Balance of Power Chapter 16

By Frank Verderosa & Jen Bond

The cell was cold, the kind of cold that seeped through your clothing and settled into your bones. Beneath him, the ground was hard and damp from inadequate air flow. Shadows stretched long across the far wall, creating distorted shapes that moved if you watched them from the corner of your eyes. The space around him seemed so small, that it pressed in on him from every side. The air was stale, and it was all he could do to take the next lungfull of it. But then, with the way he smoked, he figured he shouldn't be worried about damaging his lungs any.

Cid sat with his back pressed against the wall, one leg stretched out before him, the other tucked up near his chest, where one arm rested carelessly across it. Dull, blue eyes were fastened on the door, with its thin, rusted metal bars for a window, as if that act alone could will it open. But in all actuality, he just needed something to look at. The view the cell afforded him, was not exactly the most pleasant one. Besides, he had given up on ever getting out of here alive in the countless hours that had passed with excruciating slowness. Hours, days, weeks. He had had no way to tell how long had been cooped in here. Night fell and the next day came, but he didn't keep track. It just didn't seem to matter anymore.

He felt drained, and defeated, in a way that had never touched him before, not even when things got rough during their wild chase after Sephiroth. Wutai and Junon had pushed them to running, to living from day to day, and had finally worn them down. No, beaten them down. He supposed he should be pissed. Anger seemed like something that required too much energy, however, and he just didn't have any to spare.

Everything he and Tifa did to stay alive was for nothing. That was like a litany, pounding over and over in his head. He had finally surrendered like he should have done in the beginning, but it was too late. For all he knew, she could be dead. What could he have done though? It had been the only thing left open to him. It had been that, or letting her die for certain. He wished, however, that it was any comfort to him. He couldn't help but feel that this entire mess was his fault. If he had just given himself over to Wutai in the first place, none of this would have happened...

Lowering his head until he chin rested against his chest, he sighed, the act pulling at his shoulders and renewing the ache in his back. He wasn't so arrogant as to think that one action on his part could alter the entire course of the war. He knew what giving in to them to begin with would have done. Spared his town, for a bit, while he made weapons of mass destruction. Then, more people would have died. But, selfish as it was, he couldn't think about all the other people out there now. He could only think of Tifa, and the mess he had gotten her in. He could only think about the realization of his feelings for her, and how they had changed the way he looked at everything. He could only think about how none of it mattered now.

It was ironic, how he had lost both of the only women he had ever cared for to the same war. And as with Shera, he had not realized he loved Tifa until it was too late.

"Always draggin' your feet..." he muttered, the sound of his own voice oddly hollow to his ears.

Cid had always gone for whatever it was he wanted without hesitation. He had shoved his way through the ranks in the air force until he had one that suited him. He had made certain it was him that was him in charge of the construction of the Highwind, and then had christened it with his own name. He had badgered Palmer until the man proposed the Shinra 26 project to the President. He had pushed the others on with harsh words when their doubts caused them to question the chances of success when taking on someone as powerful, and elusive, as Sephiroth. And yet, when it came to his own personal life, his own personal feelings, he dug his heels in and hedged until he lost the chance.

What was it about caring for someone that made him shy away? He would rather be in a torn up airplane, barreling down to the Planet at break-neck speed, than face his feelings. Odd too, that love was the only thing said to be comparable to flying. But maybe it was, that with love, you weren't the only one in control. You had to depend on another person, to return your feelings, to make the other half of a partnership that was as fragile as glass. It was all a risk, a great gamble, one that he had always avoided. He saw how losing his mother had effected his old man. Jay Highwind had never been with another woman again. Maybe he was afraid the same thing would happen to him. It was stupid, but it was there anyhow.

What was that saying? Better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all? He didn't buy into that crap. It hurt to lose someone. It was better to never feel that hurt, than to have a taste of happiness for only a short while. Thinking that, however, didn't stop the regrets from flooding his mind.

He kept thinking of the moments when he had looked at Tifa, and had shoved his feelings aside. What would have been different, had he told her? And would it have really mattered? What would she want with someone like him? He was grouchy, messy, and set in his ways. He had habits that he didn't want broken, ways of doing things that called for solitude, not company. You couldn't change all that just because you loved someone.

Yet, he couldn't deny that his time spent with her had forced him to re-evaluate what was important. It hadn't just been the war that did it either. He had been through one harrowing situation once before, and had come out of it with a taste for flying and dreams of outer space still lurking in the corners of his mind. At the moment, those were distant seconds to finding out if Tifa was alive. For the first time in his life, he had put something above flying. Not even Shera had been able to replace them in his mind. Only Tifa. She was all that mattered to him now. He could care less whether he ever got the Tiny Bronco back, or if there was anything salvageable left of the Highwind. If only she was alive...

Weariness gave way to frustration, and Cid gripped the fabric of his pants, wishing he had a cigarette to calm his nerves. Smoking would have e given him something else to do, something else to focus on for a while. He had no way of knowing how long he had been in here, or how long he would be until someone finally came to see him. It was probably all part of their strategy. Make him worry, make him edgy, make him desperate. So that when they finally did pull him out of here, he would do whatever they asked him. If Tifa was still alive they would use her as a bargaining chip as well.

No, Tifa was alive. He had to think that. He couldn't think of her like she was gone already.

"I won't let you bastards get to me," he swore, with more heat than he felt.

Jerking his head up, he let it fall against the stone, not caring if the act intensified the pounding in his skull. Staring blindly at what passed for a ceiling, he told himself that he wasn't going to let them badger him into anything. He had done this for Tifa's sake, not so that they could finally get out of him what they had been seeking all along. He hated having to do it this way, though. It had been the only choice, but it had also given Wutai exactly what they wanted. What was to say the wouldn't consider Tifa expendable? Now that they had him... what would they need with her? And if not expendable, certainly a bargaining chip. After his little escapade, after he had shown them how much he cared for her, after he had advertised his weakness to them, they'd be fools no to exploit that. If they threatened to kill her if he didn't obey them, what would he do? What would he do?

Smoothing his hand out, he willed himself to relax. But it was difficult, when he felt as though he were wound tighter than spring. He wanted to believe that she was still alive, that someday this pathetic war would end, and that Barrett hadn't died for nothing. Just think of that. Just take one small step at a time. Find out if she was alive first, then worry about the consequences. It was the only think he could do.

"Jesus..." he closed his eyes, a shaky breath escaping.

He had very nearly forgotten. Barrett had given up his life to protect others. Was he going to sit in here, bitching and moaning, and waste that sacrifice? He had pulled through worse odds. He had survived before when it seemed his luck was just about to run out. There was nothing he could do at the moment, but he had to at least believe. Believe... in what?

It was hard. A part of him wanted to fight, but a part of him also wanted to give in. When there was nothing left to believe in, where did you pull the faith from? Barrett was dead, Shera was dead, so many of their friends had betrayed them... The war was still raging on outside, Tifa might be dead, and he was sitting in this cell, his hands as good as tied. What in the hell could he do? Things had never looked so bleak. And he hated more than anything being stuck in here, not knowing, and unable to do a thing.

Sometimes, he thought, if he had it all to do again, he wouldn't have left Rocket Town that first time, and let them pull him into their schemes. He would have stayed behind instead, rotting away while he stared up at that stupid, rusted rocket. He would have continued treating Shera horribly, and he would have died a cranky old man, never having known what it felt like to fight for the right to be alive. His entire existence would have went more smoothly. But he never would have tasted outer space, never would have stood on what seemed like the edge the world, nearly dying, and worst of all, he never would have met Tifa.

Maybe it was worth it then. But it felt like their fight had been for nothing. They had worked to save this Planet, only to have it torn apart like this. There had been moments, and still were, that Cid wondered if it wouldn't have been better off for them to have failed. The people had learned nothing from nearly having it destroyed. It was apparent that without the threat of Meteor looming over them, the days spent in terror faded from their minds. Someone always had to own it. First Shinra, and now Junon and Wutai. They wanted to cut the land up and divvy it off as if it were for sale. The land belonged to no one, and by the time they got done, there would be nothing left.

Closing his eyes, he sank into darkness, his arms falling limply at his sides. It annoyed him, the way none of them could see how stupid they were being. It was never enough for them. They always had to have more. People could never be content with what they were given. Maybe not even him, but he had never tried to take it by force. He had never tried to take it the expense of another. If he made it out of here, he was going to start over again somewhere, and he wasn't going to take another day of his life for granted. No matter how much he had to remind himself. He was going to remember this. He was never going to forget.

Slanting his head to the side, he opened his eyes and caught the flash of blue that was his jacket. He had had this thing for such a long time. It was worn, and faded, patches of it now covered in mud, and blood. Tifa's blood. Shoving that thought away, he focused on what the jacket meant to him instead. Anything to take his mind from the dark, purple-ish stains.

It was probably foolish to have kept it so long, and to insist on wearing it. It was as symbol to him, however. He would always have the rank of Captain, and always have his wings, no matter how much Shinra had taken away from him. Funny, how those feelings of hatred and bitterness toward Shinra had faded though. After nursing them for so many years, they had almost become a part of him. But the events that led up to where he was now, made his grudge against Shinra seem like such a ridiculous thing. After all, the company had crumbled and the people he had to blame were pretty much gone. And from all that, he had gained a sense of freedom. Holding on to the past was a tedious thing, that weighed you down and kept you from walking forward.

Yet, for all he realized that, it hadn't done him much good where it really mattered. He had always thought he was put on this Planet to fly. When that had been taken away from him, he had wanted to die. Now, he realized the whole reason for him being here was to spend his life doing something he loved, with someone he loved. And it killed him, to know that it might be too late for that. He had wasted all his time running away, from Wutai, and his feelings, and both had held fast, and brought him around full circle. He should have known better than to run.

Cid laughed suddenly, harshly, and without mirth. "You're such an old fool. Nice time to admit to bein' an idiot, when there's nothin' you can do about it."

Pulling a hand down his face, and then up through his hair, he tugged on the unkempt strands, feeling frustration once again take hold and eat at him. If he was smart, he would get up and walk around a bit to work some of the anxiety off. As it was, he could barely feel his backside, and his bad knee was throbbing dully from being forced in the same position for so long. He just couldn't bring himself to move.

Sleeping probably would have been something else he was better off doing than sitting here thinking. He couldn't remember having one decent, uninterrupted nights sleep since he and Tifa were driven from Rocket Town. They were either filled with nightmares, or he was jerked awake at odd hours. None of that was hardly surprising, however. A lot had happened in a short time. The last thing he wanted to do while in here was sleep. He had to, of course, but he didn't want to. Like everything else in his life now, sleep was something to be shunned.

Fortunately, he hadn't done much of it in the days he had spent here. Not as worried as he was. Which, was another thing he hated doing. Cid could remember a time when he left worrying up to the others. But that was before he really cared for something. No, someone. The fact was, until he knew how Tifa was, he could do nothing more than sit here, thinking. Which only made it worse, of course, since there was nothing he could do about it.

He wasn't that tired anyhow. Just weary. There was a difference. One left him unable to function, the other left him unable to move. He could think clear enough, though he wished he couldn't. It was his exhaustion with the entire situation that held him down. Just when it seemed things couldn't possibly get worse, they did. For some reason, it had never occurred to him that one of them could die. Or worse yet, that she could die. He had expected something might happen to him. There was always that risk in the middle of circumstances like this.

He would have rather it had happened to him.

Wishing, however, wasn't going to change anything. Neither was giving up. So, for her sake, and for anyone else that had lost while fighting, he would hold out to the end. Even if they had to kill him, he wasn't going to give them what they wanted. Not if he could help it.

"You can all kiss my ass," he said aloud, a ghost of his usual grin crossing his lips.

As if someone had been listening, the lock rattled briefly. Then the door opened. Cid didn't pay much attention. It was an annoying distraction. Was it feeding time again? That was the only reason his captors ever entered his cell. If you could call that gruel they had been feeding him food at all. But he didn't care. It didn't matter. Time seemed to have lost all meaning for him. Everything had. He didn't even bother to look up.

He heard footsteps approach, a soft tread on the concrete floor. If Cid had been paying attention he might have realized it didn't sound like the boots of one of the soldiers.

"Cid," said a familiar female voice.

Now he did look up, startled. Two figures stood in front of him. Two people he never thought he would ever see again. From the footsteps he thought it was only one person, but the soft pads at the bottom of Red's paws muffled any sound. The footsteps had belonged to the female. The young woman who was now looking down at him curiously.

Cid stared at them, too shocked and surprised to react. For a moment a thousand different thoughts tumbled through his head. All of them bad. What were they doing here? Had they been captured too? Had Cosmo Canyon fallen to Wutai forces? Did any of this have to do with what he had done?

"Yuffie," he said slowly.

She no longer had on her sleeveless shirt and shorts that he was accustomed to. She wore instead the fatigues of any one of the countless soldiers he had seen lately. Her hair was longer, falling almost to her shoulders. But it was her face that had changed the most. When they had first met she had been sixteen, barely more than a child to him. She had looked even younger with her baby face. She didn't look like that anymore. Her face was thinner, her cheeks more pronounced. She no longer sported her mischievous grin, the trademark gleam in her eye. Her face was serious. The face of an adult, an adult who had seen more than her share of war. She'd had to grow up in a hurry, and Cid had to admit the change didn't thrill him.

"Cid," Red said, stepping forward before Yuffie could speak. "I'm afraid..."

Red paused, obviously flustered. He wasn't sure how to proceed. This was not something he was used to doing. He almost hadn't come at all. But he owed Cid this, at least. To stand in front of him, to tell him the truth, and let him judge for himself. Red had promised himself that he would do this, if by some miracle Cid had survived. It was the only way for him to salvage even a tiny bit of his honor.

"I'm afraid I wasn't completely honest with you," he started again. Then he shook his head. "No, that's not right either. There's no sense in sugarcoating it. I lied to you, Cid. About everything. I'm sorry, but you deserve to know the truth, no matter how it may make me look."

Cid didn't know what to say. Red's words just left him even more confused. What were they doing here?

"The mission to save Dr. McKindle wasn't meant to succeed," Red continued. "Wutai knew all about it. I know this because...because I'm the one who told them."

Cid's eye's widened at Red's admission. What the hell was going on? What was Red saying? He stared at Nanaki, but the red beast lowered his eyes. He couldn't face the pilot. Cid had never seen him look so miserable.

"What the hell are you talking about?" Cid said, the words exploding out. Could this be true? Cid felt bitter anger welling up inside him. Red had told Wutai of the plan? Red had betrayed them? He could hardly believe what he was hearing. He looked at them both as if it were some kind of joke. But both their faces were deadly serious. All those people killed. Barret had sacrificed his life. And Tifa..."

"Let me explain," Yuffie cut in, stepping forward. Cid turned toward her angrily, but managing to control the outburst that was building up inside him. An outburst he knew he wouldn't be able to control much longer.

"Wutai and Junon had just fought a major action near Gongaga," Yuffie said. That wasn't news to Cid. He had walked through the battlefield himself. Not that he cared at this point anyway.

"There's been fighting up and down the entire front for weeks," Yuffie continued. "Wutai had to commit almost all it's reserves to hold the line. Though their forces were still strong, they were scattered. They didn't have a lot of soldiers in the city of Wutai itself. They didn't expect an attack there. They thought they were safe. They thought the rebels weren't strong enough to confront them openly. But Red and I determined we might be able to beat them, if we could just draw off a few more of their forces. We needed a diversion."

She hesitated, looking at him. It didn't take him long to realize who the diversion had been. He wasn't stupid. He could see now where she was going with this. His frown deepened.

"Absolute secrecy had to be maintained," Red spoke up again. "If Wutai found out what we were really up to, everything would have been ruined. We knew we were only going to get one shot at this."

Red bowed his head.

"That's why I couldn't tell you," he went on. "I wanted to, but the Elders told me it wouldn't be wise, that the fewer who knew what we were really up to, the better. I listened to them. I shouldn't have, but I did. I deliberately sent you into a trap Cid. I was willing to sacrifice both you and Tifa. I'm sorry. I know it's no comfort, but it was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do. I won't hold it against you if you hate me."

"The Warlord in Wutai couldn't pass up the opportunity," Yuffie cut in again. "Neither side was assured of victory, and each was striving desperately to gain the upper hand. Wutai needed those rockets, and they needed you. Here Red was giving them an opportunity not only to achieve that, but to get rid of the rebels, all in one fell swoop. It was irresistible. They sent most of their troops that were left in Wutai to the research center. This left them critically weak in the city itself."

Irresistible, Cid thought foolishly, his head spinning. A ruse. A diversion. That was all they were. For a moment he almost laughed. All that anguish, all that pain he had caused himself, questioning the decisions he had made, thinking he had ruined everything, and it had meant nothing. No one had expected them to succeed, no one had expected them to bring Dr. McKindle back. They had just been pawns the whole time.

But it was real people's lives that had been sacrificed.

"We attacked as soon as we knew that Wutai had fallen for the bait," Yuffie said. "We caught them completely by surprise. What few troops remained were overwhelmed by rebel forces. We took the capitol, Cid. I killed the Warlord myself. We've opened peace talks with Junon and a cease fire has been declared. It's over Cid. We stopped the war. And we succeeded because of you."

If that was supposed to make him feel better, he thought bitterly, it wasn't going to work. Not him. It hadn't just been him. The commandos, the scientists, they had all had a hand in it, even those who had been left behind. It was some comfort at least to know that they hadn't died in vain, that Barret's sacrifice had not been for nothing after all. He supposed he should be happy. He had thought that by his own selfish actions he had ruined everything, that he had handed the war to Wutai. But it had all gone according to plan. He had done just what had been expected of him. He'd been a good little soldier. He'd probably be hailed as a goddam hero.

Some hero. A million emotions swirled through him, a million thoughts filled his head. But out of everything, one question was uppermost in his mind.

"What about Tifa," he said hesitantly. It was a question he had to ask, even though he was afraid of the answer he might get.

They didn't respond. Both of them avoided eye contact with him. Inside his chest, it felt like a hand had grabbed his heart and started to crush it.

"We haven't found her," Yuffie eventually spoke up. "No one's seen or heard from her. We checked all the military and civilian hospitals, but she wasn't in any of them. We don't know what happened to her."

Cid stood there in silence. He wanted to ask more questions, wanted to know how much they had done, how hard they had tried. They both had governments to run, they both had their hands full. How much time had they spent looking for one person? One person they had been perfectly willing to sacrifice to obtain their goals in the first place?

Nevertheless, they must have done some searching, and they hadn't found her. Cid felt the knot in his stomach tighten.

"But that's no reason to give up hope," Red said, making an attempt at reassurance An attempt that seemed particularly hollow to Cid. "It's been nothing but chaos since the battle. People were fighting everywhere, and it still hasn't sorted itself out completely. I don't think anyone really knows everything that's going on right now. There were dozens of field hospitals that sprang up during the battle. Some of them disappearing just as quickly. She could have been treated in one of them. She could still be alive Cid, but we just don't know."

"That's right," Yuffie agreed. "We'll help you find her anyway we can Cid. Whatever you need, just ask. The war ended because of what you did. We're all in your debt. There's still a lot of work to be done. I know it won't make up for what you did, but I'm the leader of Wutai now, I can make you a general. I can help you rebuild the Highwind. Hell, I can even help you build a spaceship if you want."

Cid's fury had been building up for some time mow, and that nearly set it off. What the hell did she think, that a goddam spaceship would make up for what happened? That it would make up for the death of all those people? That it would make up for what they'd done to him, for what they'd done to Tifa? But it wasn't really surprising, coming from Yuffie, who always seemed to put more importance on her stash of materia than pretty much anything else. And to tell the truth, before this all happened, that argument might have carried more weight with him. Hadn't that been his lifelong dream, to get into space? That seemed so long ago now that it was almost laughable. Funny how his priorities had changed. He'd give up any chance at all to go into space now just to know that Tifa was alive.

He shook his head, managing to control his anger, but he couldn't control his contempt. They planned it all out so well. He had to admit. They couldn't lose. If the plan had failed he'd never have even known. It hadn't, and it's success assured the end of the war. He had been used, yes, but how could he complain when peace was the end result?

He turned and looked at Red, and his stare was so withering that Red had to turn away.

"I can understand what you did to me," Cid said, his voice cutting the air like a knife. "I can understand the motivation, and the sacrifice. I can understand you sending me in there. I was the perfect lure. I might have done the same thing in your shoes. But what I can't understand, is why you let me take Tifa. She had nothing to do with this. She wasn't needed. She didn't have to come with me. She was irrelevant to the plot. You could have stopped her. You could have come up with some excuse. But you didn't You just let her go with me, even though you were sure she was going to her death."

"Cid, Red couldn't say anything. The Elders..." Yuffie began.

"Shuddap!" Cid snarled, turning toward her. She cringed back. "Don't give me any of that crap. He could have come up with something. And as for you, you think I give a damn about the Highwind? You think I give a damn about some plane when Tifa might be out there somewhere lying in some unmarked grave like she's nothing! You think I..."'

His voice faltered for a moment, his eyes dropping to the floor. God, he couldn't believe how much he missed her. He couldn't believe he might never see her again, not after all they had gone through. Not now after it was all over.

He looked back at Yuffie again.

"I don't care about the Highwind," he said heavily. "I don't care about no goddam rocket. There's only one thing I care about. Tifa. And I'm going to find her."

He stepped forward, shoving Yuffie out of the way. She turned to stare at him as he walked toward the hallway leading out of the room. She frowned, but the angry retort died in her throat. She slowly turned and looked at Red, who returned her gaze, his eyes filled with sadness.

Cid disappeared into the hallway, never turning to look back.


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