Chapter 5.  "My Old Nibelheim Home"
Track 5:  "Eva" by Orgy

After the destruction of Midgar, I was at loose ends.  Shinra was history, dust in the wind.  I hung out with the Turks for a while in Junon; none of us really knew what to do next.

I finally told the Turks what had happened to me during the year of my absence.  They were horrified and sympathetic, even though at first they were a little afraid of me.  After a few days, though, they realized that they were being foolish, and that I wasn’t going to change into some monster just from telling them about my experience.  We tried to figure out my strange actions on that last day, but we just didn’t know enough about Sephiroth or about what Hojo had done to me to make any conclusions.  Telling that big secret removed some of the distance between me and the guys, and we started to really bond again, gradually letting Elena into our group.

As I got to know Elena better, I learned that she wasn’t so bad.  She had been a little too conscientious in her work, especially for the Turks, who could all be described as slackers.  We used our own judgment in matters, too, something that she still had to learn.  She had relied heavily on “official” rules, and it made her irritating. She had been trying to impress Tseng, though, and we all do stupid things when we’re attracted to someone.  I felt sorry for her, actually.  I wondered if she would take up with one of the guys.

I wanted desperately to get in touch with Cloud; I had heard that their airship had survived the Holy blast, so I was fairly sure that Cloud was still alive, somewhere.  The Turks didn’t know of any place where the rebels might have returned to as a kind of base, and I was desperate for information.

Sure enough, someone with the info I wanted showed up.  Reeve came looking for us, much to our surprise.  He was trying to gather up something from the shattered Shinra Corporation, to at least deal with the few remaining reactors and the problems they had caused.  We hadn’t known that he had been helping the rebels all along, but he explained the rebels’ travails to us.  It was, of course, an extraordinary story.  The parts at the end were unbelievable, but we just took it in, knowing that, at the end, very little was impossible for Sephiroth.

Hearing the first-hand account of Sephiroth’s end reminded me of my episode in the bar.  I wondered if I was like the black-cloaked “clones” that Sephiroth had summoned, but I had not felt the call at that time.  Perhaps that was the feeling of desperation I had gotten – I was a kind of last resort, but by the time I had been summoned, it was far too late.  From Reeve’s descriptions of what he knew Hojo had done to people, including himself, I drew the conclusion that I had Jenova cells in me.  The realization was chilling, and I was almost physically ill when I thought of it.  Was I going to change into a monster?  Would I go mad?

The only thing that kept me calm was the memories of Hojo’s frustration with me.  Apparently the Jenova he put into me was dormant; the only thing that had taken immediate effect on me was the makou, and even that seemed to have been sublimated.  I wondered what could possibly explain that crazy piece of luck, and I mentally thanked whatever gods were watching over me.

Reeve told me later that he could get me in touch with Cloud.  “At least, if he hasn’t moved on,” the man mused, “but I think he and Tifa are still in Nibelheim.”

I felt a chill as he said that name.  “Why there?”

“They grew up together there – and Cloud is looking at the lab records in the Mansion…”

“L-lab records…?” I said slowly, my head starting to spin.

“Yes, we found a secret lab in the basement, you know, the only way you can get to it is from one of the upstairs bedrooms.  There’s a lab, and a library, and a crypt.”  Reeve made a face.  “It was where Hojo did things to Cloud and the other guy.”

I hadn’t told Reeve of my roundabout relation to Cloud, but this latest revelation almost cracked me.  I had spent my year of captivity in that mansion – and then returned there immediately afterwards to work!  The irony was hideous, and I was certain that Hojo had requested that I be posted there.  No wonder I had had nightmares during my entire time there – free of Hojo’s drugs, my mind was wide open to my ghost.  Would he still be down in that crypt?  I wanted to find out.  I also wanted to read those lab records, to find out Zack’s fate – and mine – once and for all.

“I think that I’m going to make a trip to Nibelheim,” I said, looking around at the others.

“If not to see Cloud, then…”  Reno trailed off, knowing what else I was looking for.

“Oh?  Well, if you do, tell Cloud and Tifa and Vin that Cid and Shera and I said hello,” Reeve said.

I blinked at the array of names, but nodded, recognizing them from his story.  “Will do.”

In less than a week, I was on a ship out of Junon to Costa del Sol, where I bought a hardy black Chocobo hen who I called Sura.  We set out northwest and arrived in Nibelheim in good time.

My first stop was the town inn; after Reeve’s story of fighting monsters throughout the Mansion, I was not eager to sleep there.  The innkeeper recognized me and gave me a sharp double take when I came in the door.

“I need a stall for a Choco,” I said, pulling out some gil, “and some information.”

“It’s five gil a night for the stall, two more for feed,” the innkeeper said warily.  “And what do you need to know?”

I counted out ten gil, then looked him squarely in the eye.  “First – now that Shinra’s gone, what will everyone in town do?”

He flinched, then sighed.  “Actually, most of us are just settling down here and living honestly.”

“That’s good to hear.”  I smiled faintly.  “So this is a real town again.”

The innkeeper nodded.  “Families are starting…and some of the Midgar exiles came here, too…”

“That’s my other question.  Do you know a young couple, about my age, the man’s name is Cloud, the girl’s is Tifa?”

He nodded vigorously.  “They came up here right after Midgar.  They’re in the house at the end of the street.”  He gestured out the window at the house.

“All right.  Thanks then.  I’m going to settle my Choco.  I’ll be back later.”

“Okay, take care.”

I left my pack with the innkeeper, and went to set Sura up comfortably in a stall.  I spent a few minutes grooming her as a reward for a good ride, earning a few pleased warks and whistles.  Finally, I gathered my nerve and walked across the street to Cloud and Tifa’s place.  I knocked on the door hesitantly, not sure what to expect.  After a moment, the door opened, and Tifa looked out.

“Yes?  Can I help you?” she asked, looking a little startled.  Cloud came up behind her and looked at me, then did a double take and stared.

Mara?  Mara D’Andrade?” he said in a tone of disbelief.

I nodded, surprised that he had recognized me after six years.  “Yes, it’s me.  Hullo, Cloud, hullo, Tifa.”

Tifa peered closely at me.  “You’re the nurse from Mideel!” she exclaimed.

As I nodded, Cloud stammered, “What?  How?”

“You mean you don’t remember?  Then how do you know her?” Tifa asked, confused.

“She’s Zack’s sister,” Cloud said softly, looking at me.

“Oh!”  Tifa opened the door wide.  “Please, come in,” she said, waving towards the inside of the house.

Feeling a little shy, I stepped in and looked around.  There was a row of shoes near the door, so I took the cue and pulled off my riding boots.  While I was doing that, Tifa bustled off into the kitchen.

“Would you like some tea?  Coffee?  Beer?” she called.

“Just something cold, please,” I answered, not quite comfortable as a guest.  Cloud gestured with a jerk of his head for me to follow him into the kitchen.

“I never imagined I’d see you again,” he said with a shy grin.  “What in the world have you been up to?”  He took two bottles of Wutai beer from Tifa and handed me one, then waved for us all to sit at the table.

I sat and cracked the bottle open, then took a long drink.  “Lord, that’s good.  Thanks!”  Tifa smiled, but Cloud just nodded, waiting for me to answer his question.

“Well, you know I was in Shinra’s ICA school when you and Zack…” I trailed off; he knew what I was talking about.  “HQ started sending me to advanced training, and I ended up in the Turks.”

“Zack never forgave his baby sister for getting into the Intelligence/Covert Action academy,” Cloud laughingly told Tifa.  “She tried to pick some Shinra high-up’s pocket once, and she would have gotten away with it too, if Zack hadn’t made her give the stuff back.”

I nodded, smiling a little.  “They were impressed enough to ask my parents to take me to school, although they really didn’t give me much of a choice.  If I hadn’t gone with them, they would have had me arrested!”  We all shared a chuckle.

“But you said you were in the Turks?” Tifa asked.  “We fought some of them…”

I nodded.  “They told me about you guys – that’s how I found out you were still alive, Cloud.  But anyway, I did that until about two, two and a half years ago, and then I made Rufus angry with me.  He kicked me out of the Turks…and sent me to Hojo.”  I couldn’t keep the anger out of my voice, even though the two of them were beyond retaliation now.

Tifa’s hand came up to her mouth, a shocked and sympathetic expression on her face.  Cloud closed his eyes and looked angry.  “As if your family hadn’t been through enough,” he said in a disgusted, sick voice.

The way he was speaking made me realize that he, too, thought Zack to be dead.  I pushed that thought from my mind and continued.  “I don’t think Rufus knew what Hojo was doing at the time.”  I told them the rest of my story, including the weird nightmares and the odd attack the day that Midgar was destroyed.

“I wonder if I’ll have those dreams again, here in Nibelheim,” I mused with a sigh.

Cloud and Tifa looked at each other, as if they knew something they didn’t want to tell me.  “I doubt it.  The Mansion’s been cleaned out of all the weird things that were there.  You should come with me to see the records,” Cloud said.  “I’ve found a few abut Zack and me… and Sephiroth.”

I rubbed my forehead.  “I still can’t believe some of the things Reeve told us.  Sephiroth…  He gave me flowers once, you know, way back when he and Zack came to Gongaga.”  I closed my eyes as I remembered that day.  I had been fourteen and silly as only a preteen girl can be, but I was overjoyed to see Zack when he walked up the street to our house.  Sephiroth had been behind him; Zack, never shy, had invited the famous general to have dinner with us.  The silver-haired man had smiled as I hugged my brother tight, and then, when Zack had introduced him to me, “his infamous sticky-fingered sister”, Sephiroth grinned and handed me a bundle of wildflowers.  He didn’t have to say anything for me to start blushing furiously.

“He was never a bad man, until the burning of Nibelheim…”  Cloud said quietly.

I looked up; Reeve hadn’t been able to explain the holocaust in Nibelheim very well.  “I’m sorry, Cloud, but…do you think you could tell me about that?  About what happened to you and Zack?”

Cloud looked pained, but he nodded.  “Of anyone, you have the most right to know,” he sighed.  We paused to grab a second round of beer, then settled down for another story.  Cloud explained everything that had happened to him, from the terrible night of fire in Nibelheim to his and Zack’s escape from Hojo’s lab, the very same lab I had been trapped in.  As he haltingly described Zack’s final stand overlooking Midgar, I didn’t hold back the tears that pricked my eyes.  He was the Zack I had known all my life to the end, giving his life to shield his helpless friend.  After Cloud had finished speaking, there was a very long moment of silence.

“It’s all Hojo’s fault, isn’t it?” I said finally.  “All of this…”

“Well, maybe not everything, but yes…his meddlings and playing God…”  Tifa trailed off.

Cloud stood and stretched a little.  “Well…it’s getting on towards evening.  Won’t you stay for dinner, Mara?”

Tifa nodded in agreement.  “Yes, please stay and eat with us.  And…”  She looked at Cloud.  “We have several rooms, so unless you have other arrangements, you’re more than welcome to stay here.”

I was a little surprised by their willingness to let me in, but I had known Cloud before, after all.  “Well, my Choco’s at the inn’s stables, but I haven’t taken a room yet, so…”

“Then by all means, stay with us,” Cloud said with a smile.

“Thank you,” I murmured.  “I guess I’ll go over and get my pack.”

“Yeah, I’ll go check that the room is made up for you.”  Tifa headed upstairs, humming.

I sighed as I walked across the street, feeling like things were finally going to start to fall into place.  My greatest question had been answered, and while it wasn’t a happy answer, it was better than not knowing.  From what Cloud had said of the records in the Mansion, it seemed that my other questions could be answered as well.

Obviously, Reeve was telling the Turks the story that you play through in the game.  Keep in mind though, 1) he wouldn't have seen some of the earlier stuff, and 2) he couldn't see (by my reckoning, anyway) Cloud's flashbacks/hallucinations, or Vincent's either.

Poor Zack.  ;_;  I didn't know what to think of him until that sequence of him and Cloud in the back of the truck.  Zack was such a dear!  ;_;

In case you're curious, Sura was the name of my black Choco in the game, too.  ^.^

Next episode:  Who uses that aftershave?  A midnight visit!  What does Mara keep under her pillow?

Chapter 4