Variations Chapter 8
One of Shinra's primary industries is aircraft. They bought out several of the world's largest airports, during their rise to power, and merged them together. In a very real sense, Shinra controls the skies. As such, there is a large hangar just outside the city limits. We were there within the hour.
Tseng apparently knew where he was going, as he went straight into the building. We all trailed along behind him. Despite the seriousness of the situation, I couldn't help but be awed by the sheer size of the building. Once inside, I was blown away by the size of the dirigible inside. It couldn't really be called a dirigible, as that brings to mind big, bulky blimps. This was sleek and shiny, with a gondola that was more like a small ship. It even had a cargo bay with two SUVs sitting inside. The balloons supporting it were massive.
"She's a beauty, ain't she?" a gruff voice called proudly to me from the flight deck. I looked up to see the man from last night standing against the railing, a grubby rag in his hand. "My Highwind. Named her after myself. S'only fair."
"Mr....uh...Highwind," I called. "We need your help, sir!"
"Well sure, darlin'. What is it you need?"
Tseng had heard me shouting at Mr. Highwind and he came over. "We need you to take us to the Cosmo Canyon area, Cid," he called. "How fast can you get us there?"
It was nine-thirty. We had ten and a half hours. I prayed he would be able to get us there quickly.
"Umm. Well, let's see..." Cid folded his arms across his chest and squinted up at the blue sky, visible through the open roof of the hangar. "I can have us above it in nine hours," he said finally. "Give or take."
"Are you outfitted to leave now?"
Cid glanced around the hangar. There were various uniformed technicians and mechanics bustling about, doing various things. "We were gonna be takin' off for a standard training mission pretty soon..."
"It's been promoted. We're going after Reno," Tseng informed him. "I'll have my people on board within five minutes. Do whatever you need to get us ready."
"Well, hot damn!" Cid seemed pleased as he through a rope ladder over the railing. "Goin' after the little shit, eh? Hafta admit, I was kinda missin' him. He's the only one who calls me 'spaceman.' Shit, huh? The rocket ain't even done yet and he's already treatin' me like an astronaut."
"Right. Show my people to the war room, Cid. Get on board, Rosalind. I'll send everyone else on in a minute." Tseng gave me a nudge towards the airship.
"Yes, sir." I nodded and headed over to the Highwind. The rope ladder was taut and well made and I climbed up easily. Cid held out a hand and helped me over the rail, saluting comically once I was aboard.
"Welcome to the Highwind, miss," he said proudly. "You've never flown until you've flown with me."
I returned the salute. "Yes, sir. If you don't mind me asking, sir, how is it that this airship can get halfway around the world faster than a jet?"
Cid beamed at me and winked. "Well, y'see...follow me below decks, miss, I'm s'posed to show you to the war room...airplanes fly higher than my Highwind does. And they have to follow all sorts of paths and routes to avoid crashin' into each other. I don't have to worry about that, 'cause I have my airspace all to myself. I can fly in straight lines."
I followed him down the stairs and below decks (finding myself strangely reminded of a ship, with all the machinery and boilers beneath us), and we walked along various catwalks to a room with a mahogany door. "Reno must have taken a jet right to Cosmo Canyon, I guess."
Cid nodded and held the door of the "war room" open for me. It looked like a standard council room, with a screen up on one wall, about a dozen clocks on another, maps, and a long wooden table. "We lost a damned good pilot when Reno signed over to the Turks," he said regretfully. "A few more years of work, if we coulda kept him up in the skies...he would've been the best this company's ever seen...well, after me, of course. He's a damn good kid."
"Right." I found I couldn't say anything more around the sudden lump in my throat. A tightening fear spread across my chest. I couldn't stand to think about what things would be like if we got to the Avalanche base too late.
Cid was watching me closely. "The damned bastard's been caught, hasn't he?" he said softly.
I nodded, sitting down in one of the chairs around the table and holding my head in my hands.
"And we're goin' in after him?"
"Yes," I answered firmly. "They're going to kill him in..." I glanced at the wall of clocks, spotting the one with "Gongaga" written beneath it. Somewhere, on the other side of the world, it was half-past one. "In ten and a half hours," I whispered softly.
Cid firmly gripped my shoulder. "Not if I have anything to do with it," he told me gruffly. "You keep your chin up, girl. I'll get you where you need to be with time to spare."
I managed a smile at him. "Thank you, Mr. Highwind."
He nodded briefly and left the room, presumably to go get the rest of my colleagues. I sat alone in the room, listening to the ticking of a dozen clocks. That was all I needed. A reminder that every minute that passed was one less until midnight.
St. Andrew and Cyr entered the room, followed by Rafe, Rod, and Samantha. Rafe squeezed my shoulder reassuringly and sat down beside me. "We have time, Rosalind," he told me quietly, seeing how I was staring at the wall of clocks.
"I...I know. I just..."
Rafe patted my hand. "I haven't known him long," he began, evidently speaking of Reno. "But it really doesn't take much to realize Reno would do anything for the people he cares about. The least we can do is return the favor."
Tseng and Rude entered the room, Tseng with a sleek black laptop beneath his arm. We were all in full uniform, we were all fully armed, and we all wanted to know what the plan was. All of us...or me, at least, wanted to know if there even was a plan.
Tseng sat down at the head of the table, taking his laptop and hooking it up to various cables and cords, opening the screen and booting it up. Behind him on the wall appeared an image of his screen. He pulled up a window and cleared his throat as the picture loaded.
"I've uploaded the aerial photos Fort Condor sent us," he began, indicating the image with his mouse. "Here, you can see the Avalanche base, as it appeared two days ago."
The screen was mostly the dusty red rock of the Canyon floor, darker or lighter according to the altitudes. The Avalanche base stood out plainly, a patch of drab khaki against the red. My heart sank a little. It was huge. Room enough for thousands of men.
The image changed. The base immediately vanished. All that was left was dark spot, maybe a fiftieth of the size of the original. "This," Tseng continued, "is a fresh image we had them send from the satellite as soon as we received the news that Avalanche were moving. Indeed, they seem to have vacated their base."
"Would they have taken Reno with them?" Rude asked, leaning back in his chair.
Tseng shook his head slowly. "I should say not, given what Fuhito said in his message. They wanted to leave him there to mark their passing. They probably left him with a rearguard, of maybe a few contingents. Given that we've seen their standard troop unit to be about fifteen, they probably left around fifty hostiles."
St. Andrew shrugged. "Well, there's eight of us. I'm probably good to take about ten of 'em."
Cyr nodded her agreement. "Put me down for ten," she added.
"I admire and share your enthusiasm to slaughter these murderers, but I must remind you that every Avalanche member we kill before we've secured our objective increases our risk of detection."
"Oh. Rats." St. Andrew sounded sincerely disappointed.
Cyr patted his hand comfortingly. "He didn't say anything about after we've secured the objective," she pointed out.
I raised my hand tentatively. "If they left a rearguard of that size...are they expecting us, sir?"
Tseng shrugged. "I honestly don't know, Rosalind. Situations like these...where the enemy is baiting you...it does no good to theorize that they are expecting you to expect them to expect an attack, and therefore they do not expect an attack. We have no way of knowing how their thinking works. I find it's best if we just go in, expecting that they expect us. If they don't, that's all well and good, however, if they do, at least we're prepared."
"If you go in expecting the worst, at the very least you'll never be disappointed," Rafe said sagely.
"I don't really want to think about the 'worst,'" Rude said quietly.
There was an awkward silence. Rafe cleared his throat. "Sorry. Poor choice of words," he apologized.
Tseng shook his head. "We can't dwell on semantics right now. The good news is, if they're expecting us...and most likely they are...they aren't expecting us as early as we will be. They're expecting us to show up after...after the fact. They don't know that it's possible to get to Cosmo Canyon in as little as nine hours on a direct path. That gives us..." Tseng glanced at the clock behind him. It was quarter to ten. "A little more than an hour before midnight, depending on when we leave."
Rod looked up, voicing the question I'm sure we all had in the backs of our minds. "How do we know they haven't already killed him?" he asked flatly.
Samantha put a hand on his arm, mistaking his directness for concern, I suppose. Tseng sighed and rubbed at his eyes with his fingertips. "We don't," he said finally. "But I, for one, don't believe they have. For the short time that we've been involved with Avalanche, we've learned a surprising amount. They haven't been very good at making their objectives public...but then, you can't expect a terrorist group to be terribly good with PR..."
"It's all the senseless murdering," St. Andrew supplied dryly.
Tseng grimaced. "Especially with Avalanche. They're almost kamikaze in their desire to return life to the Planet through the sacrifice of others. Every life given...be it one of theirs, or one of ours...is a life given to heal the Planet."
"That's crazy!" Samantha exclaimed. "Heal the Planet of what?"
"They claim that Mako is draining the energy of the Planet. Which is preposterous, of course. Mako is a clean, efficient, and safe power source that's as renewable a resource as water. The Mako that circulates through the plants doesn't have nearly all the energy it contains sapped. It returns to the earth and replenishes itself. There are no indications of it giving out as a source of power. We aren't damaging the Planet and even if we were, genocide will do nothing to change it."
"Senseless murderers," St. Andrew muttered again.
"Ritualistic, more like it. They draw many of their beliefs from the myths of the Cetra...the Ancients. It's like a bizarre twist on religion. Hence, perhaps, the sacrifices at midnight."
I shivered. To hear Tseng talk about it, in such a clinical manner only succeeded in driving home the fact that unless we did something, someone very dear to all of us was going to be killed at midnight.
Before anyone else could say anything, the room gave a shuddering jolt and all of a sudden the airship hummed to life. Outside the room, though the sound was dulled through the thick walls, I could hear the boilers roaring to life. The noise continued for a few moments, and then the feeling of movement. It wasn't like the taxiing run a plane does down a runway; it was more like riding in an elevator. The airship rose up and up. I felt a momentary fear that we wouldn't clear the roof of the hangar, but logic quickly overcame it.
"Who of you have never been on an airship before?" Tseng asked suddenly, glancing around the room.
I raised my hand tentatively, as did Cyr, St. Andrew, and Rod. Those of us from a decidedly destitute background. Apparently Rude, Rafe, and Samantha had all had this experience before.
"Go out on deck." Tseng told us. "That's an order."
"But, sir..." I started to protest, getting up hesitantly.
Tseng shook his head and pointed out the door. "Go, Rosalind. Even at a time like this, facing the challenges that we are, you have to experience some good."
I nodded and followed the others. St. Andrew had stayed and held the door open for me and we went up on deck together.
It was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Comparatively, we weren't all that high (the airship had risen quickly above Midgar and was just now slowing down its ascent), but the view was still spectacular. The plains below us stretched out in all directions, all the way to the ocean, a narrow sliver on the horizon, shimmering and glinting in the sunlight.
Cid was standing at the fore of the deck, hands braced against the railing, staring to the west. The wind buffeted his blue flight jacket and the scarf he wore around his neck. He glanced over his shoulder at me and grinned. "Hey, Rosy! C'mere!" he called, beckoning.
No one had ever called me "Rosy" before in my life, but I didn't mind when Cid did it. It was like Reno calling me "rookie." Just a nickname. I went over to him. "This is incredible," I told him sincerely.
Cid laughed and clamped a hand firmly on my shoulder, pushing me in front of him. "Hold onto the railing here, kid," he instructed, indicating the prow of the ship.
We had stopped ascending. The ground was dizzyingly far below. I could see vehicles and tiny specks that must have been people moving around the hangar below us. I wasn't scared, but my knuckles were white against the railing anyway.
"Brace yourself, sugar," Cid cautioned with a wink, lifting a handheld radio to his mouth. "All right, boys! Let 'er rip!" he crowed.
I thought the engines had been loud before, but as it turned out, I was wrong. The propellers at the back thrummed a low whine as they started to turn, then picked up speed and became a high-pitched shriek, abruptly dying down into a neutral throbbing. If I hadn't been braced, I would've been thrown flat on my back to the deck by the force we accelerated with, as St. Andrew (who hadn't even been holding to the railing) demonstrated.
Cyr released the railing and strode across the wind blasted deck to help him up. "Are you all right?" she asked, reaching down and pulling him up.
"Y-yeah. Just got the wind knocked outta me," St. Andrew gasped, rubbing his ribs. "Thanks, Cyr."
"You're stupid," Cyr told him, pulling him over to the railing. "Be more careful."
Cid leaned over the railing next to me, spreading his arms and laughing wildly. I couldn't help but smile. The wind across the deck was cutting right through my jacket. Glancing down, I stared for a moment at the terrain flashing past beneath us. I averted my eyes quickly. Watching that was going to make me airsick. All my doubts about the time it would take for us to reach Cosmo Canyon had vanished.
"It's incredible, isn't it?" Cyr remarked, coming over to stand beside Cid and I. "I've never done anything like this before."
Cid beamed at her. "Closest you're gonna get to real flying. This'll get your blood flowing like nothin' else. A person's not really alive until they've gone somewhere they shouldn't. Whoever's in charge might not've meant for us to fly, but we'll all be damned if we didn't go and do it!"
For a few, brief moments, I felt completely free and unafraid. How could anything truly bad exist in a world as beautiful as the one stretched out in all directions below me? How could there be people out there, killing innocents for no reason? I sighed, remembering the reality. As wrong as it seemed, it was true, and I had to face it.
Cyr touched my shoulder and I turned away from the railing. "We have to go talk to Tseng," I said, perhaps a little regretfully. Cyr nodded and we headed back down to the war room, to discuss exactly what the plan was.
It was dark, by the time we were above Cosmo Canyon. But then, it had been dark early. It was eleven o'clock. The sky was cloud covered, starless, and moonless. I was thankful. The more darkness, the better. Cid had cut all the engines and lights and we were hovering in silence above the remnants of the base. It was much smaller than it had looked in the satellite pictures, a handful of tents, clustered in a circle, with heavy jeeps and trucks on the outskirts. They must have been preparing to move out. I shuddered. I suppose they only had one thing to do before leaving.
"Which direction should we move in from?" I whispered softly. There were campfires below, winking and flickering in the darkness.
Tseng chuckled softly. He was peering down at the camp, through a pair of infrared binoculars. "You can talk aloud, Rosalind," he advised. "They can't hear us."
I blushed in the darkness, slightly embarrassed. "I'm sorry, sir. It just doesn't feel right if we aren't whispering."
St. Andrew grinned at me. "I know what you mean, Rosalind. So what do you see, Tseng?"
"There are concentrations of heat in the tents. Maybe four or five bodies in each, a total of six tents. There are also four guards around the perimeter. They seem to be moving in a counter-clockwise pattern, changing corners every five minutes. They'll be easy to avoid"
"Anything else?" Rude pressed, cracking his knuckles. If I hadn't known what he was doing, I would've sworn someone had broken bones.
Tseng paused. "A faint spot, in the very center. It hasn't moved."
"Reno," Cyr said softly. "If it's him, he's alive."
I was so relieved my knees were weak. This was a fighting chance. But then, it could all be a trap. Tseng had told us to expect that they were ready for us. I couldn't think of any better way to bait a trap than with the life of a comrade.
"If they have him in the middle, they're giving us a lot of distance to cross," Rafe pointed out.
"But there aren't any guards in the middle," Tseng continued. "So if we make it past the perimeter, we only have to worry about those in the tents.
"And a lot of distance means there will be more places for us to hide," Samantha added. "Which way is the wind blowing from?"
Cid, who was waiting with us as we finalized our plan, licked his finger and tested the wind. "South...a bit south east," he answered.
Samantha peered down over the railing at the camp below us. "So we should approach from the north and the west. Tseng, what's the cover like on that side?"
"Umm." Tseng focused his binoculars. "Decent. No better or worse than on the other sides. There's a pit in the center, with clear circle all around it, about a ten-yard radius. We're going to be completely exposed in those areas."
"What about the terrain?"
"The north side is backed by a bit of a ridge. Otherwise, this is a relatively flat area. Probably why they decided to make camp here."
Samantha's expression grew intent. "How high is the ridge, would you guess?"
"Maybe thirty yards above the camp," Tseng responded. "Why?"
Samantha smiled icily and touched the stock of her rifle, slung over her shoulder. "I'll be up there, covering you. I live for this."
Tseng nodded. "Sounds good. Take Rafe with you. He's not exclusively a fist fighter."
"Tseng!" Rafe exclaimed, flushing slightly. "You said you wouldn't say anything!"
"About you being a world-class sniper?"
Tseng clapped a hand over his mouth, feigning shock. "Whoops. Slip of the tongue. So sorry."
Cyr laughed softly. "It's all right, Rafe. It's important to have many talents. I want to be in one of the vehicles."
We had the two SUVs from before in the cargo bay. Black, armored, electric vehicles, specifically for stealth operations. Each ran on a hybrid Mako-Nicad battery and moved almost silently. Cyr and Rod would each have one, on the west and north sides of the camp.
"Rod, you'll be up on the ridge with Samantha and Rafe. It looks like it has a passable route up. Nothing the SUV can't handle, at least."
Rod nodded once and grunted. I think he felt that this was just like any other mission. It wasn't.
"Cyr and I will be on the west side in the other SUV. When you pull out, you pull towards us. I'll be coordinating your movements," Tseng told us, passing around microphones and earpieces. He gave me an extra set. "For Reno," he explained, pressing it into my hand. "Rosalind, you're with St. Andrew and Rude. You'll be handling the actual recovery. Think you can manage that?"
An electric shiver ran down my spine. Adrenaline was already flowing through my veins. I nodded once, crisply. "Yes, sir."
"Good. Cid, get us ready to land. Put us down about a mile from their base and be up in the air when we move. If I call you, I want you ready to drop smoke bombs."
"Right, Tseng. I hate doin' missions with you people. It's always such goddamned risky business. You watch yourselves," Cid said huskily, firmly grasping Tseng's hand. "And you bring that dumb kid back. If he's lost one of my jets, I'll break his goddamned legs."
Tseng nodded. "Thank you, Cid."
Cid nodded and turned away, hunching his shoulders and heading down to the bridge. We all remained standing on deck, waiting quietly for the airship to start to move.
"Well, this is it, then," Tseng said quietly. "We're running a pretty big risk here. You all know this. It's entirely possible that we'll all be killed. There needs to be a limit to how far we go with this thing."
No one answered. I, for one, didn't want to let there be a limit. As bad as it sounded, and even though I knew Reno would hate the thought, I wanted to do everything it took to get him back, no matter what the risk to myself, or my comrades. I had no license to be putting their lives on the line, but if they wanted to go as far as possible, I knew I would be right there with them.
"I'll go as far as it takes," Rude announced firmly. "Reno would do it for me."
He had done it for me. "So will I," I added.
Cyr nodded. "And me."
St. Andrew glanced at Cyr. "Hell. I've taken bullets for people I didn't even like. You cross the line, you go the distance. I'm there."
Rod didn't say anything. Nor did Samantha and Rafe. I didn't begrudge them for it. After all, I couldn't ask them to risk their lives any further than they thought necessary.
"It's agreed then, that if we lose you four, we'll pull out. Are you all right with that?" Tseng asked.
I hesitated. I wasn't, but I nodded anyway. Beneath me, the airship started to drift gently westward. We were coming down to the wire. I added my muttered, "Yes, sir" to the chorus of responses.
"Good. Let's head to the cargo bay."
We proceeded down in the heavy, oppressive silence that comes just before a mission like this. Talking about the fact that something could go terribly, terribly wrong made what we were facing all the more real.
The cargo bay was dim and quiet, except for the soft noises of the engines that we'd all grown accustomed to during the trip. The airship had started its almost silent descent while we were heading down and my heart was hammering in my chest.
I got into the back of the SUV, with St. Andrew and Rude. Cyr got into the driver's seat, Tseng in the passenger's, with his laptop on his lap. "Your microphones each have locaters in them. I have you all coded into my laptop and I'll superimpose your positions over a map of their base. I'm going to ping each of you now and check that each transmitter is working, all right?"
No one said anything. I guess the silence must have been getting to Cyr, because she twisted in her seat and looked at me. "Rosalind?"
"We're going to get through this. Because you and I have yet to kick the shit out of Rufus, all right?"
I laughed. "Right, Cyr."
St. Andrew glanced up from loading and attaching a silencer to his handgun. "Hey, that sounds like fun. Can I help?"
Cyr smiled at him. "Of course. I would like you to. Rude, what about you?"
Rude pulled on a pair of weighted leather gloves and smacked a fist into his palm a few times. "I would like a few good cracks at him, I think," he agreed.
"Hey, me too!" Samantha called over the radio at the front of the car. Apparently the two cars are linked. "Count me in!"
"Right, so it's established. When we're through with this, we go assassinate the President's son," Rafe declared over the radio.
Tseng smiled slightly, not looking up from his laptop. "You really shouldn't be talking like that," he cautioned.
"We aren't Turks, Tseng," St. Andrew reminded him. "We're freelance assassins right now."
Tseng rolled his eyes. "Yes, and when we get back, Veld is going to refuse to hire us all back for pulling a stunt like this. We'll all be thrown out on the streets. How am I supposed to feed my family?"
St. Andrew shrugged. "Go back to piracy. That pays good money."
"We'll see," Tseng murmured.
There was a slight jolt as the airship touched down and for a brief moment, for the first time in nine hours, we weren't moving. It was a strange sensation, but it vanished quickly as the cargo bay door dropped open and the SUVs hummed to life, Rod's pulling out ahead of us and speeding out into the darkness, reflective taillights glinting briefly in the light of the cargo bay, before vanishing as they headed north.
Adjusting a pair of nightvision goggles, Cyr put the car in gear and pressed the gas pedal, accelerating down the ramp out of the airship and speeding across the plains towards the base. She would slow to a crawl and stop within fifty yards of the first tent. Needless to say, our headlights were off.
I took out my handgun and ensured it was silenced and loaded, then returned it to my holster. With any luck, I wouldn't have to use it. This mission wasn't about fighting. It was about getting in and getting out, without getting any of our people killed.
Before I knew it, Cyr had slowed the car down and stopped it. "This is as close as I think I can get," she whispered. "The camp is in sight."
Tseng pressed a button on the car's dash. "Rod? Are you in position?"
"Yes," was Rod's brief answer.
"Good." Tseng turned the radio down. "All right, Rude, Rosalind, St. Andrew. This is it. Good luck, and for god's sake, be careful. It could very well be a trap."
Rude quietly opened the side door and climbed out. "Yes, sir. Rosalind, you go first. We want you in the pit. St. Andrew and I will flank you, and if there's any trouble, we'll come running, got me?"
I nodded and stretched. "Yes, sir."
"All right. Go on ahead."
Cyr caught my arm as I moved past her window. "The guards are coming," she whispered. "Hold, for just a minute. I'll let you go when it's time for you to move."
I nodded, silent. Cyr peered intently into the darkness for a few minutes, then gave my arm a squeeze and released me. I walked forward silently, moving straight in the darkness. Dim light was cast from the campfires in the camp, but these were dying down. My eyes started to adjust and I began to keep to the long shadows, cast by the tents and the vehicles around the perimeter. I crept forward, dropping into a crouch as I got closer to the light. Rude and St. Andrew would be close behind me
I reached the ring of tents. The camp was absolutely still and silent. I could see the pit, ten yards ahead of me in the center of the ring. The only other thing in the vicinity was an old, beat up army jeep. I swallowed nervously. Jeep or not, it was terribly exposed. I lifted my wrist mike to my lips. "You...uh...have me covered, right Jill?" I asked, using the code names we'd decided on and speaking very softly.
"Of course. Don't worry. I have an infrared scope trained on the camp. If anyone gets near you, I'll radio. Or Tseng will. Don't worry."
This was all I needed. At this point, it was do or die.
I crept to the edge of the pit at the center of the camp. "Sir?" I called softly to the vague person shape at the bottom. "Sir, can you hear me?"
There was no response. Not the slightest flicker of movement or any sound at all. I bit my lower lip hard, until I tasted blood. "Sir, please..."
I felt along the ground at the side of the pit for a small pebble, and tossed it in. I heard it hit bottom, but still, nothing.
"Reno?" I tried again, a little louder. "Reno, sir, if you can hear me..."
I've never felt a more penetrating fear than what I felt that night, in the dark and silence. The starless, moonless night I'd been so thankful for earlier was starting to be frightening. It's a trap, I thought. He's dead, and it's a trap, and now Avalanche will kill us all. And it was all my fault.
"Oh sir, if you're dead, I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive myself..." I whispered, on the verge of bursting into tears. It was only the fact that I was in the middle of the Avalanche base camp that stopped me.
I looked down into the hole. It wasn't all that deep, not much more than nine feet down and about nine across. A rope was coiled and tied to a stake at the side of the pit and I pushed it in, so I could climb back out when I needed to. I had to go down. It was the only way I could be sure. I couldn't leave without knowing for sure. I wasn't even sure I'd be able to leave then. For all I knew, there was an Avalanche assassin waiting for me in the darkness. So I steeled myself, swung my legs over the edge, and dropped down.
I landed softly, making no noise, but it was too dark to see anything in the pit. I got down on my hands and knees and groped blindly around the hard dirt floor. I crept forward slowly, feeling a knot of fear deep in my stomach as I got further and further away from the rope, my lifeline in the dark. I had reached the middle and was almost considering turning back, when the moon broke through the clouds.
I don't think I've ever been so happy for light in my life. It was pale and wan, but after the pitch darkness, it was enough. "Sir!" I cried softly, crawling to the far side of the circular pit.
When I first saw him, I was sure he was dead. It was a combination of the stillness, the silence, the whiteness of the moonlight, and the hollow feeling of despair that had already settled in my chest. I felt the beginnings of tears in my eyes as I reached out to touch his hand. I was sure I was going to cry. I was also sure I didn't care if I woke the whole damn camp.
I jerked back when I felt warmth in his skin. I didn't believe it. I didn't want to believe it, because it couldn't possibly be true. "Sir?" I whispered urgently, sitting down in the dirt and feeling for his shoulder. I slid my hand across his collarbone to his throat, feeling for a pulse. It was there; faint and weak, but still even and steady. "Sir, wake up please."
I wasn't pleading anymore. It was a request. This was business now and I had an objective. I touched the button on the earpiece and brought the mouthpiece in my cuff close to my lips. "Papa Bear, this is Goldilocks," I whispered softly, hearing the static in my ear as the supersensitive microphone broadcast my voice over the radio channel. "I've reached the objective."
"Thank god, Goldie," Tseng breathed. "Status?"
"I think he'll live, sir," I answered. Stable, but not going anywhere fast. "Where's Mama Bear?"
I heard Rude grunt angrily in my ear. "This code is not goddamn funny. I'm over the hills and far away."
He was close and ready. "Good. Ready to go home, Mama?"
Rude grunted again in the affirmative. "Whenever you are, Goldilocks."
"All right." I flicked my radio off for the moment and knelt close to Reno, shaking his shoulder gently. "C'mon, sir, wake up..." I encouraged softly.
I touched his arm and he flinched visibly, shrinking away and half-opening his eyes. I moved my hand away immediately. I didn't know how, but he must have hurt his arm at some point. "Sir?"
I smiled. "Right here, sir."
"Rookie, I'm going to close my eyes and count to ten and when I look again, you'd better be gone, because I told you not to come here!"
If he'd been better, he would've been yelling at me. He wouldn't care if he woke the whole damn camp either. As he was, I could barely hear him. I could tell he was angry, but I had no intention of leaving. "Well, I'm here now, sir, so I might as well stay. And to be fair, you didn't explicitly tell me not to come."
Reno groaned weakly. "Rookie, please. You know what I meant... Why'd you come here? You're being stupid and stubborn..."
"You're rubbing off on me, sir," I answered blithely. "Now, let me see your arm. Is it broken?"
There was another hiss of static in my ear. "Heads up, Goldie, there are wolves headed your way," I heard Rude whisper.
"How many, Mama?" I asked, switching my radio on again and glancing up anxiously.
"Only two, Goldie. I could send in Baby Bear, if you'd like..."
I heard St. Andrew groan in disapproval. Apparently he wasn't exactly thrilled with the code names, either.
"Too risky, Mama," Tseng disagreed "If they have to, Jack and Jill will take care of it."
"What do I do?" I asked. I was blind in the pit. The moon had covered the clouds again and I didn't know what side the Avalanche members would be coming from, or when. All I could rely on was the information from my colleagues.
"They're approaching from the west. Your best chance is to press up against that wall and stay still," Rude advised.
"If that's my best chance, I don't like it very much," I grumbled.
I felt Reno's hand brush my knee in the dark. "Rookie? What's up?"
"There are guards coming, sir," I informed him, remembering he'd only been hearing my end of the conversation.
I heard the dread in his voice and grasped his good hand tightly. "It'll be all right, sir."
"Rookie, get out now."
I shook my head. "No, sir. I can't. They'll see me if I try to leave. I have to hide here."
"Hide here? It's a goddamn hole. There is nowhere to hide!"
"Shut up, sir. Your negative attitude isn't helping." I crawled over to the other side of the pit and pressed my back against the dirt wall. It might have been just me, but I thought it sloped inward at the top, creating a slight overhang above me. This was good. I needed all the help I could get. I heard voice above me, coming closer, and touched a finger to my lips, looking across the pit at Reno.
He'd slumped back to the ground again, his left arm cradled against his chest and his face hidden by the shadows. I recognized the posture; he was playing dead. I felt a sick pity in my chest for him. Even this far away I could feel he was scared. "It'll be okay, sir," I said softly, then fell silent and pressed up against the wall as I heard footsteps above me and flickering torchlight illuminated the pit.
"Hey, Shinra," a low voice called, whistling. "C'mon, Turk, look alive."
"Is he alive?" another voice, a girl's, asked.
"He's fine. He's just faking. Watch."
I jumped as whoever was speaking flung the torch into the hole. I shied away from the light and Reno did what any trained Turk would've done and reacted, rolling away from the flaring torch and twisting his injured arm. I flinched and closed my eyes when I heard him scream.
"God, we've got to get him out of here," I heard Tseng murmur angrily in my ear. "They'll kill him."
The man above me laughed. "See, Jess? Pathetic Turk can't take a little pain."
"Biggs, that was a nasty thing to do..."
Biggs snorted contemptuously. "He's worthless. Sold his life to killing the Planet. His kind don't deserve to live." Biggs crouched down and I pressed my back up against the wall. "You know, Turk, if I weren't on guard duty I'd come down there and beat the living daylights out of you. Maybe I will yet. Jessie, keep an eye out. I won't be long."
"Oh, Biggs, don't..." Jessie whispered anxiously. "We'll get in so much trouble..."
I saw Biggs sit down at the edge of the pit, toying with the idea of jumping down. I knew for sure that if he did come down, I'd kill him and if I killed him, the Jessie girl would wake the entire camp. "Even if we did, I think it'd be worth it..."
"Listen to your girlfriend, Avalanche," I heard Reno hiss, and looked across the pit to him. He'd managed to push himself up on one elbow and was glaring at Biggs with a look of pure hatred. "What makes you think I couldn't kill you if you came down here?"
Biggs quickly pulled one of his legs up; evidently surprised Reno had started to get up. "You couldn't touch me."
"Oh, sir..." I whispered as Reno struggled to his knees, then stood with a hand against the wall to keep his balance. The effort must have nearly killed him, but he didn't want Biggs down here.
"Couldn't I?" I closed my eyes as he took a few steps forward, praying he didn't fall. I knew he was bluffing. I was close enough to see that a strong breeze would've knocked him over, never mind an actual fight. "C'mon down here, Biggs. You don't think I could kill you?"
"Biggs..." Jessie whispered. "Let's go, please. The elders will hear about this."
Biggs pulled his legs up and started to stand, slowly. "You're a worthless murderer, Turk," he called, trying to preserve some dignity as he backed away from the edge.
Reno laughed coldly. "I swear to god, Avalanche, one day I'll kill you. I hope you're happy knowing you'll die at my hands."
"It's a moot point, Turk, because you'll be dead by midnight," Biggs answered, but I heard the doubt in his voice. He was still backing up.
"Then I guess I'll have to do it soon, won't I?"
"Biggs, let's go!" Jessie insisted, and I heard footsteps going quickly away from the edge of the pit. I was moving before I even realized it, my hands against Reno's chest as his knees gave out, on the ground next to him when he fell.
He grinned at me a little feebly. "Hey, rookie, ease off..."
"Oh, sir, suppose he'd come down here?" was all I could think to whisper. "I'd have had to kill him."
"You wouldn't have had any trouble. He's just some stupid kid, talking big in front of his girlfriend."
I started to undo the knot in the tie around my neck to use for a sling. "He still could've done some damage before I'd finished him. You can barely stand, sir, I hope you didn't honestly think you could take him."
"W-well...maybe not honestly. But hey, he didn't come down here..."
I bit my lower lip and sat down on the ground, my free hand still against Reno's back. "Your bluffing makes me nervous, sir," I sighed, pulling my tie out from around my neck.
"Hey, rookie, why're you taking your clothes off? This is neither the time, nor the place for..."
I rolled my eyes. "Hold still, sir," I instructed, gently looping my tie around the wrist of his injured arm and tying it behind his neck. Inadvertently, I found my eyes crossing his bare chest, ribs faintly evident beneath his skin, his entire chest covered by dark bruises and deep cuts, some of which were starting to look infected. "Dear god...sir, have they been beating you?"
The weary grin Reno had been forcing slipped a little and I saw the pain in his eyes. "Y-yeah...rookie, you've gotta get out of here. They're getting sick of me. You heard the guy, they're gonna kill me soon and if they find you...."
"Well, then I guess we'd better go, right, sir?" I moved carefully and pulled his good arm over my shoulder. "Think you can get up?"
"Maybe, rookie, but the thing is; I won't. Get out of here, or I'll report you."
I heard Tseng's voice in my ear. "Coming through loud and clear on your wrist mike, Rosalind. Ignore that, by the way. He's got no one to report you to. I had him quit this morning, just in case. See if you can't get him to come with you."
I attempted to get him to stand up, but he's got about fifty pounds of weight on me and he didn't want to go anywhere. "Sir, come on. Please, we came all this way to get you out of here..."
"We?" Reno echoed suspiciously, paling slightly. "Rookie, who's we?"
"Oh, dear," Tseng murmured. "Be careful how you tell him, he won't like this..."
"Uh...just a few people, sir. I couldn't get out here all on my own..." I hedged.
"A few. A few people? Damn it, rookie, who?"
I put my hand against Reno's chest, feeling his breathing getting heavy and his heart speeding up. He obviously wasn't up for much stress. "Sir, don't get worked up. Please, you aren't doing so well."
"W-who'd you bring, Rosalind?" Reno demanded, grabbing my wrist.
"It's not like I had to browbeat anyone into coming...everyone volunteered, sir. I brought Rude and Rafe...Samantha and Rod, St. Andrew..."
Reno's hand started shaking. "God, rookie, that's six people."
I winced. "That's...uh...not all, sir."
Reno groaned and closed his eyes. "Tell me, rookie."
"Cyr and Tseng came too. A-and we had Mr. Highwind come for air support. So...it's actually eight people."
"Nine people," Reno corrected faintly. "Nine of my closest colleagues and friends in the middle of the Avalanche base camp. God, rookie..."
I sighed. "Well, it's not like all of them are here. Like it or not, sir, we're nine people who aren't leaving without you."
"Oh, nice touch," Tseng approved. "Mama, are you clear? We want you moving in."
"Roger, Papa," I heard Rude answer. "C'mon, Baby."
I brought my mike to my mouth again and stood up. "We're waiting for you, Mama Bear."
"Who're you talking to?" Reno demanded.
"Just Rude, sir. Now, please, stop moving around. You're hurt worse than we expected."
Reno sighed heavily and cradled his left arm against his chest, ducking his head and pulling off the sling making to hand it back to me. "Get out of here, rookie. I don't think I can get out of this hole, never mind this camp. Go back without me, I'll just slow you down. Now, I'm not gonna ask you again; please, get out of here."
"Well, that's good, sir, because I'm not going to tell you 'no' again," I answered coolly. "We came to get you, sir. There aren't a lot of circumstances that would make us leave."
"Jesus Christ, rookie. What the hell's it gonna take to get you to leave me here?"
I pretended to consider this. "Well, we agreed before we left that if half of us die in the attempt, we'll pull out. Of course, it has to be me, Rude, St. Andrew, and Cyr. If all of us are killed and we still haven't got you out of here, the others might leave. Other than that..."
"Rookie, leave. That's an order."
"Overruled," Tseng murmured in my ear.
I crouched down and retied the sling around Reno's wrist. "Tseng trumps that order, sir. Besides, I have an explicit command from him not to leave without you." I brushed my hair back out of my eyes. "Listen, sir. I can tell you're trying very hard to be brave and noble and that, but really, it doesn't help. We all knew the risks when we came here, we all knew what we were getting into, and we'd all rather die in the attempt to rescue a friend, than watch him be killed and know we did nothing. This isn't about what you want, sir. This is about the guilt we'd all feel if we gave up on one of our people without a fight."
Reno stared at me for a long time. I wished he would make up his mind. We didn't have much time. "All right," he agreed finally.
"Thank you, sir," I told him sincerely, bringing my mike to my mouth again. "All right, Mama Bear, Baby Bear, I need you down here. Jack and Jill, have you got us covered?"
"Roger, Goldilocks," Rafe confirmed. "Your bears are clear."
"We're moving in," St. Andrew informed me. "How deep is the pit?"
I glanced up. "Maybe three yards. Be careful coming down."
I helped Reno get his good arm around my shoulder, and then gently eased him to his feet. He grimaced, keeping his arm tight against his chest. "Thanks."
"Of course, sir. How did your arm get broken, sir?"
"Hah. They threw me in here, right after they'd caught me. That's an embarrassing story for later. Didn't bother to post a guard, because they figured nine-foot walls'd keep me in. Naturally, they were wrong. Three feet isn't that much of a jump if you run at it, and it's not hard to pull yourself up once you've caught the edge. Of course, I could've tried it at midnight, rather than mid day, because of course six people saw and one of them threw me back in before I had a chance to get my footing. Broke my arm then and was pretty much useless after that."
I winced. "Oh, sir, I...I'm sorry that happened to you, sir."
"I'll heal," Reno assured me.
St. Andrew appeared at the edge of the pit. "Hey," he called softly. "I'm coming down."
Easily, he lowered himself down the rope and grinned at Reno once he'd reached the ground. "Not dead, eh?"
"Doesn't seem so."
"Well, good for you. Let's see what we can't do about getting you out of here, hmm?"
Reno nodded. "Sounds good to me."
Rude dropped down and tapped my shoulder. "Climb out, Rosalind. St. Andrew and I will get Reno up. Can you do this one-handed, partner?"
"You just watch me," Reno declared.
I managed a smile in the darkness as I climbed up the rope. Weakened he may have been, but he was still cocky as ever. I looked around quickly when I got to the top. Still clear. "All right, I'm ready."
"Ok. Here we go." I heard Rude grunt and reached down, catching Reno's hand and pulling him up. He was shaking a little and his breath caught when he got up on the edge of the pit. I guess this was the most exertion he'd had in the past few days.
"Sir? Are you okay?" I asked softly.
Reno nodded briefly. "Y-yeah. I'm fine. Let's go." He started to get up, but stopped and nearly lost his balance, sitting down heavily in the dirt. "Just gimme a minute."
I heard Tseng sigh loudly in my ear. "Rosalind, give him the radio set you brought. I want to have a word. Samantha, are we still clear?"
"There's no movement that I can see," Samantha confirmed.
Automatically, I dug in my pocket and pulled out the microphone and earpiece. "Tseng wants to talk to you, sir," I explained, clipping the mike to his collar.
Reno nodded, putting the earpiece in and cupping a hand around it. "Yeah?"
"Can you give me a concise summary of what you're capable of right now? On a scale of one to ten, how are you doing? If you're not going to able to walk out of here, let us know and we'll work something out. You've been in a hole for three days. It's perfectly understandable that you aren't quite at your prime. So are you closer to one, or ten?"
Reno didn't answer immediately. I felt bad for him. "I'm maybe a four," he said finally. "But don't send anyone else in. I can get out of here."
"Are you sure?"
Samantha cut in before he had a chance to answer. "Two guards, heading right for you!"
I froze. This was exactly the kind of thing that would ruin the whole operation. I reached to my side and started to draw my gun. "Stay down, sir..." I started to say, when Reno grabbed my shoulder and firmly shoved me into the pit.
One of the things we're trained to do is take a hit without making any noise. Nevertheless, if I'd fallen and broken my arm like Reno had, I don't think I could've kept quiet. Thankfully, I landed on St. Andrew, breaking my fall and taking him to the floor of the pit in a heap. From above, my tie, still knotted, flew down and landed on my face and I felt two soft impacts on my body, the earpiece and microphone.
"Rosalind?" Samantha exclaimed, sounding panicked. "Rosalind, where'd you go? What happened?"
"He..." I started, but Rude crouched down, grasping my shoulder and cutting me off.
"Quiet!" he hissed sternly and there was abrupt silence over the channel. The clouds passed in front of the moon again and shadows plunged over us.
St. Andrew gave my arm a firm squeeze, and I understood it to mean I wasn't to move. I don't think I could have if I'd wanted to. I was absolutely paralyzed with fear. This was the last thing in the world that we wanted to happen.
"Hey!" I heard a shout from one of the guards above and the pounding of footsteps. A flashlight beam cut through the darkness above us.
"Oh, no," Samantha moaned softly. "No, no, no..."
Rafe drew a sharp breath. "Christ...for god's sake, Reno, stay down," he muttered. I couldn't decide which would be worse, watching from a hundred yards away, or listening from ten.
"Hold it right there!" I heard another shout, an impact, then a thud and a muffle groan. I cringed and decided that listening was much, much worse.
"Shit. Biggs said he was causing trouble," one of the guards said disbelievingly. "I didn't really think...shit. You gotta admit, he's pretty goddamn tough if he got outta there with a broken arm."
The other guard grunted. "You never can tell with Turks."
"Samantha, no!" Rafe hissed suddenly, static crackling in my ear. "We can't shoot!"
"Keep your rifle down, Samantha," Tseng ordered tersely. It must have been even worse for him. He was all the way outside of the camp, powerless.
"Let me shoot, Tseng," Samantha begged. "Please, they're hurting him..."
"No. Wait," Tseng said shortly. "He'll deal with it. Pain is part of the job description."
Samantha fell silent. One of the guards cleared his throat and looked up at the moon. "What's the time?"
"Eleven-thirty," the other answered. "Should we throw him back in? Or kill him now?"
St. Andrew tensed beneath me (I was still sprawled across his lap) and I felt Rude's grip on my shoulder tighten.
"Fuhito said we were supposed to wait until midnight," the first guard said uncertainly.
The second guard snorted. "Fuhito also said we were supposed to fill in the hole and bury him alive. I dunno about you, but that's gonna take a hell of a long time, and a hell of an effort. I don't feel like shifting two tons of earth."
"But Fuhito said..."
"Fuhito had two things in mind. He wants the Turk to suffer, and he doesn't want the Shinra to find his body. So we'll accommodate that."
The first guard seemed uncertain. "But how...?"
"We'll toss him in the reservoir. It's a mile out of camp, so they wouldn't look there...and even if they did, it's not like they'd find him."
"What if Fuhito finds out?" the first guard asked nervously. "He'd punish us."
"Fuhito's not going to find out, because you're not going to say anything. We'll stick him in the jeep and drive out to the reservoir and no one has to know. Here's some rope. Now tie his hands."
"All right..." I heard the first guard crouch down in the dirt, and then Reno cried out weakly. I'd thought they might've knocked him out, but evidently he'd just been stunned.
"Tseng, let me shoot," Samantha pleaded again. "I'll take one and Rafe can take the other. Please..."
"No, Samantha," Tseng refused. "If you alert them to our presence, all our lives are forfeit. They've made enough noise that others will notice if they're suddenly dead. We'll move when I say so."
I could barely stand it. I understood the reasons behind Tseng's commands, but I still wanted Samantha to shoot these monsters. Tears sprang into my eyes as the engine of the Jeep roared to life and the vehicle sped away. We'd come too close to lose now.
"Shit," Rude said softly, helping me up. St. Andrew didn't say anything.
+"All right," Tseng said briskly, his voice cutting through our dejected silence like a knife. "Cid, get ready. When I give you the word, drop the smoke bombs. Then a canister of teargas, but not until I say. Rude, Rosalind, St. Andrew, get out of that hole. Cyr and I are coming for you. Samantha, Rafe, get back in the car and keep an eye out for that Jeep. When you see it, get after it. We'll be right behind you."
"Yes, sir," I answered, automatically, and I heard Samantha and St. Andrew do the same. I grabbed the rope and pulled myself up out of the hole, reaching down and helping St. Andrew up. Rude got up on his own.
"Smoke bombs, Cid," Tseng ordered shortly.
"Roger," I heard Cid's answer faintly, I guess from the radio in Tseng's car.
I looked up. I could just barely make out the silhouette of the airship against the midnight black, starlit sky. There was a faint whistling as two dark objects plummeted from the sky, impacting with loud bangs on either side of the pit and breaking open. Smoke immediately began to boil from the broken cylinders, rising and spiraling in the gentle night wind.
Behind us, headlights flashed on and Cyr drove up, pulling to a stop beside us. People were starting to poke their heads out of tents and shout for light. "Get in!" she yelled, as St. Andrew heaved the door open and smoke began to swirl around the SUV.
I climbed in, followed closely by Rude, and St. Andrew had barely gotten his footing and still had the door open when Cyr started driving again. He pulled the door firmly shut. We were completely surrounded by dense gray smoke, except for where the high beam headlights cut through the darkness. They were shouting outside, and probably starting to leave their tents.
"Teargas, Cid!" Tseng ordered, bracing his hands against the dash as Cyr accelerated blindly through the camp. "And then get as close as you can to the reservoir.
Cyr floored the gas pedal and we lurched past the perimeter of the camp. One of the perimeter guards ran out and appeared in front of the vehicle, bathed in white in the headlights for a few brief. Cyr didn't even bother to swerve. We hit him head on with a sickening crunch and he was catapulted over the front of the vehicle and behind us, screaming.
We cleared the smokescreen and the terrain became abruptly rougher. I reached up and grasped one of the handles on the ceiling of the cab, holding on tightly.
"Has the jeep passed you yet?" Tseng asked intently into the radio on the dash, staring ahead into the darkness. Far ahead of us, faintly, I could see two points of red light.
"No...Yes! There it goes!" I heard Rafe shout and the tires of the other SUV squealed over the radio as Rod gunned the engine and they tore down the slope of the ridge. Ahead of us, in the light cast by our headlights, the other SUV appeared, veering in front in a cloud of red dust.
"Catch up to them," Tseng ordered curtly.
Cyr nodded and revved the engine again, delivering another burst of speed. The chassis bucked violently up and down as we flew over a patch of rough terrain, and Cyr swerved expertly, righting the skid we'd ended up in.
"How far ahead of us are they?" Tseng demanded.
"They've stopped," Samantha answered, sounding frightened. "We're still almost two minutes away from them."
"Shit," Tseng cursed. "Step on it, Cyr."
Cyr's fingers gripped the steering wheel tightly. "They'll drown him," she said grimly. "Or they'll try to. Those bastards. It isn't enough for them just to kill...no, they have to inflict as much fear and pain as possible before death. They have to drag it out."
Tseng grimaced. "I hate to say it, but the longer it takes, the more time it buys us. I almost wish they'd tried to bury him."
My heart felt like it was collapsing upon itself. Once again, I knew the cognitive side of what Tseng was saying, but emotionally, all I wanted was for this to be over.
We caught up with Rod's SUV as we neared the reservoir. It was a big, deep lake, carved back into the cliffs behind it. The headlights of the jeep illuminated a broad, concrete jetty, jutting out a few feet above the edge of the water. The two guards were standing there, staring down into the water.
The next few seconds were an insane flurry. I barely remember what happened, except for brief sensations of St. Andrew throwing the door open, and the screech of the brakes as each vehicle pulled to a halt, drawing my handgun, and the staccato bursts of gunfire as anyone with a gun opened fire on the two guards. They never stood a chance.
Cyr and Rafe ran to the edge of the jetty and threw themselves into the water. I remember a vague appreciation for the extraordinary grace Cyr dove with as I ran to the edge of the reservoir, leaning over the edge anxiously. I would've fallen in if someone hadn't caught me and pulled me back.
Samantha was beside me, on her hands and knees, staring into the black water, maybe three feet below us. "Please, please, oh please..." she whispered, her voice the only sound in the silence.
Tseng beamed a powerful flashlight down into the water, illuminating a circle of light with a diameter of maybe ten feet. He'd had the sense to grab it before running to the edge of the water with us.
Rude was on my other side-he'd caught my shoulder before I'd fallen, and hadn't let go. His grip tightened as time slipped by. Every second was agony.
Cyr broke the surface, treading water and staring around wildly. Her dark hair clung in wet strings to her face and drifted loosely in the water behind her. I could see in her eyes she was terrified. "Rafe? Rafe!" she called anxiously. "Oh, god..."
There was a splashing outside the circle of light Tseng had cast. He immediately shined it in the direction of the noise and Rafe surfaced, treading water with one hand, the other arm wrapped around Reno's chest, keeping him above water. He wasn't moving.
"Rafe!" Cyr swam over to help him, cutting through the water with strong, easy strokes.
"Hey, over here!" St. Andrew yelled. He'd gone further along the jetty and found a slab of concrete, sloping down into the water, presumably for tanker trucks. He was already at the edge, kneeling by the water. "Can you come this far?"
More light shone from behind as we scrambled along the edge of the jetty. Rod had had the sense to pull one of the SUVs up close and shine the headlights on the water. He pulled up just short of the concrete ramp and got out, coming to wait at the edge with the rest of us.
Rafe and Cyr had managed to get within reach of the ramp and Rude reached down, hauling his partner out of the water and onto solid ground. St. Andrew pulled Cyr up and embraced her tightly. For some reason, she had pressed her face against his chest and was sobbing uncontrollably.
"Damn it. His hands are still tied," Rude muttered, gently laying Reno face down on the cement. Still, he hadn't moved.
"Here." Rod pushed past Samantha, a blade flashing in his hand. He hesitated a brief moment, then braced a hand against Reno's back and sliced through the ropes about his wrists.
Tseng was beside me, kneeling on the ground next to him, and he leaned close, listening intently. "He isn't breathing," he pronounced, almost clinically.
"Shit," Rude cursed again, and pressed both hands flat against his partner's back, compressing his chest.
"Careful!" I exclaimed as water flooded from Reno's mouth and nose. I didn't know it was possible for a person to swallow that much water. I remember thinking that. I also remember marveling at the fact that Reno's eyelashes were short and spiky and reddish-gold, not black like mine, even though I was blonde. I remember noticing that he had the barest sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of his nose, only visible because he was so deathly pale. And I remember that it made me think that he was barely two years older than me, and, if only for that reason, he couldn't die.
"Anything?" Rude asked, and for the first time I heard a note of faint pleading in his voice. I'd never heard so much as a tremor in Rude's voice before.
Tseng shook Reno's shoulder. "Reno? Hey, come on...come on, Reno," he urged. Still, nothing.
"O-oh..." Samantha stammered fearfully. "Cyr? Does anyone know CPR or anything?"
"Hang on a minute," Rafe interrupted, pushing Tseng aside. He pressed a hand against Reno's back, nodded once to himself, then balled his hand into a fist, lifted his arm, and thrust his fist down in a solid punch.
More water, tinged pink this time, left Reno's airway and he coughed once, his body jerking slightly as his chest heaved, then wracked by another paroxysmal spasm of coughing.
Samantha expressed her relief with a bout of hysterical laughter and Tseng gently helped Rude turn Reno over, grasping his shoulder firmly. "Reno?"
His eyes flickered open and then closed again as he drew a shuddering breath. He made a weak attempt to sit up and I immediately moved closer, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and letting him slump against me. He was soaked to the skin and was consequently soaking me, but I didn't care. He couldn't sit up on his own. This was beyond the battered weariness of a few days of imprisonment; this was the sheer exhaustion of near-death.
"How are you doing, Reno?" Tseng pressed.
Reno half-opened his eyes and sighed. "I think I...I'm...ugh...about a one, maybe..." he managed faintly.
"At least you're still on the scale," Tseng grinned, sounding relieved. "All right. Rod, back one of the SUVs as close as you can get to the edge of this ramp and radio Cid to be ready for us. St. Andrew, Samantha, get the back set up for a passenger."
Rod nodded and went to back one of the cars around with Samantha in tow, while St. Andrew gently released Cyr and got up to follow. I still didn't know why she'd lost her cool and broken down like that.
"Cyr, wash your face. Rosalind, just stay like that until we're ready to move out. Rude, you manage Reno," Tseng continued, getting up and straightening the cuffs of his suit. "And good work, Rafe."
Rafe nodded, standing up and stretching. He squinted up at the sky, where the moon had broken through the clouds. "Close one, wasn't it?" he asked of no one in particular, smiling vaguely in the darkness.
I nodded, shifting slightly as Reno pressed his head against my shoulder and closed his eyes again. I could feel his breathing on my neck and rested my cheek against his hair. I wasn't sure if he was conscious or not, but he was breathing and that was good enough. "You probably saved his life. How did you know to...?"
"I used to be a detective, in Junon. We were always chasing suspects down to the docks and they were always throwing themselves in the harbor. There was a lot of drowning and near drowning. When it gets to that point, you have to throw yourself in after them and attempt a rescue, even though a minute ago they might've been trying to kill you. The whole thing played out rather like that. Before you attempt artificial respiration, trying a good, solid hit to the lungs will often get them going again."
Rod had pulled the car up to the launch. Samantha and St. Andrew opened the back up, where normally there would be a hatch, but on this model were two doors, like an ambulance and for the same purpose. These cars are designed by a car company in Midgar to be armored, stealth personnel carriers, with the capacity for search and rescue. Despite being electric, they have massive amounts of power. They're wide-bodied, enough to make them unsafe for city driving, but sturdy over rough terrain, and the seats inside can be moved against the windows to accommodate a space for an incapacitated passenger. The floor of the cab is thickly carpeted and a foam roll can be spread out for the injured party. This was how the inside of the vehicle was set up now.
"All right. Rod, I want you driving the other car. Take Samantha and Rafe with you. Rude, you drive this car and try to go relatively gently. I'll be in the front. Cyr, I want you and St. Andrew in the back with Reno."
"What about me, sir?" I asked, as everybody moved off to their assigned places.
"You're staying with Reno," Tseng assured me, gesturing to the open back of the SUV. "You'll be sitting between the two front seats."
I nodded. "Yes, sir."
Rude bent down and lifted his partner's arm over his shoulder, pulling him to his feet. Reno groaned weakly. "H-hey...w-where...?" he stammered, opening his eyes and looking around. "Rookie...?"
"Just a minute, sir," I called over my shoulder, climbing into the back of the SUV. Between the two front seats, facing backward, was a third seat, right on the ground, with a strap that crossed the chest. I sat down and buckled up. "All right."
St. Andrew climbed in and crouched in the door, helping out as best he could as Rude half-lifted Reno into the back of the back of the vehicle. Gently, he pulled him in and let him settle on the floor, resting his head in my lap.
"Oh, here you are, rookie," Reno mumbled drowsily. "Don't go anywhere."
"I won't, sir."
Rude and Tseng climbed in, as did Cyr. St. Andrew strode quickly to the jetty surrounding the reservoir and kicked the bodies of the Avalanche guards into the water. It was kind of a malicious thing to do, but we all knew why he'd done it. Just when we'd thought things had calmed down, however, gunfire erupted.
"Shit!" St. Andrew swore, flinching and darting back to the SUV, diving into the back. Cyr pulled the doors closed behind him. "Don't they goddamn give up?" he gasped.
Three jeeps full of Avalanche terrorists had come roaring towards the reservoir from the direction of the camp. They were far away, but already firing on us from machine guns mounted on tripods. A bullet ricocheted off the window, bulletproofed as it was, and sent hairline cracks splintering through the windshield.
"All right, Rodney, let's get a move on!" Tseng instructed over the radio, but there was no need to tell Rod twice. The other car sped off before us, away from the reservoir. Rude turned the ignition and we shot off after it.
As unnerving as the clatter of machine gun bullets against an armored vehicle is, I managed to ignore it as Cyr retrieved the first aid kit from the wall and opened it up. "We're going to be bouncing around a lot, I think," she remarked calmly, rifling through the contents of the box. "How's your arm, Reno?"
"Umm. Hurts like all hell," Reno answered groggily, wincing as Cyr crouched down and gently touched his right arm, draped across his chest. "Bad break, I think. God, it hurts."
Cyr reached into the front pocket of her jacket and took out a small vial of red powder. "I'll make it so it doesn't," she assured him, taking a canteen down from the wall and tapping a bit into the mouth. "Sit him up, Rosalind," she instructed.
"Right." Gently, I eased Reno up until he was half-sitting. "All right, sir?" I asked.
Reno nodded briefly, sighing. "My arm's killing me."
"Here, have a drink," Cyr offered, holding out the canteen.
"Cyr, I don't feel like swallowing any more goddamned water," Reno objected wearily, pushing the vessel away with his good hand.
Cyr sighed. "Reno, drink, or I'll pin you down and pour it down your throat."
Reno shuddered. "All right, all right...you're mean, Cyr," he complained, accepting the canteen and taking a drink. "Ugh. And your water tastes just awful..."
Cyr screwed the lid back onto the canteen and put it under her seat. "That would be the tranquilizer," she explained. "You'll be out cold in a few minutes."
"Wh-what? Hey, no, I don't...I don't wanna...I'm just starting to...aww, Cyr..."
"There's the Highwind," Tseng announced, sounding relieved. "We'll be going home soon."
"Home," I repeated reverently, taking Reno's good hand. "Hear that, sir?"
Reno closed his eyes and yawned. "Uh...uh huh..." he agreed. "Rookie?"
"Don't...I...stay here, okay?"
I squeezed his hand gently. "Of course, sir."
"Thanks," Reno sighed and lapsed into silence.
We all moved out of the cargo bay and back to the war room, which Cid had cleared the table out of and converted into a makeshift infirmary. He herded us in and bustled around, fussing like a mother hen.
Cyr had knelt down next to Reno and was helping me make sure he was comfortable. His head was in my lap again, but I was sitting against the wall, so at least I was more comfortable. "Will he be all right?" I asked, biting my lip as Cyr pulled open his jacket and examined the cuts and bruises on his chest.
She nodded and gently touched Reno's shoulder. "He's a little shocky, but he'll be fine once a doctor gets a look at him," she answered. "They really put him through hell."
Cid came over and rubbed the back of his neck. "You all ok? Here, Rosy, you wanna pillow? I'll go get you one...shit, Cyr, you look beat...you wanna lie down, or something? How 'bout Reno? He gonna sleep the whole way? You want more blankets or something? I'll get you those." Cid turned to leave, then stopped, noticing St. Andrew, who'd sat down next to the door, with his hand clamped firmly against his side. "Hey, St. Andrew...you don't' look so hot. You all right?"
I'd felt an odd rush of anger through my body as Cyr hands brushed across Reno's face and she smoothed the hair from his eyes, but it faded quickly when she looked up at St. Andrew. "He's right...you don't look well at all," she observed critically.
"W-well, now that you mention it..." St. Andrew moved his hand from where it was pressed against his side, displaying a spreading bloodstain.
Cyr paled slightly. "Oh, you idiot!" she exclaimed angrily, going over and pulling back St. Andrew's jacket. "Why didn't you say anything?"
St. Andrew winced as Cyr's fingers brushed the wound. "You were busy."
"Not busy enough to ignore you bleeding all over the place! When did this happen?" Cyr demanded.
"When they were shooting at us at the reservoir. It's only a graze...from a ricochet, probably, not even a shot. It just stings," St. Andrew explained, gritting his teeth.
Cyr sighed, exasperated. "I've said it once, and I'll say it again; You. Are. Stupid."
Tseng interrupted, looking up from his laptop, which he'd taken out and was working on. I suppose it's relaxing from him. "Stupid, maybe. But will he be ok?"
"I'm fine, Tseng..." St. Andrew started to get up, but Cyr pushed him firmly back down. "Stay there. You'll just make it worse than it is," she scolded.
"Aww, Cyr..." St. Andrew complained, then paused. "It's not...it's not bad or anything, is it?" he asked apprehensively, pressing his hand against his side again.
Cyr's expression softened slightly. "No, it isn't bad," she answered, gently. "I just wish you'd said something. I'll bandage it for you, all right?"
"Y-yeah, all right. Thanks, Cyr."
I shifted slightly and tilted my head back, closing my eyes. I needed sleep. We all did. The stress of a mission like this was more exhausting than the actual physical exertion required. We'd had a lot of close calls. I glanced down at Reno and hesitantly moved my hand, resting it against his chest, then took a deep breath and closed my eyes again.
It was a fitful drowse. Every once in a while, I felt a cold, paralyzing rush of fear that he'd stop breathing again. It was an illogical fear and I knew it wasn't likely, but that had been the scariest single minute in my life and I didn't want go through it ever again. In the end, though, exhaustion won out and I dropped off to sleep for the rest of the trip home.
All That Glitters Is Cold 2 Fanfic Competition
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