Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 22
Tifa shivered, looking around uneasily, "I do not want to spend the night
here. Let's move on as far as we can tonight." There were no dissenting voices;
everyone was on edge in this ghost town. Reno had been busy as well; he'd
found a ShinRa transport helicopter behind the mansion, hidden in a nearby
hangar. Once he was reasonably certain that it was functional, he began moving
their gear to it, and was almost through. They didn't have that much, but
it was a bit away, and there was no easy access from the road. They weren't
sure why it was there at all, but Tifa explained. One of the reports stated
that Nibelheim was rebuilt and staffed with ShinRa actors, pretending that
the accident never happened. If anyone passed by, they'd be fooled and leave
eventually, and ShinRa was free to run its experiments unobserved. In fact,
it was possible that this research complex was secret from even President
ShinRa himself. She wasn't sure who was behind the whole thing. They repaired
the reactor, and put more humans into the Mako tanks. This time their plans
were to create SOLDIERs that would be clones of Chaos. Since a single one
could destroy an entire town, having a whole legion of them would make ShinRa
nearly invincible. Tifa continued grimly, "That's what those black-robed
things were. Incomplete clones." Apparently the ShinRa had a lot of failures,
and a lot of traffic occurred between the reactor, Nibelheim, and the relay
station in Costa del Sol. That traffic accounted for the helicopter. Aerith
nodded and moved towards it, eyeing it critically. She said over her shoulder,
"It's short range, but it'll get us to Rocket Town." She began to walk up
to the cockpit, but then changed her mind. Looking down at her robes, she
said ruefully "Can't fly with these on." She looked back up, and said "I'm
going back to town to see if there's anything more utilitiarian I can wear.
Anyone want anything?" Tifa nodded, walking forwards, "I'll go with you."
Everyone else seemed content with their garb, worn as it was by the weeks
of hard travel.
They walked slowly back into town, heading for the small store by the inn and hoping there were no corpses there. Tifa had just washed her clothes back in Gongaga during their enforced stay, as did everyone else, but her shirt was getting frayed from the fights and she needed a new one. Her jacket was holding up well, but she was considering getting a thicker one, as it was getting chilly up here in the mountains. She considered the others; Yuffie's ninja outfit was surprisingly warm, Reno's outfit, similar to Tifa's was still undamaged and he seemed to not mind the cold, and Sephiroth was...well, he was Sephiroth. She made a mental note to ask Aerith about the way his cloak never seemed to pick up dirt, but was content to maintain the companionable silence for now.
The store's meager supply of clothing made for quick browsing and decisions. Aerith picked up one of her choices and held it up to Tifa, smirking. Tifa took in the grey tanktop and the miniskirt and grimaced comically, saying "That is *exactly* what I wanted to fight in!" Aerith snickered, dropping the outfit. In the end, they settled on ShinRa issue SOLDIER pants, loose enough for a fight but tight enough not to get caught on machinery, a matching shirt and a tunic to go on top. Tifa chose another black leather jacket, this one lined with foxfur for warmth, and Aerith picked out a dark green cloak. They stood in front of the mirror, considering. Tifa considered Aerith's slim form garbed in dark green pants, green longsleeve shirt under a white, sleeveless tunic and the forest green cloak, raised an eyebrow and asked, "Are you sure you're not an elf?" Aerith looked at Tifa's black and white ensemble and said nothing at all, smirking. They walked back, taking some bodysuits in case the climate turned for the worse.
As the helicopter rose into the air under Aerith's capable guidance, Tifa took a long look at Nibelheim, so similar to the Nibelheim of her dreams and nightmares, but so different. She sighed heavily, gazing into the mountains. She was brought out of her reverie as Sephiroth turned back fromt he copilot's chair, remarking "I like your taste in clothes." She opened her mouth to reply, then slowly turned red, finally realizing where her inspiration came from. He turned back, corner of his mouth twitching slightly as Aerith laughed merrily, a happy, crystal sound. Speechless, Tifa could only stare at the scenery in embarassment, her sadness forgotten. Yuffie and Reno wisely remained silent.
They decided to make a brief investigative stop at the Nibel reactor. If there were any monsters, or humans trapped in the tanks then they needed to be released, one way or another. Yuffie and Reno looked a little pale at the cold slaughter under discussion, but everyone else had seen what ShinRa could do and had no qualms whatsoever about doing what must be done. Aerith doubted that the experiments were being conducted in the reactor, but it was worth checking. Aerith landed them on the helipad, within a hundred yards of the entrance, as everything seemed quiet. Sephiroth leaped out and strode towards the entrance. After a few tense minutes inside he walked back out, shaking his head. He got back in and they flew on, through the mountains.
The flight over the mountains took longer than they expected, and their fuel reserves were running low; after all, the chopper was only there to service the scientists to the reactor, and once the studies moved back to Nibelheim it had fallen into disuse and no one bothered to reorder fuel. Aerith wondered about that as she piloted the machine over the Nibel range. Had the research stagnated lately? Did the reactor get only partially rebuilt, to accommodate the scientists? Or perhaps they all got recalled recently due to President ShinRa's death? That had to be it, she decided. The research must have been put on hold until Rufus decided what to do with this secret lab that has suddenly become his. Her eyes narrowed. Unless of course they were still working in secret for someone else. She shrugged, eyeing the falling fuel level. It didn't really matter; they had as much fuel as they had, and if they didn't reach Rocket Town within an hour, they'd be in trouble.
The helicopter's radio crackled and suddenly came to life, "...to ShinRa helicopter, identify yourselves please..." The voice was female, and didn't sound particularly alarmed, nor threatening. Aerith grabbed the radio microphone and thumbed the button. "Chartered ShinRa helicopter, by private users, out of Nibelheim to Rocket Town. Who's this?" She let go of the TRANSMIT button, waiting intently for the reply. Tifa realized that Aerith's reply was extremely diplomatic, not letting the other person know anything. Whether they were ShinRa friendly or hostile, they would find no reason to attack. She also knew they were easy prey for virtually anyone; this was a simple transit chopper, possesing no radar, no countermeasures and no weapons. The other voice came back on, sounding dryly amused, "No need for secrecy, I'm just curious. Private pilot Shera Preston, flying the Preston Pride, off to your right." The voice clicked off as they turned their heads. A large, sleek shape became illumined briefly in the helicopter's weak lights, and zoomed past them with a roar. They looked at each other in the darkness; this HAD to be that other pilot Yuffie was talking about. Only someone who really loved to fly could stay aloft in full darkness simply for enjoyment's sake. Shera's voice came back on, crackling with static, "You're about fifteen minutes out of Rocket Town, at your pace. I'll see you there!" There was no mistaking the joy in her voice. They saw the form of the plane glint in the moonlight as it performed some wild aerobatics better left to the imagination.
"Hold on!" shouted Aerith as the engine stuttered for the first time. Tifa groaned. Just a few more minutes and they would have been able to land within walking distance to Rocket Town. She held on as Aerith put the machine into a deep dive, cutting the throttle to conserve fuel. As the machine approached the ground, her knuckles whitened on the controls as the rotor spun freely, set for minimum lift. Entirely too close by Tifa's judgment, she slammed the throttle into high gear, tilting the rotors for maximum lift. Their descent continued for a moment, and then began to slow more and more rapidly. The heavy blades whupped the air as the engine stuttered even more, running on fumes. Finally, their descent almost halted ten feet above the ground, the engine gave its last stutter and seized, the blades spinning freely again. The machine slowly fell to the ground, jarring the passengers somewhat, but leaving them essentially unharmed. Aerith sat back, exhaling. She turned back, smiling weakly and said "That was fun, wasn't it?" Tifa grimaced painfully, dabbing her bleeding lip; she had bit it when they hit the ground. Aerith reached out towards Tifa, cupping her face in her hand. Tifa flinched, but only a little as Aerith's eyes flashed briefly and the pain in her lip eased. Aerith pulled back and hopped lightly out of the helicopter, looking around. Yuffie and Reno stepped out of the machine, rubbing their bruises, followed by Tifa, who was still touching the healed lip with her tongue in disbelief. Sometimes, it was the small things that awed.
Sephiroth turned back towards them, dispelling the vision in front of him with a wave of his hand. "We should get there within an hour," his soft voice carried easily through the quiet night. Aerith reached back into the helicopter, using the radio to inform Shera of their predicament. The pilot offered to refuel their machine and help them bring it back to town in the morning, and they accepted gratefully. Sephiroth and Aerith set a steady, ground-covering pace, gliding through the darkness silently, like a pair of wraiths. Tifa followed closely behind, luxuriating in the brisk walk and the clean, crisp night air. She felt she could walk like this forever, and briefly remembered her jaunt through the Gongaga forest. This felt quite similar. She was aware of Aerith and Sephiroth in front of her, and of Yuffie and Reno behind. Yuffie's stealth was very admirable; she made no noise at all, but could not hide from Tifa's newly enhanced senses. Reno on the other hand, made enough noise for an entire stampede of enraged chocobo. He kept up easily though; Tifa could not discern any distress from him. She frowned, wondering if he made himself clumsy on purpose. The night was too beautiful for such suspicions however, and she soon forgot them, contemplating her quick release of the horrors of Nibelheim. Perhaps Sephiroth's unveiling of his past, part of which she shared through the tragedy at Nibelheim, was a cathartic experience for both of them. Plus, she thought grimly, they now knew their enemy's name.
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