Balance of Power Chapter 17
By Frank Verderosa & Jen Bond
The sun was pulling low in the sky, casting muted orange and red tones in the lines between the clouds. Cid watched it, hands tucked in his pants as the faint smell of burnt fish lingered on the air around him. It was silent here, yet, he could never quite feel alone. Maybe it was the shell houses, weather beaten and scattered randomly. It almost seemed as if the spirits of the Cetra that had lived here once lingered. In a way, it was comforting. As much as it could be, anyway.
Swiveling his head, he glanced over his shoulder at the remains of his fire. The charred remnants of the logs were now only black soot. Every so often, a piece would wander off and be carried away by the wind. Nearby, on a crudely crafted wooden plate, sat the last of his dinner. He had never been very good at cooking, and it seemed the time he had spent here hadn't improved his skills any. Not that it mattered overly much. He hadn't been eating very well. As a matter of fact, he had dropped two pant sizes in the last three months. Before long, he was going to look like a walking skeleton.
He was smoking less too, until he hardly smoked but one cigarette every now and then. Shocking to anyone that knew him well, but he had just lost interest. As restless as he was, he was constantly moving too. Cid have never been one to sit still. Without the Highwind and the Tiny Bronco to tinker around with, he had nothing to do with his hands. So he passed the time fishing, and taking what felt like endless walks. It was a wonder his damn legs just didn't up and fall off.
Without the specter of war always hanging over his shoulder, nor that constant anxiety that he would be captured, he really had nothing to occupy his attention. Nothing but thoughts. Thinking was another thing he strived to do as little of as possible. At least, thinking for long stretches. His mind was a twisted little bastard that made his body a very uncomfortable place to inhabit at times. And the thoughts that had been keeping him company since the end of the war were far from pleasant ones.
Flexing his hands absently, he pulled them from his pants and stared blankly at the nasty scratch stretching across the thin skin between his thumb and index finger. Fishing hadn't agreed with him to begin with. He had gotten one on the line, jerked up, only to lose it and find that the hook had found another target. That incident had given rise to a few curse words he hadn't even known were in him. He was as outdoors as the next man, but foraging for your own food was a whole hell of a lot harder than it looked. Especially the cooking part of it.
Twisting, he cast a glance over the rise of the path as it tapered down into the main part of the city. Hard to believe this was once teeming with life. But, like as with many things, the tranquility had been shattered with war. Only, in this one, the good guys had lost. Yet, for all they won in this war, a lot had been destroyed along the way. Maybe that was why he could only feel passing relief at the end of the war, but not joy. People had died, lives had been shattered, and land had been torn up and littered with weapons, bodies, and the remains of life. He was glad it was over, but there was nothing to be ecstatic for. There was too much to mourn.
He thought too, that if forgot all that had been lost along the way, you got too complacent, forgot the reason for fighting to begin with, and repeated the same mistakes over again. He had seen one war like this. When Shinra had taken on Wutai. It would happen again. Another generation would rise, that had only the stories and vague memories of the war. Someone would become greedy for power, and it would start all over again. He thought it was damned stupid. The mass of humanity as a whole, had a selective memory. Reach as far back into history as you wanted, and somewhere, it was the same.
He supposed he shouldn't be thinking about this. There wasn't a damn thing he could do to change it. Throughout the stretch of this last war, he had come to realize that clearly. What was going to happen, would. But he would be damned if he sat back and took it. The next time... if one came around when he was still fit enough to do something, he would probably find himself involved somehow. After all, this time, he didn't have anything to lose. He didn't have a home to go back to, and his heart just wasn't in rousing the effort to re-build a town that had come about because of him in the first place. Let someone else do it if they wanted it so badly. He was going to stay here.
Here. In the Ancient City. A place that was deserted, a place that held bad memories. Yet, oddly enough, he felt as peaceful here as he could any other place. Maybe more. It was only him, and that suited him just fine. He didn't think he could bring himself to hang around a bunch of people. He had gotten all he could of people during the war. Except for a select few, he was not overly impressed. Hardship brought out the monster that lurked in everyone, and you soon found who your true friends were. He had. And a nice slap in the face it was each time.
Turning, he looked away from the cooled embers of his fire behind and gazed back down the path. Weeds and other plant life sprawled across it, but it was easy enough to make out. He made this walk nearly every day, but the image of the shell houses as he came over the hill and started down, never lost their impact on him. Maybe it was because of Aeris' sacrifice here, and how the loss of her had been a difficult blow. For all he knew, that was partly why he was here. Out of all the places as far from what was left of Rocket Town, he had chosen this one. A friend was here. She wasn't alive, but if you followed all that lifestream stuff Bugenhagen had spouted, her spirit lingered.
He turned again. His boots made dull thudding sounds against the ground as walked toward the lake, a noise that appeared louder here. Cid listened to them for a while, letting himself get lost in the rhythmic pattern. He wasn't entirely certain how long he had been out here today. Not that it mattered overly much. Time wasn't a restraint that hindered him here. There were no schedule to adhere to, nothing that needed to be done. He was free. What he did, where he went, was his choice. It should have been liberating, but it wasn't. Cid was used to doing things his way, but the whole "I only need myself" routine didn't sit well with him.
When he finally stopped, it was to find himself at the water's edge. The startling clear lake stretched out before him, its calm only interrupted by the faint breeze creating small ripples as it passed over the surface. Looking down, he caught his reflection. It was leaner, giving him more of a hard edge than a youthful appearance. The eyes that stared back at him were darker blue, with a softness and a cynicism that hadn't been there before. Whether he wanted them to or not, things had taken their toll on him. The cost was clearly evident.
Alone. There should have been another reflection wavering beside him. He had promised as much. But he had been unable to deliver that promise, and it was one he had wanted to keep so badly. Three months. Three long months he had searched for her, only to find his efforts futile. The panic, the anger, the depression, they had all held him in their grip, an unpleasant mix. It was only know that he felt some sense of relief from them. But it changed nothing. Tifa was gone. And it was about time he accepted it.
He hadn't quit. For so long he had searched for her, thinking that she had to be alive somewhere. She had to be. Those three months spent looking had been worse than all the time they had spent running. The frustration, the fear, and the unknown had eaten at him until they were all he knew. No matter what anyone said, he would not given up. Sleep, food... they had all been an afterthought, not a necessity. But in the end, he had not found her, or even a trace of something that would lead him to her. Eventually he had found himself with no place left to look, and he had finally been forced to realize that he might never find her. So he came here, isolated himself, and tried to deal with it.
It wasn't easy then, and it wasn't easy now. It wasn't fair, this not knowing. It would have been better if he had found her, or her grave. It would have been better to know for sure that she was gone, that she had at least been taken care of in the end. It would have been better to end the questions. Anything would have been better than this limbo. After all this time, it was too much to hope for that she was alive, but he knew the doubt would linger with him for the rest of his life. What he felt for her wouldn't pass until he knew for sure, and the pain of loss was something he tried to push away, with only minimal success. He had made himself believe so strongly that she was still alive, that actual reality of it was lost on him. He had refused to accept that she was gone, had not let anyone tell him otherwise, and had lived in limbo for so long. But he had to let go of that. He had spent enough time being consumed by it, and knew that if he kept at it, he was going to destroy himself. Cid had never been very good at letting go of something he wanted, and now was no exception.
Lowering himself carefully, he settled onto a relatively clear patch of dirt. Bending his knees, he reached over and picked up a few smooth stones.
Fingering them in his palm for a few moments, he stared out across the lake. The sun reflected from it as it set. The colors had burned deeper, and they left molten red light behind. It made the water seem as though it were made of blood. Fitting, he thought, as he snapped his wrist back and hurled in the first rock. It fell with a satisfying plunk. There were three left. He threw them consecutively, listening to the slight change in pitch the size of the stones caused when they hit.
But it was the fourth splash that caught his attention. He had only been holding three rocks.
Alarm infusing through him at the realization he was not alone, he pulled quickly around. What his eyes met, shocked him enough that he jerked once before falling completely still. He could only stare. A million thoughts crowded themselves into his mind, mingling with dozens of questions, but none of them made it to his lips.
A vision stood in front of him, a vision he never thought he'd see again. For a moment he was tempted to close his eyes, to rub them to see if it was dust, if it was just an illusion. But he didn't. He didn't dare. If this was an illusion, he didn't want it to go away.
He had often thought of what he would do if put in this position, but those thoughts all fled now, when faced with the reality of the situation. All he could do, was let his eyes roam over her, enjoying the sight of her, while his brain scrambled to catch up.
She walked slowly forward, until she stood just a few paces from him. He didn't say anything. He didn't move. He didn't dare. He as afraid that somehow he would break the spell, that somehow the City of the Ancients had worked some kind of magic on him, that it was showing him what he wanted to see, but wasn't real.
She looked thinner, paler, a bit wane. But he thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen in his entire life. If he never saw another thing beyond this, he wouldn't care. He didn't care, either, as he stumbled to his feet, if he looked like an idiot.
"How are you?" she said softly.
Somehow the sound of her voice seemed to break the spell. It wasn't an illusion. She was really there. Really alive. Somehow, against all hope, he had found her. Or rather, she had found him. But all that mattered, was that she was alive, and she was here. Tifa was here. And he wasn't alone any longer.
"Tifa," he managed to say, though his whole body felt weak, his vocal cords numb. "How?"
She looked down for a moment.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I was hurt badly. But I guess you know that already. I didn't find out myself until later. I don't remember much, at first. I was in a coma for four months. They didn't think I was going to make it. And when I finally regained consciousness, I was so weak. I didn't get out of bed for weeks, and it took me this long before I could travel again. But I was hoping you'd be here."
"But..." Cid managed to say. His brain coudn't seem to catch up to reality. "But where were you? I searched...I searched everywhere."
"I know," Tifa replied. "They told me. I was taken to a field hospital. But it was overrun shortly thereafter. One of the medics was from around there. He knew the area. He took me up into the mountains, to some people he knew who lived there. Someplace so remote it was barely touched by the war. Someplace he knew I'd be safe. He left me there to get others, but he never came back."
Cid just stood there, not knowing what to say, not knowing where to begin. He didn't have the words to express the feeling of having her beside him again.
"They told you?" he said, rather inanely. "The others? You've seen them?"
"Yes," she replied. "Both Yuffie and Red are still in Wutai, rebuilding. They told me what happened, about the mission. They told me everything. About what you said to them, and how you took off and just disappeared. They're worried."
"I don't give a damn," he growled. "I just.."
"I know," she said. "It's not important."
They stood there looking at one another in silence for a moment.
"Cid," she said, slowly, tentatively.
"Tifa, I..." he began.
"No, let me say this," she cut him off. But still she hesitated a moment. She came up beside him, but turned her head and looked out toward the lake.
"Cid. I had a dream. When I was hurt. It wasn't a pleasant dream. The world was at war. Everything was going wrong. My friends were turning against me. My life was a shambles. There was no place to turn, no place that was safe. And the only thing I had to hold onto was one friend. One friend who stood by me. One friend who ended up having to make a terrible choice. Who gave up everything he had, who was willing to sacrifice everything, everything he believed in. His freedom. His life. For me. And in the end...in the end...he told me he loved me."
Cid immediately looked down and dug his boot into the dirt, hoping she wouldn't notice the redness of his face. He started when he felt her hand wrap around his.
"Uh yeah," he sputtered. "About that. You shouldn't pay no attention to that. It was just the ranting of a stressed out old man..."
"No," she said, and the sharpness of her voice made him lift his head to look at her.
"Don't say that," she said, looking right at him now. "You're not an old man. And I don't think you were ranting. Or at least, I hope not."
His eyes widened.
"When I kissed you, after what happened with Cloud," she continued before he could say anything. "I was trying to reach out for someone, because of what had happened. It didn't mean anything, and you knew that."
"And for a long time after, I wasn't sure of my feelings," she went on. "We were so close. We had spent so much time together. I couldn't separate how I felt from what had happened to me. I couldn't tell if what I was feeling was real."
Cid wasn't sure where she was going, but he couldn't stop himself from staring into her eyes.
"You saved my life Cid. If you hadn't come back for me, if you hadn't called for help, I'd have died. I owe you my life, and there's no way I can repay that. Saying thanks just pales in comparison. But thank you anyway. Even so, that's not important. It doesn't matter what you did, or what I did. What matters is I don't have anymore doubts. And I don't think you do either. What you did for me, that was more than just friendship, wasn't it? You don't make sacrifices like that for friendship. Or at least I hope you don't. So please don't tell me you were ranting. Don't tell me you were just saying that to try to cheer me up. You told me loved me, and I want to believe it. I want to believe it because...because..."
He felt his hand involuntarily tighten around her's as he saw tears forming in her eyes.
"I want to believe it because...I love you too," her words drifted to him. And for the second time that day he felt a shock run through his body. For a moment he made no move at all, too overwhelmed to even think.
"Tifa, you don't know what you're saying," he finally stuttered. "You know how stubborn I am. You know how I'm set in my ways, how I treated Shera. You don't deserve..."
But he was cut off as she pulled him to her and pressed her lips against his.
He didn't think his heart could take many more shocks.
For a moment his hands hung limply by his sides. The first thing he thought of was the last time this had happened. How devastated Tifa had been, how she had wanted to grasp at anything, just to know that someone cared about her.
After a moment his hands came up to her shoulders.
He had pushed her away then. It had been the right thing to do. He hesitated.
But things had changed. He could feel it. It wasn't just anyone she was kissing. She wasn't doing it to feel needed, to run from her past. She wasn't just reaching out blindly. She was reaching out to him. To Cid. The cantankerous old pilot who didn't have the slightest idea how to treat a woman. But somehow, in spite of all that, he had managed to win her heart. If that wasn't a goddam miracle, then there never was one.
What am I doing, he thought suddenly. He was being kissed by a beautiful woman and instead of enjoying it he was waxing philosophical? What the hell was the matter with him? Miracle or not, he wouldn't want it any other way.
He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer to him, tightly to him, so they were closer than he had ever been to anyone, closer than he had ever wanted to be to anyone. It was a long time before he finally lifted his head.
"I wasn't ranting," he said slowly. "I do love you. More than I've ever loved anything in my entire life."
"I'm happy, Cid," she said. "We lost a lot. Everyone did, I guess. But it's over now. And we made it. Maybe, just maybe, things will get better now. Maybe we can finally have some peace."
"I hope so," he replied. "Things sure couldn't have gotten much worse."
She looked at him and nodded.
"But it doesn't matter," he continued. "I lost the Highwind and the Bronco. I lost Rocket Town. We lost some friends. We lost just about everything, I guess. But we've got each other. And that's all that matters to me anymore."
She rested her head against his chest. Looking down at him a moment she lifted her head again.
"You've lost some weight," she observed.
She stepped away from him, eyeing him critically.
"Yeah, I guess I have," he replied.
"Haven't been eating well?" she asked.
He shook his head.
"I've been living mostly on fish," he replied. "But it's kinda hard to get the knack of cooking them properly."
She glanced over and saw the burnt remains of his dinner.
"So I see," she said, noticing that he still had two uncooked fish. "It's not really that difficult. Would you like me to do the honors?"
"You're an angel," he replied.
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