[01.17.00] » by Ben Melius
The emergency craft of the Highwind toppled in the excruciating white light, spinning uncontrollably through the air, toward the ground far below... All Cloud could remember was the Meteor lighting up under the pressure of the spiraling green ropes of Lifestream. Literally everything had gone completely white. His eyes hadn't adjusted yet, and as he slid across the floor of the bridge, he felt himself groping desperately amongst the blares of panic. He still couldn't see when a body struck him, following the same course of sliding as Cloud had.
All at once, he felt the ship elevate, leveling itself out. The alacrity of the upward lift pinned Cloud to the floor for a brief second, the forces of gravity at work. Everything ground to a frightening halt, just as Cloud's eyes were coming back around to handle the tedious task of vision. He lifted himself gingerly from the floor, almost afraid of feeling ache somewhere.
Cid stood at the helm of the speedy ship, his chest heaving with the loss of breath. He masterfully guided the wheel, bringing the craft around. He didn't have his cigarette, Cloud noticed.
It was Red that had crashed against Cloud. Cloud helped him to his paws as Red shook his head to lose the dizziness. It was the first time anyone had gotten to notice that the escape ship was extraordinarily quiet and smooth moving. After the immense roaring and exploding of the Meteor and it's counter substance, they almost felt out of place in the quiet.
That's when it sunk in. The feeling that either something very bad, or very good happened, and knowing that either one would have it's opposite effect. Cloud glanced at Tifa, who had fallen hard down the stairs to the engine pit, where Red had made his seat beside Vincent for so long. She was just getting up, cradling her head with a woozy hand. She was bleeding in several places. As Cloud glanced at Vincent, Yuffie and Barret, he realized that Tifa had gotten the worst of the rough tumble. He trotted over to her.
"Are you all right," Cloud asked soothingly, helping her up. She nodded yes, but the lameness in her walk and the steady flow of blood from a gash on her cheek told him otherwise.
"Tifa, hold still," Cloud said, cleaned the blood from her face carefully, trying not to worsen the pain he was sure she was feeling.
Cid's voice was tumultuous and stricken with distress. His hand pointed toward the great piece of glass that stood as the bridges' viewing window. Cloud followed the direction of the indication, and felt his eyes widen.
The inky black of night was obscured by a weightless gray matter, otherwise unmistakable for smoke. Cloud was apprehensive of seeing the source of the piping smoke cloud as he walked slowly to the window, completely in awe by the incredible spectacle below. His mouth hung open, as well as everyone else's, as he took in the view of Midgar, completely ablaze. Cloud heard Tifa let loose a brief, broken cry of horror. He spent a second to look at her, seeing the anguish building already, the water glinting in the remaining light of the stars.
The light of the fire was bright below, and it was ubiquitous. It had caught on in streets, on shredded buildings; everywhere. Buildings had been flung hundreds of feet from their bases as if they were rag dolls, tossed by an angry infant. Those buildings had collided with other buildings, creating a sort of domino effect, spraying rubble and debris all over, in colossal proportions, and in sizes too small for the lofty view of the airship. Houses had been lifted entirely out of the upper plates' support and thrown out of the town, crumpled and limp, it's wooden sides laying all around.
Cid took the liberty to get as close to the city of fire as possible, lowering the craft so close to the flames, that the heat could be felt through the metallic protection of the walls and floor. Tifa's sobs conquered Cloud's heart as she stood beside him, covering her mouth and crying uncontrollably. She couldn't make herself keep her eyes open to watch further. Cloud was surprised to see water in the eyes of Barret as well, who stood cursing quietly. Cloud couldn't bare to watch himself...
All traces of Meteor, Holy, Lifestream and all other magical forces had vanished completely, leaving not a trace of their even being there. Just the tribulation below.
The airship gyrated, as it had reached the opposite side of the city. Cloud could feel the ship bank at a great angle, taking it's next plunge over the chaos.
The incredible feats of technology that were the reactors had been completely pulverized, large chunks of metal branched off of the towers, some shrill with electrical current. At the bases of those were yet more flaming debris, overturned cars. The roads were deserted and scorched, with tremendous cleaves weaving their roots through them, some cars engulfed by the size.
Cloud squinted back the blazes... He couldn't weep; he wouldn't. He didn't know what to think, looking at his friends beside him, all with the same looks on their faces. This was beyond everything and anything he had ever seen in his life, beyond everything he had ever dreamed. Nothing he could conjure up with his imagination could amount to what he observed.
They had come so far, risked so much. He wanted more than this. He didn't want more dissolution, more destruction. Just days ago, he didn't understand the meaning of life. He didn't see the big picture of it all. Now, though, it had been laid all out in front of him, in the form of a burning city, home of millions...
What they saw next, however, made the rest of it seem insignificant: The Sister Ray, the one hundred thousand ton mantelpiece of ShinRa, the largest, most extraordinary cannon that one could imagine, laid in crumbling shambles. The mass had fallen from such a height, adding such a weight, that a crater formed beneath it's impact. The buildings and houses, small and large, beneath it, had virtually disappeared, their structures splattered in a million desultory directions, for miles and miles. The impact and fall was so immense and incomparable, that for hundreds of feet around it, there was nothing but wavy, cracked asphalt and crushed foundations.
The whole group felt the despondency grow in their hearts, not sure if it grew from rage or from the imperative grief. Cloud had thought of turning away, but now the responsibility kept him star struck at the inauspicious desolation, unable to peel his swelling eyes from the situation. To the onlooker, he would have appeared to be in a trance, frozen, stopped. As would they all have been.
Barret blinked with disenchantment, and looked around, jolted, as if seeing his teammates in a new light, or as if he had never seen them before. He snapped to attention.
"Cloud, man. Do somethin'..."
Cloud too broke out of his stupor with a start. He blinked at Barret, dumfounded. Why would he know what could be done?
"What can we do," he asked, perhaps smartly. The whole team picked their jaws of the proverbial floor, coming out of the forced reverie. Despite the alarm of the plight, all seemed to have their wits about them, and, as they had the whole mission, thought of a resolution promptly.
"We have to go down there! Someone has to be alive," The computerized voice of Cait Sith spoke, as he jumped up and down synthetically. The others voiced their agreement to Cloud, and Cloud agreed as well. He approached the form of Cait.
"Reeve," he spoke to Cait's controller rapidly. "Where are you?"
Cloud thought Reeve had taken refuge in Midgar as well, but he was obviously alive if he could work Cait's robot.
"I went to Kalm," came Reeve's response through Cait's system. "Someone has to be alive in Midgar though."
Barret stepped up beside Cloud, obviously distraught. He spoke shrilly, uncharacteristically. The kind of emotion one would expect from another in a circumstance such as this.
"You said they all took refuge in the slums," Barret exclaimed, exasperated. "You sayin' to me that people could still be alive in the %$^& slums?"
Cait's body moved with an electronic whiz, drooping to a dejected figure as he answered.
"I can't say for certain, Barret," answered Cait. "But you can see that the Plate took the weight of the blows... They may be okay."
Cloud felt his heart raise in his chest. Some hope, optimism. He felt his heart start beating faster, with the new excitement. But Cait was right on cue with just the news to make the optimism go away.
"But we're not out of the woods," said Cait, who still had the down appearance on his mechanical features. "We can't open the air ducts to the slums yet because the fumes from the fire would just flood in. We don't know how much oxygen they can go without, especially with all those people..."
Cloud stared blankly, wishing he could hear something different. He scratched his forehead softly, trying to think benevolently.
Thinking was getting harder as this quest went on, he thought to him self. Cid was easily taking the airship around in circles as they all thought. Cloud looked out the bridge window again, seeing the fire burning, acrid to the eyes.
"...So what do we do?"
Tifa asked the question for them all. Cait Sith whizzed and buzzed back to another position, one intended to show he was thinking.
"I'd say do the only thing you can do now. Go and see if you can save anyone on the plate."
Cloud narrowed his eyes at the suggestion.
"Is anyone on the plate? I thought everyone was in the slums."
"No," Cait replied, turning back to his dejected posture. "A lot of the Plate residents didn't want to leave their homes... especially for the slums..."
The answer struck home, to all of them. None of them doubted that the people on the plate were dead. They didn't even want to try to find them. What a gruesome death that would be. Those people in the comfort of their homes, not realizing the imminent danger they were in, then just having it all stop abruptly. Their lives over before they could wake from sleep, before they could call to their children, to their loved ones...
Cloud hung his head, not even attempting to hide his feelings of surrender.
"Don't do that, kid," Cid said from the helm. "Don't hang your head like that. Pick it up, before I pick it up for you."
Cloud looked through softened eyes at Cid, then to Tifa, again to Yuffie, Vincent, Barret, Cait, then to Red. They all looked at him quietly. It was obvious they were giving the choice to him.
"Fine. We'll go."
They nodded, assuming agreement with his decision. Then they stood awkwardly, realizing that they didn't know what to do next.
Cid bellowed loudly to them, as he whipped the wheel at the helm around, full tilt to the right. Cloud lost his footing, and found himself lingering in midair as the ship changed positions drastically, but he didn't. He fell with a sickening metallic thud to the deck, hitting his chin roughly. He immediately clutched his mouth in agony, as he had torn a chunk from the top of his tongue. Tifa came sliding boots first toward him, on her rear end. He stuck out his hand to stop her forward progress. Just as soon as the ship had cycled, it had leveled out under Cid's guidance.
"What the heck was that," Tifa shrieked. She spun around off of her rear and looked out the window yet again.
Cait's voice was quiet. They all hurried to the window to see what had happened. Cait had seen it first.
The plates were collapsing, right before their eyes. At the middle of the gigantic city, the Plates were caving inward, quickly. All the pressures and burdens of the Meteor and the colossal cannon had taken it's toll on the "indestructible" Plates. Billows and columns of dust flew high and low as the rest of the domiciles and edifices that had been lucky enough to remain standing tore from their substructures, and slid down the mind boggling slope that was created by the inward bend.
Right on to the unsuspecting people that dreamed themselves safe in the slums.
Horror struck the team like a whisking sword, straight through the gut. Cloud felt his stomach rise to his throat. He gulped, knowing all was squandered.
"Come on. We have to get down there now. There's still a few left alive, at least. I know it."
Telling by the look on her face, it was plain to see that Tifa had used all of her sorrowed power to say those words. She wept gently, tears tracing their paths along her soft cheeks.
"She's right. There isn't any time left," muttered the voice of Cait. "We have to do something."
Cloud nodded his understanding with the two, now realizing how staid the situation was. Out of all the things that had happened, all the places they had wandered across, the people they had met with flighty interest, Cloud knew that this was the worst of it all. This was what they had failed to consummate.
"Cait, is there a place to land inside Midgar," Cloud asked hurriedly.
"No," Cait said, dropping further into his dejected appearance. "There was a helicopter landing pad near the ShinRa building, but..."
"I'll find somewhere to land," Cid said gallantly, if not arrogantly. "If anyone can get us on the ground, you're looking at him."
"Maybe you should try to find a residential district," Cait said excitedly. "That would be the best bet."
Cid followed his course of aviation, staying high above the city, to avoid the potential burst of flames or launch of debris. Cait sauntered closer to the bridge window and scanned the city for a residential area. Any one would do at this point, he thought.
All at once, Cait shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice strident with thrill.
"There, Cid, there!"
They all rushed to the window to see what he was looking and waving at. Down below, coming up fast with the speed of the ship was a section of houses. They were as good as safe compared to the other parts of Midgar. Flames burst on a few dwellings, but it wasn't nearly as dismal as the other areas. Some structures laid in rubble, but most were still erect, more or less.
A flicker of light caught on in Cloud's heart. To just save one person out of all this mess...
"Cid, get down there! The rest of you, come with me to the loading area."
The ship started to tilt down, searching for it's place to touch down. Cloud was followed closely by Cait and Yuffie, as they ran down the grated stairs, ringing the metal loudly. All of them reached the loading ramp, which had remained as the ships' bottom, even after the emergency drop. They felt the airship bank, still trying to find an open area to land.
"Here's what we do," Cloud said, taking lead. "I and three others will go through the area as quickly as possible. The rest of you stay here and await anyone that may come to you or that we may find."
"Who's going with you," Barret asked the obvious question.
Cloud looked at the group, all looking at him. They felt the ship make another turn. Cid wasn't finding a place to land.
"Barret, you come. Vincent, you too," Cloud said matter-of-factly. "Tifa, you come as well."
Tifa was curious as to why he had picked her, but now was not the time to question, she thought. Vincent and Barret readied themselves swiftly, nodding to Cloud their acknowledgment.
"Cait, Red, Yuffie," Cloud continued. "Stay here and be ready to pull up the exit on any moment's notice."
They, too, nodded silently.
"Cloud, I'm going to have to land in the street," Cid's voice cracked harshly over the intercom. "There's no open area. As soon as you feel the landing gear hit, open the hatch."
They looked at each other solemnly. They knew what had to be done, and that it had to be done fast. Seconds passed like hours, as they waited for the touch down sensation.
Instantly, they heard a hissing below them, and a jerk. The landing gear had come out. The group tensed with disquietude, clenching their fists. The landing gear struck with a rubbery skid and screech.
Red, who was closest to the hatch switch, looked knowingly at the group and flicked the bar trigger with his nose. The hatch cracked open, whirring as it lowered. They could see the road below, blurring by as the ship came to a halt. They waited for the ship to stop completely.
"Cloud, you have to hurry," Cait exclaimed the obvious suggestion. "The plates are only holding from it's rear pillars. That kind of force at that angle could make it break off at any time. Be on your guard!"
With that, the ship stopped completely. Without hesitation, the team shot down the ramp, sprinting into the street.
The scene was worse from ground level than it was from above. The street they had landed in was rigid with cracks. Spots of fire were all around, in houses and in the street. Cloud and Tifa ran beside each other, with Barret and Vincent directly behind them. They didn't pay attention to the bleak surroundings, as they barreled through the streets, determined to start from the farthest point they could, and work their way back. They jumped over small and large cracks alike, taking it in stride.
Abruptly, a voice boomed in anguish from an alley way as they scrambled by.
"Hey!! Help... me!"
Cloud ground his feet into the asphalt to stop, and turned on heel. He streaked down the alley, his feet and breathless pants bouncing off the narrowly placed walls to either side. His allies plodded behind him as well, their actions bouncing off the walls with his. At the end of the alley, they found the man that had screamed the plea.
He was buried under a pile of rubble that was twice Cloud's height. The rubble had broken off and fallen from the tops of the houses on either side. Broken glass from the windows lay embedded in the man's arms, trickling blood. His face was covered in the sanguine fluid as well. The stench of blood and wounds was tremendous to the nostrils to his four helpers.
"Hold on," Vincent said quietly, as was typical of his nature. He went beside the man, and looked at his body, signaling the rest to dig the rubble around them. They dug desperately into the rubble, freeing large pieces, only to have little pieces take it's place. It was like digging in loose sand. They knew they could do nothing, but they showed effort, for his benefit. Vincent placed his hands under the man's battered torso and tried to tug him gently from the rubble.
That was when the Plate shifted. An overwhelming sound rung out, the sound of twisting metal. The sound was so incredibly loud, Cloud found himself wincing with his hands cupped on his ears.
"Oh no, no, no," the man said from beneath the rubble. "That's the plate. Do somethin'!"
Cloud dug with all his might, throwing the rubble he displaced for yards behind him. He couldn't make any progress. The pile didn't even seem to be diminishing. The man moaned in anguish and discomfort when a large piece of floor board tumbled down the pile and hit him in the stomach.
"There's no use," he said through painful sobs. "Save my little girl."
Tifa almost fell down. This man was a father. He had probably got stuck here saving his daughter. Tifa felt her eyes water and her face twist in dolor. She dug with a renewed ferocity, not letting an innocent girl go without a father. But she could see it. There was no hope for this man. She closed her eyes, shaking off the thoughts of her childhood, when she had lost her parents tragically.
"No," the man said. "It's too late for me. Go get my daughter and wife before the plate goes out. Their both in the house to your left."
No one listened to him, they kept digging.
"Listen to me, people," he said ferociously. "You know and I know. I ain't comin' out. Go get my daughter, man! She's still alive, and so is my wife. Go save them!"
Tifa looked at Cloud.
The man thudded his head against the ground, a sob escaping him.
"Thank you lady, save my girl. She ain't done nothing to deserve this. She's only five."
Barret stopped his digging. He thought of Marlene...
"C'mon, Cloud. Let's hurry our @#&^$ up. We ain't leavin' without that little girl, and we have to be leavin' soon."
Cloud looked at the man with sympathy as he took his hands from the rubble. The man was wheezing, and blood came to his mouth.
"I'm sorry we couldn't do anything for you," Cloud said quietly.
"You're doing everything for me, kid," the man answered hoarsely. He offered a smile, but found it painful. "You're a good man."
Cloud let the words pierce his heart. They echoed through his body, striking nerve after nerve. He stood up with a chill, not knowing what to say to a man that was no doubt going to die, especially after he had called Cloud "a good man." How was he a good man when he couldn't even save him?
With those thoughts in mind, Cloud took off running down the alleyway again, back toward the road.
Suddenly, the plate shifted again, this time they felt it move violently beneath their feet along with the thundering sound they had heard last time. Cloud lost his footing on the broken road, and stumbled to the ground. Behind him, he heard the rubble they had dug in collapse. He heard the final twisted moan of the unfortunate father, muffled by the fallen debris.
"He said this house," Vincent said, pointing at a large brick building.
Tifa nodded, and ran to the door. The door had been manipulated under the change of weight position after most of the house had found itself laying in pieces on the street. She couldn't get the door to open.
"Not now," she growled to herself.
She stepped back quickly, and kicked with heart and soul at the bent door. It didn't budge.
"Get back, Tifa."
She found herself jumping out of the way as Barret sprayed the door with a score of bullets.
"Now kick it," he said, lowering his gun arm.
She obliged by sending an even more powerful kick into the carved down door. The thing flew off it's hinges and went skidding across the floor of the house. She went in recklessly, not testing to see if the floor boards were safe. She glanced left, then right. To the left, she saw nothing. To the right, she saw a ruined kitchen, the ceiling on the floor. She hurried up the creaking steps, as she heard Barret enter the house behind her.
She rushed down a hallway, when she found herself at a stand still.
The little girl. It has to be, Tifa thought. It came from the left. She turned back down the hallway, facing the door she thought she had heard the voice from behind. She opened it prudently, with due precautions.
The door gave way to a bedroom. Inside was the little girl. She laid on her bed peacefully, the only room in the house that hadn't been touched by ruin. When the little girl saw Tifa instead of her mother, her eyes grew big with fear. She cowered to the opposite side of the bed, scared. Her eyes glinted water, and she started to cry for her mother quietly.
"Shhh," Tifa comforted. "It's okay. I'm here to help you."
The little girl didn't buy it. She continued her fearful wailing as Tifa neared. Tifa lowered her hand to the little girl. The little girl didn't take it, just remained staring into Tifa's eyes.
"Please, sweetheart," Tifa said worriedly. "We have to hurry."
"I haff to find my mummy," the little girl said with toddler language. "She say she be right back."
Tifa withheld her sadness for the little girl. She knew deep down that the girls "mummy" had gone to look for her husband, and had probably met the same fate that he had.
"Mummy said you have to go," Tifa lied, for the little girl's benefit. "What's your name?"
Tifa assumed she meant Olivia, but couldn't pronounce the "L".
"Olivia, we have to go," Tifa said carefully, choosing her words. "I want to take you some place better than this."
"I wanna find my mummy."
The little tot was breaking Tifa's already bruised heart with every word.
"I'll tell you what, Olivia. If you come along now, I'll look for your mummy."
Olivia's eyes brightened significantly, and she broke a smile.
"Yes, I will."
"Tank you, nice lady."
Tifa offered a fake smile for the happy little girl, who knew nothing about what was happening. Olivia picked up a worn out rag doll.
"C'mon, Missy," she said to the doll. "Dis nice ol' lady gonna find our mummy."
Tifa wanted to cry, but she wouldn't. She picked Olivia up and carried her out of the room and down the hallway. She saw Barret and Cloud looking up the staircase at them both when she started down the steep stairs.
She handed Olivia to Barret, despite the girls wails of being afraid of the big man. Tifa whispered in Cloud's ear, telling him she was going to find the girls mother. Cloud mouthed to her that he would go along. She nodded, and they started up the staircase, quick as they could. They entered the dim hallway, and both saw it fit to check to room the end of it. Cloud opened the door hesitantly.
The room looked to have been a bedroom. Tifa stood in the doorway, and looked up. She saw the sky. This entire room had collapsed, leaving but a section of a corner, where a night stand stood with an unlit lamp. The two looked down, finding the alley way where they had first met the man. There stood another pile of broken house and floor boards, one that they couldn't have seen behind the other man's pile. On top of the wreckage was the disfigured form of a woman, one leg under the weight of the crash, the other hanging out. Her head rested in a pool of dripping blood, obviously from a head wound. This was Olivia's mother.
Tifa threw her hand to her mouth and shut her eyes. Cloud spun her around and took her hand.
"Come on, Tifa. We have to get out of here."
She sniffed back a snob, opening her eyes to follow him...
The house tilted with a sickening crash of displacement. An inconceivable moan from the plate cut through the air. Everything started to shake and rumble, like an earthquake. Pictures fell from the walls with smashes. Crashes echoed from the kitchen as pots and pans tumbled over the junk pile it had already been made. The moan from the plate turned into a high pitched screech.
"Cloud! Get out of there." Barret screamed roughly from down the stairs. "Hurry, man!"
At that point, the whole world started to tilt. The plate was giving way. Cloud pushed Tifa ahead of himself and scrambled down the hall. She ran with all her energy to the staircase. She thundered down them, but carried too much momentum. She kept running, but her feet didn't catch the stairs. Sticking out a desperate toe to stop herself, she rubbed against a stair and fell face first down the stairs.
Cloud came up just in time to see her bounce limply off the stairs, her limbs flailing around like Olivia's rag doll until she hit the floor, which caused her to swing around and hit her head on the adjacent wall with a thud. She froze, then, her body flaccid. Cloud stormed down after her, almost falling himself with the quaking under his feet. At the bottom of the staircase, he lifted her up by the bends of her legs and her back. She was out cold.
He ran out of the house and on to the street, where the roaring and tearing of the metal and parts of the plate was deafening. He looked ahead, seeing Barret and Vincent just under the airship. He took off in their wake, running for himself and Tifa. He knew he was out of time.
The quaking greatly augmented as he sprinted with Tifa in his arms. He almost couldn't feel the road beneath his feet.
He could see and feel the plate bending down, as the pillars couldn't take the pressure. Before he could even think, the run was becoming uphill.
Not much time, he thought.
The plate dropped further, this time without transition. Cloud hung in the air for a quick moment, and landed on the incredibly steep upward angle. He propelled his legs off of it, pushing himself up the cracking road, which was cracking and ripping further. Beside him, wires broke from their poles, shooting sparks all over the street. Cloud felt like he was running from death itself, the apocalypse.
The airship was so close now, but the plate continued to moan and creak louder than audible recognition. He could see Red and Yuffie at the exit door on the bottom, both yelling something, but was completely lost in the noise from the plate.
He was just feet away from the airship now, which was teetering impatiently on the downhill grade. Cloud was sure it was going to slide off.
He came within a body length or two from the docking door, feeling the unearthly shaking beneath him, he pushed Tifa out of his arms and on to the door while still in stride. He wasn't going to make it. The plate was giving for good this time.
The plate continued to warp and drop, this time at a steady pace. Cloud jumped forward, grabbing on to the docking door's top, just as the tilt of the plate became too great to run up. He pushed Tifa forward on the door with one hand, away from the edge, then replaced it on the end of the door.
Cloud yelled with every breath of exertion he could muster. One of them heard it, that or it was already planned on, because the ship lifted, leaving Cloud dangling from the door. He kicked his legs in order to get on to the door and into the ship, but to no avail. The craft was moving to rapidly. He gripped his knuckles white with tension, hanging on to an emergency strap that flapped from the end of the door, for dear life.
Below him, dust and flames licked high into the night sky, as they hissed their last sinister sighs. With the loudest snap and creak of them all, the plates released themselves from the pillars, all together. Cloud felt the suction created from the immense and sudden downward fall of the plates.
A reverberating thunderclap resounded across the air as the plates hit the underground slums, far, far below. Cloud closed his eyes and held on. He didn't want to think, didn't want to feel, he just wanted to land.
He felt his body go almost horizontally as the incredible speed of the airship launched him violently. He wrapped his arm inside the strap, fearing they would be torn from the sockets. Breath escaped him, he couldn't breathe at these speeds. His eyes watered as the immense winds dried them out in no time. He shut his eyes more firmly, as though that would help the moments pass before landing.
Down below, he could hear a few more "faint" noises of dropping metal and snapping houses, faint in comparison to the other noises, he thought. Opening his eyes narrowly, he could see the clouds and clouds of dust from the implosion, and he could also see that they were near the city limits.
Just hold on for a few more seconds, he told himself reassuringly.
And he was right. Seconds later, he felt the ship descending rapidly, as he was starting to grow light headed at his inability to breathe regularly. A few more seconds and he found himself dangerously close to the ground. The ground was almost touching his knees, fortunately for him, it was grass. As the landing gear put down, he felt himself being dragged mercilessly across the moist grass of the autumn night, knees bouncing hard. He grunted, shaking off the pain, until the ship stopped. His chest palpitated violently as he fought for breath.
He felt his ragged body being dragged aboard by Barret, and the door going up at the same time. He laid on the cold metallic floor of the ship, opening and closing his eyes with pants...
* * *
Cloud sat alone on a hillock outside Kalm, his pant bottoms wet with the dew on the grass, which covered the small rocky outcrop he rested on. He gazed at the night above him, seeing it for the first time today without the obscurity of smoke. He gazed crestfallen at the sparkling lights in the sky, which shined brighter than usual.
The grass rustled behind him quietly. He turned around to find Tifa wobbling gingerly toward him, holding an ice pack to her head with care.
"Nice night, isn't it?"
She looked at him innocently through her big brown eyes, which nicely caught the light of the moon. Cloud nodded and whispered "yes." Tifa sat beside him, removing the ice pack from her head timidly, and laid it on the ground. Together, they sat there looking to the heavens for an unknown amount of time, each captured in their own thoughts and feelings. It seemed like hours before either of them spoke, but it was as if they knew what the other was thinking. Cloud brushed a hand across his eye, rubbing away a tear.
"What was it all for?"
Cloud looked at Tifa, his face turned by emotions and changed by quiet sobs. He spoke hoarsely, bitterly.
"What did we do all this for? What did we fight for?"
Tifa looked at him, her heart full of the same pain he was experiencing. What had it all been for? What was the violence, the risk for, when all they were rewarded with was the death of millions. Cloud stood up.
"It was for nothing," he burst out emotionally. "It was all for nothing."
He didn't fight off the lament. He waved his arms around as he spoke, half for sadness, half for frustration.
"My life, your life, all of our lives... The chases, the heartbreak... Whatever. It was for nothing. We risked our lives to defeat Sephiroth and save the planet..."
Tifa looked at him, tears of her own coming on. He looked down at the grass lugubriously, kicking at it.
"We're not heroes, we didn't save anything..."
He whispered the words following a broken sob. Tifa looked at him pitifully. She treaded over to him in silence, slipping her arms around his waist and resting her head against his quivering chest. She closed her eyes, first allowing a teardrop to roll off of her cheek.
"Cloud... I know... it's tough," she said calmly, locking her hands behind his back to complete the embrace. "I know it's tough to give up so much."
"We didn't give it up," he wept. "It was taken... by... Sephiroth. Mom, Nibelhiem, Aeris... he almost took you..."
His whole body shook grimly, with immeasurable sadness and grief. He threw his arms around her back as he mourned. He needed Tifa now, he thought, more than ever. This had been, by far, the most troubling day of his life. What he had seen of Midgar, the broken family, the innocent little girl. He also realized that was but a street in a city. That same scenario had happened all over the city. He shut his eyes firmly, resting his sobs in Tifa's shining hair.
He had lost his life, his identity, his entire hometown. He had lost everything. All because of Sephiroth... And now this. Because of Sephiroth, Midgar was destroyed. An innocent city of people, lost, because of Sephiroth. Cloud couldn't begin to piece together his hatred for the man.
"...I thought that by killing him, we would achieve something," he said emotionally. "All we did was make it worse."
Tifa let him lean on her. He needed her now. She could read her childhood friend like an open book, and she knew he was placing the blame on himself, and no one else.
"It's my fault to," he continued, right into Tifa's assumptions. "If I just could have had control of myself, he never would have had the Black Materia."
Tifa cogitated on that for a moment, feeling the tears she had built back down momentarily. She rubbed his back with comfort, determined to be his rock to hold to in the middle of the ocean.
"No, Cloud," she said, soothing him. "That was my fault. I should have told you the truth before we went any farther that day in Kalm."
She could feel him shake his head in disagreement. He sniffed back another sob.
"Tifa... I couldn't have expected you to be any less confused than I was. That wasn't your fault..."
"It wasn't your fault either, Cloud. It was Hojo's, Sephiroth's, Jenova's, whoever. How could you have helped yourself? Those are the things that committed the crime against you Cloud... not you."
Cloud loosed his arms from around her and turned away, quietly, nodding his acknowledgment to her words. As he let go, Tifa grabbed his hand and intertwined her fingers with his, feeling the quivering from the weeping even through them.
"Cloud, those people in Midgar gave their lives for the cause of the Planet."
Cloud didn't buy it. Tifa sighed inwardly, knowing he was a hard nut to crack at some times.
"Cloud," she had to be harsh, she told herself. "What's the difference? If Meteor would have hit, they would have died, along with all of us. It didn't hit, and they still died. There wasn't a way around it, Cloud."
"Yes there was. If we could have stopped Sephiroth sooner, had it not been for me and my prob--"
Tifa sighed with resignation, smacking her hands hard to her side, giving emphasis to the fact that she was annoyed.
"Don't you see it? Don't you see, Cloud? You can't change anything about the past, you know that more than any one else. You can change the future, though, even if they say it's hard to do it. You can change the future."
Cloud stared hard at the ground, letting the words boom their way home. Tifa continued on her rant.
"That little girl in there, Cloud. Olivia. Marlene. You. Me. Us. Don't you see?"
Cloud looked at her, confused, with his bright blue eyes. She ignored the look, resolved to finish.
"You said you didn't save anything. We didn't save anything..." she looked at him, waiting for his reaction. "Cloud, you, we... We saved everything. We saved the future..."
Cloud wiped the remaining tears from his eyes, making a bawling baby of himself. Her voice started to penetrate him, started to work their way into him. He thought he understood.
"Those two little girls back in town. Marlene and Olivia," Tifa said finally. "That's what you saved, Cloud. You saved the Planet so those little girls would have it. So that we could have it."
Cloud nodded. Just nodded. Tifa looked at him, right in the eye with hers. He stared into the deep brown orbs, Tifa's beautiful eyes.
Cloud nodded again. He did see. He understood. He knew what Aeris had given, what Tifa had given, what they all had given. It was all for this Planet, and the life on it. There was more to it all than just getting revenge. There was more to it all than to wish he could change the past.
He picked up Tifa's freezing ice pack for her, playing with it in his hands to circulate the cold again. Walking toward her slowly, he held it to her head for her.
He put his arm around her waist and started walking back to Kalm. Tifa smiled inwardly, feeling warm inside, despite what she had seen just hours before. She placed her arm around his waist as well and her head on the inside of his shoulder. Together, they ambled back to Kalm.
They felt the same way, walking back into town, arm and arm combined. Tifa had busted Cloud out of his shell again, shedding light on everything, Cloud told himself. He thought of himself briefly, then about Olivia, the parent-less girl they had been fortunate enough to save in Midgar. Cloud thought of Marlene, of her infectious smile and tiny hug. He thought of his friends back in town, all of which were just as grief stricken as him. They had all done so much for him. They had stayed by his unsteady side through it all, never letting up on the support for his shambled form of a life. He thought of Aeris, who gave her all for the Planet. He thought of Tifa, the one that had saved him from being consumed by his life and his unknown feelings.
Walking slowly across the grassy hills, gazing at the twilight and stars, together with Tifa, Cloud thought about the future...