Balance of Power Chapter 3

By Frank Verderosa & Jen Bond

Two weeks had passed since the beginning of the war with Junon and Wutai. Night and day, while they prepared for the moment to arise, they kept a vigil of the land and the skies. As they waited, visual signs of fatigue and worry could be seen etched in the faces of every citizen of Rocket Town. It had felt almost like they were holding their breaths in anticipation of an attack, not daring to let their guard down for one moment. Yet no attack came.

It was too much to hope that this small town, built up around the fallen dreams of one man, could be forgotten. But as each day went by, a small seed of hope grew within the inhabitants of the town and many had begun to relax somewhat. They still posted guards to watch throughtout the day and night, each taking a turn, even Cid and Tifa, but those less willing to fight wanted to believe that no war would befall their town.

Cid's parts for installing the gun on the Tiny Bronco arrived, and he and Tifa spent a few days getting that ready to go. Not to mention, there were nightly, tiring meetings to attend. Cid had unofficially been chosen for the leader and that meant answering all the questions they had. And they had quite a few. Sometimes he felt the only thing that made it bearable was Tifa's company.

Leaning on his elbow against the wing of the Tiny Bronco, Cid downed a glass of ice tea and then wiped the cool, wet glass along his sweaty brow. He had been sitting outside with a large group of the men and women assembling guns and--with the aid of Chuck--showing them how to load ammunition and shoot them. Personally, he prefered his spear, but that wasn't the best weapon for distance fighting.

Tifa walked out of the house with her own glass of ice tea and came to stand next to Cid. She took a small sip and glanced at the targets lined up at the end of his yard. Various bullet shells littered his lawn and it looked almost like it was infested with some strange bug.

"Some of them shoot quite well," she remarked.

"Yeah. But I'm hopin' we can avoid it alltogether. I honestly don't know how in the hell we're gonna hold them off, but I'll give it my best shot. Ya know, I haven't thanked ya."

Tifa shrugged, "For what?"

Cid frowned at her, "Whaddya mean, for what? You've been a big help, and I think the only thing that's helped me keep my sanity."

Tifa laughed at that, "They can get a little crazy sometimes, can't they?"

Cid snorted, "Sometimes? If it weren't for it being lunch time, I don't think they would've left."

"Nah. It was me threatening them with your cooking."

"Hey, don't make fun of my cookin'. Just 'cause we can't all cook like you..."

Tifa waved the compliment away with her hand and took another long drink of her tea. It felt really good as it made a cool path down her throat. It seemed, with each day, the temperature rose. She had thought Costa Del Sol was bad, but it seemed to have nothing on Rocket Town.

Cid ran a hand through his hair, making it stand up in little spikes everywhere. "If it wasn't for this damn war, I'd go swimmin'."

Tifa stared out across the town longingly, her eyes on the ocean. The water looked so cool and inviting, but they didn't have time to be wasting that way. It was a pity though, because she could almost feel the water rushing over her body and cooling her down.

"That sounds heavenly," she replied wistfully.

"Yeah, but no time now," Cid replied. "An ambassador from Junon has arrived, and these damn fools," he swept his arm around to indicate the people of Rocket Town, "want me to go talk to him. Don't know who puts all these harebrained ideas in their heads. I ain't no Goddam diplomat."

"You're a pilot, they have a tendency to look up to you," she replied, rather disengeniously.

He cast her a dark look.

"Very funny. Just for that, I'm going to bring you along."

"Me?" she said in surprise. Then she smiled.

"Why me, I ain't no Goddam diplomat," she mimiked.

"And you ain't no freakin' comedienne either, though you seem to think so. Actually, the Ambassador requested your presense.

Tifa looked even more surprised.

"What?" she said. "How does he know me, and how does he know I'm here?"

"How the hell should I know?" Cid replied gruffly. "You're a member of Avalanche. We're quite famous these days, in case you hadn't noticed. And as for how he knows you're here, it's a freaking war, remember? Both sides have probably got spies everywhere."

Tifa fell silent, following Cid as he walked toward the Inn, where the meeting was supposed to take place. Cid was right, of course, it wouldn't be hard to believe that the Ambassador was familar with her name. She supposed that was just the type of thing Ambassadors were supposed to know, though she had to admit she had never really felt very comfortable being famous. And it made her very nervous to hear that the Ambassador knew she was here. If he wanted her to be at the meeting he probably wanted to talk to her, in fact, he probably had a file on her or something and had read all about her, knew all the details of her life. That prospect made her even more nervous. She didn't like this one bit.

But she didn't have much time to ponder the situation. They reached the Inn a short time later and were immediately ushered into a small but well furnished meeting room. A man in a business suit stood by the window, looking out thoughtfully as they entered. He turned toward them immediately and Tifa saw he was a middle aged man with dark brown hair cut short. He looked at them both carefully as he strolled over to them, his gaze lingering just a moment on Tifa. She had never seen him before.

"Thank you for agreeing to meet with me, Mr. Highwind, Miss Lockheart," he stated. "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Dom Lemay. It's a pleasure to make the aquaintence of two people who helped save the planet from destruction."

"Look," Cid said, the word cutting the air like a knife. "I'm not a diplomat or an ambassador. I'm just a pilot from a small town who'e citizens seem to think I may be able to talk to you without screwing things up too badly. So let's dispense with the formalities and just tell me what you want."

The Ambassador shifted gears seamlessly.

"I was informed you were an admirer of speaking plainly," he replied. "Very well. We'd like Rocket Town to join the Junon Union."

"What makes you think we'd have any interest in such a thing?" Cid questioned.

"The fact that the Wutai Confederacy is breathing down your neck, for one thing" the man replied. "Are you aware that even now a force of over five thousand men, including tanks and air support, is massing north of Nibelheim? Our sources indicate that the target of this army is this very town. How long do you think you could stand against that?"

"No one has declared war on Rocket Town," Cid pointed out.

"Do you think that will stop them?" Dom answered, his face revealing that he didn't think so for a minute.

"If what you say is true," Cid stated, making it a point to let the man know that he wasn't going to take it on face value. "We are prepared to defend ourselves."

Dom raised one eyebrow.

"Unless you've got a mako cannon stashed away somewhere, I rather doubt that. Both Wutai and Junon have arial reconnaissance, we both know the extent of your forces. You have to know you wouldn't stand a chance."

Cid stubbonly shook his head.

"Wutai has not attacked us. We have no quarrel with them. The citizens of Rocket Town have made it clear to me that they wish to stay out of this. If Junon and Wutai want to pound the hell out of one another, that's their business. Leave Rocket Town out of it."

"That sounds very nice," Dom replied. "Though a little naive. I say again that Wutai is massing to attack. I can provide proof if you wish. And I ask again, what will you do if they do attack you, and you do not have the protection of Junon?"

"Why would Wutai attack us when they know that doing so would place us firmly in your camp?"

"They obviously think they can overwhelm you before we could come to your aid," the Ambassador replied.

"If they do attack us, then we fight," Cid replied. "If that happens, then we would be more than happy for your help."

"By then it will be too late," the Ambassador replied.

"I don't think so," Cid anwered. "I think if Wutai attacks, we'll be able to hold out long enough for the army you have at Costa del Sol to arrive here in time to help us."

The Ambassador's eyes flickered at the mention of the Junon army at Costa del Sol, but he said nothing.

"You're not the only one who can fly reconiassance missions," Cid commented with satisfaction.

"If you don't join the Union, what makes you think we would come to your aid in the first place?" the ambassador tried.

Cid gave the man a look of disdain.

"We all know the answer to that," he replied, stabbing his thumb toward the window. "Those launch pads out there. They could be invaluable to either of you. We both know damn well Junon won't let them fall into Wutai hands without a fight."

The Ambassador conceded the point by saying nothing more about it.

"And how many lives would be lost in a battle with Wutai before the Junon army arrived to help you, assuming of course, that it could get here in time at all? How many citizens of Rocket Town are you willing to see die? If you join the Junon Union now, we can have an army here at once, so strong that Wutai would not dare attack us. You've be saving hundreds of innocent lives."

"That sounds very nice," Cid replied. "But I've seen what Junon has done to the other cities that agreed to ally with them. They're nothing but puppet states now, with no independence of their own. They're all run from Junon."

"You overstate the extent of Junon's control," Dom suggested.

"No he doesn't," Tifa spoke up for the first time. The both turned to look at her.

"I've lived in Kalm," she said slowly. "I know what Junon has done there. I wouldn't want that to happen to Rocket Town."

The Ambassador looked at her for a moment, then shook his head slowly.

"I'm sure you are sincere when you say that," he said smoothly. "But you'll have to admit you ran a bar, and were not privy to what went on in the higher levels of government in that town. I assure you the citizens of Kalm had more of a say in their affairs than you realize, but some changes had to be made, if only for the towns own protection. We were, after all, on the verge of war, and you can't expect everything to remain the same under those circumstances. Some decisions had to be made, and some sacrifices. There's just no way around it."

"Well, we're not interested in making sacrifies for Junon," Cid said. "As for Wutai attacking, we'll take our chances. We like our independence, and we're not about to join your camp prematurely. Even if there is an army north of Nibelheim, there's no guarentee that they are going to attack Rocekt Town."

"Our intelligence is very good on this matter," Dom replied with a certain pride.

"Or so you'd like us to believe," Cid answered.

The Ambassador rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"I understand your skepticism," he said.

He walked over to a table beside them and opened up an attache case. He pulled out some papers, looked them over for a minute, then picked one out and placed it on the table.

"Take a look at this," he said.

Cid stepped up next to him and saw that the paper was a picture, an arial photograph. He recognized it as Junon almost immediately.

The Ambassador pointed to a spot on the picture.

"What does that look like to you?"

Cid leaned forward to study the picture. He said nothing for quite some time.

"Rocket launch pads," he finally stated.

The Ambassador picked up the picture and quickly put it back in his attache case.

"They weren't completed," Cid pointed out.

"True," Dom replied, not seeming concened. "But they will be, very shortly. We've been working on this around the clock for some time now. And once we have them, Rocket Town will no longer be of consequence to us. But it will still be of great value to Wutai. Somehow I don't think we'll be all that keen on helping Rocket Town defend itself against Wutai aggresion once we have our own launching site, that is of course, unless Rocket Town joins the Junon Union first."

Cid hesitated, and Tifa could see that for the first time the Ambassador had said something to give Cid pause. The whole key to this plan was to play one city off the other by using the luanch site as insurance. If Junon didn't need the launch site, the plan was useless.

"Even if that launch site is ready shortly, which I find highly unlikely," Cid finally said. "It still doesn't mean you have the capability to build missles to fire from it."

"Oh I assure you we are well on our way in that regard as well," the Ambassador replied, with just a hint of smugness.

Cid shook his head.

"It's going to take more than your word to convince me of that," Cid replied. "What I said earlier still stands. We will not join the Union."

The Ambassador reached into his attache case once again and started sifting through the papers once more.

"You're a hard man to convince," he stated. "But I think it's time you faced the cold hard truth. The fact of the matter is, you're playing a very dangerous game here. Rocket Town is a very small town, and I know you're not naive enough to think you could go toe to toe with either Junon or Wutai, so you're hoping to keep your independence by playing one off the other. Very commendable, but it doesn't have a prayer of working. Right now I can offer you very liberal incentives for joining the Junon Union, but that will not last forever. Pretty soon we're going to have our own lauch sites, and then you know what's going to happen? Wutai is going to roll in here, and there's going to be no one to stop them but the young men of Rocket Town who will give their lives bravely but be slaughtered none the less. But it won't stop there. The Wutai Confederacy is rather harsh to towns that oppose them. I'm afraid your lovely city is going to be torn apart, and the rest of the citizens will wish that they had died alongside your brave young men. Do you know what Wutai does to people that oppose them? Even to the wives and children of such people?"

He suddenly turned around and showed them a picture, practically shoving it right in front of Tifa's face. She quickly blanched and turned away. Cid grabbed hold of it and threw it back down on the table.

"There's no need to be showin' us any 'o that!" he exclaimed.

The Ambassador seemed unperturbed.

"Time to face reality, Mr. Highwind," he said. "War isn't a pleasent thing. I don't like to see this happen to anyone anymore than you do. But if you insist on being stubborn about this, I'm afraid you better get used to scenes like that."

"I think I've had enough of this crap," Cid said angrily.

"You wanted plain speech, that's what I gave you," the Ambassador said bluntly.

He picked up the picture and placed it back in his attache case, then snapped it closed.

He looked at Cid.

"I know it's a difficult decision," he said, suddenly sounding very concillatory. "And I know you have the best interests of your town at heart, and I admire that. But surely you must see that trying to remain independent will never work, and can only lead to destruction. I admire your ideals, and I understand how fierce idealism can burn in a people's breast, but as leader of this town it's your responsiblity to see that that idealism is tempered with a dose of reality. Join us now and we can guarentee your safety. Surely any reasonable man would see that that is the best course of action."

Cid stood there in thought for a long moment, and for just a second Tifa thought he might give in. She had to admit what the man said sounded very reasonable.

"No," Cid said finally. He was thinking the man was resonable too, resonable like a snake. "I don't think I can do that."

The Ambassador sighed.

"Very well," he said. "With your permission I will remain in town for a few days. If you change your mind, feel free to contact me. After I leave, however, things may become a bit more diffcult for you in that regard."

Cid looked at him.

"I won't change my mind," he said firmly, his earlier hesitation apparently gone.

The man nodded and turned toward Tifa.

"May I speak to you for a moment, in private?"

Tifa looked at him in surprise, feeling her nervousness suddenly return. She glanced over at Cid and saw that he was fuming. He opened his mouth to speak but then shut it and looked at Tifa.

"Anything you say to me you can say in front of Cid," she said.

The man's eyes flickered to Cid for a moment, but he held firm.

"I need to discuss this with you alone," he stated. "It is a matter of some importance."

Tifa did not reply, but just looked at Cid, who seemed just about ready to explode.

"Go ahead," he finally blurted out. "I'll just be waiting outside, but keep your damn pictures to yourself!"

Cid walked out of the room, muttering under his breath.

"He's somewhat of a hothead," the Ambassador observed after Cid had closed the door.

"Speaking ill of my friends is not going to get you on my good side," Tifa said.

"My apologies," Dom replied immediately. "He seems to be genuinely concerned about his town."

"What did you want to talk to me about?" she asked.

He looked at her for a long moment.

"I wanted to know how you felt about all this."

"Me?" she said. "Why should you care?"

"I care about anything that will help get Rocket Town in the Junon Union," he replied. "You're a famous and respected person, and a close friend of Mr. Highwind. I thought maybe you could talk some sense into him."

"He's perfectly capable of making up his own mind," Tifa said with a hint of anger.

"I realize that," the man replied. "But do you really think that what he is doing is the best thing for this town?"

He looked at her expectantly.

"I don't know," she said hesitantly.

"You know what could happen, you saw the picture," he continued. "That was real, and it could very well happen here. Do you want it to?"

"Of course not!" she exclaimed.

"Mr. Highwind is dong the best he can, but he's confused. Hell we all are. This is war, nobody knows what the right choices are. It's up to his friends to make sure he makes the right decision. It's up to you. You've got to make sure he doesn't do anything to destroy what he is trying to save here."

He stepped over to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

"Tifa, it's your obligation to help Cid make the right decision. You can't just stand by and let him lead you all to destruction, no matter how good his intentions. You've got to make him realize that joining Junon is the right thing to do!"

Tifa pulled away from his hand and turned away. She didn't know what was right. His arguments were all so plausible. She didn't want to see Rocket Town destroyed anymore than Cid did, and it was true that Cid didn't always make the best decisions. But then who did? She certainly wasn't any wiser than he. How could she second guess him?

"I don't know," she said slowly. "I won't go against what Cid wants. I think you're just trying to confuse me."

"I'm telling you the truth," the Ambassador said. "You know that even if you don't want to believe it."

Tifa shook her head.

"I don't think I want to talk about this anymore."

"You can't hide from it," the man replied.

Tifa looked at him helplessly. She wanted to tell him he was wrong, tell him that Cid knew exactly what he was doing, but she couldn't find the words. She couldn't think of anything to say to refute his arguments.

"I'm not a diplomat," she said slowly. "I don't know much about politics. I don't know what's right or wrong here, but I don't think anyone else does either, not even you. Cid has made up his mind, and I won't go against him."

"I realize that," he replied, coming up next to her again, but not touching her. "We're all confused. All I ask is that you think about it. Like I said to Cid, I'll be at the Inn here for a few days. All I ask is that you think over what I've told you. I'm sure you'll end up doing the right thing."

Tifa nodded slowly then turned and walked towards the door.

"And if you need anything, just let me know," he called out from behind her.

She turned around and looked at him again. He had picked up his suitcase. She nodded again.

"I know you don't trust me," he said slowly. "But whether you believe it or not, I'm your friend."

She said nothing more, but turned and walked out of the room.

Cid looked up at her as she came out. She returned his gaze but said nothing until they had left the Inn.

"He tried to convince me to talk you into joining Junon," she said finally. "For your own good. He said he knew I would do the right thing."

Cid nodded slowly. It was obvious that Tifa was upset.

"He was pretty sly," he said. "Trying to convince us with his fancy words that we don't know what we're talking about."

"You're right, of course, but what about those lauch sites by Junon he showed you in that picture. If they are close to completion, then we have nothing to negotiate with."

"I wish I could see them again," Cid replied. "I could see that they weren't finished, but I couldn't tell how far along they were. But even if they are close, as I said to him, they still don't have the missles. He said they were working on that, but who knows how far along they are? No one outside of Rocket Town was working on missle technology until recently, they could be years away from completing a usable weapon."

"Well, I don't know," she said slowly. "He did seem to have a pretty good argument."

Cid stopped for a moment and looked at her.

"What are you trying to say, that you think he was right?" he said in surprise.

She shook her head.

"I don't know. I'm confused. I'm sorry."

Cid nodded and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

"You don't have to be sorry," he said. "We're all confused. None of the decisions we make are going to be easy. Believe me, I stay up every night hoping and praying that I'm doin' the right thing. But no matter what kind of fancy words that guy uses, I know he's not looking out for Rocket Town's best interests. He's the Ambassador to Junon, and will say anything he has to to get us to do what Junon wants us to do. The only one's who are really looking out for Rocket Town is us."

Tifa smiled ruefully and shook her head.

"I don't think I'm cut out for this sort of thing," she said slowly.

"None of us are," Cid replied. "But you better get used to it. The Ambassador from Wutai will be here tomorrow."

Tifa cupped the glass of iced tea in both her hands and walked slowly out into the backyard. The early morning sun had barely risen above the houses to the east, and the dawn sky was still bathed in orange and red, but already it was uncomfortably warm, the heat beating down on her bare shoulders. Looked like it was going to be another scorcher.

Just what they needed, she thought. Between putting together guns, digging trenches and working on the Bronco, it seemed she had worked harder in the last two weeks than she ever had in her life. It didn't help that they had to do it all in ninety degree heat, and in fact a number of people had been stricken with heat exhaustion while working on the defenses, though, fortunately, no one had died.

But their potential enemies had to deal with the same conditions, and she knew the heat wasn't going to slow them down. Although it had taken a lot of hard work, she was proud of what they had accomplished. The town had really pulled together on this, and the defensive perimeter they had been encircling the town with was nearly complete. After all that work, it seemed strange to think that she fervently hoped they would never have to use it, and she had to wonder, if they did have to use it, whether it would accomplish anything.

She walked across the grass and stood beside the Tiny Bronco. They had put a lot of work into that too, and Cid had finally declared it ready for action just last night. She ran her hand slowly along the fusilage, the metal still faintly cool to the touch, but as the sun rose she knew that would change quickly.

A sound suddenly caught her attention. She looked up, for it was the faint yet unmistakable drone of an aircraft. Here eyes scanned the sky, and at first she saw nothing, but then she spotted a small dot in the sky to the north.

She slowly sat down in the grass next to the Bronco. She took a sip from her tea, her eyes following the aircraft, more out of boredom than for any other reason. It was moving very slowly across the sky in her direction. It appeared to be on a track right over Rocket Town, and was very high up.

For a moment she felt uneasy. The couldn't identify the plane. It was too high, and even if it hadn't been, she had no knowledge of aircraft, but she didn't think the plane was from Rocket Town. Which meant that it was probably from either Wutai or Junon. If that were so she wondered what it was doing here. Could the appearence of the plane signal the start of an attack?

She looked at the plane a few moments more and forced herself to relax, realizing that she was being foolish. It was only one plane. If either Junon or Wutai were going to attack, they wouldn't be doing it with a single plane.

Still, it was unusual enough for her to think she should let others know.

She stood up and turned toward the house.

"Cid!" she called out.

She waited a moment, but there was no answer.

"Cid!" she shouted, even louder. "Come outside for a minute!"

"Just a sec!" she heard an answering shout from inside.

She turned to look back at the plane. It was almost directly overhead now. And suddenly she saw that it was not alone. Three other planes had appeared to the west and were rapidly approaching it.

Her uneasiness instantly returned. One plane probably meant nothing, but four...

She looked back toward the house and saw Cid stride out of it, wearing only sweatpants and his hair sticking in all directions.

"Wat'dya want?" he said blearily.

Tifa just pointed. He looked upward and was instantly alert.

"That's a TYA16 scout plane," Cid stated. "It's used by the Junon Air Force for observation."

Even as the said this the plane banked sharply away from the three racing towards it.

"And those are our old friends, the Shinra F11 fighter," Cid said, looking at the other planes.

"So they're not after us?" Tifa questioned.

Cid shook his head.

"No. they're after the scout plane. Look."

The three fighters had closed the gap on the observation plane, which had dived down and was now quite low overhead. The roar of their engines was now plain to hear, and Tifa could see people at some of the nearby houses come out of their homes and look up.

Suddenly Tifa heard the staccatto rattle of gunfire. The observation plane twisted rapidly in the sky, trying to shake the three fighters that were chasing it.

"Can't it fight back?" she asked.

Cid shook his head.

"The TYA16 is for scouting only. It doesn't have any guns."

"Then what's he doing out here anyway?" Tifa questioned. To send a plane out into the middle of a war without any guns seemed pretty idiotic to her.

"Don't know," Cid replied. "Could be any number of reasons. People do strange things in war."

The gunfire above them was almost continuous now, as the fighters closed in. She could see the observation plane turning desperately in it's attempts to avoid the fire.

Tifa looked at the Bronco and then at Cid.

"Can't we do anything?" she questioned hesitantly.

Again Cid shook his head.

"There's nothing I can do except shoot down those three fighters, and that would just give Wutai the perfect excuse to invade Rocket Town. Besides, though the guy seems like a pretty good pilot, he's no match for three F11's. He'll be shot down before we could even get in the air."

As if to prove the truth of Cid's words, Tifa suddenly saw a line of smoke appear behind the scout plane.

The plane turned in a slow arc, back toward them, the fighters tailing relentlessly behind. Suddenly the thin trail of smoke behind the plane turned into a billowing cloud. The nose of the plane dipped down, and it hurtled toward the ground, obviously out of control.

Tifa felt fear suddenly wellling up in her as the plane appeared to be coming right at them.

"Cid," she said slowly, edging over toward him. He just stood there beside her, both their eyes glued on the aircraft. It was approaching rapidly, and Tifa felt herself starting to panic, fighting hard to contain the almost uncontrollable urge to run. She grabbed hold of Cid's arm, her hand tightening around it like a vice, but at the same time anchoring her to the spot. She knew it was idiotic to run. She couldn't tell where it was going to hit, and you couldn't outrun an airplane.

The plane was coming down at a steep angle, the sound the dull roar of a rushing train, and at least as deadly. She could see the flames billowing out of the sides of the plane, filling the sky behind it with black smoke.

In spite of her grip on Cid, for a moment she almost did run. Then the plane had hurtled overhead, not more than a hundred yards above them. With a thunderous crash that shook the ground and nearly knocked them both off their feet, it smashed into the ground half a block away, sending a huge fireball into the air.

"Damn!" Cid shouted and ran off in the direction of the crash. They could both see that at least one house near the scene was afire. Tifa started to follow, but happened to look up and see a billowing parachute floating down through the sky. She could just make out the tiny figure hanging beneath it.

She stopped to look at the figure. He was coming down near the edge of town, in the opposite direction from the crash.

On impulse she started to run in that direction, trying to keep the parachute in view through the trees. She had not gone very far when she suddenly realized that the dull roar she was hearing was not the sounds of explosions from the plane that had crashed, but the roar of engines still above her head. She turned to see the three fighters sweeping over the trees, heading directly for the lone parachutist.

Tifa stopped and stared, not sure what was going to happen, but she looked at the man floating down toward her, and felt a very empty feeling in the pit of her stomach.

The planes screamed by overhead, so low that they were barely above the treetops, the sound of their engines nearly unbearable. And suddenly she heard the sharp bark of their guns again. One long blast, and then the planes were past, fading away rapidly. Tifa ran through the trees, until she came out into a clearing not far from the airport.

She could see the parachute on the ground now, halfway out into the field in front of her and billowing out in the gentle wind. She ran over to it as fast as she could. She could see a figure sprawled on the ground below it as she approached.

She came up and stooped down beside him. She could see blood on his uniform, but she could not tell the extent of his wounds. The helmet on his head concealed his features. She lifted his head and spent a moment trying to free his helmet. He did not move. She had some difficulty with it, but eventually pried his helmet off. She stoppped, her mouth pinched closed, and looked helplessly at the face of the young man thus revealed, his sightless eyes still staring up at the sky that had been the death of him. She stood there for a moment, unable to move, her heart filled with sorrow for this young man that she didn't even know. He was just like the pilot they had seen when she had been up with Cid. So young, with so much to live for.

Slowly she lowered his head until it rested on the green grass of the field around them. She stood up, still looking down at the man, shaking her head slowly. She didn't even know what Junon and Wutai were fighting over, and it seemed likely that the boy in front of her hadn't either. He had just done his duty. Had paid the ultimate price. It was all so senseless!

She turned away. She could still see the smoke from the fire of the crash landing. She paused for a moment more, then trotted off back towards the town.

Later that day Cid was out washing the Tiny Bronco when he caught word that Wutai's Ambassador had arrived. The bastard hadn't even used common courtesy and waited until after lunch time. Obviously, he would rather have them off guard. Since Cid knew that, he had no intention of obliging the man.

The midday sun beat down on his bare back with a relentless fury that didn't seem to have any plans of letting up anytime soon. It reminded him of the constant onslaught of questions, meetings, and the worries he had of his own. The last thing he wanted was for someone to get hurt or even killed. But it didn't really seem as if they had a choice.

He winced and rolled his burnt shoulders. As usual, since no one had reminded him, he forgot to put on sunblock.

"Are you ready, Cid?"

Cid turned around and found himself looking into the anxious face of Tifa, "You goin' too?"

She nodded, "I thought I'd go again since the town stuck you with the honor."

He grinned briefly, "Thanks. Let me throw somethin' on here first and then we'll get this the hell over with."

Like the one before, this meeting was to take place at the Inn. But once they caught sight of the Ambassador, they new it wouldn't turn out the same. This one was different. He was tall, with short black hair and cool, shrewd eyes. He wore a royal blue kimono with black leggings, and slippers to match. When they entered, he bowed to them, but it was like stepping from the heated day and into a freezer. Cid didn't figure this one wanted no for an answer.

"Mr. Highwind, Miss. Lockheart. I am Hiro Yoshida," he greeted, eying Tifa with interest. "Forgive me, Mr. Highwind, but I do not find Miss. Lockheart's presence necessary."

The look on Cid's face said he could clearly care less.

Yoshida took this to be the equivelent of an argument and added, "She is not a citizen of this town, nor is she a representative. I prefer to discuss business with only you."

Cid jutted his hip to the left and replied, "Tifa's here, Yoshida, so she's a citizen as far as I'm concerned. And she's my friend, so anything you got to say to me, you can say to her. If ya don't like it, then leave."

"Cid." Tifa said, knowing that his attitude could cause problems. "I'll leave if it's necessary."

"No." Cid replied, his tone inflexible.

Yoshida thought on it for a few moments, and then appeared to re-think his position, "Very well then. Can I interest you in something to eat?"

Cid narrowed his eyes at the man. Accepting something from him was like being in his debt, and Cid had no intentions of letting him get the upper hand, regardless of whether or not they had already ate.

"Get on with it, Yoshida."

Yoshida pursed his lips slightly, but smoothed them into a smile easily enough.

"Shall we sit then? It would make things much more comfortable."

Cid was about to snap at the man and inform him of how comfortable they were standing when he caught the look of fatigue in Tifa's eyes. Who knew how long the meeting would last, and he didn't want to make her stand the whole time.

As he and Tifa settled on the couch across from the Ambassador, he started his pitch, "As you know, Mr. Highwind, the Wutai Confederacy would greatly appreciate your loyalty."

Cid slowly pulled a cigarette from the pack under his goggles and made a show of lighting it and taking a few puffs. He had a few things he would like to address before they talked about Rocket Town's loyalties.

"That little display today, the one where your pilot shot a Junon plane out of the sky and caused it to crash into Rocket Town, ain't gonna work. Don't think ya can threaten us into joinin' ya."

Yoshida schooled his face into a look of surprise and then said smoothly, "Of course not. It was merely an accident."

Cid's grunt clearly said he didn't agree.

"I am sure that Junon has told you many things, including enticing you with offers of their protection. As you know, it is merely a ruse to get you to join. However, if you did give your loyalty to Wutai, protection from any attacks from Junon would be a guarantee."

Cid smirked; it was all the same.

"And if we don't?"

Yoshida sat forward. "Come now Mr. Highwind, let us be honest here. How long do you think you could hold out if our army was to attack? You are a small group while we are many."

"Is that a threat?"

"Of course not. It was an observasion."

"It sounded an awful lot like a threat to me. So tell me, Mr. Yoshida, what would we get for sidin' with he Confederacy?"

Yoshida leaned back and replied, "Protection from the Union if they chose to make you join by force. You would also get the freedom of working on various projects beneficial to both Wutai and Rocket Town."

Cid frowned. "What sort of projects?"

Yoshida dismissed the subject with a wave of his hand, "We will discuss those later. As I am sure you know, Junon is working on rocket launch pads. The information they have given you is false. We have had spies look into the matter, and the pads are months away from completion. Perhaps even years."

Cid didn't trust either Junon or Wutai. The last thing he was going to do was believe a word that came out of Yoshida's mouth. Like Junon, Wutai's Ambassador only had the interests of Wutai in mind.

"And you think we would really believe anything you told us?" Tifa put it quietly.

Yoshida turned to look at her, "Ah, Miss. Lockheart. You are a greatly admired woman. Use your instincts, do you really think remaining neutral is the wisest course of action?"

Tifa frowned. "I want what the citizens of Rocket Town want. I wouldn't go against their wishes."

Yoshida shook his head sadly, "I would truly hate to see this chance wasted."

"Yeah, I'll bet," Cid muttered.

"If you were to side with the Confederacy, your town would remain the same, only that the military would occupy it for obvious purposes."

Cid smacked his hand against his leg, "What makes you think we want any part of your war? You an' Junon got some feud goin' an' you think you'll just snatch up any town caught inbetween to prove your strength. Don't think I'm buyin' your lies about being a free town. I've heard about what Wutai does to the towns they take over, an' it ain't pretty! We all just want to live out our lives like we've been doin' since this town built itself up. We ain't about to turn it over to a tyranny like Shinra was runnin' Midgar."

Yoshida inclined his head, "Your idealism in inspiring, truly. But as a man of war yourself, you understand that it is not that simple. You have something we want, and we are ready to go to great lengths to get it. As I am sure Junon told you, we have a large Army waiting outside Nibelheim. It can be used for your protection, take this town by force."

Tifa looked a little shocked at the turn of events. The Ambassador from Junon had hinted at what might happen if they didn't comply, but he had never came right out and said it. It was obvious that Wutai was growing impatient and the Ambassador was dispensing with any form of diplomacy.

Cid shrugged, "If ya attack, Junon will attack back. We got somethin' they need too, and they aren't about to let ya take it."

Yoshida smiled, "We aren't worried about the Junon army. But really, Mr. Highwind, do you think you can play us off of each other like that? Junon, with it's own launch pads might decide Rocket Town isn't worth the fuss."

"You yourself pointed out the fact that Junon is far from finished their launch pads," Tifa told him.

Yoshida simply shrugged and took a sip of the tea in front of him. "You should try some Mr. Highwind. I took the liberty of ordering your favorite."

Cid glared at him, "That tea, like you, is laced with sugar coated lies. This is all bullshit an' we know it. Someone is goin' to get Rocket Town, but it ain't gonna be with our help. The people that live here worked hard to make somethin' of this town, an' then you waltz in here with your fancy words an' your peace offerin's an' think we're just gonna roll over an' take it. We already told Junon we ain't interested in being a part of this war. We want to remain neutral an' stay out of your squabbles."

Yoshida again shook his head, "Admirable zeal, but it is misplaced. With you on our side, we could accomplish so much more and perhaps put an end to this war. Wutai truly has no wish to fight with Junon, but the Union keeps pressing matters and Wutai has no choice but to respond."

Cid highly doubted that. Given the leadership of Wutai at the moment, he was more inclined to think that it was the Warlord that had started the feud to begin with.

"If you're so hellbent on stoppin' this war, then why don't ya just end it and leave Rocket Town alone?"

Yoshida smiled, "I thought you might ask that. So let me get down to the most important thing of the afternoon. I have something I think might interest you greatly, Mr. Highwind."

"Well?" Cid demanded.

"I wish to speak with you on this matter alone."

Cid glanced at Tifa, "No. I already told ya anything ya say to me, ya say to her."

Yoshida smiled cooly, "This time, I must insist."

Tifa stood up, "I'll go. It's only fair," she added, giving Cid a look that told him to remember the last meeting with an Ambassador.

Cid watched her leave, not at all happy with the turn of events. He had no idea what Yoshida had up his sleeve, but he was betting he wasn't going to like it.

Yoshida turned his attention back to Cid, "As Shinra once did, Wutai has interests outside of the main economy of the town. Those interests just happen to include you, Mr. Highwind. Wutai is fully prepared to give you the necessary funding and anything else you may need to accomplish your goal."

Cid felt his pulse quicken. Was Yoshida talking about what he thought he was?

"Quit beatin' around the bush and get it out!" Cid snapped, his impatience evident.

"Wutai is interested in space travel, Captain Highwind. And should you chose to join the Confederacy, those that I represent are more than willing to see you finish what you were forced to give up all those years ago. To put it plainly, they want to build a rocket and have you pilot it."

The room was extremely dark, and the only source of light was the flickering of a cigarette butt as Cid inhaled. He sat ensconsed in his recliner, his feet up and his attention focused on the wall in front of him, but his mind elsewhere.

He hadn't expected the meeting with Wutai's Ambassador to go smoothly given the reputation of Wutai's current leader, but the offer Yoshida had made took him completely by surprise. Seeing his indecision, the representative had offered to give Cid a few days to think it through. And that, combined with the current problems of his town kept him from sleeping.

God. He had dreamed of being given the chance to make it to outer space again since the failed launch all those years before. His whole life at that moment in time had hinged on that one undertaking, and when it had failed he had fallen apart. But things were different now, and he didn't look at them quite the same way. Accepting Yoshida's offer would fulfill a lifelong dream, true, but at what cost? The freedom of Rocket Town? Dammit. He didn't want to be responsible for that and he most certainly didn't want to be responsible for the whole town.

The outcome didn't look so bleak first thing in the morning when he had gotten a good nights rest, but when the day ended and he was faced with aching limbs and a tired mind, it was an enormous weight to carry. He couldn't help but wonder if he was doing the right thing by refusing to join either the Union or the Confederacy. Most of the citizens of Rocket Town were all for his plan, but there were others that wanted to give in to the lesser of the two evils, Junon.

It wasn't in his nature to give up without a fight, though. He couldn't see surrendering to one side or the other and losing the basic right to choose how to live his own life. It sounded somewhat selfish when he looked at it that way, but it wasn't only for himself that he did this, and they had asked him to represent them. Since he felt partially responsible for the existence of Rocket Town, he couldn't very well tell them no.

He inhaled deeply on his cigarette and longed for the simplicity of his youth. Then, the whole world had seemed conquerable and every day was a new adventure. But he wasn't a kid anymore, and sometimes he longed for nothing more than an uneventful day.


He glanced in the direction of the voice, startled out of his thoughts. He had been thinking so intently that he hadn't even heard her approach.

"Hey Tifa. What're doin' up so late?"

Her silloutte moved from the hallway and into the livingroom, where he could see she wore a simple white t-shirt that fell to the tops of her thighs and a pair of light-weight shorts.

"I was just going to ask you that," she replied, curling up on the corner of the couch.

"Just thinkin'. I couldn't sleep."

"Do you mind if I flip the lamp on? I can't see very well."

"No. Go right ahead. Sometimes I just think better in the dark, where there's no distractions for the eyes."

Tifa turned the lamp on beside the couch and they both blinked furiously as their eyes tried to adjust.

"So, what brings you out of bed?" Cid asked.

Tifa shrugged. "I got to sleep, but I kept jerking awake. I can't stop thinking about that pilot that crashed today. He was so young."

Cid grimaced, "Yeah. A lot of them are."

Things weren't so good in Kalm, where she had her bar, but Tifa was wondering if leaving there had been a mistake. It wasn't that she regreted seeing Cid, but the horror of what she had seen today made the war a harsh reality. It was no longer something that they simply talked about, it was happening and it was leaving death and pain in its wake.

"You're thinking about Rocket Town's role in the war, aren't you?"

He nodded. "Among other things. I'm just wonderin' if we're doin' the right thing."

Tifa fiddled with the end of her long braid. "There's two sides to everything. We thought we were doing a good thing for the people and the Planet when we blew up the reactors, but a lot of people died and we were labled terrorists."

"A lot of people might die here too. People I've known and called friends for a lot of years now. But dammit, we can't just let them take away our freedom and not fight for it!"

"There's a lot of risk involved in anything," Tifa added, "and I think they know that. But they trust you and respect your decision."

Cid rolled his shoulders to try and release some of the tension that was gathering there.

"Yeah, and it's a damn big load to carry. I just...dammit, I hate the sight of all those people standin' in my yard shootin' guns for the first time. They don't know the first thing about war, and I don't wanna see anyone die."

Tifa leaned forward to rest her head on her knees and wind her arms around her legs.

"They know that."

"Yeah, but that don't make it any better."

"Cid...what did the Ambassador talk to you about after I left?"

Cid glanced at her sharply, trying to read the expression on her face. He didn't mind discussing it with her, as a matter of fact, he had planned on it. But when the meeting had ended, and they returned to his house, he just hadn't been able to bring it up. He really wasn't sure what her reaction to it would be, and truthfully, he was afraid she might think he was having second thoughts about siding with Wutai because of it.

"Wutai offered to build me a rocket and let me pilot it into space," he said plainly.

Tifa lifted her head and her eyes widened slightly, losing some of the signs of sleep. A dozen reasons had crossed her mind for why the Ambassador had asked her to leave, but this had never been one of them. She knew how much reaching outer space meant to Cid. It had been his lifelong dream.

It would be any easy thing for him to be selfish and accept the offer. But Tifa knew Cid, and she knew he would never do it if Rocket Town was at stake. He may be a lot of things, some of which bordered on crude, but he had honor and loyalty. And he wouldn't deliberately hurt anyone.

"I'm sorry, Cid."

Cid looked at her in surprise. "Sorry?"

"Yes. Sorry that they're such bastards that they would twist something that means so much to you for their own purposes. And, that they could think you would ever trade people's lives for it."

Cid smiled gratefully. "Thanks."

He couldn't explain how her complete faith in him laid to rest some of his anxiety. Whatever the outcome of their choices, it helped to know that someone trusted him.

Tifa stood up. "Well, since I'm up and fully awake, how does some tea sound?"

Cid grinned. "Sounds pretty damn good."

He took a seat at the kitchen table while she started heating the water. Once that was done, she leaned against the counter and turned to face him.

"Whatever happens, we'll pull through okay. I know it's going to get rough, but we'll survive."

Cid smashed his cigarette into the tray on the table and leaned back in his chair.

"I'm sorry ya got caught in the middle of this."

Tifa crossed her arms and favored him with a frown.

"I've faced worse than this, Cid," she reminded him. "And you're my friend."

Her tone as she said this told him that this particular conversation was not open for discussion, and that she couldn't see any good reason for it to be.

Cid closed his eyes and realized that talking with her even this little bit of time had aleviated some of his worries. Sleep didn't look too far off now, and the coming day didn't seem so bleak. And, so long as she was here, he was inclined to agree with her conviction that they would make it through.

Tifa poured the tea and placed a cup in front of Cid. He took it in both hands and sipped it slowly, looking at Tifa. Things had been tough these last few weeks, and in all likelyhood were going to get tougher still. In spite of the fact that he was concerned about her safety, he couldn't help but be grateful that Tifa was here. It was tough enough to have to make all these decisions, but to have had to do it alone would would have been ten times harder. She had no idea how much just having someone beside him that he knew he could depend on and trust eased his burden.

He put his cup down and saw that she was returning his gaze.

"Well, whatever happens," he said slowly. "I'd just like ya ta know that I'm glad you're here with me."

Tifa looked slightly embarrassed, then smiled.

"I am too," she replied softly.


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