Flowers Grow Part 3: Here We Stand Again As One
Chapter 14: The illusion shattered
By the time that Cloud had made it back into the warmth of the cabin, the rest of the group save Vincent who was still wandering somewhere were asleep. Taken willingly to the quiet restful lands of the sub-conscious.
Cloud sat down in his seat and held his head in his hands as seethed and raged and mulled over the conversation with that silver-haired monster on the deck. He sighed and sat up, looking out of the window at the stillness and the black majesty of the night-world outside. Beforehand it had looked cool and almost inviting in its' death-like calmness. An escape from this world of light and warmth. An escape from the places where shadows grow in the light and nothing is what it seems. But now, after that ferocious exchange the night world seemed different. The lustre of tranquility lost now and each star that hung in the snuffed out sky was an evil eye, a servant of the shadow watching with perverted interest all that the party were doing.
Cloud groaned and pinched his eyes shut as he thought of what had been said out there in that prying-eyed land of darkness.
The exchange with his nemesis had left him with more and more unanswered questions than he had had beforehand. Sephiroth, or whatever he had become now obviously detested Cloud and his friends with a passion. Despised, loathed and hated them with unnatural fury.
Smouldering frustration within Cloud's head ignited into a raging bonfire of anger and he exhaled explosively as he sat back in the seat and sifted through his cyclonic whirlwind of thoughts.
Why had Sephiroth not killed Cloud? It was his perfect opportunity to do so. The deck was deserted, the water so cold and lifeless that nobody would ever know what had happened had he been thrown into it. A sea of freezing ice shards churning and swirling like a hundred thousand gaping mouths awaiting an offering of impudent life-warm flesh.
Sephiroth could have run him through with the Masamune. By the time he was found it would be too late for even the most effective of Life spells to work. Ironic in the extreme that he would have died in the same manner as the woman he was attempting to avenge.
Failing that, the power that Sephiroth now had command over he could have pinched Cloud from existence in less than an instant. Vapourised him, torn his flesh from the bone with a burning ripple of pure energy in the limitless temporal expanse of a heartbeat.
In his new-found, seemingly limitless fury, he could have destroyed the entire ship in the batting of an eyelid. Torn it asunder and incinerated it with fire and lightning. Why hold back?
What was the point of these games?
'Soon you will see the power of a God.' The words tumbled over and over.
Did he truly believe now that he was a god?
What was it that had shined so brightly in his eyes, what monster dwelled within him now? Could Jenova still be alive within him?
Cloud sighed as the thoughts swirled and mixed. Obviously Sephiroth meant to exact a slow and crushing revenge on the party and given that they were still alive despite the many opportunities that had passed to kill them it was obvious to Cloud that Sephiroth had grand plans for their demise. Grand and wicked plans.
This was quintessentially Sephiroth, a return to tactics he had favoured even before he had been consumed by madness; toy with your victims, play with them, make them suffer and then, mercifully, destroy them.
Vincent sat down heavily in the seat next to Cloud startling him back from his black couldron of worries and fears. His steel talons clicked as he carefully placed the Quicksilver on the table.
Cloud surveyed him and then turned to look out at the black evil of the night world again.
"Where did you go?" He asked.
Vincent sat back in the seat and made a sound that, for him, approximated relaxation.
"Forgive my absence, I felt drawn to take in some more of this fine vessel."
Cloud turned and looked at Vincent, a quizzical expression furrowed in his brow.
"What did you need the gun for then?"
Vincent frowned, eyes shimmered softly.
"Never assume safety. Monsters lurk all around, especially in the darkness.
Creeping and slithering in places beyond sight waiting for the right time to strike."
Cloud smiled understandingly and sat back in the seat.
"How right you are Vincent. How right you are."
Barret slowly opened his big eyes and groaned as the lingering effects of his binge the night before pounded and thrashed like auto-fire in his head. He clutched his forehead with his big hand and pardoned himself as a small eruption of gas escaped from the organic prison of his mouth. He groaned as the light caught his eyes and lay his head on the table in his folded arms.
"I gotta stop drinkin." He mumbled.
Cloud was next to open his eyes, the radiant sapphire catching gracefully the light that poured into the ship from the window. He stretched out his arms and yawned, ending with an explosive sigh as he fully arose. He sat back and yawned again as he rubbed sleep from his eyes and then checked his spikes to survey any damage that may have been caused as he slept. Finding none he turned his attention to his companions. Vincent had pulled another disappearing act and so had the gun. Cloud gave an exasperated sigh and clapped his hands on the table. Barret groaned and looked up at Cloud with a bloodshot glare of frustration.
"Do you have to make so much freakin' noise?" He hissed.
Cloud smiled, taking note that the empty glasses had been removed from the table and then he looked at Barret.
"Not feeling so hot today Barret? I wonder why that could have been?"
Barret did not reply, instead he bowed his head into his hands and groaned.
"No more booze...I mean it this time....."
"Oh come on Barret, you say that every time."
Tifa's eyes opened and she smiled as she spoke, her beauty eclipsing the natural glory of the sun outside. Again, Barret did not answer although he did groan a few times, maybe in protest.
Cloud smiled as he looked at Tifa, her big brown eyes sparkling like tiny stars as they caught the light that flooded in from the glory of the reborn day.
"How are you feeling today Tifa?" Cloud asked.
She smiled again and leaned forward brushing a stray wisp of her angel dust hair from her face.
"Much better. I think I have acclimatised to the motions of the ship now."
Cloud chuckled and sat forward.
"So does that mean you will get landsick now?" He asked.
She giggled and sat back.
The two sat quietly for a moment and looked at the grand flares of light from the sun as it began its' daily task of lighting the world.
Tifa sighed and looked over at the empty seat next to Cloud.
"Where's Vincent got to?" She asked.
Cloud looked over shaking his head.
"No idea. He was gone by the time I woke up."
It was at this point, without any kind of warning that memory of the previous nights' conversation flooded back to Cloud and hit him with the force of one of Tifa's Limit attacks. The sign that consciousness was fully responsive bit him as it recalled fresh and difficult memories for him to deal with.
He bit his bottom lip and looked out of the window again. He would have to tell them, it was important. In his head he groaned as he thought of how to say it but his mouth was already way ahead of his brain and voted for the use of initiative.
"I spoke to Sephiroth last night."
It was at that moment that Barret discovered he did not have to pay for coffee to sober him up as all traces of a hangover were swept away in a flood of adrenaline-fueled surprise by the words as they assaulted his ears. He sat straight up and fixed his big somber eyes on Cloud. Tifa did the same, the smile that she had previously boasted was extinguished by the tidal wave of concern that flooded onto her face.
"What did you say?" Barret asked.
Tifa seconded the question by looking at Barret and then at Cloud.
"I said that I spoke to Sephiroth last night."
"How?" Tifa asked, confusion and worry flaring in her soft voice.
Cloud shrugged and looked back out of the window.
"It was when I went out on deck for some fresh air, I heard a voice and there he was behind me."
Barret sighed frustratedly and sat back in his seat.
"That son of a bitch." He growled.
"What did you talk about?" Tifa asked, concern bubbling quietly in her words.
Cloud chuckled quietly and without humour as he thought to himself.
"Nothing much, he went on and on about being a god and then I graphically described hacking Jenova to pieces, just for his amusement."
He looked at Tifa and Barret with a concerned look.
"I think I pissed him off a bit."
Barret slammed his big fist off of the table and rattled it as he did so.
"I am sick of that loon and his stupid fuckin' games!"
Tifa nodded as she stared out of the big window at the sun glazed waves of the ocean.
"I agree. What does he want?"
"He wishes to avenge himself on us. After that who knows."
Vincents' strange silken voice boomed startling the group as he reappeared from his travels and sat down in his seat.
"Revenge drives him and he obviously intends to avenge himself slowly."
"That figures. If he wanted us dead he could do it any time. Hell, the power he has he could take the ship out aswell just to make sure."
Tifa frowned at Cloud.
"Then he does want something from us, yes?"
Cloud and Vincent shrugged.
"Possibly. Who knows?" Cloud asked.
"Who gives a rats' ass! Lets just find him and end him before he stirs up major shit, again!" Barret boomed.
Cloud playfully drummed his fingers and sat back looking at the big man with the gun-arm.
"My sentiments exactly."
Tifa sighed as she looked out of the window again. From the confines of the ship the sea had changed once more from a beacon of natural equilibrium and was again like a huge monster, circling all around and scouring the ship with its liquid claws looking for a weakness, a way in. The seemingly endless expanse of ocean was quite threatening when you looked out upon it from the window. So much power against so small a ship which, if the sea decided to adopt a policy of hostility, would not stand a chance of survival. She sighed again and then turned back to face the group who were watching Cloud.
"When will we reach the Western Continent?" She asked in her quiet, worried voice.
"Soon. Very soon." Vincent replied, his vicious steel claws clicking on the plasticised surface of the table. Barret sighed and sat back as his shock abated slightly allowing the hangover to reassert itself over him. With his only hand he ran his fingers through his stubbly black hair and sat back in his seat as he thought.
"Ok, just once more. The plan is to collect Cid and the Highwind, go find old Red and then go and kick Sephiroth's ass?" He asked, fatigue and frustration in his powerful voice.
The group gave a collective nod.
"Good. Fuckin' loon...." Barret gumbled, promptly going back to sleep.
Tifa sat in silence, looking out of the window holding her head in her hands and sighing every now and then.
"What's wrong Tifa?" Cloud asked.
She turned, the crafted natural beauty of her face creased into worry and fear as she pensively bit her thumbnail.
"It's so frightening, you know?"
"What is?" He asked.
"That he can see us and hear us even though he is so far away. How can we defeat him when he knows all that we say and do?"
Cloud frowned, concerned for his friend as he reached over and carefully took her hand, holding it tight and looking directly into the storms of her troubled eyes.
"We will defeat him Tifa. I promise you that." He said solemnly, squeezing her hand tight in his.
Her fears were not so easily snuffed and she sighed, her eyes bubbling with doubt.
"How can you be so sure Cloud?"
"Have I ever broken a promise to you before?"
She smiled, the sunlight of her smile breaking through the dark clouds of doubt in her eyes.
"No. I guess not. Thanks Cloud."
Cloud smiled and so did she.
Vincent, having no knowledge of how to comfort Tifa looked on, marvelling at
what Shinra had managed to take from him. He had watched the relationship
between the other members of the party and had enough basic knowledge to mimic
their interactions. He knew he wouldn't know how to carry it off effectively
though so instead opted for silent study, the sadness he had in his soul would
be his to carry silently in the darkness of his world.
Chapter 15: In the house of flowers
This was her favourite part of the day, the first crack of morning. She lay in the bed in the room that lay next door to a shrine for the young woman forever lost to Lifestream.
Marlene was drifting as if drugged, warm and cozy in the limbo between the lands beyond the eyelid and the waking world. Not awake but not asleep either just floating hazily in the vortex of created nothingness between the two worlds. In her hand, the warm green crystal throbbed and hummed with barely contained energy as she felt a hand gently shaking her into one of the two worlds to choose from.
"Marlene." Came the soft voice, ringing out in the event horizon of the darkness and the light and drawing her towards her waking life.
She rolled over, her eyes still closed to the world she had been called to and she mumbled.
She felt the hand lift gently.
Hazily and with the care of angels she opened her eyes and filtered out the light that streaked in through the curtains of the house and she was blinded momentaily as she awoke. Sunlight was cruel and rewarding at the same time. Warm yet blinding.
At the end of the bed stood her summoner, the slick of shining silver hair running down his back and his emerald green eyes looking at her, shining and warm.
"Time to arise my child."
She looked at him, cocking her head from side to side.
"You're the man who gave me the crystal." She said, excitement trickling into her voice.
He nodded, something shined in his eyes as he did so. Still he did not smile yet seemed to radiate an invisible feeling of safety to the child in his gaze and his aura.
Marlene suddenly remembered Elmyra's words and her little smile faded as she turned away from her friend and buried her head in the pillow.
He did not change the steely expression as he stood and watched the child, the silver dragon of hair waving in the slight breeze from the open window that blew and convulsed in the curtains.
"Why do you turn from me?" He asked.
"'Cause. I'm not supposed to talk to you. Auntie Elmyra said so."
He laughed, echoes of other voices whispered in the laugh. The invisible safety drying up replaced with awakening rage on his face as he looked at the diminuative form of the child.
"Why would she say that? Why tell a child they are not worthy of God's time?" He asked, fury burning seductively in his words. Slithering silently in his voice.
Her little head turned slowly from the pillow and she fixed on her visitor with a look of awe. A pure little gaze of amazement and wonder that only children have the blind faith and conviction to create. Free from the cries of scepticism in an adult, she stared and her mouth gaped as she sat up a little, the cautious words of Elmyra melting and trickling out of her thoughts like meltwater from a glacier.
"God?" She gasped.
"You believe I am a God do you not?"
She nodded in amazement, possessed by her own burning wonder.
"Your father does not and neither does your auntie. That makes God very very angry."
Marlene sat up.
"They have to see you that's all.Daddy does not believe stuff 'till he sees it."
He smiled, light glowed in his eyes briefly and then vanished.
"And why then do you believe without question?" He asked.
The child stretched forth her hand and showed him the Materia crystal, light pulsed in it and reflected in his eyes as he gazed upon it.
"I believe you because I can see you."
He looked away, eyes glowing as he averted his gaze from the materia orb. The child suddenly picked up another feeling from the man. A silent and wicked vibration of something, something strong and dark. Evil.
His breath echoed in hisses as he sat and seethed. Marlene lay back a little.
"I am a God and all who oppose me will fall." He hissed. Unreined fury erupting in his voice.
Marlene looked at him, his silver hair waving in the breeze. And she cocked her head, sitting back a little as she watched him. the feeling of safety was but a memory now replaced with an invisible aura of fire and anger.
"Even daddy?" She asked.
He snapped his head around, vicious flares of light erupted in his eyes and he sneered, teeth like daggers.
"Yes. He opposes god and he will fall. Soon, all shall see my power. ALL SHALL KNEEL AT MY FEET!" He roared.
Marlene backed off in the bed, fear welling up inside, her little face cracking into an expression of terror as she watched him, his anger burning brightly.
"Please don't hurt daddy." She said silently.
His eyes cooled off and he turned, facing the wall, her words falling on deaf ears.
"Even now they move to stop me. They will pay. They will all pay for their heresy. I shall rule the world with my mother at my side." He hissed.
Marlene lay back down and pulled the covers up to her chin as she watched him for a moment. Finally he turned back around, the hatred and fire gone from his emerald eyes although something else remained, not him but something else.
Something evil. Marlene felt it watching her from the comfort of his eyes. It spoke to her from his throat wearing the mask of his voice.
"You must not tell Elmyra that I came here. If you tell her I will have to kill her."
Marlene watched him, the thing in his eyes watched back.
"I will not tell." She whispered, fear slithered like coiled serpents around the words and she lay watching and waiting in terrified anticipation for his next move.
He nodded and his eyes flashed light again as he spoke.
"I will be watching. You had better not lie to me." He hissed, coming over to the child and stretching forth his hand. He waved his hand over Marlene's forehead. In moments the magic took hold and the child was ushered back to the lands of comfort and safety behing the veil of consciousness. Fear melted from her face as she lapsed into sleep.
"Only my name shall you remember." He hissed as he left the room.
Sephiroth watched her as she slept, his hand resting on the hilt of the great Masamune blade. Before him was the mother of the Ancient, that troublesome girl he had disposed of in the City of the Ancients. He sneered, she was quite lovely in a way as she slept but he did not feel such things anymore. What time did gods have for love or happiness? Why should they bother with the tiresome emotional charade of mortals.
There was a metallic rasp in the still room as the huge weapon was retracted from its' sheath and brought to striking position.
"So, you do not believe in the power of your god either?" He sneered, the sword swinging in the air.
The sleeping woman stirred but did not wake. She did not hear the words or feel the turbulence of the mighty blade as it swung in the air above her. Sephiroth smiled.
"Soon you will. You shall all see what I am, the whole universe shall see what I am and it shall quake at my power."
He cleaved at the air in front of him, the huge weapon hacking and slashing the life out of the tranquility of the nothingness before him as he slowly brought it down and took hold of it with one hand, his other hand stretching out infront of him.
"A gift." He hissed.
Energy slithere from his fingertips and gently caressed the head of the sleeping woman. She stirred again and moaned in her slumber as images began to flash in her head and take shape in her dreams. Sephiroth laughed and smiled as he watched her convulse in her dreams.
"I thought you would like it." He hissed.
"I hope you enjoy watching her die as much as I did."
And then there was silence. He was gone once more.
Vanished from the house leaving only the faint silvering of his laughter in the breeze and the agonised mumblings of Elmyra in the wake of his passing.
Chapter 16: New lands
The great form of the docking complex loomed in the ocean ahead of the ship as it came in to land on the Western Continent. Great clouds of seagulls rose from the comcrete maw of the buildings to welcome the ship to port. On the dockside man and machinery began to spring to life as preparations for docking began.
The tannoy clicked in the cabin and the voice of the captian boomed as the ship began to enter the outer reaches of the port, huge concrete harbour walls stretching out from the land and welcoming the ship back like a long lost brother, big stone arms outstretched ready to embrace it.
"Ladies and gentlemen we are now entering the port of Arlingen and have we arrived on the Western Continent. Docking procedures should be complete in 20 minutes. On behalf of myself and the crew I would like to thank you for choosing Midgar ShuttleFerries and can I wish you all a pleasant day and a safe journey."
With that the tannoy went dead.
The group looked at each other and Vincent, who had returned from his morning wander.
Cloud fished around in his pocket for the keys to the van, found them and then looked over at Tifa.
"How far from Rocket Town is Arlingen Port?" He asked, scratching the back of his neck with the van key.
Tifa frowned to herself as she though for a moment.
"I think it is about 50 miles." She said, smiling.
Cloud nodded and stretched with a yawn holding onto the yawn for a moment and then stretching back and sitting still again twirling the van keys on the end of one of his fingers.
"Should only take an hour or so in the van to get to Rocket Town." She added.
Cloud nodded and looked out of the window at the flurries of birds as they did a fly-by of the ship. The great arms of the port embraced the waters they now crept through as the ship headed to its' berth. Cloud sighed as he watched in the distance, the workings of the dock-hands as they prepared to secure the leviathan sea farer to the land.
Save the unpleasantries of the night before, namely the conversation he had shared with that glowing eyed thing the journey had been quite tranquil. Maybe in more happy times, he would repeat the journey for relaxation. But, who would go with him? He frowned and sighed sadly as he thought of his ideal companion and then turned back to his friends.
"Should be calling us to the car decks soon." He mused.
Tifa nodded, Barret groaned as he arose and Vincent, who had discovered he actually did like coffee slurped quietly.
It was quite a momentous discovery for Vincent and another step along the path of regaining his humanity. At least there was now one thing he could share with the party and actually understand.
He drained the cup and licked his lips relishing the strong tastes and aromas of the coffee as he swallowed the last vestiges of it and sighed with real contentment not a mere approximation of the feeling this time as he tracked the movement of the warm liquid down his throat.
"Most agreeable." He enthused.
Great coils of rope like braided serpents were thrown from the men on the dockside to their counterparts on the deck of the ship as they captured the giant sea monster and fastened it to the concrete dockside.
A huge machine on the land began to move as the disembarkation ramp was lowered to the car doors which opened with the well practiced screech of barely-lubricated metal in the dark hold below the party. There was a confident thud as the ramp and the ship were locked together in symbiosis and the tannoy clicked again as a raspy voice, not the captain this time came over.
"Car passengers please make your way to your vehicles."
The group shifted slowly in their seats, feeling returning to their legs from the drowziness of rest as they stood up and stretched. Vincent drained the last mouthfull of sweet black liquid from another machine-dispensed cup and tucked the Quicksilver into its' holster as he headed for the hatch they had come up from the day before. Tifa, energetic as ever walked sprightly to the hatch, following Vincent as he strode purposefully. Barret, head thumping shuffled out of the seating cluster and headed for the hatch grumbling under his breath as he walked.
Cloud looked around the ship one last time stood up and stretched his arms,
yawning as he began to move, swinging the van keys around his finger as he did
Cloud unlocked it and held the big swing-door at the back open for Barret and Vincent.
The crystalline gleam of the Ultima Weapon caught his eye and he smiled peevishly to himself as he scolded it in his head.
'Where were you last night when I needed you?' He thought with a sly chuckle.
The Ultima Weapon stared back sorrowfully at its' master, the gleam loosing its' intensity as it sat, propped up in the van with its' tail between its' legs.
Cloud smiled as Barret and Vincent settled into the van.
'I'll forgive you this time!' He mused at the weapon as he shut the door.
Tifa got into the front passenger side and shut the door with a slam.
Cloud walked briskly around the front of the vehicle as he headed to the drivers' side, holding his breath and denying the venomous, toxic air access to his body as he opened the door and got in, slamming the door behind him and shutting the evil fumes out.
Seatbelts clicked and keys rattled as Cloud pushed them into the ignition. He turned the key and floored the gas, bringing the engine to life with a powerful roar as he shifted the vehicle into first gear. Ahead, haloed by the light at the mouth of the ship a man stood holding up his hands. Cloud sat and waited, his hand on the handbrake as he watched for his signal to go. Next to the van, one of the few other cars, a blue saloon was signalled and it pulled away slowly.
Cloud dropped the handbrake and pressed on the footbrake as he watched the official at the lighted maw of the vessel. Finally, the man raised his right hand and signalled. Cloud pressed on the gas pedal and pulled off with a roar and a plume of exhaust fume, shifting up two gears to 3 and sitting at about 25mph as he drove out of the dingy hole of the car deck and out into the clean light of the new day.
The port on this side was of the same grand scale as the port they had arrived in the day before, the great expanse of tarmac that was the car-park was just as empty as the port in Midgar. It was just as wonderful as the other port but the party had little time for the sightseeing they had indulged in yesterday.
They had to get Cid and the airship and even then there would be no time for touring and relaxing.
With a definite sense of urgency and of running against the clock, Cloud raced out of the great complex and back onto the open road as they pressed onwards to Rocket Town.
There was little speech as they drove along the open road.
Chapter 17: The sky pirate
Cid wiped the grease and the oil from his hands as he ambled across the yard and sat down heavily on the battered wicker seat next to the back door of his house.
He reached slowly into his blue bomber jacket and located a packet of cigarettes, pulled one out slowly and lighting it, taking the warm smokey tastes of the cigarette into his lungs and exhaling the blue plume contentedly.
The yard was the only place he could get peace to smoke since Shera had banned him from doing so in the house. He placed the cigarette in his mouth and sat back, resting his feet on an upturned drum of oil and putting his arms casually behind his head as he basked in the sun of late morning and smoked away contentedly. Why had he married that woman? What kind of wife bans her own husband from smoking in his own house?
He lazily opened his eyes and looked out on his big yard, cluttered with the dead remains of numerous machines, mostly airships. The Tiny Bronco lay in pieces before him and despite his best efforts, she had never been the same since those Shinra bastards had shot her down. Beyond that, the Highwind, which had been borrowed without intent of return from Shinra sat and gleamed in the sunlight of the huge pasture that Cid had commandeered to land it in, the half-naked Lady Luck painted on the nose winked at Cid from her provocative and eternal pose on the bow of the ship.
He smiled as he looked at the huge ship which had been kindly restored after its' near destruction during its' escape from the crater. The Highwind had been Cid's top priority after he came home and it had taken him a while but eventually it was restored and in most cases, surpassed in terms of design from its' original self.
Cid rolled the drum under his big booted foot and sucked quietly on the cigarette. He was feeling the dull pinch of stale, unending boredom pretty hard just now. He thought he would have liked the quiet life but it really did not suit him much at all. All he ever did now was tinker with airships and bits of machinery that he knew deep down would never work again. Banished forever were the adventures and the dreams. The excitement of soaring through the air, the wonder of the heavens and the scream of engines as they carried him off into the unknown.
A typical day for Cid now consisted of waking up, eating, tinkering with bits of machinery, eating again, spending time with Shera, eating again and then going to bed safe in the knowledge that the next day would be a clone of the one before. Boredom.
'You only have yourself to blame.' He thought, sucking a deep draw from the cigarette.
'It was your bright fucking idea to come back and marry Shera.'
He sat for a minute and scolded himself. That was cruel he thought, he was happy
with Shera and he was glad that he had asked her to marry him. It was his lifestyle he had a problem with.
With his big foot he kicked the drum away and sat up.
'Fuck it.' He thought, putting out the cigarette and slowly standing up.
He pushed his flying goggles up onto his forehead, a relic of a lost time and sorted a rogue strand of hair as he walked back to the slaughtered bits of the dismembered Bronco, spanner and hammer in hand.
'Ok, let's get you sorted.' He sighed to himself.
With both of his big hands, Cid opened a big hatch on the front of the vehicle and exposed the warped and damaged engine. With the care and gentle subtlety of a nuclear bomb, he took the hammer and began battering at the engine with it. The faulty valve he was hitting refusing to bend back into its' proper shape.
Cid cursed and shouted, masking the heavy sound of the van pulling up as he continued with his hammerings and bangings.
"Come on ya fucker!" He shouted at the valve which peevishly refused to bend back and, in an act of blatant defiance, decided instead to snap clean off, pinging off of the hatch and disappearing into a patch of yellowing grass on the ground.
Cid promptly lost it and launched the hammer at the Bronco, accidentally smashing one of the panes of glass on the windshield. He grabbed the hatch with both hands and banged it back down with a deafening crash, lighting another cigarette and fervently smoking and cursing as he went back over to his seat, sitting heavily and muttering as he brought the oil drum back under his feet.
"See you still got a bitch of a temper on you!"
Cids' heart skipped a beat as the huge voice boomed and startled him. He reached for a wrench and his eyes darted around the yard as he looked for the source of the voice. Finally his gaze settled on the side entrance to the yard and he dropped the wrench as he saw four familiar people standing watching him.
Cid stood up and laughed heartily as the party walked slowly over to him.
"You all tryin' to fucking kill me?!" He exclaimed as he walked over.
"What the hell are you bunch of fuckers doin' here?" He asked, puffing on the cigarette and beaming a broad smile.
"I see you still haven't tamed that blue tongue of yours." Cloud mused.
Cid flashed him a perplexed look.
"Who told ya I was trying to? Anyway, don't piss me off! You have any idea how long I've tried to fix the Bronco after you fucked it?" He asked with a grin.
Cloud looked surprised.
"Me? You were the one flying it!"
"Yeah well....I'll beat you up later!"
He turned his attention to Tifa and Vincent.
"Tifa, Vincent always a pleasure! How have you been?"
"Fine." Tifa said.
"Agreeable." Vincent added.
Cid frowned and puffed on the cigarette.
"Still got that pole up your ass, eh Vince?" He asked.
Vincent frowned and his eyes flashed quickly.
Cid stood with his hands on his hips and smoked, smiling heartily and looking at his friends.
"Fuck me silly! What brings you all out here?" He asked.
The group anxiously looked at Cloud who stood fingering the hilt of the sheated Ultima Weapon nervously.
Although not exactly a genius, Cid was picking up definite vibes from the way that Cloud was moving and they were not good ones. The pleasant atmosphere of seeing familiar faces suddenly fell away as he surveyed Cloud, his body language and the look of extreme discomfort in his eyes coupled with the strange sigh that escaped Cloud's mouth as he turned his gaze back to Cid, eyes brimming with unease.
"Cloud? What the fuck is going on?" Cid asked, the smile fading slightly.
Cloud turned his gaze to look at the rest of the party and then turned his focus back to Cid, his face etched with the strangely familiar lines of apprehension and worry.
"Maybe we should go inside and talk."
Cid took a draw on the cigarette and then put it on the ground and stamped on it with his booted foot. He inhaled briskly and then sighed, plumes of blue vapour escaping from his mouth as his smile died off completely.
"OK." He said, leading the group into the house.
Cid stretched out his arm and beckoned the group to pull up seats. Cloud unsheathed the Ultima Weapon and propped it up against the wall as he sat down next to his friends. Cid pulled up a seat and sat down, watching Cloud intently.
He fished around in his pocket, breaking the gaze on Cloud for a moment.
"Ahh fuck what Shera said." Cid exclaimed to himself, retracting a cigarette from a hidden pocket and lighting it. Serpents of blue smoke silvered up towards the ceiling from the smouldering tip of the cigarette catching the sunlight that poured in through the window as they slithered and slicked into the roof.
There was a heavy metallic thud as Vincent placed the huge handgun onto the table.
Cid's gaze returned to Cloud, Cloud watched back.
Something in Cloud's eyes told Cid that it would be beneficial for him to listen while under the safe, calming influence of at least some alcohol. He again broke his gaze and stood up.
"OK, before we get down to business, who wants a beer?" Cid offered.
Barret and Cloud nodded without thinking. With a little coaxing from Barrets' elbow, Tifa agreed too. Vincent, as usual declined the offer and sat with his chin buried in the robes that swirled around his neck to form his cloak, watching the group with his crimson-gazed interest. Coffee was one thing but he would save the lesson of intoxication for another day.
Cid smiled and went to a large steel-finished cooler that sat against the back wall, pulled out four frosty beers and opening them with his hands twisting the caps off and throwing them into a nearby bin. He distributed the beers one at a time, finally opening his and sitting back at the table, taking a long deep sip of the perfectly chilled beverage. Cloud and Barret took long deserving draws of the cool amber liquid and sighed. tifa took a dainty sip and placed the bottle on the table.
Cid took another huge draw of the cigarette and sprayed a jet of used smoke into the air above the heads of the group, looking back down and fixing his aqua eyes on Cloud, hand clutched on the half drained beer.
"Now, Mr Strife, are you going to tell me what the fuck is going on?" He asked.
Cloud sighed and took another gulp of the beer. He cleared his throat and looked at Cid.
"OK, Cid, it's like this...."
He went over to the cooler and opened another beer, drained it in one big swallow and sitting back at the table, lighting another cigarette and taking a long draw. A big wide smile broke on his face as he drummed his fingers on the table and chewed on the cigarette, sitting back and chuckling.
"I don't believe this, y'all came all this way just to give me the fucking wind-up?" He said, grinning.
Tifa sighed and took another sip of her beer.
"It isn't a wind-up Cid. He is telling you the truth."
Cid laughed and stood up, smoking and running a hand through his blonde mane as he looked at Cloud who sat sombrely at the table nursing his beer.
"Oh fuck off! I am not falling for this shit! Come on, how unbelievable is this,
Sephiroth is still alive and he thinks he's a god or something? This is pretty original shit for you Cloud!"
"It was I who informed him Cid." Vincent said quietly, red eyes fixed on the laughing smoker.
Cids' smile faded slightly and he extinguished the cigarette.
"You made this up? Fuck me Vince, I didn't know you had a sense of humour."
Barret's big fist banged off of the table drawing Cid's attention to it as the big man lost his temper.
"Will you fucking listen to them Cid, they ain't makin' this shit up!" He boomed fixing a serious gaze on his friend.
Cid's smile evapourated and he lit another cigarette smoking silently as he thought and stared intently at Barret.
Barret stared back, his face unchanged from his sincere and concerned expressione. Suddenly, what they were saying dawned on Cid and he took the cigarette out of his mouth and looked over at Cloud, eyes beginning to glaze a little as shock stabbed him.
"This isn't a piss-take?" He asked quietly.
The party collectively shook their heads and watched him intently. Cid watched Cloud and puffed away on his cigarette.
"Sephiroth is still alive?"
"He has visited me on more than one occasion in the past few days."
Cid sighed explosively and went over to the cooler again, taking another beer and drinking half of it in one go. He laughed but without humour and stood looking at the group.
"But we killed him...." He said in disbelief.
"He was reborn as materia. We killed a shadow." Vincent said.
Cid drew on the cigarette and threw it to the floor stamping on it and looking back up at Vincent, flashing him an irritated glance as he exhaled loudly.
"Yeah, thanks Vince, I was fucking listening to Cloud you know!"
The group was silent as they observed Cid. He sat in his seat and looked out of the kitchen window at the rusting form of the rocket in the distance, smoking quietly as he did so.
"Look man, we know this is hard shit to take in, you should have seen Cloud when we told him."
Barret said quietly.
"And he got over it even though it was worse news for him than anyone else." Tifa added.
Cid slapped his forehead. The enormity of his insensitivity hit him like a train in the night.
"Ah shit man! I'm sorry about that." He said, looking at Cloud.
"How are you feeling with the whole Aeris thing?"
The staightforwardness of Cids' question took Cloud aback but he picked up the sentiment of it and, in all truth this was about as concerned as Cid could actually be. He never had been good at masking his feelings behind words, preferring the easier method of just coming out and saying it.
"I am dealing with it Cid, slowly, but I am getting there. Now...." He began, sitting forward and fixing his sapphire gaze on his friend.
"Will you help us?"
Cid stubbed the cigarette out and smiled as he went over to the window and gazed upon the dead hulk of the rocket. Looks like he was going to get back the life he had dreamed of after all. It was that that had shocked him more than the news of Sephiroth, funny, he had only wished for adventure and her was that spikey-haired goon again coming to start another big grand quest, full of explosions and battles and danger.
Cid smiled widely and looked over at Cloud, feeling the warm caress of Lady Luck on his shoulder, she had come through for him once again.
"Fucking right I am! Ever known me to back out of a party?!"
Cloud leaned back and smiled, nodding to Cid as he took another gulp of his beer.
"Man, that son of a bitch Sephiroth ain't gonna know what hit him!"
Tifa smiled and sipped the beer.
"Good to have you back Cid." She said with one of her patented stormchasing smiles on her face.
"I agree." Vincent said, shaking Cid's hand.
He had noted that in situations like this it was appropriate to shake the hand of ones' friend. So he did and Cid shook back, grinning.
"Well, aren't you just full of surprises Vince?" He asked, smiling.
Cloud drained the beer and sat right back in the seat. It was indeed comforting to know that Cid was willing to help them. They would have a fighting chance against anything that Sephiroth could do now, hopefully.
Cloud sighed and sat forward.
"I don't know about you all but I could use a proper bed. Any decent Inn's in Rocket Town Cid?"
Cid frowned and lit another cigarette.
"Inn's? We have guest rooms you know!" Cid said, an exaggerated look of insult plastered onto his face.
"Will that be OK with Shera?" She asked.
"Of course!" He said, smoking away.
"And there is no way you are going to bed yet Strife, we are going for a drink tonight!"
"We are here for a serious reason Cid, it might not be right to go drinking tonight."
"Ahh to fuck with that! We have not seen each other for over 2 years, one or two drinks cannot hurt! You coming too Barret?" Cid asked.
Barret sat back and relaxed in the seat, draining his beer and sighing contentedly.
Cloud sighed defeatedly and nodded his head, agreeing to Cid's plan.
'What the hell.' He thought. It would be good to catch up with Cid after all this time.
Cid smiled at Cloud and looked at Tifa as she sat and finished her beer, sipping it daintily and putting the empty bottle on the table.
"You coming too Tifa?" He asked.
She smiled back at Cid and shook her head.
"I'll pass, I want to catch up with Shera if that's OK?"
Cid smiled and nodded.
"OK. She has just popped out for something, should be back soon though." He said.
"Good." Said Cloud.
"We will have to explain all this to her aswell." He added.
Cid nodded and the group fell silent for a moment. Finally Cid stood up from the seat and pushed his chair back in, stubbing out the cigarette as he did so.
"While we wait for her to finish fucking about, let me show you what I've done with the Highwind."
The group stood up and headed for the back door and out into the garden as they
followed Cid to the huge form of the airship. One by one they ascended the
embarkation ladder and climbed into the ship, disappearing from view.
A great black cloak billowed in the wind and silver serpents of hair writhed and thrashed in the eerie bluster as a black figure stood and watched the airship with his evil emerald eyes.
A gloved hand resting on the hilt of a huge sword.
"So." He sneered.
"Don't' have a chance do I?."
Wind lashed hard once more. The cloak and the great storm of hair writhed once again as the hand tightened on the sword.
"We shall soon see..."
Chapter 18: Catching up with old times
The huge door slid open allowing the party their first glimpse of the interior of the Highwind in more than two years. Cid beamed with pride and lit another cigarette as he looked at the reworked beauty of the bridge, the control panels lying at rest just now as they slept in the safety of the sunkissed pasture.
Cloud wandered onto the bridge and looked out of the great viewing dome at the bow and out onto the lands beyond Cid's house. He smiled slightly as he reached out his gloved hand and touched the finely reworked surface of the nearest bulkhead, taking in the smootheness of the carefully welded steel and sighing.
"Nice rebuild." He said quietly, caressing the cool metal skin of the ship.
Cid chuckled and took a deep draw on another cigarette.
"You should see what I did to the engines!" He said, pride ripening in his gruff voice.
"When I tell you that this fucker can fly, what I really mean is this fucker can fly!" He said.
Barret looked over at Cid as he puffed away and smiled.
"What did you do to the engines?" He asked.
Cid beamed and took the cigarette out of his mouth, plumes of smoke erupting from his nostrils as he exhaled and turned to look at Barret, a big smile lit up on his face.
"I put a hyperdrive in the fucker!" He said with a chuckle.
Cloud looked back at Cid and let out an impressed whistle, turning his attention back to the nearest control station and running his hand across the rows of controls.
"How fast does it go now?" He asked.
Cid laughed out loud and put the cigarette back into his mouth.
"Like shit off a burning shovel! Over 1500mph!" He beamed, puffing smoke into the air.
There were several astonished gasps and some surprised outbursts of obscenity from Barret as they awed at the wonder of the ship.
"Glad you're on our side!" Tifa said with a smile as she touched the smooth metal of the remodeled walls and looked at Cid.
He smiled back and puffed away on his cigarette.
"Thought you all would be impressed!"
Cloud circled the bridge taking in the finely wrought architecture of the vessel before coming to rest on the big command chair in the middle of the control centre, resting his hand on the throttle stick on the main panel.
"Pretty nice work you did here Cid." He said, awe bubbling in his voice.
Cid chuckled and puffed to himself.
"Yeah, now all I got to do is teach you how to fly the bastard thing!" He said with a hearty chuckle.
Cloud looked up and smiled as he rested his hand on the leather of the command chair and touched it with respectful care.
"Is there something else you wish us to see?" Vincent asked, turning to look at Cid.
Cid looked around and took a loud inhalation of smoke as he flashed a peculiar look at his friend.
"No, not really. I just wanted to show off this big bad bitch!" He said with a chuckle, gesturing at the bridge and chuckling.
Vincent looked around but once again was unable to feel the emotion of the moment. To him it was just a very fast mode of transportation, nothing more. It was a key element in the accomplishment of their ultimate goal but he still did not feel the need for an emptional shower at this time. He was alone in that feeling.
The group, except Vincent, stood in awed silence for a moment, Cid smoked loudly as he looked around and admired his handiwork. Cloud sat down in the huge command seat and smiled to himself.
"I could get used to this!" He mused, looking around at Cid and making himself comfortable.
Cid placed the cigarette onto the ground and stamped on it, looking at Cloud and shaking his head, jets of smoke flowing from his nostrils like that of a demented dragon.
"With your track record on flying and airship handling in general, you can fuck off, Strife! That seat is mine!" He said.
Boots clicked on the embarkation ladder diverting the groups attention. The huge doors of the bridge hissed as they opened once again admitting the slim form of a woman.
Cid's big smile beamed again as Shera walked onto the bridge, looking around. Her face lit up and she laughed, smiling with surprise.
"Cloud! Tifa, Barret, Vincent! How have you all been?" She asked, her petite face and soft features lighting as she hugged each of them in turn.
"Not bad." Barret and Tifa chorused.
Vincent nodded but did not speak.
Shera stood in front of Cloud and smiled, her kind eyes fully of sparkle.
"And how have you been Cloud?" She asked, her smile fading a little.
"I was so sorry to hear what happened." She added.
Cloud's smile faded a little and he sighed.
"I'll be fine, thanks for asking." He said.
He had thought it would be easier hearing the question from somebody who could hide their meanings behind the dress-up of words but it was not. Eloquent or not he concluded it was just a terribly difficult question to hear no matter who asked, bard or bum.
Shera nodded and smiled as she turned to face Cid, her nose twitching as she walked over to him.
"Is that tobacco smoke I smell?" She asked, looking at Cid suspiciously.
Cid shifted nervously and shook his head.
"No! No, of course not dear! That piece of shit converter blew again, that's all." He lied.
"What converter?" She asked.
Cid swallowed and pointed in a random direction.
"You know, the one I was telling you about, the one that always blows up!"
She cocked her eyebrow and spied him with distrust. Cid looked away and promptly changed the subject.
"Anyway, Cloud and the others have to stay for the night and then we are shipping out in the morning."
Shera's smile dissolved as she looked up at Cid.
"Shipping out? Why?" She asked.
Cid looked around the room and then settled his gaze on his wife.
"Oh, nothing for you to worry about darling, just something that we have to take care of. Nothing to worry about."
"How long will you be away?" She asked.
Cid sighed aloud and nearly reached for a cigarette halting himself at the last second and pretending to scratch his chest.
"I don't fucking know! What is this, 20 questions?"
Cloud sighed and intervened.
"We may be away for a few weeks." He said.
She was silent for a moment, her eyes flaring with surprise as she heard Cloud.
'Weeks?' She thought, the echoes of her mental workings smouldered in her eyes.
Shera snapped herself from her thoughts and slowly nodded.
"Oh, OK." She said.
"That's OK. As long as I know"
She turned and headed for the embarkation ladder. Clearly it wasn't as OK as she had made it out to be.
"You all coming?" She asked.
"Be there in a minute dear." Cid called.
Shera nodded and went down the ladder, walking briskly for the house when she reached the ground.
Cloud sighed and looked over at Cid as he lit another cigarette and began to puff away on it, the swirls of blue and grey smoke writhing and slipping through the air on the bridge.
"Are you going to tell her why we are going?" He asked.
Cid exhaled explosively and rubbed his eyes with his big hands.
"Maybe, maybe not."
Cloud turned and rested his hand on the padding of the command seat.
"She has to know Cid, this isn't just any old trip."
Cid took another big draw on the cigarette and sighed.
"Ok, Ok, stop yer moanin', I get the fuckin' picture." He moaned.
"I'll tell her."
The group fell silent for a moment as Cid finished his cigarette and stamped on the butt, looking up with the smile uneasily restored to his face.
"Right, lets do some drinking!"
A bored looking man who appeared to be in his mid-fifties was standing behind the bar reading a month-old copy of some newspaper, holding his plump head in one hand and eyeing the party silently, almost radiating disgust when Cid had the audacity to actually order something.
He moved slowly to one of the taps and pulled three pints, waiting for the head to clear and then placing them with little care in front of each man. Cid smiled and handed the man 3 Gil and then began to drink the pint, supping the cool amber liquid and sighing contentedly.
The man went into the back troom and did not reappear.
"Tosser." Cid voiced with obvious contempt as he puffed on the cigarette and took another guzzle of the pint.
Cloud sighed, memories of that horrible little woman who had served him at Midgar Port flooded back as he took a long well-deserved mouthful of the beer, savouring the rich taste for a moment and then swallowing.
"Looks like being pleasant to customers isn't on job descriptions any more." He said, gazing at the stark surroundings.
The building itself was in traditional style and was a squat little thing made from good solid stone supported by solid timber beams that rose from the floor and caressed the room with their wooden majesty. They were finely polished and decorated with numerous brasses and small pictures. The rest of the room was a tan-colour with few decorations or trinkets of any kind. All in all it must not have cost much to decorate the place save the cost of the boring tan paint and there was little atmosphere in the to speak of. Basically, as Cloud surveyed the empty walls and the grimy tan paint, he came to the conclusion that this place was a dive and a lower market one at that.
Cloud sighed as he compared the dingy place with the wonderfully decorated lounge he had left behind on the Chocobo Ranch and he smiled, reminiscing like an old man as he took another swallow of beer.
Barret poured beer down his throat and banged the glass off of the bar, burping loudly and rubbing his head with his hand. Cloud shook his head and Cid smiled, sucking on the cigarette and blowing rings of smoke into the air.
"So, how are you all dealing with this shit?" He asked.
Cid sat forward and played with the handle of his glass, puffing away and looking slowly at each of his friends.
"You know, this whole Sephiroth shit."
Cloud smiled distantly and took another gulp of beer, swallowing and sighing as he looked at Cid.
"It was quite a shock." He said.
"A big fuckin' shock."
Cloud looked at Cid and frowned.
"Have you told Shera yet?"
Cid winced and took the final draw on the cigarette, extinguishing it and blowing smoke into the air.
"I'll tell her when we get back, OK?"
Cloud diverted his gaze from Cid and placed the glass to his mouth.
"You know it's right to, Cid." Cloud said, sucking another big swallow of beer from the glass.
The pub might be a hole in the earth but the beer was above reproach and hit the spot nicely.
The three men sat in silence for a moment, taking in the boring non-majesty of the sparsely decorated pub. The sounds of the bored-looking little man wrestling with a beer keg clanged and banged from the back room followed by the metallic click as Cid opened his lighter and lit yet another of his cigarettes.
He inhaled and then exhaled loudly and sighed.
"So, how's shit been?" He asked.
Cloud and Barret took big gulps of beer and sat back in their seats as they began to go over what they had been up to since last the three had been together. Cid listened and smoked quietly as Cloud and Barret filled him in on recent events. There was no fascinating or scintillating conversation just three guys sitting and reminiscing.
It really was going to be a quiet night.
Chapter 19: Insomnia
The three had not remained at the pub for as long as they had planned to. Cloud was right, it did not seem the proper thing to do given the circumstances of the visit to Rocket Town. Apart from that, they had run out of things to say after about 2 hours and taken the collective decision to call it a night.
The walk back to Cid's house was slow given that Cid and Barret had capitalised on the short visit and drank a little more than they maybe should have done. As usual, Barret was the worst of the three. Cid had decided against a total binge given that he still had to speak to his wife about why he was leaving tomorrow. He thought, and quite rightly so, that he was going to need all of his faculties for that and that she would be even more upset if he told her while still drunk.
They had run into Vincent on the way back. He was out skulking as usual, wandering around without a clear purpose in the shrouds of darkness that wrapped themselves around the lands and the gentle folds of mountains that sheathed Rocket Town from the rest of the continent.
Another day had drawn to a close and the evil black night-world was emerging
from the ashes of the fading light bringing with it its' entourage of twinkling
spies in the heavens.
Tifa had been sitting at the table, a half-finished bottle of wine sat there also and two glasses. Tifa sipped hers daintily as Cloud and Barret sat down each sighing from exhaustion.
Only mundane conversation had followed and within 30 minutes, when it was obvious that Shera and Cid were not coming back down, the group had decided it was time to call it a day and had disappeared to the various rooms that Cid had kindly offered them.
Sleep had come quickly to all, even Cloud but for him it did not last for long and within an hour of going to bed he was wide awake again as the seductive tendrils of sleep decided to abandon him, leaving him instead to the mercies of the black wilderness of the night.
He lay in the darkness and listened to the calm sounds of the night wind blowing through trees and bushes but even this failed to soothe him back to sleep, his perception of night forever altered by the events of the previous night and the exchange with one of the monsters that could only spawn in the godless, lightless void that welled up after the sun died once again.
Cool moonlight, the only agreeable facet of the darkness washed in through the window and touched Cloud's cheek as he lay and looked out upon the stars, a familiar and empty feeling slithering through him again as he thought to himself of that one person. He closed his eyes and sighed, in his minds' eye she was laughing and her hair was blowing like sun-kissed corn swaying in the wind of a warm summer afternoon.
He opened his eyes again for he knew all too well that as pleasing as the image was for him it was seductive in its' eagerness to appease him and would take him back to that dark place of hatred and self-recrimination when he realised that the image was forever unattainable in reality.
That angered him in a very personal way for he could not even think of her without destroying his fragile grasp on his new-found sense of purpose which, like so much else, found its' strength siphoned off by the sucking, vampiric emptiness of the darkness in this post-dusk world.
Cloud sighed and sat up in his bed shaking the covers from his body and swinging around placing his feet firmly on the floor and standing up. He ran a hand through his hair, the spikes gone for the night and he yawned despite his inability to sleep. He groped around in the darkness and found his dressing gown, sheathed his body in it and reached out for the door handle.
He opened the door as quietly as possible and went out onto the landing, closing the door behind him and standing for a moment in the gloom of the house. No soothing moonlight could penetrate this deep into the building and the resulting effect was one of unwelcoming darkness, oppressive and murky as though part of the evil world outside had seeped into the house, and had subverted it. Here in this new house, things were different, shapes twisted and warped in shadow; lost their cohesion and melted into evil twisting spears and spikes as the containing effect of sunlight was lost. Cloud peered around in the darkness grafting onto this strange and forbidding place the appearance of itself in the day, an image he had stored in his mind.
'What lurked in this new world?' He wondered.
'What lurked in this new house?'
There was silence.
Cid and Shera must have settled the discussion and gone to sleep at last.
Cloud ran a hand across his face as he slowly began to descend the stairs taking care in the darkness. It would be a cruel joke of fate if he slipped on the stairs in the darkness and killed himself while on so important a mission. That in mind he walked slowly and grasped the bannister denying the darkness the chance to fool him and send him to his death.
Eventually he reached the hall and walked in the gloom towards the kitchen, opened the door and was dazzled by the defiant flare of invading light being emitted from two big lamps on the ceiling. The light rushed forth from the room, killing and battling the darkness on the other side of the door and replacing twisted and warped forms with restored familiar objects.
He gasped, the shock of the sudden illumination ripped at him and he shielded his eyes with a hand until the glare slowly died off and his vision returned to normal. The attack on his eyes was halted as the light recognised him as a prisoner of the darkness and not one of its' silent invisible minions.
Glare phased out and the familiar settings of this room, the last bastion of light in an evil world of darkness rushed back to him as he came into the kitchen and closed the door.
Shera was sat at the table, she jumped a little as Cloud entered the room and then turned her attention back towards the window and the big silver coin of the moon as it sat in the sky and bathed the land with a small resistance movement of easy light against the black.
The huge form of the rocket was illuminated by the moon, casting long snakes of shadow and light across its' hull as it sat in grand disuse in the near-distance.
Cloud looked down at Shera and frowned, partly from the fading glaze of light that assaulted him and partly from her appearance. Her soft face was puffy and red and she clutched a tissue in her hand. She had obviously been crying but he decided not to bring the matter up as he sat at the table and folded his arms on the polished teak of its' surface.
"Could you not sleep either?" He asked.
She turned and looked over at him her sad eyes washing over his face as turned her body slowly in the chair to face him.
"How could I?" She asked.
Cloud smiled trying to lighten the mood but stopped when he realised it was not working.
"Cid told you then." He sighed.
She nodded and sniffed.
"Yes, he told me."
Cloud leaned back in his chair and ran his hand through his wild strands of blonde hair as they tumbled about his shoulders and clawed at his neck. He sighed and folded his arms.
"I told him to tell you Shera, you had a right to know why we were going away again." He said.
She nodded absently having assimilated only half of what Cloud had said.
"How could this have happened?" She asked, her voice wavering and weak.
Cloud frowned. It was not quite the response he had expected. He had envisaged anger or at least frustration.
"What?" He asked.
She sighed and dried her eyes again with the tissue as she looked at Cloud, her gaze conveying the disturbing tumble of emotion that slithered and creeped in her mind and her soul.
"What is he? How could he still be alive?"
"Did he not tell you?" He asked.
She nodded and sniffed again.
"He did, but I still don't understand..... Cloud, is he a god?"
Her eyes flashed with a strange emotion as the words tumbled from her tongue.
Cloud sensed something within her that he had not expected to find. Fear.
He sat forward and fixed his gaze on Shera, his words forming with emphasized conviction as Cloud tried with all his strength to get Shera to believe him.
"No he is not a god. He is the product of a terrible mistake."
Shera nodded in disbelief and stared at Cloud, her gaze fixed on some point in the distance though, beyond Cloud that only she could see.
"But, but the power that he has......" She said, her terrified gaze locked onto
Cloud abandoning the unseeable point in the distance.
Cloud sighed as he sat back in the seat again.
"I cannot prove to you that he is not a god, you have to trust me. I know it looks as though he is but he isn't and that is why we have to go away again."
Cloud sat back as Shera gazed out of the window again.
"He is extremely dangerous and he needs to be stopped and we need Cid's help to accomplish that goal." Cloud continued.
She sighed and sat back in her seat, the fear melting slightly from her gaze but still burning stong overall.
"You will all come back safely though, like last time?" She asked, gazing at Cloud begging him with her eyes to utter the response she wanted to hear.
Cloud's mind seized up and he sighed. He knew all too well that this was different from last time; they truly knew what he was and what they were up against. He looked over at Shera and decided to soften yet another blow for her.
"It is extremely dangerous Shera but you have my word that I will try to bring us all home safely. I will try."
She nodded but did not smile. Not quite the response she had wanted but not the terrible revelation she had been half-expecting either.
Cloud ached inside, he seemed to remember vividly giving that speech to another woman once. A mother that time. The mother of a girl in a pink dress.
That time, he had failed.
What would happen this time remained to be seen.
Shera sighed and stood up. She walked over to the sink and poured herself a glass of water drinking it calmly and savouring the sensations of the cool liquid as it slipped down her throat quelling the flames of fear and doubt that burned like torches in her soul. She finished the glass and poured another as she turned to face Cloud clutching the glass in her hands.
"I better go and try to get some sleep." She sighed.
Cloud nodded and smiled sympathetically as she headed for the door.
"It will all pan out in the end you know." He said, his smile trying its' best to comfort Shera. Whether it was working or not, Cloud could not tell.
She smiled uneasily more for Clouds' benefit than her own as she turned the door handle and opened the door half stepping out into the darkness beyond the room.
"I hope so Cloud, I really do. Good night."
Cloud nodded and smiled again.
"Have a good sleep Shera." He said, even though he knew fine and well that she would not close her eyes again tonight.
She smiled and walked out into the black, closing the door and shutting the portal to the last fortress of illumination in the darkened world of the night.
Cloud sat alone in the now lonely world in which he found himself. The eternal battle between light and darkness raged, the bloody battlefield of the window glowed with the fighting of both sides. Shadow splashed and light repelled it.
The double agent of the moon glowed in the sky; working for the darkness but helping the light as it spread its' eerie glow across the twisted and warped lands that sprung from the familiar at the death of the day.
Cloud went over to the window and looked out onto this strange and evil world of shadow and fear that lay beyond the barrier of glass. Familiar questions swirled inside his head and he wished so hard that he could find an answer to them. Where was she? Was she safe?
He gazed in wonder at the deceptive twinkling eyes of the stars and the silver,ethereal disk of the moon and concentrated hard on the only real question that he needed an answer to.
'Are you still with me Aeris?'
There was no answer to his question. He sighed and sat back down at the table gazing out onto this alien and shadow infested world as he folded his arms and placed his head into them, gaze rushing off over the landscape to a place that only Cloud could see.
Slowly his eyes closed and he sighed as she danced in his mind, her drifts of silky brown hair tumbling around her body, her smile like a thousand suns burning in the darkness lit and she laughed. A chorus of angels sang inside his head as she laughed and laughed simply because it made her happy to do so.
His arms stretched out and he touched her slender body drawing her to him gently. Her arms wrapped around him and they kissed.
At the instant his lips met hers the comforting darkness of sleep washed over him and the image was lost to consciouss thought, swept away to that timeless place beyond the eyelid along with him.
Chapter 20: Here we stand again as one
Haze flowed into the nothingness as partial life returned to his body.
Consciousness booted up but eyes remained sheathed behind leaden eyelids as sensation and senses returned slowly to him. He groaned as light assaulted his eyelids and he opened them slowly, the glare blinding him for a moment and then dying as the shapes and forms of the restored world of light fell into place around him.
A yawn burst forth from Cloud's throat as he sat up groggily, the smell of something burning assaulted his nostrils and he winced as he looked for the source.
Cid. The imposing form of Cid Highwind came centrefold into Clouds' sleep impaired vision, a big grin on his face as he smoked the first cigarette of the day. A huge coffee mug was sat in his hand as he chuckled.
"Well ain't you a sight for sore fucking eyes!" He grinned.
Cloud smiled weakly and slothfully ran a hand through his sleep-ravaged hair as he stretched and yawned again.
Cid laughed as he watched Cloud.
"Man, I thought I looked shit-faced this morning!"
Cloud shook his head from side to side chasing off the last lingering tentacles of sleep. Thought rushed back to him as he began to fully wake up. He looked around and noticed he was still in the kitchen.
"Have I been here all night?" He asked.
Cid nodded and took a deep draw of the cigarette, happily blowing rings of smoke and then blasting the rest of the vapour out in a mighty breath.
"Yep. Want a coffee?" He asked.
Cloud ran both hands through his hair, straightening it out as he sat back in his seat.
"Sure. Where are the others?"
Cid took a final draw on the cigarette and extinguished it in an ashtray as he stood up and got a mug out of a cupboard, filling it with pungeant coffee from a huge steaming pot on the work surface. He handed the mug to Cloud and sat back down in his seat.
"Tifa is in the shower, Barret is upstairs somewhere and Vincent is..... fuck knows where Vincent is."
Cloud nodded his appreciation for the status report and put the mug to his lips taking a huge gulp of the black liquid within. Taste flared in his mouth and banged like a bass drum on his tongue. He swallowed the liquid and coughed slightly as he put his nose to the mug and sniffed at the deceptively tangy beverage inside it.
Cid smiled and lit another cigarette as he watched Cloud suspiciously survey the pick-me-up.
"What the hell is in this Cid?" Cloud asked.
"It is a Highwind Special, guaranteed to kill even the stubbornest of hangovers!"
"The stubbornest of people more like." Cloud mused.
Cid exhaled and placed his cigarette into the ashtray.
"But you're awake aren't you?" He asked.
Cloud watched Cid for a moment and then shrugged putting the mug to his lips again.
"I suppose." He sighed.
"Then shut the fuck up and drink it you pussy!" Cid taunted.
The next gulp wasn't as brutal. Cloud knew what to expect this time.
Once you were used to it it was actually quite pleasant although it might put Vincent off coffee for life if he tried it.
Cloud drained the mug and placed it back onto the table slowly as he stood up and stretched, the last burning embers of taste subsiding in his mouth as the coffee disappeared from his senses.
Cid picked up his cigarette and placed it into his mouth as he stood up too.
"I'm going to go and get ready now." Cloud said, his voice breaking into a yawn as he spoke.
"I'll be on the Highwind. Got to get her ready to leave."
The two men nodded and left the room, the back door slamming shut behind Cid as he went across the yard and into the pasture where the huge form of the Highwind sat in reverant expectation.
He sighed and snapped his gaze as he turned away from the mirror and headed towards the door. He never had earmarked any patience for brooding and he had no intention of starting to now.
He went back into the room that Cid had given him and picked up his sheath, securing it onto his back and buckling it, fastening it once more to his body. The Ultima Weapon was sitting looking at him. He picked it up, the huge weight nothing to him but to a non Mako-enhanced person the weapon would not be weildable. The various crystalline components shined and resonated from the morning sunlight that poured in from the window casting tiny splashes and rainbows onto the wall as Cloud sat and admired the blade, vivid memories of the fight against Ultima Weapon flashing into his head, the vain sense of pride as the gigantic monster was finally defeated and in its' death throes released the weapon from its hands. Cloud could almost hear the sound of the blade cutting the air in half around it as it plunged from the hand of its' dying master and the metallic clink as it was grasped by the hand of a new owner; the spikey haired man who had landed the death-blow from the deck of the airship.
And here it sat now in Clouds' hand, ready to do battle with him once more against another enemy.
He smiled as he sheathed the weapon, the comforting weight across his back bringing him an inflated sense of protection even though he knew deep down that it was only a toy against an enemy who could not die by conventional means. He went out into the hall and closed the door of the bedroom behind him as he descended the stairs and turned into the kitchen.
Shera was stood at the sink, she turned and nodded as Cloud entered the room.
"Good morning Cloud." She said, some of the chirp returning to her voice but not all of it.
Cloud stood next to the back door and rested his hands on the work surface behind him.
"Good morning." He replied.
He looked around the room and out of the window surveying the yard and the huge pasture beyond that Cid had commandeered to land the Highwind in.
"Where is everyone?" Cloud asked.
Shera nodded at the Highwind.
"All on the airship. The Captain's waiting for you there."
"Did you and Cid have a chance to say a proper goodbye this morning?" He asked.
"Yes we did."
She was quiet for a moment and something seemed to flash in her eyes briefly, a feeling, an intuition maybe but it passed so fleetingly that Cloud could not make out what it was. She smiled and walked over to Cloud putting her hand on his shoulder and smiling at him.
"It really was nice to see you all again, even Vincent." She said.
Cloud smiled back at her.
"It was nice to see you again Shera, I hope that next time we meet there are more fortunate circumstances at hand."
Shera smiled and took a step back.
"I hope so too. Tell the rest I said goodbye and remember to come back safely. See you later Cloud."
Cloud reached for the back door handle and turned it, opening the door and allowing several wispy ghosts of breeze in from the graveyard of elements outside the house. His brilliant sapphire eyes shined softly in the warmth of the morning sun.
He stepped out into the yard and closed the door behind him sealing the world of elemental spirts in this land and preventing them from crossing into the balanced world of the house.
He walked briskly over the yard and crossed into the pasture, the lush dew-dampened grass crunching succulently beneath his feet releasing its' freshly cut summertime smell.
The Ultima Weapon rattled quietly in its' sheath as Cloud ambled over to the huge sleeping form of the Highwind, Cid waiting at the ladder that descended from the hatch in its' shining steel belly.
As usual, Cid was thoughtfully puffing on a cigarette and leaning casually against the ladder as he watched Cloud approach, entering the shadow cast down by the resting giant above.
"What the hell took you so long?" He asked.
Cloud stopped and placed a hand on his hip as he watched Cid with his big blue eyes.
"Do you think that this hair shapes itself?" He asked.
Cid chuckled and threw the cigarette away. He looked around at the landscape; the house, the bluey-greyish mountains in the distance and finally, reverantly at the rocket as it sat with its' nose expectantly facing the direction of the stars.
Cid sighed and ruffled his hair with a gloved hand as he looked around at Rocket Town and his own private piece of it.
"You know what...?" He asked without returning his gaze to Cloud.
"What?" Cloud asked.
Cid sighed and turned to look at him with his narrow grey eyes.
"I am actually goin' to miss this place."
A breath of breeze washed across the landscape caressing the two men as they looked around the lands like the breath of an angel flowing from the invisible mouth of the world. The two looked at each other and nodded respectively as they prepared themselves to leave this place behind again and head off into the unknown.
Cid smiled broadly and grabbed the rungs of the ladder as he began to climb into the ship, the huge bomber jacket puffing in the wind as he climbed. Cloud stood with his hand wrapped around the first rung as he looked out one last time onto the landscape, the sky, the mountains, the grass and once again he felt the forces of life all around him, wrapping him and touching him and giving strength to his guilt-tarnished soul.
He sighed again as he began to climb the ladder towards the tiny hatch in the ships' belly.
Another breath of warm comforting breeze stroked Cloud's body and touched a chord in his mind as he ascended slowly towards the ship where his friends were waiting. He smiled as he finally received an answer to the one question. Not in words but in the language of the world. Not spoken but speaking volumes more than words ever could.
She was still here.
"Did we get all the stuff from the van?" He asked, his gaze remaining undiverted.
Barret came and stood next to him and looked out of the dome aswell. "Yeah." He said, as he silently took in the naturally crafted wonder of the world.
Cloud had not really thought about it until that moment as he watched Barret gaze upon the world. Underneath all of the bluster and mean tempered exterior that Barret skillfully generated there was a thoughtful person. A man as tuned into the beauty of things as Cloud was.
He looked around and saw Vincent.
The same could not be said of him. The things he had gone through it was no wonder, and it came across Clouds' mind that maybe there was as little human left in him as there was in Sephiroth the only difference being that Vincent had no desire for ultimate power whereas Sephiroth was driven only by his need for it.
Vincent was trying his hardest to recover all that he had lost though, so it was likely that actually there was a human spirit deep within him fighting back against all that had been done to him. More likely though was that they would never truly understand what made Vincent tick so it was a waste of time and effort to even try.
Cloud looked back out onto the world as a million questions whirled and danced in his head. Still there was much about what had befallen Sephiroth that he did not understand. He knew only that he hated him and that he had to stop him before anyone else died at his hands. Only the wisdom of Red XIII could answer his questions fully and put to rest some of the ghosts from the past.
Cid's lighter clicked as he lit another cigarette and swivelled around in his chair. He puffed silently and gestured for the group members to take a seat in one of the chairs that sat empty infront of a series of sub-panels.
"Gonna need you all to sit down for this, we're going to start moving soon."
The party shifted and moved as they settled into the various seats. Cid swivelled back around and hit a series of buttons on the main console, studying carefully the various readouts that flashed on screens infront of him. He smiled and puffed on the cigarette as he shifted three small levers and pushed a big red button.
There was a rushing sound and a soft vibration snaked its' way through the metal of the ship as the gigantic engines came slowly to life.
"We're going up now." Cid said, the cigarette clenched in his teeth as he
grabbed a small lever and pulled in slowly. There was a roar of engines and a
strange sensation in the stomachs of the party as the huge vessel began to
ascend into the clear ocean of the sky.
"Goodbye Cid." She whispered as the ship continued upwards into the blue lagoon
of the ether.
A peculiar and unexpected sensation came to Cid and he froze momentarily as he looked down at her, her slim body and her flow of hair as it raced in the wind generated by his take-off. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and put it onto the floor stepping on it and extinguishing it without taking his gaze off of Shera.
He smiled a strange smile as he tightened his grasp on the Throttle.
'Goodbye Shera.' He thought to himself as he painfully broke off his gaze to look out of the viewing dome to the landscape beyond.
His heart raced and his mind rushed as he looked out onto the world. A sense of adventure and a feeling of adrenaline permeated happiness seeped through him as he looked out at the restriction-free emptiness of the sky, the only place where he had ever felt truly at one with the world.
He smiled and turned to face the seated party.
"Next stop Cosmo Canyon!"
He pulled hard on the Throttle, putting the drive speed to Force 25.
There was a rush and a moment of exaggerated gravity as the huge engines screamed and spat flame, the inertial dampeners kicking in sucking the hightened gravity from the ship and allowing the party to move freely again.
Outside, the landscape rushed as the huge ship accelerated quickly, racing off and leaving the small town and the petite woman far behind in mere moments as the ship streaked, fast as lightning across the sky.
All sorrow at leaving had dissolved now within Cid as he lit another cigarette
and watched the world race past him only the sense of freedom remained now.
Sephiroth clutched the sword tight in the sheath as wind buffeted him from all around whipping his hair and cloak into a furore of violence as they convulsed in their attempts to shake the wind off. His eyes lit up and he smiled, his dagger teeth glinting in the warm light of the sun.
"See you soon..." He hissed.