Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 16


By Damodred

Zack was beginning to wonder if tagging along with the young ninja was the right choice. She proved that she could hold her own in a fight, but as a traveling companion she left much to be desired. She elected him as the spokesperson of the group and constantly bombarded him with questions about their goal, about Cloud and Tifa, and about himself. Not to mention that he already had to ask her once to return his Ice Materia! She feigned surprise, saying that it must have fallen off his sword and returned it readily enough, but her small hands were constantly wandering as she gesticulated. He briefly wished for Sephiroth's daunting presence, Aerith's air of calm indifference, or even Tifa's self-absorption which made each of them Yuffie-proof, at least temporarily. He sighed inwardly and returned his attention to the girl.

"So do you get to fight dragons often? I think if you draw this kind of attention to yourself and expect me to go with you, you could at least explain yourself! I mean, I gotta know what I'm risking my neck for! And that guy," she shuddered elaborately, "He looked all...wonky. Uh..." she fell silent as she noted the heated glare Tifa directed at her. She promptly changed the subject, "Anyway....hey! Whatcha makin'?" This last was directed at Sephiroth, who's been examining one of the dragons' claws that he cut off earlier. He held it by the talons and grasped the hilt of his Masamune, displaying a green Materia embedded in the pommel. His green eyes met Yuffie's briefly, making her gulp nervously and immediately swear to herself that she would never touch the tall man's Materia. Satisfied with the effect, Sephiroth glanced down at the claw, tightening his grip on Masamune. The Materia flickered momentarily and a bright flame traveled from Sephiroth's hand to the claw. The claw flashed brightly and the dragon flesh incinerated, no longer protected by the dragon's immunity when it was alive. The heat died down, leaving the talons clean and free of flesh. Sephiroth nodded to himself and turned to Tifa. "Give me your gauntlet," he said quietly. Tifa took off her gauntlet and handed it to him, a questioning look on her face. With a few more judicious applications of the Fire Materia, Sephiroth removed the Mythril blades embedded in the gauntlet, and attached the dragon talons in their place. Yuffie's eyes widened as she noticed that the air around the gauntlet was warped by the extreme heat, yet Sephiroth handled it with his bare hands. He inserted the talons into the glowing metal without hesitation, and appraised his finished work with a critical eye. Adjusting the talons to his liking as the metal solidified, he held the weapon up and said to Tifa with a slight smile, "The Dragon Claw." He pulled it out of her reach as she stretched out her hand, "It's too hot for you now. It must cool naturally, else the metal in the gauntlet will crack. Give it thirty minutes," he judged, stabbing the weapon through the metal side of the truck. It went in easily and stayed embedded in the steel. Tifa looked at him in wonder. "Thank you," she said softly. Sephiroth shrugged, looking at Aerith while addressing Tifa, "You needed a stronger weapon."

Aerith smiled to herself, thinking of his words. This group was having an effect on him as well, despite what he said. He did not have the words to express his sympathy for Tifa's plight, so he let his actions suit his feelings. She knew him too well to believe his words, and he knew it. She turned her attention to the young ninja. Now here was a seemingly transparent person, her mouth never closing for long enough to consider what she was giving away. Her mastery of that huge shuriken she was holding, and the way her eyes lit up when mentioning Materia definitely proved at least a part of her story, but there was something more...perhaps it had to do with Reno, the silent driver? Speak of the devil..."Hey, someone drive for a while, I'm getting cramps over here!" an irritated shout issued from the front. Yuffie looked around, and noting no volunteers, clambered over the seat to the front. The truck slowed momentarily, and then surged ahead as Yuffie stepped on the accelerator. Shaking his head, Reno clambered into the back, muttering imprecations towards female drivers. "I heard that!" came an irritated voice from the front. Reno sighed heavily and plopped himself down on one of the vacant seats, eyeing the assemblage. He said, "Good day for driving," laconically, took out a flask from his jacket and took a hefty swig. Zack asked curiously, "How'd you get the truck away from the ShinRa?" Reno waved off-handedly, "Piece of cake. While the ninja there distracted the guards with her...uh...dubious charms..." he broke off as an angry, "HEY!" came from the front, then chuckled and continued. "I distracted them with this handy Nightstick. It paralyzes enemies by shocking them with electricity. My own design," he said proudly, exhibiting the device. It looked like a sturdy, collapsible antenna, slightly thicker around the base with a single button on the grip. Tifa edged closer, interested despite herself.

Sephiroth was puzzled. He knew he had seen the man, Reno, before but could not remember where or under what circumstances. The contact must have been very fleeting, for memory rarely failed him. He stood up, sending a thought to Aerith. I'll be outside. There may still be danger. Her reply came back, amused, Don't fall off. He directed a suitably indignant reply back, tinged with a smile, and walked to the open back of the truck, catching hold of the top spar. With a quick flip upwards, he disappeared from view.

Zack watched as the tall SOLDIER moved to the roof. He had seen Sephiroth in battles before, but in the last few years it'd been quiet and he hadn't had a chance to watch his fellow SOLDIER in action, other than on training grounds. He thought he was moving up the ranks of SOLDIER and improving his skills, but now he realized that he wasn't even close. He put his head in between his hands and wondered how it was possible for a man to be so killing. "Sometimes, one loses something in order to gain something else," a soft voice spoke by his side. He jerked his head up, surprised that Aerith managed to sit by him without him noticing. He smiled ruefully, "You startled me." Aerith said, gently, "He cannot be startled." Zack nodded, understanding, and looked into her eyes, "And you?" Aerith's eyes flashed momentarily, but subsided. She spoke softly, "I may be losing my hate."

Tifa found herself completely distracted as Reno regaled her with stories of his escapades as a treasure hunter, most of them obviously fake. She wondered briefly at who this man really was, but dismissed the matter for now, caught up in his tale of how he singlehandedly outwitted an entire ShinRa platoon at Fort Condor. Finally she burst out in laughter, unable to contain herself any longer. The man scowled at her briefly, but eventually couldn't help himself and grinned, "Didn't believe a word, eh? I must be losing my touch." Tifa assured him that he was very convincing and he sat back, pleased.

The rest of the trip passed in silence, everyone resting after the recent events. Well, almost everyone. Sephiroth never seemed to get tired, and neither did Yuffie. Zack attributed it to her age, and sighed wearily at her continued prattle. He moved to the front to guide them to Gongaga, as these were familiar grounds to him but began to regret the decision. If he'd been more observant, he would have noticed the sideways glances she kept directing at him. He was too anxious to be finally back home to notice, and only realized that something was amiss when she trailed off and silence prevailed for a few minutes. He began to say something, then his eyes narrowed and he pointed, "There! Turn there!" Yuffie turned the wheel obediently and Zack sat up, looking for more familiar landmarks. He knew where they were now.

They left the truck outside the small forest surrounding Gongaga. It's always been peaceful here, secluded from the outside world. When ShinRa came in for a change of troops or inspection, they'd come in by air and no roads were ever needed. Only a small path led to Gongaga proper, from which the reactor was easily accessible. Zack led the way, followed closely by Tifa. Aerith and Sephiroth followed, and Yuffie and Reno closed the party, Yuffie looking around the woods curiously. Nobody noticed Reno's strange, twisted smile, or the fact that his hand was closed tightly around his Nightstick, his finger on a button that was previously hidden by the hilt of the weapon. His other hand was playing nervously around the gun on his belt.

They walked into a small glade slowly, admiring the quiet of the woods. Tifa was musing over the last few days and breathing deeply in the cool, clean air. Once again, she resolved never to return to the filth of Midgar and laughed inwardly at the persistence of her resolution. She quickened her pace to share it with Zack, noting that the ninja girl had caught up to them.

Yuffie was intending to ask Zack if his town had any Materia, when her sharp eyes spied a form flying low above the trees, getting larger by the second. She could hear the low hum of its engine, and saw a flash as it fired at them. Without thinking, she pushed between Zack and Tifa, shoving them outwards, away from the line of fire. She felt something hit her shoulder, hard, and she spun from the impact, thinking with amazement, 'I'd been hit!'. Then the ground tilted under her, and the world went black.

Tifa staggered and fell onto the ground, bracing herself with her hands. She got up, ready to kick the brat's ass for pulling stupid pranks, when she felt, more than heard, something whizzing in the air at high speed. Immediately she whirled around, in time to see Yuffie fall, and then heard the staccato rhythm of gunfire, hitting the ground all around them. She and Zack were temporarily out of danger as the dust kicked up by the bullets obscured vision. The sound of the attacking plane receded into the distance, but Tifa knew it was only a momentary reprieve. She ran back into the dust to get the ninja out of any more danger, and noticed without surprise that Zack had the same idea. She made it to the ninja first, motioning Zack toward the large shuriken. She picked up the slight form easily, and carried her towards the shelter of the trees, where Aerith was readying her Materia. She tossed one to each of them, saying, "Tifa, you have the Bolt, Zack, use the Fire. Be careful not to overdo it, as those are powerful and will drain you fast." With these words, she dismissed them and turned to Yuffie and carefully removed the ninja's shield from her shoulder. It was made from cured hides and never meant to stop bullets; it was mainly an aide to hand-to-hand combat. The large bullet had gone completely through the shoulder, taking away a considerable chunk of flesh and chipping the shoulder joint. Aerith shook her head; under normal circumstances, the girl might have bled to death. Even if she recovered, she would find her use of that arm greatly reduced. Problem for a normal person; tragedy for a ninja. And a thief, thought Aerith and smiled, taking out her healing Materia. She closed her eyes, set her hand gently on Yuffie's damaged shoulder and concentrated, blotting out the sounds of gunfire, the whine of the engine and crackling of Bolts.

Cid gritted his teeth as he put the plane into a wild spin, evading the last batch of fireballs and ball lightning. "Hold on!" he shouted unnecesarily to Elena, who was manning the turret, wild-eyed. She was still managing to squeeze off an occasional shot, but most of them went wide as the plane constantly changed orientation. Cid pulled away, putting some distance between the charged air above the glade and shook his head, "I thought this was gonna be easy! A simple hit-and-run, case closed! Hell, I've never seen anyone use their Materia like that! How much of that crap do they have??" Elena remarked nastily, "Aww, is Mr. Highwind stuck with a little case of Materia envy?" Cid growled, "Watch yer mouth, Elena," as he turned around for another run. She sniffed and said nothing. She was still seething over his splitting them up. Couldn't he have taken Rude along? He was a good enough shot...Her eyes narrowed as she looked at the figures on the glade. She cursed inwardly. Damn! She had hit the wrong bitch! In fact, she wasn't sure who she'd hit, but she thought it was that AVALANCHE slut. She shrugged. Guess she was wrong. She'd just have to try better. Her mouth twisted cruelly and she glued her eyes to the scope on the turret gun.

Zack was feeling pretty ineffective. Either his targetting was way off, or the pilot was a genius. It was probably Cid himself; Zack knew he was good from the files, but not this good! Nobody could be this good; at least he hoped not, otherwise they'd be standing here until their energy ran out and eventually become sitting moogles. He was also worried about Yuffie; everyone else seemed to be holding their own. Hell, Reno was the only one actually managing to hit the plane with that gun of his. Pity it was too well armoured. Zack's eyes widened, and he reached for the Summon Materia he'd been carrying on his sword. He'd completely forgotten about it! He shouted a warning to clear the area, closed his fist around the red orb and concentrated.

Elena's mouth dropped open as she took in the large, circular portal coming into existence directly in front of the plane. "Cid, pull up, pull up!" she screamed shrilly, eyes staring at the form slowly emerging from the portal. Cid gritted his teeth, yanking the plane sharply to the side, trying to pass the portal to the left. He felt a slight tug on the plane and felt a change in the controls. It felt more sluggish now. He narrowed his eyes; this was getting weird. It was past time to be outta here. As the plane returned to horizontal, he sneaked a quick look back.

Tifa stared, open-mouthed at the majestic form coming out of the portal. It was a woman; if the white/bluish-skinned, fifteen feet tall, floating apparition could be called a woman. The figure was clad only in a loincloth and couple of strips of cloth; another strip tied its hair tightly in a single lock, more than ten feet long. The woman was wearing an indifferent expression on her beautiful face, the chill emanating from that expression was incredible. Tifa shuddered as the apparition turned towards the retreating plane, raising a hand. The light gathered around it, too bright to see and Tifa had to avert her eyes. When she turned back, the figure was gone and it was strangely silent. She realized it was because she could not hear the plane anymore.

"Umm...Cid, can't you make us stop falling?" Elena asked calmly, but her eyes were darting left and right, and her expression was rigid. "No," answered Cid curtly, as he was frantically trying to restart the frozen engine, but to no avail. The only thing he could hope for now was a soft landing spot. He noticed he was out of those too, as they approached the barren ground around the Gongaga reactor entirely too fast. He exhaled and muttered, "Lady Luck, don't fail me now."

They gathered around Aerith and Yuffie, the former tired but smiling, the latter eyeing them weakly, trying to grin. The small ninja whispered, "Saved you again...what would you do without me?" Tifa rolled her eyes and addressed Aerith, "Couldn't you try to cure her head, too?" Aerith answered straight-facedly, "That feat is beyond me," as she stood up, ignoring Yuffie's indignant squawk. "We all need rest; some more than others," she said, looking at Zack. He nodded, "We can get food and shelter at Gongaga. From what I remember, there's a modest inn there." He hesitated, looking at Yuffie, "What about her? Can she walk?" he addressed Aerith. "Not a chance," she answered, shaking her head. "Someone will have to carry her." Zack nodded reluctantly. Yuffie was red in the face, "Stop talking about me like I'm not here! I can walk!" she protested, eager to demonstrate and surprised when her body would not obey her. "Oh," she said, dumbfounded. Aerith nodded, "You lost a lot of blood, and had to regenerate quite a bit of tissue. What you need is food and rest." Zack leaned over and picked the slight girl up over her protests. She managed to fold her arms, and assumed an injured expression on her face, staring off into space and refusing to meet his eyes. They went off towards Gongaga, Reno thoughtfully examining the dented shuriken. It was the other unfortunate victim of Elena's bullets.

Tifa was still in awe of the power of the Summon Materia, but she had a question. She decided to ask Aerith, as she was easily the most knowledgeable, whether from her years of research at ShinRa or her natural affinity with the Planet. She dropped back to Aerith's side. "Aerith, who was that...woman? And...didn't she just cast Ice?" Aerith shook her head, "Not exactly. The Ice Queen's mastery over her element is far more complete than ours. We borrow the power; she is the power." Tifa nodded, "Then in a way, it was Ice." Aerith slowly nodded, "You could say that. Just Ice at a level that we can never reach." They walked slowly in silence, lost in their thoughts. Eventually, Tifa spoke about her other doubt. "What do you think they were after?" Aerith shrugged. "Revenge? Pest Control? Who can tell for sure. But Hojo's words implied that it was me. Hence the gunfire at the three of you." She considered her words, and glanced at Sephiroth. Something seemed to pass between them, and she turned back, looking straight ahead. "We've decided that next time, we better lead the way and stay close. They won't be able to use their weapons if the want to take me alive," she said, matter-of-factly. Tifa glanced sideways, shocked a bit, but eventually agreed. "The only problem," she commented dryly, "is if they decide to take us out, we'll be in a nice little cluster." Aerith smiled wanly, "At least we'll die together." She turned her head towards Tifa, "Saving us from the second dragon was his own doing." Tifa stared for a moment, disoriented by the shift in the conversation, but then understood. Her eyes widened, "He's fighting then, isn't he?" "Yes," Aerith answered, watching Tifa closely, "his will is very strong. As is his love." Tifa lowered her head, as a rush of heat through her body brought tears to her eyes.

Reno was dragging his feet through the dirt. He needed a drink. He wished Rude was here so they could hit the nearest bar and not come out for a while. Getting shot at, shooting his was too much effort. Besides, he expected cold, ruthless terrorists that he could gladly kill when the time came. And what did he find? A closely knit group, much like his own, with their own code and their own problems. Well, so maybe Sephiroth fit his expectations, but he was SOLDIER, not AVALANCHE! As far as AVALANCHE was concerned, it was mostly dead anyway. They lost the big guy back in his hometown, the swordsman was insane and on a rampage, and the leader was a really good-looking woman, determined to find her lost husband. He sighed again, heavily. She seemed so dejected that he didn't even feel like hitting on her, a big deviation from the norm. Maybe that's what had him feeling so down. He brightened; next town they hit, he'd remedy that. The ninja wasn't up to drinking this time, so maybe he could get some time alone. Not that he minded her presence, but it was really embarassing to be outdrunk by a little girl.


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