Considering what we'd done, we should have returned from the bottom of the Planet feeling like heroes. We should have stepped off that flying piece of junk and had the rest of the world there to greet us and thank us, with Rufus Shinra at the front, the bastard. But that's not what happened. Instead, we got off in the Cosmo area, the only place any of us really wanted to be. Everyone got off, including the pilot and the engineers, and climbed the old, weathered steps that led to the village. Lots of people were outside, staring at the sky in what could only be described as wonder, but no-one was celebrating openly. I found out later that the old geezer with the telescope had died and the place was still in mourning.
"I always wanted to see this place for myself," one of the Highwind's many deck hands murmured from next to me as we arrived, taking his hat off to survey the country better. "It's so much better than it looks in the books."
"Alright, boys," Cid yelled to them. "That's it. You're free men now; I ain't keepin' you from living yer lives. Go spend them with people you love."
As one, the men saluted the old captain, who scratched his chin nonchalantly. The pilot and a couple of others edged forward to shake his hand and thank him for the tuition that he'd - rather reluctantly, I remembered with a smirk - given him. Slowly, the men dispersed, some wandering into town and others away, some nodding or smiling at us as they passed. We were soon alone, staring up at the old observatory on top of the nearby cliff, beginning a slow trudge into the village proper as we did so, making a beeline towards the dais of rock that the Cosmo Candle burned on. We were a quiet group as we circled the flame and sat; the others were all probably caught up in their own thoughts. It was nice to be able to just think, for a change.
I stayed standing a little longer than the rest, dropping my shuriken on the ground and grabbing Cid's arm before he collapsed with the rest of them.
"What," he growled, and I tugged him away from the bonfire.
"I think we should have some kind of celebration!" I said, letting him go. "You know, like a... 'hooray, we saved the world' kind of thing."
"And what did you have in mind?" he was glaring at me. At least, the low light made it seem so. "I ain't cut out for a disco or anything."
The idea of the old man in front of me grinding to some catchy pop tune, cigarette between his lips the entire time, made me snort, and he grinned at me. Good to know he was only pretending to be angry with me.
"It's nothing like that, gramps," I laughed, dodging the casual blow he aimed at my head. "I was thinking more along the lines of a drink from the bar, but I'm too young to buy."
"You want me to buy drinks."
"And help carrying them, of course!"
He shrugged, resigning himself to being in charge - at least, for a short while - and followed me inside the bar, which was surprisingly empty. The guy behind the counter nodded to us and, on orders, pulled out eight small cups out and filled them with some kind of neat alcohol. Cid slapped the gil down and picked a couple of glasses up, leaving me to gather the rest up in my arms and walk carefully behind him.
The rest of our crew were still silent when we returned, all staring at the sky or the fire and completely lost in their own worlds. I stomped as best I could up the makeshift stair, announcing my return.
"Congratulations, guys!" I grinned, handing out glasses. "You did it! We saved the world. So here you go, some celebratory drinks. Can't save the world without a reward."
My riveting speech failed to rouse them, and I stamped again, harder now I was carrying less things. "You guys are no fun."
It was Vincent that spoke, surprising me. He normally kept to himself, and he appeared to be... telling me off? "Yuffie, you should sit down. We may have saved the world, but it was by no means an easy task. The decisions made today by everyone were probably the hardest thing they'll ever have to do, and we are simply trying to cope with them in our own way." Ah, no, this was definitely Vincent. It seemed like he couldn't go without talking about sins for more than a few hours at a time. "You're lucky to not have been affected so badly by the whole affair, but others have been." He inclined his head toward me suddenly. "Thank you for the drink, though."
Oh, that was it. I wasn't going to just stand there and take a load of shtick from a man who'd willingly locked himself away from the world for years, even if he was probably right. I might have been the youngest and most naive of our party, but I wasn't stupid. I was the White Rose of Wutai, a concept completely lost on these people - I had survived the war from Shinra, hadn't I? I'd gone with them to the center of the Planet, too, and fought more than my fair share of monsters. However childish it might sound, it wasn't fair, and I had to resist the urge to smack the quiet man in the face for his absolute, bare-faced cheek.
Instead, I drew a breath, and looked away from him to the rest of the group.
"I know you guys don't want to celebrate right now. I know you all just want to sit and think about stuff and try to get away from it all, but you can't just do that. It's not right. We just saved the world, and even though no-one else knows, you gotta act like you have."
"Kid, lookit the rest of the town," Cid said, finally sitting down. "They're in mourning. So are we. Listen to Vincent. Sit yer ass down and show some respect."
I stamped again. None of them were listening. "It's you guys who aren't showing respect! How can you say that? Sitting here moping when you should be acting so much more mature than this. It's disgraceful."
That was Tifa, who was looking at me with concern in her eyes. I stopped ranting and took a deep breath, shutting my eyes and forcing myself to calm down. Opening them again, I lifted my glass up, and everyone stared at it.
"I'm making a toast, okay? It's something we do back home. I dedicate this drink for Wutai, and the downfall of Shinra. I drink for my father's pride and the hope that I might be able to rebuild my country one day. ...And for you guys, for saving the world, I guess." I lowered the glass slightly and glanced around the circle at them. "Now, one of you guys does it. Go around the circle."
They continued to stare in what I thought was nonplussed silence. Maybe I hadn't explained it to them well enough? It was a common enough occurrence at home, but there was a high possibility the rest of the world didn't practice our traditions. I was about to open my mouth and try explaining it a bit better, but another glass was raised. It belonged to Tifa, who looked like she understood.
"...for mama," she started, voice quiet. "And papa, and Zangan, and everyone at Nibelheim. For..." she sighed, and shook her head. "For the people of the slums, and those that died in Sector Seven."
"An' AVALANCHE!" There was a sudden movement next to her, and Barret scrambled to his feet, lifting his glass high and looking proud. "So no-one forgets Biggs, Wedge and Jessie! For Dyne, Eleanor and Myrna, and especially for my little girl Marlene, who better be safe. ...Thank you, Elmrya."
There was another pause in the toast as he finished, and he and Tifa looked at the blonde warrior that sat a little further out than everyone else. He stared back and clicked his knuckles, drew in a breath and tried to speak. Nothing came out of his mouth, and he wet his lips before trying again.
"...I don't know," he started, somewhat lamely. "There are too many people I want to thank that should be here right now. I..."
He trailed off, looking into the fire wistfully. We all watched him, waiting for him to regain his train of thought. "All right... Zack. He should still be alive; he deserves to be. He saved me more times than I can think of. And Aerith, who... who really should be sitting with us. Who gave her life for us."
He sounded a little choked up, and hadn't looked up from the fire throughout this quiet speech. I blinked back a tear and raised my own glass again. "To Aerith."
The group's attention faltered for a second, before they nodded, and echoed the thought. "To Aerith."
"I... ah, I don't know," Cloud resumed after a short pause. "My ma, and Nibelheim... and everyone I should remember, but don't. ...to you, Tifa," he added, looking at her. She flushed and looked away, but the next person had started talking before she could feel awkward.
"I want to dedicate mine to my grandfather and my parents," Red said, swishing his tail. "My entire tribe. And more importantly, to the kindness of you people, from all walks of life."
The light was beginning to fade, but the Candle continued to burn brightly as Cid shifted from his position to a more comfortable one, looking far too at home with his drink. He cleared his throat and thought for a moment, stubbing out his cigarette as he did so.
"Ah, I don't know," he said finally. "I guess to Shera, the damn fool that she is. And everyone else in that dump back home. There isn't really anyone else for me."
"What about your parents? Your friends?" I asked.
"Nah. That's it."
I snorted again. The man was ridiculous. "And you two?" I asked, rounding on the former Shinra employees.
"That's a good question," the little black cat replied, sounding mechanical as ever. I wondered where the man operating it was and what he was doing, whether or not he'd poured himself a glass of something too and was raising it to the night sky with us. "I know you guys won't agree, but my glass is full because of - and for - the people of Shinra. Not for Heidegger," it added quickly, holding its hands up defensively, "Or Hojo, or the President... for the people that mattered. Like the secretary that brought me coffee, and the people I worked with in Urban Planning, and anyone else that deserved it."
I forced myself not to glare at Vincent, who avoided my gaze easily. "Lucrecia," he said quietly. "Even though I couldn't save her. And like Cait Sith, I drink for my former comrades, although you won't agree, and for the Turks that I have never worked with. Tseng, Reno, Rude and Elena, I believe are their names. And for Verdot."
He lifted his head and surveyed us all once, quickly, eyes coming to rest on Cloud.
"...Yes?" the other man asked.
"May I speak plainly?" Vincent replied. "Without fear of being antagonised for what I am going to say." he was met with a nod, and continued speaking. "Then I would like to also dedicate my drink to the Sephiroth that never knew a mother."
There was an almost shocked silence at the man's final words, and every pair of eyes flicked towards Cloud, who sat frozen, face partially hidden by the Candle from my point of view. Slowly, he relaxed and nodded almost imperceptibly, and we all relaxed with him.
"Well said," he muttered, staring at his feet.
We all remained motionless for a while longer. I can't speak for the others, but I can only assume they were all thinking about the people they had mentioned, as I was. Still the only one standing, I snapped back to reality and lifted my glass higher again.
"Now we drink, guys," I reminded them, and tilted the beverage to my lips, downing it in one. They followed suit as I dropped my glass, coughing and gasping for air. I had never enjoyed drinking, and the taste of whatever I'd just swallowed was strong in my mouth. A pair of hands pulled me away from the fire as I gagged.
"Keep it down, kid," came the grizzled voice of the captain, and he held me upright until the nausea subsided.
We stayed at Cosmo Canyon that night, sleeping out on the raised rock. The fire kept us warm through the night and kept the mosquitoes away, and no-one came to bother us. That was probably because Red slept outside with us, and as long as he was with us, the people of the Canyon let us be. The early morning light woke me the following morning, and I fully expected to open my eyes to the sight of Meteor looming over us, but all the sky held was clouds, and a few birds here and there. It looked almost empty, but the sight brought a smile to my lips and I sat, content to watch the sun rise over the land.
I still might not feel like a hero, but I played a part in stopping Sephiroth, and I'm happy with that. The Planet - and as a result, my friends and family, and countless others - has a future, and Shinra is over. I'll be returning to Wutai on the Highwind later, and I know I'll hate it at home, but I might as well try to act like the lady I should be. Failing that, I can always work with my father and try to bring the land back to its former glory.
And maybe I won't succeed, but thanks to the efforts of countless others, I can always try again.