Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 11

Hope and Fear

By Damodred

An overzealous guard challenged their right to go on the ship, but a wink from Tifa and a surreptitious 'gift' of 200 gil put his mind at ease. He leered at Tifa and said, chortling, "Yeah, who wouldn't wanna have 'duty' at Costa del Sol, hehe..." as he let them pass. Barret grumbled, "Now him, I wouldn't mind killin' at all!" Zack nodded grimly and said, "With guards like that, it's no wonder ShinRa has problems." Tifa kept thinking of Cloud and didn't say anything. They secured a position in the lower hold, pretending to oversee the machinery. They decided they'd start looking for Cloud when they were out to sea, as there would be less of a chance of discovery with only sailors around. The guard complement was small, since ShinRa didn't want to risk desertion in Costa del Sol and kept the troop presence on ships down to a few, loyal men. While still in dock, the place was swarming with blue uniforms and an obvious search was out of the question. They all kept their eyes open and thus saw a dark figure at the top of the docks as it turned into a blur of speed and re-solidified at the entrance to the hold, briefly. It looked around for a split second and then disappeared, but there was no mistaking its disarrayed, blonde hair. "Cloud..." Tifa moaned in anguish and reached out a hand. "Hush, girl," Barret admonished, holding her back and guiding her below the deck, "We can't go after him now. 'least we know he's here." Tifa leaned back on a crate and slid down to the floor, stifling a sob. Zack sat down next to her and put his arm around her, whispering words of comfort. They remained huddled together until the ship cast off.

Barret awoke from his uncomfortable prone position, wedged between two crates. He realized that the ship was moving, and decided to wake up Zack and let him know that he was gonna go see what's going on. Having done so, he moved to the deck. Upon noting that things seemed to be quiet, and that he couldn't see land in any direction, he descended again to find Tifa and Zack fully awake, awaiting his return. After Barret related what he saw, Tifa nodded curtly and said, "Let's go look for him, then." Zack agreed and they made their way up the stairs. The top deck was surprisingly empty, but Zack explained that this was normal on cargo ships. There were small, cushy cabins for the rare important passengers, most of the space was holds, and a small crew complement, since the ship was mostly automated. Zack's explanations were interrupted as a shriek of agony rent the air. The trio exchanged looks and ran for the nearest staircase down, into the cargo holds. A few steps ahead of them, a couple of SOLDIERs skidded around the corner and made for the staircase as well. The stairs shook and rattled as many pairs of boots thudded on it. Barret blinked as he wondered since when SOLDIERs wore robes, but then he glanced at the sudden explosion of white hair on the other SOLDIER and figured it out. They stopped at a locked door which was significant only because there was a disemboweled corpse lying in front of it. They exchanged looks, and Aerith nodded. Sephiroth spoke a single word of power and the door imploded inwards. Tifa, Barret and Zack shielded their faces from the blast, but were through the door right on Sephiroth's heels. Aerith noted that no one else was interested in the commotion and followed them in, last.

Cloud faced the intruders uncomprehendingly. They just wouldn't leave him alone. How many of them would he have to kill so they would leave him alone? No matter. He'd eliminate each and every one of them if it meant getting closer to his goal. He smiled briefly when he thought of it. He would finally have her...he shook his head, annoyed. One of the insignificant intruders was approaching him, buzzing like an irritating insect. He grinned mercilessly as a thought came to him. He would kill her first, then the rest...NO! He shook his head again. What was he thinking? That was Tifa, his beloved wife! Another one of the intruders, a shorter woman, pulled the first one back, buzzing some more. Another errant thought inserted itself into his consciousness. He would slay this impudent one for touching his wife! Without thinking any further, he unsheathed his sword and leaped.

Tifa watched with tears in her eyes as lucidity faded in Cloud's eyes and he backed away, snarling. Aerith pulled her back, whispering, "The being controlling him is exerting more power. We better...". She was interrupted by Cloud as he leaped towards them, snarling "Die, bitch!". Steel clashed with steel and Cloud's sword vibrated from the impact as Sephiroth, eyes flashing, interposed himself and his Masamune between Cloud and his intended victim. Cloud pulled back and slashed sideways instantly, trying to clear a path before him. Sephiroth leaped backwards as the blade sliced open the front of his shirt and counterattacked, flicking his long blade towards Cloud's sword arm. His blade whistled through empty air, as Cloud blurred and reappeared to his side, stabbing downwards in an overhand stroke. Sephiroth's eyes widened as he tried to bring his blade to parry. Cloud's sword struck Sephiroth's awkward block and the blade flew out of his gloved hands, clattering to the floor. Aerith whispered a quick word and Cloud's hands begin to smoulder from contact with his sword. The heavy, glowing blade fell to the ground as Cloud glared at Aerith with blind, malevolent hatred. She felt it emanating from him, and took an involuntary step back, knowing at the same time that he didn't really see her; it was someone else's eyes she was looking into. Cloud sprang at Sephiroth, hands reaching for his neck. Sephiroth grasped the outstretched hands and twisted them savagely, hurling his opponent into the wall. Undeterred, Cloud flew towards Sephiroth, grasping the front of his cloak and throwing him against the other wall. Sephiroth hit the wall with an unpleasant, snapping sound and slid heavily to the floor. He realized he couldn't get back up, and whispered to Aerith, "I can't stop him...his strength is phenomenal...You must freeze him. NOW." Aerith nodded grimly and faced Cloud, her face hardening into a glacial mask. As she whispered a short phrase, the light gathered around her, leaving everyone else in semi-darkness. Finishing sharply she made a strange gesture and the light fractured into shards and sped towards Cloud, encasing him in a transparent shell of ice. Tifa shivered. Cloud's eyes widened as he strained to break the hold of his frigid prison, but could not prevail. The light began to fade from his eyes and he slumped into unconsciousness but not before Tifa could see his eyes - Cloud's eyes! - pleading her forgiveness. Her eyes filled with tears and she reached out towards him. She felt Zack's hands pull her back as Cloud's form filled with brilliant, shining light, blinding them all. When the light died back down he was gone and with him, Tifa's brief resurgence of joy.

Aerith had Zack help Sephiroth back to the hold. Barret paused as they were leaving the room of the confrontation and picked up the fallen swords. He figured they'd come in handy later. As they were leaving the area of the conflict, Zack grunted, "Just like old times, eh?" as he half-carried Sephiroth back to the hold. Sephiroth only smiled wanly through his grimace of pain. Barret brought up the back, admiring the tall man's endurance. The procession had to halt twice as scurrying sailors ran nearby. Either they were all preoccuppied with getting to the battle area, or just didn't want to notice the grim party. Taking advantage of that, the group ducked inside one of the crew's cabins. It was extremely cramped, but it had two bunk beds and would serve their purpose. "Set him down there," Aerith directed, letting go of her staff and preparing to concentrate. To Barret's amazement the staff did not fall, but remained impossibly vertical by Aerith's side. She noticed his amazement and winked at him, mouthing, "Be prepared." He smiled as he helped Zack lay Sephiroth on the lower bed. Aerith sat by his side, putting her hand on his chest, and closed her eyes, whispering softly. Beads of sweat formed on her forehead as she worked. Barret had the strangest feeling that time stood still as the planet listened to Aerith. He felt that even the walls, the ship and the air itself paid close attention to what she had to say. The unseen tension was becoming unbearable as the power of the Planet concentrated in the small room. Suddenly it released with a tangible snap, and Barret saw Sephiroth's frame stiffen and shudder uncontrollably as it poured through him, mending broken ribs and closing wounds. Then he sighed deeply and relaxed as Aerith raised her head, smiling weakly. Her gaze was tired, but clear and happy. "We'll sleep now," she whispered. "Destruction is easy, but creation, healing is very difficult." With those words, she curled up by Sephiroth's side and closed her eyes.


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