Dreams of Blue
"Marlene, reach up and grab me a pepper can, please."
She stirs fiercely into the boiling pot, a sizzling breath unfurling. Something is boiling in the pit of her stomach too, dark and infernal, but is silenced amidst the roar of the stove. Perhaps if she stirs fiercely enough, the fire burning bright enough, the steam blinding enough – it will burn away the shadows into white-hot smoke; burning them away is better than waiting anyhow, dreaming a broken dream.
Her first boyfriend was at seventeen. He threw the papers at her feet every dawn as she left her shift; she learned to look up and catch them before they hit. He had blue eyes.
It would have made a good story, in retrospect – a homeless barmaid and a poor newspaper boy. They ran in the rain in drenched shirts and breathless laughs, his eyes glowing blue amid streaks of yellow hair. When he leaned to kiss her under the roof she wondered if four years were enough to make a boy grow taller than herself, and felt like a traitor.
The second was a safer choice, with dark stubble and fine lines around his eyes. He substituted promises with coins, and she learned to accept them. She had waited two years too many for a dream of flowers and rescue; puberty and adolescence, the possibility of a first boyfriend perhaps in the safety of a home, gone, just like that, hanging onto a thin thread of a promise. Two years of newspaper clippings all over her walls, sunrises spent lingering at the town gates, awkward questions thrown at strangers and fierce hopes snuffed to dust. Now she was a slum rat in a scant skirt, weaving through drunken men and groping hands. Heroes were madmen who burned homes, the promise of a rescue merely a whisper in the dark that woke her in cold sweat and broken prayers. She was in distress but she was no damsel, for her knight was lost.
She resisted, the first time he took her to a motel. She was eighteen and recently evicted; she still occasionally dreamed of stars and flowers and a piano. But losing the fight against the hands that pushed her onto the squeaky mattress, she threw it all away, the children's songs and the mayor's mansion. She knew dreams had to end someday (since when had he become merely a dream?) when she was mugged at gunpoint and thrown to the streets with nowhere to go, when she smiled for men who reached up her skirt. This man would be her lifeline out of this sweet, suffocating dream; he would guide her to reality. So she turned off the lamp as hands pulled open her shirt and pushed up her skirt, methodically, like meat being prepared, and her shoes felt tight and her torn coat kept catching her hair as he rocked against her –
In the darkness the boy was there at last, blue eyes screaming, and she shut her eyes and prayed her hero would never come.
In the pale blue of dawn she rose, smoothing her skirt and adjusting her shirt, slipped past the snoring man to prepare him coffee – and limping along the deserted streets, she looked up into the breaking dawn, stopped to catch a panting breath, and with shaky hands grasping with pain, sank onto a trash bin and cried.
The dreams eventually faded, and she sank into reality. Learned of it in the form of rough hands, callous words, forgotten birthdays. She learned the many uses of liquor. The dreams were so faint now that she could hardly recall the faces. Sometimes, when the pain broke through the haze so sharp that the liquor inside threatened to tumble out, she willed the dreams to return, to offer her the delusion she had once willingly discarded. But it was all faint now, the tears and fire and the sword; the screams were hollow in her throat, her scars tingling numb. She wondered what it was about, a childish promise, but could not quite recall. Sometimes a boy with blue eyes would watch her in a blur of darkness and she would watch back, dully, as the man and his friends took turns with her. The boy never spoke.
I forgive you.
She said at last one day, looking up from her bruising scrubbing in the bath. The water was red and her face was wet and hot, and she smiled, and the blue-eyed boy cried. He ceased to haunt her from then on.
"I think they're here!"
Marlene hops off the stool and runs to the door, and Tifa stirs harder. The soup is burning, but it's all right, because she had already made extras for the others. This one – this is for herself. All those years of forgotten dreams, boiling and threatening to erupt – she will let it burn, and then she will never look back. Never again.
She refuses to raise her head when she hears sunlit tenor.
She will not look back.
It was an accident, really. He brought a group of men – co-workers, he said – and when he held her down as he always did, she saw one with silver hair coming at her, and red bloomed in darkness and she was thrashing and kicking, and bones were cracking around her. Curses rose, fists flew, and gunshots – gods, gunshots – and she was kicking not in a frenzy but an arc, with fiery grace and glorious precision like back in Nibelheim.
She packed a duffel bag right afterwards, shaking hands scattering keys and biscuits, and leaving the house with five broken men inside, got on a train bound out of Sector 3. She was slumped against a steel bar, shaking and rattling with the train, when a burly man rose from his seat and practically pushed her down it. "Dainty little thing like you shouldn't be lookin' like that, like the whole upper plate's creakin' on yer shoulders," he grunted, covering her bare shoulders with his tattered jacket.
She leaned her head on his belly then, rough and coarse underneath the cotton shirt, and took heaving breaths to swallow the tickling in her throat. Onlookers glanced and eventually looked away, disinterested – they were always eventually disinterested – and the man, at first flustered, began to pat her head with a big, calloused hand.
She followed him off of the train and trailed him to Sector 7, until he turned around and waved his arm. "Ya need a place to stay, missy?"
He gave her a room with a bed. She waited in the dark of the night; he never entered. A month went by, and then two; she stopped waiting, and began to, tentatively, smile.
His name was Barrett. And he, too, had his share of nightmares.
"Did it hurt?" she asked one day as he was hammering away at the wooden floor, and he glanced at his large gun arm, and answered yes.
"Why, it scare ya?" he said gruffly, and she could smell the smoke and fire of his nights. She walked around the boxes of plates, tiptoed up, and wrapped her arms around his gigantic form. He stood very still.
She sold all the jewels she had had the presence of mind to put in her bag, and bought herself a pair of metal knuckles. There were no knights coming to her rescue; she would rescue herself. She began to train the martial arts again. Politely refused stuttering proposals. She had learned her lesson; never again would she entrust her happiness to the hands of another.
With renewed strength came confidence. She began to smile at men; their desires suited her business. She stopped covering herself as before, slapped away the hands that reached. She was no princess of Nibelheim, but she could still be the mistress of Seventh Heaven.
Peace, and a lack of a current nightmare, gave leisure for a past nightmare, that long-dead dream of promises and screams and tears. She could get rid of them again, pull a shade before her eyes and watch the news with a deadened gaze as muggers harassed pedestrians, prostitutes froze to death in the slums. But in the evening Barrett would come back with a shout and a wave, and little Marlene would come tumbling into her arms, and she could never bring herself to do it. She bought a punching bag instead.
"Could kill someone easy, with punches like that," Barrett observed one day as she trained, and she didn't have the heart to lie. Five men could be dead or crippled for all she knew. Everyone in Midgar more or less had some blood on their hands. Barrett wasn't surprised. "They hurt ya?"
It was the price to pay for a roof over her head – the duty of a dependent girlfriend. But she did not answer. He nodded. "Serves them right, dirty vermin," he growled, and she felt that tickling in her throat again. She learned to distract herself by scrubbing plates and roasting meat in the smelting heat of the stove, drizzling sauce fiercely stirred.
She took walks in the park, sitting alone while the children played, their voices echoing in the dust and smog like the whirr of machines. Perhaps she would have children too, an adopted one or two, and that would be good enough, for she would never ask more of this broken world than a patched up family and a hole to go back to. No men – only one boy would ever be good enough and he was a fragment of a dream, of golden dust and twilight blue.
She would live in the creaky groans of the gray that was Midgar, but not her children, and neither Barrett's. It was no surprise when he brought home (home – what more could she ask, when she had that?) a ragtag group of hot-blooded young things. They all knew it would be futile in the end, but their nightmares demanded it. Her nightmares kept her locked in a burning house, and she envied the way Barrett's nightmares were fierce and thrashing and woke him to fuel his burning path. At the end of his dreams lay death, but her dreams had no end. She joined Avalanche.
It was a new reality, more violent and explosive than before, but if she died she would die in blood and fire, not wilt in a gray whirr of smog. When she ran her blood pumped through her veins, filling her with hate, thrill, victory. She cooked sumptuous meals as if each were their last. Biggs said he was happy. Perhaps this was more than what Barrett had dared to imagine when he put a gun into his arm; what Tifa had envisioned when she put on metal knuckles and punched through a concrete wall.
Perhaps she was happy too, walking home that day from the grocery store in the rain. The gray was gentle, not the suffocating shade of her days with the boyfriend (gods, that word was criminally lame), and with this new reality came a sort of peace. She could look upon those dreams without resenting, and learn to thank them even, for keeping her company through those nights. Bid fond farewell, put those bright eyes to peaceful rest. And perhaps, if she died on a mission to save the Planet from ShinRa, the Planet would be kind and allow her to return to that place of starry nights. And perhaps, gods forgive the blood on her hands, she could be allowed to know if the boy was alive somewhere – and – thought of her, sometimes.
Then she saw yellow spikes.
Face-down in the rain, soaked and bloody – maybe it was a twisted version of her dream, maybe it was someone else, but her legs moved without her consent, her voice worked without her consent, wake up Tifa it's just a homeless man, don't think, don't think –
Tifa, he said, blinking up with startling blue eyes, and it was all wrong because his voice was low and masculine, and his body was taller, and what with that ridiculous sword – but then he said her name again, like some kind of prayer, and her gentle graytone world was shattered into jagged shards of blue and gold.
While he slept in their underground bunker, she stood at the kitchen sink and watched the water roar down the drain. All those nights spent praying for her hero to come – they had been threaded into a glimmering lifeline at one time. But she had cut that lifeline with her own hands, vowing to either swim or drown in this hell alone, and closed that book. In it the princess and the knight remained, happy, eternal; but the knight had now ripped himself away from that slumbering page, and she was left marooning in uncertainty. The constant, albeit distant, glitter of golden dreams now seeped liquid between her helpless fingers, starry nights dissolving under the gray of day, as a man with bright blue eyes silently made his way upstairs and watched her furiously scrubbing plates in the charring heat of the stove, sweat trickling down her chin and burning her dreams away.
It was a few days later that she asked him to join Avalanche. If he left now, she would have neither dream nor reality of this blue-eyed boy, and she was not yet ready for a permanent loss. He was not entirely willing; determinedly rooted in reality, he had strength enough, but was no knight, for he asked for money in exchange. It was best that way. Best that he also put aside those childish dreams and not look upon her at all. Seventh Heaven was her haven, fiercely built, but standing before those blue eyes she had no walls that could hide her shame.
So she stood the next day in the roasting heat of the oven, scrubbing and scrubbing, prepared to say goodbye. He would collect his pay and leave, ever a wandering mercenary, and she would be free of those dreams once and for all. He had grown so beautiful – he used to be cute, but by gods now he was glorious – surely he would find another princess to rescue, a chaste little thing maybe in pink dresses and frilly ribbons. Coyly promising a chaste kiss, or an innocent date, for a piece of gallantry – while she was black and white, calloused hands splashed blood-red, a slum rat who still dreamed of bygone days. Better that he forget. Better that he turn away, than to look upon her with pity or disgust or disappointment – or indifference. She was glad he was leaving. She really was.
But then he comes in, light bouncing off his hair, a piece of her dreams breathing and walking among her patched-up family smelling of dust and soot. And after she turns around to smile and greet them all, he continues to stand there, after everyone had gone downstairs, watching her, waiting (why does he do that to her?). And before she can stop herself she is coming out from behind the counter, her body twisting in terror. Welcome home, Cloud, she says, and by gods how many years she had dreamed of saying this to him. He is too late, much too late to burn away those nights, but she can't stop the smile, the tremors in her heart, and hates herself for it.
He smiles back. She sees a glimpse of that familiar shyness – stop it Tifa, he's not like that anymore – and then he holds out a flower.
Her heart stops, blood freezing, and she looks around, furiously hot – but Marlene is running around somewhere, Barrett is yelling at the others downstairs, and he is looking at her, still holding out the flower, and her throat is heavy with tickling and she stammers stupidly (and not too hopefully) whether it is for her. He looks a little shy, scratches his head, says it reminded him of her because you know, irises are kinda sweet and this bold blue would – well, I thought it would look good on you – and she glances at her scant black and white streaked with oil and dust, and he is looking at her with that hesitant, hopeful look, like that little boy at the well all those years ago, and she can't, she just can't burn those stars to dust.
"Thank you, Cloud," she whispers, and – why won't her hands stop shaking? – accepts the flowers, and his smile brightens. She can't help smiling too, because he looks so beautiful and happy, and the tickling is looser now, and when his expression clouds with worry, she covers her eyes and laughs instead.
Perhaps she will try a blue dress next time, and ask him to come rescue her. Perhaps.