Chapter Six: Gradual Awareness

Elena was curled up in the chair at Tseng's bedside, checking the messages on her PHS when she looked up to find Rufus Shin-ra in the doorway. So he'd finally decided to make time to come visit his wounded employee… She quickly pocketed the device and rose to attention, nodding respectfully and trying to hide her annoyance.

"Good afternoon, sir," she said, hoping she still looked reasonably professional. She hadn't changed her uniform since the previous morning, and was certain her eyes were glassy and bloodshot from lack of sleep. She appreciated the cot she'd been provided with, but it was next to impossible to sleep with everything going on.

Rufus nodded dismissively and slowly entered the room, looking around as if disgusted to find himself in such surroundings. He wrinkled his nose and briefly studied the various machines and monitors before absently adjusting his white suit jacket. He finally made his way to Tseng's bedside a moment later and peered down at him with a frown.

"He's not even awake yet?" he asked, raising an eyebrow. Elena's eyes widened, and it took all of her self control to answer politely.

"He has been on and off, sir," she informed him, trying not to lose her temper. She was certain Reno had briefed him on the seriousness of Tseng's condition. "He's very badly injured and in a lot of pain. They only just reduced his sedation, so he's still sleeping most of the time. The doctor said that's the best thing for him."

"I see… I would like to speak with him regarding his assignment, however." Rufus reached out as if to shake Tseng by the shoulder, and Elena gasped in horror.

"No, don't! You'll hurt him!" she cried, halting Rufus in mid motion. "He's not supposed to be moved or disturbed… uh, sir."

Rufus glared at her with his cold blue eyes, then sighed heavily. "How am I supposed to know what went wrong at the temple if he just lays there napping?" he demanded, staring down at Tseng almost accusingly. "It's been several days now."

Elena felt a surge of protectiveness rise within her, stepping closer to Tseng's bedside. When she spoke again she almost didn't recognize her own voice. "Forgive me, sir, but I think his health is a lot more important than the assignment."

Rufus snorted, favoring her with a look of disdain. "Whatever. I'll have to come back later, then, I suppose. How inconvenient... I'm a very busy man. Tell him he is to contact me as soon as he wakes up." With that, he spun on his heel and stormed from the room, quickly vanishing from sight.

Elena was left nearly shaking with rage, stunned by Rufus' cluelessness and lack of compassion. Did he really think Tseng was in any condition to sit up and make a phone call? He could barely open his eyes! How could Rufus care so little about his long time employee's well being, especially when he'd often risked his life for him as his personal bodyguard? Tseng inspired such loyalty in others, and all of the Turks were devastated by his injury. Yet his own boss seemed to view it all as a minor set back, more of an inconvenience to his business than anything else. It only made her more determined than ever to remain by his side. Someone needed to be there who saw him as a person, who cared for him outside his job responsibilities. He was so much more than just her boss, and she was not going to let anyone hurt him.

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He existed in a haze of confusion and pain, lost in a place between consciousness and dreams. Lights, voices, distant sensations… the pain… They all raced around him as his body was held captive by an invisible force. There were long periods of darkness and black emptiness, shattered by moments of gripping terror. Was he still alive, or had he died and gotten trapped in a kind of limbo? …Was this hell?

He grew aware of distant voices, slowly drifting closer to the surface of consciousness but unable to hear the words. His memory began to awaken, bits and pieces of recent events drifting through his mind. The temple… the Black Materia… a man with a sword and a sudden, crippling agony that had yet to cease. Falling… the blood… a familiar face and the warmth of a healing spell. Darkness followed, and when he'd next opened his eyes…

Elena…

It was her voice he heard now, but when he tried to reach it he remained lost and alone. Even when she seemed so far away, the memory of her face that flashed through his mind eased the worst of his pain. Was she there with him somewhere, or was he imagining it? Was she safe? He had to know.

Tseng gradually forced his eyes open, frustrated by how much energy it took to lift his heavy lids even half way. Why was everything so difficult… His body refused to obey his commands as if paralyzed, and he fought not to panic as he blinked to clear his vision. He'd been badly injured, he knew, and something was very wrong with his body. There was so much raw pain, and he felt as if he'd been weighed down by heavy stones and cast into the sea. A thick fog clung to his thoughts, and he struggled even to think. Nothing made sense, but he was desperate to find her.

He managed to focus his eyes on the ceiling above his bed, suddenly remembering he was in a hospital somewhere... He stared at the tiles and took a deep breath, a burning agony instantly tearing through his chest. He cringed and moaned quietly, trying to lift his arms but unable to do so. Gods, it hurt so much… Tseng had experienced plenty of pain in his life, but nothing like this. It was searing and all consuming, so intense that his vision went white and he nearly faded back into the depths. He grit his teeth and waited for it to pass, and after endless moments of suffering the pain returned to its previous level. His chest… there was something wrong with his chest. The man with the sword… the laughter of one who had lost his mind… and then the pain. He'd been struck with the sword! Tseng relaxed a bit as the pieces slowly fell into place, his condition easier to tolerate once he understood the cause. His thoughts gradually became clearer, but his body remained hopelessly broken and just beyond his control.

The room was quiet aside from the endless beeping sounds of what he assumed were medical devices, but he sensed that he was not alone. He concentrated and shifted his eyes to his right, just barely able to turn his head. When his gaze settled on the figure standing before the tall window across the room, the strange feeling in his chest had little to do with his injury.

Elena stood with her back to him, unaware that he was awake and watching her. The sun was just beginning to set, casting her in a soft orange glow. He could not see her face, wishing she would turn and notice him but unable to find the strength to speak. Tseng was relieved to find her unharmed and could not take his eyes away from the sight. She was his responsibility, and he was glad he had left her behind in Wutai. Gods, if she had been with him and gotten hurt, or worse…

Tseng was vaguely aware that his concern for her was more than that of a boss for his young protégé, and even in his current state he felt his face grow hot. He tried so hard to remain cool and detached, to see her as no different than any other Turk. He'd never had a problem doing so before, and while female Turks were extremely rare she was not the first. Yet there had been an instant attraction that surprised him, and time had only complicated the situation and left him confused and frustrated. He was a professional, the leader of the elite department. There was no room for such things for one in his position. His feelings and desires as a man had no place in his line of work, and his career was his life. Yet she was never far from his thoughts…

A rush of loneliness and longing washed over him as he watched her, and he allowed his heavy eyes to slide closed again. He was comforted by her presence and just knowing she was safe. Had she been ordered to stay with him, he wondered, or was it her own decision? Too weak and exhausted to bother fighting with himself or trying to comprehend his conflicting emotions, Tseng allowed himself to hope it was the latter as he drifted back to sleep.

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The next time Tseng opened his eyes, Elena was sitting in the chair at his bedside, absently flipping through a magazine. He blinked tiredly, the light burning his eyes and making him wince. The pain in his chest had grown unbearable again, and he was unable to help but moan quietly. Elena jumped, startled, but smiled when she saw that he was awake. She set aside the magazine and met his eyes, instantly frowning.

"Are you in a lot of pain, sir?" she asked. Tseng's first instinct was to lash out in frustration. Of course he was in a lot of pain! But he paused to calm himself before gathering the effort required to speak. She was only trying to help, and she was the last person he ever wanted to hurt.

"Yes," he managed to whisper, cringing as he tried to move his arm. He managed to lift it a few inches off the bed, but it was as heavy as lead and he let it drop back to his side.

"I'll call the nurse so she can give you something," Elena said, pressing the call button beside his bed before turning back to him. "You seem a lot more with it now, though. How are you feeling? I mean, I know you're hurting, I just…"

He forced a weak smile, seeing how uncomfortable she was. He always seemed to make her nervous and was not quite sure why. It certainly wasn't intentional. "Weak… tired…" he struggled, forced to pause to take a painful breath between each word. His mouth was dry and his throat hurt, but that was the least of his concerns. "What… is wrong… with me?"

"Someone attacked you with a sword, and you have a deep wound across your chest and stomach," she told him, her tone gentle. It was a struggle to listen and comprehend her words, his mind so distracted by pain and fatigue. "You have some internal injuries and broken ribs, and… it's a pretty bad cut. But you're going to be fine!" she quickly added.

"The others…?"

"Reno's covering for you, and Rufus sent he and Rude out again… but I don't know where or why. Oh, and Rufus stopped by earlier…" There was a brief flash of anger in Elena's blue eyes, and Tseng desperately wished he knew what was going on within his own department. He was again reminded of his failure and briefly closed his eyes, ashamed and embarrassed. That Elena should see him this way only made it worse.

"Why?" he asked, his voice so soft he wasn't sure she'd heard him at first. But she finally sighed and shook her head.

"He doesn't quite understand how close you came to dying," she said, and he noticed the way her voice cracked when she spoke the final word. She quickly hid it, however, before she continued. "He wanted to talk to you about your assignment, but left because you were asleep."

Tseng groaned miserably, picturing Rufus' stern expression in his mind. He had blown it… He had failed on what might have been his most important assignment to date, and his boss was likely furious. Tseng knew he'd been a fool to agree to go ahead to the temple alone, and he should have been more careful while studying the alter. But he'd been the only one present until the sudden flash of light, and-

"Don't worry about him," Elena said, awkwardly reaching out to briefly cover his hand with her own. It was as if she knew what he was thinking, and the feelings it stirred inside him were foreign and disturbing. "You just need to rest right now so you can heal…"

Their eyes met, and the warmth that washed over his body briefly drowned out the pain. Elena quickly looked away and withdrew her hand, and Tseng found himself disappointed. The way she made him feel was so strange, so intense, that even a lifetime of tight control over his emotions couldn't stop it. He tried to blame his condition and the medications he was on, but knew he was kidding himself.

"… and you? How long… have you been here?"

Elena's cheeks flushed pink and she looked down into her lap, biting her lower lip. She looked exhausted, her eyes red and her expression haggard. "Well… other than a few short breaks, pretty much since you got here."

"And that was…?" he asked, realizing he had no concept of time, unsure of exactly how long ago he'd been injured.

"Um… this is the fourth day," she said after pausing to think, playing with her hands and unable to look at him. Tseng frowned, concerned for her and feeling guilty that she'd felt obligated to remain with him for so long while he'd been largely unconscious.

"Go," he told her, briefly glancing over at an unknown nurse who had entered the room with a vial of medication in her hand. She smiled but said nothing, not wanting to interrupt their conversation. "I'm all right now…"

"What? No!" Elena exclaimed, her eyes wide. "I'm not going to leave you here like this."

"You need to rest," he said, closing his eyes as the nurse added the medication to his IV. An odd feeling instantly descended upon him and the room began to spin. He felt as if he was floating, then falling, swallowing hard until it passed. When it did, he opened his eyes again and found Elena still stubbornly shaking her head, blinking so he could focus on her face. "Please don't make me… order you… to go."

A faint smirk graced Elena's lips as she looked down at him and met his eyes. The medication had already begun to take effect, his pain level greatly reduced and a heavy, comforting drowsiness clouding his thoughts. Gods, she was so beautiful…

"Sorry, sir… but Reno is the acting head of department right now, and he ordered me to stay here. But uh… only because I refused to leave…"

Tseng had to admit he was impressed by her courage as he began to drift back to sleep, the world around him slowly fading away despite his efforts to stay awake. His last conscious thought was one of content, knowing Elena would remain by his side because she wanted to be there.


((Author's Notes: Rufus is an asshole. Just sayin'. Writing from Tseng's POV here was a bit of a challenge, as it's been a while and he's not completely 'with it' yet. I hope I still managed to do him some justice, and get across where his mind is right now. I think he and Elena are the fandom's most neglected and underdeveloped characters who have so much potential, and I intend to fix that. Or die trying, dammit! Next chapter, Elena does a bit of unintentional snooping to learn more about her mysterious boss. Thanks so much to the handful of you who have taken the time to leave reviews and add this fic to your lists! I very much appreciate it, more than I can say. Much love! ~ JenesisX ))