"Memories of the Past"
In the hallway, the silence seemed abnormally heavy.
Zack had never done well with quiet, but even he couldn't bring himself to speak. What the hell would he say anyway? He felt oddly hollow at the moment, and yet full of so many conflicting emotions. It wasn't exactly a pleasant sensation. Exhaling, he dared a glance at Tifa.
She was pale—shaken, he knew—but she was steady. He wanted to stop, to pull her into his arms and tell her that it was okay, that he was sorry, and to hold her. Just...hold her. He could only imagine what was going on in her head. Cloud—her first love—bloodied, broken and calling for her.
He had thought that it was bad enough that her last memory of her home was watching it burn. Now, she'd have to carry this with her too. He could almost see the shadows and weight of this place settling on her...crushing. How much more were they supposed to take? He wondered,
"You said there was a library," Aerith's voice broke the stillness. Soft, it held a tremor, and Zack hated that she was probably hurting too. He had wanted to avoid these memories, had hoped to spare her the grisly details of why he'd never made it back to her.
"Yeah. It's just on the other end of the hall," he replied.
She nodded without looking at him. She was crying.
"Let's go." Barret moved forward, gruff, but not as callous as usual. Even he seemed subdued. "This place gives me the fucking heebies."
"You and me both," Yuffie added, following. "I say the sooner we leave the bet—uh, guys!"
Standing at the end of the hall, Masamune in hand, Sephiroth waited. He made a sweeping gesture with one arm, a thin smile on his too pale face. "Hello, Puppy."
Zack tensed at the nick-name. "Sephiroth."
"Being here brings back so many memories." Eyes glittered behind a veil of silver hair, eerily green in the dim light. "Almost feels like home."
Behind him, Zack felt Tifa move. "This is not your home," she said, her voice steeped in bottled rage.
"Will you be joining us for the Reunion?" Sephiroth asked Zack, ignoring her. "Mother will be expecting you."
"I have no idea what the hell you're rambling about," Zack replied, his fingers curling around the hilt of his sword. "And I really don't care."
"But you should," Sephiroth slid the tip of his sword along the stone floor, the sound grating. "Jenova will be expecting you."
"Guess she'll just have to keep waiting," Zack replied. He had no clue what the hell Sephiroth was talking about and something in the other man's eyes said that he really didn't want to know.
Sephiroth paused his scraping, tilted his head and in his eyes madness lurked. "Maybe you don't deserve to be there. Maybe you deserve to die here. Shall I cut you down, now? Or do I leave you to witness my glorious rebirth? From the crater where it began, it will end...and be reborn. Everything. Reborn. Death now for you? Later? I wonder if you're worth it?"
"Damn, ya gotta hate those tough loony-bin decisions," Barret snapped, leveling his gun-arm. "How about I just kill you and then no one needs to worry about here, there or anywhere."
Slow, a smile slipped over Sephiroth's features. He closed his eyes, nodded. "Yes, yes, I agree. We wait. Let them see the Reunion; let them tremble in your glory." He opened his eyes, tipped Masamune up. "Until we meet again." With that, Sephiroth rose nearly to the high ceiling, soaring over their heads.
Barret opened fire, chipping mortar and stone, but not connecting with Sephiroth, who vanished like an apparition. "Well, fuck," Barret muttered, lowering his arm. "What the hell was that all about? That guy is nuts."
Zack shoveled a hand into his hair. "Your guess is as good as mine. I have no idea what that was about."
"Perhaps he speaks of the Calamity from the Skies. Jenova."
"Holy Leviathan! Where did you come from?" Yuffie shrieked, backing away from the tall man cloaked in red that stood directly behind her.
The stranger—who looked oddly familiar to Zack—gestured toward the coffin, now open.
"Ew." Yuffie wrinkled her nose. "Wait, oh Gods—you're an undead?"
"Idiot, does he look undead to you?" Barret asked, eying the newcomer with his usual unfriendly, weighing gaze.
"I dunno. A little, maybe. He is rather pale. And kinda creepy looking. And you gotta admit, hanging out in coffins isn't exactly normal," she pointed out.
That's where Zack knew him from. He had seen him sleeping in that same coffin years ago. Yuffie was right—he was creepy. Wait... "How long you been down here?" Zack asked. The idea of someone, anyone, being down here while Hojo and company tortured him and Cloud didn't settle well with him. This person owed him nothing, and for all he knew was a member of Shin-Ra, but if he wasn't...if he just laid there while he and Cloud screamed...
The other man shrugged, his cloak rippling around him. "I haven't bothered to keep track. Time matters little to me."
"You live down here?" Aerith asked, curious.
"If one could call my existence living. Yes."
"Well, it's gross, for one," Yuffie cut in. "And there's like mad-scientist stuff happening down here."
That seemed to spark an interest. "Mad scientist?"
"Yeah, some nutso Shin-Ra labby had my friend locked up down here to play poke and tickle—and not the fun kind. Right, Zack?"
Leave it to Yuffie to sum it all up nicely.
"Did this scientist have a name?" the cloaked stranger asked, his deep voice lowering still.
"Hojo." Nanaki answered this time. "A vile little man."
"I am...familiar with Hojo," the stranger commented. He shifted and as he did his cloak rose and fell revealing a gold gauntlet on his arm. "He has been here? To this place?"
"Uh, yeah, dude, I just told you that," Yuffie huffed. "Maybe if you weren't all...whatever you were doing in your coffin, you would have seen him. Do you have a name, by the way, or do I just call you Creepy Coffin Guy?"
"Suitably creepy name. I like it," Yuffie approved with a grin.
Barret rolled his eyes at her. "If everybody is done making nice, I would like to remind you that there's some Shin-Ra shit we need to take care of."
"Perhaps I can be of assistance," Vincent offered.
"Sorry, pal, we have a full boat of crazy already."
"I am many things, but crazy is not one of them."
Yuffie laughed, pointing down the dim corridor. "Says the man that sleeps in coffins in damp basements and looks like an advertisement for stalkers anonymous. Yeah, okay."
Zack listened to the banter with mild frustration. Being in this place, down here, had already put him on edge, and reliving some of his nightmares, well that just made everything in him claw to get out. Get away. Go. Shoveling a hand in his hair, he was ready to decline Vincent's offer—for a number of reasons, and yeah, creepy stalker factor was one of them, when Cait spoke, drawing his attention.
"He may, actually, be of use." The small robot turned to Zack. "Valentine, Vincent. Classification: Turk. Department of Administrative Research. Last known assigned location: Nibleheim; The Jenova Project. Current status: Unknown. Presumed dead."
Tifa frowned, shaking her head. "I don't remember any Turks here. And I don't remember Mr. Valentine at all. I think your information is wrong."
"His information is oddly accurate," Vincent replied, his speculative gaze resting on Cait.
"My involvement with Shin-Ra began and ended before you were born," he told her. "I have been here, atoning for my sins, for a long time."
"Yes." Vincent shifted his stance and once more Zack was again aware of how his cloak moved. Not with Vincent as clothing would, but more like around Vincent. It was odd and a bit unsettling. "I was unable to stop Hojo then. Perhaps I can atone in some small measure by helping you stop him now."
Barret snorted. "As much of a pain in the ass that guy is, apparently, he ain't who we're up against. We're fighting all of Shin-Ra, you bastard Turks included, and we ain't about to let one of scum-sucking-bastards join us."
Cait pointedly cleared his throat.
Zack glanced at Barret who shook his head: no. Zack was inclined to agree. They didn't need any more unknowns. He turned to Tifa to get her opinion. Her eyes were dark as they searched his and she sighed quietly before reaching up to stroke his hair back from his forehead. A sure sign that she was about to say something she didn't think he'd like.
She stepped back, but kept her hand in his, and addressed them as a whole. "The fact is we know very little about what Sephiroth is up to, and even less about Jenova. If Mr. Valentine can help us, then I say we let him. We need answers, and I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm running out of them." A pause. "Not that I had many to begin with."
"I don't like it," Barret grumbled.
"I see no harm in adding another person who wishes to help," Nanaki chimed in.
"As long as he doesn't bring the coffin, I'm cool with it," Yuffie added.
"I agree with Tifa," Aerith said gently.
Zack resisted the urge to grimace. He and Barret were clearly out-voted. "Looks like you're coming with us," he told Vincent.
Vincent gave a small nod. "I will keep my presence to a minimum to eliminate your discomfort."
"Peachy." Zack shook his head. They were the most screwy band of mercenaries in history. Of that he was certain. "Let's check the library and get the heck out of here."
The library as it had turned out was a mass of jumbled papers and books that seemed to have no rhyme or reason in organization. It took them forever it felt to sift through things, and even still there was tons of material untouched.
Zack had spotted and purposefully destroyed several of Hojo's personal notebooks regarding him and Cloud. He didn't read more than a few lines before deciding that he really didn't give a shit what the wacko had thought of his 'precious specimens' or their progress.
The most useful information had come from some maps Aerith had found with several markings referring to potential locations of 'Jenova' and something about an impact crater to which Vincent had speculated it referred to the site of Jenova's arrival to the Planet. It's exact location was a secret—one even he claimed not to know.
It was a needle in a haystack, at best, but it was something. They rolled the maps, a few of the documents and decided to call it enough. They'd already stayed too long as far as Zack was concerned. With cloaked figures roaming about, a floating Sephiroth making random appearances and enough emotional and mental damage to last a few lifetimes, he was ready to move on. To what, he had no clue. But he needed to move.
It was dark when they'd emerged from the mansion, tired, and eyes bleary from reading. They'd decided against renting rooms at the inn. Even tired, the option to leave seemed better than staying. It was at the town's gate that Tifa paused, her boots making drags in the gravel.
Zack knew better than to ask her if she was all right, so instead he waited, silent.
"You guys go ahead. I'll...catch up," she said. "There's something I need to do."
Zack didn't like the idea of her being alone, but he also knew this was something she had to do. He took both of her hands in his, pressed his forehead to hers and let out a soft breath. She needed this, he reminded himself, even if it hurt her. "I'll be right here."
"Okay," she whispered, letting go. Then she was gone, heading back into Nibleheim and memories.
Bright stars winked knowingly down at her from above the rooftops of familiar homes. It was the kind of night she used to enjoy when she had lived here; the kind that had often found her sitting at the well...watching...waiting...
Her heart ached and felt like a heavy ball in her chest as she stared across the expansive courtyard toward the creaking windmill and stonewalls. The well stood out in stark relief, illuminated by the glow of the full moon. She remembered watching her father help lay those bricks, with their neighbors.
She remembered the scrape of wood on her knees the night she'd climbed up to meet Cloud. She remembered the way the stars were so bright and the way the air had smelled so clean and the way blue eyes had burned so earnestly.
She reached the rail, pulled herself up with the agility and grace her fourteen year old self had lacked, and sat in the exact spot she'd sat that night. Only, it wasn't the exact spot, she reminded herself. That well was gone. Her home was gone. The life she could have had was cinder and ash.
But these memories, the ones not scorched in flame and death, of her father laying brick and of a teenage boy vowing to be her hero—those were hers. No Sephiroth or Shin-Ra scientist could take that from her.
Her fingertips traced the stones, lingering over etchings that weren't there. She closed her eyes, fought the burn of tears. "I miss you," she whispered. "I miss you all so much." She tooka shaky breath. "Cloud... We never had a chance to see...to see how far we could have gone, but something tells me we would have gone forever." She tucked her knees to her chest, leaned her cheek there and tried not to let the tears flow. "I wish I could have told you to your face, but I'll tell you now: I love you. I think, I think a part of me always did. I saw you watching me. Saw you pretending not to, and I pretended too..." she blinked, but the tears slipped past her lashes, down her face. "Cloud..." Grief tightened her fists and she choked, "I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. For not being there for you. For everything. I should have...told you...and I'm sorry."
She wrapped her arms around herself, rocked against the grief and shook with sobs, but as she did, she felt something loosen...like a knot coming undone, and as painful as it was, it was also relief.
She had no idea how long she sat there, crying to the stars, but eventually the tears slowed and her breaths became soft hiccups, and she felt a little less heavy than she had been. Wiping her eyes she stood up. From her vantage point on the well she could see a dark silhouette at the town entrance.
Waiting for her. Like he said he would. Her heart lifted at the sight of him and with a watery smile she tipped her head to the stars. "Oh, and Cloud, thank you."
Her steps a little lighter, and her chin a bit higher, Tifa Lockhart walked out of Nibleheim leaving the ash of the past in her wake and holding dear to the memories that she chose to take with her.
AN: Holy crap, an update! O.o FIRST, let me thank everyone who has left such fantastic reviews and personal messages and emails. THANK YOU so much! Your encouragement and enthusiasm for this story has truly, truly means the world. It has been a very crazy year with many issues and much to my dismay I haven't been able to write as I had hoped. However, this story is NOT discontinued, it is going forward and I am back to writing. This chapter is a bit short, but I felt it had all the emotional impact it needed. I hope you enjoy it, because I enjoyed writing it. It feels good to have these characters back in my brain. THANK YOU all so much for continuing to read. Thank you for your patience and understanding, and please know that it will not be months between updates again. Love you guys!