Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 20

Ties of Family

By Damodred

They headed out the next day. Aerith estimated they would leave the mountains late the next day, and get to Nibelheim the day after that, at about the same time. She pursed her lips, thinking of the river crossing they would have to make and the forests that stood in their way. Those could slow them down, but hopefully not too much. They would just have to wait and see. She took up her customary position on top of the truck, sitting with her legs crossed, her extended staff in her lap. A small smile played on her lips, knowing that Sephiroth disapproved but couldn't rationalize it. She sighed happily and leaned back, laying her head in his lap and staring up, into the sky.

Yuffie was sulking, but only until she realized that noone was paying any attention to her. Aerith made her give back the Materia she had stolen, and gave her a look that spoke volumes. This was turning out to be a bummer; first, the cute guy left, and then that silly Ancient wouldn't let her have any fun. She exhaled, frustrated. Then she cheered up. They would be so lost without her help, so she could magnanimously allow them their little foibles. She twirled her new shuriken absently as she considered her next move. She yelled at Reno, who was riding in the front, probably ogling Tifa. He clambered to the back, eyeing her suspiciously. "What?" She motioned him closer, whispering, "So what next, Turk boy?" He jerked back, "Shh! They'll hear!" he whispered urgently, motioning above them. She retorted, "Yeah, if you don't shut up, they will." Blanching visibly, he asked "What do you want?" "Weren't you supposed to waste them?" He shifted uncomfortably, muttering, "Yeah, well...orders changed since I relayed that last conversation. Now we're only to accompany them until they get some more concrete data on this North Crater thing." Yuffie asked, frowning, "How are we gonna explain staying with them after Nibelheim?" "I don't know yet," Reno admitted, "but I'll think of something." He flushed, receiving only derisive laughter in response and clambered back to the front, cursing all things female.

They made good time to Nibelheim, despite the numerous interruptions by various types of wandering monsters. Most of them fled as soon as one of their number died, and most were not very strong. Apparently the presence which haunted them could only work with the materials at hand, and this area was particularly peaceful. The only real trouble they encountered was when it was time to cross the river.

Sephiroth stood at the south bank, eyeing the rushing water and the distance to the other side. He walked back to the others and said, "There was a ford here once, but the melting snows from Nibel Mountains washed it away. We'll have to make our own crossing." Tifa asked, "Can't we look for a shallower part somewhere else?" He shook his head, "Negative. I remember this river, and it's deep and strong throughout its length. If we cross, we cross here." Tifa nodded, apprehensive. He walked to Aerith's side and conferred with her briefly, then nodded and vanished. Reappearing on the other side, he unsheathed his Masamune, and stabbed it into the earth, gripping the hilt with both hands. Then he looked up, and Tifa could've sworn she heard him say 'Ready', but there was no possible way she could hear him from that distance. Aerith glanced at her, winked, and walked to the shore, directly opposite Sephiroth. Bracing herself with her staff in front of her, she looked back and said, "Get in the truck. When I give the word, drive fast." She looked back, concentrating. The air around her grew thick, almost solid, and the painful pressure assaulted her eardrums. She gathered more force into her, drawing more and more power until she thought she'd burst, and then drawing even more. Locking gazes with Sephiroth across the river, she released the power, the energy feedback making the air around her glow and rush wildly in a miniature tornado. Her robe whipped wildly around her and her hair unbraided itself, creating a flickering halo around her head as the power surged out, covering the river surface with ice, crackling loudly as it spread further out in both directions. She concentrated on keeping it anchored to the shore, while at the same time straining to reach as far as she could. She felt a jolt as her ice met Sephiroth's, heading back towards her. The two parts joined, forming a solid bond and making the ice one large floe. She maintained the image in her head, shouting, "NOW!", her voice sounding tinny through the aura around her. Tifa stepped on the accelerator, slowing cautiously as she drove up on the ice. The truck had good tires, but it could still slide on ice and it wouldn't do to slide off into the weaker parts, where Aerith and Sephiroth couldn't hold it. The ice creaked dangerously and bent under the weight of the truck, but seemed to hold. Tifa gritted her teeth; she could sense the water under the ice rushing, threatening to break up the ice floe and wash them away. The drive seemed to go on forever, the truck skidding often on the slick surface. Fortunately, Tifa learned to drive early at her father's insistence, and never forgot snow driving back home, in Nibelheim. She knew exactly how to guide the huge machine on the creaking, slick bridge and made it across fairly fast. She looked back, amazed that they had made it and realized with horror that the ice was already breaking up, large chunks of it floating downstream. So far, only the edges were going, but the thought still made her extremely uneasy. She watched as a robed figure walked across the ice wearily, supporting herself with her staff.

Aerith was drained by the ordeal and decided to walk across after the truck. The ice would stay up a while longer; they had made the center part thick enough, and it was not that warm this close to the mountains anyway. Not to mention, she needed to conserve what little energy she had left in case something else happened. She thought about the ice bridge, hoping they wouldn't come across another washed-away ford. That was certainly the biggest Ice she had ever cast. She made it to the other side and began to head for the truck when her knees buckled, and she couldn't catch herself with her staff. Strong arms caught her, lifting her up, and carried her to the truck. She looked up into green eyes and smiled. He looked back at her, calmly. "You are the strongest woman I have ever known, and by far the most exasperating," he said, quietly. She retorted, "If I didn't, you would have." He smiled, softly, "True. But next time you decide to support the entire bridge, at least warn me." Her frame shook with silent laughter as she answered, "Maybe I will."

They drove throughout the day, Yuffie driving and Reno sitting beside her. Tifa watched over Aerith's sleep in the back, while Sephiroth watched the area from his usual spot. After several hours, Tifa heard her name and turned away from the contemplation of the road behind them and looked at Aerith, meeting a clear, emerald gaze. Aerith smiled, and Tifa could hear her faint voice inside her head, asking 'Tifa, can you hear me?' Tifa only stared with amazement, but finally nodded and thought 'YES.' Aerith winced a little, and laughed out loud. "Don't shout," she admonished. "Try to direct your thought to me, and whisper. The merest sound carries far, and your shout just now was probably heard in Cosmo Canyon." Tifa blushed hotly, stammering an apology, which Aerith waved away. "Everyone makes mistakes, especially about something this...unusual." "When did you know I could do this?" Tifa asked curiously. "Ever since your, ah...experiment in Gongaga I assumed you were capable. But when I noticed that you heard our preparations at the river, I confirmed my suspicions and decided to teach you more as soon as possible." She smiled ruefully, "Up to now, we've been broadcasting openly, being confident no-one could overhear. Now we'll have to focus our conversations." Tifa flushed again, "I didn't mean to eavesdrop," she said dryly. Aerith laughed, "Well, it'll be a while until you can focus tightly enough to communicate person-to-person, much less eavesdrop." With those words, she looked outside, and Tifa could hear her voice saying, 'Since we have nothing better to do, let's practice. For now, just try to answer. It's easy directing a reply; initiating contact is tougher.' Tifa nodded, already absorbed in the implications.

'Tifa, Aerith, you better come up here.' Sephiroth's mental presence intruded into their communication briefly. Tifa looked up, surprised but getting up already. Aerith rose as well and looked at her, "Looks like we're here." Tifa's heart leapt, only now noticing that it was getting dark. The lesson took longer than she thought, and they were approaching Nibelheim as planned. She was made uneasy by the added strains of being in her ruined hometown after so long, the long lesson, and Sephiroth's cryptic message. She grasped the metal support at the top of the truck, flipping up to the top of the truck in a nonchalant repetition of Sephiroth's move, so long ago. She walked forward to get a better look at what Sephiroth was looking at. Aerith's head popped out behind them, peering over the top of the truck. She grunted softly as she clambered up to join them. They looked out into the growing darkness.

Aerith took out a pair of spyglasses and passed them to Tifa. At Tifa's raised eyebrows, she said mischievously, "Stole them from Reno's cache of supplies." Tifa chortled, raising the glasses to her eyes and looking at the structures in the distance. They had crested a hill, and had a perfect view of what used to be Nibelheim. Tifa inhaled sharply, her mirth forgotten, disbelieving her eyes. She passed the glasses to Sephiroth, who took in the view at a glance. His mouth tightened, passing them in turn to Aerith. She looked briefly and put the glasses away, frowning. "This is not good at all."

They drove into town square, parking by what was supposed to be Tifa's house. She could see Cloud's house, the inn, and houses where her friends used to live. No lights were on, but the place looked well kept; all the windows and houses were clean and the little garden plots looked weeded and trimmed. Everything seemed to be in order, except for one thing: the whole town burned five years ago, with Tifa and Cloud being the only survivors. They moved to Midgar, leaving the memories behind, fully expecting the Planet to reclaim Nibelheim. And now Tifa had returned, with the other witness of the tragedy, Sephiroth, only to discover that someone had painstakingly recreated the town in every detail, down to the polished brass door-knocker on Tifa's house. She warned the others to be careful in their explorations, and headed for her own house. She fully intended to barge in and demand an explanation, but after opening the door and stepping inside, she was assaulted by waves of memory and couldn't move for a moment. The interior of the house was identical to her house, but this couldn't be it! She clearly remembered the heat of the flames, and the anguish she felt upon finding everyone she loved dead, the same anguish that assailed her now. And she could never forget the sight of the charred timbers and fallen-in walls, all that remained of the town. The smell of death was thick that day, and she thought she'd never wash it off. Even after a year in Midgar, the smell of burnt wood and flesh haunted her nights, the screams echoing in her ears. She woke up then, clinging to Cloud, tears rolling down her cheeks. But this! This was a mockery of that tragedy, as if it never occurred. She walked slowly up the stairs, and into her room. It seemed untouched by time, the piano and her desk looking as it always has. She collapsed on her bed and buried her hands in her hair, looking at nothing.

She was brought out of her reverie by someone shouting her name downstairs. "Up here," she said tonelessly, not looking up. Footsteps moved up the stairs rapidly, then paused and moved to other rooms. Finally, Aerith appeared in the doorway, grimacing. "Bad news," she announced. "What could be worse than this?" asked Tifa, with a hint of despair in her voice. Aerith frowned and crossed the room to stand by her side. She sank down to her haunches, bringing her face level with Tifa's, and said, gently, "We think it might be Cloud." Tifa looked up, her tear-streaked face glistening in the weak light. Wordlessly, she got up and followed Aerith to what was supposed to be her parents room, taking in the bodies laying there with a despairing calm. Aerith showed her the sword wounds on the bodies; Tifa was just grateful that the people were completely unfamiliar to her. As they descended down the stairs, Aerith told her that the other houses were similar. However, there was a survivor in the inn, describing a young, powerfully-built man with disarrayed hair and a large sword, running amok in the town. The terrified innkeep wouldn't say anything else, obviously in shock, and reacted with blank looks when asked about the accident five years ago. The others were heading to the ShinRa mansion, the only building that survived the fire in its original form; perhaps some answers could be found there.

"They fixed the roof," commented Tifa, unsure of who 'they' were. Sephiroth grunted a noncommittal reply and walked forward, opening the gate. Yuffie followed, interested now that she heard more of the story from Aerith. Tifa stood gazing at the town behind her for a while, then followed them into the looming mansion. Reno stayed behind, saying that the whole place creeped him out and that he needed to look around for transportation anyway. Tifa wished him luck, but doubted he could find anything. Then she reconsidered; the whole town wasn't supposed to be here, but it was. She wouldn't be surprised if he found a newly built road all the way to the reactor.

They walked into the gloomy mansion carefully, looking everywhere at once for threats. The interior was dark (someone must have blown the fuses), but clean as well, showing signs of frequent use or visitation. The first floor seemed devoid of life, but there were some papers lying on the desk in the small room on the left, which Aerith took and put into one of the many folds of her robe, for study later when they could get some light. Yuffie skipped in from the room on the right, showing them a shiny green orb and yelling "Finders keepers!". She quieted down when the empty halls threw her words back at her, with an eerie echo that seemed to linger entirely too long. They exchanged glances and moved upstairs. They took a cursory glance at the other rooms, noting the large, locked safe at the sight of which Yuffie's eyes lit up. Aerith sighed, knowing that the ninja thief couldn't be dragged away from here, but unwilling to leave her alone, and turned towards the other side of the building, and the secret passage way leading to the library, in which so much has happened. Her musings were interrupted by a triumphant, "I got it!" Yuffie turned around, holding a shiny red orb and grinning foolishly. Then her eyes rolled up into her head and she collapsed, as a tall, black robed figure rose up behind her and stepped forward. Tifa's eyes flashed at the ninja's collapse and she ran towards the figure unthinkingly. Her foot rotated, lightning fast, to connect with the figure's midriff, making it stagger. She backhanded the figure with her Claw, sending it flying into the wall. The snap its neck made as it connected was very loud in the small room. The figure collapsed, crumpled to the floor. Tifa frowned a bit; that hit wasn't meant to kill. She was a bit surprised at her strength, but dismissed it for now and walked to the attacker, pulling back the hood of the robe. She could hear Sephiroth's sharp intake of breath as the attacker was revealed. When she turned to him, his expression was stony again, but the slight widening of his eyes signaled his distress. She turned back to study the black-robed man. She was sure she had never seen him before.

The man's features were slackened by death, but he must have been darkly good looking when alive. Sharp, aristocratic features, long black hair, falling in straight lines onto his face and... She leaned in closer. Yes, those were red eyes. Sephiroth reached past her and brushed the hair away from the man's ears, nodding in satisfaction when they were revealed. Tifa's eyes widened at the sight of perfectly formed, lobeless, pointed ears. Looking closer, she could not discern any surgery marks, which would mean that he was born like that. She narrowed her eyes; born...or created? She glanced questioningly at Sephiroth. He sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. "Bring her," he said, pointing to the prone form of the ninja. "I'll explain downstairs." He whirled around and strode off, his Masamune whispering out of its scabbard. Tifa picked up the girl, finding her remarkably easy to carry, and followed, first pocketing the red Materia that fell to the floor along with Yuffie. On the way downstairs, they passed several more robed bodies, all identical to the first one. Aerith glanced at Tifa, who'd been taking in the destruction, wide-eyed, and shrugged, "It's his way," she said simply. They caught up to Sephiroth at the entrance to the library, where he motioned for silence, whispering "There's something in there." They stopped, Tifa still carrying the unconscious Yuffie. Aerith pressed closer to the door, listening.

"...will become supreme, Master of All Creation!" a deep, loud and rumbling voice rasped. It grated directly on Aerith's nerves, but she forced herself to listen, painful as it was. "Yes, Master," a wooden voice replied. She frowned. This was probably Cloud, sounding defeated and beat. The first voice continued, "And then I will bring her to me, to stay by my side forever. My time of atonement will end!" There was a note of exultation in the last statement. There was some shuffling of papers, and eventually the raspy voice hissed, "Success! I found it. We must leave immediately." Sephiroth pushed Aerith aside gently and opened the door, saying, "You're not going anywhere, Father."

The Master was being threatened, thought Cloud and leapt into action, drawing his sword while flying through the air. Then suddenly he was stunned and thrown to the other side of the room, as a taloned wing moved from out of the darkness and batted him to the side. "Not him, fool!" the creature grated. He dazedly got up, his head ringing, and focused on the others behind the tall man, obediently. He'd kill the short one first, as soon as his head stopped spinning.

The creature emerged from the shadows, chuckling in a low, raspy voice. It was easily over seven feet tall, its height accented by its athletic build and enormous, batlike black wings. Its feet were bare and taloned, gripping the concrete floor firmly. It wore only a loincloth, its smooth, reddish skin looking tougher than any armor. Tips of pointed ears poked through its jet black hair, and red eyes lit its aristocratic face with a lurid glow. When it spoke, the dim light glinted off its pointed fangs. Tifa found her gaze drawn to them hypnotically, listening to its words. "Are you ready to join me, my Son?" it demanded of Sephiroth, ignoring his previous statement. Sephiroth laughed, softly, looking into its glowing eyes, "I don't think so. Once, perhaps." The creature appraised him slowly, glancing at Aerith's slight form in the doorway. Its face darkened, and it sneered, "I have tolerated your existence. No more!" With these words, it lunged forward, taloned hand reaching for Sephiroth's throat. Sephiroth threw himself to the side as the giant form flew by him, to land by Cloud, still sitting dazed in the corner. It hissed, "We'll meet again!" laying a clawed hand on Cloud's shoulder. With a flicker, the two vanished.


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