Balance of Power Chapter 13
By Frank Verderosa & Jen Bond
Stepping away from the plane, Cid reached into his back pocket to pull out a rag, wiping his hands on it, finding with no real surprise that grease still clung to the lines and cracks in his palms and circled every groove beneath his fingernails. Aside from a few minor repairs, the engine was in good shape for the make and year of the aircraft. He knew it had been checked over before Red's offer, further proving to him that Red had been preparing to ask him or someone, anyhow, long before yesterday night. At any rate, Cid did not trust anyone else to service the aircraft he was going to be responsible for flying. If they didn't like that, or found it an insult, he could care less. Cid had never been overly concerned that his actions might offend someone. You got to a point in life where you just didn't give a damn anymore. He was thinking he was pretty close.
Glancing back toward the plane, his trained eyes picked it apart. It looked like something Red had dug out of storage, an old Shinra plane with none of the fancy junk they slapped on them now-a-days. Something his father would have flown. It appeared to have seen its better days too, as far as bodywork was concerned. But Cid wasn't big on appearances. If it ran decently, then that was what counted. Now all that was standing between him and the object of this particular mission was time. It all depended on his skills... and those of the rebel factions. That annoyed him. He hated having to be at the mercy of people he knew nothing about. Red was taking a big chance here, and Cid was going along, like a reckless fool. There was a desperation in this act... a desperation on the part of everyone, and he was saddened that it had come down to this.
Sighing, he ran his hand across his forehead, turning his face blindly to the sky. He was probably making a big mistake agreeing to do this. Still, he figured better him than some damn fool kid that didn't know one end of the plane from the other. Maybe too, this place didn't seem quite like the refuge he had expected it to be. Not his refuge at any rate. Not that he really expected to be able to run away from responsibility. Your actions had a nasty habit of catching up with you, and he saw his choices loud and clear in the faces of those left from Rocket Town. Ironic, that a town started because of his failure ended because of his failure. He wanted to know what made him so goddamned special...
Shifting until he was leaning against the plane, he folded his arms loosely across his chest, staring out across the burnt red soil. Cosmo Canyon was a place that clung to peace long after the others had given in to war. Its society was dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and the notion that there was much more to life than fighting. So Red turned it into a refugee camp of sorts, giving anyone shelter that needed it. But in the end, like every other town, he was faced with the inevitable notion that peace was an ideal too high to reach for when men and women lay dying all around you. You fought back, or you were trampled. You fought back, and you were trampled. Either way, you lost. And in Cid's mind, the only way to lose was to do it fighting.
He couldn't deny that he was tired of it. It seemed that he and Tifa were going in an endless circle, with no way out and no real clear path to follow. Cid had never been one to live his life by plans, preferring to take things as they came, but this was far more than he had ever bargained for.
"I figured I would find you out here."
Cid swung his head around to regard Tifa in silence, tired eyes tracing the outline of the ill-fitting clothing she had been loaned. He wanted to laugh about the fact that they looked like a couple of misfits, but he didn't have it in him. Humor was something he had a short supply of lately.
"Just making some last minute checks," he answered finally.
Folding her arms across her chest, she smiled slightly.
"Don't trust Red's mechanics?"
Cid shrugged. "I don't fly anything I didn't look over first."
Tifa didn't have anything to say to that. It was understandable. Besides, she didn't want to walk back down the path that had led to their argument the night before. Cid's lack of trust in Red still bothered her a bit, even though she could see the logic behind it now that she was not so focused on the thought that he wanted to leave her here because she had become a nuisance.
Coming to stand next to him, she followed his line of sight.
"It's a nice view."
"It was even nicer the first time we saw it, when there wasn't death on the other side," Cid answered, uncharacteristically negative.
Slanting him a concerned glance, she asked, "Did you get any sleep last night, Cid?"
"I'm sorry," she replied, lowering her head slightly.
He turned to look at her. "Why? It's not your fault."
She lifted her eyes to lock with his. "We don't have to do this."
"No," he agreed, "but we're going to."
Pushing from the plane, Cid dropped the cigarette he had been smoking into the dirt, grinding it beneath his heel. It was now or never. There was no sense in sitting around here thinking about it. Thinking wasn't going to get anything done, and it was only succeeding in souring his already dark mood. It was like they were jumping over hurdles. Each one was supposed to be the finish line, but every time they made it, they just ran into another one. Tifa watched Cid approach the plane, never having seen him this pensive before. It was like he was on edge, as if any small thing could set him off at any time. Not that she could blame him. It seemed as if they had been living with one eye over their shoulders for weeks now. No, it seemed more like years. Funny how quickly time passed when you were enjoying yourself, while it dragged its heals when you were just wishing for the concept of time to go away entirely.
"Aren't you going to wait for Red?" She asked.
He shook his head. "We don't need anyone to see us off. Red has other things he needs to do. He's got the responsibility of the entire Canyon."
"You know me very little friend, if you thought I would let you leave without saying good-bye and wishing you luck then," came a calm, almost soft voice from the shadows. Red padded into view, swallowing hard against the irony in his words, swallowing the ones that were fighting to work their way out. It was better this way. He had no other choice really, and when it came down to two lives over thousands, there was very little he could do to argue against the mathematics of it. It just killed him that these were his friends, and that he was putting so little importance on them when he was certain they would risk their lives for him. They were doing it now...
Tifa smiled slightly at him, folding her arms loosely across her middle. "Hey, Red."
Cid nodded abruptly, turning away to do some last minute fiddling with the plane.
Tifa frowned at his back, throwing Red an apologetic look that he shrugged away, as much as could be called a shrug where he was concerned.
"Are you ready to go then?" He asked politely.
"Almost." Cid responded, not turning.
"Thank you again. You're good people..."
Tifa waved the compliment away. "We aren't doing nothing you wouldn't have done if you could have."
Wincing, Red wondered how much more of this his conscience could take.
Half-turning, Cid said, "You can get in now, Tifa."
Sighing softly, she reached out to pat Red's head. "I suppose we'll see you when we see you."
Cid swung around to face Red, his expression closed and unreadable. Red wished that he knew what it was the pilot was thinking. If it was lack of sleep that was making him so grouchy, or if he disliked Red for even asking them to do this. If he knew the whole truth, Red had no doubt he would hate him then...
"Good luck," was all he said, pushing his thoughts aside for now.
Cid nodded hard and replied gruffly, "Thanks."
Red watched as they boarded the plane, hoping that Cid's famed Lady Luck would watch out for both of them. He wanted them to succeed, without anyone having to lose their lives. It was a naive hope, however. War had shown him that more than anything else ever had.
Cid started the engines up, eyes narrowed in concentration on the various gauges in front of them, hand poised over the controls as he waited to see if it would hold up. This thing was going to need to last long enough to get them in and get them out. After that, he could care less what happened to it. He had lost both his aircraft, and some part of him couldn't help but wonder if that was an omen of some kind. Maybe after all this was over, his flying days were done. If the Planet ever got itself straightened out, he was going to make damn sure he spent more time with his feet on the ground than his head in the clouds.
Pulling the plane around, he began slowly directing it down the small patch Red had designated the make-shift runway. Beside him, Tifa remained silent, lost in her own thoughts and caught up in her own fears. Life had once been about right and wrong, but now that everything had become so blurred, it was hard to tell which side was right and which side was wrong. If you stood in the middle, doing nothing, then what did that make you? No, maybe life had never been so black and white. You made your own way, followed your own internal morals. You walked your own path, taking it day by day, step by step, because that was all you could do. Still, she wondered if it was ever enough.
They were up in the air now, flying with the moon as it sped along beside them, filling up half the sky and illuminating the land below with its ethereal lunar light. For one small second, there was nothing but peace in that view. And then as reality hit, the gloss was stripped away and you were left with that same sinking feeling. Tifa looked around slowly. This plane was much larger than the Bronco, but not as large as the Highwind had been. It seemed to be some kind of cargo plane. There was a large space behind the seats, empty as far as she could see in the darkness. It was very different from any other plane she had been in, but she was glad at least that she could sit beside Cid in this one.
"You were a bit hard on, Red," Tifa spoke up quietly.
She watched as his shoulders rose and fell.
"He's getting what he wants."
"Cid, he didn't have any other choice."
Cid sighed. "Maybe not. Maybe your right. I don't know. Right now, all I can concentrate on is this mission he's handed us, not his feelings."
Never having felt more separate from him than in this moment, she sat back, resting her head against the seat. He was being deliberately difficult, as if he wanted to provoke a fight to help cleanse his system. Well, she had no intentions of obliging him. The last thing they needed right now was to be at odds with one another. They were going to need each other if they planned on getting through this. It was going to be dangerous, and she knew she didn't need to tell him that.
As they left Cosmo Canyon farther and farther behind, Cid felt the tightening sensation in his stomach grow. He just didn't like this. It felt wrong. Everything about it was tilted, and shady, as if Red was only telling them enough to get by, and keeping the rest of the details to himself. Perhaps it was unfair of him to think so, but he just couldn't help it.
For a long time they flew in silence. Cid stared out the windows, keeping his eyes open for any foreign aircraft. They were flying low, only a few hundred feet above the water. He could see the moonlight glinting off the waves below them. Except for the moon and stars, the sky around them was empty. He looked down at his instruments, the only light in the cabin save for the dim glow of his cigarette. Everything seemed to be in order. He could detect no sign of danger. Then why did he feel so jumpy? He glanced at Tifa. Even though she was right beside him, he couldn't see her expression very well in the darkness.
"I wonder who this rebel group is." she said softly, almost as if talking to herself. Cid turned to look ahead once again.
"Probably just a bunch of young kids who haven't got a chance in hell of gettin' very far on their idealism," Cid replied, his voice sounding harsh to him after the long silence.
She stared at him. "Maybe not. They're fighting, just like we are."
"For all the good its done," Cid replied. "We've done more runnin' than we have fightin'."
"We didn't have much choice," Tifa reminded him quietly.
Cid sighed, rubbing at his eyes with his free hand. "No we didn't. Look, I'm sorry. I'm just tired and wound up."
Understanding softening her expression, Tifa lifted her hand and placed it on his shoulder. "I know."
A bit startled, Cid was surprised to find that some of the tension went out of him at the at that small touch. He really was being an ass. It wasn't going to help him any to alienate practically the only friend he had. Tifa deserved more than the dark side of his temper. This was hardly her fault, or even Red's for that matter. He was just doing what he had to do to protect his people. Cid admired that, even if he hated being the tool to do so.
"Thanks for puttin' up with me, Tifa," he said, his tone low.
She pulled away, shrugging with more lightness than she felt. "Hey, what are friends for?"
Cid felt himself smile slightly. "You sayin' I'm a pain?"
He laughed then, feeling more of his anxiety rush out.
"Fair enough," he agreed, eyes scanning the landscape.
"If it makes you feel better, you can say I'm a pain too."
"You aren't," he replied instantly, his tone serious.
Tifa was saved from replying, when Cid suddenly pulled the plane down. A deeper darkness had appeared ahead of them. Tifa had spotted it as well. In moments it had resolved itself into the unmistakable shape of land.
"We're here," Cid announced.
A few minutes later the ocean fell behind them, the land now beneath them. Tifa looked down into a sea of blackness. There was no light below. The land was dark and silent. The plane flew though the night, the steady drone of it's engine the only thing breaking the silence.
Tifa kept her eyes open. While they were over the ocean, she could make herself believe that danger was far away. But not now. They were in enemy territory. If they were spotted, only Cid's piloting skills could save them. But would even that be good enough? This plane was a cargo plane, not a fighter. As far as she could tell, it didn't even have any weapons. No, this mission depended on stealth. She stared out into the darkness, wondering if there was another plane nearby, of if even now someone, hearing the drone of their engine, was looking up from below. If they were caught now, it was over.
The darkness of mountains rose up in front of them. Cid dropped the plane lower, much closer to the ground then Tifa felt comfortable, even though she knew it was necessary. She tried to force herself to relax. They had seen no sign that they had been spotted. She knew how good a pilot Cid was. They weren't going to accidentally fly into a mountain. She really didn't have anything to worry about, at least, not until they landed.
And what was going to happen then, she wondered. According to the plan all they had to do was meet the rebels, then wait with the plane until the rebels came back with Dr. McKindle. Then it would be up to Cid to get them out of there. That would be the most dangerous part for her and Cid. Wutai would be alerted, and they'd be bound to have planes up in the air fairly quickly. Still, if all went well, they might be out of Wutai airspace before that happened.
If all went well. How likely was that? She knew these things always seemed to have a way of not going according to plan.
She glanced over at Cid, who was staring out the front window, looking for the signal from the rebels somewhere below to let them know that they had found the landing area. With his cigarette clutched in his teeth, he looked perfectly calm. She wondered if she appeared as unconcerned, and if inside, he felt as nervous as she did.
"There it is," Cid said, the sudden sound of his voice startling her.
She looked out the window where he was indicating. In the darkness below she could see a red light flashing.
Cid banked the plane in a slow turn, flashing his own lights in a prearranged signal. Almost immediately more lights appeared in a line along the ground that revealed the landing strip.
Cid circled round, then dropped down. Except for the lights, they couldn't see much in the darkness outside. They had no choice but to trust that the rebels had selected a suitable landing area.
But any fears Tifa had of crashing into a tree or falling off a cliff proved unfounded. They landing area turned out to be a dirt road, and Cid brought the plane down on it without incident. As the plane came to a halt Tifa looked out the window. She could see several dark figures converging on the plane.
Cid shut down the engines. Tifa got up and walked over to the door, grabbing hold of the lever to open it. They didn't know anything about the rebels. For all she knew, the plan could already have been discovered. She could be opening the door to let in Wutai troops. She hesitated a moment, but it wasn't going to do her any good to worry. It was too late for that now.
She pulled open the door. She could see at least three men. In the darkness she couldn't see much, just that they all carried weapons and were dressed in camouflage fatigues. One of the men was much larger than the other two. She couldn't see him very well, but his size reminded her of Barret.
"Welcome to Wutai," he said.
Tifa stopped and stared at him. That voice was unmistakable. It wasn't someone who resembled Barret. It was Barret.
"Barret!" she exclaimed.
Now it was Barret's turn to pause for a moment. But then he stepped forward, close enough so they could see one another clearly. A broad grin appeared on his face.
"Tifa, is it really you?" he blurted out.
Without waiting for her to reply he reached out and pulled her into his arms.
"Barret, it's so good to see you!" she said. She could hardly believe their old friend was standing in front of her like this. Of all the coincidences!
"What are you doing here in Wutai?" she asked.
He released her from the hug, pulling back and looking at her carefully.
"I could ask the same of you," he replied. "When Wutai took over Corel, I went underground to fight against them. But there wasn't much I could do in Corel. I had too few people, and the army there was too strong. If ya want to kill a snake, ya gotta cut off the head, I'd always been told. And the head of the Wutai government is in Wutai. I figured I'd be more use here with Yuffie."
"Yuffie?" Tifa exclaimed. "You've seen Yuffie?"
"Yes, but not in a few months," he replied with a shake of his head. "Kinda hard to keep in touch when you've got an army after you."
"Barret, you old bastard."
Barret looked up to see Cid outlined in the doorway of the aircraft.
"Cid, you son of a bitch!" Barret cried out. "Who else ya got hiding in there?" He turned to look at Tifa. "Did ya bring Spike with ya too?"
Tifa paled slightly and turned away. Barret looked at her for a moment before he realized he had said the wrong thing.
"No, it's just us," Cid cut in, giving Barret a 'drop the subject' look. He stepped down out of the plane beside them. "You got someplace better where we can talk?"
"Yeah, sure," Barret said after a moment. "C'mon."
He led them off into the darkness. As far as Tifa could see, they were in the middle of nowhere. She could see no sign of any buildings. They headed straight for the forest. A few of the men with Barret produced flashlights as they walked. A narrow trail ran a short distance through the woods, then opened up into a small field. More lights appeared, and Tifa saw that they had reached the rebel camp. Half a dozen tents stood in the field. Barret led them into the largest one.
A lamp was lit. Tifa saw that the tent was mostly filled with supplies. A small area near the front had been cleared. A long table stood there strewn with what looked to Tifa like maps. It was surrounded by unfolded chairs.
"My little home away from home," Barret said dryly. "But it's better than what most have. Have a seat."
Both Cid and Tifa sat down by the table.
"I'm surprised Red didn't mention to us that you were here," Tifa said.
"Doesn't surprise me," Barret replied. "He doesn't know. I wasn't the contact with Cosmo Canyon, and I don't go around advertising my presence these days."
"Sorta like old times, eh?" Tifa said.
"Yeah," he replied. "Now that you're here. Damn, I still can't get over it. How did you end up here?"
"It's a long story," Cid replied.
Seeing that Barret wasn't going to be satisfied with that, they launched into the condensed version of their trials and tribulations since Tifa had met Cid in Rocket Town. Cid left most of the talking to Tifa, especially the portion of their journey spent in Mideel. She faltered however, when she started to tell how they met Vincent, and the night walk through the battlefield. By the time they got to Gongaga, Cid was doing most of the talking. Cid was tempted to skip over their meeting with Cloud altogether, not sure how Tifa would take it. She saw his hesitation, however.
"It's alright Cid, you can tell him," she said. "It's something he should know."
Barret looked at them curiously.
Cid cleared his throat. This wasn't a subject he was too anxious to bring up either, but she was right. Barret should know. Still, he would have been more comfortable discussing it with Barret alone. But they didn't have time for that.
"When we reached Gongaga who should be in command of the Wutai forces there but Cloud."
"Cloud, workin' for Wutai?" Barret said with a frown. He was about to say more, but seemed to sense there was more to it. Cid glanced over at Tifa, not sure how to continue.
Tifa could tell Cid wasn't comfortable talking about this in front of her. He was on the spot, and that was not her intention. She suddenly felt angry with herself. Wasn't it about time she faced the facts?
"He was married, Barret," she said deliberately.
Barret looked at her in surprise.
Cid gave a sigh of relief now that it was out in the open.
"Yes, married," he said. "To some girl named Rachel. They even had a kid."
"A kid?" Barret blurted out, his mouth open.
Barret stared at them both. Tifa looked down at the floor.
"That little twerp!" Barret blurted out. "What the hell is the matter with him? Tifa, I can't believe he'd do that to you. Just wait til I get my hands on him!"
Tifa just shook her head.
"It's not important, Barret," she said softly. "We've got other things to worry about. Cid, please go on with the story."
Cid hesitated a moment, then continued, telling Barret how Cloud had let them free, then their trip to Cosmo Canyon, their meeting with Red, and their acceptance of the mission.
"That's about it," Cid finished. "Frankly, I was worried that the rebels we were meeting were going to be a pack of inept amateurs. You don't know how relieved I was to see your ugly mug."
"Thanks a lot," Barret replied with a grim smile. "Not that I expected to see you here either."
"Yeah, small world," Cid muttered. "So what do you know about this research center?"
"Not as much as I'd like to," Barret replied. "We've got the layout of it. There are five buildings, all told. The main research lab and all the support facilities. We know Dr. McKindle is still in there, and we know the huge material is there. From the intelligence we've received, we think there are at least two squadrons of Wutai soldiers guarding the place, but we can't be certain."
"And how many men do you have?" Cid questioned.
"Twenty eight at fighting strength," Barret replied immediately.
Cid frowned. That didn't seem like enough to him. Even with the element of surprise, the advantage always lay with the defenders. To be successful you generally needed a two to one or greater advantage. Barret's forces were barely more than the enemy had, and that was if the intelligence he had was correct. It wasn't going to be easy.
"I'm afraid it's all we've got," Barret said, as if he could divine Cid's thoughts. "Wutai hasn't made it easy on us. A lot of good men have already been killed or captured."
"Well, maybe one more will help tip the odds in your favor," he said.
"Two more," Tifa said immediately.
Barret gave them a long look.
"You're not here to fight, Cid," he stated. "This isn't going to be easy. A lot of people could die. We need to get Dr. McKindle out of here. You're the only pilot we have. We can't afford to lose you."
"I know how to take care of myself," Cid replied easily.
"Surely you don't think we'd let you go into battle without us?" Tifa said defiantly.
Barret looked from one to the other, his gave finally settling on Tifa.
"This isn't your fight," he said. "I heard Wutai invaded Rocket Town, but they've done nothing to Kalm. You have no reason to risk your life."
Tifa frowned at him.
"I have every reason," she said. "This war has hurt everyone, not just the people who have been fighting. My bar in Kalm was doing okay before all this started. Not great, but okay. But since Junon took over Kalm I hated it there. I left Kalm with a knapsack that held all my possessions. I told myself I'd be going back someday, but I think I knew even then that wasn't true. There's nothing left for me back in Kalm. My friends are the only thing I have left that I value. Since I left Kalm I've found out that some of my friends weren't quite the friends I thought they were, or...hoped they were. But that just makes me appreciate my real friends even more. If you're going into danger, you'd have to tie me down and lock me in prison if you expect to keep me from coming along."
For a moment the two men just looked at her. Finally Barret turned toward Cid, who merely shrugged.
"What she said."
Barret swiveled toward Tifa once more.
"Well, since we don't have no prison here, I suppose I have no choice but to let you two troublemakers come along."
Even Tifa smiled at that one.
"I'd love to chat some more, but I'm afraid we just don't have time," Barret continued seriously. "The longer you're here the more likely it is that you'll be discovered. Now that you're here, I need to give one final briefing and then we can finish this. I just need to gather the men. If you'll excuse me."
"Of course," Cid said.
Barret walked out of the tent. Tifa sat there looking at the maps on the table for a moment, then looked at Cid.
"I can't believe Barret is leading these people," she said. "You still suspicious of Red?"
Cid hesitated a moment before replying. He had to admit Barret being here shed a whole new light on things.
"Let's just say I feel a lot better about our chances now," he replied cautiously. "But this still isn't going to be easy."
Tifa was a little put off by Cid's pessimism, especially since she felt better about this thing than she had since she first heard of it. Another member of their team was with them. It wasn't like the old days, by any means, but at least she and Cid weren't alone anymore.
Cid crushed the remainder of his cigarette out and slipped the pack out of his pocket. He shook it, then looked inside.
"Shit," he muttered.
"All out?" Tifa questioned.
"Yeah," he said. "I'll have to ask Barret if has any stored away, or maybe I can bum one from someone."
Tifa knew better than to suggest that perhaps he'd be better off without them.
A couple of minutes later Barret reappeared. He had two automatic rifles slung over his shoulder.
"The others will be in in a minute," he said.
He slipped the guns off and dropped them down on the table with a thud.
"I brought these for you guys," he said. "They might come in handy."
Cid picked one up and looked it over. Tifa took her's more slowly. She knew how to use it. Both she and Cid had trained with one while in Rocket Town waiting for the invasion. Still, she was far from an expert and a little uncomfortable with it. She was used to using her fists, but she knew Barret was right. She knew this was unavoidable. Her fists might have been adequate when they were facing a few unsuspecting, ill trained and equipped Shinra guards. But they wouldn't do here. It would be suicide to attack a military installation weaponless.
The tent flap was pulled back and men began to enter the room. All of them were dressed in combat fatigues identical to Barret's. By the time the were done filing in, the tent was packed.
When he was satisfied that all was in order, Barret introduced the two newcomers, then went over the planned attack. Cid asked a few questions along the way, but Tifa kept quiet. She didn't consider herself much of a strategist, and didn't think she'd have anything to contribute. She would leave the planning to others. It surprised her a little that Barret had this so well planned out. Not too long ago, she remembered him as being the one ready to rush in at a moments notice. But she could't expect everything to remain the same.
It didn't take long for Barret to finish. Most of the men already knew the entire plan by heart. The only change was the addition of Cid and Tifa to the attack team. A couple of the men looked doubtfully at the two of them, but said nothing. Tifa wondered whether it was because they were strangers, or because they thought, as the only pilot, Cid was too valuable to risk, or even if they were uncomfortable with a girl coming along. It really didn't matter, she supposed. If anybody had any complaints, she was sure Barret would set them straight.
"Any questions?" Barret asked when he was done.
There were none.
"All right, let's move out then."
"Yes sir, Captain Wallace," the men replied as one.
The got up and filed out the door. Tifa came up beside Barret as they walked out.
"Captain Wallace?" she said questioningly.
Barret almost looked embarrassed.
"It's more of an honorary title than anything," he replied. "The rebels don't really have an army."
"Watch out you don't make Major," she whispered. "You might make Cid jealous."
Barret just snorted.
"What was that?" Cid said. He was a few steps in front of them.
"Nothing," they replied in unison.
Cid looked at them suspiciously for a moment, then turned away.
Outside it was darker than ever. Clouds had come up rapidly from the south and now obscured the moon.
"How far away is this place?" Tifa questioned.
"Not far," Barret replied. "You landed in the closest place we could find to the research center that was safe. It's about a mile away."
That didn't sound too bad to Tifa. They entered the woods once more, following a narrow path on the opposite side from where they had landed the plane. Almost immediately the path began to climb. The farther along the went the steeper the trail became. What Barret had neglected to mention was that the research center was nestled in a narrow valley high up in the mountains, and the mile they have to travel was almost straight up the side of one. Or at least, that's how it seemed to Tifa. By the time they reached the end of the trail, she was huffing and puffing from the exertion of the climb, the gun slung over her shoulder feeling like it weighed a couple of tons.
"You can rest here a minute while I go reconnoiter," Barret said, to Tifa's immense relief. "The rest of you men, spread out."
As Barret's men faded into the woods around them, Tifa flopped down beside a small clump of trees. In front of them a long ridge of rock obscured their view. Barret motioned for two men to follow him, then disappeared over the ridge.
Cid eased himself down beside her, if anything, even more relived than she was. Neither Barret nor any of the soldiers with him seemed in the least bit tired.
"I think we're a little out of shape," Tifa observed.
"It's been a long time since I was in the military," Cid muttered. "I'm not used to this crap."
He pulled out a cigarette and lit it up.
"Hey, I thought you didn't have anymore of those," Tifa said.
"Never underestimate the power of a desperate man," Cid replied. "One of the soldiers had a few to spare."
Tifa shook her head. Cid looked at her.
"Why, does it bother you?"
"Always," Tifa replied.
Cid plucked the cigarette from his mouth. But before he could stub it out Tifa stopped him.
"No, you go ahead and smoke it," she said. "I wouldn't begrudge you one. Especially not now."
He looked at her for a moment, then nodded and returned the cigarette to it's usual position. To tell the truth, he was a little surprised with himself. Wasn't too long ago he wouldn't have given a damn how she felt about it.
"It's not anybody I'd do that for, you know," he observed.
Tifa was silent for a moment, looking out into the darkness.
"I know," she said finally. "I'm sorry I called you a pain."
"I'm sorry I said you could be a pain sometimes," she replied. "On the plane. Remember?"
Cid paused for a moment, then it came to him.
"Oh that," he said dismissively. "You were just telling the truth. Actually, I admire you for it."
Tifa smiled. She surprised him again by reaching out and taking his hand. They were right next to one another. He could feel the warmth of her leg against his own, her hair brushing on his shoulder. It made him feel...well, he wasn't exactly sure how it made him feel. After all that had happened, being this close made him uncomfortable. Yet at the same time, deep inside, it gave him a warm feeling. He shifted uneasily.
Tifa released his hand, as if realizing what she was doing. Why did everything have to be so complicated, she thought ruefully.
"I'm sorry," she said. "Am I making you uncomfortable?"
"No, not at all," Cid said, the tone of his voice suggesting this was a bald faced lie.
Tifa lowered her gaze.
For a moment they were silent. She turned toward him again.
They both spoke at the same time.
Tifa turned away, flustered. Cid grinned.
"You go first," she said.
"No, you," he replied. "Ladies first."
Tifa looked at him for a moment. Cid the gentleman? She couldn't picture it. Nevertheless...
"I...I just want to thank you for putting up with all the stupid things I've done," she said.
"No," he cut her off. "I'm the one who's been stupid. I know you needed someone when Cloud...did what he did. But I didn't know how to comfort you. I didn't know what words to use. I couldn't explain how I felt, and that just made things worse. I'm the stupid one."
"No you're not," she said, taking his hand once again. "You did the right thing, Cid. I didn't see it at the time, but you proved to me that night just how good a friend you are. You were the sensible one. I was the fool, and I'll probably be one again."
Cid looked at her. She was barely a foot away, looking at him earnestly. Just what exactly did she mean by that?
Cid felt something wet strike his face. He looked up.
"It's starting to rain," he announced.
"Great," Tifa replied. She was already uncomfortable from the exhausting trip up here. Now they'd get wet too? She had no rain gear. Not that it really mattered. Once the attack began, she thought staying dry would be the least of her worries.
Cid turned back toward her, looking at her for a moment as the rain began to patter down upon them. In spite of how they had cleared the air between themselves at Cosmo Canyon, things still didn't seem quite the way they used to be. Maybe it was time to try to break down any leftover barriers.
Hesitantly he reached out his hand. He stopped when it touched her back. She didn't protest, just looked at him with a sort of crooked smile. He slipped his hand the rest of the way onto her shoulders, then slowly pulled him toward her, until she was resting against him, protected from the rain as best he could.
For a long time they just sat there in silence.
"Cid?" Tifa finally broke the silence.
"What are you going to do when this is all over?"
Cid pondered that. He wasn't sure this would ever be all over. But of course it would have to end eventually. No country these days had the economic power to sustain an all out war for more than a few years. At least, that was what he had been taught when he was in the army. Eventually, if the war lasted long enough, one countries economy would collapse. But who would that be, and when would it happen? That was the question. Wutai had invaded Rocket Town, and Junon had bombed it. He and Tifa were wanted by both sides. He couldn't picture a happy ending for them no matter who won.
"I don't really know," he said slowly. "Rocket Town is gone. I don't have anyplace to go back to. I guess I'd just like to find some quiet place somewhere. Someplace far from any government. Someplace where everyone would just leave me alone."
Tifa lifted her head an looked at him.
"Everyone?" she questioned.
"You know what I mean," he clarified.
"Do you think you could find a place like that?"
Again Cid took his time replying.
"I hope so," he said. "Maybe on one of the southern islands. Or maybe up north, near Icicle Inn. Or maybe even that Cetra city place. I'll bet not many people go there."
A drop of rain struck Cid's cigarette, extinguishing it with a hiss. Cid looked at it crosseyed for a moment, then pulled it out of his mouth with a curse.
"That was the only one I had," he lamented.
"Maybe someone's trying to tell you something," she suggested.
Cid gave her a look for a moment, then gave up and grinned.
"Yeah, maybe," he agreed.
The rain was coming down steadily now. Tifa was still looking at him.
"What about you?" he asked.
"What about me?"
"Where are you going to go when this is all over?"
This time it was her turn to hesitate.
"I...I don't have anything to go back to either Cid," she said eventually. "I guess I'd want the same thing as you. Just to get away from it all."
Cid looked off into the distance, then he chuckled.
"What?" she questioned.
"A fine pair we'd make," he said. "Wandering around the City of the Ancients like two lost souls."
"Well, we wouldn't have to go there," she replied. "Those southern islands sounded rather appealing. I might have enjoyed our stay on that last one if we hadn't been shot out of the sky and forced into back breaking labor for two days to turn the Bronco into a boat."
"Forced into back breaking labor?" he said, eyeing her. "It wasn't that bad."
"Au contraire," she replied. "You were a slave driver!"
"I most certainly was not!" he replied, looking suitably insulted. "I didn't have to be. You were workin' rings around me as it was."
"Oh I was not," she replied. "You worked at least as hard as I did."
"I don't know about that," he stated. "Anyway, yeah, we might be able to find some nice secluded island somewhere. I could go for that."
"Just let's bring silverware this time, okay?" she continued. "And a change of clothes."
"Sounds good to me," Cid replied. He looked at her again. She was smiling, and she had no idea how much better that made him feel. Thinking about it now, he wasn't sure exactly at what point in their conversation I had become we, but he had to admit he wasn't sorry to see that occur. After all they had been through together, he found it almost intolerable to think they might part ways when this was finally over.
But it didn't seem like Tifa wanted that. And neither did he. He studied her face, which was only inches away from his own. He realized suddenly that she had been looking at him for a long time. What was in that look? Understanding? Sympathy? Or was there something else? Something more?
He had heard once that when two people of the opposite sex were forced together for a long time, somewhere along the line they almost always started to believe they were in love. Was something like that happening to them? He had to admit he had strong feelings for Tifa. All this time he had been trying to brush them off, saying that he was being foolish. That it wasn't fair to her. That she deserved better than him. He still believed that, but at the same time he was beginning to realize just how much it would hurt him if she ever did walk away.
He lowered his eyes for a moment. Cid Highwind, what a jerk you are, he admonished silently. She was beautiful. She was years younger than him. She was everything he wasn't. No matter how he felt about her, he was sure that anything she felt for him was merely gratitude. How could a girl like her possibly have feelings for a guy like him?
Tifa looked at Cid's familiar outline. She couldn't help but notice his eyes lingering on her, and she wondered what he was thinking. She was comfortable with him. More comfortable than she had ever felt with anyone, even Cloud. Their faces were close together, and she couldn't help but think back to when she had kissed him. She hadn't thought about it at the time, and later on, she decided her only reason had been a desperate need to feel loved by someone, by anyone. But that wasn't completely true. It hadn't only been that. If it had been someone else with her beside Cid, she knew she wouldn't have done what she did. For a long time now she had been seeing the pilot in a different light, though she was just now beginning to realize it.
Except for the patter of the rain around them, the world seemed to have gone strangely silent. Cid pulled Tifa closer. The touch of her hand, the way she curled comfortably in his arms, the look in her eyes, all spoke to a portion of him that he hadn't realized still existed. It had been a long time since he had even looked at a female other than Shera. But every signal that Tifa was giving him told him that she cared for him as more than just a friend.
Somehow their faces seemed to have drifted even closer together.
Tifa wasn't sure what this all meant. She wasn't sure what she was feeling. After what had happened with Cloud, it was only natural that she should seek refuge with someone else. It's what anyone would do, wasn't it? And Cid was the obvious candidate. She was only human, had the same need to be needed as anyone else. Was that why she felt this way? Was she still just using Cid to satisfy her own need to be needed. That night, after they had met Cloud, that had been true. But now she wasn't so sure anymore. Time had passed. Not a lot, but enough for her to get over that phase. Or so she hoped. So what was it now that she was feeling for Cid? Were these feelings real, or was it just a leftover of Cloud's spurning her? How could she tell either way? She wondered if she kissed Cid now, would he think she was just regressing, or would he think it genuine? Did she even know for sure herself?
Cid looked at Tifa and wondered how she would react if he kissed her. Was that what she wanted, or was he reading this completely wrong? He had already made enough mistakes with this relationship, or friendship, or whatever it was. If he was wrong, and he kissed her now, would he ruin everything beyond repair? He knew he wouldn't be able to live with that. No, backing off would be the wise thing to do. The reasonable thing to do.
Yet to his surprise, their faces slowly grew closer, as if drawn by in inexorable force. And no matter how much he told himself this was not wise, he could not stop it. It was almost as if he no longer seemed to have control over what his body was doing.
The skittering of rocks and the thumping sound of footsteps caused them both to lift their heads. Barret appeared out of the darkness.
"We're almost ready," he said curtly. "C'mon."
They both stood up. Tifa straightened her blouse and slung her rifle back over her shoulder, feeling vaguely embarrassed. Without a word they followed Barret up to the top of the ridge.
From that vantage point they could look down onto the cleared area below that held the research center. Tifa could see the outline of some of the buildings through the rain. The complex was surrounded by a high fence. She could just make out what looked like barbwire along the top of it. She could also make out a large gate not far from them. It was easy to see because of the two spotlights that were trained on it. The gate itself was open, with a small guardhouse just inside it. Tifa could see at least two men standing by the guardhouse and another one inside it.
"So what do we do now?" Tifa questioned softly.
"The main entrance is on the other side of the complex," Barret told her. "I send Sgt. Denton around there with a few men. They're going to attack from that side first, and perhaps draw off some of the guards. As soon as we hear that it's out turn. Weren't you listening when I gave my little speech back at camp?"
Tifa did not reply, just tried to look contrite.
They fell silent. Tifa stared at the camp. Other than the spotlights by the entrances, she could see no other light, not even from the buildings. It wasn't that late, she didn't think that everyone was asleep. Perhaps the windows were covered up.
Suddenly the unmistakable sound of gunfire could be heard. A moment later there were some shouts from below. One of the guards turned and ran into the darkness.
"Okay," Barret said. "This is it. Let's move out!"
With that he leaped ahead of them, running down the slope, his gun arm blazing, the other men right behind him. Cid and Tifa both hesitated, Tifa feeling a rush of both fear and adrenaline. There was no turning back now. It was time to stop worrying about things and get something done. Only a moment they hesitated, then they were following the others down the slope as fast as they could go.
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