The Diamond and the Rough
And now, I try Cid.
You should all know that any Cid Highwind story is curse-word-friendly, and I have obliged. Those of you with virgin ears: turn back, I say, turn back!
Intended as a gift for Cendri for spamming fanfictionpoint. However, now also intended for her wedding. Congrats. May your CidxSquall marriage last forever!
Damnit, woman, you're not supposed to leave.
Cid sat in his old ratty chair with a lukewarm cup of tea and looked down for the seven hundred and twenty-fourth time at the little box in his hands.
A little velvet box, looking awkward and misplaced in his old mechanic's hands, dry and scarred and stained from years of oil and blood. Both of his middle fingers were slightly crooked as well, although that never stopped him from using both appropriately, at times together. His fingerprints were all but eaten away by acids and cleaning agents, and part of his left pinky had mysteriously gone missing. The little velvet box was just - just too goddam little and velvety for him. No grace in Cid Highwind's hands.
He knew if he opened the box it would look back at him; mock him, even. One tiny (well, okay, moderately-sized) twinkling glimmering clear promise. Diamond, bound in tempered gold. Diamond mined from their own mountains. He had thought she'd like that.
His mountains, now.
It would have been perfect. Completely unexpected. She would come in with his tea and ask in that tiny voice how had the day gone in the shop and he would have grunted and then turned to her and handed over the box.
And she would have gasped, and then looked at him, and even though there would have been tears in her eyes she would have given him that smile, the one she saved for only very rare and special occasions.
And she would have said yes, he thought.
But then he came in and she was gone and so were her suitcases and all her clothes.
He tried to think of all the places she could have gone in the meantime, those moments where he allowed himself to forget, the moments between one cigarette breath and the next. She might have gone to Tifa: the two women were close, goddamnit, and always conspiring behind his back. She might have gone to her ma, housebound in Mideel. She might have gone to Costa del Sol for a recreational vacation.
But in the end, as he exhaled, and all the thoughts came out like the smoke he breathed, Cid knew it didn't matter: she was gone.
And she sure was gone for good. That afternoon he found that she had taken her teapot, the good one, the stainless steel one with the ugly pink flowers all around the broken handle. He'd had to struggle to make his own goddam tea in an old thing he eventually found in the cupboard above the fridge. It was covered in cobwebs and actually slightly moldy and how the hells had Shera put it up there anyway if she was so goddam short?
He'd washed it and boiled it sterile and at that point he didn't feel like tea anymore because the stupid blue kettle looked so stupid on his goddam stove.
"So where were you today?"
Shera seems to simply emanate smallness. She's a collection of shy, timid, brains, wits, genius all in one: and yet none of these. The whole is somehow smaller than the sum of its parts. She is simply tiny.
"Doing what?" She is always asking questions, too. Cid likes this some days and hates it others. She asks questions about everything, some inane womanly desire to know every fact of his entire life. It's not that Cid resents it; he just doesn't see how every minute of his day becomes so goddam important. It's irritating to have to explain every single part of things that don't even matter.
"Doing things, Shera, for gods'-sake."
Cid doesn't understand how the woman does it but she has some manner that shrinks her down to the size of a goddam mouse and makes him feel like the most horrible Sephiroth the world has ever faced.
He looks over to smile at her, but halfway he remembers the little velvet box tucked safely in the booze compartment of the Tiny Bronco (somewhere she would never look; she doesn't even know that the Tiny Bronco has a booze compartment, silly woman, it would never occur to her) and thinks: I can't be too nice, I'll give it away.
So he drinks his tea, and scowls.
Finally, that evening, after a horribly tea-less day, Cid broke down and called Tifa.
The PHS rang tinny in his ear and he looked down at the slim little phone in his technician's hands and almost hung up. What the hell was he doing, thinking he deserved someone as soft and small and big-eyed and timid as little Shera Storey, he should just take this stupid velvet box and shove it up his -
Tifa's crackly voice was thick with either exhaustion or distraction, and Cid's thoughts were so interrupted that it took him a moment to gather himself together.
"Cid? Caller ID says it's you ... you there?"
He coughed his throat clear and said, gruffly, "Yeah, short stuff, quit yer bitchin'."
Tifa's short laugh crackled over the PHS line. "Highwind, only you would call somebody up with nothing to say."
This brought Cid's mind crashing back into the little velvet box: and it froze.
"Cid?" Her voice was concerned now, the fuzzy static of emotion pouring out into his ear. "Hey, Cid, is something wrong?" She laughed again, the kind of laugh someone laughs when they're trying to amuse the person they're talking to. "I haven't heard you go this long without swearing since I've known you."
"Fuck you," he said, with begrudging amusement in his growl.
"That's better," said Tifa cheerfully. "What can I do for you, chimney stack?"
Cid gathered up a bit of his courage. "Look, short stuff, you can't - look, you can't mention this to anyone, okay?"
"Sure thing," she said, still crackling with cheer. "What's up, smokey?"
Cid sighed, a rush of static over the line, and clutched velvet in a fist as he said, "You haven't, eh, seen Shera anywhere, have ya?"
It took Tifa just one moment too long to recover, one tiny moment which expressed all of her surprise and shock and shame, shame on you, Highwind, and then she said, struggling to remain kind, damn her, "No, I haven't seen her. Has she - um, gone missing?"
"She done up and left," Cid said, and goddam did it hurt to say those words, as if saying them made them any more real: more real than the empty guest room and the empty house and the goddam blue kettle on the stove. "I was just wondering if she'd gone to your place or somethin'."
He could almost feel Tifa shaking her head on the other line. "She's not here, Cid. Would you like me to call around - see if she's with anyone else?"
He snorted. "Who else would she go see?"
"A noble point," Tifa said, with empathy in her voice, real goddam empathy, pouring out through the little speakers in the little phone (why in the seven hells didn't they make these things bigger, for fuck's sake, he could have crushed the thing in his rough mechanic's hands, and don't even mention how freaking moronic Barret looked trying to open his PHS with a gun-arm and one hand the size of Mount Nibel, what a tool) and into his ear until his brains hurt.
"Goddammit, short stuff, no pity shit, please," he growled, angry at the world, angry at himself. "It's my own damn fault, you know that, so shut the fuck up." And then, realizing how mean he sounded and how much of a goddam vulgarian he had become in his old age, he said, "and thank you."
Tifa laughed, and this was genuine: only a Cid apology could contain an insulting nickname and the word 'fuck' and not include the word 'sorry' and still count as an apology. "Cid, is there anything I can do?"
"Nah, don't worry about it," he said. "I - uh, she'll come around, or she won't, and uh, whatever, fuck it all, Tifa, I'll be alright."
Tifa laughed, again. "I meant more in the sense of can I cook you something, smokey," she said, and Cid begrudgingly had to smile.
The voice brings him back. He's on the roof, his arms pinned around himself to keep warm - when had it gotten so goddam cold? He'd been watching the skies and daydreaming of nothing and smoking.
But Shera's voice, it always brings him back. No matter how small it is, he always hears it.
She's carrying a sweater for him, the one he always wears out to the roof; it's actually stained with tobacco smoke. She's bundled up herself and he makes some room for her on the little outlet on the top of the warehouse. There's a storm coming and it's not going to reach them but he can still see it, still sense it, far away over the mountains.
Cid thinks, I should do it now, and his hand dives into his pocket. He throws a glance to Shera, and she's laughing.
"What are you laughing at, woman?"
"You're such a silly old arse," she replies, giggling. "With your lungs, the last thing you should be doing is sitting out here in the cold air smoking."
"It's the best thing for me," Cid grunts. And it is. Sitting on the roof with a cigarette (and her) makes him feel like king of the goddam world.
"Maybe, if you're a silly old arse." She's still giggling slightly.
He likes this Shera too. It's like a secret Shera, one that comes out only at night, and usually on the roof. It's a silly Shera, one who swears occasionally and can giggle without feeling self-conscious and sometimes actually pokes fun at him. Inside the house, they're stiff with formality, a game they've played for years.
On the roof, they're free.
She's still laughing, so Cid takes his hand out of his pocket, empty. He should give it to her now, but he doesn't want to spoil the moment. Her laughter is more precious than even diamonds.
It was funny, how all those little things built up. Years of living with Shera in the house had gathered like dust in the corners, lint under the bed, the old nuts and bolts and the occasional pipe wrench which had formed a colony under the couch. Her presence was still there, in the shadows in the hallway, in the patterns of the wallpaper she'd picked and the whorl of the couch she'd gotten from her mother's house when the old lady had moved into the comfort of assisted living.
The house was emptier with these images of her there, Cid realized. Empty like a box which had held something precious. Empty like a treasure chest after Yuffie the Hyper Ninja Fucking Kleptomaniac had spotted it, only worse. Nothing had stolen Shera Storey: she'd left.
Cid had always loved storms. Everyone thought it was pretty counterintuitive for a pilot to love storms, but he found it fitting. It was a prime example of the power of the skies, the fierce potential of every cloud. It was why he flew. The winds were in his name and in his nature. Storms were what kept him grounded, literally: they were a measure of his own weakness.
He would never fly in a storm. He wasn't one of those brave-stupid arrogant look how big my dick is fuckers who thought it was a sign of manliness to do really stupid things and hope they'd live and get laid. He'd built his planes up from nuts and bolts and they were his goddam children and he'd be an asshole if he took them up towards the thunder with nothing more than pride to protect him. The only time he'd ever think about flying in a storm was if it was a matter of life or death for someone. Fortunately he had avoided those situations most of his life.
What he did do was go out back, on the top of the warehouse, and watch the storms come in. All rolling clouds and thunder lower than Red's fiercest growl and sometimes flashes of lightning against the spiky Nibelheim mountains. At times he got caught up in the grey and the dark and the noise and it wasn't until Shera loomed over him on the roof, carrying blankets and that stupid ugly lacy umbrella her sister had sent her for a birthday, that he would realize he was utterly soaked, freezing, and probably sick.
A storm was brewing. He could tell. Years of observing and watching and living had buried the knowledge, apparently somewhere in his left knee. Come on, goddammit, he was part sky anyway, he'd always know when the storms were coming. It was like knowing what time of day it was, or his name, or how close his spear was if he needed it.
But this one he didn't want. For the first time in his entire goddam life he wasn't busting with energy and excitement. It was more like pain, the dull ache in his knee, although it felt like it was more somewhere around his heart. He made his own cup of tea in the stupid blue teapot (for some reason all of his tea suddenly tasted like the processed shit Cloud had always gotten on their journey, and he didn't know why; it wasn't like he had never made his own tea in his entire goddam life. Maybe it was the teapot) and headed out to the front porch to sit on the rocker and at least acknowledge the storm, if not worship it.
It was pouring pretty heartily when he suddenly noticed a lone figure walking up the path in the rain. He immediately recognized it; his heart gave a strange little thud while his eyes kept trying to focus on it as if he didn't know. As if.
She was carrying that stupid sonofabitch umbrella from her sister with the lace around the edge. It was some unfortunate color inbetween coral and beige that looked as if it had seen much better days three reincarnation points backwards in its life. She wasn't carrying any suitcases. He knew she'd seen him; he also knew she knew that he'd seen her. He wasn't sure whether it was a good or bad sign that she continued to walk up the road. He wanted to hope it was good. Fuck, he didn't know anymore.
Neither reacted; he sat on the porch, continuing to rock, and she continued to walk at that slow steady pace. She stopped when she was close enough to speak; through the rain, he could barely see her face, but he didn't have to see it. He couldn't see her eyes, only hollowed shadows through sheets of raindrops.
"You're supposed to be on the roof." She spoke first, still standing in the rain, though the porch was large enough to hold all of AVALANCHE (though not comfortably). He wanted to invite her up. He wanted to yell at her. He wanted to grab the velvet box and shove it in her face. He didn't know what he wanted.
"Didn't feel like it." He couldn't think of anything else to say. Well, he could think of too many things to say; but in typical Highwind fashion, none were tactical, and all contained the word fuck. At least twice.
"That's not like you." Was she deliberately saying things that spawned too many angry answers? Shera was no instigator, or she hadn't been. But if she was trying to get a rise out of him, it sure was goddam working.
"Not really." Maybe if he said the fewest words possible, it would give his brain more time to think. The brain didn't seem to be catching up with him though. Goddam.
She fidgeted in the rain, looking slightly uncomfortable. "I ...uh, I forgot something."
She'd said it in that tiny voice, the small soft one you could barely hear, the one she used when she knew she'd done something wrong and was afraid Cid would scold her like a goddam puppy, and for some reason it brought Cid's voice (and sense of sarcastic bitterness) back to him and he suddenly and fiercely felt betrayal like a Fira spell out of nowhere, and it made him angry.
"What, and you thought you'd sneak in while I was out on the goddam roof?"
She sighed, a pretty little sigh in the rain, her shoulders sloping downward resignedly; expectantly, even, and Cid realized that yes, that had been her thought, and she'd been thinking about it since she'd recognized his figure on what used to be their porch.
"Yes, Captain, I didn't want to bother you, and I - I'll go," she said softly, turning, and he thought: How can she be so goddam apologetic and soft and small like she's in trouble when it's her that done packed up her bags and god damn left?
Cid was standing up and in the rain before he even knew what was going on - soaked to the bone immediately, holy fuck is that cold, but it didn't matter because his misery felt like anger and it was red-hot and he was surprised in retrospect that there hadn't been thick clouds of steam pouring off of his body. He'd grabbed her arm and turned her around before even thinking about it, and thus laid his eyes on Shera Storey's face for the first time in over a week.
His brain caught up with him at about that point. She looked up at him, startled by the firm grip on her upper arm, and he saw in her eyes the instinctual reaction: Oh, Captain, we'd better get you inside and out of this rain!; and he saw her quench it, he visibly saw her blink and put it out like a candle. She was just staring up, her eyes a question and damnation all in one, under that bloody ugly pink umbrella. He didn't even notice the rain.
"Like hell you'll go," he said, and instead of the usual growl that accompanied threats like these, his voice came out unusually kind, and worried; he saw her blink, in surprise.
She stood there, just looking at him, and he felt impatience flare up again (Cid was a stranger to patience. He could barely spell the word and had no use for the concept) and he lightly shook her by the arm and said, "Shera, what the bloody fuck is going on?"
She tore her eyes away and looked down at the ground, bowing her head, again like it was she in trouble. "I'm sorry," she said softly, and with the pounding noise around him and the pounding in his head Cid could barely hear her.
"You're gonna have ta speak up, girl," he said.
She shook her head and reached up, adjusting her glasses, which for Shera was a movement like straightening her spine, or squaring her shoulders. "You - you've never asked me to speak up before," she said in that little strong voice, and Cid slowly realized that she was not referring to a volume issue.
"I've always been able to hear ya before, Storey," he replied cautiously, taking a step closer, his hand still resting on her upper arm. "But now, I don't know what the fuck's goin' on."
She looked away again, and Cid summoned up what he hoped was a gentle voice and asked: "So why'd you go?"
She looked back at him, her shoulders sagging again, body limp except for her upturned face in the pink umbrella's rainshadow. "It was my birthday, Cid," she whispered in a tearful voice that was too close to a whimper. "It was my birthday and I realized that I'd spent something like fifteen years of my life living with a man who couldn't remember my birthday."
Ah fuck, Cid thought. It had been her birthday. Gods-bloody-fuckitall.
But he did remember her birthday, he had remembered her birthday before. He'd bought her tea, and taken her out for dinner, and one year bought her an actual dress (she'd picked, he'd paid). This year ... his mind had been on other things, things that sparkled and were kept in velvet. He'd been distracted by the need to keep his secret.
And goddamnitall, he just knew that it would have to be something so freaking - womanly.
She took a deep, shuddering breath. "And I knew that if I didn't do something, I'd spend another fifteen years in the same house, and in the end there'd be nobody on the Planet that remembered my birthday."
Your birthday, Cid wanted to say. Here I am with a goddam engagement ring and you're upset about your birthday?
He wouldn't say he was sorry. Neither of them would.
Instead he let a long pause drift between them, a pause in which he felt the rain pounding on him, but strangely the cold of the storm felt like strength, the weight of his wet clothes against his skin a force for good instead of goddam frigidness. He looked at Shera, whose eyes kept flicking back and forth between his and the rain and the ugly torn lace on the end of the umbrella (oh, gods, if she did come back the first thing he was doing was burning that ugly piece of shit, he'd buy her a dozen new ones) and thought.
He thought, this is it. You're saying you want to be with her for the rest of your life. Rest of your goddam life. You have to remember her birthday, and an anniversary, and all that womanly shit, and if there are little kids you have to remember their goddam birthdays too. You understand that? You want that?
And the storm, pounding on his back and in his heart and in his sonofabitch knee, said: Yes.
The storm was at his back. The winds were in his name and in his soul, and they gave him a little nudge. "Alright," he said. "Let me show you why I forgot."
His glance said, Can you give me at least that? And Shera gave him a small nod.
He turned and stomped back to the porch. Out of the force of the rain he was suddenly shocked cold, freezing goddam Nibel rain. But he remembered, through the unquenchable little shiver climbing up his back, and he turned to hold the door open for her. She closed the umbrella and walked past, not meeting his eyes.
He led her through part of the house, and paused in the living room, at the foot of the stairs. "Have a seat," he said, and reached into his pocket.
Obediently, Shera sat. He fisted velvet for one heartbreaking second, and then pulled it out of his pocket, surprised at its lightness, as if something that had caused such trouble should weigh as much as the Tiny Bronco, or at least Strife's sword. His back was shielding his palm from Shera's view, so he opened it: just enough to let velvet peek through rough fingers. What did diamonds have to do with the rough? He couldn't remember the phrase. Fuckitall.
Carefully, he set it lightly on the table and slid it over to her.
"Take a look," he said. "I'm going upstairs to get some goddam dry clothes."
He stomped up the stairs without another word, turning his back on the whole thing because suddenly he was scared. Cid Highwind, fucking scared? Yes, and Sephiroth was coming back to dance the polka with Cait Sith.
But he was. Scared to the bone, and the chill made him even colder, and with the twin thoughts of run away and goddam I'm freezing he propelled himself upstairs. Besides, Shera had to make this decision on her own, and he wasn't sure whether his presence would help or hinder her making the choice he wanted her to make. Which was that? He was so goddam scared. And cold. Scaredcold. It was one emotion, and it sure hurt like fucking hell.
But he heard soft angry feet on the stairs behind him; he'd made it to the bedroom, but he hadn't had enough time for new warm clothes - he grabbed a blanket, anything to stop the shivering - and then she was standing there. The box was clutched in her hand, but there it looked right. Shera Storey's hands were almost as bad and rough as his own, but somehow - oh godsbloodydammitall - it was meant to be there.
"Cid," she said, looking him right in the face. "What is this?"
He gaped. "What the hell do you mean, what is it?"
She took another step towards him. "Cid, is this an engagement ring?"
No, it's something that came out of my arse. Cid sat down on the bed and buried his face in his hands. Was he actually having this fucking conversation? "Yes, that's what it is."
There was a silence so long that he remembered he was cold again. He looked back up at Shera. Her expression was, actually, unreadable.
Then a slow shallow smile started to spread across her face, a smile that somehow got him feeling all goddam warm again, even though he knew he had just lost feeling in his feet and his fingers. That smile. The one he'd goddam wanted. The one he still goddam wanted.
"Cid Highwind," she said, her voice a stern reprimand, "that was the worst proposal I've ever seen."
He just stared at her while she reached those short little fingers into the box, tugged out the ring, and slipped it on her finger.
"But it'll do," she said.
He shook his head slowly, as if he wasn't really sure what just happened. "It'll do?"
Shera nodded, and looked up at him, and he could see that she was going to get all weepy, but that she was trying to hold it back, and that she was trying to hold it back for his sake, and he appreciated it and suddenly he knew he loved this goddam woman so hard it hurt, although he didn't know why. Diamonds be damned.
"Well," he began, and she looked up expectantly. "That wasn't exactly an acceptance to write home about, Storey," he said.
Her eyes flew wide open, like they always did when he got the last word in, and they both chuckled, a chuckle that in Cid's case turned into a deep, heart-wracking cough.
He was sick for his own goddam wedding.