Last Exit for the Lost Chapter 5

ShinRa, Bloody ShinRa

By Damodred

They made their way to the elevators without incident. Barret glanced around furtively, trying to watch every side at once and failing. They entered the vacant elevator and pressed the 66th floor button. The elevator moved smoothly upwards. The building was quiet at this time, everyone either went home for lunch or stayed locked up in their office, enjoying a quiet hour. On the 52nd floor they slowed to a halt and tensed as the door opened. "Uh, I'll take the next one," the frightened secretary stammered as she took in the grimy, drawn faces of the group inside. As the door began to close, Rude took two rapid steps forward and jumped out of the elevator, running down the hall. Barret grabbed Tifa's arm as she made to follow. "Do you want to kill him?" He rumbled. "If not, let him go. We can go rest of the way 'lone." Tifa hissed quietly, disliking her options, but eventually nodded and stepped back, reluctantly. The elevator moved on to the 66th floor. The door opened and they stepped out to a surprisingly pleasant rest area. Small trees, bushes and grass grew in the artificial lighting. Barret chuckled wryly as he surreptitiously tested one of the flowers. "Fake," was his verdict. Tifa nodded, unsurprised. Nothing grew in Midgar. They made their way to one of the tables and sat down, considering their options. The place was half full, but they did not seem to draw as much attention as they thought they would. Apparently, a man with a gun on his arm accompanied by a pretty girl, both in grimy clothes, were nothing unusual in this area. Barret frowned, wondering why they were being ignored, but dismissed the matter quickly. "Tifa, trouble," he hissed, motioning with his eyes to the left. Tifa turned casually, pretending to stretch while scanning the room. She saw what Barret was talking about and her stomach dropped. A very beautiful young woman dressed in a business suit, with a very delicate face and pale, almost ghostly features, was walking towards them slowly. Her expression was serene and determined, and the way the conversations stopped as she made her way through the rest area marked her as someone of importance. She looked down on them, and said loudly, "About time Maintenance sent someone. I need that lab equipment functional today!" All over the room, heads turned back to their tables, losing interest. Tifa breathed a quiet sigh of relief, deciding to play along. "Yes, we had a hard time convincing security to let us pass." The woman studied her silently for a moment, then smirked slightly, "I imagine you did. Follow me." She said. Tifa looked at Barret, who shrugged, stood up and in passing whispered "I think we're fresh out of options, so let's see what happens." The woman led them to a sumptuous office on the 67th floor, inquiring after their general health and not listening to their wooden replies. They passed a young, black-haired man with the insignia and uniform that marked him as a SOLDIER, who nodded to the woman, businesslike, and added "Afternoon, Aerith." Tifa was just beginning to wonder why the young man looked familiar when the name he called out brought new fear to her heart. Barret caught her arm, murmuring "Steady," as she was about to stumble. The young SOLDIER walked on, his hand brushing Aerith's in the narrow corridor. Tifa moved over to let him pass, as she thought furiously. What could the head of ShinRa's weapon development division want with them? More to the point, how did she know who they were (for that much was obvious), and why hasn't she turned them in yet? These questions would have to wait, but would probably be answered all too soon. After walking through the door marked "Aerith Gainsborough, Weapons Development", Aerith locked the door and watched in satisfaction as a light above her desk came on with a soft hum. She turned to Tifa, suddenly intent and cold. All disinterest was gone from her expression, replaced by a cold, appraising look. Tifa steeled herself. "What..." "This room is safe," Aerith interrupted, "right now, the only sounds coming from this room are the sounds of several people enjoying their lunch and making polite conversation, but they're bound to notice if it starts repeating." Tifa raised an eyebrow. "You knew?" she asked softly. Aerith shook her head. "Not until this morning, when I found out we have a new..." her mouth twisted in a grimace "...subject in the cells."

Cloud was getting irritated. He wondered how long they planned to keep him in the cell. He walked up to the door and yelled "Hey! How about some entertainment here!" He heard a low, gruff voice reply "Shut yer trap terrorist, or we'll shut it fer ya." Cloud decided not to tempt fate and sat back down on the bench. He was getting dizzy in this place, with all the recycled air. Suddenly he felt a flash of cold pain behind his eyes, and then a flash of heat. He felt he had to get out of this cell. ShinRa didn't have any right to hold him like this anyway. His expression twisted with hate, then became a mask of cold indifference. Without any more thought, he stood up decisively, walked up to the door and opened it.

The guard stared in astonishment as the cell door where the blond leader of Avalanche was kept suddenly bulged, creaked and, with a sound of tortured steel, flew off its hinges and landed in a steaming heap across the hall. The man who stepped out seemed not to be aware of the destruction he just wrought, and as the guard looked into his cold blue eyes he felt a stab of fear. The man's expressionless, frozen face never changed as he turned and began to walk. The guard croaked a "H, hey..." and turned to run, but he was too slow, too slow...

Aerith was watching Tifa for a reaction. When none was forthcoming except for a slight tightening around the eyes she nodded, satisfied, and continued. "I recognized him as your husband immediately, and knew you couldn't be far behind. The preparations have been in place for a long time," she sighed. "I had a feeling that events were going this way, and today I knew for sure." She raised her head and looked Tifa directly in the eyes, "Hojo will kill him if he's not stopped." She ignored Tifa's gasp and continued. "He missed his chance to experiment last time, but he won't make that mistake again." Seeing the uncomprehending look on Tifa's face, she made a gesture of dismissal. "I'll tell you later. Let's..." she stopped as a dull thud shook the building. She took two quick steps to the wall comm panel and pressed a button. "Cid, Elena, what the hell is going on?" she snapped. A voice came on, breaking through screams, sounds of a crackling fire and clangs of metal "...insane! We don't kno..." the voice broke off in a gurgle, they heard a clatter of metal, and the signal ceased. She looked sharply at Tifa and Barret. "There's only the two of you, right?" Tifa nodded. Aerith grimaced and reached into her desk, pulling out a small cylinder, about the size of a large coffee mug, and slipping it into her purse. She opened the door and looked out into the hallway. It appeared to be empty, but she could hear faint sounds of shouting and running. "Follow me," she said to Tifa and Barret. "We'll see if we can release Cloud in the chaos, and then make our way out of here. I was getting really sick of this city anyway," she added, with a pained smile. Tifa and Barret exchanged looks and followed.

They ran up the stairs to the 69th floor. As Aerith predicted, this was where all the activity was...or at least used to be. As they opened the door that led out of the staircase, the guard standing outside waved them back, saying "You can't come through ...." He suddenly realized who he was talking to and flushed. "I'm sorry, Ms. Aerith. It's dangerous but of course you can go if you wish. These two have to..." he ceased speaking as Barret's heavy arm landed on his temple, and slumped against the wall, unconscious. Aerith raised her eyebrows, and looked at Barret. He just shrugged. "We're wasting time," he rumbled. They moved through the corridor cautiously. They approached the corner and Tifa made a face. "I stepped in something..." she trailed off as she realized the dark liquid seeping from around the corner was blood. They turned the corner. A man in a ShinRa uniform was lying on the ground in a pool of blood, not moving. Tifa ran up to the body and turned it over. Empty eyes stared up at her, and a big, jagged cut was oozing blood from the man's chest. Aerith commented calmly, "Dead no more than an hour." Tifa nodded, wiping her hands, her eyes on the cut. She turned to Barret and pointed down the hallway. "Holding cells. Barret, do you think...?" she trailed off as she caught sight of the ruined cell door. Barret only shook his head, looking grim. Aerith took out the cylinder from her pocket and with a practiced motion shook it. The cylinder hissed open, telescoping to a six foot staff, tipped on both ends with a wicked-looking spike. She spun it expertly, turned to Barret and Tifa and shrugged. "Aerith's motto: be prepared."

They followed the blood trail: it was obvious and after all, where else could they go? It led them into a large laboratory, Hojo's laboratory, Aerith explained, her pale face distorted by a grimace of distaste. "This is where that sick plays god with anything he can lay his hands on," shuddering, she continued. "He alters the genetic sequences of the subjects, and implants them with Mako energy...sometimes other genetic sequences are introduced too. Sephiroth partially owes what he is today through Hojo's ministrations. There were some others, but...I could not shield them all," she finished quietly. She led the way inside. Barret pointed out what used to be a dome-shaped steel holding tank, until something ripped the door to pieces. The damage came from the inside, shards of steel curling outwards like rose petals. Tifa and Barret turned questioning gazes to Aerith. She turned and spoke one word: "Jenova."

They encountered more corpses on their way up. The specimen cages were all unlocked, yet there was nothing unusual about the cause of death of most of the bodies. They all either suffered sword wounds, or a single shot to the head. The floors above were similar in their desolation, until they reached the top. This floor was dominated by a large desk in the center and glass windows all around. They had reached President ShinRa's office. ShinRa's body lay half slumped on the desk, a single bullet hole between his eyes. Tifa drew a deep breath, and said, "ShinRa is finished." "On the contrary my dear, we're only getting started!" a voice rang out from the shadows. They whirled around, now noticing the dark form of the helicopter on the landing pad outside. The voice continued, "My father was incompetent, so in a way I'm glad this happened. However, I am very disappointed that I wasn't the one to orchestrate it." A tall man dressed in a white coat came out of the shadows, accompanied by a slightly shorter woman in a red dress, her high heels clicking on the hard, tiled floor. The man's youthful face was distorted by a contemptuous sneer. His hair fell onto his face, but he maintained his grip on his shotgun, aiming it steadily at Aerith. The woman's face was pale, her dark red lipstick standing out on her face like a bruise. She was completely expresionless, her blonde hair pulled tightly back, making her face even more drawn. Her semi-automatic weapon was aimed halfway between Tifa and Barret, shifting between the two. The man continued "I'm very disappointed in you as well, Aerith. You had my father fooled for so long, only to discard your cover to help Avalanche, of all people...ah well, no one will notice one more body." He brushed his bangs back from his face and added, somewhat regretfully, "I'm afraid I'm going to kill you now." Without changing his aim, he said to the woman in red: "Scarlet, take care of those two." The woman called Scarlet nodded, and shifted her aim. Aerith screamed "Look out!" and started to dive behind the desk while Tifa and Barret scattered the other direction. Despite the man's surprise at their sudden movement, he managed to squeeze off a shot. The bullets struck Aerith's midriff, flinging her halfway through the room to slam into the opposite wall and fall, crumpled to the floor below. Barret and Tifa landed behind the massive desk, the splinters from the shattering wood stinging their faces. Tifa assessed their situation and shouted to be heard above the thundering guns "We're pinned down, Barret!" Barret nodded grimly and shot a few rounds blindly to see if he could make the white and red duo flinch. The barrage continued, the man in white obviously laying down covering fire while the woman changed clips in her rifle. Suddenly they heard a tinkling sound, as if tiny fragments of metal were dropped on a hard, concrete floor. A blast of heat and light made Tifa squeeze her eyes shut, but the afterimages dancing behind her eyelids persisted for a few more seconds. She could hear someone screaming and then the sound of running feet, and then the dark shape outside took off and flew away rapidly. When the helicopter could no longer be heard, Tifa cautiously poked her head out from behind the desk. She could see a tall man wearing a black cloak and a long, slender sword on his back bending down over Aerith and picking her up, his long white hair flowing over her prone form. Of Scarlet and the man in the white coat there was no sign, but where they were standing, the carpet was reduced to ashes and the corner of the desk was smoldering. The man turned around, Aerith lying limply in his arms, and Tifa gasped in recognition. He nodded to her solemnly and said her name in a soft, cool voice but she didn't hear it because she was falling, falling...

Tifa blinked blurrily, disoriented. She seemed to be lying on something hard and uncomfortable, and her hand was stiff from being closed, tight, on the Mythril Claw. She sat up and the world whirled around her. "Steady, Tifa. You've fainted. One of the shotgun bullets must have grazed your head," a soft, female voice advised. Tifa blinked again, trying to clear her head. "Aerith?" she asked incredulously, jumping off the desk that she was laying on, "I thought you were dead!" Aerith tilted her head to look at Tifa and laughed, "You know, so did I. I didn't think this bracelet was worth crap, but I put it on before I got to work this morning." She winced a little as she fingered her shredded shirt, "I only wish those things stopped the impact, too." With a sudden strength, she ripped the entire lower half of her shirt off, muttering, "This will only get in the way." She threw the fabric onto the floor and looked up. "Also," she smiled as she tied off her shirt below her chest. "I have friends in high places. Tifa, Barret, do you know..." "Sephiroth?" Tifa blurted, and continued, "Yes." It *was* him! She didn't imagine it after all. Sephiroth looked at Aerith, sparks dancing in his green eyes, his chiseled features set in an expression of displeasure. He was not smiling as he said, "This is unacceptable. You WILL be more careful, Aerith." They stared at each other for a moment, locked in a contest of wills. Aerith's eyes flashed as she stood up and walked over to Sephiroth, looking up into his green, hard eyes. They stood there a moment, eyeing each other warily when suddenly Aerith smiled coyly and said "Of course." Sephiroth nodded, and the two turned to Tifa and Barret, businesslike again. Tifa somehow sensed that this was a game these two played often. She asked, "What happened? Last thing I remember was..." she trailed off, unable to finish. "Me being shot, and you under heavy fire, yes," Aerith completed the sentence. "I have to take partial responsibility for being alive," she motioned to the bracelet on her arm, "but Sephiroth is the one who made Rufus and Scarlet ah...retreat." She raised her head, "Are you familiar with Materia?" she asked, watching them intently. Tifa nodded, "I've heard of them, but never actually seen one. Is that what...?" Aerith nodded, "Yes. A simple Fire spell. You've probably seen the consequences. Anything more and the entire floor would've gone up. Fortunately for us, Rufus did not foresee this." Her expression darkened, "He probably won't make that mistake again." She shook her head, irritably, "We should be going. It's been quiet for too long." Tifa raised her head wonderingly, "Going where? I just want to find Cloud and get out of here." Barret nodded. Sephiroth turned his head towards them, ceasing his quiet contemplation of Aerith, "I'm afraid that is no longer possible. For one thing, your faces are too well known in Midgar. For another thing," he paused, and Tifa felt her heart clench in cold fear. "Cloud Strife is no longer in Midgar."

They made their way down the stairs towards the main elevators while Aerith carefully explained. In light of the destroyed cell door, burst from the inside, and the sword wounds on all the bodies, it was difficult to deny her logic. "It would appear that somehow, Cloud is partially responsible for the destruction. The cell door, however, indicates inhuman strength and some outside help. I would surmise that he's been," she searched for the right word, "used to wreak havoc. Someone or something took over his mind, used him as a distraction while they went about their task. The two weapons used indicate that at least two people are responsible. After killing president ShinRa, the other person decided to keep Cloud as a useful tool and departed. The means of entry and departure remain unknown to us." Tifa stared incredulously through this recitation and finally burst out, "Do you realize what you're saying?" Sephiroth nodded serenely. "We do. And we have something to show you." Saying this, he disappeared into the Jenova tank and came out holding a large, bloody sword. Cloud's sword.


Author's Note: I honestly don't remember which floor at ShinRa Tower is which, so just pretend that they're correct, all right? :) For your information, Aerith's office is on the same floor that the mayor's was.


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