Chapter 2: Free Fall

Vincent cut through the turbulent wind like a bullet fired from a gun, his head pointed at the ground and arms glued to his sides. His descent speed increased with each passing second, the wind shrieking painfully past his sensitive ears.

Scanning below from between slitted eyelids and streaming hair, he attempted to locate Tifa's falling body against the luminous backdrop of the rapidly receding Lifestream. The mountainous terrain below rushed toward him at an alarming rate. He knew he hadn't much time to bring this desperate act to fruition.

Even now, Chaos pressed insistently against his consciousness, urging his mind to relinquish his physical body to transformation. He steeled his will against the mental onslaught, knowing that shortly Chaos would no longer be denied. Although Vincent had never tested the demonic beast's survival instincts before, he suspected Chaos would never allow Vincent to destroy his own body.

On the other hand, Vincent simply didn't know whether Chaos would save Tifa or indifferently fly away, letting her fall to her death. He hoped that Chaos would carry out his intention to catch Tifa and fly her to safety when he did emerge, but Vincent had no previous experience with Chaos to ensure that he would do so.

All his prior experiences with Chaos had been in the heat of battle. The powerful creature had thus far only attacked enemies. He had never turned his predatory regard to his companions. If he had, their association would have been rather short-lived as Chaos tended to rip his prey apart, possessing a startling capacity for carnage. Vincent could only theorize that either he retained some subconscious control over the beast's mind while transformed or Chaos merely acted on Vincent's state of mind, directing his malevolent attention based on Vincent's apparent intentions.

In either case, he hoped that Chaos would do as he wished now. Well aware that the odds were greatly stacked against success, he pushed the possibility of failure from his mind. He couldn't afford to have thoughts such as these there. Tifa Lockheart had only one chance to live, and he was that chance. Considering his past history of abysmal failures at rescue, he figured her future looked fairly grim.

Abruptly, he cleared the wry, self-deprecating thoughts from his mind and focused solely on his visual search. He feared that it was already too late; that he had misjudged her position and missed her in free fall.

Vincent had estimated about where he thought she would be in relation to his position, but he was well aware that the wild turbulence and the potential for wide variations in her own fall probably rendered his guess meaningless. So he was surprised when he actually spotted her about where he expected, his enhanced vision easily discerning her figure against the darkening terrain below.

He turned his claw and foot into the wind, pivoting his body in her direction. Chaos pushed insistently against his will. The urge to transform nearly uncontainable, he mentally pushed back as he altered the position of his body to slow his descent.

He needed more time to reach her before he surrendered his body to Chaos, but the sand had run through the glass. Falling towards her, he imprinted his intentions foremost in his mind. His heart pounding painfully in his chest, he relinquished his resistance against the alien beast's will.

Immediately, Chaos surged violently forth, shoving Vincent's mind beneath its own. The familiar fear that he would be lost forever within welled inside him, his mind involuntarily resisting the invasion for a moment before Chaos completely overwhelmed him. Vincent felt the physical changes overtaking his body, sensed the great wings unfolding into the wind even as his thoughts swirled away into dark oblivion.

Terror raged through Tifa's mind as she tumbled in the icy wind, her long hair whipping about her face and body, her eyes tightly closed, and the wind roaring in her ears.

She knew with absolute certainty that she was a dead woman, or would be in mere seconds. In less than a minute, she would cease to exist. Nothing stood between her and the ground below, and she expected no more miracles tonight. She hoped fervently that she died immediately so there would be no pain and no awareness.

Suddenly, she realized that she needed to see. She didn't want to die blindly, disoriented and dizzy after tumbling over and over through the dark sky. Focusing inwardly, she called upon the mental discipline of her martial arts training, and forced the rising tide of hysteria from her mind. As her thoughts cleared, she moved her body into the flying position that Cid had taught her before their parachute jump over Midgar. The instruction had been necessarily brief, but she was able to quickly stabilize her fall nonetheless.

Her hair now streaming behind her, she squinted her eyes against the stinging wind. Blearily, she focused on the ground below her where a blanket of luminous Lifestream still glowed. She realized that the Lifestream was slipping swiftly across the land, seeping back into the planet, the ground darkly foreboding beneath the thinning green mist.

She supposed she would be in the Lifestream shortly, although the thought provided no comfort. Her experience alone in the Lifestream at Mideel had not been pleasant at all, faceless voices berating her from the fathomless depths of the green gloom. She remembered trying to run away from the sibilant accusations, but no matter how fast she ran her feet seemingly took her nowhere. Until, she had screamed Cloud's name and suddenly she was with him.

Perhaps the Lifestream treated the dead differently. Maybe the living were considered trespassers, their very presence there an unwanted invasion of a sacred place. Or maybe the Lifestream rejected her for all the pain and suffering she caused when she helped blow the Midgar reactors to smithereens. She prayed that her tainted soul would not wind up in that terrifying green hell in the end, living an eternity in seething madness and despair.

Or maybe her sense of self would be dissipated into a mindless void as her spirit energy flowed into a new life. Somehow, the thought that she might cease to exist even in the Lifestream frightened her more than the idea of spending forever with the judgmental voices.

Maybe Aeris would be there waiting for her, already having experienced this mysterious event that was death. Or was it different for a Cetra?

Maybe her Mama and Papa would greet her there. Gods, how she still missed them. And maybe her old Avalanche friends would be there too. Jesse, Wedge and Biggs had made her life in the slums of Midgar much easier. Could she share that warm comradery once again in the Lifestream?

As Tifa thought of those she loved who had already passed on, the last vestiges of fear ebbed away. She had faced death many times before, just a few short minutes ago aboard the Highwind in fact, but never with the absolute certainty of death. And her serenity amazed her.

Total calmness now flowed through her mind, her body relaxed as she flew through the night, the turbulent wind buffeting her from all sides.

Her Mama had been so calm before her death. Her serenity had frustrated and angered Tifa then. She had wanted her Mama to fight to the very end, not just give up and leave them so easily. Now she understood. Her mother had simply accepted her death as inevitable, as was her own.

She noticed idly that the ground seemed to be rushing toward her faster than before. She easily recognized the dark mountainside looming below. Although she'd only been falling for seconds, time seemingly stretched into minutes as the thoughts raced through her mind. Only a few seconds more however, then time would abandon her to Fate.

At least the Planet was safe. She would die with the knowledge that life would continue as before. Surely there was atonement in saving a world.

She closed her eyes tightly, reveling in the roaring wind flowing coolly over her face, soaring in darkness with the imaginary wings of a great bird.

Not much longer now………..

She slammed into the ground, the impact sending her last breath rushing from her lungs.

She waited for what was to come after. Darkness? Lifestream? Nothing? Suddenly, she gasped as precious air rushed back into her lungs, her eyes flying open at the realization that her demise wasn't living up to her expectations. She nearly laughed at the thought since she hardly knew what to expect, but she certainly didn't expect to still be thinking about it at all.

Looking around her, Tifa quickly realized that she was no longer falling, but flying almost horizontally above the ground, shakily descending toward the stony mountain face, dark and forbidding in the starless night.

The impact against her body had come from above, not from below as she had first thought. Falling with her eyes tightly closed and fully expecting to crash into the ground at any moment, she'd misinterpreted the stunning jolt against her body.

Tifa realized that she now dangled in the clutches of some sort of flying creature. A tight grip around her midsection pressed her back firmly against the creature's body. Although, the wind still howled fiercely past her, whipping her long hair wildly and chilling her skin, she could clearly hear the beating of the huge wings against the air.

Afraid to so much as twitch, she tried to decide whether she should be more worried that the creature would drop her or devour her. She shuddered as a mental picture came to her mind of slavering jaws full of jagged teeth about to snap closed around her body. Yes, she would prefer it dropped her.

But if the creature did fly back to its nest or den or whatever, she could attempt to escape before she became dinner. The sound of the expansive wings flapping rapidly abruptly drew Tifa's thoughts away from her possible escape. The creature struggled against the churning air currents, fighting the wind near the mountain's face to keep from hurtling into the rocky cliffs. Apparently, the flesh and bone wings weren't much better than the fixed wings of the Highwind at flying in this wild wind.

Tifa reflexively grabbed the creature where it clasped her around her stomach as its flight became more erratic. She cried out in pain as her hands gripped the beast's muscular arm. The creature roared as she jerked her right hand away, the nerve endings in her palm alive with searing fire, her fingers curling inward. Her stomach churned as she now realized that her hand had been impaled by a sharp object, a sliver of glass most likely. Consumed by terror when she fell from the airship, she hadn't even noticed when she had injured her hand.

She let her hand dangle, holding her arm out stiffly, careful not to jab the creature again. She didn't want to do anything to cause the beast to drop her. At least, not yet.

She just wanted to wake up from this nightmare and find herself cuddled under warm blankets in a nice soft bed anywhere but here, held precariously above the rocky bulk of a mountain in the frigid biting wind by a hungry predatory flying thing who might decide she wasn't worth the effort and let her go to resume the path Fate had dictated earlier, especially since the whirling air currents sorely tested the beast's efforts to fly.

Tifa's fingers slipped over the creature's hide as it suddenly folded its wings and dropped rapidly towards an outcropping of rock silhouetted against the velvet backdrop of the night sky.

Extending its wings once again, the creature attempted to glide to a landing on the narrow ledge, but a sudden downdraft drove it too low to clear the edge. Frantically flapping its wings, it pulled them higher again, circling back, and now soaring along the craggy face of the mountain peak toward the target once more, wings spread wide as the wind eased a bit.

Shivering from the cold air, Tifa bit her lip as she fearfully watched the ledge loom from the darkness once more, her hand glued in a deathgrip on the creature's arm. Heart in her throat, she silently begged the wayward wind to behave for just a little bit longer; just long enough for her feet to touch solid ground. She'd worry about the rest later. Right now she just desperately wanted down.

Suddenly, a particularly violent gust of wind lifted the flying beast and slammed it into the unyielding rock wall, snapping one of the huge wings on impact. The creature wailed as it tumbled along the mountain face toward the ledge, frantically flapping its remaining wing, the broken one fluttering limply from its back.

"NO!" Tifa screamed when the creature's hold loosened around her waist. She tightened her grip on the creature's arm, but to no avail. They hit the steep mountain slope above the ledge, and she was ripped loose, the creature's claws tearing her flesh as she plummeted into space. Numbly, she squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and braced herself, her mind blank with shock. Before she could draw another breath, her body hit the ledge and her head painfully cracked against the rock. A split second later, darkness stole all thought, leaving her mind nothing but a black void.

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