Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 8
Tifa sank onto the bed, exhausted. She was glad they decided to shop right
away, so they could get an early start tomorrow. Even though they all were
tired from the ordeal at Midgar, they needed to do something ordinary, like
shopping. Some detachment from the horrors was definitely in order. They
had agreed to pool their knowledge, and see if they could figure out where
to go next. The townfolk were somewhat reluctant to talk to strangers at
first, especially to such bedraggled, dangerous strangers. They eventually
relaxed (a change of clothes helped) and admitted that a young, muscular
man with disarrayed blonde hair walked through their town, stopping briefly
to buy a large sword in the weapons store. Tifa decided to talk to the shop
owner in the morning, since it closed early.
Barret stomped in and flung himself onto the sofa, which creaked under his weight. He asked, bluntly, "So where d'you know Zack from?" While they were waiting for Zack to come in from taking care of their vehicle, Tifa related to Barret all she knew about the incident at Nibelheim, five years ago. She was glad she was too tired to care, because the tale rarely failed to bring tears to her eyes. She told him about the monsters that begun to appear, prompting ShinRa's sending of a contingent of soldiers, led by Sephiroth. She was the guide to the soldiers, through Mt. Nibel and to the reactor. She was kept outside by the ShinRa guard, but knew what happened inside from Cloud and Zack. Or she thought she knew, until today. Sephiroth flew into a rage, finding out that ShinRa was creating the monsters by infusing SOLDIERs with Mako energy, and implanting them with a genetic sequence from Jenova, the specimen kept behind reinforced, locked doors at the top of the reactor. Uncertain of his origin, he calmed down and sought refuge in the basement of the ShinRa mansion, where an extensive library was kept by the 'scientists'. While Sephiroth was on his way back to Nibelheim Zack, who'd accompanied him, was systematically destroying the monsters locked in Mako tanks. He had the help of a young, inexperienced SOLDIER who got sick from the combined effect of concentrated Mako and the slaughter of monsters and staggered outside, helped by Zack. He was helped back to Nibelheim by Tifa, who immediately recognized him as Cloud, her childhood friend. While Tifa was tending to him at her place, Zack was making his way down from the reactor. He was opening the gate to the ShinRa mansion when a loud explosion shook the edifice.
Zack stared openmouthedly as a vertical blast of red light, about 2 yards in diameter, burst out of the mansion and a man-shaped figure with large, batlike wings levitated out of the resulting hole and screamed in a voice that seemed to come straight from hell. Zack could feel a warm trickle coming out of his ear and could only watch, stunned from the sonic blast, as the beast unfurled its wings and spat fire in the direction of Nibelheim. As soon as he recovered, he ran into the mansion and down the stairs into the basement, his first loyalty to his commanding officer. The ceiling groaned and shifted as he made his way towards the library through the cavelike tunnel. Stopping in puzzlement, he stared into a small room to his left. He had trouble remembering whether the room had been here before, but the fragments of a door lying on the ground would indicate that it was. The entry to the room was now a large hole, blasted directly out of the rock. Zack dismissed his misgivings and stepped gingerly into the room. He blinked, taking in the coffins strewn across the floor and moved towards the large, raw hole in the wall to the right. Stepping through, he walked over the ruined bookshelves and charred texts to reach an unmoving form crumpled at the opposite wall. He reached out a hand to turn it over, thinking no one could have lived through that blast, when the form suddenly turned over and its green eyes opened, staring at Zack intensely. Zack took an involuntary step backward as Sephiroth rose to his feet and flicked the dust off his cloak. He walked to the other side slowly, picked up his sword, wiped it clean with the edge of his cloak and slid it smoothly into the scabbard. This seemed to drain his strength as he stumbled and reached out a hand to lean on the wall. Zack stepped up to him and offered his shoulder, which Sephiroth gratefully leaned on. They were aware of screams and the crackling of flame outside, but they could not remain in the basement, as the whole structure of the mansion was weakened and threatened to topple over. Silently and slowly, they walked out of the mansion to take in the gruesome spectacle unfolding outside. The demon was strafing Nibelheim's houses, and bodies were lying on the ground in what passed for the town's square. Some of the people were ineffectively trying to shoot down the beast with bows and arrows, and an odd shotgun or two, but whether it was bad aim, panic, or the demon's evasive maneuvers, it stayed aloft. Almost all the houses were aflame, and screams of agony as the fierce fires consumed flesh of those trapped inside could be heard everywhere. Sephiroth removed his arm from Zack's shoulder and sank to the mansion steps, whispering, "Do what you have to do." Zack reached for his sword and ran towards the town.
"The demon grew tired of its sport, or maybe just ran out of targets and flew off. When we could no longer hear its piercing screams, we came out and looked at the total destruction of our town," Tifa finished, wistfully. "Since we had nothing left in Nibelheim, we came to Midgar and opened the 7th Heaven in Sector 7, together. It took us a couple of years to realize we were in love with each other, but eventually we figured it out." She smiled briefly, then continued, "We got married and formed Avalanche almost at the same time. We could never forgive ShinRa for destroying our town...and the more we found out, the more we hated them...you know the rest." Zack came out from behind the door, where he'd been listening in. He looked at Tifa and said, softly, "Your story is almost complete, but there is something that you don't know, and which I hoped never to have to tell you."
Tifa stared uncomprehending at him, dread welling up in her, her long-forgotten suspicions rising up with a vengeance. Zack sounded apologetic as he said, "Cloud didn't help me eliminate the monsters. That was simply what I told the both of you to cover his confusion and to spare you. When I was going through the pods, I looked at the monsters carefully. Partly because I didn't believe these were human once, and partly to make sure they were all dead." He clenched and unclenched his fist as he spoke on, "I pulled Cloud from one of the chambers. I don't think he was there for too long, but he couldn't remember much. He readily accepted what I told him and I gave him over to you so I could finish destroying the other monsters - they were too far gone. After the demon flew away, and the ShinRa went back to Midgar to report the destruction of Nibelheim and its reactor, I stayed around, watching Cloud for signs of..." he hesitated, "well, anything, really." He looked up, "When I was satisfied that he was all right in your care, I left." He looked pained as he finished, "I met Cloud first at SOLDIER training...he wasn't very outspoken, but a friendly type nonetheless. It...it could've been me in that tank. I'm sorry, Tifa." He stood silent for a while as Tifa shook her head and muttered, "I...had suspicions...his eyes...vague stories about SOLDIER training...but I hoped..." She broke off and looked at Barret and Zack, dark eyes shining. "Could you leave me alone for a while? I..." she broke off and lowered her head, a tear glistening on her cheek. Zack walked out quietly. Barret got up, put his hand on Tifa's shoulder for a moment and left. Tifa finally let herself mourn, for Jessie, Vicks, Wedge, and for all those people who crossed the threshold to her bar and now never would do so again. Most of all, for Cloud, wherever he was. Her sobs grew quieter and quieter as she eventually cried herself to sleep.
Sensing something amiss, she awoke. Her eyes took in the amusing sight of Zack balancing a tray in one hand and two hot mugs of coffee in the other, next to her bed. She quickly sat up and took the mugs from him before he could hurt himself. She shook her head and allowed herself a slight smile. "What is it about you men that makes you do the silliest things?" Zack blushed and retorted, "I had it perfectly under control." Their humor was slighly brittle this morning, a camouflage for their pain. Tifa laid a hand on Zack's arm and said, quietly, "You were right not to tell us." A tension seemed to go out of his posture and he turned to her, a genuine smile on his face. "Thank you," he said simply and turned, leaving her to dress.
They had all exchanged their city clothes for more suitable outfits. Zack shed his SOLDIER uniform (probably the most conspicuous of them all), and changed into some loose pants and a tight, black shirt. He needed the freedom of movement if trouble threatened. Barret opted for some camouflage patterned pants, khaki shirt and a camo jacket which he didn't bother zipping up. He just wanted to be comfortable. Tifa picked out some black denim pants, a grey shirt and a leather jacket. They all had cloaks, but there were currently stuffed under the seats in the truck, as the weather was fair. Tifa had talked with the weapons shop owner, but found out nothing, except that the young man seemed absentminded a little. Talking with other townfolk, she found out that a man with a large sword left the town heading south. Tifa wondered if he'd get over the mountains the same mysterious way he managed to stay ahead of them despite being on foot. She walked out of the inn and stretched, feeling the fresh air on her face. Being out of Midgar made her realize how awful it was; the sunlight was filtered, the air was stale and so were the people. In Kalm, the wind brought scents of grass, and the sunlight was crisp. She was looking ahead to driving today, even if it did look as if it was going to rain. Zack was busy putting up the tarp over the open cabin as she slowly walked towards the truck. They were almost ready to go. The only question was where.
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