Appointment With Destiny Chapter 26
Cid had never been so proud of the Highwind as he was today. The sight of the Shinra helicopter receding in his screen was a welcome sight. He kept the lever down until there was nothing visible in the sky behind him. The crew was already congratulating themselves on their escape, but Cid held his speed a little longer just to be sure. Scarlet was always coming up with a new weapons design. There was no telling what that helicopter had under its hood. If Sephiroth was using it, it might be the best in the fleet. If it's engine was powerful enough to catch up with the Highwind, their problems were far from over. He waited.
Cloud was drawing whatever breath he could with Yuffie squashed against him. He prayed Cid would ease up on the throttle soon.
Yuffie felt uncomfortable on Cloud lap, but not to the point she was going to complain about it. She'd always thought Cloud was cute, but it was obvious how he felt about Tifa. If this was the only way she was going to get his arms around her, she was going to enjoy it as long as she could. She'd deal with reality after she was free to move again. For now, it was kind of neat to pretend Cloud was holding her in a romantic embrace.
Tifa rolled her eyes in Yuffie's direction and tried not to frown. Until now, she'd been completely unaware of Yuffie's interest in Cloud. It was bad enough she hadn't seen it in Jessie. She looked at the dreamy look on the young ninja's face and turned away.
A troubling thought crossed her mind. Was she so sure of Cloud's love, she didn't worry about other women, or was she just being careless? She'd never thought of having competitors before. For the first time in their relationship, a spark of jealousy burst into flame.
She glanced at Cloud. He'd probably think Yuffie was too young for him. There was no threat there, but . . . she looked at Aeris.
Aeris was pregnant and too deep in her own misery to pay any attention to Cloud. She hadn't flirted with him, or sent him coy looks during any of the times she'd seen them together, but that didn't mean she hadn't flirted when they alone together. Tifa glanced at Yuffie again.
Yuffie's arms were wrapped around Cloud's neck. Her face was nestled in his hair with eyes closed. There was just a trace of a smile on her lips. Cloud just looked uncomfortable. Tifa pursed her lips. Aeris didn't seem like that type of girl. As for Yuffie . . . if she didn't knock it off soon a well timed dirty look should get the message across. Tifa stared out the window again. From now on she'd pay closer attention to who was paying attention to Cloud. That's for sure.
Barret decided if Cid didn't ease up soon, he was going to start shouting for relief. The backrest was pressing into him in a most uncomfortable way. There was a larger seat made to accommodate his size, but he hadn't been close enough reach it before the ship accelerated. Thrown into the smaller seat, he was stuck until the ship returned to normal speed.
Barret cast an evil look at the lion creature, who was curled comfortably on his own custom seat. The empty chair beside him was the one, he should have had. He sighed and looked out the window. Damn this was uncomfortable! Wasn't Cid ever going to let up?
Aeris was worried about the effects the pressure might be having on her baby. She wished the Highwind would go slower. She glanced around at her new friends. If push came to shove and they had to keep going like this, she'd request a parachute and ask them to slow just enough to let her jump out. That meant being captured by Sephiroth and being turned over to Hojo, but at least it wouldn't endanger AVALANCHE or her baby. Aeris wondered if she'd be allowed to keep her baby, or if Sephiroth would let Hojo experiment on it. If only her mother had broken the rules and told her about Jerin when she was seven. Aeris was sure she wouldn't have left home.
What would have happened if I hadn't gone? she wondered. Would the portal have opened for Sephiroth on its own so he could come through to get me?
She wondered what Sephiroth was doing now. She thought back to the tender moments they had shared. Had it all been a lie? How could he look at or touch her the way he had and still turn her over to his father? Aeris shuddered.
She thought about Sephiroth's face at the window again. He'd looked mad enough to kill someone. Her? Would he go to his female troopers tonight and pick one to console him? Could he forget her that easy? Aeris sobbed quietly to herself.
The red beast heard her crying. It hurt him to see anyone as sad as Aeris. He decided to see if he could help, the moment it was possible.
"They gave up. Nothing can catch the Highwind when she wants to run." Cid pushed the lever back into place. The Highwind dropped into normal speed.
"Nobody can catch my baby," he said.
Cloud pushed Yuffie off his lap. She hit the floor on her bottom.
"Ouch!" She gave him a dirty look. "I would have gotten up if you'd given me a chance!"
Cloud concentrated getting air into his starving lungs.
"S-S-Sorry Y-Yuffie," he gasped not looking sorry at all. "I-I get my b-breath b-back or I w-was g-going to pass out!"
"Right." Yuffie stood up with as much dignity as she could muster.
Tifa hid a smile.
The cabin was quiet then, except for the sound of Aeris sobbing.
The red beast, pushed the control that opened the catch on his straps. He padded over to Aeris.
"Can I help?"
Aeris raised her head to look at him and screamed. She pressed herself back against the seat.
"What are you?" she asked fearfully.
The creature looked surprised. "My name is Nanaki, but my friends call me Red XIII. That's the number Hojo gave me when I was a prisoner in his lab."
"Red XIII?" Aeris gave him a strange look. "Hojo made you?"
Red snorted. "My parents made me. Hojo was just curious. He had the Turks
capture me and haul me back to Shinra so he could "study"me."
"But you can talk!" Aeris looked as if she still didn't believe what she was seeing.
"Of course I can talk." Red looked amused. "All of my people can. Well . . . at least they could. As far as I know now . . . I'm the only one of my kind left."
Aeris sat up. "But aren't you a lion or something like that?"
Red looked confused. "What's a . . . lion?"
"Where I come from," said Aeris, "They kind of look like you, except they're not as red and the tip of their tails don't glow like yours. None of them talk. They growl or roar, but they can't talk!"
Red looked amused. "And you call them lions? If they can't talk, who are they lying on?"
Aeris stared at him a moment, then broke into laughter.
"You see?" Red looked proud of himself. "I got you to laugh. I'm not so bad am I? Even if I do look like one of your lions."
"No, you're not bad." Aeris wiped a tear from her eye. "In fact, you're very nice. I'm sorry I screamed when I first saw you. In my world, lions eat meat."
"So do I," said Red.
"Yeah, but in my world, when a lion is this close to a human, the human IS meat!" Aeris blushed. "I thought you were going to attack me."
"There's too much food running around on this planet for me to want to eat a human." Red looked around at Yuffie. "Besides the fact that I've never wanted to eat a human, some of them look kind of stringy."
Yuffie drew herself up tall, folding her arms. "And why did you look at me when you said that?"
"Oh hi Yuffie," said Red with an innocent look. "I didn't realize you were standing there. Sorry."
"I'll just bet you are," fumed Yuffie. "Right!"
"And now, to repeat my question,"Red XIII moved closer to Aeris. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Aeris thought of Sephiroth again, and her face crumpled. She dropped her head.
"There's nothing anyone can do for me," she said. A tear slid down her face.
Red XIII walked up to Aeris and laid his silky reddish head in her lap. He turned his golden eye up to look into her face. His fur was soft and warm.
"You're not alone Aeris," he said softly. "We'll help you anyway we can."
Aeris couldn't resist stroking his head. There was something soothing in the way his fur felt under her fingers. She stroked him again. Red closed his eye and purred deep in his throat.
Why, he's more like a cat than he knows, thought Aeris. The light made his
fur look expensive red mink as her fingers ruffled it. Red purred out loud.
Aeris smiled through her tears.
"Thank you," she said.
Red opened his eye and wiggled his ears. Aeris stroked his head. He closed his eye again. The more she stroked his fur, the calmer she felt. The troubles in her mind faded into the background as they she watched the way his hair fell back into place. Red sighed in satisfaction.
Tifa took Cloud by the arm and led him a short distance away.
"Good old Red," she whispered.
Cloud grinned at her. "He's just found someone new to scratch between his ears. I think clever old Red suits him better."
"What are we going to do about Sephiroth?" said Tifa. "Did you see the look on his face? He's sure to come after us."
Cloud nodded. "We'll have to lay low for a while and see what he does. This could get ugly."
"Cloud." Tifa glanced back at Aeris. She was still stroking Red's head and he was enjoying every minute of it. "Do you think Sephiroth really cares about Aeris? When I looked in his face, I wasn't sure if he was angry because Aeris was getting away from Hojo, or because he was losing the woman he loved."
Cloud looked at Aeris for a while before he answered. "I don't know Tifa. I really don't know."
"She's pregnant," said Tifa. "He's going to come after her and we'd better be ready."
Cloud was thinking the same thing.
* * * * *
The helicopter landed. Sephiroth swept down the stairs with thunderous look on his face. Troopers and villagers moved out of his way as he made his way toward the mansion. Heidegger was just about to sit down sit down in the livingroom with a cup of coffee Sephiroth came through the door and slammed it behind him.
Heidegger sat his cup down on a table.
"I take it you didn't find her," her said.
"I found her." Sephiroth spoke through clenched teeth.
Heidegger looked surprised. "Why didn't you bring her back?"
Sephiroth grit his teeth.
"She's with AVALANCHE."
"A-A-AVALANCHE?" Heidegger stared at him. "She's with the terrorists?"
"So it would seem." Sephiroth walked past Heidegger into the den. He stopped in front of a picture of Aeris they'd had taken on their honeymoon.
"But why?" Heidegger followed him. "Did they kidnap her?"
Sephiroth thought about Aeris' tear streaked face and didn't reply. Hojo's words came back to him. "Or maybe she left on her own . . . "
"They must have taken her." He turned to Heidegger. "She had no reason to leave."
Heidegger shook his head. "Why you take her away from them?"
"They were in the Highwind," answered Sephiroth. "My helicopter wasn't fast enough to keep up with them."
"I'll get some airships out search for them." Heidegger turned around to walk away.
"NO!" Sephiroth's voice stopped him. "I don't want the troops involved. If one of them accidently killed my wife trying to rescue her . . ."
"I understand." Heidegger paused. "What do you want to do?"
"I want to send a broadcast to AVALANCHE," answered Sephiroth. "If they cooperate, I can be reasonable."
Heidegger suppressed a shiver. "When and where do you want to do your broadcast?"
"Here. As soon as possible. The sooner, the better."
"I'll take care of it right away." Heidegger hurried away.
Sephiroth turned his gaze back to Aeris' picture. Was Hojo right? Had Aeris left on her own? . He shook his head and turned away. Impossible. AVALANCHE had taken his wife for reasons of their own. He'd get her back from them.
He was staring out a window when Heidegger returned.
"A film crew is on the way," he said. "Are you going to send any aircraft out?"
Heidegger's jaw dropped. "What? Why?"
"The Highwind has been missing for months and we've never been able to find where they hide it," answered Sephiroth. "What makes you think we'll fare any better now?"
Heidegger nodded. "I understand. Was Aeris okay?"
Sephiroth didn't look at him. "She was . . . unharmed, as far as I could see."
"The President is very upset about her disappearance," said Heidegger. "He's given you permission to use whatever you need to rescue her."
"How generous of him."
Heidegger gave him a closer look. "Is there something you're not telling me? Is something wrong?"
"My wife is missing," snapped Sephiroth. "Do you need to ask?"
"That's not what I meant." The general tried again. "You're acting strange. Is it about Aeris?"
"Aeris is pregnant and a prisoner of AVALANCHE." Sephiroth fixed Heidegger with a cold stare. "Any more questions?"
Heidegger frowned and stepped back. "I'm not your enemy Sephiroth. I'm just as worried about her as you are."
Sephiroth took a deep breath. "I'm sorry."
Heidegger went to him and put his hand on Sephiroth's shoulder. "We'll find her and bring her back. Don't worry."
Sephiroth nodded and turned to stare out a window.
* * * * *
"Damn it!" The President was red with anger. "Your plan was supposed to kill them Scarlet. Why are they still running around?"
Scarlet gave him a sullen look. "It's not my fault they were smart enough to save themselves."
President Shinra rolled his eyes at her. He looked at Rufus.
"Suddenly your idea doesn't sound too bad."
Scarlet perked up. "What idea?"
The President and his son looked at each other and smiled
"What idea?" Scarlet moved a step closer.
"Nothing you should know." Rufus smiled at her.
If this had been another time, Scarlet would have been thrilled to get a smile out of Rufus, but somehow his smile frightened her.
The phone rang. The President put it on intercom. Hojo's voice filled the room. "If you'd have let me have my way, the Cetra would have been in our power by now."
"Shut up Hojo." The President picked up his cigar and took a puff. "You can have her when we get her back."
Hojo's voice was filled with glee. "I can follow my original plan?"
"Yes, yes, your original plan." A long plume of smoke fanned out toward the ceiling as he exhaled. "Just make sure I get what I want."
"You will," said Hojo slyly. "You will."
The connection was broken.
Rufus looked at his father. "Do you really think he can do it?"
The President smiled. "If anyone can do it, our Hojo can."
Rufus chuckled. "I'd better decide what suit I want to wear when we meet
our friends on the other side."
"I guess I'd better pick out a dress," added Scarlet.
"You're not going on the first trip." President Shinra ignored her hostile look. "If anything, I want you to get back to your lab and figure out what to offer them. Go."
Scarlet opened her mouth to speak but his look made her think twice. She left the room with her lips pressed tight in anger.
"I guess I won't be able get her in my room tonight," mused the President. "Do you want her?"
Rufus made a face.
The President laughed. I'd guess we'd better go over our strategy then."
Rufus nodded his agreement and pulled up a chair.
* * * * *
The Highwind landed just outside Gongaga. Aeris allowed the group to lead her to a house on the outskirts of the village. It looked run down and deserted on the outside, but it was clean and furnished on the inside.
"Is this your new hideout?" she asked.
"One of them," Cloud answered. "We won't be here long. We keep on the move. We'll only stay one night."
"Aren't you afraid Shinra's aircraft will find us here?" Aeris looked worried.
"They don't have that many." Cid answered the question. "And they don't like the idea of spreading them out too far in case we shoot down a few. The Highwind was the biggest venture old man Shinra ever took toward improving his air force. I stole it away from him. He's always been too focused on conventional ground weaponry. They tried to build another Highwind but we sabotaged it. It couldn't be repaired. The one they're working on now is supposed to be an improvement over ours, but we're going to take care of it too, in time."
Aeris sat down on a comfortable chair. Red XIII sat by her side.
"You all lead such adventurous lives," she said. "Where will it all end?"
"It will end when the President and Rufus are taken out of power."
Aeris looked around to find the source of this new voice. A man dressed in black and with a red scarf around the lower part of his face walked into the room. Aeris thought the red in his eyes was the reflection of his scarf until he stopped in front of her.
It's not a reflection, she thought. His eyes are really red.
"I'm Vincent," he said introducing himself. "Hello Aeris."
Aeris blinked. "You know me?"
"Sephiroth's wife?" Vincent looked amused. "Who doesn't?"
"It's not easy getting used to being known everywhere I go." Aeris sighed.
" I kind of miss being a nobody."
"I can't imagine that ever being true about you."
"Believe me it was." Aeris gave him a shy smile. "I guess I might as well forget about anonymity."
"Seems like a wise thing to do." Vincent flexed one of his arms. What Aeris had mistaken for something shiny he was holding in his hand was suddenly revealed as a claw hand. She fell back in alarm.
Vincent smiled ruefully. "Hojo gave me this for trying to take his wife away from him."
"Of all the men on the Planet whose wives you could have stolen, why Hojo's wife?" Aeris shook her head at him. "Tell me you didn't do it because of the challenge it presented."
"It wasn't the challenge," Vincent's red eyes were steady. "Hojo didn't love Lucrecia." Vincent eyes looked haunted. "She figured that out after she found out she was pregnant with Sephiroth and tried to leave him, but he locked her in his lab when she was five months pregnant and kept her healthy by force for the babies sake. He was giving her drugs and injections from a long dead ancestor of Sephiroth's to give him an edge in winning you."
Aeris was silent.
Vincent looked down at his hand. "When she learned what he was doing to her, that he wasn't giving her shots to keep her and the baby healthy, she rebelled against him. I was coming to the lab on the pretext of delivering a message when I heard her telling him she was leaving him once and for all. She'd come to trust me as her friend and she was leaving with me. In time I hoped she'd come to love me as much as I loved her."
"Hojo was started slapping her around. I tried to stop him and one of his assistants bashed me over the head from behind. When I woke up I was as you see me now. He kept me locked up like an animal while he practiced his so called science on me. He kept Lucrecia locked up in another cell. He forced her to eat and exercise by threatening to kill the one relative she had left after a horrible fire. An elderly aunt."
"He let me watch what he was doing to her, knowing I was helpless to prevent it. Hojo knew how I felt about her. He thought the worst pain he could inflict on me was to take me away from Lucrecia before she gave birth. I was caged and sent with guards to a private lab in the Shinra mansion. Hojo was going to use me for more experiments but I escaped. I wasn't able to get to Lucrecia before she died and Hojo switched babies."
"What about Heidegger's baby?" Aeris sat up straighter. "How does she fit into this?"
"Heidegger always does what Hojo wants," scoffed Vincent. "He married Muanie because Hojo needed another woman who would give birth around the same time as Lucrecia. Hojo induced her labor after Lucrecia's pains started. Poor Muanie. She thought Heidegger loved her. She didn't know what they had planned for her until she was strapped down on a table.
Vincent closed his eyes. "I can still hear her screaming. She and her baby were killed to hide Sephiroth's parentage. Hojo didn't want anyone to know he was Jerin's heir. He kept up the lie that Heidegger was Sephiroth's father. Hojo didn't want to be bothered with raising a child. Children have a way of getting attached to their parents even when they're abused. Hojo didn't want that to happen with Sephiroth while he was experimenting on him."
"What a monster." Aeris wrapped her arms around herself.
"He's that and more," said Vincent. "As far as he's concerned, you're just another experiment and the President's hope of extending his power."
"If Jerin were here now, I'd wring his neck," said Aeris. "He started this mess."
"If Jerin were here," Cid took a cigarette out of his pack, "You'd be doing just what you're doing now. Hiding out. You're a pretty girl Aeris. Don't you think Jerin would notice that?"
Aeris closed her eyes. "I don't know how much more of this I can take. I just don't."
Tifa came to her side. "Come on, you're just tired. Let me show you a place to rest."
Yuffie joined them as Tifa led Aeris to an upstairs bedroom.
"What's the next step?" asked Barret.
"We wait." Cloud folded his arms. "Sephiroth will make the next move."
Cid sat turned on the television and sat down, propping his legs up on the coffee table.
"I hope he doesn't make one too soon," he yawned. "I could use a few minutes of rest myself."
"Aeris is nice," said Red XIII. "I can't imagine Sephiroth turning her over to Hojo, but it looks like he's just as bad as his father. Poor Aeris. How are we going to help her Cloud?"
"The only thing we can do right now is keep her away from Shinra." Cloud glanced the way the girls had gone. "I'm hoping Aeris will figure out how to open the portal so she can go home."
"Without Sephiroth?" Barret snorted. "He'll just love that!"
"He won't have any say in the matter.," Cloud sat down. "If Jerin's line had the power to open the portal, they would have gone after the Cetra instead of waiting for her to come to them."
"If Aeris goes back now, she'll be all alone and pregnant," said Vincent. "That's no way to start a new life."
"I know." Cloud looked troubled, "But she doesn't have a choice. The alternative is Hojo and Shinra. Which do you think she'd chose?"
Barret sighed. "I wish there was another way. I wouldn't wish either fate on Marlene."
Vincent clapped his shoulder. "You're a good father Barret, but your daughter was born with the chance to chose her own life. Aeris wasn't."
There wasn't much to say after that. The villagers were friends of AVALANCHE, so there was no fear of discovery. Aeris went to sleep soon after she laid down. Tifa and Yuffie came downstairs and started preparing a meal. The food was almost ready when a news bulletin cut into the show Cid was watching. Cloud listened to the announcer speak, then turned to Red XIII.
"Go get Aeris," he said urgently. "Wake her up and tell her to come downstairs. She needs to hear this."
Red nodded and ran for the stairs. Cloud looked back at the screen.
Sephiroth was standing stood behind the announcer looking into the camera. His eyes burned like green coals.
"Brace yourself," Cloud's voice was wary. "This is what we're waiting for."
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