The baked earth crunched softly under the young woman's feet as she dismounted the bike, her helmet clattering carelessly to the ground.
She stared in awe at the sight before her, a strange peace settling across her mind. Nibelheim.
The breeze blew comfortingly across Tifa's face, like a long, lost friend welcoming her home. The buildings, broken and abandoned seemed strangely inviting to the young girl as she made her way tentatively through the empty town. Weeds had grown tall and wild in the small front gardens making the place look even more desolate than she had first thought.
The sound of her heart thudding heavily against her ribs dulled her hearing as she finally brought her eyes to rest upon the semi-charred remains that was Nibelheim mansion.
Had it really been that long?
Tifa approached the gate, needing slightly more effort than she thought necessary to shove past the tangle of underbrush that delayed her entry. The building loomed ominously above her, swallowing her petite form in its dark shadow.
So many memories. They flooded Tifa's mind, momentarily wiping it blank. She edged slowly across the moss-eaten porch, stepping lightly should the wood give way beneath her weight. Pale fingers reached erringly towards the brass door knob, something that looked surprisingly clean despite its time-worn surroundings.
Had Tifa been herself, she would have become instantly wary of this. But the young girl's mind was far from her control. Something had compelled her to come here, like an unknown force pulling her without restraint. And Cloud. She'd left him alone in Midgar without explanation to where or why she had to leave, only knowing that she must. Right now he would probably be questioning the others of her whereabouts and, finding no answers would soon begin searching. Although the loss of his bike may deter him slightly!
Her hand grasped the cold metal firmly and twisted, allowing the door to swing in of its own accord. It was then that reality seemed to crash down around the girl. A deep oppression swamped out from the darkness of the mansion. It suffocated her, blinded her senses, pulling her in. The door slammed shut, trapping Tifa in the room's black confines. The ringing in her ears was replaced by a menacing laughter that grew closer with every beat of her heart.
Something slammed painfully into Tifa's chest, winding her and knocking her to the floor. She struggled to breathe as vice-like grips pinned her arms. Luminescent green hovered inches from her face, like flames dancing into space. Where they candles? No, they couldn't be, there was too much cold hatred hidden within their depths. They shimmered, mocking and terrifying, illuminating the pale face in which they were held. The face was painfully familiar and Tifa's head pounded with the fear it wrenched up from deep within. Horrific memories that had caused her to wake up screaming and drenched with a cold sweat. Memories she vainly tried to bury for all time. Memories of him; Sephiroth.
His lips curled into a cruel smile, words hissing between clenched teeth. "Pathetic."
A deep, masculine laugh followed before she was delivered a powerful blow to the face. "You make this too easy."
Tifa's vision blurred, her lips moving, terrified yet soundless as she drifted into unconsciousness. ..Help me…Cloud.
Vincent leaned silently against a wall of the Seventh Heaven bar, his crimson eyes roaming leisurely. He watched with interest as Cloud paced restlessly beside the counter, his fingers knotted viciously in his chocobo-blond hair.
"You're still worried?"
Cloud's fingers tightened. "She's never done this before. Something's not right. I can feel it."
"You should sit down." Vincent sighed as he straightened, stretching his arms in a slow cat-like wave. "You'll wear a hole in the floor if you keep pacing like that!"
A cold burst of air swept through the room as the front door opened, revealing four gangly men grinning with laughter as they entered the room.
"We're closed." Cloud snapped quickly, halting the group in their tracks.
"...But you're always open at-"
"I SAID CLOSED!" A glass tumbler shattered inches from the speaker's position and the gang made a hasty retreat as a second shattered against the wall above their heads. Once at a safe distance the men threw countless threats and curses, before their voices died away into the empty street.
The blond leaned heavily against the marble countertop, his body restless and agitated.
Vincent approached, moving soundlessly behind the bar. "There's no need to take your anger out on oblivious idiots Cloud."
He ignored the comment. There was silence between them as the raven haired man filled a glass with whiskey, doubled it then slid it across the bar towards his friend.
The blond knocked it back in one, slamming the tumbler down just as the door reopened and the final members of AVALANCHE strolled in.
"Did you find her?" Cloud shot the question immediately, barely giving them time to shut the door.
"Sorry Cloud," Yuffie shrugged as she made her way towards him. "No one's seen Tifa at all today. I mean I'm her best friend, if she didn't tell me th-"
"Doesn't anyone know where she is?" He snapped, clearly going into hysterics. Vincent reached out and swiftly removed the empty glass from Cloud's grip, then topped it up and urged it back into his shaking fists.
On seeing the drink, Cid flung himself to the bar and signalled for his own before slapping Cloud heartily on the back. "Listen, it 'aint like she's a kid, know what I'm sayin'? Ya' gotta' hand it to 'er she's damn well capable of lookin' after 'erself!"
"I know that, it's just…" Cloud passed his whiskey broodingly between his hands, "…something's been haunting me lately…like something's happened...or already happening. I'm just worried for her."
Nanaki padded quietly across the room and pushed his head comfortingly into Cloud's leg. "She is a smart girl Cloud, you must give her some responsibility. Perhaps she wants to be alone for a while."
"Alone where? And why couldn't she just tell me, that's the whole problem. It's not like her." The AVALANCHE members, now seated comfortably on the bar's leather suites exchanged puzzled looks, silently agreeing on the fact.
As they thought on the matter, a pair of footsteps could be heard approaching from outside and the members looked up in surprise to see the tall, relaxed figure of Reno enter the bar, his uniform in its usual state of disarray. The red head stopped short when he noticed all eyes on him. "Well hello to you to!" He scoffed, shoving his hands deep into his pockets.
"What do you want?" Demanded Barrett, obviously less than pleased with the Turk's company.
"Well excuse me! Can't a guy go out with the simple intention of getting pissed without pricks like you throwing him shit?"
"No," Interrupted Cid, "Now get goin'!"
Reno looked indignant. "Sorry gramps but you don't own this bar so-"
"Well the owner 'aint 'ere!" Snapped the pilot.
Reno paused. "You mean she's not back yet?" Although the red head's brow creased in annoyance, Cloud's shot up with renewed hope.
"Why? Did you see her leave? Do you know where she went?"
Reno recoiled with the ferocity the questions where being spat with. "Geez man get a life! If you're stalking the girl you're making it far too damn obvious?"
Cloud's eyes blazed but he was restrained by a firm push from Nanaki.
Reno sighed and lifted his hands behind his head. "I think it was about…six…no, seven hours ago. She was on the road headed to Nibelheim but that's the last time I saw her."
There was a moment of silence before Cloud crashed to his feet, knocking the bar stool flying.
"Cloud, you can't be serious? You're becoming paranoid!" Yelled Yuffie, rising and chasing after him as he rushed for the door. "Don't forget she took your bike, how could you possibly-
"Cid, get the airship." Demanded the blond as he disappeared from the room, Yuffie still in tow. The remaining members were still, taking the situation in before leaping to their feet and following. Cid, not entirely pleased with the sudden command, made a grab for his whiskey but was prevented when Vincent's hand snatched the back of his shirt and dragged him from the room. "Asshole, lemme' finish ma' drink first!"
The Turk watched in amusement as Vincent urged his friend from the bar, but recoiled as the dark eyes turned on him.
"Watch the bar, make sure it's still standing when we get back or I'll come after you personally."
The door slammed shut, leaving Reno grinning maniacally in the room's centre.
The airship rocketed through the sky, blurring out all surroundings. Cloud clutched the metal hand rail in an iron grasp, his head spinning with thoughts on what he should expect when they arrived. Was she hurt? Injured? Maybe he was overreacting. But the closer to Nibelheim they got, the more Cloud's mind seemed to drop into a menacing oppression, like a poison spreading its venom into every reachable area of his logic. It tore at him, eating away until there was no doubt there was true reason behind it all. But what?
The airship heaved and groaned as it landed into a small clearing in front of Nibelheim. Unsurprisingly, Cloud was out first and wasted no time in sprinting the short distance from the ship to where his bike lay awkwardly between Nibelheim's gates. Something struck Cloud's foot as he arrived under the town's gateposts and he glanced down briefly to see Tifa's red, dust covered helmet now spinning aimlessly on its side.
Barrett, who had only just leapt from the airship, called out for him to cool his head but the blond was already gone, disappearing behind a row of overgrown hedges. The others waited restlessly for Cid to amble casually from his vessel before making an attempt to follow.
Cloud hurtled through the empty streets, his heart pounding into his mouth. Something wasn't right, that he was certain. The intensity of the feeling was compelling him forward, dragging him without thought until he stood beneath the shadow of the one place where all his nightmares had begun. Nibelheim Mansion. His body tensed and froze from the sight of the place. The heavy oak door was sitting ajar, almost beckoning him in.
Hurdling the rusted gate, Cloud rushed forward, leapt the small porch and burst into the empty hallway. The room was lit dimly by dusk's fading light, but there was enough for the man to gather his bearings. His breath came in heaving gasps and his legs quivered from the sudden exertion of energy.
The panicked voices of his friends grew in pitch as they approached the building, Vincent being the first to arrive at his side. There was an unnerving silence between the men, broken only by a sudden tremor riveting up Cloud's spine. "Can you feel it?" Vincent stared grimly around the room and nodded.
"Tifa…where are yo-"
"Cloud!" The man's eyes shot up to Nanaki who's nose was pressed firmly to a spot several inches in front of him. Something dark stained the floor in small splashes, something his sight had failed to notice. Blood. He reached out and allowed his fingers to smudge the liquid across the wood's surface towards him. It was fresh. As he recoiled, his fingers tangled with something soft and silken and he pulled it up into view. It was Tifa's ribbon but when Cloud's finger's trailed the material around his hand, a second object fell away from between its silken folds. It drifted to the floor in slow languid sweeps, each motion piercing like a dagger in Cloud's chest. The blonde's eyes stared in horror at the black feather that rested lightly at his feet. He could feel the eyes of his friends burning into him, the same amount of shock and understanding as what he felt seeping from every one of them.
"It's…not possible." His voice was a strained whisper in the dark. "He can't be…we…"
"He's back?" Asked Yuffie, the bewilderment strong in her voice.
"Tifa." The blond man sank to his knees, his fingers entwining the ribbon gently around his hand. "This feeling…it's him… How could I not have realized?"
"Sephiroth." Vincent stared blankly ahead, his crimson eyes gleaming "He must be planning something."
"An' what in hell's name would he be plannin' huh?" Snapped Cid, his confusement quickly turning to anger. "That bastard's dead an' gone."
The room echoed the pilot's empty statement as the group stood in shocked silence, never expecting that they'd ever have to deal with the idea of Sephiroth's return.
"He wants me," Broke in Cloud as he pulled himself to his feet and turned to face them. "We're not finished, it's me he wants and Tifa's the bait."
The members regarded him in silence, wondering how he could come up with such a conclusion in so short a time. He made his way slowly out of the building, Vincent following him closely.
"What will you do now Cloud?" The man's dark raven hair swirled in the sudden gust of wind the night air brought.
His friend stood silent, unseeing eyes staring into the night sky, his jaw set firm.
"I'm going to give him what he wants. This time I'll end it for good."
"Do you know where to start?"
"No, but I will find him Vincent. He took everything from me once. He won't do it again. I'll make sure of it." The pair regarded each other for a moment, before Vincent placed a comforting hand on Cloud's shoulder then turned to make a start back to the ship.
Cloud's mind hurtled out of control as new and terrifying prospects flew through his head. Was Tifa already dead? Could he win again if it came to blows? The thought of a new, happier life seemed to be wrenched from his grasp within a matter of mere seconds and all for the same reason as the last. Sephiroth. Clenching his fists, the man cursed the name and vowed when it came to it, he would end Sephiroth's tyranny for the final time. Tifa's own life depended on him now and he'd made her a promise. This time, he would not fail her.