Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 13

In the Dark, Despair

By Damodred

They sneaked away easily once the ship reached Costa del Sol, Aerith and Sephiroth doing their usual disappearing trick while Tifa, Barret and Zack used the more mundane manner. They had agreed to regroup on the beach and consider their next move.

Rufus was not pleased as he stepped off the ship, Scarlet trailing him silently like him a ghost. It seemed that this Avalanche thing was chasing him, instead of the other way around; they popped up in the damnedest places. Whoever was leading that group was either insane, or a genius. The audacity of sneaking into a ship at the biggest ShinRa military base in the world, on the very day of his arrival! He shook his head. Maybe it was just luck. He faced Heidegger who was awaiting him at the end of the pier, red-faced. Rufus considered that he has never seen Heidegger anything other than red-faced. He'd have to have him replaced soon; the man was entirely too impetuous and petty to be his military adviser. Not to mention incompetent, Rufus thought as he brushed his bangs back from his face and addressed Heidegger coldly, "It seems that security on the ship is rather lax, Heidegger. We had several dead crew members appear out of nowhere, not to mention that our security cameras revealed the presence of Avalanche onboard." He paused, eyeing Heidegger mockingly, "I think you deserve a raise for Aerith's and Sephiroth's presence as well." Rufus dismissed Heidegger with a wave of his hand and walked on as the man stammered apologies, sweating. He didn't need to waste his time on fools; he had enough to worry about. He would start with getting his head of Weapons Development back and wringing some questions out of her. Sephiroth could be a problem, but Rufus was confident he could be handled, especially if he managed to get a hold of Aerith first. Then he could take care of Avalanche.

Elena woke up and immediately wished she didn't. It seemed that an entire marching band was lodged in her head and they were playing the same tune, over and over. No, she was mistaken. It was just the percussion section of that band. She winced, and moved her head gingerly, taking in her surroundings. Ah yes, one of those Inn-O-Matics, just drop in your gil and get a small room, one or two bunk. She was obviously in one of the bigger ones, as Tseng was sitting on the other bed, one arm propped up on his leg. He held a cigarette in his other hand, and took a drag off it as he regarded her steadily, a small twinkle of merriment in his eye. She opened her mouth to tell him to stop smirking, but the large balls of cotton someone seemed to stuff in her mouth prevented her from speaking. She croaked in outrage. Tseng deliberately put his cigarette out, reached for the glass of water he'd set on the floor earlier and sat next to her. She sat up slowly, wincing all the time, and drained the graciously proffered water. She murmured, "Thanks. I owe you one...or is it two?" Tseng chuckled, and in a low voice demurred any favor reciprocation between friends. He was casting a hook, and Elena snapped it up. Her head came up, her gaze clearer. "Friends?" she repeated. Tseng replied blandly, "Why? Aren't we?" Elena's gaze searched him, penetrating. Satisfied with what she found, she nodded and said, airily, "Among other things." Tseng played along, and asked obligingly, "Like what?" Elena jumped out of bed energetically, staggered and groaned as the percussion band struck up a beat again. She muttered angrily at the spoiled effect and said, in a normal tone of voice, "We're Turks. Let's go see Cid." She turned and walked out the door. Tseng's expression changed to one of satisfaction as he followed.

Cid was sitting on the wing of the Bigger Bronco, smoking a cigarette and gazing at the ocean. He heard Elena and Tseng walking up behind him, but didn't turn away from his contemplation of the mutable sea. This was one of the better moments, and he didn't want to spoil it. He felt the plane dip as someone clambered up on it and walked up the fuselage to drop beside and behind him, respecting his moment. The plane dipped again, more this time. Cid raised his eyebrows; that meant Elena came up first, then Tseng, which was quite unusual. The leadership as well as the respect, both new occurrences for Elena. Cid grinned inwardly; something interesting must have happened last night. He turned towards them slowly, noting how closely their hands were together on the fuselage, as they leaned back and watched the sea. Tseng met his gaze unblinkingly, as did Elena. As he kept watching her however, a flush crept up her neck and tinged her face red. He cleared his throat and spoke, "We've received our orders earlier today. It's nothing urgent, but we will be making our way across the sea. We hope to cut off Avalanche somewhere in the area of Gongaga. Intelligence says they *have* to go through there; even though they've been wrong before, we follow orders. So, we'll be taking the Bronco," he patted the fuselage fondly, "as soon as Rude finishes fueling 'er up." He sat back, satisfied as Tseng's eyes widened at the pronouncement. Rude approached from behind the plane and began to disconnect the hoses, announcing that the fuelling process was complete. He winked to Elena and nodded at Tseng calmly as Cid filled them in. "I knew he was Turk material long ago, and hired him. His mission was to scout out Midgar for potential threats to ShinRa security. Since it was crucial that no one know of his mission, not even you were clued in. Sorry, Tseng." Tseng nodded, acquiescing. He knew that the stakes were often too high in industrial sabotage for personal trusts. Cid continued, "Now that Reno's gone, and most threats are external, Rude's mission became of secondary importance. So I pulled him out of Midgar and from now on he'll be going with us." Elena was glad to know that he had survived the fall of Plate 7. Of course, he was probably warned in advance, but still it was nice to know. She wondered why Cid was talking so much; he usually was close-mouthed, except when conversation turned to machines. She guessed it was the short break from work and the chance to work on his plane. Shrugging inwardly, she hopped off the wing and prepared for take-off.

Cloud, a familiar voice spoke softly. He muttered, stirring restlessly on his pallet in the dingy room. Cloud! Where are you? He sat up abruptly, open blue eyes staring into the darkness. Did someone..."Tifa?" he murmured softly, still looking at something else. He could remember falling for what seemed to be eternity through the cold, mountain air. Stupid girl, wandering off into the mountains in search of her dead mother. He had to follow, didn't he? He'd do the same for anyone...wouldn't he? As the bridge twisted in the wind and began to fall, he spoke her name. He always wondered if she heard him on that day. It didn't matter. Soon he left, to finally prove to himself that he was better than all of them. And he did, by joining SOLDIER and achieving considerable standing among the ranks. His brow furrowed as he tried to remember just what his rank was. 2nd class, 3rd class...he almost had it as a wave of pain hit him, filling his sight with swirling red and black madness. As he lost consciousness, he could sense a tall, dark figure laughing somewhere in the corners of his mind.

Tifa was sitting on the cool sand, gazing out to the ocean and thinking of Cloud. She wondered where he was and what he was doing, not to mention what his destination was. Her thoughts wandered to Nibelheim, the shared tragedy that brought them together. She now knew that events transpired differently than she thought. Cloud did not come to Nibelheim that day; he was freed instead from his confinement within the reactor. He often told Tifa about his training and about Midgar, but never mentioned that he was in Nibelheim. Either he did not remember, or did not want to remember, burying the memories deep in his mind. After the fire died down and Cloud recovered enough to travel, they went to Midgar to try and make a living, Zack helping them out by securing them lodging and a small amount of gil. As the task of rebuilding their lives progressed, they became too busy to worry about the past and focused on the present. Tifa sighed, realizing that perhaps was the mistake. After all, was not a person the sum of their memories and experiences? Perhaps she should have dug deeper when his headaches recurred and when his stories seemed disjointed, but she loved him too much and knew that it pained him to remember. Perhaps too much love was imprisonment...

Her musings were interrupted by soft footsteps and a whisper of cloth as Aerith sank down to the sand beside her. Tifa looked around and asked, "Where's your guardian angel?" She immediately regretted her harsh tone and opened her mouth to apologize when Aerith answered, still looking straight ahead, "Out scouting. I told him I'd be allright." Her tone gave away nothing, but her slight smile did. She cocked her head and stared out to sea, "Underneath, he's still Cloud, you know." As Tifa's eyes widened and she began to speak, Aerith continued, "I could feel the core of his being within him, being covered by a shell of hate. If I can break it..." she broke off and turned to face Tifa, whispering, "He is very strong, but it is such a terrible hate..." Tifa asked, shaken, "Hate of what?" After a brief silence, Aerith faced out to sea again and said, quietly, "Life." They sat in silence until footsteps announced Sephiroth's return.


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