'I am subject to no monarch,
Defender of no realm,
My one and sole allegiance is to he who's at the helm.'
Shera's head whirled around to face the door so fast it might as well have been attached there by swivel. In practically the same motion she had launched herself across the room like a labcoated rocket, vaulted over a pile of blueprints lying on the floor, and tackled a very surprised Captain Highwind around his midsection, temporarily forgetting that she was supposed to be a Very Dignified Scientist and a shy one to boot.
"Ca-Captain ..." Was all she managed before promptly bursting into tears again, face buried as deep into the folds of his scarf as it could go. He was there, solid and firm and real in her arms, and it was all too much, had been too much for far too long. She had carried the burden and the loneliness and the worry on her own, and now that he was /back/, the relief and love hit her like a whitecap. She'd deal with the consequences of her embarassing tackle later - right now there was only this moment, suspended in time like an ant in resin.
Cid wasn't quite sure what had inspired this ouburst, or, to be honest, what the hell to do with the sobbing woman wrapped around his middle. When his brain produced no forthcoming answers to the quandry the pilot's warm heart very quickly kicked in and took over for it, deciding that the best course of action would be to tentatively wrap his arms around her, rest his chin on the top of her pretty little head, and gruffly whisper that it was going to be alright. He wasn't used to sweet nothings or any of that happy horseshit women apparently ate up with a spoon, but if that's what made Shera happy he'd take a valiant stab at doin' it in some capacity. He owed her that much for her years of unflinching servitude, of this the pilot was certain. Hands calloused by years of rough work deep inside the innards of machines and mechanical things made a clumsy attempt at stroking the eingineer's long brown hair, which baffled Cid even further by smelling of blackberries. Blackberries. How in the hell does she always get it to smell like fuckin' blackberries? ... And since when have I noticed how she flippin' smells?
They stood in the doorway like that for a very long while indeed. Oddly, neither seemed in any hurry to disentangle from the other any time soon.
Once Shera had finally remembered she was a Very Dignified Scientist and the Captain had remembered he was ... well, a /man/, the two had hastily and with much blushing pulled away from one another and made the remainder of their reunion a slightly less intimate (if not quite as satisfying) affair. The pair were now sitting at the kitchen table with steaming cups of tea, Cid just finishing up his tale of all that had come to pass since last they had been together. The news was, to put it lightly, not good.
Shera stared deep into the depths of her mug, trying to think of what to say in response to the bleak information the Captain had brought with him. Seven days. Seven fucking days to do all the things she had wanted to do but never attempted, figuring she'd have an entire lifetime to get to them. She had known things were bad - that they didn't have much time - but one week/? It was like everyone on the Planet had woken up one morning with terminal cancer. It was absolutely fucking ridiculous; she could've laughed. /Seven days. Bahamut WEPT.
She kept the sadness and the rage hidden behind the passive mask of her face. The assistant engineer had gotten pretty good at cloaking her emotions behind a meek exterior in the years spent living with the Captain, but before the second rocket launch it had been more out of a desire to keep the peace of their little house more than anything else. All Shera had wanted to do in those days was blend into the wallpaper, atoning for the trouble she had caused as best she could while simultaneously staying out of her chief's way. Now that things between them were more settled she didn't really care about the blending-in bit anymore, but making the Captain fret over her ... No. He had far too much to worry about already without having to carry the burden for both of them.
The grim expression he wore scared her more than the tale he had related. They had been through some rough times before, incredibly rough times, but through it all the Captain had always held onto a spark of hope that things were going to turn out alright in the end. Even when Shinra had shut down the Space Programme and he had spent most of his time getting shit-faced at the bar down the road, there had still remained the elusive hope that someday a renewed interest in outer space exploration would make their dream a working reality. But /this/, this threatened not only their dreams, but everything.
"Well, Captain ... I have faith in your abilities," she finally said quietly, letting her tea spoon fall back against the rim of the cup with a tiny chink/. "We're not licked yet. And there's still seven days, a /lot can happen in seven days. What do you plan on doing between returning and now?"
Cid himself wasn't so sure of this, but the old rocket-jockey was good at putting on a game face too when it was required. He casually kindled the tip of a cigarette with his heavy silver lighter, an old gift given to him a donkey's age ago by the crew of the Shinra 26. Stray, the indecipherable and enigmatic cat of luck, was scrimshawed into the mithril, but he couldn't look at the god-damned thing anymore without seeing not Stray but Cait Sith leering back at him from the polished surface. Fuckin' cat and his smart fuckin' mouth ...
"Prob'ly have to go back one way or the other in about three days time, as it ain't gonna be a fuckin' leisure hike getting down into the shit-end of that crater. Gonna take some time and effort." He blew smoke out of his nostrils, doing his level best to appear casual and unconcerned about this petty little decision he was riding the horns of. "Need to stock up on goods and stuff like that, maybe have a little break before I go. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow your ass is dead and rottin' at the bottom of the North Crater, as they say."
Shera visibly winced at the final sentence; Cid mentally beat merry hell out of himself for being so fucking thoughtless when picking his words. /If you ain't been gone so long that you've forgotten, she cares about you, you old asshole. Think before you use that god-damned tongue of yours next time, stupid son-of-a-bitch/. "And, y' know, you might need a hand around the house or somethin', as well as you seem to be doing on your own. Maybe I could do some housework for you, mop the floors, shit like that?"
The idea of Captain Cid Highwind using a mop for anything other than possibly kicking the ass of a weak-level monster quite nearly made Shera lose her composure and start giggling uncontrollably, but she understood the sentiment behind the casual offer and appreciated it more than words could have said. Managing to keep the outward signs of her mirthful fit to a small, appreciative smile, Shera replied with a prim "If you'd like, Captain," and rose to her feet, intending to clear the table and start cooking something substantial for lunch. "Would you like some dinner, Captain? We've got fresh Chocobo eggs, and there's a ham in the fridge, if you'd prefer ..." She turned to face the table where the Captain had been reclining, only to come face-to-face with the Captain himself, looking rather sheepish and more than a little unsure of himself.
"Erm ... Can I help with anything? Like, right now?"
And thus began one of the most delightfully unusual weeks of Shera Stargazer's life.
In every task and every chore she attempted over the next three days, Shera was tailed faithfully by the Captain, trying his damndest to help her out. On the first night he made a rudimentary attempt at cooking dinner for the both of them, but it ended in disaster and smoke and three buckets of water from the pump out back splashed all over the floor of the kitchen. When Cid tried to mop the puddles up he only succeeded in somehow making the mess worse, and before long there was a mop-handle jammed neatly through a brand-new splintery hole in the exterior wall of the house.
For the remainder of his stay, food preparation was left in Shera's capable hands.
On the second day he offered to help with the painting of the new pickets she had hammered in place and promptly forgotten to whitewash, and in this endeavour the Captain was much more of an asset. The two spent the entire afternoon slopping Fleecy Cloud #32 onto the naked stakes, and it was surprising to both how cathartic the simple activity turned out to be. The phrase 'mending fences' wasn't such a hoary old chestnut after all, it seemed.
The way each painted their swathe of fence seemed to say a lot about the respective personality dynamics at work, although if anyone had told Cid this they would have gotten a reply involving the excrement of an uncastrated male bovine, an anatomically impossible sexual act, or possibly both used in conjunction with one another. Shera painted slowly, methodically, and never missed a spot; the moon might get tired of waiting on her ass, but once she finished the moon would have a hard time finding fault with her handiwork. Cid/, on the other hand, worked fast and burned through the paint at an incredible rate. Of course, most of the whitewash was either located on the lawn, Cid's work-shirt, or in one memorable occasion Shera (the remaining neighbors must have thought both of them had lost their marbles when they peeked through their curtains to see what all the shouting was about and viewed Captain Highwind pursuing his assistant across the lawn with a bucket of paint), but some of it /did eventually get slopped onto his side of the fence.
Sometimes their hands would touch when passing each other buckets or brushes or various other implements, and if someone had been watching they would have thought the skin of this couple was electrified or otherwise hostile, the way they jolted and jerked quickly away from one another. If Yuffie or Barret had been the ones spying on the two, they probably would have had some very amusing things to say about the way Cid's face flushed bright pink every single time this happened, and a lucky break for Cid it was that they were not on-hand.
The night before Cid was due back, Shera (for obvious reasons) could get not a wink of sleep. She tossed and turned and turned and tossed and practically tied herself in knots trying to find slumber, all to no avail. The harder she tried to sleep, the slower the clock next to the bed seemed to go, until finally in disgust she sat bolt upright in bed, snatched her glasses off the dresser, and after fumbling for her dressing-gown in the half-dark slipped outside to the /Tiny Bronco/. She had paid some salvagers to haul it up from the nearby beach when it washed ashore following the first appearance of Meteor, and from that point on the wing of the little biplane had been the machinist's favourite haunt when fear and insomnia loomed in the darkness of the house, becoming too much to bear. She eased the back-door shut carefully, not wanting to disturb the Captain from what might be his last peaceful night of uninterrupted rest.
But when she reached the wing, the poor woman got quite a shock. Someone else had already stolen her place - a familiar figure leaning back in the moonlight, shadowy and indistinct under the pale-gleaming stars.
He motioned for her to climb up, never taking his eyes off the horizon. She clambered onto the wing and perched beside him, getting a good view of what he was staring so intently at. Neither said a word, but Shera couldn't help but let out a little sigh of happiness when she saw the tableau stretched out before them.
The night was as clear as a bell and breathlessly quiet, an almost full moon touching everything with silver and frost. From their spot on the wing you could see all the way across the plains to the distant Nibel Range, jagged peaks silhouetted against the navy sky. The grass of the prairie billowed and tossed in a light night breeze and resembled nothing so much as the vast ocean, right down to the rippling waves that occasionally crossed the field's surface. It was wild, and beautiful, and Shera felt privleged to be even a small part of it. She also knew that the Captain must feel the same way, and felt even closer to him because of this.
Meteor was blessedly not in their immediate viewing area, but Shera could sense it somewhere behind them, lurking in the heavens like a sleepless red eye. Fear began to creep into the pit of her stomach again, troubling and unsettling in the midst of all this beauty. Her forehead creased in dismay; so preoccupied was she by her worries the bespectacled scientist never noticed when Cid turned his eyes from the sky and began to stare at her instead.
Now, Cid Highwind was no master of the human experience, but he'd lived with this woman for long enough that he could pick up on her moods quicker than pretty much anyone when he felt like it. There was naked fear written all over her face, emotions unguarded for the time being, and it was like a spear in his heart to see her so troubled and afraid. But what the hell could he do to make that look go away? Words would merely make things awkward; there were things he needed to tell her, but now was neither the time nor the place. What the hell could he of all people, the one who had probably wounded her most, do?
He thought all these things in the space of a few minutes, and came to a split-second decision. He did the only thing he could think to do - he reached out and grabbed Shera's hand, gently but firmly, and held it.
She turned to look at him in surprise, but he had moved his gaze back to the stars and did not (or could not) meet her eyes. The only adknowledgement he gave her was a quick squeeze of the hand, but it was all the engineer needed. The panic rolled away from her, replaced by a fierce love for this man and the night that surrounded them, and she moved closer, resting her head on the Captain's shoulder.
Cid found himself thinking that she was very beautiful, but there was no fucking way he was going to admit that to anyone, least of all himself.
Time stopped for no-one on the Planet in those final days, and least of all for insignificant little Shera. The next day dawned crisp and clear as the Captain prepared to leave for the North Crater later in the evening, lugging various crates, boxes, and other luggage out to where the Highwind hovered waiting in the backyard. He paid little attention to the woman that hovered watching his progress from dark corners of the house, offering help only to be shooed away time and time again. Shera began to sadly wonder if the previous night's closeness had been a dream or a phantasm, melting with the light of day.
The sad truth of the matter was Cid had no earthy idea of how to say goodbye and was coping with it as best he could. How do you say goodbye to someone you care about when you very well may be killed in the morning and never come back? More importantly, how do you go about doing this when the other person very well may be in love with you and vice-versa? Cid decided he wasn't fucking made to handle this shit and devoted all his time to packing, trying not to think about it at all.
Eventually everything was packed and stashed safely on-board the Highwind/, and there was nothing else to be done and no more delays to be made. An awkward silence fell between the two as Cid pulled his flying jacket and scarf on in the living room, the last preparations before he stepped out the door into oblivion and the unseeable future. The sun was already quite low in the sky, he had to get a move-on if he wanted to make it back before dark, but ... What to say to Shera? She stood by quietly as she had the whole day, watching every move he made as if she were memorizing them for a time in the future when she wouldn't get the opportunity to see him make them anymore. The look on her face was painful to behold. /God-dammit, what do I DO? What the hell do I say?
As usual, his heart made the right decision for him when his brain failed to come up with the goods. Just say what you FEEL Highwind, you miserable fuck! it screamed, and Cid could do nothing before its fierceness but comply.
"Y'know something ... Cloud is an arse, a lunatic, and a fuckin' crossdresser to boot, but he said somethin' that hit me pretty fair square in the chest, if y'understand what I'm saying." He fidgeted for a moment with his old leather gloves, making sure and doubly-sure they were strapped securely onto his hands before he managed to continue. "He said we should all go back and figure out what the hell we were fighting for."
The aviator suddenly raised his eyes from their careful study of the floor and pinned Shera's own in an intense gaze, his vivid blue against her hazel. There was tenderness in that look, and something else, something that made the woman's heart take several undignified leaps into the upper regions of her esophagus before she managed to choke it back down to where it belonged. Time seemed to slow down and elongate as the two stared at each other from across the tiny living room, neither daring to even breathe too heavily lest the spell be broken.
Finally the Captain spoke again, voice husky with emotions he was not quite ready to fully explain. There would be time enough, he thought, time enough to tell her everything when he returned. A persistent little voice inside his head hissed and what if you don't return? but he pushed it away, willing those thoughts to be silent for the time being.
"And now? Now I know what the fuck I'm fightin' for. And I'll be god-damned if I let it be taken away so fuckin' soon after I've found it."
With this pronouncement he turned to flee out the door. Before the pilot could even get the handle turned halfway he felt himself suddenly and rapidly tackled from behind for the second time in a week, a pair of surprisingly strong arms clamped tightly around his middle.
She did not cry this time, or sob, or beg for him to stay, because they both knew this had to be done. She merely held him very, very tight, possibly for the last time. "Take care of yourself, Captain," she whispered, voice muffled slightly by the bulk of his jacket. "Come back to me safe, alright?"
And this time it was not Shera's voice that wavered, but Cid's, as he replied. "... Y-you can bet your fuckin' life on it, woman."
They embraced for some time before finally and reluctantly breaking apart. Shera accompanied the Captain outdoors to where the Highwind was docked, hovering over the back yard like some enormous and ungainly bird of prey. The missing rocket had left a gaping, empty hole at the centre of their community, but the Highwind had filled the lonely space like it was built for that sole purpose. Now the ship was leaving again with the Captain in-tow, and whether anything would ever be the same once the two returned - if they ever returned - none could say. The blonde dragoon began to climb aboard, but paused when he reached the topmost rung of the side-mount, turning to face the ground once more.
She lifted her gaze to meet his, puzzled and a bit surprised. He had so rarely called her by her given name in the past it was almost a shock to hear the word leave his mouth, even with the vast improvements made in their relationship. /Dumbass/, maybe. /Shithead/? Occasionally. But /Shera/? ...
"Y--y'wanna go to Midgar and catch a play after all this shit is over? I know of a good one, when I come back mebbe we can fly over there, if you'd like ..."
Shera arched one delicate eyebrow at this, a bemused expression on her face. "Captain Highwind, are you asking me out on a /date/?"
He grinned lopsidedly back at her from his perch on top of the ladder, white scarf merrily flapping in the evening breeze. He looked every inch a dashing, devil-may-care flyboy, and for the second time that afternoon the rocket engineer felt her heart doing a rather complicated and quite amazing set of calisthenics.
"Miss Stargazer, that is exactly what I am doing."
With a final gallant wave of his hand to her the pilot swung over the railings of the airship and disappeared within its bowels. The engines roared to life suddenly and buffeted the little village with strong gusts of wind, dust and fall leaves and other assorted detritus whirlwinding high into the sky as loose shutters flapped and the airship began to lift away from the ground. The sign of the Shanghai-Tei tore away from its moorings and went tumbling through the air, narrowly missing Shera's head in the process. When Cid Highwind came or went, everybody knew about it.
The setting sun caught the battered ship in its rays and gilded her with copper and gold as she rose, the glass of the windows by some alchemy changed to coral-tinged crystal that glinted and twinkled in the last dying light of day. Lady Luck, not used to such finery, blushed a rosy tint from the top of her scantily-clad head down to the tips of her underdressed toes. The few people that remained in Rocket Town opened their doors and came out to watch the zeppelin depart, waving and cheering their Captain on in his mission to, as one excitable old man yelled, "tie that bastard Sephiroth's cojones around 'is neck and garotte him with his own goods."
Shera watched the ship as it sailed into the darkness of the east, standing in her back garden until the flying machine was well out-of-sight and there was nothing more to look after. A full moon was rising to do battle with Meteor for domination of the night sky when she finally turned back towards her darkened house, dreading having to re-enter the empty shell more than she did the impending cataclysm due in a mere four days time. She had only walked halfway to the back stoop before a sudden resurfacing thought stopped the scientist dead in her tracks.
Wait ... Did Captain Highwind just ask me on a date?