to express his concern. What was wrong with his voice anyway? They weren’t talking either. In fact, the whole village seemed heavy with silence. Maybe they’d been stricken with the same mysterious affliction. He just didn’t know anything, except that things were certainly weird. Maya sharply gestured towards the inn again. He lifted his shoulders in a silently inquisitive shrug and actually started to turn to obey Maya’s direction when a brilliant explosion of light suddenly hit him full in the eyes and burned all the way into the deepest recesses of his brain. If he could have, he would have cried out as he threw his hands over his face.
Nessa and Maya both froze in mid-step as the light flashed around them and, in the blink of an eye, painted every building and flower and cobblestone with celestial white light, blindingly bright. Nessa squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the blast. She fully expected it. The only time she’d ever seen light that bright was a few years back when she and Myron had been working in Gongaga, and the Mako reactor exploded. The explosion had killed many and left the village in shambles. She and Myron had been lucky. Inside a house partially shielded by a small mesa, they had survived virtually unscathed.
Nessa almost jumped out of her skin when Maya abruptly gripped her arm in punishing fingers and firmly towed her away. She would have grabbed a fistful of Myron’s shirtsleeve, but she still held the book, so she jerked her head toward the house to indicate he should come along if he hadn’t already figured it out. He obediently fell into step alongside. Nessa craned her neck to look behind her as she hurried to keep up with Maya’s demanding pace. Everything seemed darker than before the flash of light, but other than that nothing had changed. The mansion still stood casting its malevolent shadow over the village, and Maya’s melodias still bobbed in the evening breeze.
Maya released them both in front of the stoop and gave each of them a little shove in the direction of the front door. Then she spun around to find Angel still holding court from the rickety water tower. He was watching her, and she beckoned him to her with a frantic wave of her hand, but he pointedly turned his sleekly feathered head toward the mansion. His meaning was clear. He intended to keep an eye on the malignant entity inside, the unknown thing that both of them could clearly sense.
She realized that warm golden light bathed the ground around her feet. Alarmed, she spun around and leapt up the steps to dive through the door. “Turn off the light now,” she hissed under her breath.
With startled eyes completely captured by the abject fear in Maya’s face, Myron reached around and flipped the light switch back to the off position, instantly returning the hotel lobby to deep gloom. Trying hard not to make a sound, Maya closed the front door and locked it with a soft snick. Then, for good measure, she moved the few steps to the window and drew the drapes closed, which deepened the gloom in the room.
“What’s going on, Maya?” Nessa whispered her question as a little frisson of fear slipped through her veins and set the small hairs on the back of her neck aquiver.
Maya turned from the window to seek out the pair of ghostly faces barely discernable across the room. Despite the terrible presence in her mind, and despite the sensation of teetering on the bare edge between reason and pure hysteria, she forced a somewhat unconvincing smile to her face and clutched the book tighter against her.
“Um…why don’t we go to the kitchen,” she responded in a soft, slightly tremulous voice. “We’ll talk.”
Vincent returned across the expansive cavern much the way he’d come, casually meandering through the shelves and tarped stacks that he hadn’t checked before, absently inspecting a crate here and there as he mentally listed the equipment they would need for an extended trip through miles of tunnels as well as the potential problems that might arise. If he decided that they should proceed on this dubious course, he wished to leave as little to chance as possible.
Of course, he had plenty of time to plan for any eventuality. Tifa could not leave the cavern until she recovered her strength. He suspected the journey through the twisting tunnels would be arduous, and although she had improved more quickly than he had imagined in so short a time, she would have to improve much more before he would take her on what would amount to a forced march.
He paused to examine another crate only to find it filled with army boots, all tied together by their shoestrings. Vincent shut the lid and moved on. He realized they would require a great deal more than he’d first planned, and they would have to pack everything on their backs. Food, water, bedrolls, the medical kit, some rope, an inexhaustible source of light, perhaps a source of heat, everything they would need for a week, maybe more. He could attempt to calculate the distance more closely when he studied the map again, although he was not at all sure that the map had been created with any sort of consistent scale in mind. In fact, he might do well to leave the map behind and pin the success of the trip on a wing and a prayer. One lesson he had learned quite well, no matter how carefully one planned, Fate would determine the path in the end. He would just have to do his best. Certainly he would do anything required to take her home.
Vincent halted at the edge of a tarp and bent to throw the heavy canvas out of his way. His breath actually caught in his throat at sight of a row of fat metal bombs, appropriately painted black, the sort that would be dropped from the belly of a plane. Numbly, he raised his gaze to the yet uncovered shapes beyond, and he speculated that there were enough explosives beneath this particular tarp to vaporize the whole mountain and leave a good-sized crater in the aftermath. Feeling a little queasy, he moved on. Surely, the devices weren’t armed. He hoped. No one would be so foolish. He should laugh at that thought. Human beings were wired to do senseless things. Actually, the very act of building bombs provided ample evidence of that particular trait. He would certainly never understand the human bent to destruction, even though his past career kept him well versed in all manner of destructive behavior. In fact, now that he thought about it, he represented a prime example and hardly stood in a position to judge. How foolish must one be to permit a greedy, unscrupulous man to transform one into a murderous automaton utilized mainly to further ambitions of financial conquest? How stupid, indeed? Even more so in that all he’d ever wanted to do in his life was to create. What bitter irony.
The ever present cloud of depression that always lurked within his mind threatened to emerge and envelope him whole cloth. Impatiently, he tossed his head and spun away. Again, he’d stood idle, thinking too long, and he’d let his thoughts wander into the desolate shadows, an exercise that would only bring him to despair. Apparently, he had too much time on his hands. Again.
Vincent turned down another aisle that he’d not explored before, and found the floor between the two high shelves scattered with what looked like car parts amid a wide scattering of splintered slats, the pathetic remnants of a dozen or more wooden crates that Chaos had obviously slammed against the concrete floor. Between the pieces of wood and hundreds of scattered parts, most of which he couldn’t identify as he wasn’t all that automotively inclined, the concrete floor didn’t provide many clear places to set his feet. Despite his great care to avoid stepping on anything, he managed to put his boot down in a less than ideal spot, and several loose spark plugs nearly succeeded in an ambitious bid to topple him. Instinctively, he threw his hand up to grab the edge of a shelf and managed to prevent an ungainly fall even as his fingers bumped against a small loose object on the shelf, setting the unseen item in motion.
Vincent could hear the object rolling across the now empty shelf as he cleared away the scattered spark plugs with the edge of his boot, but he didn’t give it much thought until the object plummeted off the far edge of the wide shelf and tinked against the concrete on the other side. Vincent froze and lifted his head as the object rebounded against the floor and tinked again, and then once more before it fell silent.
The lyrical, chime-like sound the object made when it hit the floor sounded almost metallic, but not quite. And it almost sounded like glass, but not quite. In fact, the object more closely sounded like crystal, exquisite and fragile, yet apparently unbreakable. The thing that intrigued Vincent the most, though, was the fact that the sound struck a familiar chord in his memory. He had heard exactly that sound before, and he knew exactly where.
Forgetting his intention of clearing a pathway down the aisle, he turned and retraced his steps to round the shelf into the next aisle. If anything, Chaos had wrecked the boxes stored on these shelves even more efficiently than the last, leaving the pathway almost completely blocked with debris. Undeterred, Vincent started working his way through, moving unbroken crates out of his way, and kicking aside coils of twine, tent pegs, and plastic tubing. He shortly arrived at a clear spot where he thought the object must have fallen, and he knelt down into an unrolled wad of camouflage netting and began to search, cautiously poking around in the gossamer material, slowly edging his way further in on his hands and knees.
Several minutes passed without any success, and Vincent finally climbed to his feet to look around, but he didn’t see any sign of the object. On an impulse, he reached down with hand and claw to drag the hefty bundle of netting off of the floor, and he shoved the bulk of it onto the bare shelf. As he’d hoped, the elusive target of his search shook loose from the netting and tumbled out onto the floor, again tinking against the concrete a couple of times before coming to rest against the mythril plate of his boot with a brittle chink.
For a long moment, Vincent stared down at the small green orb as though he could discern its nature by just looking, but, or course, he couldn’t. Bending at the hip, Vincent gingerly took the orb between his thumb and forefinger and straightened, letting the materia roll into the palm of his hand. Disappointment filled him at his instant recognition of the materia orb as a raw, unused fire rather than one of a curative nature. Certainly, he didn’t need this one. After all, Tifa had a mastered fire materia in her glove if one were needed.
Feeling somewhat frustrated at having wasted so much time with so little reward, Vincent decided to forego any further exploration. He needed to reexamine the map anyway, and he wanted to check on Tifa, even though he knew she would probably still be asleep.
With his reaffirmed goals in mind, Vincent took a few steps back the way he’d come, pausing to gather a few of the coils of twine with the idea of adding them to his collection of equipment. Then he picked up one of the metal tent pegs and turned it over in his fingers. He wondered briefly where the tents that would normally accompany the twine and the pegs might be stored, and he lifted his eyes upward to search for them. Sure enough, he discovered several folded stacks of canvas on the very top shelf, right where one would expect. He had come to know that the articles on the shelves had been placed there with some degree of organization.
Suddenly, Vincent sprang to his full height and whirled around as he mentally castigated himself for his cerebral lapse. What was the matter with him? Shinra armies made extensive use of materia. At least the special Soldier division did. Why shouldn’t he expect that the materia orb he’d found would only be one of many.
Vincent scanned the shelves around, all to no avail. He didn’t see any crates left that might contain materia. Still, he knew that the orb had come from somewhere. Perhaps Chaos had carried the tiny sphere from another part of the cavern and deposited it there. Vincent knew, without a doubt, that one of the hundreds of shelves in the cavern held crates of materia. In fact, he might even reasonably expect to locate stocks of potions and elixirs as well.
With a new sense of refined purpose, Vincent threw down the twine and sprang into motion, leaping through the scattered detritus of Chaos’s play with the agility, speed, and determination of a hungry cuahl. Tifa and the map could wait a little longer. If he succeeded, he could ease her pain. He could release her from her fear that her hand would never be the same again. He could, in effect, set her life on a different course from the one she now faced. He could do that for her. He wanted to do that for her, and nothing, short of death, would stop him, even if he had to take everything inside that cavern apart.
Nessa huddled in her chair at the table, pressing her arms tightly around the ache in her middle. Myron dropped into the chair beside her, and she lifted her eyes to glare at him despite the fact that she could just barely make out his pale face and the dark outline of his silhouette in the deep gloom of the unlit kitchen.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” She hissed under her breath at him.
Myron tried to respond. He surely had a retort on the end of his tongue, something along the lines of demanding to know what she was doing in that diabolical house, especially in her condition, but whatever strange malady had befallen him kept his voice still. He raised his hand up to clutch his throat as he tried to clear the blockage again.
“Well? Don’t you have anything to say?”
Myron frantically nodded his head, and Nessa could just barely see his head bob in the dark room. She frowned and almost let a string of churlish words escape her lips, her irritation partly fueled by her fear, partly by his sudden reappearance without additional supplies, partly from the persistent pain that seemed to have taken up permanent residence with no intention of leaving, and partly to preempt the chiding she knew she would receive for being in the Shinra mansion, but then the realization that he might not be well suddenly occurred to her. Maybe something had happened on the trail. “Myron, are you alright?” Unconsciously, she drew her hand away from the tight knot of pain inside and reached across the table for him.
Maya silently placed the book on the table and slipped sideways into a chair. “Oh sorry. I did that. It’ll wear off soon.”
Nessa and Myron both looked around at the indistinct features of her ghostly face. “Did what?” Nessa asked the words that sprang to Myron’s mind in the same instant.
She gazed back at them cautiously, looking from one face to another. “Um…I…silenced him.”
“You did what?!” Nessa cried out.
Maya hesitantly stretched her hand out to touch Nessa’s arm in a gesture mixed with apology and mollification.
“So he wouldn’t yell again. Outside. Remember?”
Nessa settled back in her chair. “Well, aren’t you full of tricks,” she remarked sarcastically. “And how did you silence him?”
“I…I…don’t know.” She pinned pleading eyes on Nessa’s face even though the older woman couldn’t see her. “I just…did it. Really, it won’t hurt him. I wouldn’t…hurt him.”
Nessa turned her head back to gaze thoughtfully at Myron’s shadowy shape, and then she reached for his hand again. “Are you alright, Myron?”
Knowing she couldn’t see him, he simply squeezed her hand reassuringly, and Nessa’s tension eased ever so slightly.
At Nessa’s question, Maya’s eyes fell to the table. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t let it hear us. I couldn’t let it find us.” The abject sorrow in the girl’s voice led Nessa to instantly regret the way she’d spoken to her, and she might have apologized, but the girl’s words suddenly grabbed hold in her mind, and she swiveled her head to stare into the near darkness where the girl sat.
“What do you mean by ‘it’?” Her question came out in a sharper tone than she’d intended, and she mentally forced herself to soften her tone. “I thought we were running away from those horrid creatures in the foyer.”
Maya actually giggled despite the pall in the room. “Oh no, those were just Funny Faces. They’re pretty harmless. Just annoying for the most part.” Then Maya sobered and peered at Nessa in the dim light. “Do you feel alright? Their poison wears off pretty quickly.”
Nessa decided not to answer. The strange bewildering effects of the noxious substance the creatures spewed had dissipated long ago, but her shortness of breath and the gnawing ache in her guts remained, both persistent symptoms of her illness. Besides, she had too many questions crowding the inside of her cranium to dwell on her symptoms, which would either pass or not. She had no way to know when the downhill slide into incapacitation would begin. The doctor had given her an estimate of six months, give or take a few weeks, until it would all be over. How long had that been now? She forced her mind away from that route, and tried to imagine what could be inside the mansion. She would have asked again, but Maya spoke then, this time in a reminiscent voice.
“You know, I was the one that named them ‘Funny Faces’, when I saw them for the very first time, the silly looking things, and Cloud, he laughed at me, just before one gave him a good dose of that nasty smelling spray.”
Nessa’s interest sharpened, and she almost asked about this ‘Cloud’, but then she recalled how slippery Maya’s memory seemed to be, especially when confronted with direct questions. “…And…” She queried cautiously.
“Hmm…and… and then he tried to hit Red with his sword…”
Maya smiled at the scene in her mind. “…And then Red nipped him good for trying to dissect him, and that seemed to knock Cloud back to his senses.” Her smile widened as, inside her mind, the pair of sheepish blue eyes turned to look her way, and then her smile faded slowly along with the vision inside her mind, resisting her immediate efforts to make it come back, until finally she sank back into her chair in disappointed silence.
Nessa sat quietly for a long moment as she tried to decide if she wanted to pursue Maya’s strange recollection or if she wanted to get to the bottom of the more ominous ‘it’. She opted for the latter.
“If not the…er…’funny faces’…what is it we were running from?”
Maya abruptly straightened in her chair, moving so suddenly, in fact, that Nessa’s hand flew to her throat. “What is it, Maya?”
Nessa blinked at Maya’s vehement hiss. “What is it?” She sharply hissed back, shivering as goose bumps broke out on her arms
Maya slowly rose from her chair and moved away to stand in the middle of the floor, her staring eyes focused on the kitchen wall that faced the manor.
“Maya?” Nessa whispered more loudly as a shudder coursed the length of her spine.
“Listen!” Maya hissed back, and then she continued in a softer vein. “Be very still. Be very quiet. It’s…moving.”
“What’s moving?” Myron squawked, having suddenly found his voice.
“Ssssssssssh!” Nessa admonished him even as she shrank back into her chair and tightened her grip on his hand. She didn’t know what the girl was talking about, what this ‘it’ thing was, but since the ‘it’ thing seemed to frighten her so, she certainly hoped that ‘It’ stayed satisfied with the Shinra Mansion and didn’t suddenly decide to obtain a room at the inn.
Disoriented in the wake of the light, he had aimlessly wandered the confines of the grand foyer until, finally, he remembered the way he must go, and he wasted no more time in rootless contemplation. The route now firmly reseated in his mind, he ponderously climbed the wide curving stairs and silently slipped across the balustrade, onto the landing, and into the dusty bedroom to stand before the stone facade of a wall.
An eerie glow filled the room around him, at once both a dance of ethereal light and a miasmic swirling of malevolent energy. Completely unconcerned that his ambient luminosity might draw undue attention, he closed his eyes and sighed. After all, the subservient villagers of Nibelheim, if any remained, would never set foot in the haunted Shinra Mansion. The curved section of wall blew in, and he smiled with smug content.
The sight of the rotten and splintered steps of the circular staircase distressed him. The place had fallen to rack and ruin. Another sigh slipped from his mouth, this time more sorrowful. Still, he thought it no great matter. He simply threw out his arms and jumped, dropping at first rapidly alongside the descending chain, and then more slowly until he came to rest with hardly a bump and without the slightest disturbance of the earthen floor at the base of the stairwell.
Without pause, he moved into the tunnel that ran beneath the great mansion overhead. Despite the soundless nature of his progress, he could hear bats squeaking in their distasteful rodent voices somewhere above his head. Disgusting creatures. He winced as the high-pitched din stabbed into his ears. With a smirk and an expansive sweep of his hand, he set the lot of them to flame and chuckled warmly with pleasure at the comforting, soothing sound of crackling fire, although he wasn’t overly enamored with the stench.
He glided to a stop before the heavy wooden door and glared at the tarnished key that jutted from the lock. Certainly a less than encouraging sign. With only a simple thought, he turned the key with a loud thunk and watched as the door swung slowly inward. On the verge of slipping across the threshold, he paused as a familiar tingling sensation came over his whole odorous body. Something dared to watch.
His eyes glowing manically with his irritation, he whirled about and sent the unrelenting twin beams of his brilliant irises slicing into the darkness. The unfortunate creature cowered back in an attempt to bury his ungainly, loose-boned form in the hard packed earth of the wall as the wash of diseased green light chased the shadows deeper into the tunnel. Terror radiated from the two pairs of dark eyes as the creature ducked both of its pale heads to wait for its destruction. The visitor laughed with pleasure, and then spoke for the first time.
“Ah…poor, simple ying yang.” His voice reverberated richly in the stale air of the basement. “Clumsy, pathetic thing. Pity. I don’t believe I’ll release you today.”
With an exaggerated shrug, he dismissed the terror-stricken abomination of a genetic mess from his mind and spun back to face the open door. His eyes already narrowed on the coffin in the center of the skull littered crypt, he floated forward to stare down at the heavy lid, the still glossy patina only slightly blighted by a thick layer of dust.
With a dainty sniff of his nose at the pervasive aroma of mold and decay, he raised a finger and flipped the lid off to thud dully against the stone floor. Every deranged cell in his body came to a standstill as he peered down into the worn lining of the empty casket.
“Hmm…so the brainless, cowardly fools were telling the…truth,” he mused aloud. “Hmph…they wouldn’t dare do otherwise.”
He’d known when they told him that they spoke the truth, but he still reasoned that they must be mistaken. He had been compelled to look for himself. And now he knew. Already, he could feel his temper seething beneath the surface. “Hmph. Who would be foolish enough to release you, Valentine?” A bitter laugh escaped his slavering lips. “Do these fools know what they have…”
Suddenly, his temper exploded into fulsome, red-hot rage. “…DONE?!” He screamed the word in a thundering voice that rang with the amplitude of a hundred voices and threatened to shake the very rafters loose from the vaulted ceiling overhead.
A mindless roar of rage tore from his throat, and he compulsively shot out a mutated foot and sent the vacant casket tumbling onto its side with a satisfying crash, the pure satisfaction of so simple a physical act doing little to assuage the tirade “DO THEY VALENTINE?! DO THEY KNOW WHAT THEY HAVE DONE?!”
His luminous eyes bugged with his rage. His hair stood out from his head, the individual strands sparking in the still air. His voice trembled and broke beneath the unleashed power of his wrath. “I’LL FIND YOU, VINCENT VALENTINE!” He shook a trembling finger at the upended coffin. I’LL FIND YOU! I’LL TAKE YOU DOWN! I WILL! YOU DON’T SCARE ME! YOU DON’T! YOU ARE NOTHING, VALENTINE! YOU ARE DEAD MEAT, VALENTINE!” He threw his head back and roared at the ceiling. “DO YOU HEAR ME, VALENTINE?! DO YOU?! YOU ARE A DEAD MAN!”
He threw his twisted hands into the air and roared again, unable to articulate another word, and then he began to laugh, wild insane laughter that reflected the madness in his twisted mind. Then the very light of the sun flashed around him, searing the hollow grins and staring eyes of all the scattered skulls into the deepest dark corner of his brain, and then he was gone, leaving behind only the faint echo of his maniacal guffaws to bounce around the nooks and crannies of the basement labyrinth.
After a long time in which the silence grew thickly around him and the acrid smell of burnt bats finally seeped away into the drafty stairwell, the ying yang dared to move from his spot and shuffle disjointedly on down the narrow passage as the memory of the interloper eventually slipped both of his feeble minds.
Vincent stood motionless at Tifa’s bedside as he tried to decide whether to wake her or not. The answer should be a resounding negative because he knew that she needed her rest, but his discovery in the cavern and his knowledge of what it could mean for her had brought him to a rare level of excited anticipation that his quiet eyes and still face didn’t reveal.
He knew he should turn away, retrace his steps to the table and study the map further, but he couldn’t draw his gaze from her lovely face, the portrait of innocence in her slumber, nor could he force himself to waken her. So he remained caught in place, quite content just to study the gentle lines of her face.
Out of the blue, a sudden shudder shook him, and he half turned away to examine his surroundings as a marked sensation of apprehension came over him, but then the feeling vanished just as quickly as it had come. With a slight frown, he shrugged away the lingering vestige of uneasiness, although he’d learned not to take such feelings lightly. Usually, they occurred because danger lurked somewhere close, and uneasiness rose from his own preternatural senses alerting him to awareness. However, he could clearly see that nothing inside the room posed a threat, so he dismissed the feeling as a hiccup of his creatively disturbed mind.
A goose walked over my grave.
The thought brought Lucrecia’s troubled emerald eyes into his mind. Lucrecia said that to him once. They had slipped away from the mansion and walked hand in hand to the beach. There, they had both kicked off their shoes, and he’d rolled his trousers up his calves, and they’d walked barefoot along the edge of the tide as dusk gave way to twilight. She’d been laughing at something in the water. He hadn’t really paid any mind, because he’d been watching her animated face as she’d laughed. But suddenly she shivered and the smile fell from her face, and she’d looked at him with those worried eyes, and she’d said that. A goose walked over my grave. Then she’d wanted to go home even though he’d tried to no avail to keep her there, to spend a few moments more with her, arguing reasonably that she’d just experienced the touch of the cool evening breeze off the sea rather than some supernatural premonition.
In retrospect though, perhaps Lucrecia had been right, and he’d been wrong. But then Lucrecia had been privy to facts of which he had not been apprised. He’d never believed that premonition rose from the supernatural realm, but from the operation of the subconscious mind. A premonition was merely a mental warning, often undifferentiated, of potential trouble based on information that one had acquired and may or may not recall.
Tifa stirred beneath her blankets, and all thought of Lucrecia and premonition and that evening beside the ocean flew from his mind. He swiveled his head to find her watching him with brown eyes filled with a confused mixture of sleepiness and apprehension. His gaze fell. He didn’t want to see that look in her eyes, even though he knew he shouldn’t be dismayed. If he woke up to find someone like him hovering over his bed, he’d probably be afraid too. If he were a normal person, that is. Feeling off balance, he started to turn away, but then she spoke to him in a light voice, and he cautiously looked back into eyes that were filled with her smile.
“What have you been doing, Vincent? Storing up for winter?” She lifted her hand to her mouth as though surprised that she’d asked him such an inane question, but then she looked him over again, and a giggle burst from between her fingers.
When Tifa had first opened her eyes, she’d been startled to find Vincent standing so near, and when she’d noticed him staring off into space as though listening to some unseen threat, she’d started to ask him if something was wrong. Then he’d glanced at her with cool eyes and turned away. Not before she’d noticed his lumpy, overextended pockets though. For some reason, the sight had struck her funny bone.
Vincent narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “What do you mean?”
Tifa drew in a noisy breath beneath her fingers to stem the laughter that fought to escape her throat. “Um…you look like a….squirrel.” Then another giggle slipped free anyway.
“A…squirrel?” Vincent asked with the slightest tinge of bewilderment in his voice. He might resemble many things, but a squirrel didn’t strike him as one of them.
Tifa nodded her head against the pillow as she grinned up into his shadowed face. “Uh huh. Except you’ve been…ah…storing things in your…ah…pockets instead of your cheeks.” The mental picture she’d created for herself of Vincent Valentine storing nuts in his thin cheeks sent her into gales of uncontrollable laughter, and she rolled over to put her back to him, pulling the covers over her head and burying her face in her pillow in a vain attempt to muffle the sound of her levity.
At a loss as to what to say, he opted to remain silent as he shifted his weight to one foot and crossed his arms to outwait her as he listened to her barely stifled laughter dance musically around the room. He had no desire to interrupt her anyway, as her laughter was the most wondrous sound to greet his ears in days. Despite the fact that he didn’t discover the same level of humor in her observation that she did, he could clearly see that she was, quite simply, feeling better.
Vincent kept his own counsel until her wild laughter fell away into occasional giggles. Then he decided to intervene. He couldn’t wait any longer.
“Miss Lockhart,” he spoke quietly.
Tifa turned over onto her back and drew the blanket down far enough to peep over the edge. She gazed up at him sheepishly. “Um…I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have…that was just too silly…I don’t know what came over me…I’m really sorry…”
Her words stammered to a halt beneath his nonresponsiveness and his cool crimson gaze. Only when she fell silent did he speak again.
“I’ve brought you something, Miss Lockhart.”
His formal address of her served to create distance in their conversation, and all hint of levity vanished from her mind as she sat up and drew the covers protectively around her.
“What is it? Mister Valentine,” she responded dryly.
Without a word, he drew his hand from his pocket and bent to deposit the luminous green orb on the faded army blanket where it then rolled toward Tifa until it came to rest against a fold in the material.
She stared at the green materia for a long time, and then looked up uncertainly into Vincent’s expressionless face. Not finding an answer there, she tugged her shoulder free of the blanket and reached out to pick up the orb between her thumb and forefinger. She raised the orb to eye level.
As the knowledge of what she held sank into her brain, a radiant smile lit her whole face. “It is! A restore materia!” She held it up to him as though he hadn’t already seen it. Vincent simply nodded. Then the smile fell from her lips as a keen sense of disappointment overcame her. She closed her fist around the restore materia and let her hand fall into her lap.
“But we can’t use it,” she reminded him. “Not when I have an infection. It’s too late.”
Vincent reached into his pocket again. “Hmm…yes. That’s why I brought these too.” He released a handful of small vials into the folds of her blanket, and then he straightened to stand quietly as she poked through the vials, easily recognizing them as potions and remedies. Finally, she looked up at him with wonder in her eyes.
“You certainly are a handy guy to have around, Mister Valentine,” she smiled up at him.
“Of course, there is still a high risk of failure or complication.” He felt compelled to point out the potential for disaster if the curative items were used inappropriately.
She nodded happily. “I know.”
“Do you want to try?”
Vincent walked the few steps to retrieve the chair from the table, and he set it down beside Tifa’s bed. Folding himself into the chair, he picked up one of the small blue bottles and turned it to and fro in the light to watch the liquid shift inside.
“I will be careful,” he assured her with more confidence than he felt.
She looked up and caught his gaze over the upheld bottle. “I know you will.”
Discomfited, he dropped his eyes to the decorative swirl on the diminutive blue vial. Then he set the bottle aside and steeled himself, raising his eyes to hers again. “We may as well begin.” She nodded her acceptance, and he opened the metal talons of his clawed hand. “Please give me your hand.”
Without a second’s hesitation, she did as he asked, laying her fingers across the palm of his artificial hand, and he gently closed the metal talons around them. Wordlessly, he set to work methodically removing the bandages and gauze that he’d applied so recently. Then he retrieved the luminous blue bottle and deftly popped the cork out with his thumbnail.
Giving her one last chance to back out, he lifted a questioning gaze to her face, but she simply waved her hand toward the bottle. “Let’s do it. I’m ready.” A slight waver in her voice almost negated the firmness of her words, but Vincent didn’t hesitate to comply.
As he tipped the bottle in his hand, Tifa squeezed her eyes tightly shut as she silently chanted a little prayer she’d learned long ago from her Grandma. And then she crossed her fingers for good measure. This just had to come out well. Otherwise, she just didn’t know what she would do. Except cry her heart out.
Maya’s head fell limply as her shoulders slumped with relief. “It’s gone.”
Nessa lifted her head from the back of the chair. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m positive.” She had no doubt that the entity had gone, along with the foul, oppressive miasma that had pressed painfully in her head as though it were a malignant tumor trying to escape the confines of her skull.
Myron stood up from his chair and reached up to yank the pull string to flood the kitchen with light. Sagging wearily back into his chair, he labored to see his wife’s face through eyes squinted against the bright kitchen light.
For her part, Nessa simply closed her eyes and bowed her head in thought. “What was in the mansion, Maya?” Her toneless voice indicated either studied indifference or mental exhaustion.
Maya peered into Nessa’s pale face with great concern. “Are you okay?”
Nessa sighed irritably. “I’m fine. Just tell me what was in the mansion.”
Maya shook her head. Somehow she knew Nessa wouldn’t like the answer. “I don’t know what it was.”
“I just know that it couldn’t find out about us. Angel and me. It couldn’t know that we’re here.”
“In Nibelheim?” Myron asked mostly just to hear the blessed sound of his own voice.
“No, here…among the living…”
Myron stared at her in incomprehension. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Nessa decided to preempt any further discussion in that vein. She decided she’d heard enough, and she didn’t want to hear another word that wasn’t related to the normal, everyday world. She slowly rotated her head to level vacant eyes on her husband’s bewildered face. “What are you doing here, Myron? Did something happen on the trail?” Despite her query, Nessa suspected that Myron had simply turned back to return to her side. She couldn’t really blame him. She’d do the same in his shoes. Besides, she’d expected no less of him. She knew him well.
Myron tried to smile reassuringly. “I…uh…got lucky, Nessa.”
“In what way?” She inquired dryly, wondering what tale would issue from his lips.
“Well, you see, I ran into a man traveling from Rockettown. Er…he and his family left Midgar a couple of weeks ago, and he was coming to scope out Nibelheim since his sister lived here. Well, I told him how his sister couldn’t be here because everybody was gone, and I told him all about the empty houses and how we were running the inn.”
Myron paused to gauge Nessa’s expression, which remained noncommittal, so far. “Anyway, to make a long story short, he decided to go back and get his family and bring them to Nibelheim. He wants to open up the store.”
Nessa laid her heavy head on folded arms. “That’s all well and good, Myron. But what about our supplies?”
“Oh, I…er…gave him my gil. He’s going to purchase everything we need. I…um…gave him your list.”
Nessa raised her head, managing to dredge up the energy to express her astonishment. “You gave him our gil?”
“It’s okay, Nessa.” He held out a placating hand. “He’s an honest man.”
Exasperated, Nessa let her head drop back against her arm, despairing of making him see the error of his actions. “You are so gullible, Myron.”
“I promise he’ll show up.” He felt he needed to convince her, for her peace of mind. “You’ll see.”
Nessa sighed heavily. “Don’t make a promise about events that you can’t control, Myron. It really doesn’t matter anyway.” Shamefaced, Myron stared down at his clasped hands. He knew he’d taken a big chance trusting the man, but he had been about to turn back anyway. He just couldn’t leave her that long. Not after…what she’d told him.
Maya had been quietly listening to the exchange between the couple as she absently traced the gold leaf letters on the cover of the thick, black leather book with one finger. Nessa finally noticed the book, catching the movement of Maya’s hand from the corner of her eyes. Her head shot up, and she glared at the book. Then she turned her dangerously glittering eyes on Maya. “Why did you bring that book here?” She demanded.
Maya shrugged nonchalantly. “I thought you might want it. You seemed interested in it.”
Nessa shoved her chair back and stood. “Well, I don’t want it. Get rid of it. Burn it.” Despite the strength in her voice, she felt weak, and she grabbed the edge of the table with one hand. Both Myron and Maya rose from their chairs and started to reach for her as she swayed in place, but Nessa instantly protested.
“No, please. Sit down.” She waved them back to their chairs, but neither immediately obeyed. “I’m fine. Please just…sit down. I’m just going to…” She looked around as though she’d forgotten what she planned to do. Then she looked down at her trembling fingers. “…I’ll just…prepare something for dinner. I’m sure you’re both hungry.”
Maya leaned forward and gently touched Nessa’s arm. She didn’t even try to hide the deep concern on her face. “I think you should go lie down, Nessa. We can fend for ourselves.”
Nessa gazed into the steady emerald eyes, and a shiver of fear ran the length of her spine at the knowledge she saw there. She jerked her eyes away.
“Yes, you’re right. I believe I will go lie down.”
Myron moved to take her elbow. “I’ll go with you.” Nessa gently disengaged his fingers. “No Myron. You keep Maya company. Eat something. Rest. I know you’ve had a dreadful day. I just want to lie down for a bit.”
Maya and Myron both watched Nessa closely as she crossed the kitchen to the stairs. She paused in the doorway and glanced back over her shoulder at them, giving them a reassuring, if somewhat weak, smile. Then she disappeared into the stairwell.
Maya darted a sorrowful glance at Myron, and then headed to the pantry to plan her impromptu menu, but Myron continued to watch the empty doorway, listening to the soft footfalls of Nessa’s sandals as she slowly descended the stairs, and he kept listening until he couldn’t hear her anymore and knew that she wouldn’t hear. Then he rounded on Maya.
“What happened in that damnable house?! What were you doing there?!”
At his quietly vehement question, Maya paused with her hand on the doorknob and bowed her head. She’d known he would ask. “Myron, she had to go. You know that.”
Myron took a step toward her and jabbed the air with an accusing finger. “I don’t know anything of the sort. You had no business taking her there. And look what’s happened. She looks terrible.”
Maya nodded sadly. “I know. But she still would’ve gone. She wouldn’t have let it rest until she found what she was looking for.”
“I know what she was looking for,” Myron bit out. “And she will never find it there. She was looking for someone who never existed except in her own mind. He was a criminal. A heartless machine who could shoot you as easily as look at you.”
Maya released the doorknob and slowly turned in place to face Myron. “That might be how you saw him, but to her, he was the only person in the whole world that was ever there for her.”
“Yeah, and he let her down when she needed him. And that’s what really hurts her. And still hurts her after all these years. That when all was said and done, when her life was at stake, when she needed him more than she ever had in her whole life before, he didn’t even care enough to do something. He didn’t even care enough to look for her. I’m the one who took care of her and looked out for her and loved her. I’m the one. But she still can’t let him go. Even after thirty-one years, she won’t let him go.”
“You blame him,” Maya softly pointed out.
“Hell, yes I blame him!”
Maya sighed and folded her arms across her waist. “She blames herself. She thinks he died hating her for what she did.”
Myron snorted. “He didn’t hate her! He didn’t care enough to hate her! Besides, she didn’t do a damn thing! She sneaked out a window! So what?! She was fifteen years old for crying out loud! She didn’t know what would happen! No one could have imagined what happened!”
Maya shrugged off Myron’s words. “It’s simple. She feels like she betrayed him, and he went to his grave angry at her for it. She wants his forgiveness, but he can’t give her that…since he’s passed on.” Maya lifted her serene gaze to see the frustration in his eyes. “There’s nothing we can do to change the way she feels. Only she can do that. By forgiving herself.”
“But…but…oh hell.” Myron’s face fell as all his anger seeped out of him with a heavy sigh. “I know you’re right. I just feel so…so…”
“Helpless?” Maya prompted.
His shoulders slumped in dejection, and he put his back to her and plodded heavily back to the table where he fell into his chair like a bag of disarticulated bones. With one finger, he pushed his glasses back up his nose. He was helpless, and he knew it. She would die and there wasn’t anything he could do to stop it.
Maya thought maybe she should say something else, but she decided she’d said enough. She should just leave him alone. Her feet heavy with sorrow, she turned back to the pantry. For his part, Myron sat silently, completely oblivious to her movements, completely deaf to the metallic sound of tins bumping against each other as she searched the shelves, completely blind to the black leather book beneath his apathetic gaze.
Eventually, Maya returned to find him staring at the book. “How about some stew, Myron? I found some canned meat and some canned vegetables. I’m not the greatest cook, but I think I can throw something together.”
Myron blinked and lifted his head. “What? Oh yes, that sounds fine, but you really don’t have to…”
Maya smiled with false cheerfulness. “I don’t mind.”
Myron absently nodded and returned his gaze to the book. Suddenly, he remembered what Nessa had said about it. ”I don’t want it. Get rid of it. Burn it.” Myron reached out and drew the book toward him.
Maya busily worked to open a tin. “Hmmm?”
“What is this book?”
Maya froze and tightened her fingers around the can. “Forget the book, Myron. I shouldn’t have brought it.”
“But what’s the big deal? A philosophy book. So what?”
Maya returned to opening the can. “I don’t know, Myron. I was going to ask Nessa, but you heard what she said. She found the book in an office, and there’s writing inside the cover. I think the book really upset her, but I don’t exactly know why.”
“Inside the cover?” Myron squared the book in front of him and hesitantly lifted the cover with one finger as though he expected to find a fire-breathing dragon lurking inside, but in the end, he found only writing. Much of it sloppy writing at that.
At the very top of the back of the cover, he read the words Property of: and studied a dark blot where a name had been heavily scored through with thick black ink. He leaned closer and drew his glasses down his nose to try to make out the obliterated letters, but only a florid slash of a line that might have been the crossing of a tee remained visible. Beneath the blotted words, a name had been neatly written, printed in bold, blocky strokes. Dr. J. T. Hojo followed by several academic letters that had been partially hidden beneath what looked like a red thumbprint.
Further down, someone had carefully drawn a plump heart and then bisected it with two lines that met in the point at the bottom of the heart, and beneath that someone, maybe the same someone, had inscribed a message in a flowery hand. Blue ink this time. With a fine point pen. These words were also decorated with red fingerprints. To Myron, the stains looked as though someone with paint-smeared fingers had rested their hand there.
“I can’t read this,” Myron remarked aloud, more to himself than to Maya. She left the cabinet to look.
“Hmm…I think it says…” Maya’s brow wrinkled in concentration as she leaned over Myron’s shoulder to read. “…With all my love…something…heart and…soul…something… something…never forget…something…”
She touched a finger to the flowery signature. “…And this name looks like…Lucinda…Lucilla…something like that.” Maya raised her eyes from the book to look at Myron. “That’s all I can make out.” Then she pointed at the inside leaf. “But look at that.” She frowned slightly. “It looks like it was written in blood, doesn’t it?”
Myron cautiously drew the book closer as he studied the faded red writing that did look like someone had dipped a finger in a pool of blood and drunkenly scrawled the words. Numbly, he nodded his agreement with Maya’s statement. “It does look like…blood, but surely it’s…not…”
The writing filled the page from top to bottom, and Myron read the words at least three times before he could begin to make out what the crimson inscription said. Then he worked his way through the passage aloud.
“I…war…warned you…port…porter…no…no…that’s…partner…I warned you partner…not to…muddle…meddle. Gotcha. R.I.P. Your ever…ending…no…that’s…enduring friend…your ever enduring friend...Lewis.”
Myron felt the blood drain from his face at recognition of the name, and he almost jumped from his chair when Maya spoke over his shoulder, having completely forgotten her presence behind him while he was absorbed in deciphering the scrawl.
“Why would someone write something like that in a philosophy book?”
“I…I…don’t…know…” Myron stammered. “I…I can’t…even…g…guess.”
But he could guess. Abruptly, he slammed the cover closed and snatched the book to his chest as he stood. His wild eyes collided with Maya’s startled ones. “Ah…excuse me…I have to talk to Nessa…about this…” Then, in the blink of an eye, he’d raced across the kitchen and vanished down the stairs.
Nessa restlessly turned her head against the pillow as the dark shadow in the doorway stretched across the floor and across her face to superimpose itself on the whitewashed wall she’d been blankly staring at ever since she’d gone to bed. She’d known he would come. He couldn’t help himself. Conceding surrender, she rolled onto her side and stared at the indistinguishable silhouette framed in the doorway.
“What is it, Myron?”
“Uh…I’m sorry if I woke you…”
“It’s okay. I wasn’t asleep.”
“Can I turn on the light?”
“Yes, go ahead.”
Myron crossed the room and reached beneath the shade to switch on the lamp. Then he sat down on the bed beside her as she blinked in the bright light.
“Really, I’m sorry to bother you, Nessa, but I wanted to talk to you about this…” He laid the book across his knees. “…philosophy book.”
Nessa responded by turning on her side and putting her back to him. “I don’t want to talk about that book, Myron. I don’t want to see it ever again. Please, just take it away.”
“But Nessa, I want to know what this means, all this in here. Why did it upset you?”
“Please tell me, Nessa.”
“Fine, Myron. If you must know, the book was…it was…it was…his.” Even now, she couldn’t utter his name, a sorrow in itself. “…And she signed it. Do you see that? Lucrecia? Do you remember me telling you about her?”
Myron slowly nodded. “I know you didn’t like her.”
Nessa drew the bedspread around her, her back still to Myron and the book. “Yes, well, the feeling was mutual. Anyway, see that goofy heart with the ‘V’ inside? That was her mark for him. She wrote it on every note she ever wrote him. That’s how I know she gave him that book. And then someone scratched out his name. Probably that despicable Hojo, since his name is there. And that other writing. On the other side. That looks like…like…”
Nessa fell silent. She couldn’t even say it.
Myron opened the front cover of the book to study the writing again. “You think that it’s blood too, don’t you? Like Maya?”
Nessa lifted a shoulder against the blanket in a tight shrug. “What else could it be, Mryon? I think it’s obvious.” She drew in a shaky breath and continued her speech before she lost her equanimity. “Which, of course, begs the question of who that blood belonged to, doesn’t it, Myron? Especially in light of the fact that Lewis signed it. Why and when? That’s the only thing I could think about when I saw it. That’s what upset me.”
Myron stared down at the blood-penned words in bewilderment. “But I don’t understand what it means. Do you mean you think it’s…his blood?”
Nessa huddled more deeply into her bed covers. “Myron, it can only mean one thing.”
For a long time, Nessa lay silently staring at the wall as Myron waited for her to answer. He knew she would eventually. He only had to exercise the patience she’d taught him, and finally she took a long breath and did answer, if in a voice slightly strangled with emotion.
She had to take another long breath to steady her voice before she could manage to speak again. Then she spoke the words all in a rush.
“It means that…that…Lewis Hodge…killed my…brother…and…and he did it because of me.” Shoulders quaking, Nessa turned her face into the pillow and burst into tears, and there was nothing Myron could do or say that would console her. So he simply sat beside her and softly stroked her hair, until some time later, maybe an hour, maybe two, she finally fell into an uneasy sleep, and only then did he leave her to do as she wished, to destroy the philosophy book so she’d never have to see it again.
Vincent smoothed the map beneath his fingers, but the action didn’t facilitate his concentration. For the tenth time in as many minutes, he looked up at the closed door. She’d been gone too long. He knew he should check on her. But no. He would not. She was a grown woman, capable of taking care of herself. He had gotten too accustomed to looking out for her, to taking care of her, and now his services in that regard were no longer required. He’d seen to that. Much to her effusive gratitude. He absently raised a finger to the exact place on his cheek where she’d impulsively kissed him before her cheeks had flamed red, and she’d retreated to the bathroom, leaving him sitting in stunned immobility.
Then she’d poked her head around the doorframe and proclaimed her clothes a wreck, at which time he’d woodenly informed her of the uniforms stored outside in the cavern and how she might make use of them. She had immediately acted on his suggestion and almost bounced across the room to the door, the satin skirt swishing softly around her bare feet. He thought about suggesting she don her shoes, but on second thought opted to watch her in silence, until she’d slipped out the door. Then he’d shoved away his troubling thoughts and moved to the table to bury his mind in another reading of the map. Ten minutes ago. No, now eleven.
He forced his unruly thoughts back to the map and worked on tracing out the tunnels in an attempt to determine the most direct route to the second ‘X’, which surely must be an exit at the other side of the mountain range. The ‘X’ beside the three wavy lines marked a means of egress, so he didn’t think it unreasonable to conclude the ‘X’ at the far edge of the paper would also designate egress. The clock ticked loudly in the quiet room, distracting, annoying. He fought the urge to look at it, and attempted to estimate the distance from the first ‘X’ to the other based on the crude scale drawn in at the very bottom right corner of the map by flipping a cartridge over and over along the various tunnel routes. With a bit of consternation, he discovered the shortest route measured just over two hundred miles. Still, an undependable estimate, at best. He shot a quick glance at the intrusive clock. Then, he turned his eyes to the door. Fifteen minutes.
With an impatient shake of his head, he dragged his eyes back to the map, where he studied the markings intently for several minutes, yet when he finally lifted his gaze to the doorway, he couldn’t recall what he’d been looking at, quite. He darted another look at the clock. Twenty-three minutes. He wasn’t going to gain any more information by expending another minute on the map here. Abruptly, he decided he would just take the map, and revisit the area around the waterfalls. He wanted to investigate the opposite side of the pool, and he wanted to locate the alternate controls to the chute doors. Maybe a long trek wouldn’t be necessary. On the way, he’d just ensure that she’d found the uniforms.
His decision made, he folded the map in his hand and headed for the door. For almost a full minute, he stood frozen with his hand on the knob, suddenly overcome with a need to argue the pros and cons of actually leaving the room to investigate. In the end, he reached the same conclusion as before and mentally chastised himself for allowing this new tendency toward indecisiveness to take root. Smartly, he turned the knob and strode through with every intention of carrying out his plan without any further dilly-dallying. However, the sight that met his eyes brought the determined man to a dead standstill, where he turned to stone with his mouth ajar and his eyes wide.
Tifa Lockhart wasn’t looking for uniforms. She wasn’t exploring the confines of the cavern. She wasn’t even gawking at the broken airplanes, the dismantled helicopters, the stripped tanks, or the capsized airship. She hadn’t even been drawn to the distant waterfall. She was humming, and she was dancing. On tiptoe. Three graceful steps one way. Three measured steps back. Followed by a series of dainty skips, and then an artistic pause which flowed into a gentle sway as she moved to and fro, her bare feet slipping softly against the concrete to describe a slow pivot, her hands resting lightly on her hips, and her slim neck delicately craned as she raised her happy face to the darkness overhead. Then her arms rose like a pair of feathery wings, and she stood poised on one leg, her fingers outstretched in mute supplication, looking for all the world as beautiful and elegant as any dancer he'd ever seen at the Midgar Ballet. She held the pose for a score of heartbeats before she lifted her slender hands over her head and circumscribed a tightly executed spin with her long ponytail flying and the full skirt belling out around her bare legs. Then she performed her improvised dance routine all over again, throwing in variations on her steps with no real rhyme or reason, eventually giving words to her song somewhere along the way, completely oblivious to her captive audience, who was completely oblivious to all else.
At some point, Vincent finally remembered to close his mouth, and he weakly forced his body into motion, settling himself on the top step where he clutched the folded map in his metal talons and rested his arm on his knee, unable to do anything but watch her. In fact, he didn’t even really remember what he’d planned to do, and he didn’t know how many minutes elapsed before she finally noticed him there, in the middle of another barelegged spin, and stumbled to a stop in startled embarrassment, her hand flying to her mouth.
“Oh! I didn’t see you there.”
Vincent stirred from his trance. “Hmm…I thought you were looking for clothing.”
“I am! Er…I’m going to. Just now. Was there a hurry?”
“No,” Vincent curtly responded as he pointedly shook out the map.
“Well, okay. I was just…you know…I just felt so good that…well…I felt like dancing…I guess…”
Vincent looked up from the map and nodded indifferently. “I understand.”
Tifa propped her hand on her hip. “Well, could you just point me in the right direction?”
Vincent raised an eyebrow. “What?”
“Could you tell me where the uniforms are?”
Still discomfited despite his cool mien, he stared at her in silence for a few seconds before he managed to stir himself to answer. “Er…yes, they are over there.” He impatiently waved a hand to the area behind her.
Her smile brightened. “Thanks, Vincent!” She gave him a little wave before she whirled around and made a beeline to the pile of items he’d collected earlier, the skirt swaying against her hips and legs as she stepped high over small obstacles and jumped over larger ones. Again captivated, he watched her dig through the uniforms, every few moments stopping to hold a pair of trousers against her body to gauge the size, a procedure she repeated until she found some clothing that seemed to suit her. Then she set the clothing aside and fell to her knees to examine the boxes of food, creating her own little stack of foodstuffs to bring back with her.
At some point as he watched her, the map slipped from his metal talons unnoticed to flutter off the side of the stairwell to the floor below. Eventually, after a measureless amount of time, he forced his eyes away from her to return to his examination of the map, only to find it gone. Bemused, he peered over the railing to locate the piece of paper lying on the concrete ten feet down. Briefly, he thought about getting up to retrieve the map, but found his gaze inexorably drawn to her instead. He sighed and propped his chin in his hand as he pondered his own inadequacies.
A few days past, when she’d been on death’s doorstep, he’d made a vow to disengage his emotions from the situation at hand, not only because he well knew that his emotions, once loosed, had a tendency to overtake him, but also to protect her. The deeper he buried his emotions, the tighter he could secure the beast within. Chaos must not be freed again. Initially, he’d thought he would find detachment easier once she’d recovered, but he could see now that he’d been wrong. Somewhere along the way, he’d changed, ever so infinitesimally. He didn’t really know when or how. He only knew that he now found himself on the verge of betraying that vow.
Tifa glanced over her shoulder at him and gave him a little wave, a warm smile lighting her face. He coolly nodded, and shuttered his crimson eyes.
Intuitively, he knew that today he stood on the teetering edge of a steep, slippery slope with the total knowledge that if he didn’t step far back, the resultant fall might well be endless and painful. Without a doubt, he would have to regain his distance from her, before it was too late, before he forgot how. Because he held no illusions that he could ever be with her. He would never even consider such a ludicrous relationship. Even if she didn’t love Cloud Strife, which she most wholeheartedly did, and even if she were to harbor any affection for him, which he wasn’t foolish enough to believe would ever be the case, she deserved much more from life than to be tied to an accursed monster such as he. He would never let that happen. His whole life long, every person he’d ever loved had died. Because of him. Because of his sins. He would not do that to her. He would not care. He would never love her. She did not deserve to suffer his retribution, and he did not deserve to live inside sunlight, and he never would.
Vincent abruptly stood and purposefully descended the stairs to reacquire his map, ignoring the urge to look her way again. Map in hand, he squared his shoulders and retraced his steps without a backward glance. Entering the control room, he closed the door firmly behind him. He’d decided on a course of action, and he meant to stand by that decision without wavering. He could and would maintain his customary distance from her until such time as he could return her to Avalanche, or Cloud Strife, or wherever she wished to go. And then, he would leave. He didn’t know where he would go, but he would cross that proverbial bridge when he arrived there. He curtly nodded in agreement with his mental plan. Then he pointedly put Tifa Lockhart out of his mind.
Reseating himself at the table, he spread the map out and impulsively reached for one of his foil wrapped chocolates. Mechanically, he unwrapped the lumpish piece of candy and tossed it into his mouth before bending his mind to a travel plan. As far as he could extrapolate from the rough terrain sketched out in the map, and figuring on his estimate of a two hundred mile route beneath the mountain range, he could project that the journey through the winding tunnels to the outside world might well take two weeks or more, barring no unforeseen problems.
Two short weeks, and he could deliver her home, and be done with her.
Two weeks or more. Two weeks or…more…
Vincent suddenly slumped back into his chair. What kind of an impossible situation had he thrown himself into when he’d jumped into the maelstrom? Two weeks or more in her company. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week. By necessity, traveling together, eating together, looking out for each other. And he’d vowed to keep his distance? Could he have set himself a more formidable task?
With a groan of frustration, Vincent buried his face in his hand. He well knew the proverb that the road to hell was paved with good intentions. Many a time, he’d set his foot to a pathway with less than honorable intent, certainly ensuring his destination to a terrible end. This day, he held only the very best intentions in his heart, and he was certain in the knowledge that he was about to embark on the shortest route to hell ever devised by one man, a two week journey on a path that could deposit him in a uniquely novel level of hell, one that might well rival any that all his sins had earned him.
No matter. He would gladly douse himself in gasoline and fling himself into the deepest, hottest furnaces of hell if his sacrifice would keep her safe. Vincent straightened in his chair and pointedly turned his attention to the map as the doorknob turned. He would adhere to his vow, and he would prevail.
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