Chapter Twenty – Too Much Hope is the Opposite of Despair
All around the world eyes turned heavenward as a brilliant explosion lit up the sky all around Meteor. Streaks of red and orange spread across the sky, like a rainbow of hope, rather than the apocalypse that it superficially resembled. People started cheering, thinking that it was all over, that their destruction was no longer imminent.
Rufus took the time to gloat over having had the right idea. As Tifa sat by his side, idly stroking an arm, he allowed himself a small laugh of pleasure. Who would be the heroes now?
Certainly not Cloud and his gang of buffoons.
Bugenhagen watched from the observatory with keen interest and hope that perhaps his grandson had succeeded, though every bit of his instinct warned him not to get too ahead of himself. His senses tingled, and a kind voice at the back of his mind warned him that there was more to everything, if he looked carefully.
Four pairs of eyes stared out the window of an escape pod, having nearly a front row seat to the event. And on the ground, far below them, three more sets of eyes stared up into the sky, watching the events unfold.
The entire world held a collective breath as the glow slowly faded, and the dust settled, revealing the results of ShinRa’s genius.
Gasps were heard everywhere when the fate of Meteor was ascertained. Strangers fell to their knees in the streets, embracing other strangers. Rufus shook his fist angrily, body nearly trembling with his fury as a cold fire raged within. Bugenhagen shook his head sadly, and the friends that were separated groaned in despair.
If anything, it was worse now. The glowing ball of fire had absorbed the explosion and added its power back into itself. The outer layer of the meteor had expanded outwards, but it now circled around the fireball like deranged and deadly dancers. Truly, it seemed that the end of the world was coming, and nothing could stop it.
Shera could feel the tears prickling at the back of her eyes. “It didn’t work,” she said glumly, speaking the words that they already knew were true.
Cloud shook his head. “I didn’t really think it would. Looks like we are going to have to find another way.”
“Shattered in so many pieces, yet clinging tenaciously to the core, like a metaphor to our hopes and dreams,” Vincent murmured more to himself than anyone else.
He was mostly ignored as usual. Yet, no one was more surprised than Vincent himself when Cid actually responded.
“Heh heh,” he laughed quietly, though it was humorless. “Dreams, huh, Vincent?” Cid asked, his tone grim.
Crimson eyes shifted towards the pilot, disturbed by the strange note to his lover’s voice. He tilted his head to the side, regarding the other man cautiously.
“Something to that effect, yes.”
Sky blue eyes darkened. “Hm. What is there for me now? Having seen the stars.” The pilot stared out the window, carefully concealing his face from the others. “Is it still a dream if it comes true?”
“Oh, Cid.” Shera frowned. She was unused to hear that sort of melancholy tone to her Captain’s voice.
Cloud’s brow furrowed. “What on Gaia are you talking about?” the other blond demanded. “Isn’t that the whole reason we have dreams? To work to have something come true?”
Vincent shook his head, one hand idly fitting a loosened buckle on his cloak. “A wise man once said that dreams were never meant to be reached but to give us that never attainable ideal of what life could be if we never give up,” he mused thoughtfully.
“Shut up!” Cloud hissed, shooting his older companion a fierce glare. “You’re not helping.”
Crimson eyes merely stared in return as he shrugged. “We are fighting in a battle where even the very forces of nature are conspiring against us. What kind of hope can we have?” the ex-Turk asked.
It was purely rhetorical, but the subtle paling of Cloud’s features was all the reaction he needed.
Shera stood angrily, rocking the escape pod in its continuous descent. “What is wrong with you people?” she demanded, voice sharp. “All this talk about lost hopes and dreams. So ShinRa’s plan didn’t work? So the hell what? You can’t tell me this entire time you were relying on ShinRa to save us?”
“No,” Cloud explained, his voice blunt. “We were relying on Aeris.”
Just then, the escape pod violently tossed from side to side as it smacked into Gaia’s atmosphere and began its reentry. Shera was nearly thrown to the floor before she quickly grabbed one of the dangling handholds. The pod hurtled through the atmosphere, falling with blinding and death-defying speed towards the ground below, spelling an almost certain doom.
“Shit!” Cloud cursed, his face incredibly ashen. “We’re going to hit ground!” He clung tightly to one of the straps, hanging on for dear life.
“No, we are not,” Shera retorted. She leaned over and slapped a bright red button on the wall.
The pod gave a small jerk as a parachute exploded out of the back end, snapping out and instantly slowing the pod’s rapid descent. It finally began to level out, falling at a slower and calmer pace. With a gentle shudder, the pod touched ground moments later.
They let out a sigh of relief, finding that they were alive and safe.
Cloud peeled his fingers off the handhold and headed for the door on shaky legs. “Note to self,” he mused aloud. “Never again get in a rocket with Cid Highwind.”
He turned the latch on the door and let himself outside, falling to the ground and kissing it very happily. Never, never again!!
The remaining passengers of the escape pod also climbed out of it gratefully, though none of them going so far as to kiss the ground like their brave and illustrious leader.
“We’re alive after all, eh?” Cid laughed as he watched the other blond worship the dirt, vowing to never go further than an airship could lift again.
Vincent eyed him with an air of amusement. “Did you ever doubt we would make it?” he asked, standing silently, arms crossed as he observed the antics of their leader.
Why were they following this fool around again?
“Nope,” Cid said, looking at Shera. “I’ve got the world’s best mechanic working on my rocket!” He reached over and clapped the women on the back, his fingers squeezing her shoulder companionably.
Shera smiled and shook her head. “You keep saying things like that, and I might actually believe that you are fond of me, Captain.”
Cid laughed long and hard. Vincent only narrowed his eyes, wondering why the pilot didn’t refute her. An uncomfortable surge of green jealousy rose up in him again, leaving him to wonder why he had any right to feel that way.
Wasn’t he the one to refuse to define what they had together? Didn’t that leave Cid perfectly capable of moving on if he so wished?
He wondered why the idea of that bothered him so much. He didn’t even know if Cid was fully homosexual or a bit of both.
“Okay, I called the Highwind. They’re on their way,” Cloud said as he strolled towards them. He brushed dirt and pieces of grass from his pants but didn’t look the least bit embarrassed over his behavior.
Vincent supposed that he was just far too happy to be back on solid ground.
“What are you going to do now, Shera?” Cid asked.
The brunette shrugged and pushed her glasses back up on her nose. “Go back to Rocket Town. You know, clean your house and make your damn tea.”
Cid laughed again.
Cloud rubbed the back of his head. “Eh, you’re welcome to come with us, I guess,” he suggested. “Cid could probably use you on the Highwind.”
“Oh, no,” Shera protested, shaking her head. “I’ve had enough excitement. I’ll leave the fighting to the pros, while I stay safe in Rocket Town.” She appeared thoughtful. “Or maybe I’ll go to Midgar.”
Cid’s eyes widened. He knew why she wanted to go to that blasted place.
“No!” he argued, as if he had every right to tell her what to do.
“No?” she questioned, an eyebrow raised. “Well, since you can dictate how I am going to live my life, how about you give me my trust fund, Dad?” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.
“Damn! Shera’s got spunk,” Cloud commented as he watched their exchange.
Vincent had nothing to add, hating how jealousy kept rising to the surface. He turned away from the exchange, unable to look at it rationally.
Cid snorted. “You know what I meant. Damn ShinRa’s going to screw you over again,” he admonished, glaring at her hotly.
“How about letting me decide that for myself, ne?”
The pilot huffed and crossed his arms over his chest. “Do what you want. But don’t come crying to me when you get fucked!”
Shera sighed but did not respond since he would never understand, not since she had learned he didn’t even like women. Besides, Cid was the type to enjoy her admirations and affections but not miss it until it was gone. He didn’t want her, never had, but hated the fact that someone else was getting her attention.
She changed the subject then, gesturing to the huge, flaming boulder in the sky. “So what are you guys going to do about that giant fireball now?” Shera asked, turning to the leader. She plopped herself on the ground trying to get comfortable as they settled in for a wait.
The others followed suit.
Cloud sighed and shifted his head so that he could look to the sky. “She was our hope,” he explained enigmatically.
“Who?” Shera tilted her head to the side.
“Aeris,” Vincent answered from his position a little ways away from the group. He had opted not to sit, so he stood, staring away into the horizon beyond. “She always seemed to know exactly what was going on, even if no one else did.”
“You were saying her name,” Cid mused aloud before shooting a glance to their leader. “You had said Aeris when you came out of the mako coma. Why’d you do that?”
He smiled softly as he pondered the Captain’s question. “She was there with me. It’s hard to explain.” Cloud sighed. “Everyone knew that I had some sort of identity crisis, but no one knew how deeply the thread was frayed. Falling into the Lifestream trapped me in an inner dream world, one filled with my memories both real and imagined. I never would have escaped on my own.”
Cid was speechless. Some of what Cloud was saying sounded too much like philosophical nonsense. He was an engineer, damn it, not a philosopher. However, the ex-Turk responded, saving Cid the trouble of coming up with something intriguing on his own.
“She was a guide then,” Vincent commented, thinking deeply. He had heard something about that before.
“No.” Cloud tapped a finger against his upraised knee. “It is not what you are thinking. She’s not dead, at least not in the sense that seems logical to the rest of us.”
Cid threw up his hands in defeat. “Damn! Forget I asked!” Rising to his feet, he moved towards the fallen escape pod and started looking at it with a mechanic’s eye, automatically lighting a cigarette. He had had enough of that talk and wanted to concentrate on something he really understood.
Shera had to stifle a giggle. “I’ll go help him.” She did not notice the intent crimson gaze that followed her movements or even the slight narrowing of said eyes.
“Explain to me what happened in the lifestream,” Vincent asked. He ceased his glaring as he turned towards their leader and crouched on the ground, steadfastly ignoring the laughter and conversation behind them.
“Somehow, I knew it would be you.” Cloud sighed again.
The other man frowned. “What do you mean?” He was beginning to believe that the blond had just insulted him.
“She told me something before I woke up, something that could change the course of this planet and our lives forever,” the blond explained, being deliberately vague.
The sound of laughter drifted through the air, stealing Vincent’s attention for a moment. His eyes darted over to the battered escape pod. Cid and Shera were laughing over some shared joke or secret as the pilot thumped a fist against the metal of the pod.
The gunman couldn’t help the twinges of resentment that began to settle in his heart. Seeing Cid smiling and laughing… all happy with Shera, it made him feel strangely possessive, as if the woman was trying to take something that belonged to him. It scared Vincent, more than he cared to admit, even to himself.
“Everything hinges on a choice.” Cloud’s voice cut through the torrent of emotions, and Vincent forced his gaze away from the laughing couple and back towards his leader.
“A choice?” the gunman reiterated, expecting the blond to explain.
The other man nodded but didn’t actually explain further. He turned away from Vincent and glanced solemnly at the two engineers, who were working diligently on the escape pod. He wasn’t entirely sure what they were doing or even why, but he could see tools, metal, and screws flying everywhere.
He smiled faintly. “It’s nice that they are getting along, isn’t it?” Cloud commented.
The ex-Turk didn’t answer, preferring to stare off into the completely opposite direction. He gritted his teeth though, trying to qualm the jealousy. There was no reason for it; the two of them didn’t really have a relationship. No one had expected anything more.
“Come to think of it,” Cloud continued as if he had just come to a startling revelation. “You have been rather, dare I say it, friendly as well.”
Vincent snorted, able to feel mako blue eyes boring into his skull. “I think that your recent coma may have addled your brains. You’re seeing things that aren’t there.”
“Perhaps…” the ex-SOLDIER trailed off before switching subjects. He gave a small laugh, his gaze directly on the dark-haired gunman. “Cid’s not getting any younger; maybe now, he’ll see what Shera’s been offering.”
Vincent abruptly stood, interrupting whatever else Cloud would say. “You have quickly bored me, Strife,” he claimed, beginning to feel a desire to be alone. He moved away from all of his companions, not seeing the knowing smirk on Cloud’s face.
Regardless, he didn’t get very far when a familiar sound was easily distinguished.
The noise of whirring blades and the rustling of the grasses drew the friends’ attention to the sky, and the Highwind flew into view. It landed gently close by and lowered the loading ramp.
Cloud cheered very un-leader-like and started heading towards the airship, the others close behind him. As they walked, three figures came out to aid them. They had seen the crash and thought someone might have been hurt.
“Reeve, Yuffie, and uh… you are?” Cloud asked in confusion as he spotted the redhead who accompanied them.
Yuffie giggled. “Guess.”
Cid sighed, pointing a finger at the Wutaiian. “Lookee here, Miss Ninja. We ain’t playing no games!”
Vincent took a more subtle approach, peering at the teenager and taking in the familiar color of his hair and eyes. He noticed the claw-like weapon and the small fiery tail that proudly jutted from the male’s behind.
“Nanaki?” he suggested aloud, his intelligence quickly coming to a conclusion.
The demi-human grinned wolfishly. “One and the same.”
Three jaws dropped as they stared at their transformed friend. “H–how?” asked Cloud, unable to form a coherent sentence.
Reeve shrugged. “We don’t know. It happened when we were fighting Scorpios.”
The pilot blinked. “Fighting what?”
“Scorpios,” Nanaki repeated, waving one hand vaguely towards the south, where the battle had taken place. “While you three were off visiting the stars, ShinRa made a surprise attack and tried to take out the Highwind with us aboard.”
“Fuck!” Cid paled as he ran towards the ship to inspect it for damage. He ran his hands over the smooth metal hull, as if by touching that one section he could ascertain its well being. “She had better be alright, or by gods, Midgar’s getting’ blown up tonight!!”
Cloud shook his head at the Captain’s antics and quickly made his way up the loading ramp into the airship. “There weren’t any injuries, I hope,” he replied, looking at them, searching their faces before a sudden thought occurred to him. “Where is Barret?”
“He is fine, simply tired from powering the Materia Amplifier. He kept up a Barrier around the airship during the entire battle,” Reeve answered with a faint grin. The animosity between the two of them was gradually beginning to fade, though it still remained in subtle lines of tension. “He is resting in his room.”
“Then who was front guard?” the ex-Turk asked, furrowing his brow.
What he meant was… who was leader during the battle. If Cid, Vincent, nor Cloud were present and if Barret was aboard the ship, it left little for possibilities. Certainly, they didn’t listen to Yuffie. Did they?
Reeve looked a tad embarrassed. “Actually, uh… I did.”
Everyone turned to gaze at him as he rubbed the back of his head, soothing down ruffled hair.
“But I can’t say that I know what happened.” He shrugged self-consciously. “The damn machine didn’t stop after our Triple-Stone plan, and he kind of knocked me out.”
“Me, too!” Yuffie chimed in. “Scorpios grabbed me up and squeezed!” She mimicked the creature’s actions with her hands, nudging the redheaded male beside her with one elbow.
As Cloud climbed up the slanted ramp, the others fell into step behind him, Cid the last to follow. He continued his conversation, easily taking back the role of leader and assessing the situation that had occurred in his absence.
“Who defeated it then?”
Reeve and Yuffie turned to Nanaki, whose cheeks flamed with embarrassment. “I did,” he managed to answer with a faint hint of pride.
“By yourself?” Cid asked from the back of the line. His voice was both shocked and incredulous.
The demi-human shook his head. “No,” Nanaki corrected solemnly. “Phoenix… or should I say, Suzaku, helped me.”
Vincent frowned thoughtfully. “Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t Cid give Phoenix to Reeve when he acquired her?”
“Yeah!” the ninja exclaimed excitedly. “He summoned her without the materia! Reeve never unjunctioned Phoenix!!” She happily nudged Nanaki with her palm.
Nanaki’s cheeks flushed an even deeper red, turning near the same color as his ponytail.
“Interesting,” Vincent commented, turning to gaze at the lion-wolf turned demi-human. “First you turn human.” He paused and eyed the tail, promptly altering his statement. “Well, mostly, and then, you accomplish a highly skilled and high level summon without the use of materia?”
Nanaki nodded but didn’t speak aloud. The ninja patted him lightly on the shoulder, trying to ease his embarrassment.
Vincent sighed. “What are you?” he asked, speaking for everyone.
“I don’t know.” The demi-human shook his head, silver earrings clinking one against the other, the beads and feathers in his hair smacking together.
The gunman looked him in the eye, searching for truth. He moved away from the group, heading towards the living quarters.
“Join the club,” was his quiet and muttered response. “We meet on Tuesdays.”
Yuffie stared after the former Turk in surprise, even after the others had already gone on. “D–did he just crack a joke?” she questioned, mouth agape.
Cloud grinned as he passed her and clamped a hand on her shoulder. “You shoulda heard the one on the escape pod,” he explained with a wink. He patted her shoulder and headed on inside.
Brown eyes opened impossibly wide as she began to flail her arms in a very comical fashion. “What the hell is going on around here? Nanaki’s a human! Vincent has made a joke! You guys got to go to space, and I didn’t! You and Shera are getting along! Reeve was actually in charge during a fight! My brain’s gonna fry from overuse!!” she cried, tugging at her hair.
“You mean that you actually used it?” There was a chuckle as Cid slipped past her, delighting in her aggravation. “There’s a first time for everything,” he commented.
Yuffie glared in return.