Chapter Thirty-One: Reeve’s Replacement
Rufus ShinRa slammed his hands palm downwards onto the table in the small conference room. The loud sound was enough to instantly grab the attention of every one of his subordinates. Satisfied, he returned to his seat and leaned back against the back, running a hand through blond locks.
He cleared his throat and fixed them all with his ShinRa glare. “As I was saying, Archer, it’s your job to adjust the reactor’s output.”
A dark-headed man with bright, violet eyes nodded from his position at the table. He was the one chosen to replace Reeve as head of Urban Development, and as the former executive’s assistant, he was the best suited for the job. Already, he had proven his skill.
Archer replied, “Of course, sir.”
Tifa giggled faintly and reached out a hand to run it along her lover’s arm. He allowed her that small display but frowned when she tried to go lower.
Now was not the time.
“Hah hah hah!” Scarlet laughed maniacally. “Don’t worry about adjusting it, Archer. Once you open it up all the way, everything will go full speed!” She waved a hand in front of her face as she continued to chortle, clearly impressed with her own intelligence. She didn’t even notice the scathing look Tifa sent her way.
“Gya ha ha!” Heidegger added in his own particularly annoying laughter. “The President’s sure done it this time! If we can only defeat Sephiroth, the idea that Meteor will also disappear is based on different objectives.” He thumped a fist on the table, the action even more disruptive than Rufus’ slap, setting their various cups to rattling.
Rufus glared at the sycophant but remained silent. Inwardly, his stomach roiled at the idiots he was forced to work with. Even if they did serve a purpose, he couldn’t help the urge to just slaughter them all and start from scratch.
Scarlet suddenly sobered as she sent the President her best ingratiating smile. “Please remember, Mr. President. It was my idea to fire reactor powered shells,” she inserted, making sure that Rufus would not forget and give her the raise she had been desiring for some time now. There was this pretty little black number that she had been dying to get her hands on.
Rufus frowned musingly and tapped one finger on the table. “Will the shells really reach the far northern border?” he asked, lines marring his brow.
She laughed again. “Ah hah hah! Of course! But, Mr. President, please do not call it Mako Cannon. This new weapon will be called… The Sister Ray!” Scarlet gestured widely and beamed.
Tifa made a disgusted face, shooting the woman another derisive glare. “The Sister Ray? How lame is that?” she muttered disdainfully. “Why not Destruction Beam or Death Ray or something with I don’t know, fear, maybe?” She shook her head at the obviously stupid female, muttering “dumbass” under her breath.
“Why you little-” Scarlet growled, furiously rising to her feet. Her hands clenched at her sides, pale cheeks tainted with an angered flush that clashed terribly with her overly bright, yellow hair.
Rufus chuckled, immediately causing Scarlet to freeze in her tracks. Normally stoic, when Rufus was amused, it was a thing to be feared. It often meant someone was going to die.
“Calm down, Scarlet. She would rip you limb to limb,” he ordered in an exceedingly amused tone before immediately going sober. “Besides, Sister Ray will do for now.”
Scarlet took her seat, muttering under her breath and shooting Tifa equal glares of poison in return. Ever since the brunette had returned from betraying Cloud and his fools, she had gotten even cheekier. Scarlet had never liked the bitch and wished she would just die, only that would provoke Rufus’ wrath, and Scarlet quite liked living. Instead, she settled for glaring hatefully and holding her tongue.
Heidegger chortled, interrupting the staring contest between the two women. “This plan is perfect! Nothing can stop us now!”
The President just mused silently, idly staring past the ignorant employees and out the window. He could barely see the glow of Meteor, though he glared at it hatefully. Rufus wondered if that fiery ball would end up being his destruction.
As they rushed from the City of the Ancients towards the Highwind, a sudden shaking of the ground caused them to nearly lose their footing. They froze in place, trying to keep from tumbling to the ground as the earth shuddered around them. Even the trees nearby swayed wildly, a few crashing to the forest floor.
After a moment, the rumbling stopped, and the distinct sound of Cloud’s PHS disturbed the eerie silence. Frowning, the ex-SOLDIER reached into his pocket, signaling to the others at the same time, and they picked up their hurried pace, continuing towards the Highwind.
“What the hell was that Reeve?” Cloud demanded, recognizing the former executive’s voice immediately.
Reeve’s tone was both alarmed and frantic as it came through the receiver. “Diamond Weapon just appeared in the sea, and it seems to be heading straight for Midgar!” he explained hurriedly. “And I don’t think it’s coming for a social visit.”
Cloud’s eyes flickered to the gleaming metal of the Highwind, visible just above the next rise. “Can the cannon stop it?” he asked, worry beginning to settle in his heart.
The city of Midgar had suffered so much already. This was yet another thing to be blamed on ShinRa.
“I don’t know if it’s ready or not,” other man answered, sounding very unsure of himself.
From his tone, however, Cloud could discern that it was highly unlikely.
On the other side of the blond, Barret was striding along, his gait loud and thundering. “Hey!” he demanded harshly. “What’s gonna happen to Marlene?”
The little girl was still in Midgar, last they had heard.
Cloud didn’t answer. In truth, he didn’t have one, so instead, he clipped the phone shut and shoved it into his pocket. He put on a burst of speed, pushing their pace, and within minutes, they were aboard and heading towards Midgar.
Everyone gathered in the cockpit, even Cid and Vincent.
Barret was the first to speak, his hand clenched angrily at his side. “What about Marlene!” he demanded again, concern for his daughter gleaming in his dark eyes. His gaze flickered between the grim-faced former executive and an equally dismal Cloud.
“Don’t worry, Barret,” Reeve answered as he shook his head. “She is with Elmyra. I am certain that the Widow Gainsborough is taking very good care of her.”
A sudden gasp from the back of the crowd echoed throughout the cockpit. Everyone turned, those who hadn’t exited the airship finding their eyes widening in surprise at the sight of Aeris, alive and well. In the confusion, Cloud had nearly forgotten that not everyone knew of her resurrection.
One of the flower-girl’s hands rose to her mouth in surprise as she stared hopefully at Reeve. “She is alive?” Aeris asked, her voice full of hope and even happiness.
Amber eyes blinked in utter confusion. “Yes, but…” he trailed off, uncertain of the proper words to even explain his own perplexity. “You-”
A hand sliced through the air.
“Long story,” Cloud muttered, cutting in before Reeve could even voice his question. “We’ll explain later. What’s more important is right now.” He turned towards the older man. “What’s going on with ShinRa? Can they get the cannon ready?”
Again, before Reeve could speak, one of the crewmembers leapt out of his seat, ripping his headphones off. “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” he announced, seemingly startled. He winced as an annoying sound scratched through the receiver, a piercing whine combined with static.
“What’s it? What the fuck’s wrong?” Cid demanded, rushing over to look at the crewmen with one of his patented Highwind glares. It still didn’t have the power to scare anyone.
The crewmember nodded hurriedly before sitting back in his seat and picking up his discarded headphones. “I’m picking up on a strange signal, Captain,” he commented, pointing to a computer screen that displayed several sound waves and tracing one in particular. “And it’s coming from…” He paused as he turned to look at Reeve in the very same moment that the ex-ShinRa’s phone began to ring again with the humorous chicken dance.
The ex-executive glanced at it sheepishly before flipping it open. Instead of getting a call, however, he had gotten a short e-mail.
“It’s from my informant,” he explained simply as the irritated crewman sniffed and returned to his work. “It’s going to be another twenty minutes or so before the cannon is ready. Weapon will be there way before then.”
Barret frowned, lips pulling into a thin line. “That’s not good enough! What’s goin’ ta happen to Marlene then?” he demanded, voice rising in pitch and volume, causing some of those closest to him to wince.
Reeve whirled towards him, snapping his phone shut with a very audible clack. “I already told you,” he sniped angrily. “She’s in a safe place. So long as she is safe, who cares what else happens, right?”
The older man blinked owlishly at the sudden change in Reeve’s demeanor. Confusion settled in Barret’s face as many of the other members of their group carried the same perplexity. They, including Cid, had never seen him so much as lose his cool, even with Yuffie. Why was he so angry now?
Barret’s mouth fell open in surprise. “Wha?”
The ex-executive’s face pinched into one of barely concealed irritation and rage. “I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time,” he hissed coldly, “but just how many people do you think died when you blew up that first reactor? Or even the ones after that?”
Barret rolled his eyes, waving a dismissive hand. “That was for the life of the planet. You gotta ‘xpect a few causalities,” he argued in a defensive tone, folding both arms over his massive chest.
“A few?” Reeve demanded, stalking towards the other man with his hands clenched into fists. His voice grew louder, colder.
“A few? Try thousands, including several hundred children. And all were innocent people, ones who had no idea that was their day to die for a cause they knew nothing about! What may be a few to you was everything to those who died.” He took small satisfaction in the guilty look that passed over Barret’s face, instead continuing in his tirade. “Protect the planet?” Reeve snorted. “Hah! That sounded good in theory. But you didn’t even give them a choice!”
Brown eyes narrowed, Barret’s tone low and dangerous. “I don’t want to hear that from no one in ShinRa.”
Reeve snorted disdainfully, and if he were any taller, he would be standing nose to nose with Barret. “Oh, yes, because everyone in ShinRa is automatically evil incarnate. Even all the people who had no other resort and the ones who used their positions to help improve lives, build hospitals and schools, see that people had food and roofs over their heads!”
“Stop it!” Cloud ordered, shoving his way between them as he raised his voice above their petty argument.
Barret glared, but Reeve merely frowned and turned away, a strange emotion flitting across his face.
“Cloud’s right,” Aeris added, her gentle voice instantly sending a calming presence throughout the entire airship. “What was done in Midgar can’t be forgotten, no matter the reason. We can’t give up because we are worried what will happen.”
Vincent raised a brow, though it was barely visible behind his veil of hair. “We will beat Weapon ourselves then?” he questioned with a faintly bemused tone. His gaze darted around all the members of their group, internally wondering if they were strong enough to handle such a battle.
Cid let out a bark of laughter. “Ya think we can win against that monster?”
“We got a chance of winnin’, right?” Yuffie inserted, hoping that someone would encourage her or at least take away the pessimistic attitude that both Cid and Vincent were projecting in waves. She didn’t want to see Midgar destroyed anymore than Barret did.
Cloud shrugged and tapped the hilt of his sword thoughtfully. “How would I know?” he asked rhetorically. “But that’s no reason for us to just let it go! We are going to do something.”
It was easier than it sounded; they hadn’t accounted for the sheer strength in the massive beast. Its power was greater than theirs, as well as its speed, stamina, offense… Everything. It was all they could do to simply remain alive, much less deter the monster in its attack on Midgar.
Therefore, when the creature suddenly stopped in the middle of launching one of its more destructive attacks and centered its gaze on the darkened city in front of them, the members of AVALANCHE immediately knew that something was wrong.
“What? Why did it stop fighting?” Cloud panted.
He stumbled backwards to stand next to Cid and Aeris as Diamond Weapon completely ignored their presence. While it probably would have been the perfect time to attack their enemy, there was something in the way that the Weapon stood that made Cloud uneasy.
Aeris shook her head, gently applying a Cure to Cid’s injured leg. “Maybe it senses something we don’t,” she commented, making a very valid point.
Cloud shook his head in confusion as he eyed Diamond Weapon’s odd behavior. He tightened his fingers around the hilt of his sword, mentally preparing for an attack. But suddenly, his PHS rang. Cursing aloud, the blond dipped his fingers inside his pocket and pulled it out, flipping it open and keeping one ever-watchful eye on their enemy.
Reeve’s frantic voice immediately flooded Cloud’s ears. “You have to get out of there now!”
“What?” the ex-SOLDIER asked, clearly confused.
The other man let loose an exasperated sigh before continuing. “It’s ShinRa! The Sister Ray! They’re going to fire!”
“I thought you said it wasn’t- Shit!” Cloud slammed the phone shut and shoved it into his pocket.
In the meantime, Diamond Weapon suddenly dropped to one knee. A panel opened on its back, revealing dozens of missile launchers. It was an attack that they had yet to see, which didn’t bode well for their survival.
Cloud didn’t want to stick around and find out, so he sheathed his sword in one smooth motion. He bent down and grabbed the injured Captain and raced for the airship, checking to make sure Aeris was still beside him. Luckily, the Highwind had been able to land nearby, a Barrier thrumming around the ship to keep it safe.
Aeris twisted her neck, glancing over her shoulder at Diamond Weapon, only to blanch visibly. “It’s going to fire on Midgar,” she voiced breathlessly.
“Then ShinRa better get their ass together and fire first!” Cloud muttered under his breath as they struggled to haul the injured Cid up the ramp.
At the top, Vincent noticed their plight and stepped down to help them. He had been helping in the attack from afar, staying within the relative safety of the Highwind and using his Winchester to distract and otherwise annoy the Weapon.
Once they stumbled within the main bay doors, Vincent slapped the button to close the ramp. Cid collapsed to the floor breathing heavily as the ex-Turk moved to the intercom, hitting the button and letting the pilot know they were all aboard.
Almost immediately, the Highwind began to shudder and thrum as it rose steadily into the air.
Vincent knelt at Cid’s side, laying down his weapon with a small clank to the floor of the cargo bay. “Go to the bridge,” he told Cloud and Aeris. “I’ll stay here with him.” He reached for the pilot’s leg, one hand digging into his pocket for his healing materia for the nearly shattered leg.
Cloud nodded, his gaze flickering over the two men for all of a brief moment before he and Aeris hurried out of the room. A strange quiet, the whirr of the Highwind’s rotors soft in the background, settled over the cargo bay.
On the floor, Cid chuckled from where he lay, his eyes closed. “I must be dreaming,” he commented, one hand reaching up to pat his head where the cigarettes were still safely stored.
“What makes you say that?” Vincent asked with some confusion. There was a gentle green flash as he activated the Heal materia.
A teasing tingle raced through Cid’s leg as the bones began to shift and realign. Not exactly a comfortable feeling, but he would endure it so long as he could walk again afterwards. “Because you’re healing me.”
Vincent’s brow furrowed. “I’ve done it before.”
The pilot nodded. “Yeah but…” he trailed off. It was hard to put into words what he actually meant. It wasn’t so much that it was unusual for Vincent to heal him, considering that they often fought together with Cloud. Vincent was the one usually remanded to healing and defense because of his long-range weapon.
No, what Cid was referring to was the flash of concern he had caught in Vincent’s eyes. For a brief moment, he had seen past Vincent’s careful attempts to keep a rein on his emotions. It gave him hope that Vincent felt more for him than the gunman was readily willing to admit.
Vincent rolled his eyes when Cid ceased his mumbled explanation. “You’re an idiot,” he commented, though it was said with a light note of affection.
“Yeah, maybe.” There was another flash of green as Vincent applied a Cure, soothing away the aches of the wound and sealing up the pierced flesh. With his body fully healed, Cid sat up, a mischievous grin taking over his expression.
“But do idiots get kisses?” he questioned, a hopeful glint to his eyes.
Vincent surreptitiously glanced around, despite the fact that he was well aware that everyone knew of their relationship. At least, everyone that had been in the cargo bay when Cid kissed him. Either way, he liked his privacy and didn’t want to be subjected to Yuffie’s teasing or Barret’s inane remarks.
Finding the cargo bay abandoned, with Cid waiting patiently for him to make up his mind, Vincent finally sighed. Slipping his materia back into his pocket, he wasted no time in leaning forward and dipping his head down to kiss the man he had, on some level, finally accepted as lover and not just ‘fuck buddy’ as it had been so crudely put before.
It occurred to him that such a gentle kiss, in such a place, after such an event, was something that could be construed as caring, romantic even. Especially when Cid reached around him and threaded his fingers in dark hair, preventing him from ending the kiss too soon. Yet, Vincent felt no need to do so. Despite the fact that all hell was breaking loose outside, and the others were waiting in the bridge, he found he wanted to remain in the cargo bay.
It wasn’t that Cid made him forget, or made the pain go away, or even made him feel less guilty. But the tightening inside of him, the agonizing coiling of all his twisted thoughts and fears, seemed to ease when he was around the pilot. The frail hope he had pushed aside that maybe, maybe it might not have been his fault after all, started to rise to the surface again. Despite his best efforts, Lucrecia’s face was being replaced in his mind.
And it was Cid who had done it.
He made it just in time to see Diamond Weapon fire off a barrage of missiles in the very same moment that the Sister Ray fired. The two entirely different but just as deadly attacks passed harmlessly by each other, only to unerringly head for their intended targets.
The beam of power from the Sister Ray struck Diamond Weapon first, slamming into its chest and knocking the creature back several hundred feet. It left a big gaping hole in its wake as it passed through the creature and continued on heading straight for the Northern Crater. Weapon was killed instantly, collapsing on its back with twitching lips, but it was clear that the beast had not been ShinRa’s original target.
With his nose almost pressed to the view window in horror, Nanaki’s eyes widened in sudden understanding. “The crater!” he exclaimed, whirling around to shoot Cloud a knowing look. “They were aiming for the crater all along!”
Yuffie frowned. “What?” she demanded, her gaze darting between those present. “Then… they’re the good guys?”
Reeve’s deep intake of breath overrode the ninja’s question. “Kami,” he breathed, gaze locking on the vision beyond the window, that of missiles still heading unerringly for Midgar. “They’re going to hit straight on!”
“No!” Barret screamed, running towards the window, plastering his hands against the thick glass. “Marlene!”
But they could only watch in horror as dozens of missiles slammed into Midgar, exploding in bright bursts of orange flame. Buildings crumpled and huge gouts of black smoke rose in thick, ashy columns of hell. The sky above Midgar literally lit up from the size of the fires, and still, other missiles passed by unhampered.
Cloud felt a hand on his shoulder and jumped, only to find that it was Aeris. She also gazed at the horrific scene, having arrived just in time to witness the devastation.
Barret slumped to the floor, his eyes staring vacantly. In his heart, he knew that he had failed. He had promised Dyne that he would protect Marlene and watch over her; she was the child he had come to love as his own daughter. And now, she was most likely dead!
Annoyed by his piteous expression, Vincent snapped. “Oh, stop your moping!” he growled from the back of the room.
Every single eye in the cockpit swiveled towards him, but he remained unfazed by their scandalized looks.
“If you weren’t so blinded by your unreasonable grief, you might have actually noticed that almost all of the missiles missed Midgar entirely. They hit the upper levels of ShinRa Corporation,” Vincent explained, clarifying his words as he gestured towards the window. “The city itself is intact.”
Beside Vincent, Reeve stiffened, his face going uncharacteristically pale. Unconsciously, his hand wrapped around the phone in his pocket, fingers twitching to dial numbers he knew by heart, even as his stomach leapt into his throat. His pulse throbbed through his veins.
Damn, getting caught! He had to know!
Cid moved to the front of the room, surveying the destruction with his own eyes and managing to walk with only a slight limp. “Vince’s right!” he declared. “Midgar’ll survive. We need to find out what happened at the crater.”
The ex-SOLDIER nodded. “Good point. Pilot, to the crater.”
Moments later, they were gaping at a destroyed barrier. Now, there was nothing standing between them and the murderous Sephiroth.
“Damn ShinRa did something right for once,” Cid muttered under his breath, hating that he had to admit it to himself.
“Now, we can get to Sephiroth,” Cloud proclaimed, an almost eager note to his tone. Mako blue eyes began to glow with a fierce determination, his hands tightening around the hilt of his massive sword.
He was interrupted, however, when Reeve’s cell phone began to ring again. Everyone in the cockpit grimaced as he shot them sheepish looks. They were really beginning to hate his ring tone and the general bad news that it seemed to bring with it.
Reeve flipped open his phone and glanced at the screen, only to gasp when he realized who it was.
“Archer, you’re still alive!” he exclaimed. “What’s going on? Is he alright?” Reeve paused, only to have amber eyes become impossibly wide. “What!?”
“Strange,” Heidegger declared as he glanced at the phone in his hand. “I can’t reach the President!” A frown pulled on his horsy face.
“Rufus?” Tifa asked with surprise, her voice raising in pitch. “Has something happened to Rufus?”
“Shut up, girl!” Scarlet snapped, slicing a hand through the air. She whirled around violently, glaring at the man behind her. “Archer! What’s going on?”
He returned her stare with equal force. “It must’ve been Weapon’s attack,” he put in, eyes widening in shock as he returned to the control board. “But none of that matters right now! The reactor’s input is increasing all by itself!”
“Ww-wait a minute!” Scarlet exclaimed, unable to help her alarmed stammering. “That’s not smart! It must cool for three hours, or it won’t work. Archer, go shut off the damn machine!” she ordered, slicing her hand through the air yet again, and nearly causing her bosom to pop out of her too small dress.
Archer shook his head grimly. “We can’t do that; it’s inoperable. We’ve been locked out from here.” He frowned, face tight with worry. “It’s been switched to mainframe operation.”
Scarlet’s face paled as one of her hands fluttered near to her mouth. “What about the mainframe? Who!?” She was still unable to comprehend the fact that someone was messing with her cannon, even as she whirled around again, setting her gaze on her comrade in arms. “Hey! Call the mainframe!” she yelled, pointing at Heidegger.
A look of stupefied perplexity filled the rotund man’s face. “Huh? Why are you giving orders?” he questioned before staring dumbly at his phone “And why can’t I reach Rufus?”
“I’ll find him!” Tifa gasped, already running from the room. She had to find her lover. Without him, she had no power! Then, all that she had done would be for naught!
“Who gives a damn about the details?” Archer retorted once Tifa had gone.
He dug into his pocket and pulled out his own PHS, quickly dialing the number to the mainframe. It rang several times before the phone automatically picked itself up since it was equipped for such measures.
The sound of inane cackling filled the receiver.
Violet eyes blinked as Archer’s brow furrowed. “Who’s there? What’s going on?” he demanded.
A voice snickered. “All you want… hwa ha mwa!”
“Hojo?” Archer gritted his teeth as he recognized the voice. “Dammit, you freak! Stop! The cannon, no, Midgar itself is in danger!”
However, Hojo held little regard for Archer’s worries. He laughed mockingly, and the sound of buttons being pressed could clearly be heard.
“One or… two Midgars? A small price to pay for science.” The last came out as an eerie hiss.
“Hojo! Hojo! Listen to me dammit!”
But the scientist was far too gone even bother listening, and the phone went dead, leaving nothing but an annoying buzz behind.
“Archer! What’s going on?” Scarlet all but shouted, striding up to the dark-haired man.
The man was frantically dialing numbers into his phone once more, cursing when he received nothing but a dead silence. Hojo had completely shut down the communications system.
“It’s Hojo; he’s gone plum-fucking nuts! I’ve got to get down there and stop him!” Archer dashed from the room, hand still holding tightly to his PHS as he completely ignored both Scarlet and Heidegger.
Laughter followed in his wake. “Ghaa haa hah! The President is dead! Now, I’m doing things my way! You,” Heidegger declared, pointing two meaty fingers at two guards, “after him!”
Beside him, Scarlet began to chortle madly, one hand flapping in front of her face. “Now’s the chance to use the new weapon!” She beamed. “You can bet that Archer’s already contacting Reeve as we speak.”
Heidegger sneered. “Fool didn’t think we would notice he was always sneaking away on the phone.”
The two ShinRa employees laughed evilly together, delighting in their cleverness.
Meanwhile, aboard the Highwind, things were going steadily downhill.
“…No, get out of there! I’m coming! Archer? Hey!”
The phone went dead in his hands. Reeve slammed it shut, his face growing even paler than before.
A hand placed itself gently on his shoulder. “What’s going on, Reeve?” Aeris asked softly, concern filling her features.
The ex-executive shook his head, anger causing his body to tremble all over. “It’s Hojo. ShinRa’s in an uproar; the whole place is a freaking disaster area. Rufus has disappeared, and Hojo is priming the Sister Ray for another attack. But the cannon will explode with all the power he’s pumping into it! And if it travels down into the mako reactors and then the Lifestream…” He shook his head again, turning a ghastly pale shade. “It could be an annihilation of the entire planet.”
Barret’s jaw dropped. “Can’t your spy friend do something?”
Reeve snorted. “What? You think that call ended normally?” he retorted, nearly crushing his phone as he gripped it tightly. “He’s in ShinRa’s hands now. There’s nothing I can do, and I’m certain they know we are coming.”
Cloud sighed, scraping a hand through his blond spikes. “We can’t run away now. There’s too much at stake. Hojo must be stopped.” He turned towards the pilot as a murmur of agreement swept through those in the cockpit, especially from Barret.
“Head to Midgar,” he ordered.
The pilot was quick to comply.