Stay With Me Chapter 5
By Lucrecia Marionette
"Put it over there. No! Not there! There!"
Cid gestured his arms wildly at the pitiably confused engineer who waddled around uncertainly clutching a large suitcase before him. Putting it down for a seconds rest, Cid yelled at him again and he yanked it off the ground so sharply that he felt the muscles in his back cry out in pain. Cringing visibly and holding his breath, he ran quickly through the town gates and deposited the huge bag.
"Damned flunkies," Cid muttered angrily as he lowered himself down the rope ladder. "Cant get decent help now-a-days," he added gruffly as a booted feet touched down on the muted green grass below. It crunched beneath his weight like glass shards and crumpled pathetically under his sole. His hand felt instinctively up to his breast pocket, but his irritation was magnified countless times as he recalled that his last cigarette was probably floating, half smoked in the Midway Ocean, the vast body of water which spanned between the two continents. At that moment, he seriously considered going to find it. The rich, smothering smoke would be so much more pleasurable then the icy air which attacked his lungs even then.
He frowned a little and gave a slight cough as he sauntered over to the gate. Looking into the town beyond, he found himself as unable as ever to view the hellish aura which surrounded the place. It seemed only noticeable by those who had lived here or experienced the nightmares firsthand. To him, it was a quaint, almost backwards settlement which barely qualified as a town. It was more like a village, and a small one at that. Only because it was the largest grouping of dwellings in the area was it regarded as having a higher status.
He sniffed almost disdainfully in the direction of the water-tower, standing defyingly erect despite the numerous planks of wood and rusting pipes which hung feebly from it. He realised with a degree of egoism, that given a day he could construct something infinitely better and more efficient than the ancient structure.
His thoughts were interrupted as he heard a soft crunch behind him. Turning, he observed as Shera held a hand out to Tifa who declined it politely and lowered herself agonisingly down the final few rungs of the wobbly ladder. She stumbled a little as her feet touched ground, but soon brushed down her tan jacket with a degree of achievement. Cid said nothing as he walked over to them.
"Well, here we are," Shera said obviously with a warm smile. "Its rather quiet, isnt it?" She rubbed her hands together briskly to instil some feeling into the cold-bitten appendages.
"Pretty freaky if you ask me," Cid responded with raised eyebrows. "Its like a ghost town."
"Weve been here loads of times before," Tifa contended. "I guess that the Highwind isnt such a novelty any more."
Cid shrugged as he glanced back over his shoulder. "Still weird," he mumbled.
A long period of silence elapsed as the trio observed Nibelheim from the lower vantagepoint. So much further down than the deck of the Highwind many metres above them, it was a little easier to feel the oppressive blanket which had settled for several decades now over the town.
Despite this, Tifa was the first one to move as she walked tentatively towards the rusty gates which had been there long before she was a child. No one was entirely certain as to their purpose, except that the town square had once been a bustling chocobo market and the elegant metal barrier had prevented them from escaping into the grasslands beyond. There was no thriving economy here now though. The only services were the inn and tavern with menial grocery-store next door. Even from when she was young, shed known that they only just scraped-by a living; not enough visitors went through the town on the mountain pass to make comfortable life-styles for the residents. As a guide in the hazardous area, shed found an innovative way to find herself a means to survive. However, who could have known that her way of life would prove to bind her up in her own downfall?
For once, since reminiscing so grimly about her past, Tifa didnt weep. Instead, her brow furrowed a little, but her lips pursed and she merely turned away from the dull sight of the houses.
"You can go now if you like," she said quietly and the couple looked at her as though she had just shot them.
"Go??" Cid exclaimed. "Do you think were just gonna drop you off in the hope that Vincents going to be here? What if hes not home? What happens if hes moved on and youre left completely abandoned?"
Tifa pulled a face. "I suppose," she answered a little plaintively. "But you really dont have to stay. It was enough for you to bring me here in the first place."
Cid shook his head firmly. "No way. We wont step on your toes, but well stay in the inn if you want to go right ahead and take a look around that damned mansion."
Tifa nodded with a wan smile after a brief moment of thought. "Thanks."
"That way, if you need us then were only a short walk away. If you want us out of your business then you dont even have to look in our direction," Shera ended.
Tifa flashed the older woman a smile of gratitude and walked all the way up to the town entrance, pausing outside of the cobbled square which made up the centre. Her face collapsed into a ponderous frown as her eyes drifted up the lines of stone set in cement to the partially obscured, gothic building at the head of the smattering of houses. The shadow shrouded mansion stared hauntingly back at her with its dark windows like eye-sockets boring into her soul. Her stature didnt shift and she stared straight back, daring it to so much as threaten her with the empty memories which would destroy the already frail form. It didnt take the slightest heed however, and it wasnt long before her mind was flooded with the intense flames of a hellish blaze; the screams and sweet smell of burning flesh filling her nostrils with a remembered scent.
All at once her vision was swamped with the vivid orange glow of an intense fire and she took a startled step backwards with the unexpected shock of the explosion. The windows and doors of the dull, grey stone dwellings erupted outwards as flames grew out of the square holes and licked up the masonry to consume the thatched roofs with their ever hungry appetite. A man stumbled from the general store opposite her, meeting her haunted stare with his sightless eyes, burned out by the intense heat. He gave a hideous gurgle and fell to the floor clutching his chest. Steam flowed up ethereally white from the water-tower but it was mingled with the dirty black smoke of the burning houses and lost forever in its purity. Just like her. Whilst she had once been the innocent young teenager, embraced by a loving father and kind friends, with the destruction of all she had known her soul had been tainted forever with the sights of Hades.
She wanted to vomit.
So involved was she in the horrific vision, that as a hand fell upon her shoulder, she whirled around with a shocked gasp, not quick enough to erase the terrified expression on her thin features. Cid was completely taken aback by the pure fear which was written all over the womans face and stumbled back a little in surprise.
"Shit Tifa," he breathed, attempting to regain his composure. "Whats wrong?"
"I-I was just remembering," she stammered in a subdued fashion as she rubbed her face to tease away the mask of terror. "Better now than never."
Shera stared at her suspiciously but Tifa met her gaze and shook a hand dismissively. "Wouldnt you rather I confronted these fears while you were both still with me?"
Pilot and technician exchanged apprehensive glances but said nothing, their lips drawn into thin lines of non-committal.
Taking their silence as a positive answer, Tifa turned back to the town with a look of firm determination mustered up from the very depths of her heart. She bent down and wrapped her delicate fingers around the handle of the suitcase by her side. Straining under the exercise, she pulled it up before her and shuffled uncomfortably.
"Im going now," she announced. "If I stay here for much longer then Ill probably lose the courage."
" Want me to carry your bag?"
Tifa shook her head but didnt turn back to look at the gruff member of AVALANCHE. "No thanks, Cid. Ill try to stop by and see you both at the Inn later. If anything happens, you know where to find me."
And that was that.
Without so much as a farewell, Tifa started on her brief journey clutching her bag awkwardly before her as she took stilted steps forward. The leather suitcase rubbed against her jean-clad legs, but focusing only on her destination she didnt even seem to notice. Her eyes were fixed ahead and only blinking when it physically stung to keep her eyes open any longer she appeared to be more like a mindless zombie.
As her shadow fell across the doorway of the Nibelheim Inn and passed across to the next home on the terrace, she heard the sound of a door opening and excited chatter hum softly in the crisp air.
."Wow! Thats the Highwind isnt it ?"
."I cant remember it being that big!"
."Wanna take a look?"
."Maybe we can take a look around!"
A slow smile found its way onto her rose-tinted lips as she could almost see Cid rushing back on-board hurriedly to avoid the mass of people clambering over one-another to watch the vast ship in action. Perhaps his curse of the ghost-town had been premature. Now he was facing the consequences of his idle condemnation of the lifeless area.
More homes opened out to her as she moved past them, spewing their excited citizens onto the streets as they voiced their awe at the unusual site. Children tugged at their parents restraint; a few of the older ones gathered in groups, their wonder-filled eyes glazed with amazement and the strong desire to break away from the shadowy place.
So much like Cloud when he went to join SOLDIER she mused softly.
She herself was the source of much attention and she could almost hear the repressed whispering of the occupants. They debated to themselves whether the haunted woman in their midsts truly was the female figure-head of the group who saved the world three years ago. What were their names again ?
She brushed past them without even affording a solitary glance in their direction and continued to look straight ahead to avoid the attention of any more gossiping families and their neighbours. The method worked beautifully, and within a minute she had broken free of the steadily increasing number of faces in the swelling sea of humans. It was now she found herself on the oddly isolated path up to the deserted mansion before her; the dappled shadows of trees either side obliterating the highly overgrown route. Weeds poked through the cracked flag-stones leaving only traces of the once glorious road up to the jewel of the Nibel mountains.
Now it was deserted, battered and almost emanating an aura of sadness which washed down over the town inhabitants.
For a moment, Tifa pitied it.
"Nothing should be lonely," she whispered gently. "No matter what its done "
She walked for a few more metres down the shadowed avenue and stopped as her journey was blocked by the ever-elegant structure of the Mansion gates. The finely tempered black metal swirled gracefully, creating loops and twists which seemed almost impossible from the sturdy material. And yet, as she stared intensely at it, she saw chips in the paintwork; poisonous red rust creeping along the flat edges of the crafted structure. Ivy had taken hold of the tall, brick gate-posts and had twirled in its wonderfully organic way along the pre-made paths adding an alive charm to the otherwise cold and impassionate piece of art. She ran her fingers idly over the intricate patterns, but her eyes didnt focus on the subject of her sensual attention, rather the object pathetically screened by it. The Mansion was still looking at her in its watchful way, but whilst it had seemed so menacingly and sinister from the safety of the Highwind, it was now so forsaken and stark. All of a sudden, it wasnt the thing of her nightmares and fears; it needed the touch of a human. It needed the love and warmth that only a person with the right patience could bring it.
Taking a deep breath, Tifa pushed against the gates. To her minor surprise, they opened on silent hinges so far as to allow her entry into the forbidden garden. She stepped lightly through with a quiet reverence of the sacred place, dragging her heavy bag behind her. Her wide burgundy eyes stared around with the look of a child intruding on a hidden place but moved on regardless, stepping over the trailing tendrils of ancient rosebushes and alpine ground-creepers. Each plant was touched by the same icy kiss of the frost which enveloped the town with its silvery cloak. It added an even more heavenly appeal to the wild jungle-like Eden surrounding her; her footsteps were softened gently by the grass underfoot to lessen her presence in the prohibited kingdom. Like fallen angels, antique Grecian statues lay half shattered; disguised beneath nets of organic rope in the knee-high grass. As she glanced down at one of them, the expressionless, icy eyes stared back at her with their ageless impassiveness. The smooth white skin seemed so perfectly unblemished by the black veins so common in such masonry. And yet the many years of weather exposure had worn away the features, softening them to the many months of rain and wind the mountainous area had to offer. Through some unconscious wish.
Tifa found herself releasing her bag and bending down. Her hand reached out and she gently ran the back of her fingers down the worn visage. Its skin was deceptively sleek; as her finger tips touched upon the white stone she was able to feel the pitted pores and cracked features.
"Deceptive appearances," she breathed as she straightened herself once again and circled her fingers around the bag-handle once again.
Despite her dramatically slowed pace, Tifa eventually found herself before the ominous doors of the Mansion entrance. The plain, panelled wooden doors were so much less impressive and divine than the garden gateway. They seemed so much more realistic and down-to-earth; much more hidden and elusive to any onlookers. The whorled surface showed little of the strong weathering which had eaten away the broken statue and it stood before her, as solid and unmoving as ever. The same doorway which had stopped her from entering as a child.
The same doorway which she had collapsed before in a sobbing heap four years before as she returned to her hometown for the first time since Sephiroths insanity.
She, and all the other members of AVALANCHE knew what had really concealed itself behind the unimpressive doors of the dilapidated building. They knew the terrible secrets that such a normal entrance lead to. If the rest of the Nibelheim inhabitants had any such knowledge, the centre of Shinras darkest revelations would have been torn down long, long ago.
Gathering the remaining shreds of what little courage resided still in her soul, she pressed a palm up against one of the double doors and pushed heavily against it. The wooden barrier swung open with the same lack of resistance as the gate and gave birth to the ruined hall beyond. Enchanted by the complete deficiency in opposition she had encountered since entering the grounds, she walked into the vast reception.
The gothic décor of the place only added to the chilling, stagnant air. Pillars set into the crumbling walls arched up over her head to a vaulted point at the pinnacle of the ceiling. And from the inverse star-like pattern formed at the meeting, there was suspended a chandelier so beautiful and delicate it took her breath away. Each guilded branch which spanned out from the centre held a myriad of crystalline droplets which refracted the occasional shafts of lazy light which drifted through the dirt-covered window at the head of the room. Tiny flashes of silvery-light dappled the age-eaten chamber with an angelic glittering.
Why had she never noticed it? Why had the fragile glass structure been so elusive to her cautious eyes as she stumbled into the house of horrors three years before?
As she took a step further into the ruined room, something crunched underfoot. Her eyes moved grudgingly from the wonderful decoration to the half rotten floorboards. Shards of glass in perfect mimicry to the icy formations outside shattered beneath her foot. She moved back guiltily; the years of degradation had probably worn away much of the already frail adornment causing teardrops of glass to fall like rain to the wooden floor below. Rubble from the roof littered the ground creating grim obstacles for her to avoid as she made her way through the minefield of precarious boards and decomposing wood. Any wrong way and she might have found herself plummeting to the basement below.
Wallpaper hung in curling, tattered strips down the walls leaving grim, grey exposed plaster from beneath. The paper was not much better however; the design had long since faded leaving only a trace of the pattern it had once boasted so proud and richly. Now the once colourful and perhaps gaudy reception hall was filled with shades of drab browns and lifeless greys.
She shuffled her feet uncomfortably. A feeling of apprehension filled her senses and the oppression of a place once so beautiful sat upon her.
Resolving to move quickly, she dragged her suitcase over to the sweeping, crumbling staircase and walked slowly up; one step at a time. The dusty red carpet was more like a dirty brown. The only hints of colour came when the grime was blown away with her slightest movements. She gritted her teeth in determination not to pay too much attention to the severely depressed surroundings and was soon at the open landing which ran along the length of the hallway. Directly before her ran the impossibly vast window, sectioned off into gothic arches of dust. She imagined that when the building had been new and wonderful, light would have shone down through the divine glass and sprayed a rainbow across the opposite wall. Utterly smothered in choking filth, the only thing it revealed about itself were the infrequent beams which hit the chandelier and faded just as quickly. Perhaps the naturally gloomy Nibelheim skies were not ideal for such a decoration.
Looking both left and right, she pulled a face. Both routes were as dark and foreboding as each other; neither appealing or repellent in their own shadowy way. It was strange, she realised. Having come here before her nerves had been shot to pieces; her mind had been on the brink of emotional collapse. Too many poisonous memories had drained away her confidence leaving her only able to cling helplessly to Him. To Cloud.
But without her hero she was left stranded and defenceless. And yet, despite this she felt no danger and no panic. She was here, in a house; in a building like any other. If anything, it feared her; was it so unused to human touch that it was scared of her presence?
Her hand reached out and ran along the grimy window absently as she began to walk to her left. Her fingers left trails in the dust; rainbows falling onto the decaying floorboards on the ground level and piercing the crystal drips on the arms of the candelabrum. She paid no attention to them however and kept her eyes on the corridor up ahead.
Without windows or light of any kind to guide her, she stumbled warily over the faint outlines of rubble she could see through the darkness. Her heavy bag caught once or twice on unseen objects and as she tugged at it, the grating sound which ensued would vibrate through the tenuous walls around her. Blind and numbed by the chilling coldness which seeped into the mansion from outside, she walked straight into an obstruction at the very end of the tunnel-like passage. With a loud grunt, she frowned deeply with an accusing glare at the innocent doorway which stood fast despite her collision. She rubbed her forehead with a cringe and looked to the new area.
She stood in a small hallway at one end of the landing which gave way to several new doors. From her vague knowledge she recalled that had she gone the other way she wouldve gained entrance to the hellish laboratory below. She gave a shiver at the thought and felt infinitely glad to be as far away from the dreaded area as possible.
Continuing to glance over the inconspicuous exits before her, she noted that only one of them had light beneath the door. The others appeared to spew shadows from their depths into the corridor, polluting what shouldve been daylight into the inky-blackness of the premature night. With that perhaps over-dramatic realisation, she turned to the more inviting route and pushed open the entrance to reveal a new room within.
Sunlight drifted wonderfully through open windows; delicate lace curtains wafting in a seemingly non-existent breeze; probably caused by her entry. The décor was just as grim as elsewhere in the mansion, but that glorious golden hue from the warmth of day brightened it infinitely. Before her there stood an ancient looking bed; four poster with the remnants of an elegant drape over the top. Now it hung feebly in ragged strips which curled around the jagged posts in the same blue-grey hue of the sheets which lay over the mattress itself.
For the first time since she had left behind her friends, a smile touched her lips. In its old-fashioned and oddly decayed appearance, the room was wonderful. "This will do nicely," she whispered lightly as though to confirm her satisfaction to herself and the empty house around.
She dragged her suitcase in and with a deep sigh finally propped it up against one of the walls. Although a chest of drawers was pressed up against one of the windows, she didnt unpack; it was far too premature for that. The house was in ruins she reminded herself. The aura of loneliness and the complete lack of life suggested overwhelmingly that she truly was alone. It wouldnt do any harm to stay there for a while, but making herself at home was truly absurd.
Brushing back the thoughts of defeat, Tifa sat down on the bed. She fell back in surprise as the springs gave into her weight and she fell onto the sheet with a puff of dust. Although she coughed violently, she didnt move. The soft material had seemingly absorbed her into its depths and it felt wonderfully soothing against her skin.
After the clouds of dirt had settled, she gave a deep sigh. The weight off her back since standing permanently on the deck of the Highwind for many hours and little sleep the night before suddenly rushed over her. It was so beautifully pleasant to feel so stateless and yet alive all at once. She was no longer in Kalm; she had travelled halfway across the world to prove to herself that she could. And now the weariness she felt was one of health; one of movement and activity rather than the lethargic ache which had settled on her muscles for the past six months. It felt so good to be alive; more wonderful then than it had done for many years.
With that comfortable thought, Tifas eyes closed lazily before she was even aware of what was happening and she slipped into a dreamless sleep.
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