Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 37


By Damodred

Impetuous, isn't he? observed Sephiroth wryly, striding to keep up with the blond SOLDIER. Well at least he hasn't changed in that aspect, replied Aerith, following. Yuffie brought up the rear, still fuming silently. As she strode through the door, she noted with satisfaction that the Turks looked distinctly uneasy even after recovering from their initial startlement.

Cid recovered his wits first and addressed the blond, statue-like SOLDIER before him. "Er." He realized that Strife would probably not be in the mood for apologies for past 'misunderstandings' and floundered. Much to his surprise, Rude came to his rescue. "You're looking better, Strife," the bald man rumbled, "Rufus wants to talk to you." Then the tall man clamped up, having said more than his usual quota for the day. His efforts went unrewarded as Strife kept staring blankly through Cid. Suddenly he looked up and said, emotionlessly "There is a foul presence here." Reno exchanged glances with Cid, wondering if the SOLDIER was truly recovered but said nothing. Feeling that the situation was getting really strange, Aerith asked Cid "What does Rufus want with us? And what presence?" directing the last question to Cloud. Cid glanced at Cloud but the SOLDIER volunteered no further information, retreating again into the passionless shell that protected him from grief. Cid looked away, disturbed, and said "I think it has to do with Chaos and that thing up in the sky, what else would it be nowadays? Also, I think he has a couple of surprises for you." Catching Sephiroth's frown, he hastened to add, "I don't know what they are, but he assured me you'd be pleased." Ignoring Yuffie's muttered, "I hate surprises," Aerith turned to Sephiroth and communed with him briefly. Cloud's face hadn't changed, but something in his stance indicated that his thoughts were now turned inward, toward the thoughts of the Planet and those around him. Reno shuffled his feet, impatient and somewhat uncomfortable with this medium of information exchange, but there was nothing he could do.

Cid heaved a sigh of relief at the quad's assent to a brief visit to Rufus's study; he was quite certain he couldn't coerce them into going and he didn't particularly relish going back to his boss empty-handed. He wasn't certain why they decided to go, and he was getting really worried about the 'foul presence' that Cloud had mentioned. As they started towards the elevators, he dropped back to walk with Aerith and asked in a low voice, "How's Shera?" The Ancient shot him an amused look and said, simply, "Fine." Cid nodded, satisfied with that and knowing that the woman would tell him more if it was necessary. He stepped up his pace and led the group towards the elevators and a strange group it was indeed. Himself in his still stained flight jacket from his expedition to Junon and supervision of the cannon's installation, his two Turks in their blue suits, one immaculate and the other looking like he slept in it (which he probably had), two SOLDIERS, both seemingly relaxed yet coiled in some uncanny way, a short ninja girl with one hand on her shuriken, her mischievous eyes darting about searchingly and the serene Ancient in her dark blue robe, striding with a steady, confident pace. He shook his head as they reached the elevators, wondering how he got in this situation.

When they entered Rufus' office, they were immediately struck by his bedraggled appearance; the man hadn't slept in days and sustained himself with various medications from ShinRa's immense pharmacological experiments. The result was pathetic; his once white cloak was wadded in the corner and stained, his business shirt and white pants also bore marks of hard use. He greeted them with an exhausted whisper and bid them sit, staring at them blankly for a while through bloodshot eyes. The bristle growing on his chin was added testament to the ruin that the previously fanatically kempt man had become. Cid noticed Aerith's eyes becoming slightly glazed, and then Rufus sat up, looking more alert than he had in a good few days.

The president of ShinRa nodded brief thanks to the Ancient and she smiled politely. Cid knew that her hatred of Shinra was eclipsed only by her common sense, and the key to ending this interview quickly was Rufus' lucidity; thus she acted out of expedience and not compassion. Nevertheless, he was grateful and told himself to thank her later. He turned his attention to his boss.

Rufus spoke briskly, knowing that this bout of clear-headedness was a short-lived boon. He could hide his sorrow until later, when he could finally rest and mourn in private. "My request is simple. I want you to sanction Chaos and I want to aid you in this task. My dream of owning the world is now meaningless and only revenge keeps me going. Without Scarlet, nothing matters anymore." His voice cracked dangerously and he firmed it, ruthlessly stamping out his pain. He knew that he had an audience, noting the pain in Strife's eyes and discomfort in Highwind's. Finding out that his boss was human was tough on the ex-pilot. Rufus shrugged mentally and continued, "You may not know this, but...

They gathered around the monitor which showed the satellite view of North Crater. Meteor was beginning to interfere with communications and the picture was grainy, but the blue dome around the crater was undeniably there and distressingly solid. Aerith's eyes widened a bit and she whispered, "The's monstrous." Sephiroth nodded to himself; a shield of that diameter erected on such short notice indicated vast amounts of power at Chaos' disposal. He quelled down a brief pang of unease and wondered if the shield was the reason for the Cannon's transfer to Midgar. From where they were standing, high on top of one of the observation towers where Midgar's electromagnetic field no longer reached, the Cannon looked immense, dwarfing the city around it. They were clustered around the screen staring fretfully at the shield, but now Cloud moved away from the group and walked to the railing. He leaned on it and stared out at the city where he and Tifa had made their life. He knew the life they lived was dangerous, skirmishing with ShinRa troops every other week, but he always envisioned their death to be simultaneous, in an ambush somewhere, with others to carry on their work. Never this...loneliness. He squeezed his eyes, suddenly hot and stinging. It was only the wind, strong at this altitude, he told himself. He started as a heavy hand landed on his left shoulder and a heavy, low voice rumbled, "Sorry to hear about your woman, Cloud. She was as fine a woman as I have ever known." Cloud answered half-absently, wiping away the last traces of moisture from his eyes, "Oh, I can still feel..." He stopped as the familiarity of the voice penetrated. He spun around, almost gawping at the huge black man behind him. "Barret?" he whispered, incredulously. The ex-miner grinned slightly, exposing pearly white teeth, "Who did ya think it was? You didn't think I was gonna let you tackle that," he motioned to the screen, "by yourself, eh?" "Leave some for me, too!" a strong, younger voice called out from the elevator as a man dressed in loose, serviceable black emerged, a huge sword on his back. He was grinning unabashedly, glad to see his friends again. His grin faded as he approached Cloud and in a more somber tone he offered his condolences as well. He leaned closer and whispered, "We'll get him, Cloud." Pulling away, he grinned again and slapped Cloud on the back "Just like old times in training, eh?" Cloud, who up to now was unable to get in a word from sheer incredulity, finally burst out, "Where did you two come from?" He hastened to add as the two glared, "I mean, I'm glad to see you and everything, but..." Barret and Zack burst out laughing, the somber mood dispelled for now. "Nothing ever changes, does it?" said Barret, still chortling. Zack shook his head, "Nope. Still the same polite Cloud I remember."

Standing by the monitor but her attention on the little scenario unfolding around Cloud, Aerith smiled softly to herself. This was the best thing possible to happen to Cloud. His physical recovery took place around strangers; Yuffie and Shera he had never met, Aerith was ShinRa's weapons scientist turned rebel and Sephiroth had been his commanding officer. Not exactly the best environment to recuperate in. She now knew that Chaos was at North Crater and not Midgar but was extremely glad they had made this stop. While the surroundings may have sent Cloud into deeper despair, his friends (or at least people closer to him; Wallace he had dealt with before and Zack was his roommate for a while in ShinRa's war academy at Junon) had obviously sent him out of it. He was more human now and his grief, while not forgotten, had purged itself at least a bit and receded. It would return, but perhaps Cloud would be able to deal with it better then. She frowned momentarily, wondering what he meant when he said he could still feel. She assumed it was Tifa he was talking about. Opening herself up to the Planet, she searched the currents yet could find no trace of the woman's presence. Ruefully she admitted that Chaos' manipulation of Cloud may have altered his mind to such a degree that he was attuned to the Planet much better than even herself. While not likely, the idea bore watching as Cloud had exhibited behavior that was extremely impressive and awe-inspiring. With that idea in mind, she returned to herself and continued to watch the friends reunited.

Yuffie noted the return of the black-haired SOLDIER with mixed feelings; she was new to this game where she actually had to care about someone else's welfare. Up to now it was only her, her shuriken and her materia. Now it seemed that things changed for she realized that the strange feeling she had ever since Zack showed up again was relief. Relief at seeing him again and whole, unharmed. She chewed at her lip worryingly, completely missing the arrival of the rest of the Turks.

"So Elena and Tseng found you, eh?" wondered Cloud. "Well, more like picked me up. It was raining hard and they kinda snuck up on me," confessed Zack ruefully. "Hey, here they are now." He said, turning towards the blue-suited couple. Elena looked somber, still trying to get over Tifa's death; she knew that they possibly might have been friends, given different circumstances and a little time. Tseng, as always, kept his thoughts close to himself and his face was carefully composed. Rude hovered in the back with Cid while Reno struck up a conversation with Yuffie, his old partner-in-spying. Sephiroth and Aerith were at the railing, gazing out at Midgar's lights and talking softly. Cloud turned his attention again to Barret's hand, gleaming metallically in the soft lighting. "So, what's the story on that thing?" he asked. The big man grinned and flexed his metal digits, "Well, after we struck it rich I found myself with too much money and nuffin' to spend it on. So I had me this bright idea that if I can still operate simple machines like guns with the nerve endings left in my arm, I can probably operate a hand too. I hired some robotics fanatics, gave them some time and this 'intriguing problem'," Barret mimicked a sophisticated, snobby scientists' voice quite well, "and they came up with this. It wasn't as easy as I made it sound but I had to talk to those geeks and they told me entirely more than I wanted to know. Bottom line, it works." The blonde SOLDIER nodded, and his expression clouded for a moment. "Speaking of scientists..." He broke off, unwilling to ruin the mood and waved away his friends' inquiring expressions. "Later," he said, smiling again. "Now let's see what 'assistance' Rufus has in mind for us."

Author's note: His expression 'clouded'!!! Bwhahahahahhaah I slay myself.


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