Since many of you asked:
1) sequel: At the moment, I'm not planning a sequel; one should stop things when they are still good. Besides (and most of all), I'll have make some new life experiences to have enough data for the sequel. So, at best, there'll be a sequel in two or three years. I wouldn't count on it, though.
2) Reno: He's dead.
Kadajclone100: Oh, I'm so glad you're saying it's hard to take sides! And thank you for the 'kudos'. I'm trying to do my best ;-) and I'm happy that it worked out.
BaneWillRise: I'm sorry to disagree with you about Reeve, but if I remember correctly, Reeve was very high ranked in Shin-Ra... I don't think one rises that high in rank in any totalitarian regime unless one approves of it. But I think that thanks to Avalanche, Reeve saw that Shin-Ra's ways are not only doubtful but bad. And I perfectly agree with you; his approach on Rufus and Shin-Ra make much sense.
Thanks for looking into my other story!
LegendKiller22: Eventually, he will discover about Sulfur and that Tifa knew. But I think he'll already feel much betrayed when he finds out about the end of this chapter. And I'm sorry we can't be best friends just yet ;-)
Takeo-kun: thanks a billion!
SansaStark: Elena will certainly make an excellent member or Sulfur even if wheelchair bound. But I think Rufus and Tseng would probably never speak another word in their lives with Reno of he just turns up on his own funeral, all smirks and smiles... at least, I don't think they'd ever forgive Reno if he did that, but see above.
XfashaX: Thank you very much! Glad to have managed that!
Thank you everyone for all your lovely reviews. You really managed to make my days man a time. Special thanks, most of all, to Licoriceallsorts. She's been constantly reviewing my chapters and helped me a lot with her ideas and detailed discussions!
So, this is it, then. The last chapter. I miss the characters already. Well, please enjoy, anyway.
Chapter 65: Rufus: As Long As It Lasts
14. May, Sunday, Afternoon
The wind was driving heavy clouds over sky when Rufus pushed the lever to open and leaned against the door. He tried not to think of the charred up patch of land where they had not even found Reno's body. When he slid the door to the terrace open, a painful stab drove through his left shoulder. Strange that the death of a fellow human could hurt so much that the physical pain of a shattered shoulder seemed almost little. The terracotta was still comfortably warm from the sun, only slightly rough under the bare sole of his feet as he stepped outside into the brooding afternoon. The garden lay there in its calming green, freshly grown on Midgar's debris. An artificial creek rushed between the old rubble as if Midgar had never been. Soon, Rufus supposed, it would almost be as if Midgar had never been. When they and WRO had cleared away all of Midgar's rubble.
Not a trace from the plate Reno dropped. Not a trace of that Turk anywhere but in their heads. Nothing but a dark cramp inside the stomach, a numbing pain in the throat and a scurrying shadow in the edge of the eye.
Rufus drew in a deep breath and quickly looked away. The air sizzled with ozone, was standing languidly between the trees, insects chirring in the grass. It was hot, the smells almost intense, tainted by the smog from the town.
The dark clouds had to have passed Reeve's office before they had almost casually covered up the blue here and Rufus was worried. Up there in his office, Reeve was either dead or alive by now. And Rufus was worried about Tseng. Once awoken from his raging grief, Tseng would never forgive himself if he had murdered Reeve just like a surplus cat in a box. Rufus did not even know if he had done the right thing when he had allowed Tseng to go. Or if he should have protected him and refused to let him go. But Tseng had almost begged and Tseng had never before asked him for anything. Not that desperately. Not in so much fury and pain. He had thought that Tseng needed to go. That Tseng knew deep down inside him that he was making Reeve his scapegoat. That Tseng needed to face Reeve and realise that he could not murder him because otherwise, he would always reproach himself for letting his fury getting control over his mind.
Rufus leaned against the balustrade, the right arm coming easily, supporting his weight. The left hand followed painfully. The wood under was rugged and warm under his thumb, rough as he stroke over it. A huff of warm desert wind bent the freshly planted trees and pulled at his hair. Stroke over his skin like a caress. The crickets were silencing, the sky above almost black, the air stale, foreboding waiting. It was so warm on his skin, the rough tiling warming his feet from below. All the plants were standing in attention, only the water was still rushing ignorantly away over the stones and in the distance, he could hear Edge's undying traffic.
He had been sure that Tseng would not murder Reeve. Because although Reeve had broken a promise - what on Gaia was a broken promise?! - he had not been able to foresee what would happen to them. It made no sense to murder him. Because revenge never made sense.
Now, Rufus was not sure if he had not sent Tseng because, frankly, he had not give a bloody damn about whether or not Reeve lived or died.
Reeve had pulled his soldiers off when they had needed them most. He was not reliable and Rufus had little use for people who were no use to him when he needed them. Also, if Reeve was dead, WRO would break apart as soon as elections had been held and that would leave them back as one of the major players in the field. Reeve's death would probably not even damage Sulfur's reputation very much; few knew that he himself was behind Sulfur and Reeve's death would look like an act of vengeance from a lone Turk. Well, maybe not in this new world.
Rufus's hands tightened around the square-cut banister. A breeze was stealing itself through the sizzling air, was ever so warm slight, ever so warm, he felt it moving the hair on his arms.
That were the reasons he pictured himself with, but it were the wrong reasons, were they not? By now, he would not have risked Sulfur's reputation for something as fleeting as another man's revenge. Not that his fragile façade would collapse because of something like that. It may have not been Reeve's intention or even fault, but Reno was dead and Elena could not walk anymore and Tseng had been so despaired that he was begging him to let him have this revenge. It had made him so furious - had hurt so much to see that bottomless pain and the fury in Tseng's eyes and hear it in his voice when he had asked to be sent.
And Rude seemed dead inside. That made things personal.
Rufus loosened his hands from the balustrade. Wind was pulling at his hair now, harsh, the sky dark black.
Was this maybe the pain people felt when they thought of Shin-Ra?
He had always been able to understand why people would have want them killed, but he had never been able to refeel it.
If it had not hurt so much to even think of Reno, it would have been almost interesting.
Rufus was thankful for the pain, thankful for the nights in which only the pain killers had let him sleep, thankful even for the ordeal of the operations. Thankful, almost, that the doctors said it was quite possible that he would not ever be able to use his arm fully again. If he had walked away unscratched, if he had walked away with not even a mark, he would not have known how to face the others anymore. Tseng, whose arm he had taken. Tifa whose eye had been damaged. Elena whose spine had been shattered. And most of all Reno, although he would never face Reno again.
Rufus had never thought he would live to see that day when Tseng failled to hit an aim from less than seven meters. But they had been dazzled by the lack of air, shaky on their legs. Tseng had had to react within a was probably enough metal in his shoulder now to sink him like a stone if he ever tried swimming again.
He would not have been able to face himself in the mirror anymore if he had not had a scratch.
Tseng would not murder Reeve, he was sure of it. Even if it might have been a mistake to sent him.
The green in the park was straightening up in the pausing wind. He had never thought that he would see plants growing in Midgar again. But the artificial creek with water from the mountains had brought life back into town. His water had brought it back. Sulfuric water. Thanks to the lack of rain in the last few weeks, Reeve had agreed to Sulfur's water deliveries. With that water at least little money was trickling back onto the company's account. Not Shin-Ra. Sulfur. His company.
His own company at last.
Rufus did not even know why he had never seen it before. Why he had lost so much money over it, why he had let Shin-Ra go to waste and himself - them all - through that stupid ordeal.
Why Reno had had to die.
No one knew, yet, that the company belonged to him and it was a bliss. They were not looking twice, thinking hard, sighing before they signed any contract. People were starting to seem them as an alternative to WRO. And WRO seemed willing to cooperate. Well, that depended on what Tseng did up there, anyway. He intended to play the role of the broken heir for as long as he could. As longer it took until the people realised that he was behind Sulfur, the more they would trust them. The more WRO would be willing to cooperate. The less people would try to blow them up. Veld and afterwards maybe Elena would make good fronts. Maybe, they would come out after the elections. Maybe, they would be found out some day. He could well live with never being known as Sulfur's president at all.
Sulfur was all he had ever wanted. His Turks, his likes. His schemes and his idea. His company. A company formed all by himself, not that legacy of his father. Few obligations from the past. Not the feeling that he had only inherited from that father of his. Sulfur was his own creation, his own blood. His own work.
Sulfur could set him free at last and free from that dark past. At the cost of Elena's legs. At the cost of Tseng's arm. Most of all, at the cost of Reno's life.
Asked not long before, he would have said he would gladly pay that price.
Now, he would have given almost everything not to have paid this price. It had bought him everything he had ever wanted, ever desired, ever wished for. Everything.
And he would have rather not had it for that price.
Everything, perhaps, apart from Tifa.
She could be here any moment now and he did not even want to know what price he would have to pay for her.
If it cost as much as Sulfur, he would certainly not pay it.
Yet, he still felt her lips moving against his thumb, how cold her hand had felt against his skin. Her embrace.
The pounding of his own heart.
He drew in a breath of that warm, stale air, smog so heavy in his lungs. There was a dark rumble somewhere in the distance above the constant buzz of the traffic. A raindrop, huge and wet, splashed onto the tiling next to him.
He would ask her. Tseng had told him that she had been there and sat with him after the operations. He did not remember much through the clouds of anaesthetic and pain. But it sounded like a good sign.
Another rumble in the distance, more pronounced this time. More heavy drops. The intense and sharp smell of wet stone rose into his nose. A warm drop hit the back of his hand, rolled down over his wrist.
He would definitely ask her today. Today, he would ask Tifa. He was sick of prancing around the topic, of all the uncertainty. Even if he imaged all the `good signs'. He would lose his face, he feared, but that could not be helped.
It was almost raining now.
Rufus drew another deep breath, the smell of wet earth and stone stinging, turned. The tiling was still warm, slightly wet from the drops now. He closed the door to the terrace behind him, mats in his own room colder than the tiling outside. The wind came back in a furious gush, hammering down every plant in the park. The roar of thunder was anything but distant now.
He stared at the heaving green. He had no idea what to say to Tifa.
Somewhere beyond that park, she had reopened her bar. Somewhere beyond that park, the children were going to their old school. They had settled into their old lives again. He would soon settled back into his, now that the operations were over, now that Sulfur was gathering up speed. If Tifa refused him, he would go back to Junon as planned. If she did not - highly unlikely, that - concessions had to be make. Tifa had made it abundantly clear that she would keep her bar and not work for any company. But it did not matter much whether he worked in Junon or in Surna or in Kalm or in Edge. He would go anywhere for her. If only she said `yes', he would not be so stupid as to argue on that point. It would inconvenience him for sure to come to her bar often, it would inconvenience him greatly to be seen. He would hate it. Yet, if she was willing to accept him, he would not mind (too much).
He would do anything.
But he would not lose another of his friends.
He hoped Tifa had not been caught in that thunderstorm. The white light of a lightning flashed through the rattled garden. It was almost as dark as night and the wind was hammering the drops against the windows.
The knock on the door almost drowned in a thunder.
Rufus did not know how to react, clung faster to the window's lever. He knew from the knock that it was Tifa, as certain as he if he could look through the door. Nervousness rose from his stomach, his heart bounding and he felt like an idiot, soon to embarrass himself. What was he thinking? He did not have the time! He would be bound in Junon, cleaning up, in Kalm, organising, in Surna, rebuilding, he would barely be in Edge, he would not have time to see her! She would never think differently of him than as a friend! He was way too cold for her, disfigured with that powder burn below his chin and all the metal in his shoulder. Not good enough, Gaia! If it had not been for Tseng, he would have honestly been hoping her friend had been murdered! All the words he had prepared in his head, everything sounded so stupid just now, it would sound even more stupid as soon as voiced. He felt just incredibly silly. He could not do it. Impossible!
He was not even dressed close to appropriately.
The skin on his shoulder, especially around the metal, was still so tender that it was impossible to wear anything but that silly waistcoat without being in constant pain and it embarrassed him terribly to be facing anyone and Tifa most of all that inadequately dressed. It made him feel defenceless and it made him feel plebejan, insecure and - he had lost so much weight, he was skinny now and he hated to look like that - all pointy bones. The jacket at least covered that up.
To be truthful, he was bloody frightened, did not even turn upon the knock at the door, but clung to the view outside. Whatever he interpreted into Tifa's actions was nonsense. All her actions made it obvious that she did have regard for him, but only on a friendly level. And who was he, anyway, to hope for more? His family was responsible for every loss she had ever suffered.
There was another knock and it was definitely too impolite to keep Tifa waiting there.
So, he turned and headed over to the door, realising with dismay that he had failed to put on socks. He opened the door, his heart ponding in his throat.
The thunderstorm had almost taken all the light out of the hospital's corridor and left nothing but long shadows in between the flashes from the lightnings. Tifa's face was almost in darkness. She was looking straight at him, hair falling onto her shoulders. There were a few drops of rain on her clothes, a single drop threatening its way down her cheek. She had her arms crossed in front of her chest and her clothes were almost respectable today. And, most of all, her frown changed into a smile when he opened the door. His heart was hammering like made, his brain seemed almost empty. She took his breath away.
"Good afternoon, Tifa. Come on in," he said, his tongue almost too heavy to speak. How could anyone be attractive with so many flaws on her?
"Hello, Rufus." With that, Tifa moved passed him, gave him a once over while he closed the door. A thunder rolled outside. It was almost pitch black, the rain noisy against the windows. Her look embarrassed him, especially that smile that looked like a smirk on her face.
"How are you? Can I get you something to drink?"
Tifa shook her head, then, putting her shoes neatly against the wall, she seemed to think differently. Outside, the rain was roaring. A lightning froze the smile on her face. "Some of that tea?" She nodded at the table at the teapot on its warmer. Maybe, it had been no good idea to prepare the tea in advance. But he had not known what else to do.
He nodded, felt embarrassed, his heart thundering, knew he should ask and pointed at the couch instead. "Please, have a seat. - How is your eye?"
Tifa slipped onto the black leather and shrugged. Her left eye had taken a hit during the fight and Tseng had reported that she had not been happy with the materia's healing results. Rufus switched on a standard lamp in the corner and sat down on the low armchair next to her, started filling the mugs. The light of the lamp almost negated the warm circle the candle had drawn around the teapot.
"I might have to wear glasses," she stated and took one of the mugs, wrapping both hands around it, although it was not cold in the room.
Rufus studied her. Another lightning flashed outside, painting her face in sharp contrasts for a heartbeat. "I'm sorry to hear that. - I mean, that your eye is that damaged."
She smiled and that smile roared in his head. "I don't mind glasses. I mean, I can wear contacts if I have to."
He turned the mug in his hand. "Glasses would look good on you, too." They would indeed.
She seemed surprised by that comment. He hoped that she was not aware of what he thought of her wardrobe in general. Most likely she was, though. "Hn. Well. I'll see. - Maybe, I won't need them at all. - How's your arm?"
"It's not come off, yet. So, I think it's fine." That, at least, was the best compliment he could pay his shoulder. Certainly not at awkward as the one he had just tried to pay Tifa.
She was smiling in reply, the light from the lamp warm on her face. "It doesn't look fine from here. Not with all that metal. - May I?"
"What?" Her sympathy made him feel awkward. He still had no idea how to ask her whether... well, if she liked him at least a little bit.
Almost simultaneously, her fingers made contact with his upper arm, warm, brushing the cloth away and he did not know how to react, just swallowed hard. The touch was so gentle, so warm and kind. His heart was thundering.
She nodded. "Well, it looked at lot worse before."
He had to force himself not to show any disappointed on his face at her comment. Not because she was saying anything but because - what had he hoped for?! "Tifa..." He put his mug onto the table, felt awfully shaky inside, mouth dry. "If you just want to see about my wounds, please don't touch." He felt silly for not wearing anything else over the waistcoat, despite the fact that it would have hurt. Well, less than this, anyway.
The touch broke and Tifa frowned, pulling back her arm and sitting up straight. "Do you think that I just go around touching anyone?!"
She had almost snapped at him and it hurt, making him feel ever so defensive. "Look, I don't know what normal people do!"
She stared at him, drew a deep breath and put her mug onto the table. "So you're still in love me, then?"
Another thunder crashed outside and the day had darkened as if the end of the world had come - again. The question hurt and for moments, he felt tempted to deny, not to admit that weakness. Instead he felt himself half nodding half shrugging in agreement, the motion hurting in his left shoulder. He did not dare to look at her, everything cold inside. This, he thought, would certainly be the last time he would be dumb enough to play that game.
"Okay," she said. "Well, I'm not going around touching people, Rufus, not even friends if I know they were in love with me before. It'd be unfair." She looked at him, added: "That means I think I love you, too."
His head went empty, blazing with fire as he stared at her when realisation struck him and it felt like the ground gave in below him. He could not even swallow when he looked at her, that warm expression on her face. "So... would you consider a relationship with me?" His stomach turned and he felt himself shaking, did not hear a single noise from the thunderstorm outside, saw nothing - felt nothing - but her face. "I mean, despite the fact of who I am, what has happened, what I am going to do, de- despite the fact that someone might come to kill us again and that that could hurt you or the children?"
"Will you not demand me to give up my bar?"
"Why on Gaia would I do that?" He was bloody frightened, his heart beating marathon. Bloody frightened to hear a `no' and even more frightened to hear a `yes'. For who knew where that would take him? How long they would last, how he would even fit her in, what the others would say. Everything.
He felt her leaning forward, her breath on his lips, the slight touch when she murmured against his: "Well, then I guess that's a `yes'."
I thank you all most cordially for reading and those of you who review even more for taking the trouble and the time to review.
I hope you enjoyed the story.
If you are interested in reading more from me, I'm just getting started on a fantasy novel:
You'll have to remove the _ in the address to get it to work. And put a dot before the com.
So, thanks again a billion!
And please do review! I'd still like to hear your opinion about it, even though the story is finished.