Stay With Me Chapter 10

By Lucrecia Marionette

Tifa braced herself for the chilling bite of the icy air as she once more stepped out onto the street. Since her time inside the inn, the vicious fangs of frost had been blunted and now they only gnawed gently against her exposed skin. They didn’t tear so easily through her layers of clothing as they had done an hour before. She found herself very grateful for the winter sun which seemed so distant and cold despite its feeble warmth.

Slipping a hand into her back pocket, she pulled out the two hundred-Gil and held it in a clenched palm thoughtfully. Her eyes flitted over the rows of quaint buildings, all of the same dry grey stone with brown sloping roofs and flowery curtains drawn back at the small windows. It was no mean feat to find herself believing that they were the very same homes she had gazed upon as a child; the same chimney stacks and maple window-frames. It was comforting to allow herself to slip into that train of thought, but it was certainly a hollow solace.

Shaking her head to subdue the confusing thoughts, her eyes finally fell on a red sign tucked down a small alleyway. It advertised itself as the town’s only grocery store for almost fifty years. More like eight Tifa contended bitterly.

Walking forward, she moved through the alleyway and pushed open the shop door. A bell tinkled her arrival and she looked around at the new surroundings. It was an average, small grocery store cramped with shelves on either side literally bending beneath the weight of their load. The windows were so choked up with various items that a dim candle flickered on the counter. It appeared as though she was alone despite the bell which heralded her entrance.

Scratching her right forearm nonchalantly as she glanced around with a degree of unease, she slowly started to look around. Her eyes had a moment’s trouble in the feeble candlelight, but as she picked up a small jar she held it up to a solitary shaft of sunlight and squinted.

"Pickle?" she said as she pulled a face and put it down again.

Taking a step back, she gave a loud yelp of shock as she banged into something behind her; to her surprise it gave a noise too. Picking up the pieces of dignity which had scattered to the four winds at her shriek, she spun around to face whatever or whoever she had backed straight into.

"So, so, sorry," a male voice fumbled sincerely. "I didn’t see you there. I was just looking at that poster when I took a step back and-"

His voice came to an abrupt halt as his dark brown eyes settled on her frame and bulged a little. His mouth dropped open and Tifa gave an unconscious squirm.

"Hey! Wow!" he exclaimed as he rediscovered his ability to speak. "Y-You’re that… AVALANCHE woman aren’t you? Tifa something, right?"

Tifa’s body froze for a moment before a very vivid red blush crept up on her cheeks. She blinked and glanced away through sheer embarrassment, suppressing the urge to burst out laughing. In busy Kalm the attention directed at she and Cloud had been immediate and intense. However as they became just another couple of faces in the crowd, life soon settled back to normal. It was a sudden shock to rediscover that lost attention in the backwater village of Nibelheim.

"Tifa Lockheart," she replied quietly and the young man gave a bark of laughter.

"Hah! I knew it was you! I’d recognise you anywhere! You’re more beautiful in life than you are in any photograph."

Tifa gave a moan of objection and he stopped although the elated grin didn’t so much as relax a millimetre. "Don’t say things like that," she objected with a frown. This had always been the side she resented; the sleazy remarks and underhanded flattery. Men always seemed to desire something more than a mere meeting and handshake.

"But it’s true!" he laughed. The ‘conversation’ stopped a while as he stared unashamedly at her, but she noticed with a degree of curiosity that his eyes lingered solely on her face. They didn’t drift down to examine the rest of her body with the seedy gaze of so many other ‘admirers’. For some reason she found herself instantly relaxing under the unexpected action and even lifted her burgundy eyes to scrutinise his own being.

He was a young man, maybe only twenty-one with youthful brown eyes and floppy, chestnut hair which drooped messily over his face. It was apparent that it had, at one stage, been short but months or even a year of disinterest had led it to hang raggedly with a roguish charm. He donned the typical and maybe even traditional wear of Nibelheim; brown slacks with a white shirt and hiking boots. Although his attire was overly casual, it looked neat and fixed. It somehow made her think that he’d tried too hard to blend in.

The peculiar observation made Tifa tilt her head to one side a fraction and her brow crease a little. "What did you say your name was?" she asked him and he seemed to snap out of his trance with a start.

"Oh, sorry. I didn’t," he extended a hand and she took it lightly. He shook it with a pure niceness which showed not even a hint of the rough brutes that had tried to win her favour in the past. "The name’s Will. Will Hicks."

Tifa found a genuinely warm smile touch her lips and she gave a nod. "Nice to meet you, Will."

He gave a roguish, young grin and nodded in return; his fringe flopped over his eyes and he flicked it back with his right hand. "You’ve just made my week. I’d like to say it was nice meeting you too, but that’d make the rest of my life before now seem suicidally depressing."

Tifa laughed and he chuckled with her, his eyes sparkling with some inner joy. As he ran a hand back through his hair once more, he hopped back and perched on the shop counter. Kicking his legs in an oddly childlike fashion, he hunched his shoulders and rested his hands on his lap.

"So how can I help you, Ms Lockheart?" he asked pleasantly and she glanced askance at him.

"Just call me Tifa," she told him before looking over the rest of the room. "You work here?"

He nodded. "Yeah, just a temporary thing. I’d like to get away from this place if I can. It’s weird; I wanna get out of Nibelheim and you come here through your own choice."

Tifa sighed somewhat sorrowfully as she found interest in a loaf of bread. "I wouldn’t say that it was entirely by choice," she mumbled.

"Oh no?"

She shook her head. "But I don’t really feel like talking about that if you don’t mind."

"Of course not," he shrugged. "I’m here to give you assistance, not the third degree."

She forced a smile but only the bread received it as she turned it over in her hands. "Well, why are you here anyway?" she asked him suddenly. "I mean you can’t seem understand why I’m in Nibelheim, but what’s your excuse?"

"I was born here. Grew up and never managed to find my route to the outside world," he gave a similarly sorrowful smile, but Tifa frowned deeply and gave him an almost angry glance as she put the bread on the counter he sat upon.

"You don’t have to recite the Shinra script at me," she replied. "I’m not stupid, everyone knows that after Nibelheim burnt down, actors were moved in to replace the townspeople. I should know; I really was born here."

"Yeah? Well so was I," he retorted and Tifa turned fully to him.

"You were?"

"Yeah! I lived across the street there," he pointed out of the partially covered window to a small doorway on the other side of the alley. "Me, my Mom and sister."

"Really?" He nodded. Tifa sniffed, "I honestly can’t remember seeing you around."

"Well, I’m not so sure I saw you either," he slipped off the wooden partition onto his feet before her. "I didn’t actually go to school or anything to be honest." He shoved his hands in his pockets and Tifa gave a sudden squirm of awkwardness. "After my dad died he left us with a plot of land about a mile out of town. We had a small house out there too, but my Mom was always really ill and it wasn’t practical. We grabbed all our belongings and moved to the small house opposite here.

"You probably never saw me because I was always out on the field. My sister looked after Mom and I brought back money. We didn’t have time for other kids and playing." Will leant up against a wall and crossed his ankles, looking down at the floor.

"O-Oh, I’m so sorry," Tifa stumbled, "I didn’t mean to be so abrupt."

"Heh, it’s alright. How were you meant to know?" She still pulled a face and turned away averting her attention to a shelf covered with confectionery.

There was an unbearably long pause and Tifa slowly began to realise that there was only a limited amount of time she could look at jams and jelly before it became totally ridiculous. Reaching out and picking up a random jar, she put it beside the loaf of bread she’d chosen.

Will cleared his throat. "Do you want a hand?" he asked quickly and she shook her head.

"It’s okay, I think I know what I’m getting anyway."

He nodded and watched her subtly as she moved back and forth across the small store floor, lingering next to some shelves, walking right past others. Within ten minutes of quietness, she had collected a small pile of objects on the counter. She cleared her throat and Will looked at her. "You done?"

She nodded and he sat back on the counter, swinging his legs over the top and slipping behind it in a single, practised movement. He brushed himself down, and moved nonchalantly to an ancient looking store till. There was the constant sound of ‘tinging’ and ‘clunks’ as he worked the old machine, handling every object she had picked out and punching it’s number into the contraption. He swore quietly every now and then as his fingers slipped, and she couldn’t help but allow a smile touch her lips at the sound.

Eventually, he put everything into a large brown paper bag and set it down on the counter.

"Anything else, Ms Lockheart?"

"Please, it’s Tifa," she reprimanded with a slight smirk. "And that’s everything thanks."

"That’ll be 175Gil please," he ended and she handed him the money, warm from nestling inside her palm for so long. He handed her the change and nodded in the direction of the poster he had been so engrossed in during their collision. "Are you going?" he said cryptically and Tifa frowned.

Her head turned towards the direction he had indicated and her eyes widened in surprise. "The Winter Fair?" she exclaimed. "I haven’t been to one of those since I was a little girl! I was the Winter Princess one year!"

He grinned. "Really? I can’t remember that."

She nodded, slightly taken aback but dismissive of his forgetfulness. "Yeah, it was the one before Nibelheim was burnt down. It was a big one that year because people from other villages actually came to see. I remembered feeling on top of the world in my blue, satin dress."

A grin pulled the corners of her mouth up in reminiscence and he chuckled. "I’m sure you looked wonderful."

She laughed. "I’ll definitely be there. Is it tomorrow?"

"The fifteenth of January, yup. It starts around sevenish." He shuffled with a sudden humiliation and Tifa stared at him with a puzzled smile. "Are you … going with anyone?" he asked apprehensively and Tifa paused in thought.

Her mind drifted to Vincent and stopped curtly as she tried in vain to find some image of him skipping around the holly-laden well which was decorated with winter blooms during the day of the fair. Having failed miserably to even envisage a smile beneath the high neck of his blood-red cape, she gave a drawn out sigh and shook her head.

Will seemed to brighten instantly and a smile found its way back onto his childish features. "Well… d’you wanna go with me?" he blurted out and Tifa blinked at the speed of the question.

Unable to turn down the thoroughly innocent hope on his face, she laughed and nodded. "Alright then, she relented warmly. "But it’s not a date okay? It’s just because we both happen to be going."

"Sure," he replied, and she could’ve sworn that his already huge grin broadened a little. "Do you want me to pick you up so we can walk there together? Are you staying at the hotel?"

Tifa shook her head and chewed her bottom lip nervously. "I’m… actually staying in the old Shinra Mansion," she responded hoarsely.

She expected the natural reaction of astonishment; the townspeople disliked lifting their eyes in the direction of the dilapidated building let alone walking past it. Actually going inside would be like marching up to a green dragon and kicking it in the head when its trying to eat – pure suicide. Hell was contained within those walls and it was common knowledge. If she had revealed that information to any of the inhabitants she would brace herself for the undoubted horror and alarm, the disbelief that such a frail looking woman would place herself in such peril.

But Will just stared at her.

The smile slipped off his face as though it had never been there and his sparkling brown eyes widened. From the bottom of her peripheral vision she saw his fists clench so tightly that the knuckles almost seemed to glow white in the dim candlelight.

He swallowed hard and managed to blink. "I-In… the Mansion?" he whispered and she nodded, his panic infecting her brain with a multitude of questions. "Wh-Why??"

She tensed her jaw and inhaled deeply. "Is there something… wrong with that…?" she answered with as little tremor as possible although it didn’t appear as if he’d notice even if she sang the words.

He shook his head slightly but quickened until she felt as though she’d have to lean across and physically stop him from moving. His entire frame seemed to judder with an unfounded panic and it was with a great amount of effort he stop himself from moving. "Not a problem," he said with a nervous laugh. "None at all."

She flashed him a look of pure disbelief, but he shrugged it off as he turned away from her and looked at the wall behind the counter. "I suppose that as someone else who survived the fire, I’m surprised you’d want to even look at the place."

Tifa relaxed. That’s all it was; he was scared of the place, just like anyone else with two brain cells to rub together was. She exhaled through relief; she recalled that had their position been reversed then she probably would’ve reacted the same as him. It was pure madness to imagine anyone with her history returning to the place which essentially destroyed her life.

Just like Vincent then, huh? She questioned herself rhetorically.

Swallowing a little, Tifa gave a frown of concern. "Are you alright?" she asked gently and Will slowly turned back to her.

He forced a smile. "Yeah," he nodded. "Yeah I’m fine. I just… I mean I know you’re stronger than me. You’d have to be to go to somewhere like that again, but you can’t blame me for being shocked."

"Of course not," she agreed.

"Why don’t you stay at the hotel then? It can’t be safe for you up there."

"The only way to get over problems is by picking yourself up and staring at them straight in the face."

"Well, I admire you for it," Will sighed as he arched his eyebrows. "But I really don’t think you should be up there anyway. The people talk about a weird monster living up there. Only drunks seem to ever see it, but you’ve probably been told about the missing travellers up on Nibel, right?"

She nodded hesitantly.

"Well, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’d moved down into the old Shinra place. I bet they’re a lot more intelligent than most would give ‘em credit for." He leant back on the wall behind him in a confident fashion and folded his arms matter-of-factly. "I’m certain I’ve seen something up there myself," he sniffed. "Huge it was, with eyes on stalks and about four arms."

Tifa suppressed a smirk and choked back a laugh. "Four arms, huh? You must’ve been terrified," she smiled.

"Oh no," he shrugged. "Not really. But that’s nothing compared to the sounds I’ve heard. Awful wailing… almost like a human scream. Not everyone’s seen the thing up there, but I can guarantee that most will’ve heard it."

Tifa tilted her head to one side. "I’d take stories like that with a pinch of salt. The Mansion’s old; you probably just heard the wind rushing through the panes."

He shook his head. "No way. I know what I’ve heard, you’ll hear it too if you stay up there."

"Well, last night I slept in the West Wing and I’m in one piece now."

Will shrugged again and unfolded his arms. "I’d feel happier if I knew you were in the Inn, the lady who runs it is real nice."

Tifa wrapped her arms around the large, brown grocery bag which sat bulging with items on the counter. She peered at him over the top between a couple of candlesticks and tins of soup. "I’m safer up there than you could know," she revealed with a wistful smile. "Appearances aren’t everything you know. It may look like something from an old horror movie, but in the sunlight its so beautiful it takes your breath away. And there are no monsters up there," Tifa stopped. Her brow creased in a moments thought as sudden, warm memories of a scarlet caped man, bloody eyes glittering with an inner strife as he fought back demons from the pits of hell to keep her safe. A peculiar sense of peace rushed through her veins at the revelation and the fog of indecision lifted abruptly from her heart and mind. "I can promise you that."

He stared at her suspiciously. "Maybe you should show me around then, huh?"

Tifa faltered for a second as those confident brown eyes sparkled at her with an almost daring glint and she responded with a wry smirk. "Deal. I will then," she replied a little haughtily to his unspoken challenge. "Come to the Mansion at six-thirty; I’ll show you around for half an hour before the fair starts."

He grinned. "I accept. See you then."

She gave a quiet laugh as she left the small store with a renewed sense of determination and hope. Her choice had been made and it felt wonderful.

Chapter 11

Final Fantasy 7 Fanfic