Chapter 4: Shifting Sand

Cid Highwind grabbed the pilot wheel and yanked himself to his feet. Leaning against the control console, he angrily swiped the blood from his throbbing lip with the back of a hand, wincing at the contact. Madder than hell, he bit back the curses that threatened to slip off his tongue, jerked a cigarette from behind his goggles, and fumbled in the pocket of his leather flight jacket for a match.

He'd almost had her on the ground, somewhat intact, when the landing thrusters cut out, letting the Highwind hit the ground hard. The emergency landing struts collapsed beneath her, and she had teetered over sideways onto her right wing, the screech of rending metal loud on the bridge.

Although the desire to kick everything in sight roiled through him, he bit down hard on his temper. He couldn't afford to let his anger fly now. His ship was torn all to hell, but his teammates had been in the path when she came apart, and their well-being was his first priority.

He straightened up from the console, and moved onto the bridge, still rummaging for a match. Stepping over loose electrical cables and debris, his eyes zeroed in on Barrett and Nanaki as he moved toward them. He watched intently as Barrett maneuvered his gun arm from between the railing posts and rose shakily to his feet, leaning against the railing as he stood. He seemed fine enough except for a long, shallow cut adorning his left cheek.

Nanaki raised his head from between his paws and locked gazes with Cid as the pilot stopped beside him. "You all right, Red?" Cid asked sharply. Nanaki nodded his head sorrowfully. Cid watched for a moment as Nanaki worked his claws from the deck, then he turned away to look for the others. A thump, accompanied by a muffled groan, drew his attention to the far side of the bridge.

He moved quickly up the sloping deck, shattered glass crunching under his feet. So intent was he on watching where he placed his feet amidst the wreckage and debris that he nearly missed the outstretched hand protruding from beneath the observation bench. The hand, clad in a leather and metal studded glove, obviously belonged to Cloud. His gloved fingers shoved feebly against the mangled junk that had piled up around the front of the bench, and Cid bent down to drag the mass of twisted metal and splintered wood to the side. Once he'd cleared the immediate area of debris, he stooped to peer underneath. Cloud seemed to be firmly wedged beneath the low bench. He pressed one hand against the floor, trying to gain leverage as he attempted to wriggle his body sideways out of the tight space. In his other hand, he held Cait Sith clasped tightly against his chest. Even as Cid reached for his hand, Cloud finally drew his boot up against a metal leg and shoved himself halfway out. Cid stepped back to give him room as he used his hand and elbow to lever his body the rest of the way out, dragging the cybernetic cat across the floor by its arm as he extricated himself. The battle-hardened warrior looked like a frightened little boy wiggling from his hiding place with his favorite stuffed toy in hand, his unruly hair falling into his eyes.

Cid watched him closely as he tried to push himself to a sitting position before he slumped heavily onto his side, inhaling noisily through clenched teeth.

"You okay, Spike? Need some help there?" Cid queried.

"N-no... I'm... fine..." Cloud replied, his voice slurred.

Concerned, Cid bent over to look at him closer. "Ya sure? You don't sound too good."

"Yes, I'm fine." Cloud reiterated, his voice firmer. "Just a bit fuzzy...slammed into a rock wall...or something..."

Cid extended a hand to him. "Come on. I'll help ya up."

"No, I'm okay...." Cloud replied slowly, ignoring the proffered hand. "Just make sure...Tifa...the others...are all right..."

"Sure Spike." Cid answered uncertainly as he straightened up once again. He looked beyond Cloud to see Cait Sith's Mog toppled over against the front of the control console. He spun around, but he didn't see anyone else. "Where's Tifa?!" he demanded, moving back toward the center of the bridge, eyes scanning intently over the jumbled debris. "And Yuffie?!"

He knew Yuffie had come up on the bridge earlier, and Valentine, too. And Tifa had been standing almost right in front of him before everything went to hell in a handbasket. But he saw no sign of any of them now.

His searching eyes froze on a familiar object discarded near the electronics console; the long-barrelled rifle Valentine had carried into the battle with Sephiroth. He remembered that the ex-Turk had the gun slung to his back when he'd come on the observation deck earlier. But where the hell was he now?

Cid gingerly stepped over debris and shards of glass to reach the fallen rifle. He stooped down and examined the weapon closely, as though the gun would reveal a clue as to its owner's whereabouts, but the silent gun did not tell Cid what he wanted to know. With a muttered curse, he lifted the heavy rifle by the long, black barrel and smoothly grained stock and laid it on the top of the console behind him. Turning back, he set out to search the littered floor once again, anxiously swinging his intense gaze across the observation deck as he methodically picked his way through the wreckage.

Nanaki silently passed Cid as he padded down the slanted deck toward the railing. The big animal dropped to his haunches a few feet from the glass wall, and Cid broke off his fruitless search, turning to see what had drawn his attention. Cid's jaw dropped when he spotted the extensive fissure in the observation window. He'd known that the glass was broken in several places. After all, shattered glass covered the entire deck and a chilly breeze occasionally ruffled his hair. Hell, he had sustained several cuts from flying glass, but hadn't had time to pay them any mind as he'd fought to bring the ship down in one piece. But this crack..damn...the glass was missing from the deck nearly all the way to the crest of the curved window.

Stunned, Cid approached Nanaki and dropped to one knee beside him. He stared wide-eyed at the dark landscape beyond the breach in the glass until a subtle movement in the periphery of his vision captured his attention. In the intermittent illumination from the bridge lights, he recognized several strands of long dark hair caught on the jagged edge of the opening, fluttering gently in the breeze. His heart nosedived into his boots even as Nanaki confirmed what he already knew without a doubt.

"Tifa fell overboard," Nanaki said sadly, his voice soft and low. He dropped his nose to the deck, and Cid's eyes followed. Numbly, he stared at the wooden plank beneath Nanaki's muzzle and tracked the smeared, thready trails to the edge. He knew these were the marks left by her bloody fingers as she struggled to hold on. His throat tightened painfully as he thought about how terrified she must have been as she fell to the ground far below.

"Poor Tifa..." he whispered. His eyes burned as he realized how much they would miss her. Tifa was...had been...a radiant beam of sunshine, and all their lives would be less bright for her loss.

He blinked back the unwanted tears as a sudden thought came to him. "Is that what happened to Valentine?" he asked dully. "Did he fall overboard too?"

"No..." Nanaki replied slowly. "Vincent...jumped."

A few seconds passed as Nanaki's whole statement sank into his suddenly sluggish brain. "Valentine jumped?!" Cid finally choked out.

Cid's lips moved wordlessly, the still unlit cigarette drooping limply from the corner of his mouth as his mind labored to process the meaning of Nanaki's words. Slowly, his thoughts moved beyond the stark horror of Tifa's death to latch onto the idea of Valentine leaping intentionally from the Highwind. Although the man was morose even on a good day, Cid just couldn't see him suicidally jumping to his death. But then why would he jump? Did he think that the ship was going down anyway, and he figured he'd rather die alone than end his life mangled in the wreckage of the airship with the rest of them? Or maybe he harbored a secret passion for Tifa and was brokenhearted at her death. Cid snorted at that idiotic idea. The man could teach the Gaea Glacier a thing or two about coldness, and he seemed about as capable of feeling anything as his skeletal, moldy old roomies in the basement crypt of the Shinra Mansion.

Besides, now that he thought about it, Valentine probably couldn't kill himself that way anyway. If he wanted to kill himself he would probably have to put a bullet in his brain. That wicked-looking winged creature, straight from a madman's nightmare, that had possessed his body a few times during their battles probably wouldn't let him fall to his death.

Cid's churning brain froze as the puzzle piece snapped into place. "Stupid old fart, you're getting slower everyday." Cid muttered to himself in disgust. "Of course that's why he jumped. He meant to try and catch her."

"Do ya think he could've?"

The deep voice at his shoulder, quavering with intense sorrow, tore Cid from his thoughts. He stared up into Barrett's dark face, pinched and old with anguish, and noticed the tears leaking from his dark brown eyes and trailing into his beard.

"I don't know, man..." Cid replied hesitantly, shaking his head. "That guy's packin' wings, but he still had to fly through that soup up there..." Cid's voice fell off weakly. He should just shut up. He wasn't ever very good at saying the right thing. Tifa had been like a daughter to Barrett; part of his small adopted family, and he probably didn't want to hear Cid's blunt observations. On the other hand, Barrett preferred bluntness to bullshit, and wouldn't respect anything but Cid's honest opinion, even now.

"I don't know how much control he really has over that creature..." Cid continued. "...But Valentine must have thought there was a chance or he wouldn't have jumped. All I can say is that I hope like hell he pulled it off."

Falling silent, Cid turned and caught Nanaki's eye, his eyebrows raised in question. Nanaki rose to his feet and turned to face Barrett. "If it can be done, I'm sure Vincent will do it, Barrett." Nanaki spoke quietly.

Barrett nodded his head slowly in response to Nanaki's reassurance, wiping the tears from his cheeks with his fingertips. He knew that the chances of the ex-Turk being able to catch Tifa in midair were pretty slim. And he shuddered at the thought of Tifa in the clutches of the strange man's altered form, vividly recalling the thing's bloodlust during battle. Still, a tiny flicker of hope remained where there would be none otherwise.

"It's a chance." Barrett finally replied.

Awestruck, Avian walked along the dark hull of the crippled airship. He couldn't believe the size of the behemoth. He turned his face upwards as he rounded the prow and stopped beneath the huge spherical glass window high above. After several moments of staring at the flickering glow and seeing nothing of interest, he decided to move on.

As he passed slowly down the other side of the craft, his curious eyes inspected every visible inch. He knew there had to be a way to board, and he was determined to find it. He just couldn't see much since the landing lights were smashed during the rough landing, but his eyes had eventually grown accustomed to the gloom. Now, he could make out the shape and size of it. The canted hull of the immense ship loomed above him, and he felt a bit like a tiny ant beneath the shadow of a precariously balanced boulder. As far as he could tell, the buckled wing ahead of him was the only support holding the ship's bulk upright. A loud metallic groan sent his heart slamming against his chest, and his skin crawled as he realized that the whole thing could keel over if the wing gave way. He cautiously sidled away from the hull before he continued down the side.

As he walked, he anxiously gazed upwards, mentally gauging the height of the ship and calculating the distance he would have to sprint if it went over. Avian estimated that if he moved out another 60 feet or so and ran like his tail was on fire, he might clear the metal hulk if it fell. Sweat popped out on his forehead as he walked on. He knew he should get away, but his curiosity wouldn't let him. He would just have to hope his luck held out.

He had traversed half the distance to the stern of the airship with no obvious sign yet of an entrance. Apparently, the rebels' method of boarding her was very well hidden. Probably to stave off surprise raids by Shinra soldiers or...

Avian's thoughts scattered when he suddenly stumbled, his right foot ensnared by some unseen object. He threw his hands out to catch himself as he fell, but didn't quite manage it, and his face smucked into the churned-up soil nose first.

"Ow...dammit!" Avian covered his nose with one protective hand as he rolled to his back, tears springing to his eyes at the sharpness of the pain. Breathing noisily through his parted lips, he sat very still until the stabbing pain finally receded to a dull throb.

He gingerly poked at his nose until he determined that it probably wasn't broken even though a trickle of blood seeped from one dirt-encrusted nostril to trace the contour of his cheek. He lifted his shirttail to his face and cautiously wiped away the blood and dirt as he struggled to yank his booted foot from its entanglement.

Finally, Avian kicked his foot free and sat up. He reached forward and lifted the offending object, a coil of thick rope hidden in the grass. With a heavy sigh, Avian climbed to his feet, the rope still clutched in his fist. As he brought the rope up from the grass, he realized immediately that the rope wasn't just a rope. It was a rope ladder.

Excited at his discovery, he took a few quick steps toward the metal hull, gathering the rope ladder in as he walked. His hopes were realized when he reached the point where the rope ladder ascended straight up into the darkness above his head.

He gripped the coarse hemp in one hand, and set his foot on the closest rung. He stared upwards, but couldn't make out any details overhead. He'd still seen no one. Nothing moved. There was no sign of life on board this ship. He chewed his lower lip. Maybe he shouldn't climb up there. He should just wait and see if anyone appeared. Safer that way. Less likely to get in trouble.

"Ah, what the hell." Avian said aloud. He focused his eyes on the railing and started his climb up the swaying ladder. He refused to look down because he knew he'd lose his nerve. Instead, he kept his eyes narrowly focused on each rung as he pulled himself up, struggling against the pendulous ladder's tendency to shift away from under his feet.

As Avian climbed, the thought popped back into his mind of the ship heeling over while he dangled here like a spider on a web. Funny, how things like that seemed to slip his mind until he was already in the middle of something. This whole endeavor would have been much simpler if he'd stumbled onto the rope ladder on the other side of this ridiculously humongous ship. Climbing with the leaning hull would have been way easier, and he could ride the hull down if it went over. Which would probably be painful, but not as painful as being smooshed into a slimy, unrecognizable puddle. No point in worrying about it now.

The muscles in his legs and arms burned from the seemingly endless climb, and he'd just about decided to retreat back down the ladder when his fingers latched onto smooth railing rather than bristly rope. Heaving himself up with trembling arms, he threw one leg, then the other, over the rail and stepped out onto a hardwood deck.

Avian looked around him, unable to make out much detail within the deep, shifting shadows that swallowed the deck a few feet from him. A dim, fitful light seemed to radiate from the front of the craft, and he figured the light source came from the huge window he'd inspected from below since he'd seen no other lights anywhere else. He certainly didn't see any lighted entrances around here.

Not sure where to go, Avian slowly guided himself along the edge toward the prow, his legs still rubbery beneath him. He slid his hand along the railing for support until he painfully discovered that the railing had been splintered and broken. After he pulled the sliver of wood from his palm with his teeth, he was more careful about where he placed his hand as he walked on.

Avian rounded the front, now climbing against the slanted deck, his attention focused on the flickering light from below. He stopped and leaned against the wooden rail to look over the edge. From this position, he could see straight down onto the top of the spherical window port. Most of the glass was nearly opague with mud or soot, and spidery cracks scored a large section of the window to his left. He couldn't make out anything through that. He noticed a large crack where glass had broken out, but he stood at the wrong angle to see in. Disappointed, he continued his circuit of the deck.

Peering up as he walked, he was stunned to realize that a large section of this aircraft still loomed darkly overhead. In the ambient glow from the window, he could see that this section seemed to be much smaller and appeared to be attached to the upper section by two steel bulkheads of some sort, the dark shapes looming fore and aft. Again, a shudder ran through him at the thought of the whole superstructure resting on the much smaller hull and one relatively thin wing. The ship must be constructed from some sort of strong, lightweight material. At least, he hoped it was strong...very strong.

Avian paused briefly at the far side and stared at the mountainous horizon where he knew Midgar should be, but no matter how hard he strained his eyes to see, only darkness lurked there. The brilliant lights of Midgar that normally lit the whole sky above the ridge, were no more. His stomach churned as he wondered about the people in Midgar that he knew. The Bakers who had helped him take care of his mother. And Tamitha, his friend from around the corner whose father ran the little grocery store there. He hadn't seen them since he moved to Kalm, and he prayed they were okay.

Deep in memories of his past, he turned away from the dark horizon and fell back into his trek around the deck, totally oblivious to his surroundings until he realized he'd returned to the place where the rope ladder was attached to the rail. He shrugged off his melancholy thoughts and swung his attention toward the center of the deck. He'd wasted enough time meandering around. It was high time he found a way to get below.

The layout of this section of the airship now firmly fixed in his mind, he marveled at the open deck, barely visible in the ambient light. Who would ever dream of finding a deck, just like one might find on a sailing ship, in the middle of a giant aircraft like this.

A wide grin swept his face as he imagined himself the brave captain of such a ship, sailing the high seas, set to battle for fame and fortune against bloodthirsty pirates. Yes indeed, he was the boldhearted Captain Wulfe who, even now, bravely faced the legendary and notorious pirate, Captain Faris.

He jerked himself to attention, and slowly unsheathed his imaginary cutlass. Brandishing the weapon before him, he lunged a couple of steps toward the invisible, but extremely proficient, Captain Faris. A few brilliantly executed parries and thrusts later, Avian was ready to finish off his enemy, and he confidently stepped forward for the final jab. Before he could run the villainous pirate through however, his foot landed on a loose object and he turned his ankle. With a startled cry, he tumbled sideways into the railing, his arms wildly flailing the air for purchase. The momentum nearly carried him right over the side, but he managed to snag the rail with one hand to stop his fall.

Once both hands were glued firmly to the rail, he pushed himself erect, eyes frozen on the ground far below. He swallowed hard at the thought of his near fall over the side.

"Quit screwing around, Avian." He chided himself, his voice a strained whisper. "Your luck is wearing thin."

With a shake of his head, he turned and faced the deck once again, moving his hands to grip the railing behind him. He looked around more carefully, and noticed a barely discernible glow at the base of the aft bulkhead. It was his first and only hint of an entryway into the ship's interior.

Stepping more cautiously across the sloped surface, he traversed the distance to the elongated bulkhead and found himself in front of a recessed portal, the thick metal door standing ajar. Leaning one hand against the steel doorframe, he peered into the space beyond. Deep gloom swallowed the far reaches of the apparently huge space before him. He couldn't see anyone moving or anything particularly threatening, but who knew what might be lurking in the dark corners of this place.

The cavernous room hummed in relative silence, any machinery that may have been running previously now shut down or no longer operating.

Avian listened more intently as the sound of muted voices reached his ears. The voices faded away as though they'd never been, ghostly words floating in space with no earthly source.

He briefly considered a strategic retreat. He'd had time to think about the consequences of his rash decision to meet the members of Avalanche. These were desperate people, being hunted down by Shinra. He'd seen the news bulletins on TV about them, and a bounty had been offered for information as to their whereabouts. He'd read flyers to that effect in some of the public buildings around Kalm. It was a miracle they were still on the loose since they'd apparently been seen everywhere. Yet no one knew who they were. Shinra had to know who the members of Avalanche were, but weren't releasing that information for their own reasons. Whoever they were, the rebels just might decide to kill him on sight, and he really didn't want to die just yet. Avian turned away from the doorway. He'd just head back to the house, check on Granny and get that hambone for Soldier.

He paused again, his hand still resting on the burnished metal surface, his mind floundering in indecision. So maybe these people were dangerous by all accounts, but he'd heard rumors that Avalanche had been fighting against the Shinra people for the sake of the planet; that they were the ones who had taken out the Weapon creature at Cosmo Canyon, a deed for which Shinra had taken the credit. He'd heard that they were the only ones who had been trying to stop the annihilation of the planet. And maybe they were the reason that he still drew breath right now.

People like that couldn't be all bad. Besides, if they were enemies of Shinra, Inc., they were his best friends. They just didn't know it yet. Anyway, their ship wasn't going anywhere and they'd eventually show up on his doorstep. Might as well meet them sooner as later.

With renewed determination, he turned back and passed through the entryway. He could see a lighted doorway far across the room on another wall, but the space in between was indiscernible in the murky gloom. Oh well, he'd just have to pick the way out as he went. He turned and examined the dimly lit stairway that descended along the wall to his right. With a sigh, he set his foot on the first step.

Cloud raised his head from his hand, and looked muzzily around him. He had managed to sit up after he'd freed himself from beneath the observation bench, but when he tried to rise to his feet he'd fallen back against the seat, his head swimming with sick dizziness, and there he'd remained, still clutching the silent Cait Sith in his left hand.

He didn't have any desire to get up from the floor. Desolation swept through his soul as his mind grasped the full meaning of the words spoken a few feet away. Tifa...gone. He couldn't believe she might already be...

"No..." he whispered.

And where had he been when she had tumbled overboard? After all she had done for him; stayed by his side when he'd suffered from Mako poisoning, helped him piece together the fragmented memories of his past, leading him back to the knowledge that he was a real person and not a Sephiroth clone, believing in him even when she didn't want to and he gave her reason not to. After all that, where was he when she needed him. Probably worming his way underneath the bench.

Just another broken promise. He'd failed her just as he'd failed Aeris. A worthless bodyguard and a half-baked hero.

Cloud dropped his face into his hand and squeezed his eyes shut, his skull threatening to explode with the combination of emotional and physical pain. He tried to blank his thoughts, but suddenly her sweet face formed in his mind. Aeris...

A gentle smile formed on her lips as she tilted her head to the side, her bright green eyes warm with compassion. "Don't worry about it, Cloud." Her soft words echoed in his brain. "It isn't your fault."

Cloud opened his mouth to argue, but her face had already faded back into his memory. She'd seemed so real, as though she actually had been with him for a few moments. But of course, that wasn't possible. She had given her life to save the planet. And with her sacrifice, they had succeeded. But at such wrenching loss. Fate had stolen the joy from their victory.

Cloud opened his eyes and stared down at the limp cat still clutched in his hand, the implacable eyes staring back at him. He idly watched Cait Sith for several moments, looking for any glimmer of electronic life. Finally, Cloud decided that the cybernetic creature had been damaged when it crashed to the deck, or worse, no longer had an operator. Weaky, he let the black and white cat slide to the floor.

Hopefully, Reeve was still alive and well somewhere and Cait's silence only caused by a severed connection between them, but the Shinra Head of Urban Development had been in Midgar doing his job, trying desperately to lead the people of the city out of harm's way. Even in the face of futility.

Cloud leaned his head back against the bench. Sharp pain speared through his skull at the sudden contact, but he didn't move. His thoughts once again turned to Tifa and the aloof man who had followed her off the Highwind.

Cloud hadn't trusted Vincent Valentine in the beginning, and had been uneasy about the ex-Turk's decision to join their group. Yet he had gained a grudging respect for the unobstrusive man throughout their struggles. Although Valentine showed no inclination to befriend any of them, he had never failed one of them in battle. He entered any fray without hesitation and dispatched the enemy with methodical efficiency. All the while, he watched the others with his keen eyes, coming immediately to the aid of anyone in trouble.

And Tifa was in trouble. Cloud wasn't surprised that Vincent had gone to her aid. He was the one person on board this ship that could help her, and it was his way to do so. Cloud prayed that Vincent would be successful. Or rather had been successful. Whatever had was now way or another.

Wearily, Cloud turned his head to look at the broken window, but his gaze froze on the broad-bladed sword discarded on the wooden deck a few feet from him. He stared intently at the weapon even as he fought back the thick fog seeping into his mind. He shook his head to dispel the haze and cringed as little construction guys with sledge hammers awoke instead, pounding away at the inside of his cranium.

After a few endless moments, the excruciating pain eased a bit, and Cloud reached out for the sword, his numb fingers falling on the broad blade. Pressing his fingers against the cool metal, he spun the sword halfway around to bring the hilt within his reach. With a tight grip, he drew the weapon slowly to him, his head swimming at the effort. The blade's inner fire ignited at his touch, and the cold spectral light blazed as he dragged the heavy sword against his hip.

His head spinning in earnest now, Cloud struggled to clear his mind; to focus his thoughts on the materia orbs that lay beneath his palm. But all he wanted to do was close his eyes. His head lolled back against the seat as the haze overtook his mind. He knew he should get up. There were others that might need help, and there were things that needed to be done. But he was so tired. So very, very tired.

He would get up in a few minutes. Right now, he would just for just a little bit....

Avian's eyes had finally adjusted to the deep gloom of the ship's interior, and he could make out some details in the diffuse glow from the dimly lit doorway on the inner wall. He stepped gingerly onto the catwalk that seemed to lead to that open hatchway.

As he tried to walk soundlessly over the metal grid, detached voices floated to his ears, now obviously coming from the next compartment. One voice rang with distress. Another voice was just a deep rumble. He stopped in the middle of the catwalk to better hear the conversation inside. He concentrated on the muffled voices for several minutes, but he still could not make out any words.

He stepped closer toward the doorway until he stood just outside the pool of light cast from within, suddenly reluctant to venture any further. As he worked up his nerve to climb the short flight of steps into the next room, he stared at the tips of his boots.

Another pair of boots swam into view as the focus of his gaze shifted to the floor several feet beneath the catwalk. Curious, he bent down to get a closer look at the shiny black boots spotlighted in the flickering light. His eyes tracked across the boots to a pair of legs, clad in black trousers.

Suddenly, he didn't want to look any further than that, but he did anyway. Turning, he stepped to the edge of the catwalk and peered down. With a gasp, he stumbled backward, nearly stepping off the other edge of the catwalk behind him.

His hand pressed to his mouth, he sucked rapid breaths in through his nostrils in an attempt to stem the rising gorge in his throat. He tried in vain to blank the wide, vacant eyes from his mind. And the blood-draped torso viciously impaled in the machinery below. But the images burned relentlessly in his brain.

Avian slumped weakly against the bulkhead and drew in several deep breaths, his mind slowly regaining equilibrium. After several minutes, he felt brave enough to consider checking on the guy again, just in case the man needed help. But no. There was simply no point. He didn't have to look at the man again to know that he was definitely beyond anyone's help now.

Avian leaned his head back against the cold metal surface and tried to remember why he had decided to come aboard this ship. He hadn't considered that he might encounter dead people. And there could be more inside. Maybe he should just go. He didn't have any business here at all.

But, then again...

He stiffened his spine and stood away from the wall. It was time to do something. He couldn't stay there forever even if he was inclined to hang out with the dead guy. Which he wasn't. And maybe someone inside the next room needed help.

He turned to face the doorway once again. Feeling very shaky, he forced himself to take a step. Then another...

"What about Yuffie?" Cid finally asked after several moments of silence, once again staring hard at the broken observation window. Nanaki spoke even as he moved quickly away, leaping over a large splintered plank. "I thought I heard her crying out somewhere back here just before...."

Cid tore his eyes away and quickly followed Nanaki from the observation deck.

Lt. Jerol, one of the junior crewmen, stumbled toward Cid, his face streaked with blood. "Captain! Down there!" The young man gestured with a trembling hand. "It's Miss Kisaragi, sir!"

The young crewman had indicated the sunken area where Valentine and Nanaki preferred to ride when the ship was in the air. A couple of long strides carried Cid to the steps, and he stopped with a foot resting on the top rung as he stared into the wreckage that filled the small space. Much of the debris had ended up here as well as a lot of the loose equipment. And two of the tall metal instrument cabinets had torn loose from the wall and tipped over on top of the whole mess.

"Where?!" Cid demanded gruffly. "Where the #*$@ is she?!?"

"I think she's over here, Cid!" Nanaki cried out as he jumped down the steps into the pit. He worked his way over the junk, and Cid stared hard in the direction he was headed. Cid didn't see anything at first, then his searching gaze recognized a limp arm, pale and bloodstreaked, protruding from beneath an overturned cabinet.

"Ah, no..." Cid whispered hoarsely. "Not another one..."

"I tried to move it, sir," the crewman said weakly, sinking to his knees beside the metal railing. "But I just couldn't, sir."

Without another word, Cid sprang across the tangled jumble of shredded, splintered and twisted junk. He sucked in a sharp breath as a jagged piece of metal sliced through his trousers and grazed his calf. Ignoring the warm trickle of blood inside his boot, Cid dropped down beside the cabinet where Nanaki was attempting to shove his muzzle into the narrow gap between the metal box and the littered deck. Grabbing the lower edge of the heavy metal electronics cabinet, Cid tried to lift it, his muscles trembling with the strain.

After a few tense moments, he realized that he would never be able to lift the thing alone. He abruptly straightened up and whirled toward the bridge. His quick glance focused briefly on Cloud who struggled to rise to his feet, pushing himself up against the hilt of his sword, the point buried in the wooden deck. Obviously, his injuries were more serious than he'd first thought. Not only did Cloud look as though he wouldn't be much help, he looked like he could use some help himself. Unfortunately, Cloud would have to wait.

Cid turned his eyes to Barrett. The big man still stood in the middle of the observation deck, his head cradled in his huge hand and his vacant eyes centered on the broken observation glass.

Obviously, Barrett was still buried in his thoughts about Tifa. Cid's stomach turned over just thinking about her again. But he couldn't let it get to him right now. Someone else had more pressing problems. He just couldn't think... about that...right now.

He chomped down on the soggy butt of the cigarette still lodged in the corner of his mouth and took a deep, cleansing breath through his nose. "Barrett!" he shouted . Barrett looked at Cid, eyes wide and unfocused. "Could ya come here?" He continued urgently. " I need some help here, to get Yuffie out."

Barrett immediately headed his way, quickly forging a path across the littered deck. Satisfied that help was on the way, Cid turned back to look for his crewmen. A quick glance at Lt. Jerol told him that the man probably wouldn't be able to stand right now, much less help them. The exhausted young man looked like a wrung out towel, crumpled against the rail. One limp arm, hooked over the metal bar, was the only thing that kept him somewhat upright.

With a start, Cid realized that he hadn't seen hide or hair of Lt. Keith. A swift glance around the entire bridge didn't serve to locate any sign of the man. He could only hope he was alive and well somewhere. Abruptly, Cid swung his attention back to the scattered debris knee-deep around his legs. He hoped like hell the man was not buried beneath the rubble.

Cloud finally managed to stand, although his sword was the only thing holding him up. He knew he had to get his feet under him. Yuffie was in trouble and needed his help. He swayed and nearly fell as the bridge swooped around him. With a hard shove against the sword's hilt, he willed himself to remain standing until his head finally stopped spinning. Again, he shuffled a step forward and paused. Then he slid his other foot forward. He felt like a decrepit old man, stooped and dizzy, using a very unusual walkingstick to get around. At least the oversized sword was good for something now that all the battles were done.

He squinted his eyes, and his blurred surroundings sprang sharply into focus. And then right back out again. He leaned into his sword and set himself to try another step, but before he could move, an anquished shriek ripped through his mind.

The heavy sword clunked to the deck as Cloud threw his hands to his head, any coherent thought scattered in the wake of the searing mental invasion.

His eyes tightly closed in pain, he squeezed his exploding skull between the palms of his hands, oblivious to anything but the endless scream and the white-hot light that ravaged his brain. He swayed, choking on his own scream that was caught up in his throat as he mentally pleaded for release.

Even as he felt his knees wobble beneath him, he realized that a terror-filled voice gibbered mindlessly within the scream. "Oh no! Oh me...don't let them...don't let them...take me...don't let them...don't let them touch!"

"Aeris!?" he cried out, even as silence filled his skull at the abrupt cessation of her voice. He sent his thoughts wildly searching for any remaining vestige of her in his mind, wholly unaware of his slow collapse to the floor.

Nanaki growled deep in his throat, and Cid jerked his attention from his contemplation of the fate of Lt. Keith and turned to find Nanaki crouched in attack stance, his eye fixed in a feral glare at the open entryway from the catwalk.

"Red?" Cid asked lowly, suddenly feeling naked without his weapon. "What is it?"

"There's someone on board, an intruder..." Nanaki replied, his voice a quiet growl.

Before Cid could respond, a pale face appeared in the hatchway, then a lanky body, as the stranger stepped hesitantly out onto the wooden deck. The intruder froze when his curious gaze was captured by Cid's fierce glare and Nanaki's bared fangs.

Glancing anxiously back over his shoulder, the young man opened his mouth to speak, but the hard-bitten pilot didn't give him the chance.

"Where the hell did you come from?!" Cid demanded roughly, his eyes quickly absorbing details and appraising the tall youth, cataloguing the tangled hair tumbling over his shoulders, the booted feet, and the empty, obviously weaponless hands. Certainly, this stranger didn't look like much of a threat. Hell, he was just a kid.

"Er...outside...m-m-my house...there was rope ladder..." the boy stammered.

"Who the hell are ya!?" Cid interrupted.

"A-A-Avian Wulfe....sir...I...I...came from..."

"Forget it! Get yer ass over here and help me lift this!" Cid demanded vehemently.

To his credit, the boy complied immediately, leaping across scattered, broken equipment and a sparking electrical cable to reach him.

Cid turned to find Barrett already beside him, and he knelt to grip the metal console as the kid vaulted the railing and dropped into the lower level. He quickly found an accessible edge, and together, they hefted the cabinet and gently moved it away from Yuffie.

Cid fell to his knees beside her and lifted a limp wrist even as Nanaki concentrated his mind and focused his will through the materia in his headdress. The materia brightly flashed, and the familiar iridescent aura of the high level spell sparkled around the young ninja girl's body.

The superficial cuts on her face and limbs closed immediately, and a deep gash on her head sealed more slowly, but she showed no sign of regaining consciousness even though the spell had run its full course and the magical aura faded away.

"Shall I cast the spell again?" Nanaki asked quietly, his head drooping as he peered into Yuffie's still face.

Cid looked her over closely. He didn't see any potentially fatal injuries, no obvious ones anyway, and the debris, which must have piled up around her, had actually taken the brunt of the cabinet's weight.

"Wait." Cid finally replied. "Let's do it only if we have to." The curative magic came in handy for healing injuries in a hurry, but casting a high level spell such as this one when the exact nature of the injury was not immediately apparent could have a detrimental effect.

Cid bent over her and carefully lifted an eyelid, peering intently into the vacant pupil. "I don't know..." he said uncertainly. "I ain't a doc."

Cid let go as the eyelid twitched beneath his fingertip. Yuffie's lashes fluttered a couple of times, then her eyes flew open. A sharp alertness flowed into her dark irises, and she glared into Cid's intense blue eyes.

"Will you quit breathing in my face, old man..." she whispered hoarsely. "You smell like... the bottom of an ashtray."

Cid sat back on his heels, a smirk on his lips. "Guess I don't have to do CPR, huh?"

"Your putrid breath did the job, thank the Five Gods for my deliverance from you." Yuffie replied, more strength in her voice.

With a groan, Cid climbed to his feet. He pressed a hand into the small of his back and leaned over to offer Yuffie a calloused hand.

"Need some help getting up?" he asked gruffly.

She weakly swatted at his hand. "Leave me alone. I don't feel so good." Yuffie snapped. "I just wanna lay here...for now."

"Are you okay?" Cid questioned sharply, his eyes narrowed beneath drawn brows.

"Quit fussin, old man." She replied. "I'm fine. Just let me rest."

Cid peered at her, biting down on the end of his cigarette. He noted the fine pallor of her face and slowly drooping eyelids. He wasn't too sure she was fine at all.

He turned to find Nanaki peering at him, his face full of concern. Cid shrugged and opened his mouth to speak, but a thud and cry of pain brought him spinning around.

"Damn, Cloud!" He exclaimed.

He clambered up the steps and jumped across the debris strewn deck to reach Cloud, who had fallen onto his side.

He dropped to his knees beside him, as Barrett came to a stop at his back, bending down to peer at Cloud over Cid's shoulder.

"Cloud?" Barrett asked anxiously. "You okay, man?"

Cloud sat up cautiously and cradled his head in his hand.

After several moments passed, Cloud finally spoke. "Yeah, just a bit fuzzy...that's all."

Cid stared at the deep gash in the back of Cloud's bowed head, his blond hair dyed red and blue shirt dark with the blood that seeped from the wound and dripped down his neck.

"Don't move, Spike." Cid ordered. He jumped to his feet and headed toward the pilot wheel. He snatched the Venus Gospel from the floor where he'd dropped it earlier and quickly returned to Cloud's side.

Avian Wulfe felt like pinching himself to see if all this was real. Not only had he managed to climb aboard this fantastic craft, but he had encountered the rebels only to discover that he knew some of them. Or rather, knew who they were.

Everyone knew who Captain Highwind was. His failed rocket launch had been widely aired on the television before Shinra cut the cameras. He had been the head of Shinra's rocket program at the time, and he hadn't changed much since then.

And the red beast with the metal bracelets around his four legs and the ornate feathered headdress between his ears and the beads laced in his mane; a beast that spoke. He could only be one of the Protectors of Cosmo Canyon he'd heard his Grandmother talk about when she regressed to her past life as a young girl there. He thought the creatures were figments of her demented imagination, but here one sat beside him now.

And this girl. He recognized her easily despite her dirty, blood-smeared face. He would never forget the day he'd met her. She'd whirled into his life like a spring cyclone and vanished just as quickly. He sat back on his heels as his thoughts drifted back to that day.

Nanaki watched the events unfolding on the observation deck, glancing back occasionally to check on Yuffie. He feared that she was more injured than she first appeared. She had closed her eyes again and showed no inclination to rise.

"I know her."

Nanaki jerked his head around. He'd forgotten about the tall young man who called himself Avian, still kneeling to his right.

"What did you say?" Nanaki asked politely.

"I know her..." Avian repeated. "...or I've seen her before anyway."

"Really?" Nanaki asked absently, his attention turned back to Cid as the iridescent aura of the healing spell sparkled around Cloud.

"Yeah, in Kalm a few weeks ago." Avian continued. "She tried to steal my materia."

Nanaki swung his face back to fasten an alert eye on Avian's profile.

"Tried to steal your materia?" Nanaki prompted, wondering at the fact that this young man actually possessed materia.

"Yes, and she called me a son of not very nice name when I caught her with her hand in my materia pouch." Avian replied. A slight smile formed on his lips as he stared into Yuffie's pale face.

"Yes, I believe you have met her before." Nanaki responded. "She did not get your materia then?"

"No. But I did manage to lift one of hers." Avian chuckled.

Nanaki cocked his head quizzically. "I am surprised you are still alive to speak of this." he commented quietly.

"Well, I wasn't stupid enough to let her catch me," Avian replied diffidently. " Not with her loaded down with shurikens and an evil temper."

"I would be interested in hearing how you managed such a daring feat."

"Hey, Red....." Yuffie's barely audible whisper reached his ears, and he drew closer and lowered his head to better hear her.

"What is it, Yuffie?" he asked anxiously, his concern for her growing as he noted her closed eyelids, ghostly pale face and weakened voice.

"Get my Conformer for me....," she continued in that raspy whisper. "And help me up. I gotta kick some serious...." her voice trailed off.

"Yuffie...?" Nanaki nudged her arm.

"I think she's worse." Avian said quietly, his brow creased in concentration.

Nanaki thought the youth was dead right. They needed to get some medical attention for her as soon as possible.

He looked quickly around, his eye stopping on Lt. Jerol who was conscious, but still slumped against the railing on the higher level. Nanaki wondered about Lt. Keith, the only other junior crewman to stay aboard for the Highwind's desperate dive into the crater.

He glanced quickly around for him, but didn't see him anywhere.

"Mr. Jerol?" Nanaki called.

Jerol slowly turned his head, his eyes large in a pale face.

"Do you know Mr. Keith's whereabouts?"

"No," he said weakly. "I haven't seen him anywhere."

Nanaki didn't think the young officer could have fallen overboard. He didn't remember seeing him on the observation deck at all. Tifa and Vincent had been the only ones he'd seen near the broken panels.

Sadness overwhelmed him again at the thought of Tifa falling to her death, especially after they had all come so far together. He hoped Vincent could save her. He instinctively knew that Vincent had not jumped out of a sudden suicidal impulse, but to attempt to catch her in the form of his flying creature transformation, the beast Vincent once quietly told him was Chaos in mind and body.

Nanaki had been surprised that Vincent had even mentioned it since he rarely spoke of himself at all. He'd attempted to continue the conversation, but Vincent refused to speak further on the subject. Nanaki knew that a transformation earlier that day must have troubled Vincent sufficiently that he felt compelled to say something about it, but then had reined in his thoughts and locked them away once again.

"Ah, I think I've seen this guy you're lookin' for." Avian suddenly spoke, drawing Nanaki from his thoughts. "' think he's...ah..." Avian's voice faltered.

"What?" Nanaki asked sharply. He pinned Avian with a narrow-eyed look.

"I think he's dead..." Avian said haltingly, punctuating his announcement with a huge sigh.

"Where is he!? Are you sure?!" Nanaki exclaimed, stomach flipping at the thought of another lost crew member.

"Oh, yeah...I'm sure." Avian replied quietly. "He's out there." Avian flipped his hand toward the open doorway, his gaze dropping to his boot tips. He swallowed convulsively and grew pale under Nanaki's watchful eye.

Finally, Avian looked up to meet Nanaki's gaze.

"And if you're thinkin' about reviving him..." Avian gestured at the Mastered Materia in Nanaki's headdress. "Don't bother. He isn't reviveable." Avian suddenly brought his fist to his mouth and coughed softly.

Again, Nanaki was surprised at the boy's apparent experience with materia, and now that he thought about it, the boy's ease at holding a conversation with himself; almost as though he'd known before that Nanaki was not just a beast, but a sentient, intelligent being. Avian Wulfe certainly piqued Nanaki's interest. He hoped he would have a chance to converse with the lad at a more opportune time.

He stared at the doorway that Avian had indicated and wondered if he should check on Lt. Keith. He looked back at Yuffie, pale and drawn, her shallow breathing barely visible. She seemed to be asleep, an exhausted little girl who'd collapsed where she stood. He hoped that was the case, but he really didn't think so. He was afraid to leave her side.

He turned back to Avian. "Could you tell what happened to Lt. Keith?"

Avian nodded his head. "He fell off the catwalk into the machinery...and" Avian glanced at Nanaki and lifted a hand to his chest. " went...through..." He dropped his hand and looked away. He couldn't continue.

Nanaki sadly nodded his head. He could easily visualize what had happened, and he supposed Lt. Keith was beyond any help they could offer...other than to see him home. Wherever that may be.

Sorrow gripped his heart as he thought about all those who had been lost, and all those whose lives were forever changed from the destruction wrought forth by the actions of Shinra and Sephiroth. Even Sephiroth, diabolical in his madness, was only another unwitting victim of the insidious Shinra Corporation.

Nanaki forcibly put aside his sad thoughts. His grief would have to wait for awhile longer; grief for everyone...everything...Grandfather...

With a shake of his beaded mane, he turned his attention back to Yuffie. She remained as she did before. Her condition seemed no worse, but she certainly showed no improvement either.

"Perhaps we should move her from here...." Nanaki spoke his thoughts aloud.

Avian heard Nanaki speak, but he didn't comprehend his words. He stared at the three men standing at the head of the steps. Captain Highwind stood with one gloved hand fisted around the shaft of some sort of ornate, bladed lance, and his other hand dragged his lit cigarette from his mouth as he expelled a cloud of acrid smoke. The bulky man with the intricate firearm attached to his amputated right arm stood behind him. Neither of them interested Avian at all. His cursory glance had already swept past them to the third man, who stood on the Captain's right, and he could not tear his rapt gaze away.

He leaned against the hilt of a sword, the likes of which Avian had never seen. A strange, smoky glow swirled inside the wide blade, almost as though a living thing shifted within. As Avian stared into the light, the man lifted the sword over his shoulder and sheathed it to his back. At his sudden movement, Avian swung his gaze to the man himself.

His eyes flew wide as he recognized the battered uniform this man wore; the uniform of Shinra's elite and highly trained military force, Soldier. His eyes flew to the man's face. He gasped when his stare froze on the luminous blue Mako-enhanced eyes, an undeniable trademark of Soldier. And so like his father's...

Cloud grew uncomfortable under this unknown person's intent stare. He crossed his arms over his chest and nodded tensely at the youth. At the man's acknowledgment of him, Avian's mind snapped back into focus, and he jerked his gaze away, flushing red with embarassment at the rudeness of his stare.

He opened his mouth to apologize or say something potentially stupid, but Captain Highwind fortunately spoke before he could get a word out, capturing everyone's attention.

"Okay, this is the deal..." Cid stated, his gruff voice loud on the bridge. "We're gettin' off the ship. She ain't safe right now and she ain't goin' nowhere, an' we gotta bunch of stuff to do that ain't gettin' done sittin' here."

Cid swept his gaze around the bridge of his crippled ship, noisily drawing on his cigarette as his mind worked. He turned to look at Lt. Jerol as the young crewman pulled himself up and stood tall beside the railing. Then he turned his gaze to Yuffie's pale form. Blowing out a noxious cloud of smoke, he finally continued.

"Everybody's gonna get their stuff and head for the cargo bay. I'm gonna get this ship secured and I'll follow ya out." He turned to glare at Cloud who had his fist to his mouth in an attempt to stave off his urge to cough.

"Cloud, would ya grab Valentine's rifle there. Don't wanna leave that damn cannon laying around." Cloud nodded and headed back to retrieve the gun from the top of the metal console. "And what did ya do with Cait? We'll need him if Reeve tries to communicate with us."

Cloud nodded his head again. "I'll get him. He's just over here. I'm not sure he's still operating though".

"Cid..." Nanaki spoke. "Lt. Keith is..."

"Yeah, I know. I heard." Cid cut in. "I'll take care of him. Right now we gotta worry 'bout the livin'."

Nanaki lowered his eyes to Yuffie's slack face. "What about Yuffie? She isn't coming around. I think we need to find her a doctor."

"Yeah." Cid agreed. He pinned Avian with narrowed blue eyes. Avian stood slowly and glanced over his shoulder, wondering nervously if he ought to run.

"Kid!" Cid barked.

"What?!" Avian cried out as he nearly jumped out of his skin.

"Do ya think you could help Lt. Jerol find something to carry Yuffie outta here?"

Avian slumped in relief at Cid's simple request, but his reply was abruptly cut off as the ship lurched sideways, throwing him across Yuffie's still body. He scrambled to grab something to pull himself up, but suddenly froze as his attention was captured by a frayed electrical cable, sparking and popping amid all the debris and dislodged equipment, mere inches from his face. Carefully, he inched backwards.

Cloud had fallen to his hands and knees, the rifle clunking heavily to the floor in front of him and Cait Sith flying from his hand. He now crawled forward and cautiously lifted the rifle, thankful that the impact hadn't triggered the firearm. He slung the Death Penalty to his back as he climbed to his feet and headed across the canted floor toward Cid and Barrett. Bending down, he swept up Cait Sith as he passed.

Barrett rolled to his feet, and reached down to grab the collar of Cid's flight jacket, yanking him up as the pilot struggled to rise. Once upright, Cid nodded his thanks and stooped to retrieve the Venus Gospel. Leaning into the lance to brace himself against the steeper angle of the deck, he briefly glanced around to confirm that everyone else was still intact. It was definitely time to leave.

"Come on! We're gettin' outta here!" Cid exclaimed, voice rough with urgency. "She could go anytime! Let's get in gear!"

Nanaki, who had dropped to a crouch to keep from tumbling, now sprang to all fours. He was in total agreement. They needed to leave the Highwind right now. Yuffie needed medical attention, and remaining on board the airship had just become extremely hazardous.

Nanaki opened his mouth to urge Lt. Jerol and Avian to haste if they were not already encouraged, but when his quick glance froze on Yuffie, he choked instead.

Avian yelped as a hard, tight fist landed on his bruised nose.

"Get your lardass off'a me before I slice my way through you, you creepazoid."

Avian managed to shove himself away despite the burning desire to curl up in a ball and clutch his nose, but before he could get clear, a deceptively thin arm connected hard against his sternum.

Nanaki sprang sideways as Avian collided with him and fell into the debris. Avian rolled to his back and stared up at the black-eyed girl as he struggled to catch his breath. He quailed beneath her frigid glare, especially when he noticed the huge shuriken-like weapon that she lightly gripped in her slender fingers as she stood over him.

He flinched as she leaned down and swept the multi-bladed weapon before her, slicing the air above his nose. "Don't EVER make the mistake of touching me again if you want to continue to draw breath on this planet." She threatened in a low ominous voice. "And we will be taking up the matter of my stolen property. Later."

Without another word, she bounded effortlessly over the debris and vaulted the railing. Before Avian could pick himself up, she had already disappeared from the bridge.

"Who is that?!" Avian gasped.

"That is her royal pain in the ass, Yuffie Kisaragi," Cid announced. "and she looks fine to me. Plus she's already gone. Now quit fooling around and MOVE YOUR ASSES!"

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