Beneath a Canvas Sky
with wooden swords, we fight
"You know, I even think that she smiled like you."
A feeling of déjà-vu struck him quite firmly the first time he laid eyes on her. There was something almost painfully familiar about her firm, easy limbs filling the space around her with uncharacteristic grace; his mind struggled to place the familiarity of her face within the cobwebs of still-dormant memories. More than anything, he felt catapulted across time— back thirty years— when her attentive gaze on him was abandoned in favor of shooting a much too obvious glance at the one he had cataloged in his mind as ‘The Leader.’
Mount Nibel groaned behind them, accompanying the roll of thunder with a sighing, chilly gust down through the buildings clustered around the little square. ‘The Girl’ absently swiped dark bangs from her eyes and followed silently after The Leader. He recognized the expression on her face. Eyes too bright, smile too brittle. I’m all right, world, don’t pay attention to the broken pieces, a state of mind all too familiar for him. But that wasn’t it. She seemed familiar.
Introductions were exchanged, or rather, summarily handled by The Leader , Cloud, of the silly name. One by one, he learned their names, The Muscle was Barrett Wallace; The Kid , Yuffie Kisaragi; The Strange One , Aeris Gainsborough.
“Tifa Lockhart,” The Sad-Eyed Gir— his brain stuttered for a moment as she stretched out a hand in front of him, startling him out of his mental cataloging. He stared at her long pale fingers, feeling suddenly awkward and confused. Her fingers wiggled, urging him to take the offered greeting. She was the compelling type, more than just the sad-eyed girl , then. His creaking joints, like the rusted hinges of a neglected door, had forgotten the function of yielding to social commands; his mind had forgotten how to meet someone halfway. She interpreted his hesitation as a rebuff and quickly closed her fingers into a loose fist, slowly withdrawing and cradling her hand protectively against her chest. Vincent Valentine vaguely recalled a humorless, deadpan voice from decades before declaring him a jackass. He could picture a self-satisfied smirk behind brown eyes, asserting that thirty years later, he hadn’t changed at all.
Time continued its inevitable march, and he found it unnecessary to repair the wrong impression he thought he’d made that day. There were enough hits intercepted and cooperative moments between them to show him that she held no grudges, that she understood his awkwardness better than the rest. Still, he couldn’t explain the prickly feeling in the back of his mind whenever she tilted her head to hear someone better over the engine noise from the buggy, or when she walked on tiptoes, barefoot on the grass whenever they stopped for breaks, or when she hummed to herself while she sat at night watch. Her quiet, mournful melody tugged at something in the deepest shadows in his memories.
It was her hair, her hands, her strength, the way she walked and stood, the way she laughed, her eyes— those damned sad eyes— filled with unwavering hope, fatigue, frustration, light, and too much love for one so young. She was a riddle, and his old, dusty memory had filled its holes up with too much guilt and bitterness to remember why she stirred up his heart so quickly just by being Tifa.
He found his answer quite unexpectedly, and he was both relieved and surprised by his discovery of how small a world they lived in.
It was the day she made a narrow escape from the gas chamber, but she wasn’t yet home free. He watched, frozen still against the glass on the Highwind’s observation deck, as Tifa raced down the Sister Ray’s cannon, hair wild in the strong draft of the aircraft’s engines. He felt his heart sink at her leap of faith into the air and watched her hand just miss the rope Barrett had thrown for her. He didn’t believe his eyes when the grace of some unknown deity had blown the end of the line back toward her before it was too late. He and everyone not occupied with operating the airship ran to the deck to watch her pull herself up to safety.
He stood back as the others rushed to her side when she climbed on board, smiling the incredulous smile of one who had just cheated death. He offered her a rare smile and a quiet, “I’m glad you are okay, Tifa,” before retreating into the background, letting Yuffie and Barrett fuss over her.
As she paused at the bulkhead, lifting her head with eyes closed in prayerful thanks, her rope-burned hands tenderly clasped under her chin, he was able to recall that long-forgotten memory. One that had been haunting him from the moment he’d first laid eyes on her.
The third act was coming to an end; he could tell by how the music soared at that moment. He didn’t understand a word. They no longer spoke the old tongue in Kalm, and despite Grimoire’s chagrin, Vincent had never bothered to do more than flip through a few pages of the books his father often gave him. He didn’t need to understand the language to know what was going on. He knew the story by heart.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and chanced a glance at his ward. Lucrecia held her hands clasped beneath her chin, her posture mirroring the supplicant stance of the young girl on the stage. Her lips moved in time to the words, and her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. She turned to look at him then and graced him with a small smile.
“ I accept my lot, I am cursed ,” she translated unnecessarily for him, “I never thought it would be so beautiful in person,” she commented and turned her attention back to the stage. She would think Doom was beautiful. His eyes lingered on the dreamy, nostalgic expression on her face as she followed the singer’s movements. ‘She would have made Grimoire a perfect daughter,’ he thought, ‘she is everything I am not.’
He reluctantly relinquished his observation and turned back to the performance. On the stage, the dashing young hero lay in a pool of crimson fabric that represented blood. The wise old king staggered across calling out for his son.
“ Ullr! Ullr!” on his knees, the singer/actor gathered his “son” into his arms with exaggerated mannerisms and pretended to weep. The girl who sat at the edge of a billowing stream of blue fabric lifted her head from her hands and pushed away from the ground, standing slowly. Her singing was magnificent and was probably the only saving grace to the entire festival pageant.
Her hands clawed at her chest as if she wished to tear out her heart. Vincent felt an odd twinge at the pit of his stomach. Her voice was clear and light, but she managed to edge it with just enough emotion that he believed she was genuinely crying. He looked around him at the silent crowd; the audience was entranced. The girl continued into a long string of phrases, some halting, some protracted, punctuated beautifully by her voice.
Automatically, he leaned towards Lucrecia, who sniffled loudly in his ear before translating for him again. “Feel my heart, it has burst,” She dabbed at her eyes with the collar of her blouse and continued, “I was doomed from the start, and now doomed twice for my loss.” Lucrecia sniffled again and turned to him, “so sad, she blames herself for Ullr’s death because he tried to break her curse and failed,” she accepted his handkerchief and used it to dab at the tip of her nose.
Vincent stifled the urge to scoff. The notion struck him as ironic; after all, wasn’t the world filled with cursed water spirits, promises from love-sick heroes, eternal damnation, weeping kings, and angry dragons? The affair couldn’t have ended well. Someone should have told Ullr as much, Vincent thought. He’d always found it odd that all the good stories seemed to end with someone or other dead or miserable.
As a child, he never enjoyed the happily-ever-after stories his mother tried to tell him as much as he did the tragic stories his father snuck in before bedtime. He loved tales about the mountains that grew on top of dying lovers, the snowflake tears from the frozen-hearted Shiva, or even the story of Ullr and the Nixie , the myth behind why the Mount Nibel springs had turned red and bitter, the story retold by this performance.
In his own life, Vincent had discovered that happiness wasn’t as easy to have as his mother had wanted him to believe. He turned his gaze from the stage, where the Nixie had draped herself over the dying Ullr and wrapped them both up in her flowing blue robes as the “water” rushed over to cover them in alternating ribbons of blue and red. His eyes reluctantly traveled from Lucrecia’s fascinated face to the now large, rounded shape of her abdomen. She was no sprite, and he was no prince with a wooden sword. Most importantly, regardless of that night months before, she didn’t love him. She wasn’t his to save, no matter how much he should wish it differently.
Night crawled unnoticed over the peaks of Mount Nibel, chasing the sun over the western horizon. He walked behind his ward, trying to appear undisturbed by the realization that watching the show had been more like a date than an assignment. He should have passed the request off to another Turk when he received it. He had been doing that for months. What made him think he could detach himself now, under social circumstances?
Lucrecia stopped at the edge of the town square where another performance- musicians and dancers this time- was underway. Vincent edged closer, shooting an acid glare at a man who objected at being jostled by the pregnant scientist in her rush to get a better look. Upon recognizing Vincent’s blue suit, the man shrank back and disappeared into the crowd as fast as he could, not eager to upset a Shinra Turk.
Across the square, Vincent’s eyes were drawn to a familiar shade of blue. It was the young singer from earlier, still in her Nixie costume. She struggled to push her slight frame past a rowdy group of teens and was unsuccessful. Vincent followed her progress behind much taller people on the other side. She seemed almost frantic to break through the wall of bodies, and it made Vincent feel a little sorry for her. Eventually, a kind-faced older woman allowed the singer to stand in front of her, just off the side of the strings section.
“Oh, look!” Lucrecia tugged on his sleeve and pointed at the colorfully clad dancers spinning out from the center and towards the audience. Vincent felt the urge to backtrack just a few feet when he saw what had Lucrecia so excited. The dancers were pulling people from the crowd and pushing them towards the dance floor. Within seconds, a beribboned tall blond had taken a giddy Lucrecia by the hand and was merrily turning her towards a boxy-looking fellow in a too-tight pair of trousers. Vincent’s dismay increased ten-fold when his arm was grabbed insistently by a freckled girl in a flowery bonnet. “Come on!” she urged him, happily oblivious to the death glare he issued her.
“Vincent!” Lucrecia called out to him and made a face that told him he’d better dance or else . Reluctantly, he followed the freckled girl into the dance floor, making sure to edge as close as he could to Lucrecia and her fat companion. He looked helplessly at his dance partner and cringed when the music switched to a 3/4 tempo, and the squawking of a tuba dominated the melody. All around him, everyone, including the often awkward Lucrecia, had joined in synchronized steps too hoppy and skippy for his dignity. Horrified, Vincent could just stand and let his arms be swung up and down in the hands of his freckled partner as she followed the rhythm while ignoring his sourpuss expression.
“Mister, turn!” she commanded and roughly spun him to his left. His shoulder collided with an older man’s chest, who shoved Vincent away with a thrust of his enormous belly. He missed tripping over himself but managed to crash with someone else instead. The dance floor was now full. He turned, “I’m sorry, I’m not...” his partner was now three people away, and in her place was the young Nixie from the play. She smiled up at him and offered her hand to him. He stared down at her straight, long fingers, puzzled by her gesture.
“You’re supposed to spin me,” she said, wiggling her fingers, her tone left no room for arguing. Her speaking voice was just as commanding as her singing, and Vincent found himself unable to refuse. He took her hand and looked around to see what everyone else was doing and raised her arm above her head and spun her three times, careful to avoid hitting anyone else.
As Vincent half-heartedly moved along with his new companion, he scanned the crowd hoping to spot Lucrecia. He was relieved to see the second Turk on duty had snatched her away from the squat dancer. To Vincent’s dismay, it wasn’t long before he, too, started braving his way through the strange hops, claps, and skips of the dance with their enthusiastic ward.
The Nixie placed her hand on his shoulder and cleared her throat. “I’ve seen you before, in town, I mean...”
Vincent gave her a wary glance. He placed his free hand on her waist and flowed with the crowd to the left, switching places with another couple.
“You may have,” he craned his neck when he thought he saw Lucrecia on the other side of the designated dance space. False alarm.
He turned back to look at the Nixie and was surprised at how young she was. He had not paid attention before, and from a distance, she had appeared older in her stage makeup. She couldn’t be more than sixteen or seventeen. Her face still possessed that ambivalence between adolescence and adulthood. Her blue eyes scrutinized his face before abandoning interest in him altogether, presenting him with her profile. She had a delicate chin, soft, full lips, and impossibly long lashes. His mind made a fleeting prediction of the beautiful woman she’d become someday.
“Are you from Junon?” her voice trailed up to him over the music, she was still not looking at him. Her eyes fixed on a spot over his shoulder. A violin played the part he vaguely remembered should be a yodeler during the song’s bridge, and he and the Nixie switched places with another couple.
“Midgar,” he replied, spun her three times and pulled her toward him again, having caught on to the pattern of the dance; he still refused to skip, however. Clapping was already pushing the limit. If only his father could see him now. He’d likely join in with undignified enthusiasm and a hearty Atta boy! after laughing gleefully at him.
“Oh, I thought-” she turned to face him, and squinted at him before continuing, “you are one of the Shinra, aren’t you?”
Vincent let go of her as she sauntered around him and switched sides with another girl. She bowed at the young boy in front of her, then turned back to Vincent, who had not replied to her question.
“Were you at the wedding?” she asked instead. Her voice was eager, and for a second, Vincent resented her enthusiasm with what had probably been one of the worst days in his life. He looked down at her. She was looking over his shoulder again, her smile sad—such a waste of his withering glare.
“No, I was not,” he thought it best to tell a half-truth. He didn’t want to encourage more questions about that particular subject; he couldn’t tell the girl what she wanted to know. He didn’t know what they had served at the reception, what flowers they’d used, or how many tiers the cake had, what the flavor had been; he knew nothing of the decorations or the clothes the guests had worn that day. He didn’t know any of the frivolous things a small-town girl would want to know about the fancy wedding of two wealthy and strange scientists from the big city.
“I just wondered,” she pushed away from him and stood at the edge of the dance floor, where they wouldn’t be jostled by the other dancers, “I mean, I guess you wouldn’t know- maybe,” she worried her lip between her teeth. Her eyes still fixed on something over his shoulder.
He turned and followed her gaze. She was staring at the musicians.
“Know what?” he asked, a bit perplexed by her fascination. The musicians were an oddly assorted lot of men and women. Some older than others, a few balding, many wrinkled. One or two around his age, maybe.
“Know if he played at the wedding,” she replied, drawing closer to the bandstand.
Her steps were measured and graceful. For a second, Vincent saw her as the water Nixie instead of a curious townie from a moment ago. Then he saw the object of her fascination: a violinist, much younger than all the other musicians. He’d been obscured before from his vantage point, but now Vincent saw him. He was tall, slender, and skilled by the looks of the complicated run he was playing.
Vincent smiled reflexively, having caught a furtive brown-eyed glance from the young musician toward his even younger dance partner. So, this was the Nixie’s prince . Her questions made sense now. He remembered reading the file on most of the people who participated in the Hojo-Crescent wedding last year. He’d had to provide clearance to the whole lot, and the twenty-year-old violinist had been part of the string quartet from Junon that would provide entertainment for the reception.
“Why do you want to know about the young Mr. Lockhart?” he asked her, stepping closer. Vincent’s smile widened at her startled expression. Her head swiveled in his direction, regarding him with a mixture of shock and curiosity.
“You know Edward!” she countered, her eyes narrowed in disbelief.
“I asked you first, Miss-”
“Idunna Engel,” she offered her hand again. “Mister-”
“Valentine,” he didn’t hesitate this time; he accepted her surprisingly firm handshake before turning to look at the dance floor, spotting the other Turk and Lucrecia, already tired but still smiling on the other side. He could indulge two more minutes of curiosity. His father would be proud and call him a romantic. “Well, Miss Engel?” he could see her fidgeting from the corner of his eye.
“I-I just wondered,” she clasped her hands behind her back and turned to look at the musicians again. Her eyes fixed on Edward Lockhart.
“I don’t know Mr. Lockhart personally ,” he commented, leaving an open-ended implication for his amusement.
Idunna turned to him, and he didn’t need to look back at her to see the unguarded hope in her eyes. His father had taught him that, as variables, people tended to be somewhat predictable.
Vincent allowed himself a half chuckle, “isn’t he a bit too old for you?” he turned to face her, not surprised at the affront in her expression.
“Four years isn’t too much difference!” she protested and crossed her arms over her chest, her cornflower blue eyes darkened into brilliant cobalt.
Beneath her youthful petulance, he recognized something too sophisticated and unwavering for a girl her age. Irrational distress crept up his spine, whispering that she’d tried to live ahead of what’s allowed, or that he’d fallen behind somehow, drawing breath long after he should have rotted.
The snippets of memory had been drifting in throughout most of the week since the Sister Ray incident. Many moments were still blurry, and Vincent was uncertain which parts were accurate memory and which parts were reconstructions or wild guesses. He knew the physical similarities had been uncanny enough to trigger familiarity with a woman born years after his ‘death.’
“Vincent?” Tifa’s voice echoed against the now (thankfully) silent cabin. The airship had set down on the other side of the Phoenix Mountains, taking advantage of the natural shelter for a respite and a chance at some repairs and regrouping. She distractedly tapped the toe of her boot against the edge of the doorway. “I thought you might be hungry, so I-” she took a few steps into the room and set a dingy plastic tray down on the table in front of him, “I brought you something.”
“Thank you,” he murmured, warily eyeing the murky stew in the dented tin bowl. He pushed the maps he had been studying aside and carefully pulled the tray closer.
He heard her chuckle and found that the sound still affected him, despite now knowing the source of the familiarity. He raised his eyes to her face and saw her looking at him with a mixture of amusement and curiosity as he poked at the curly chunks of what he assumed were vegetables floating in the hot liquid. He was tempted to joke about the dubious quality of the food but thought better of it to avoid offense.
“I hope it’s not as foul as it looks,” Tifa nodded towards the steaming bowl and smiled at him. He returned her smile and brought a spoonful to his mouth.
“Ugh!” he debated between spitting or swallowing the salty mush.
Tifa laughed again, and Vincent had no choice but to swallow the hot goop in his mouth. He shot her a dark look and let the spoon clatter onto the tray. “No, it’s worse, I’m afraid. What is that?”
“To be quite honest I don’t know,” she clasped her hands in front of her and sat across from him, “all the cans are labeled ‘Rations,’ I’ve no idea what’s in them, but it’s all we have for now.”
“You know,” he poked a finger toward the stew, “maybe Shinra planned it this way all along,”
“What do you mean?” she tilted her head, puzzled.
“They’ve let you and Barrett escape with this rusty old pile of bolts and all their inconceivably disgusting rations;” his smirk widened when she exploded into laughter, “What? It’s cheaper than the dump, and the insurance will pay them for the loss to boot.”
“Watch what you’re calling a rusty pile of bolts, you scary pile of freak!” Cid strolled over to them and eyed Vincent with disdain. “I’d like to see you find a finer piece of aeronautical machinery anywhere in the freakin’ planet, Slim.”
Vincent gave him his best innocent face, prompting another giggle from Tifa. The pilot grumbled something under breath about ignorant vampires and beautiful, unappreciated flying fortresses as he gathered the navigation charts Vincent had been looking over.
“Better get some rest, you two. We’re heading out to Mideel bright and early tomorrow;” Cid patted Tifa’s shoulder affectionately and shot Vincent one last glare before heading in the direction of the bridge, yelling at an unfortunate engineer who was splicing wiring incorrectly behind an instrument console.
The two remained in silence after Cid had gone. He entranced with the floating curly cues in the stew, and she, carefully studying the scars on her knuckles.
“Vincent,” Tifa’s voice drew him out of his pointless survey. He looked up to see her smile had faded, the amused look in her eyes replaced by that indecisive glimmer he’d seen earlier when Barrett asked what they would do without Cloud.
“Am I doing the right thing?” She spoke so quietly that it made him wonder if she wanted him to hear.
His mind played a trick on him, making her appear much younger and more delicate than he knew her to be. He blinked to clear his eyes, almost convinced the transfiguration had been real, and instead of Tifa, he sat across from the Nibelheim Nixie. She continued turning her hands one way and then the other as if she expected something to have changed from her last inspection.
“Ahem,” he cleared his throat to cover for his confusion. He felt tempted to take the girl’s hands in his and still her fidgeting. “I don’t know if it’s the right thing, Tifa, but I would do the same in your place.”
She inhaled sharply, trying to keep tears at bay, he guessed. She nodded and offered him a soft smile, one he knew she used as a shield when she felt self-conscious.
“I-I don’t want to force anyone to come with me,” she dared a glance at him beneath long lashes; her brown eyes were apologetic and nothing at all like her mother’s steady, challenging blue ones.
He had heard the pip-squeak ninja complaining about wasting their time looking for Cloud instead of going after Sephiroth. He’d privately agreed at the time, but after much consideration, he’d realized that Tifa couldn’t throw away her hope.
“You’re not forcing me, at least,” he offered after some time.
“Thank you, Vincent,” she murmured and held his gaze, blinking away the remaining moisture from her eyes.
“You know, when I was little...” she sniffled and leaned forward, “...after my mother died, I remembered a story she used to tell me about the mountain springs.”
Vincent looked down at her hands and nodded for her to continue. A memory flashed in his mind of a girl in a flowing blue gown dancing on a stage long ago.
“She said that the water sprite Ilse had taken her wounded lover, Ullr, up to the springs in the mountains, and that she brought him back to life under the water, but only long enough to say goodbye,
“You see, she traded her life for his, and she dissolved like water into the springs, making the water turn bitter. Ullr, desperate and heartbroken, swam for hours calling for her while his wound bled, turning the water red. Eventually, he grew so tired that he drowned.” she scoffed, curling her fingers.
“I wanted to believe in a magical spring that brought the dead back. I was a little girl who had a mother when I went to bed one night, and I woke up an orphan the next morning. It didn’t seem real, so I got it in my head that she was just somewhere else, waiting for me to go find her.”
“I thought I would find my mother up in the mountain springs. I thought I’d trick her into leaving the water to come back home if I brought her something pretty,” she touched one of the teardrop pearl earrings she wore. Her smile was a little shaky and sheepish, but he had never seen her smile so honestly.
“What made you think so?” he asked, already knowing the answer.
She shrugged, wine-colored flecks sparked to life in her eyes, “my mother was the Nibelheim Nixie.”
His eyebrows shot up, surprised by the unsurprising.
Tifa’s smile became wistful before she continued, “I mean... my mother was a singer, and she played the Nixie in the town festival every year. I was too little to understand our random tragedy was real, and I missed her, so I believed the fairy tales. It didn’t make sense that one day she existed and the next she didn’t. I just wanted...” she swallowed, unable to continue.
“A little more time?” he finished for her after a while.
She nodded and brought up her hand to wipe away an errant tear. Vincent succumbed to his impulse and took her other hand in his, giving it a reassuring squeeze. She’d get her chance to say goodbye to Cloud, eventually. She just needed to know she had done everything possible before that.
“What I am afraid of-” she sighed, “is that I’m repeating my mistakes from back then.”
“What do you mean?” Vincent asked, withdrawing his hand.
“The day I went to the mountain looking for my mother. There was an accident. Cloud followed me, and we both got seriously hurt.” Tifa’s hand closed into a tight fist. “What if- what if this is another fool’s errand, and I am only taking everyone into unnecessary danger?”
Vincent stared silently at Tifa for a moment. He was confused as to why she had chosen to come to him with this worry. As much as the ice between them had thawed from the day they met, they weren’t exactly friends. Then again, who knew more about pointless endeavors than the man who’d gone to sleep for 30 years in self-punishment?
“I can’t predict what we are going to encounter in Mideel, Tifa,” he finally replied. “What I can tell you is everyone on this team knows there may be danger ahead, and we choose to come with you.”
Tifa let out a sigh before letting her head drop to the table, into the cradle of her arms. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt for following me,” she muttered.
Vincent couldn’t resist the temptation. He poked at the top of her head with his finger. When she lifted her head to look at him, he leaned forward to be at eye level with her.
“Tifa, tell me something-” he lowered his voice when he saw a group of mechanics walk past in the hallway. “What are you more afraid of, going there and not finding Cloud, or not going there, and missing the chance to rescue him?”
He already knew the answer. After all, people tended to be somewhat predictable.
“I-” she smiled at him. She knew he had read her as plain as a book. “If Cloud is there, I want to find him.”
“Then, we should go and have a look,” Vincent assured her, straightening back into his chair.
“Thank you, Vincent,” Tifa’s smile grew. The shadows in her eyes faded.
Vincent was proud of himself for having effected the change. Something in the pit of his stomach stirred. He didn’t want to know if it was the result of that awful soup or a warning sign that he’d stepped into a mess he was ill-equipped to deal with. He was unaware of his lips curving up to mirror her grateful smile, but he had a notion that quiver in his gut was not the work of the gods-awful soup.