Balance of Power Chapter 4

By Frank Verderosa & Jen Bond

"No, no, that's not it at all! Listen up you numbskulls!" Cid exclaimed, standing beside a young man loading ammuntion into a plane. He looked around until he was satisfied that he had the attention of the more than two dozen other would be pilots surrounding him. "You can't just shove it in willy nilly like that, it'll just jam up. And if your gun jams in the middle of a battle, then it won't do much good to say your prays because even God won't be able to help ya! These planes are just like women, and they get cranky and downright mean if ya don't treat 'em right. But give 'em a little tender loving care and they'll do ya a world a good!"

The young man beside him snapped to attenion.

"Yes sir, Captain Highwind," the said a little too vehemently.

"Good," Cid barked. "Now take it all out and start over, and this time do it right. There isn't anyplace you can cut corners with this job, not if you want to live, that is!"

The man hesitated a moment.

"Yes SIR!" he said, even forcefully.

"All right then," Cid growled. He walked over to one of the other aircraft on the tarmac and pulled out a cigarette, watching his recruits at work. He had to admit they weren't a bad lot, and given enough time he thought he could mold them into a surperior fighting force, but time was something that he felt was in very short supply. He had refused the offers of both Junon and Wutai to join their cause, and neither one seemed too thrilled with his decision. War could come any day now, and what would they do then?

He shook his head slowly. It took months to make a good pilot, years to make a great one. There just wasn't enough time. These kids, and that's what they were, he had to admit. None of them looked much older than the pliot he and Tifa had seen in that Shinra fighter. These kids had plenty of enthusiasism, but all the enthusiasism in the world didn't make up for their lack of experience. Against an equal force, most of these kids wouldn't survive more than a few days. Against the kind of surperior force both Junon and Wutai could bring to the field, they'd all be dead in a day.

Those damn suits in Junon and Wutai decided they didn't want to play nice together, and who were the one's who were going to pay for it? These young kids, that's who! It was bad enough they were killing their own, but if it came to war, the sons and daughters of the people of Rocket Town would be the ones dying as well, even though all any of them wanted was to stay outta this damn thing. It was enough to make him sick to his stomach!

Cid slapped his hand angrily against the side of the airplane next to him. Some of the others looked up at him curiously.

"What are you lookin' at?" he yelled. All heads immmediatly turned toward their aircraft. Cid walked back over to them. Most of the men had finished loading the ammo, but there were a few stragglers. Cid went over to one of them.

"Damn! What the hell is takin' you so long? By the time you get this ammo loaded, the battle will already be over, and your plane will be shot right off the runway before you even get a chance to lift off. If you're goona get blown to smithereens wouldn't you rather do it in the air than on the ground like a sittin' duck?"

The man just stood there with a frightened look on his face.

"Well?" Cid demanded.

"Yes sir!" the man blurted out.

"You bet your ass!" Cid responded. "All right, since you're all so damn slow, uloand it and let's try this again. And we're gonna keep on doing it until you all get it right, even if we have to stay out here all day. Am I making myself clear?"

There was a chorus of "Yes sir's"

Cid looked around for a moment, then nodded.

"All right then."

He turned around and saw Tifa approaching. He walked over to her. She eyed him and then looked at his young recruits.

"Being a little hard on them, aren't you?" she stated.

Cid glanced back at them as well.

"Yeah, but it's necessary. We may be at war any day now, and they've got to be prepared, or as prepared as I can get them with so little time. Better I'm hard on them now. I'm sure they'll never thank me for it, but it'll be worth it if it helps them live a little longer."

Tifa nodded slowly.

"So what brings you out here?" he asked. "Want to join my little pilot's school?"

"After seeing the way you treat them?" she replied. "Not a chance. No, I came because it's after lunch and you hadn't come back. Didn't you tell me you had some kind of meeting this afternoon?"

Cid slapped himself in the forhead.

"Damn! I forgot. Chuck called a meeting to talk about something or other. Probably the need for more guns. Not too thrilled about going but who knows what'll go on there without me."

He glanced at his watch.

"Shit, I'm already late."

He looked back at the men once more, then at Tifa.

"Make sure they get that ammunition in correctly," he said, then ran off back toward town.

Tifa turned to face him.

"Me?" she called after him. "What do I know about that?"

But he was already gone.

Cid ran as fast as his feet would pound the pavement, thinking quite irritably, that he didn't want to go to this meeting in the first place. Chuck was a gun fanatic, and he really didn't want to have a long converstation, no argument, over why he couldn't have any more damn guns. And if it wasn't that, then it was bound to be something else Chuck considered relevant to Rocket Town's defense.

Juggling all these people around and trying to calm their fears was like watching a bunch of oversized babies. Cid just didn't have the necessary patience to deal with them, and more often than not, he ended up blistering someone's ears. Hell, he was only one man, not an army. He wasn't even considered high enough in rank to be planning battle strategies against an army that was led by someone who was.

When he reached Chuck's shop, he stopped and bent over to rest his hands on his knees. His lungs burned with the effort of just running across town and his breath came out in short, harsh rasps. The problem was, he wasn't as young as he used to be. Which really shouldn't matter, but he had been smoking for too many years. Not that he had any intentions of quitting, and there was no one on the face of the Planet that could make him.

A few minutes later, he sauntered into Chuck's shop and was surprised to be greeted by silence. Chuck stood at the head of the room as always, while the others gathered around and in front of him. They were staring expectantly at the door, as if they had been waiting for his arrival. Cid walked up next to Chuck, not quite able to shake the eerie feeling that was working it's way through his gut. This silence was too damned unnatural.

"Hey Captain, we've been waitin' for you," Chuck said.

Cid glanced around the room again and then said. "Yeah? Sorry to keep ya waitin'. I was teachin' those damn kids to load the guns."

"Well, me and the fellows here have been talkin'."

Cid lit a cigarette and waited.

"See we've begun to think that it might be better just to surrender to Wutai. It would keep so many people from dyin'."

Cid looked at Chuck as though he had just sprouted horns and opened the pit to hell.


"Not everyone agrees. We-umph." someone yelled from the crowd, only to be silenced by a well placed elbow to the ribs.

Cid's eyes cut to the crowd, but no one else spoke up and the uneasy feeling began to intensify.

"Let me get this straight, Chuck. You, who were dead set against lettin' those bastards take our town has changed his mind? Why the hell for?"

Chuck smiled an odd smile, filled with a bit of regret and defiance. "Captain, you can't possibly think we stand a chance against an army of Wutai's size? Right now, they're at the entrance to Rocket Town, preparin' to attack."

Cid looked startled. "What the hell?! You're in charge of the sentries, why the hell was I just now informed a goddamned army the size of Midgar is waitin' outside?! We aren't even ready to fight them!"

As he yelled this, Cid had been slowly advancing on Chuck. Chuck was no idiot, and he knew that Cid was not someone he cared to face when he was pissed. With a quick motion of his hands, two people stepped from the crowd, both bearing guns.

Cid stared at them in disbelief. "Ya sellin' out on us, Chuck?!"

The men with guns stepped in front of Chuck to shield him from Cid's rage.

"Captain, it just isn't me, nearly every person in this room agrees with me."

"That's 'cause we have no choice!" Jed yelled, stepping forward and waving his fist.

"Stay back old man," Chuck barked. "I don't want you to get hurt."

If there was an army outside of Rocket Town, and they were prepared to strike, that meant that those inside were defenseless. That bastard Chuck was sacrificing the whole town just to save his own neck. All those kids...they weren't ready for something like this yet. Tifa. God, if he didn't get to her in time, she would...somehow, he had to get out of here. And he had a feeling it wasn't going to be easy.

"I'm afraid," Chuck said, "that all who don't agree will be shot."

An angry murmer rippled through the crowd and someone yelled, "You'd kill us just like that, Chuck?! We all helped build the Captain's rocket...we made this town together and have lived in it for years! I thought we were all friends!"

"Do you want to die?!" Chuck hissed. "What the Captain has planned will just get you all killed!"

"Oh yeah?" Jed replied. "Better to die fighting than to die cowards."

"He's right! We ain't gonna let you sell us out, Chuck!"

"Cid, I love Rocket Town as much as you do, but you've seen the reports, you've been up in the recon planes. You've seen the size of the army Wutai has out there. You know as well as I do that this pitiful group we've got together to defend this town won't last five minutes against a profesional army. No, the only way to get out of this without destroying the town is to surrender. I've spoken to the Wutai commander. He's promised us very generous terms. He's promised to make me a full Colonel in the Wutai army, and he told me he might even be able to make you a General! Think of it, Cid, this is the big time. You'd be working with a real air force, with hundreds of modern planes, not the dozen broken down ones we have here now in Rocket Town. Don't you realize how much better off you would be? And on top of that you'll be avoiding a battle that could cost the lives of everyone here. Don't be blind man!"

Cid looked at Chuck for a moment, his face red with rage. Chuck took a step back.

"So you've been talking to Wutai behind our backs all this time?" he snarled. "They'll make you a Colonel? Is that the going rate for traitors these days?"

"I'm not a traitor," Chuck shouted defensively. "I'm doing this for the good of Rocket Town.

Ya dirty bastard," Cid snapped. "I can't believe you'd kill us all to save your own filthy hide. I hope the guilt eats ya alive."

"Oh you're so righteous, aren't you Captain? You'd lead these men and woman to be slaughtered just to save a town that was built up because of your mistake?"

Air hissed out from between Cid's teeth and he threw the cigarette to the ground and smashed it beneath his heel. "Ya son of a bitch. This town got built up because we all wanted it to. I didn't see ya complainin' none when ya were makin' a livin' off of it!"

"You can't make us give up our town!" someone yelled, and the crowd began to move forward.

"Shoot them!" Chuck yelled, fearing for his safety.

The men raised the guns, but stopped when they heard a loud explosion seeming to come from outside.

"What the hell?!" Jed exclaimed.

It started. There wasn't anymore time to be spent listening to Chuck. Cid darted forward and punched the first startled gunman in the face. He stumbled back into his partner and they both fell to the floor in a heap.

Cid immediately made for the door, yelling over his shoulder, "Everyone get out of here and get ready! We've got to set our plan into motion, even if it's half assed!"

The two men holding guns jumped to their feet and were about to open fire when Chuck stopped them, a look of defeat clearly evident on his face. What had he done this all for now then? They would never defeat Wutai, and he would die because he couldn't get them all to cooperate.

"Let the old fool go," he said. "It's too late now. Wutai forces are in the town and there's nothing he can do about it."

Cid burst through the door of Chuck's shop, not caring whether he ripped the damn thing of the hinges or not. Up ahead, he could see the faint outline of his house and the large group of people in front of it. He knew they weren't ready, but they didn't have a choice now. Chuck had weakened their defenses and allowed Wutai entrance to the town. It shot all their plans to hell, and that bastard knew it.

Behind him, he could hear the sounds of gunfire and the screams of agony. It wasn't clear whether they were from people he knew or if they had at least managed to hold off Wutai for a while. But he didn't look back because he couldn't afford to be distracted.

Tifa watched them loading and unloading, seeming to get a little quicker with each try, but she wasn't exactly a good judge of this sort of thing. She had been taught to use her fists and feet a long time ago, and had no intentions of switching to guns anytime soon. But...

She looked up when she heard the first loud explosion. Was Chuck showing Cid something new? Or was it something else? The feeling of dread that settled into the pit of her stomach told her that it was what everyone had hoped against: Wutai had somehow gained entrance to the town. She knew their defenses weren't that strong, but they were supposed to have been warned before it got even this far.

Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw Cid running up the street toward them. When he stopped in front of them, the wild look in his eyes told her everything she needed to know.

"The Wutai army is in the town!" Cid exclaimed.

"But how?" Tifa said, the shock plain on her face. "What happened to the defesnes?"

"That moron Chuck betrayed us. He's been talking with Wutai all along. They offered him a field commision and he let them walk right in."

"What?" Tifa said in disbelief. "But how could he..."

"There's no time to explain it now," Cid shouted. "We've got to get the Bronco up in the air. If they catch..."

He was interrrupted by the blare of a loudspeaker. They turned to see an armored car rumbling down the road

"Attention, citizens of Rocket Town. This is the commander of the Wutai Army speaking. Your Government has surrendered. Lay down your weapons and no one will be injured. Attention, citizens of Rocket Town. This is the commander of the Wutai army speaking..."

The loudspeaker was suddenly drowned out by a burst of gunfire.

"Sounds like somebody's not taking too kindly to Wutai waltzin' in," Cid commented. He hauled himself up onto the Tiny Bronco. He paused for a moment as he heard more gunfire nearby. He looked around, realizing that things had spun out of control much more quickly than he had ever imagined they could. Just an hour ago it had been buisness as usual, and now, suddenly, all hell had broken loose, and he felt a desperate feeling inside that there wasn't a hell of a lot he could do about it.

He reached down and hauled Tifa up beside him.

"We've got to get out of here," he said grimly. She nodded, the fear plain on her face, and then slipped into the Bronco. Cid was about to get inside himself when he saw the young pilots he had been training looking up at him silently.

"What the hell are you all standin' around gawkin' for?" he growled. "Get the hell out of here. Go back to your homes. It ain't safe here."

The young pilots looked at him is disbelief.

"What?" one of them said. "Go home? But Rocket Town is being attacked. We want to fight."

"Are you out of yer mind?" Cid snarled. "You've had almost no training. You couldn't shoot down a balloon. Besides, our aircraft were supposed to be part of a coordinated defense, but that's all shot to hell now. There's nothin' you can do, so get your asses out of here. That's an order!"

The men just stood there, but Cid didn't have time to waste arguing. He hopped into the cockpit of the Tiny Bronce and started up the engines. In moments the plane was darting into the air.

Cid banked the aircraft and looked down at the town below him. What he saw caused a knot to form in the pit of his stomach. Already he could see Wutai mechaninzed units pouring into the town from all directions. He saw the flash of gunfire in the streets to the north, and also black smoke rising from one building. The streets of Rocket Town, his town, were crawling with soldiers from Wutai.

He glanced back at Tifa and saw her looking down at the town below as well. Damn! Every fiber of his being was telling him to fight, to defend Rocket Town against this invasion, even though he knew it was already too late, but he didn't want to endanger Tifa. He had pushed for her to stay here, and felt responsible for her. He knew the Wutai soldiers would not treat her kindly if they were captured.

"Cid, look!" she said suddenly, pointed below them.

Cid tilted his head in the direction indicated. She was pointing back toward the airfield, and he caught his breath when he saw a line of planes taking off below him.

"Shit! What the hell are those damn fools doing?" he spat out.

The Tiny Bronco turned sharply and headed back toward the airport. Even as he did so he saw the planes below headed toward him in uneven formation.

"What the hell do you all think you're doing?" Cid barked into his headset.

There was a momentary silence before a voice replied.

"Sorry sir, but we're not going to let Wutai take over Rocket Town without a fight."

"Dammit!" Cid shouted. "It's too late. There ain't nothin' you can do about it now. What the hell is the matter with you all? Don't you know how to obey orders? Turn those planes around and land them NOW!"

Once more their was hesitation.

"I'm sorry sir, but we can't do that," the voice replied timidly, yet filled with resolve.

Cid shut off the headset.

"Dammit!" he shouted and banged his fist against the instrument panel. "Those fools are going to get themselves killed."

He looked back at Tifa again, feeling helpless. He wanted to get her to safety, but he couldn't just abandon those kids.

Tifa returned his gaze, apparently realizing his dilemma.

"Don't worry about me, Cid," she stated. "Do what you have to do for Rocket Town."

He looked at her a moment longer, an almost apologetic look on his face. Then he snapped on the headset again.

"All right you numbskulls!" he growled. "You want a fight, you're gonna get one. Rico, Billman, you two are the only one's with ground attack missles. You have tank buster duty. Gunnard and Smith, you two are with me. We'll stay on the roof and provide air cover. The rest of you, harrass any exposed ground forces. We can't do much to armored comluns with machine guns, but we can at least make them duck for cover, and it might give our ground forces a little time."

Cid pulled his plane up as he heard a chorus of yes sir's through the headset. He had to admit, whatever else he thought about these kids, they had guts.

But guts wasn't going to keep them alive, skill was, and that was something they had in woefully short supply. So far there were no Wutai fighters in the air, probably because they hadn't been expecting any resistance, but he knew that wouldn't last long.

Below them they could hear the rattle of gunfire and the roar of explosions. Tifa leaned forward to try to see what was happening. She didn't know much about what was going on but it seemed the young men, for all their lack of training, were doing fine. She caught site of a tank bursting into a ball of flame, and she could see the soldiers below scattering as they were strafed from above. Occasionally she heard Yeah! or Look at 'em run! though the headset. Perhaps Cid was a better teacher than he realized.

"We've got bogeys at three o'clock!" she heard Cid bark out. "Break off ground attack and form up!"

The other planes rose up into the air, forming into their battle groups. Cid surveyed them with a critical eye and shook his head. Shooting ground targets was like taking target practice, but the planes coming at them now had teeth of their own, and were being flown by trained pilots. But there was no time to think about the consequences now.

"There's an awful lot of them," he heard someone comment, for the first time a hint of doubt in their voice. They were outnumbered at least three to one.

"Here they come!" Cid shouted.

He dived down toward the enemy. The approaching planes were Shinra F13's. More advanced than the F11 they had encountered earlier, and a much more formidable foe. He just hoped that the pilots were as ill trained as the last he had met.

Suddenly the sound of gunfire was all around them. Cid banked sharply and opened up with his own 50's, relentlessly zeroing in on an enemy plane in front of them until he was rewarded as the plane dived downard in a cloud of black smoke.

Cid pulled up just as one of his own planes burst into flame nearby. He muttered a curse and came around again, letting his instincts take over. Bullets were flying all around him now, but the Bronco flew through it all unscathed. He shot three planes down in quick succession, but at the same time half a dozen of his own fell, and each one felt like a stab in the heart.

Tifa clung to the seat, her knuckles white as the planes fell from the sky all around them. The air was filled with black puffs of smoke from exploding shells, the sound of explosions sometimes drowning out the almost constant rattle of the Bronco's machine guns. She had been in many battles, but never before had she felt so helpless. She had always been able to fight back on her own terms, always been able to strike out at the enemy, but all she could do in this battle was sit in her seat and watch. And without the need to concentrate on her own attack her mind was free to wander, and to feel fear. She knew Cid was a good pilot, and trusted him as much as anyone, but even so, she didn't like not being in control.

She almost cried out as the plane bucked from a near miss. She looked out and saw another plane from Cid's squadron nose downward toward the ground. More than half were gone now, and with each one they lost Cid cursed more vehemently, and flew the Bronco more desperately.

Cid shook a plane that was on his tail, but three more were closing in on him. He turned the Bronco wildly from side to side as bullets tore past them. There was a loud thump as some of them ripped through the skin of the plane. He heard Tifa cry out and felt a sharp pain in his left leg.

"Are you all right?" he yelled, glancing back at her for just a moment.

"Yes," she said, her face pale. A bullet had cut through the side of the plane right in front of her. She could see the sky outside through the hole. She looked through the canopy and saw the air around them filled with enemy planes.

"Cid," she shouted. "There are too many of them. We've got to get out of here!"

Cid savagely shook his head.

"I've got to protect those kids!" he yelled.

"Cid...," she said, her head turning from side to side. "Cid, it's too late, there aren't any more left to protect!"

Cid lifted his head and looked around them. He could see no sign of any friendly aircraft.

"Bastards!" he cried out.

He turned the plane and dove down toward the earth, gunning the engine. He got one last glimpse of Rocket Town behind him, a thin line of smoke rising from it, then turned away, his face a stone mask.

"We'll head east, toward Costa del Sol," he said emotionlessly. "Junon's got an army there."

Tifa looked behind them and saw the sky speckled with dark objects.

"They're still after us," she said, just as a burst of gunfire reduced her statement to irrelevance.

Cid did not reply, but he kept up his evasive manuevers. Tifa looked back again and saw, as the minutes dragged by, that the planes were closing. There were at least six of them. Cid was a good pilot, but could he take on this many by himself?

She turned toward him again, about to speak, when she saw more planes ahead of them, a lot more.

"Cid!" he exclaimed, startled. There was a burst of gunfire, but the planes ahead of them did not seem to be shooting at them. She looked back and saw one of the aircraft behind them disintergrate in flames. The others banked sharply and headed back the way they had come.

Their headsets suddenly crackled to life.

"Unidentifed aircraft. You are violationg Junon airspace. Please identify yourself."

"This is Captaind Highwind of the Rocket Town air force," Cid replied. "Our city has been invaded by the Wutai army. We request assistance."

There was a momentary pause.

"Identity confirmed," the man said. "Glad to see you're in one piece, Captain Highwind. Please follow us into Costa del Sol for debriefing."

Cid grit his teeth and reached down to put pressure on the pain in his leg. When he lifted his hand, his glove came up bloodied. He had taken a worse hit than he thought. But there was no time to dwell on that now. Rocket Town was being invaded, and he needed to convince Junon to help them.

"Ya all right back there?" he asked Tifa, as they followed the Junon aircraft into Costa del Sol.

War is such a horrible thing, Tifa thought. And it was even worse when one was right in the middle of it. So many young men, who had their whole lives ahead of them, had died simply protecting their hometown. After everything they had put up with from Shinra, now they had to deal with two superpowers battling for complete control of every town. Since it was inevitable that one would win, they then had to face the fact that they would become mere slaves to something they didn't even believe in.

"Yes," she said answering Cid, "I'm fine. Just a little shaken, but not hurt."

Cid cursed aloud and shifted himself to try and take the pressure off of his leg. Good kids had died for a useless cause, and he couldn't help but feel responsible. He had ordered them to return to their homes, and they had ignored that order, true enough, but it had been his idea to prepare to battle it out against the first to invade Rocket Town. And now he had to come running to Junon, just as the Ambassador had predicted. It went against the grain, but it couldn't be helped.

Although he landed the plane smoothly as was possible, the impact of the wheels hitting the ground still jarred his leg and sent a jolt of pain through it. He could feel blood soaking the fabric of his pants and leaking down into his boot. Dammit. He just needed to get past the debriefing and then he could do something about the irritating wound.

With a great deal of effort, he climbed out of the cockpit of the Bronco and onto the wing. His leg felt like it was on fire, and he was pretty sure that the bullet was lying against he bone. Moving his leg just a fraction of an inch caused an inordinate amount of pressure. Sweat trickled off of his brow and fell into his eyes, obscuring his view of the ground below. He wiped at it, unaware of how long he had been stitting on the wing until Tifa's voice sounded behind him.


He looked up at her, trying to school his face into a neutral expression. He didn't want her worrying about him right now, there were a lot of people depending on them to get help. Her face was pale, and her eyes wide. No matter how much death and destruction one saw, one could never get used to it. He wished he had the words to reassure her, but there really wasn't a whole lot left to say about the situation. It was completely obvious that it was going to end badly.

"Cid, are you okay? I know you're worried about Rocket Town, but I'm sure Junon will help."

Cid snorted. "For a price. But we have no damn choice."

Tifa looked over his shoulder, her eyes growing distant. Cid knew she was thinking about the pilots that had lost their lives. They had barely escaped with their own.

"Sorry to have got ya into the middle of this, Tifa. If ya were in Kalm-"

"If I were in Kalm, things would be no different. It's just as bad there as it is in Rocket Town. Stop worrying about me so much, I can take care of myself," she added, her tone acidic.

Cid couldn't help but grin.

"Captain Highwind? If you would come now?" a voice said below him, and he looked to see the Junon pilots.

Cid took a deep breath and jumped to the ground, wincing when the impact radiated up his leg to settle around the wound. His pants were a dark shade of brown, so he hoped that Tifa wouldn't notice his wound until he was ready for her to. That, and anyone else. He wanted to be at this briefing because he needed to know what Junon planned to do in regards to Rocket Town.

"Cid, you're bleeding," he heard Tifa remark.

"It's just a scratch. I'll be fine until after the breifing."

She walked forward and got a closer look at his leg. "That is not a scratch." She poked at his leg. "Does that hurt?"

Cid grit his teeth and lied. "It's not that bad."

Tifa narrowed her eyes and glared up at him. "Quit being macho. You need medical attention."

His eyes pleaded with her to understand, as he replied, "I need to be there for the briefing."

Tifa pursed her lips. She understood why he wanted to be the one to explain Rocket Town's situation, and to hear Junon's reply, but she didn't think he should do it at the cost of himself. It was obvious he was in a great deal of pain, and to her, it looked a whole lot worse than a scratch.

"I can go. I was there too, so I can explain everything. Anything that they decide, I can report back to you."

"I don't doubt you, I just wanna make sure they take good care of Rocket Town."

Tifa fisted her hands on her hips. "And I can't do that?"

Cid sighed in frustration, "That's not what I meant! Dammit Tifa, there gonna stick me in the hospital, and keep me there. I ain't even gonna get to make any decisions for the defense of my town!"

Cid hated feeling out of control. And once he turned the problem over to Junon, that's exactly how it was going to be. Especially if he was stuck in the hospital.

"I understand how you feel, but it's ridiculous. You need medical attention, and there's no way you can igore that. You just have to trust that Rocket Town is in good hands now, because it's out of ours. You know we don't have the necessary force to stop Wutai. Where just one man and one woman," she added, with a small smile.

Cid had never felt so helpless, or so old as he did at this moment. He had never liked being injured because he hated being dormant for long periods of time. He was the type of man who always had to have a hand in the things that involved him. He never considered himself leader material, but he did consider himself a damn hard worker.

Tifa pushed a hand through her hair in frustration. They were wasting valuable time, Cid's and Rocket Town's, standing her arguing over whether or not Cid's wound would get tended to. She was tempted to just knock him out and have the others carry him to the hospital. And, if she couldn't get him to agree soon, she would do just that.

Cid suddenly realized that the pilots had gotten far ahead of them, and had stopped to wait. He took a step forward, and felt his leg buckle beneath him, taking him to the ground.

"Cid! You big idiot! I don't care what you say, you're going to the hospital now." Having said that, she called for the other two pilots to come back.

Cid lay where he had fallen, unable to move and too damn tired to even try. Part of him wanted to get up and continue fighting, the other part, the part that won out, wanted to give up and let his body rest.

Tifa wrapped her arms around herself and followed them farther into Costa del Sol. The pilots directed her toward a building that served at the headquarters for the Junon army, and she watched as they carried Cid away. She was worried about him, but she knew she needed to get this breifing over with. She was actually a little bit scared because she had never done this sort of thing before. She had no idea what the process entailed, or what she was supposed to say. She hoped she didn't need to make any decisions, because she would hate to be responsible for something horrible happening to Rocket Town.

"Miss Lockheart?"

She turned to see a soldier standing at the entrance to the buidling. looking at her.

"This way please," he said, ushering her in.

She followed the man into the structure, feeling very nervous. The rooms inside were crowded with sodliers, all of them appearing very serious and very busy. The man she was following led her to a small office in the back and motioned to a chair beside the desk.

"Have a seat," he said. "Someone with be with you in a moment."

Tifa sat down slowly, looking around the room. There was nothing unusual about it. A desk and a small bookcase were the only furniture. A small window looked out into the compound beyond. It seemed perfectly ordinary, but for some reason she couldn't help thinking of it as the 'interrogation' room.

The door opened and a burly bald man walked in. He glanced at Tifa with a keen eye, then sat down behind the desk.

"I'm Colonel Williams," the man introduced himself. "I understand Captain Highwind was wounded in the battle and was taken to the infirmary. I trust he was not injured too badly."

"I..I don't think so," Tifa said nervously. "At least, I hope not."

"As do I," the man replied. "As do I. Well, Miss. Lockheart, I understand you were with Captain Highwind in Rocket Town at the time of Wutai's attack. Perhaps you could tell me a little bit about it."

"I really don't know what kind of information you're looking for," Tifa said apologetically. "I've never been in any kind of military service. I don't think there's much I can tell you."

"Of course," the Colonel replied, giving her a reassuring smile. "I realize the situtation may be a little awkward for you, but it's very important we know as much as possible about what is going on in the town. Just relax and tell me what happened in your own words."

Tifa related the events of the day. The Colonel listened carefully, and occasionally asked a question or two. Sometimes Tifa could answer, sometimes she couldn't, but in the end the Colonel seemed satisfied with her answers.

Finally he stood up.

"Well, thank you Miss Lockheart, you've been very helpful. If there's anything I or my men can do to make your stay more comfortable, just let me know. It's good to have you and Captain Highwind with us."

He started for the door.

Tifa stood up.

"But wait," she said. "What ahout Rocket Town. Are you going to help them?"

The Colonel paused and looked at her.

"I assure you we have everything under control," he stated.

He turned away again and Tifa stepped toward him. That answer was far from satisifying. She had a feeling Cid would want to know a whole lot more than that.

"Wait!" she said again. "I need to know what you're going to do."

The Colonel looked at her, his face expressionless.

"This is not a civilan concern," he replied. "We'll take it from here. There's no need to worry your pretty little head over it."

"What!" she exclaimed. "I may be a civilian, but that doesn't mean I'm not involved in this. I just told you everything I could about the Wutai forces in Rocket Town, and even though I don't know much about these things, I'm sure the information was valuable to you. The least you could do in return is let me know what's going on."

The Colonel shook his head.

"Sorry, it's a matter of security," he said and walked out the door.

Tifa stood there for a moment, fuming. She couldn't believe he wasn't going to tell her anything, after all she had been through, what right did he have to shut her out of this, to just dismiss her?

With sudden resolve she opened the door herself. She wasn't going to let him get away with this that easy! She saw him walking acroos the room and ran over to him, grabbing him by the shoulder. He spun around in surprise.

"Now listen here, mister!" she snarled. "You may be some hot shot in the military, but that doesn't mean anything to me! I was with the people who gave their lives to defend Rocket Town, and I would have done so myself, so you owe it to me to tell me what's going on! I risked my life staying in Rocket Town when I knew an attack was immimnent, and I want Wutai out of there as much as anyone, so I'm not going to betray your little plan, if that's what you think. I'm willing to fight right along side any of you in an attmept to free Rocket Town, and don't dismiss that just because I'm a girl. I fought with Avalanche when they kicked Sephiroth's ass and saved the planet. What have you done lately?"

The Colonel just stood there and they stared at one another for a moment. Tifa was aware that the entire room had suddenly become deathly silent and everyone was else was looking at them.

Finally the Colonel motioned with his hand.

"Follow me."

Tifa walked after the Colonel as he led her out of the building. He walked down the road a bit then looked around to see if anyone was nearby.

"I apologize," he said. "It's diffucult for someone in my position to trust someone who it not in the military. But I have to have your word that you understand what I am about to tell you I say in the strictest confidence. One word about this to anyone could jepordize the enitire operation."

"Of course," she said, then, "even Cid?"

"I suppose that would not be improper, although I must caution you to be careful not to be overheard. There are spies everywhere."

Tifa nodded.

The Colonel took one more look around.

"The attack on Wutai forces will start tomorrow morning. Junon has been building up it's forces in Costa del Sol for that specific purpose. We had noticed a lot of activity in the Wutai forces in this area, and we suspected something was going to happen. We don't know exactly how large a force Wutai has in Rocket Town now, but from what you have told us and what we have seen from obsesrvation, it appears it may only be a relatively small rapid deployment force. I believe if we attack quickly we will succeed in driving them off."

Tifa nodded slowly. This was better news than she had thought to get, and it filled her with hope. But then she thought of something else.

"What's going to happen to Rocket Town?" she asked.

"Hopefully nothing," the Colonel replied. "Sources indicate Wutai is strengthening the defensive ring you and the people of Rocket Town built before they invaded. That is where the battle will take place. Hopefully we can break through without doing too much damage to the town itself."

Tifa nodded again, the tightness in her stomach that she had felt since she heard the first explosions in Rocket Town begining to fade a bit. Perhaps things weren't as bad as she thought. Perhaps, things would work out after all.

"Thank you," she said.

"There's no need to thank me," the Colonel replied. "I'm just doing my job."

"Still, I appreciate the fact that you took the time to tell me," she replied. "Now I think I'd like to find out how Cid is doing. I'm worried about him, and I'm sure this news will make him feel better."

"Of course," the Colonel said. Tifa started to walk away.

"Miss Lockheart."

She stopped and looked back at him.

"One more thing," he said, looking at her impassively. "If you ever talk to me like that in front of my subordinates again, civilain or no civilian, I'll have you shot."

Tifa paused for a moment looking at him, but he seemed perfectly serious. Then she turned and walked away. Quickly.

A few minutes later she entered the infirmary. She looked around, wondering where they may have put Cid, but then she heard a very familar string of curses.

"That's definately Cid," she muttered, smiling slightly.

It didn't take long for her to locate him, considering he kept up the cursing until she stepped into sight.

"Get that goddamned thing away from me! Ain't ya pinched me enough?!" Cid bellowed, pushing away the hands of a very disgruntled looking nurse.

"Mr. Highwind. I just need to start the IV," the nurse replied, a hint of anxiety in her voice.

Tifa stepped up to the foot of the bed, her arms crossed and a lopsided smile on her face. Somehow, they had managed to get Cid to shed his clothing and put on a dressing gown. He wasn't wearing his goggles, but she did note that his cigarettes lay beside him on the nightstand, even though the sign clearly said no smoking.

"Cid, aren't you being a bit too difficult?" she commented, catching his attention.

"Tifa," he said, his eyes snapping from the harried nurse to her. "What did ya find out?"

Tifa eased all of her weight to one hip and regarded him with a sly smile.

"I'll make you a deal, you let the nurse give you the IV, and I'll tell you what the Colonel told me."

Cid stared at her for a few moments, the nurse frozen at his side and hardly daring to breath. If this woman could get the ill-tempered pilot to cooperate, she would be eternally gratefull.

"Fine," he spat. "Stick the damn thing in my arm."

With a sigh of relief, the nurse quickly and efficiently got the IV started. Then seeing her chance to escape, hurried off.

Tifa watched the nurse leave, noting that she seemed extremely relieved to do so. She could hardly blame her though, Cid did not make the best patient, and the usual bedside manner wasn't effective with him. She could sense his growing impatience as he waited for her to tell him the fate of Rocket Town, and she took the chair next to his bed, thinking that it wouldn't do to incite him any further.

When he reached for a cigarette, she shook her head. "I think you're going to have to hold off on that. There's no smoking here."

Cid wrinkled up his face in disgust. "You're as bad as that damn nurse."

"Insulting me isn't going to get me to tell you the news any faster."

He sighed. "Yeah, sorry. I'm just a little edgy. Those damn pills they gave me numbed my leg, but they got my nerves wound tighter than a watch."

"What did the doctor say about your leg?"

Cid wiggled his foot experimentally, not liking the feeling of heaviness that remained there. He knew it was a far sight better than the pain, but he didnt't care for the immobility. He wasn't overly sure how long they were going to keep him here, and it made him cross to be stationary until they figured it out.

"Bullet went clear to the bone. Luckily, nothin' is broken. I still gotta lay around in this damn bed 'till the wound heals up enough for me to walk. There ain't a whole lotta damage to the muscle either. Just some torn up tissue. I'll live. I've had worse. Now tell me what they're gonna do about Rocket Town."

She gave Cid a penetrating look. It would be just like him to make light of his injuries. Especially if Rocket Town was in danger. If there was a battle, and he had to stay cooped up in here the whole time, she knew he'd go bananas.

Tifa rearranged herself until she was comfortable as possible in the small chair and tried to relay the news as best she could.

"I told him everything I could about what happened. I don't have any military background like you do, so I couldn't answer all of their questions."

"I'm sure ya did fine. Ya ain't no idiot."

She paused for a moment, realizing that was Cid's way of complimenting her

She smiled wryly. "Thanks."

Cid's expression clearly told her he wanted her to get on with it.

She hesitated a moment, looking around, but no one was nearby. Frankly, she thought all this talk of spies to be kind of silly, but she was gong to take the Colonel's warning seriously. She certainly didn't want anyone to find out what was happening because she had been overheard.

"The Colonel told me that Junon has been amassing their forces here in Costa del Sol for the sole purpose of attacking Wutai as soon as they launched their attack on Rocket Town."

As she paused to take a breath, Cid cut in, "So they're gonna do it?"

"Let me finish, Cid."

He grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, sorry."

Tifa yawned and finished, "He said they were planning on attacking Wutai's forces tomorrow morning."

"Did he say what was gonna to happen to Rockey Town?"

"The Colonel said that he figured they could break through Wutai's forces before they did too much damage to Rocket Town."

Cid leaned back, resting his head on his pillow and clearly looking relieved. Now that all of that was settled, he could finally relax and the knot that had been twisting his insides could fade away.

Moments later, the nurse again appeared at the side of his bed, carrying a glass of water and a small paper cup.

"Goddammit, your as bad as an annoying fly," Cid complained, lifting his head to look her square in the face.

"I'm sorry to be bugging you, Mr. Highwind," she said tightly. "But these will help you sleep."

"You've already given me so much drugs, I'm gonna float outta here."

Tifa had to admit she felt sorry for the nurse. An angry grizzly bear was probably more agreeable than a pissed, hurting Cid.

Cid snatched the cup from her hand and tossed the pills onto his tongue. He swallowed the whole glass of water in a few angry gulps, and then gave her a look that clearly stated he didn't want to see her anywhere near him.

"Miss? Would you like for me to get you a cot? You look like you could use some sleep."

Tifa smiled gratefully at the nurse and said, "Yes, please."

The nurse left again and returned moments later with a green, army cot. Tifa spread it out next to Cid and curled up with the blankets the nurse had set on the chair. Her limbs felt lethargic, and her eyelids felt as though they had weights holding them down. A little bit of sleep was just what she needed now that she knew Rocket Town was in safe hands.

They had turned out the lights in the ward. The only remaining illumination a shaded light up by the nurses station. In it she could dimly make Cid lying in bed, looking up at the ceilling.

"Cid?" she said softly.

"Yeah?" he replied.

"Do you really think Junon can take back Rocket Town?"

Cid lay there silently for a long time.

"I don't know," he said finally. "I hope so."

He had tried to keep Rocket Town independent, but there was no hope of that now. Wutai had made the choice for him, and there was no alternative now but to throw in their lot with Junon. Even if they did take the town back now, the Junon military would be moving in. It seemed that every decison he had made had been wrong.

"It looks like things would have turned out much better if we had just sided with Junon to begin with," he commented bitterly.

Tifa turned on her side and looked at him.

"Cid, please don't beat yourself up over this. You did the best you could."

"And what good did it do?" he asked. "In spite of everything I did, Rocket Town lost it's independence, and innocent people were killed. Those pilots..."

He fell silent, thinking about those men who had flown into battle, fully aware that they were woefully undertrained and didn't stand a chance of survival. He'd been a young pilot himself at the time of the Midgar Wutai war, and had seen his share of brave men, but none braver than those kids he was with today.

"Cid, it wasn't your fault," Tifa said slowly.

He turned toward her and gave her a reassuring smile.

"Don't worry," he said. "I'm just in a bad mood 'cause of this damn injury. Don't let my whinin' get to ya."

"You're not whining, Cid, I'm sure it'll all turn out all right." she said, sinking back down onto her cot. She was so tired.

Cid did not reply. Tifa found her eyes closing involuntarily.

"" she vaguely heard Cid mutter, before she drifted off to sleep.

Cid glanced over at her sleeping form and smiled. He only just realized how exhausted she had looked. There were faint smudges of purple underneath her eyes and he wondered how much sleep she had been getting at night. Probably not any more than he had. He had to admit though, before he drifted off himself, that it felt good to turn the reigns over to someone else for a change. Or maybe, that was just the drugs.

Cid awoke with a start, pain flashing up his leg and right into the receptors in his brain. When he opened his aching, burning eyes, his first view was of the pesky nurse. She was bent over him, applying some sort of salve to his leg. Only, whatever it was, it burned like hell.

"Couldn't that've waited!" he snapped.

The nurse looked up, momentarily startled before her face settled into its usual dour expression. Mr. Highwind apparently appeared to be in no better mood today than he was the day before.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Highwind," she answered briskly, "but your bandages needed changing and your wound needed cleaning."

Cid glared at her. "It could've waited until I was awake for christ sakes!"

The nurse sighed wearily. She had hoped to get his bandage changed before he woke up, to avoid the events that were taking place at this very moment.

Cid settled his head back onto the pillow, anxiety clawing at his gut when he realized that today was the day Junon was launching its attack on Wutai. They had probably already started it, and it made him restless to think that he couldn't be up there flying with them. He really didn't know a single thing about Junon's army or it's commander, so he couldn't vouch for their abilities. Cid wasn't a man that just trusted blindly, and he wished for nothing more at this moment than to have some tangible proof that Junon could handle Wutai. Something physical, something he could see or hold, not something he was simply told and expected to believe.

Cid grit his teeth and hissed as the nurse tightened the bandage around his leg. He wished she would hurry up and leave him alone. She was sourfaced old bat, and just looking at her was enough to ruin Cid's appetite, if the hospital food didn't manage to do it first. The food that they had offered him before Tifa had came back from the briefing looked like a bunch of leftovers all shoved into one pot. He wished accutely that he was back in Rocket Town, with Tifa cooking him something decent. Funny, that he saw Tifa standing there now instead of Shera. Since that thought made him uncomfortable, he pushed it aside and moved on to something else.

"What's for breakfast?" he asked the nurse.


Cid grimaced. He hated that stuff to begin with, and the hospital probably made it so thick and lumpy, he wouldn't be able to swallow it without a gallon of milk. After Tifa woke up, maybe he could convince her to go find some decent food somewhere and smuggle it into the hospital.

"All done," the nurse said, pulling the blanket back over his leg.

"Bout time," Cid grumbled.

When she had left, he glanced over at his cigarettes longingly. What he wouldn't give to be able to smoke just one. But smoking wasn't allowed inside the hospital, and the doctor wouldn't let him get up and go outside yet.

"Stupid doctors," he muttered, "what do they know."

He didn't figure he registered much importance on Junon's chain of command, so he didn't imagine they would send anyone to the hospital to let him know whether they had started the attack yet, or how it was going. Which meant he could only sit here and wait until he was well enough to get up and come to them. He supposed he could send Tifa, but he didn't want to have to involve her in anything more that she couldn't understand. He would just have to wait.

He glanced down at the bulge in the blanket where his injured leg lay. He hated having an injury. It was so debilitating to have others take care of you and be unable to get up and move about freely. He knew he was a horrible patient, but he couldn't stand the confining walls of the hospital. It was probably another reason he loved flying so much. He had the freedom of the whole sky at hand when he was piloting an airplane. There were no bounderies, nothing to tie him down or hold him in one place for too long.

Oddly enough, he thought of his old man. Jay Highwind had never been one to stay settled for too long either. Probably the only long term thing he had ever done was marrying Cid's mother. But Erin Highwind had died while giving birth to Cid, and the old pilot had never had a chance to know her. He had been raised soley by his father, and since his father's life was flying, it made sense that Cid's would be too.

Jay had served in the Shinra Airforce for awhile, before his services weren't needed anymore, and then he had opened a shop and made a living repairing anything mechanical. From airplanes to cars, he fixed anything if it brought in money. He had a great love of cigarettes, and a foul mouth, which he had passed down to his son. He also wasn't very good at showing his emotions, but Cid knew his dad cared for him and that was enough.

When Cid was 18, he joined the Shinra Airforce himself. By that time, the Wutai/Shinra war was in full force, and Shinra was taking any experienced pilots they could get. Which meant, Jay ended up fighting too. Unfortunately, Jay's plane got shot down, and he didn't survive. Cid still remembered the long hours spent waiting in the hospital, and Jay's hospital room.

The rumbling of his stomach pulled him out of his thoughts, and he glanced over at Tifa, wishing she would wake up so he could get something to eat. He was also contemplating grabbing the crutches next to his bed and walking outside to take a smoke anyway. The doctor be damned.

Cid's hands were reaching for the crutches when his eyes fell on the tall, skinny form of his doctor making his way to Cid's bed. With a resigned sigh, Cid fell back onto the pillows and waited for him to approach.

"Good morning Mr. Highwind. How are you feeling today?"

Cid gave him a sour look.

The doctor smiled and nodded. "Well, the surgery to remove your bullet is scheduled in the next half an hour. It will be a simple, non-threatening process that will take no time at all. But it's extremely important that we remove the bullet before infection starts. And, it could also cause paralysis in the leg if we don't."

Tifa stirred on her cot and rose to a sitting position, blinking to clear her head.

"Did I miss something?" she asked.

The doctor smiled at her as well. "Good morning, Miss. Lockheart. I was just discussing with Mr. Highwind the approaching time of his surgery."

"Surgery?" Tifa questioned.

"Yes," the nurse replied. "We've got to remove the bullet from his leg."

Tifa looked at Cid, a slight frown on her face. She hadn't thought he would need surgery. Perhaps this was more serious than she thought.

"Relax, Miss Lockheart," the nurse said, seeing the look on her face. "It's not too serious. I'm sure Captain Highwind will be back on his feet in no time."

"Okay," Tifa replied slowly, not sure whether the nurse was just saying that to reassure her. "When is the surgery scheduled for?"

The nurse glanced at her watch.

"In about twenty minutes. We've got to get Captaing Highwind prepped."

"Prepped," Cid muttered in disgust. "Great."

"Cid, behave yourself," Tifa admonished. "They're just trying to help you."

"I suppose," Cid grudgedly admitted. "Well, at least we'll get it over with quick."

Two orderlies came over and started to wheel Cid's gurney out of the room.

"See if you can find out what's going on in Rocket Town," Cid called out to Tifa as he was being pushed away. "And take care of my cigarettes!"

"Good luck," Tifa called after him as he disappeared down the hallway.

Tifa stood there for a while after Cid was gone. lost in thought. The relief she had felt when she had been told Junon was going to try to take back Rocket Town had quickly faded, replaced by worry about whether Cid would be alright. If he was having surgery, there was little chance he would be on his feet anytime soon. She had no other friends here, and it was unlikely she would be able to contact any of her old comrades now. She would hate to have Cid flying off into danger without her, but she knew she was too inexperienced to fly with him, and it didn't seem likely he would be willing to take her along in his own plane. She didn't know how long the battle for Rocket Town would last, but it seemed to her there was good chance Cid would miss out on it entirely. Something he would not be too pleased about, but might be for the best. At least she wouldn't have to worry about him flying off into battle without her.

She picked up Cid's cigarettes and walked outside. She sat down on the stoop and wrapped her arms around her knees, looking up at the sky.

She had left Kalm because she was lonely, and now she suddenly felt more alone than ever. She knew Cid's surgery was not too complicated, but she was still worried. You never knew what could happen in an operating room. As far as she was concerned, anytime they cut you open there were risks involved. After her initial awkwardness when they had first met they had quickly fallen back into the comfort of their old friendship, and now it almost seemed to her like they had never been apart. She didn't know what she would do if something happened to him.

She shook her head, trying to shake off this sudden melencholy. The surgery Cid was undergoing was minor, and she was sure he would come out of it just fine. She didn't know what was going to happen after that, but no matter what happened she vowed to herself that she would not let them be seperated. She didn't give a damn what anybody said, even if it meant going into battle, even if Cid himself was against it. She had been by herself long enough. No matter what happened, she wasn't going to be left behind.


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