Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 17


By Damodred

Zack realized they came in the wrong way at the same time everyone else did. He could see the reactor in the distance, and knew that the village must be on the other side. He looked sheepishly at the others, trying to ignore Yuffie's smirk. It was really difficult since he was still carrying her and the smirk in question was only a foot away from his own face. He explained the situation and pressed on, his eyes narrowing. The reactor looked shorter than he remembered. In fact...he drew in a breath as he realized that the entire structure had toppled over, quite some time ago from the looks of it. Yuffie's sharp eyes could discern more details, like charred metal pieces, walls leaning haphazardly and shards of metal lying strewn all over, radiating outwardly from the reactor, obvious signs of an explosion. She looked up at Zack, whose face slowly became a cold mask as he attempted to bring his fear under control. She cleared her throat uneasily and said, weakly, "Doesn't look too good, does it?" Zack shook his head, "My parents never worked for ShinRa...they'll be allright. But I knew almost everyone in the village..." he trailed off, taking in the destruction. Suddenly decided, he led them towards the reactor.

Elena opened her eyes cautiously. She seemed to be in one piece, but one could never be too sure. She sat up from the copilot's seat, looking around. She could make out Cid's blond head in front of her, slumped over. She unbuckled her belts and reached back, opening the canopy. She jumped to the wing, looking inside the pilot's compartment. Outside a nasty bump on his head, Cid looked fine. She pulled her hand back, intending to slap his face, hard. As her hand approached his face, Cid's eyes snapped open and his hand shot up, grabbing Elena's wrist before it could make contact. Squeezing her wrist tightly enough to make her wince, he whispered, "Don't push your luck." He released her, and stood up in the cockpit with a grunt, taking in the situation. Absently, he took out a cigarette and lit up, inhaling deeply. They seemed to be within earshot of the reactor, on the opposite side of the entrance. He could hear metal clanging within the reactor, and an occasional raised voice. He looked at Elena mildly, "Let's go see what's up. Quietly."

Zack realized they weren't alone at the ruined reactor. He saw the plane that had attacked them standing empty nearby. He passed the now-unconscious Yuffie to Reno, and motioned all of them to stay back. Explosion or not, he still knew this place the best. He crept forward, using the metal pieces randomly embedded in the ground for cover. He could discern at least three individual voices, but they all sounded unfamiliar. In order to see what was up, he would have to get closer. He ducked into a guardhouse and moved to the grimy window, looking out. He was confident they couldn't see inside the dark building.

Scarlet examined the interior of the reactor's Mako extraction chamber. She tsked, disappointed as it was completely empty, the deposits having evaporated some time ago. She nodded to the guard, who dropped back the plate he was holding up to allow her access to the chamber. It clanged loudly on the metal flooring. She turned to Heidegger, scowling. "No good!" she stated coldly. "Nibelheim next." She turned on her heel and walked towards the waiting ShinRa helicopters. Heidegger followed her in his jiggling way, fawning. "D, d'you think we'll find Condensed Materia there?" She didn't deign to reply, and his further entreaties were lost to Zack in the rising roar of engines. Within minutes, they were gone. Zack was about to stand up and begin his return trip when he caught a flicker of motion out of the corner of his eye. He sank back down, his mouth setting in a thin line as Cid and Elena emerged from behind a sheet of metal embedded in the ground. He wondered briefly why these two did not join the other ShinRa lackeys, but put the matter aside as they started talking.

"What the hell is Condensed Materia, Cid?" asked Elena, not really expecting an answer. Cid shook his head slowly and pulled out his commlink, "I dunno. But I don't like it, not one bit." He thumbed the device. "Matchbox to Shiny, come in Shiny," he said. He repeated the call, impatiently. The device crackled with static and a calm voice came through, "Shiny here. What can I do ya fer, Matchbox?" Cid smiled grimly and said, "Mission failed. Need pickup at Big Boom One, bring tools." He waited for the reply and nodded, satisfied. He put the commlink back in his jacket and turned to Elena. "Let's go assess the damage," he said, a gleam coming to his eye. Elena sighed, knowing what was ahead, but followed.

Zack waited for their steps to die in the distance, and made his own exit, carefully. When he rejoined the rest of the group, he'd related what he'd heard and ended with, "We have to go around the reactor, through the woods. Those two will probably be repairing the plane, and reinforcements will be coming soon. Besides, too much ShinRa hanging around here for my comfort." He looked around, and nodded, "Let's go then."

They approached the town carefully from the other side, hidden in the rapidly falling darkness. As they passed a small graveyard, Zack's mouth tightened, but he pressed on. The town showed signs of hardship and several houses stood empty, but those that were occupied were well tended and clean. Zack headed straight towards his house on the edge of town, with the rest of the group trailing after him slowly. Reno watched him go in, getting more irritated by the minute; it seemed his drinking plans would have to wait. Zack came out of the door, waving everyone to come in. It appeared that they'd be spending the night.

The loft was quite comfortable, if a bit cramped. There were pallets, enough for everyone, if they got friendly. Reno shrugged, commenting that he wouldn't mind. He then added regretfully that he planned to go back to the truck, to move it closer into the forest to hide it from ShinRa. This place seemed pretty busy for an out-of-the-way town. He suggested hopefully that perhaps Tifa could go with him in case they ran into trouble. She shrugged; why not? Zack was with his family, Aerith and Yuffie were wiped out from the fight and subsequent healing, and Sephiroth would probably not leave Aerith. She had nothing else to do at the moment.

The woods were quiet at this time of night, and the soft wind blowing through the trees could be clearly heard. Such atmosphere lended itself to soft speech, even if they weren't being quiet to avoid being spotted. Tifa led the way quietly, her skills as a guide coming back to her. In order to find the best trails in Nibel Mountains, she often had to go through places where a human has never been before. Agility, balance, and especially, an overall feel and respect for nature had served her well. Even though the forest was different from those harsh, barren mountains, she never missed a step and made very little noise. Reno was not doing quite as well, sometimes tripping in the pale-moonlit dark and muttering curses. She laughed softly under her breath, realizing that he was simply trying too hard to be successful. Her senses were becoming more attuned to the night, her hearing sharper and her vision keener. Not that it was necessary, the moon was casting more than enough light. She realized that her vision was better than she thought as she pulled ahead of Reno, exhilirated by the cool, night air and a sense of freedom, one that she hadn't felt in ages. She silently thanked her old teacher, Zangan, for the training he'd given her. It allowed her to be more in tune with herself, and more in control of her body processes. She'd been too tightly focused on hurting ShinRa to realize she'd been hurting herself as well, by closing off from other input. She needed this to remind her that this was why they'd been fighting ShinRa; to bring back the power of the Planet. She would definitely have to take Cloud out on one of these nights...when they got him back. She refused to consider any other alternative.

She wasn't even breathing hard when the forest ended and the dark form of the truck loomed in front of her. She grinned slightly, hearing Reno's gasps and imprecations, calling her to wait. Now he sounded like a dragon tearing through the woods, and she said as much as he appeared running out of the dark forest. "Well if you weren't speeding through there like a gazelle stung in the ass, I wouldn't have to...ooooh, I think I broke something...Damn, woman, slow down! You coulda gotten me lost!" He wheezed and leaned on the truck, catching his breath. Tifa shrugged, amused, "I heard you all the time. You were holding up pretty well." He directed a quizzical look at her and said slowly, "I was, eh?" Tifa nodded and walked around to the driver's side, "Let's move this thing, huh?" Reno nodded and pulled himself inside the cab, wincing. He wasn't really as tired as he pretended to be, nor annoyed at her running off. When he wanted to, he could keep up pretty well. Not to mention, it was very entertaining watching her run. That woman could move!

The drive to the other side of the forest was uneventful and quiet, both of them being taken in by the mood of the night. After driving the truck as far into the forest as possible, they walked back sedately, Tifa still reveling in her newfound affinity with the Planet, and happy for the first time in a long while. Before she may have been distracted by the others, or too busy to notice that despair was eating her but now, finally she felt hope. Reno saw the change that came over here and wondered briefly if now maybe was a good time to make his move. He felt rather odd; by all rights he should be hitting on her, using her mood to his advantage. At the moment he didn't feel like it at all however, and this troubled him. He still wanted something to drink, and he was glad that that, at least, was normal. He pulled out a small flask from his jacket and took a long, thoughtful swig.

Softly, so as not to wake Zack's family, they made their way upstairs. Yuffie was asleep in the corner, her head on Zack's broad chest, snoring softly. Zack's arm was thrown around the small ninja protectively, his eyes open and alternating between contemplation and amusement as he occasionally regarded the girl. Tifa looked at the pallet next to the door, where she could see Sephiroth's face and closed eyes, his pale white hair falling onto his face. She twitched as his eyes opened, regarding her calmly and closed again, into seeming repose. Shaking her head, she moved to the back to sit by Aerith, who was looking at her with no expression on her face. Dropping down, she whispered, "The forest is beautiful tonight." Aerith's expression softened, and she said, "It always is, but sometimes we can't see it." Tifa nodded, understanding. Tifa frowned suddenly, "Did you hear something? I thought I..." she strained to listen. Aerith concentrated, and then her eyes widened a bit, "Do you hear it? Close your eyes, and listen." Tifa obeyed, surprised to find out that she could hear something. Faintly, as if coming from far away, she could hear a, many voices. Aerith whispered, "The wound dealt here to the Planet is healing. That is why it is so loud." Tifa's eyes snapped open and she stared at Aerith wonderingly. Aerith looked back at her, her eyes assuming a faraway look, "Can you hear it? Can you hear the cry of the Planet?"


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