Patent black leather, creaking softly as it smoothly met the burnished shine of well-kept linoleum, was a sight that should have inspired a calming sense of familiarity to Zhi. The ferocious anger of the ceaseless storms that had swept over Mt. Nibel to herald his return had long since disappeared over his shoulder in the distance and faded away beyond miles of warm, glittering ocean and barren, tawny soil of the land surrounding Midgar. Shinra Tower's sixty-sixth floor was voiceless, scentless, and pristine- the light dim through the dual filter of tinted windowpanes and smog. No extremes, no distractions, everything comfortable and comforting. He was back - his mission completed to the best of his abilities - bearing information that he hoped would reveal something, anything
, about a situation that was becoming more bizarre and worrisome by the day.
In truth, he felt like he was going to be sick.
There was something about the town of Nibelheim that had never seemed right to Zhi. If one managed to make it there, past blizzards that could come up in hours out of a clear sky and leave travelers stranded for days or worse; the actual sight of the perpetually deserted place with its collection of stark, lifeless buildings had never been a welcoming one. Even travelling as a youth, the people that lived alone under the shadow of the icy peaks were reserved and silent- closed off and mistrusting of strangers. He'd known that he, Asher, and Sofia would not have an easy time of discovering whether or not anyone in the living ghost town knew more of the murders that had taken place at the reactor's construction site than they'd already given up... but he couldn't have dreamed just how difficult it was truly going to be.
It had been unfortunate enough that he hadn't even had the chance to make use of Sofia's invaluable talent for loosening people's lips. Concerns involving the transformation of Costa Del Sol were apparently a better use of the bronze-skinned Turk's time than the Nibelheim mission so - as was the way of several of their company - her return had been limited to an eventful journey up the mountain, only for her to head directly back down again scarcely ten minutes later. Yet, for the life of him, he hadn't counted on the reception they were to recieve the next morning; a gathering of what must have been nearly the entire population of the town on the doorstep of the mansion complete with the mayor at its head, full of demands regarding compensation for the few citizens of Nibelheim that had been unfortunate victims of the first attack. Zhi had been under the impression that the vast majority of the workers and engineers that had been killed had been employees of Shinra Inc- flown in specifically to work on the new reactor. Delicate construction would never be contracted out to just anyone- and the technological secrets involved in any Mako machines were carefully guarded by the company. He'd also assumed that such matters would have been taken care of months ago... so it hadn't seemed unreasonable to tactfully enquire as to why this was still an issue.
As luck would have it, that had been precisely the wrong
question to ask. Within moments the throng erupted into a shouting, cursing, namecalling mass that overtook any rational answer the mayor might have been about to give, and before Zhi could even attempt to calm them down a panicked Derrik was calling for the guards and hell was breaking loose. Not the ideal start to any mission, and it had only gotten worse from there.
The subsequent visit to the chief of police to aquire the original report had nearly ended in a fistfight when the rotund man attempted to physically remove Asher and Zhi from the premises. Not that it mattered in the long run. All it meant at the time, was that he'd been forced to use the new recruit's primary assets a little earlier than he would have liked; and he was pleasantly surprised at just how adept Asher proved to be at those talents. The situation had looked promising for a moment when streetrat jr. had appeared from the police station's unguarded second story window with a grey lockbox that contained the file... But the real burn was that the time it had taken for them to wait to aquire the records was wasted anyway. Major paragraphs of shaky handwriting were blacked out, and it looked like entire pages were missing. Taken, destroyed, hidden- there was no way of knowing what had happened to the absent information short of asking the police themselves.
It was then that he'd had the idea of returning to the scene itself. Find out if there was anything that had been conveniently 'missed', or else perhaps hit upon just why the records showed such tampering. They'd made the dangerous trek easily enough- for once the storms abated long enough to let the two of them reach their destination- but that was where the luck ran out once more. The construction site was not only cleared, it seemed as if the place had been scrubbed
clean. Any hint of the murders, even the barest traces of chalk or blood or destroyed equipment, were probably lying somewhere at the bottom of the mountain- long sinced pushed over the edge and forgotten. The only thing they did find were a few telltale gouges left in the stainless steel of the walls and floor that couldn't have been made by anything but a blade forged in Wutai's ancient tradition. He'd counted nine in total. Nine bodies like the ones they'd seen in Kalm, pinned to the floor with Wutanese blades and left to die... and a few deep cuts into the metal plating of the facility was all that remained to tell of them. They'd left empty-handed, and Zhi had spent the rest of the day and most of the night pacing the mansion- wracking his mind over and over for something he'd missed, some other source he could use that might lead somewhere.
Epiphany struck around midnight as he looked over the reports for the umpteenth time. Side by side, laid out on the desk to compare them, his eye had suddenly caught a name that wasn't blacked over in the orginal version, that he had never seen before. His gaze immediately flicked up to the list of victims at the head of both papers. The original, of course, totally black, but the one that had been sent to Shinra was a clear list of nine names. Nine names, nine sword marks. It fit perfectly on the surface... but not one of those names could have been the one mentioned in the original report. He counted the black marks under the victims column on the original. Ten.
Someone was unaccounted for.
Not bothering to awaken the younger Turk, he'd grabbed up his notes and jacket and practically run out the door into the night. It had been a hasty decision, but he knew he didn't need Asher's help for this- and where it held that in situations where it was called for two Turks were twice as intimidating as one; it almost always applied to private conversation as well. The last name on the report was the same as the one that had hung above the door of the local tavern - probably since before he'd ever set foot in this frozen, blasted place - and when he walked in the door past a few sleepy locals, the inkeeper didn't even bat an eyelash, just gestured him past the bar and into a side room.
Zhi had been right. There was someone unaccounted for. He listened to the inkeeper as he laid flat the events of the day of the murders. There was one body that had never been found, his son- the guide that had been hired to escort the workers to and from the site, to watch for dangerous mountain conditions, warn of avalanches. Shinra had never been informed, but the townspeople knew, and knew someone owed them something... or, as the man put it none too delicately 'someone's pullin' tha fuckin' wool over someone else's eyes'. He'd thanked him there, and pulled out all the gil he'd had on his person. Zhi knew that even with the knowledge, Shinra would never put forward any compensation without a body.
And then.. the worst of it. The thing that made him hang his head and swallow against a throatful of bile to think about it.
When he'd returned to the mansion, Asher was gone.
In all his time as a Turk he'd never lost a partner on a mission. There had been plenty of close calls, particularly where Jack was involved, and he'd seen his fair share of new recruits that didn't make it past their third taste of fieldwork- but this was different. They never just disappeared
. Like a fool, he'd run back out into the snow- shouted the boy's name though he was sure it would make no difference... and he was right once more. No answer ever came. He'd lost the rookie. Not even in a firefight, not because of a natural disaster- no hand of god had reached down and plucked him out of existence, he was just gone
There was nothing he could do. The next morning he took the guards and swept every residence and business in the town. Mayor's office, police station.. Haring was nowhere. He'd left that day, with the knowledge that he'd wrung everything he could from the place and, somehow, it had managed to wring back.
Looking down, he realized he'd been standing with his hand on the doorknob outside Drake's office. It was the only time in his life that he'd ever felt reluctant to open the door. With an expressionless mask on his face, and a quick shove to clear away the shame and doubt that weighed down his shoulders, he seized the knob and turned it feircely- walked quickly in before he could think of stopping. Stared at the hardwood shine on his boss' desk to avoid meeting his eyes.
"Sir, my report." He had to clear his throat before he spoke with a cough, then made himself relax and stand firm, awaiting whatever reprimand was due.