Into the Maelstrom

NOTE: As the beginning of this epic incorporates a fairly extensive description of the ending of the game, before taking a dramatic turn, be forewarned that MAJOR SPOILERS abound here. So if you haven't finished the game, you might not want to read just yet.

Tifa Lockhart stood front and center on the observation deck of the Highwind, her wide eyes transfixed on the cataclysmic event unfolding on the other side of the thick glass. As she watched in utter disbelief, her white-knuckled hands tightened on the wooden railing in front of her as her body unconsciously reacted to a truth that her conscious mind yet denied.

For several minutes now, the entire Avalanche team had been witnessing the demolition of Midgar in stunned silence. Meteor, the malignant sphere of molten rock, ablaze in a mantle of seething fire, still partially fragmented from the encounter with the Shinra 26, had pierced the atmosphere above the hapless city and continued to descend. Four hellish vortexes of deadly, wind-driven flame had formed between the broken surface of Meteor and the densely populated top plate, and now roved among the efficiently designed thoroughfares and structures of the upper city, randomly carving pristine incisions throughout and strewing debris high into the turbulent air currents to be swept up in a capricious dance. All of them had watched helplessly as the city disintegrated before their eyes; a block of office buildings here, a cluster of communication towers there, homes and stores, parks and schools, all reduced to scrap and dust.

Even in the face of such devastation, Tifa hadn't given in to despair. Hope still reigned strong in her heart as she had waited for Holy with her friends around her. All eyes keenly focused on Midgar, the battle weary warriors had waited for Holy together; waited for the shining hope of salvation that Aeris had bequeathed to the Planet...and to them, payment exacted with her life; waited for the divine intervention that would end the insane destruction and justify all the blood and tears spilled...all the pain and sacrifice.

Not one soul on board had doubted that Holy would come. After all, the newly reconfigured airship, sleekly modified when Cid Highwind had engineered their hair-raising escape from the Northern Crater, had barely out-raced Holy to Midgar, arriving beforehand by mere minutes. And inevitably, Holy had appeared, the brilliant arrow of pure white light rocketing toward the beleaguered city across a starless night sky, then expanding rapidly in all directions to blanket the city and interdict Meteor's decreed course of annihilation.

Her awestruck eyes held prisoner to the magnificence of this unprecedented event, the ethereal explosion of iridescent light, the sheer magnitude of the combined power, Tifa had watched with bated breath as the omnipotent magic of Holy merged with the malevolent influence of Meteor, and she had waited expectantly for Meteor's complete obliteration as the two spells violently clashed above the city. However, as the minutes had crept past with excruciating slowness in which Meteor and Holy appeared to be locked in perfect stalemate, she had become increasingly aware that Meteor seemed undeterred by the presence of Holy. In fact, not only did it appear that Holy had apparently failed to end Meteor's relentless reign of destruction or significantly slow the gigantic sphere's immutable descent, but now the intense energy generated from the convergence of the Summon spells seemed to be fueling the devastation of the city, and her mind rebelled even as her brain accurately processed the meaning of what she could clearly see. She would not believe this was the end. She could not believe it.

Tifa fought back the pervasive sense of panic that teased the edges of her thoughts and tore her eyes away, unable to watch any longer. Seeking reassurance, she shot a glance around the observation deck, her anxious eyes searching out the familiar faces of her companions. She wanted so badly to find just a glimmer of hope in even one face, just a hint of encouragement that would dispel her terrible vision and reveal the falsity of her own perceptions. She wished desperately for just one to speak a word of assurance that would halt her descent into the suffocating quagmire of bone-numbing terror that threatened to bury her.

First, she shifted her gaze to the right where Barrett clenched the railing with a ham-sized fist. She carefully examined his tightly down-turned mouth, heavily creased brow, and his dark, sweat-beaded face. His tense body and defiant eyes described a state of barely suppressed anger roiling under the surface. He glared through the observation glass as though his menacing countenance alone could compel Meteor to flee back into the dark vacuum of space. Tifa found no reassurance in the face of her long-time friend.

She dropped her eyes to seek out the feline face of the Protector of Cosmo Canyon, so young yet so wise. Nanaki stood beside Barrett, his unscarred eye focused forward as well. Although highly intelligent, even more so than his human counterparts, his body language now revealed him as the predatory beast he actually could be. His flame-tipped tail switched back and forth, and the fringe of red hair bristled stiffly along the back of his muscular neck. His sleek form poised in half-crouch, his ears laid flat, and his muzzle drawn away from his sharp teeth, he seemed ready to obliterate the threat at hand with only fangs and claws. Her trepidation grew as she studied him.

Abruptly, she tore her eyes away from the red beast and swung her hopeful gaze around to Cloud who stood close beside her left elbow. Earlier, he'd seemed dazed when he'd finally roused from his collapse into unconsciousness after the defeat of Sephiroth. She had wanted to ask him about what he'd experienced while unconscious, what he'd meant by his strange statement about finding 'her' in the Promised Land, but the opportunity had been lost in the hectic whirlwind of their escape from the crater.

Later, when Holy had appeared, he'd stood with his arms crossed over his chest, mesmerized as the Summon spell unleashed its awesome power over Midgar, a slight smile on his lips, seemingly confident then of their deliverance from annihilation. Now, he leaned into the railing with his gloved hands fisted tightly around the top rail and his booted feet firmly planted to the floor. Narrowed blue eyes glared fiercely into the distance from a grim face. As far as Tifa was concerned, Cloud's stiffly tense attitude didn't bode well at all.

She wrapped her arms tightly about her waist in an attempt to assuage the queasiness that roiled in the pit of her stomach. She drew in a cleansing breath and leaned back slightly so she could see Cait Sith. She thought maybe the Shinra executive who controlled him from afar could provide some hopeful insight. However, the little cybernetic cat sat quietly atop his Mog with his mittened paws wrapped around his megaphone and his tiny golden crown askew. He was eerily silent, and Tifa realized that he had been so for awhile now. She didn't even know if Reeve still operated Cait Sith or if he was already occupied with the daunting task of keeping the people of Midgar safe. Perhaps Reeve, even now, speechlessly witnessed the destruction of the city through Cait Sith's eyes from somewhere in the slums underneath the besieged plate. She just didn't know. The only thing she did know was that the mute Cait Sith couldn't help her now.

Turning away from the rail, Tifa glanced over her shoulder at Cid Highwind. He stood at the pilot wheel, one gloved hand instinctively making the minute steering corrections needed to maintain the Highwind on her current heading, securely flying the ship on a circuitous flight path around Midgar, the other hand dragging a bent cigarette to his mouth. Fingers trembling slightly, he lifted a match to his cigarette and lit it, inhaling deeply. After a long moment, he released twin plumes of smoke from his nostrils.

At first glance, Cid appeared rather detached from his surroundings, but one look into his intense, sharply focused eyes belied that impression. Brows lowered, those unwavering blue eyes were zeroed in on Midgar.

Suddenly, Tifa realized that she hadn't heard Cid's gruff voice for some time, not since he'd pulled off their miraculous escape from the crater, blasting the Highwind away from the crest of the explosive geyser of Holy with a triumphant curse. Now, none of his colorful swear words peppered their ears, nor had he uttered even one of his blunt observations, usually punctuated with a bouncing cigarette stuck between his lips. Studying his grizzled face, she wondered if Shera occupied his thoughts at all. Even though he would never accept it, she suspected that his devoted engineer had more to offer him than her formidable technical skills. Whatever consumed his thoughts, he didn't seem inclined to voice them. For that matter, no one on the bridge had spoken a single word in a long time, not a sound to challenge the constant electronic hum of the machines or the muted roar of the jet engine.

As she listened, a different sound gradually drew her attention in the relative silence, one which Tifa didn't recognize at first, but which she eventually sorted out of the surrounding background reverberations. Tracking the origin of the sound, she turned completely around and spotted Yuffie clutching the top of an electronic control console with both hands. Slumped over the metal surface, she drew soft rapid breaths in and out, probably in an attempt to quell her persistent nausea. Normally, she remained below deck where the motion sickness didn't hit her as hard, but Tifa knew that she didn't want to be alone down there now, not when the continued existence of the Planet and their lives hung in the balance. Yuffie looked at her, dilated eyes starkly black against her whitened face, terror lurking in their depths. Still fighting back the barely constrained panic gnawing the edges of her own mind, she fleetingly wondered if Yuffie's face mirrored her own.

Tifa took a hesitant step toward her, but Yuffie shook her head and waved her off, apparently guessing her intent. "You okay?" Tifa mouthed, strangely reluctant to be the one to shatter the self-imposed quiet. Yuffie nodded and pushed herself erect, leaning her side into the metal cabinet, her intense pride forcibly banishing the detested weakness down inside. Tifa watched her for a moment longer, then turned away, satisfied that she was fine...for the moment.

As Tifa turned to face the front again, her eyes froze on the tall, imposing figure of Vincent Valentine. The ex-Turk rarely came up on the observation deck, but he had abandoned his usual position amidships to witness the ultimate outcome of the battle between Meteor and Holy. He stood a few feet behind Nanaki, apart and aloof as always, his metal arm hanging loosely by his left side, sharp digits slightly flexed. His gloved right hand rested on the holster of his sidearm, and a leather strap held the long-barreled Death Penalty to his back, the wooden stock mostly hidden in the folds of his blood-red cloak.

Always partially concealed by the high buckled collar of the cloak and the wide bandana around his forehead that restrained his rebellious black mane, his impassive face revealed absolutely no emotion. Although Tifa knew that he always exuded a statue-like repose, his pale face a frozen mask rarely marked by any expression, she was still amazed that he exhibited such dead calmness even now, with the city being ripped apart before his eyes. Sadness filled her as she wondered if the outcome of this night held any meaning for him at all. Would it matter to him one whit if everything ended tonight...if they all...died...tonight? Did such concerns trouble his mind at all?

As though he sensed her thoughts, he abruptly turned and looked straight at her. His cool, crimson eyes skimmed over her tense face, coming to rest on her own startled eyes. After a long moment, his indifferent gaze slid away, and he faced forward again.

Oddly, she felt calmer, her spirit less fragile, as though his dispassion, however inappropriate she might think at this moment, had eased her mind. She gazed curiously at him a moment longer, then reluctantly turned to confront the violent scene over Midgar once more.

Although only a few short minutes had elapsed since she last looked, the situation had obviously grown much worse. Her heart leapt into her throat when she saw that the destruction had increased greatly in magnitude. The immense power of the merged Summon spells now decimated the upper city. Large portions of the top plate had been swept clean of any trace of human occupation, the riveted metal support sheets bared to the sky. The lofty Shinra Tower, scarcely visible through a turbulent cloud of dust and debris held suspended in midair, now swayed in the tempest. Tifa brought her fist to her mouth as the sturdy structure tilted so far back she thought it would tear from its foundation.

As she watched in shock, the extensive windows that lined the entire structure of the Shinra Tower exploded outwards in a spray of iridescent glass, and the outer walls crumpled as the upper floors slowly collapsed, the whole top section of the building precariously tipping back the other way. A sharp pang speared through her chest and numbness crept through her limbs even as she fought back the terror that crawled into her mind, her brief moments in the calm eye of the storm already forgotten. She gasped against her fist when a whole plate section suddenly tipped in and fell, accompanied by the screech of tortured metal and the crash of several tons of thick iron plate, still faintly audible on the bridge despite their distance from the city.

A strangled sound of pain seized her attention, and she dragged her eyes around to find Cloud still beside her, his shoulders slumped and arms limp at his sides, the portrait of utter dejection. His unfocused Mako eyes blindly roved the deck between his feet as though the conflagration had seared his vision away. Shaking his head slowly from side to side, an anguished whisper slipped off his lips. "Aeris..."

Sudden tears burned in Tifa's eyes. She pressed her fingertips into her closed eyelids to stifle them before they fell. She would not cry...could not cry now. She knew if she cried now, the tears would never stop. Then the sobs would come, and with them would come absolute despair. She forced herself to breathe as she struggled to hold her emotions at bay. Trembling weakly, she sucked in several deep breaths until she had regained a modicum of composure, her threatened tears successfully stemmed for the moment. She lifted her head to gaze at Cloud's despondent face and stretched a hand to brush his fingers, but he paid her no mind. Tifa let her hand fall.

White-faced, she jerked her head around when Barrett slammed his gun arm into the railing, violently shattering the solemn stillness on the bridge. "Wait a damned minute!" He shouted. "What's goin' to happen to Midgar?!" He swept a piercing glare across the faces around him. "We can't let that happen!" Tifa didn't know what to say to him. She glanced at Cloud to see what he would say, but she found that he'd now dropped bonelessly onto the bench behind them, and didn't seem inclined to answer the big man's questions, if he had even heard him speak.

Tifa started when Cait Sith suddenly spoke, effectively declaring Reeve's continued presence on the bridge in his high-pitched, musical voice. Tifa looked hopefully at the silly black and white face of the little cat as she listened. "I had everyone take refuge in the slums..." Cait said quietly, his little white-mittened hands waving about his head. Then the little cybernetic cat dropped his head in sorrow. "...But the way things are now..." He shook his head slowly. Her tears threatened to return as she watched him and thought of the Shinra executive whose own movements were no doubt mirrored by the mittened cat, his alter ego. He'd poured his sweat and blood into that city, and she knew that he'd pulled off nothing short of a miracle if he had managed to get all the people of Midgar to the slums. Now, for the very first time, Reeve was the one in immediate danger while his battle-scarred counterpart soared safely overhead. The city he'd helped build might very well come down on top of him.

Tifa turned to her right again when Nanaki moved forward. He stopped with his nose just short of the glass, intent eyes locked on the city below, beaded locks swinging about his face, the gold earrings in each ear glinting in the ethereal light that lit the whole sky. "It's too late for Holy." He stated grimly. "Meteor is approaching the Planet." Turning his head, he focused his good eye on Barrett's tense face and added tersely. "Forget Midgar. We have to worry about the Planet."

At Nanaki's words, Cid suddenly regained his voice. "What in the damned hell we s'posed to do now?! I'd ram the Highwind down that goddammed thing's gullet if I didn't know it'd chew us to splinters and bolts in two seconds flat and spit us right back out on Midgar!" he exclaimed in frustration. He jerked a cigarette from the pack stuck in the strap of his flight goggles and struck a match across the pilot wheel. His blue-eyed glare still locked on Midgar, he raised the match and lit his cigarette for a long drag before he spoke again. "So, if anyone's got any bright ideas, I'm game." He continued in a steadier voice. "But we better come up with something damned quick! That goddamned Meteor isn't gonna wait around while we untwist our drawers!"

For long moments, silence fell across the bridge after Cid stopped talking. Tifa closed her eyes and let her head fall, but the quiet voice behind her brought her around.

"We are but feathers in the maelstrom, insubstantial shades with no corporeal influence." Vincent murmured in his peculiar monotone, apparently his response to Cid's demand for action.

As Vincent's words seeped into her mind, she nodded sadly to herself and leaned over the railing to peer down at the ground rushing beneath the airship far below. Looks like all they could do now was worry about the Planet...and wait for the end. She felt the tears burning behind her eyes again and let them come, although she choked back the sob that nearly erupted from her throat.

Yes, Vincent had it right. They were all feathers...helpless feathers caught up in a merciless wind, about to be swirled right out of existence. The magic that was Holy, the Planet's answer to a fervent prayer invoked by a lone Cetra girl, the last of her race, as the ultimate chance to save a doomed world...had failed.

Thoughts of Aeris flowed unbidden through her mind. She pictured her as she had last seen her, kneeling on the ancient crystalline altar in the Forgotten City, her hands folded in supplication. She recalled vividly the moment Aeris raised her head and discovered Cloud there. Gazing only at his face, her eyes radiated with such love, and she smiled with such sweetness that all of them were struck by her warmth and innocent beauty. Then the light in her eyes died, and her smile froze in that moment of time when Sephiroth drove his Masamune straight through her heart.

All her dreams shattered, her young life snatched from her, the loss rendered insignificant...completely meaningless...by the failure of Holy. This, Tifa knew, was the source of Cloud's pain, not just that he had loved her...she could not deny that fact anymore...but that her sacrifice was such a colossal waste.

Of course, in the scheme of things, nothing mattered now. It would soon be over.

With a fierce shake of her head, Tifa repulsed her unsettling thoughts, the poignant images slipping away into darkness. Her mental awareness reverted to the physical world where her eyes sharply refocused on the indistinct contours of the ground sweeping away far below her feet. Refusing to look directly at Midgar again, she incuriously watched a mountain range, painted in the shadows of night, emerge into view.

A tiny pinpoint of light sparked from the stygian darkness of a deep mountain valley, capturing Tifa's immediate attention. She peered intently at the brilliant green light, but she couldn't define exactly what she was seeing. She swiped her gloved hand across her eyes to clear away her recent tears, and looked closely again. "What's that?" She pointed at the glass. Barrett shook off his daze and stepped back to the railing to peer narrowly in the direction she indicated. The green pinpoint of light had stretched into a luminous green tendril. "What the hell is that?" He demanded.

Within seconds, the snaky tendrils of ethereal light sprang from cracks and crevices all over the Planet's surface to undulate across the uneven terrain toward Midgar. Wide-eyed, Tifa grabbed the railing with both hands and watched, not quite ready to open her heart to the intoxication of bright hope that danced in the corners of her mind. She shot a glance at Cloud when he suddenly rose from his seat and came to the railing beside her. Mesmerized, he watched the threads of light weaving together to form a glowing, sparkling blanket of green... "Lifestream..." He murmured. He leaned forward over the railing and extended his fingers toward the glass as though to tangibly confirm the reality of his vision.

In no time at all, the Lifestream covered the Planet as far as they could see. The luminous miasma surrounded all of Midgar and poured into the convergence point of Holy and Meteor. No one spoke a word as everyone raptly watched and waited to see what effect Lifestream would have. Tifa's fear melted completely away, and her heart swelled with excitement and joy. Surely, the Spirit energy of Lifestream had emerged for only one purpose, to stop the destruction of the Planet...to preserve itself...maybe to give humans another chance.

Suddenly, a blinding light flashed out from Midgar and bathed the entire sky in brilliant white, painfully searing Tifa's eyes. She threw both hands up to cover her face and waited patiently for the red aftereffects to fade so she could see what had become of the city. She never got the chance. The wide deck abruptly heaved under her as the Highwind heeled over under a massive wall of turbulent air. Tifa tumbled backwards when the airship violently nosed up, and she cracked her head into the hard wooden floor.

Dazed, she struggled to rise from the wildly pitching deck. She managed to climb halfway to her feet, but she staggered sideways when the ship lifted again, her arms windmilling frantically as she fought to stand upright. Before she could regain her balance, the ship shuddered convulsively beneath a barrage of debris from the explosion over Midgar, and glass imploded inwards in a razor edged spray as a rain of objects smashed into the observation window. Instinctively, Tifa threw her arms over her face even as she tumbled heavily onto her side. She cried out as an object cracked painfully into her ribcage. She couldn't see a thing for all the fine dust suspended in the air, the tiny particles stinging her eyes when she tried to open them. She shouted for Cloud, then Barrett, but she couldn't even hear her own voice. The horrendous din of all the debris slamming into the outer hull and pelting the floor of the bridge deck effectively deafened her.

Knowing she was on her own, she rolled onto her stomach and hugged the deck, her arms stretched out to the sides and her hands flattened to the floor. She squinted her eyes into the keen wind as she tried to orient herself in a world gone mad. She caught a brief glimpse of Cid hanging desperately to the pilot wheel, fighting for all he was worth to regain control of his ship.

The roiling wind howled through the broken observation window, whipping her hair into her eyes. Still glued flat to the pitching deck, she carefully turned her head, her cheek scraping against the gritty wood. Lifting her eyes to scan across the bridge, she immediately spotted Barrett, awkwardly sprawled across the deck. He was lying flat to the floor with his muscular arms wrapped around a rail post, his body sliding with the pitch of the ship. Then she spotted Nanaki, belly-down with his claws embedded in the wood and his muzzle down between his outstretched legs. She caught a movement from the corner of her eyes and slid her head further around. She recognized the gold-capped toe of one of Vincent's boots and shifted a bit more to see him struggling to rise from where he apparently had been thrown backwards into the stainless steel electronic cabinet. Personally, she thought he would be better off to stay put, but if anyone could manage to move under these conditions, it would be him.

Well aware that she hadn't seen a sign of Cloud during her visual sweep of the bridge, she lifted her head from the floor to look for him, desperate to find him in one piece. She swung her head and squinted in the direction she'd last seen him, but before she could get a good look, the airship suddenly lurched again. Taken by surprise, her chin slammed into the deck and her teeth sliced into her lower lip on impact.

She choked back a groan as tears sprang into her eyes, and she laid her cheek to the floor as she waited for the pain to subside. She rested a few moments until the pain in her jaw had settled to a dull throb, then she spat out a mouthful of blood and lifted her head again, ready to resume her search for Cloud.

Instead, she froze when she heard the faint wavering sound of someone crying hysterically, barely discernible over the howling wind. Moving her head to and fro as she concentrated on finding the source of the sound in all the noise, she finally realized that it came from behind her, down in the lower level somewhere, near where Yuffie had been standing against the console. Yuffie...it was Yuffie crying. She'd probably been thrown down the steps. The teenage ninja girl was tough as nails, and Tifa knew that she must be dreadfully hurt and terrified out of her mind to scream like that. She had to get to her now.

With that thought, she pushed herself up onto her hands and knees, the bucking deck like an enraged chocobo trying to toss her into the dirt. She scrabbled around to face the back of the ship, wincing as her knee came down hard on a jagged splinter of glass. She shifted her weight to the other knee and reached with one hand to pull it out as she tried futilely to hold herself steady with her other hand to the floor. She touched the piece of glass with shaky fingers just as the ship tipped sideways at an alarming angle. She tumbled onto her side and rolled across the glass littered deck. Her shoulder crashed into a stray chunk of wood, sending her body pivoting sideways. Now sliding rapidly over a fine spray of powdered glass particulate, she flung her hands out and turned her toes into the wood to slow her momentum. The metal toe plate on her boot and her short fingernails scraped across the abrasive surface as she tried to dig in, every loose object nearby tumbling along with her.

Just as she thought she would slam up against the rail, the ship abruptly leveled, and she skidded to a stop. Weak with relief, she slumped limply against the deck. She let her head fall against her outstretched arm as she shoved her tangled hair out of her face with a blood-smeared hand. Every part of her body hurt in some form or fashion. A stabbing pain pierced her knee where the glass shard had been wrenched out against the floor. Her shoulder and ribcage ached dully, her busted lip throbbed unremittingly, and her whole body burned with the sting of all the cuts she'd acquired from slipping over the glass-covered deck, wounds too numerous to count. However, Tifa recognized that all her injuries were superficial, and she knew she couldn't stay here a moment longer. She couldn't hear Yuffie crying anymore over the shrieking wind, but she still needed to get to her.

She gathered her strength and attempted once more to rise from the unstable deck. Shock jolted through her whole body when she realized that her feet were hanging unsupported in air. She twisted her head back sharply and confirmed her fears. Her painful slide had landed her in the space between the end of the railing and the metal console. She should have come up against the thick glass, but the transparent barrier that she'd always taken for granted wasn't there. It was smashed out. Gone. Nothing stood between her and...oblivion.

Panic bit down hard into her mind, and her senses tried to skitter away, but she forced herself to stay calm. She knew that she had to get a hold on something quickly to secure her tenuous position, even though she didn't think she could move. The wild turbulence still tossed the airship about like a cork on a storm-ravaged sea, and she was afraid to raise her body for fear she would tumble off the edge.

Instead, she frantically cast her eyes about for something...anything to grasp. She reached for the last rail post, stretching her arm to its fullest extent, her fingers trembling with the strain. It was just no good. She reached the other way, her fingertips brushing cool metal, but the control console was completely featureless here, the smooth surface curving away from her. The ship rocked again and panic surged anew. She threw her hands flat to the floor and pressed her cheek against the wood.

Vincent had finally managed to pick himself up from the floor where he'd landed after rebounding off the metal console. He had just scooted over to sit with his back pressed to the cabinet when he lifted his eyes to see Tifa slide past, the pulverized layer of debris fueling her speed. Instinctively, his hand shot out, but she was just out of reach. He turned his head to follow her just as she finally came to a stop, and the wind blasting through the broken window ripped his hair away from his face. Immediately recognizing the precariousness of her current position, he raised onto his knees and tightened his claw grip around the metal conduit that held him in place. Leaning out, he stretched his right hand towards her, but she was too far away despite her halt just short of the edge.

Bracing his booted feet against the front panel of the console, he leaned even further out over the pitching deck, both arms painfully outstretched to their fullest extent. Now he knew he could reach her if she would just look up. He shouted her name to get her attention, but she couldn't hear him over the terrible noise. He stared hard, willing her to look as he watched her hands frantically sweep the floor for an anchor. Eventually, she fell still, her hands and body pressed flat to the deck. He shouted her name again, but doubted that she'd heard him, his own voice lost to himself in the howling wind.

As though she sensed his intent regard, she finally looked up through her tangled hair, and her dazed eyes froze on his hand. Instantly, she moved and threw her hand up to grab his fingertips in an iron grip. Her fingers were wet with her own blood, and he struggled to reach one more inch, to gain a firmer hold on her hand. Just then, the ship violently rolled, caught in the teeth of a vicious crosswind. Their weak grip ripped loose, and she slipped away.

Without a thought, he released the pipe and pushed his feet forcefully against the panel. His hand still reaching for her, he launched his body across the floor. He came down hard on the deck, sliding fast. Twisting slightly, he grabbed wildly for her still outstretched fingers. His hand fell on hers just as the voracious wind took her, his fingertips barely grazing her knuckles before her hand was snatched from beneath his palm. Mouth frozen wide in a silent scream and broken nails clawing the deck, her terrified eyes locked on his face as she tumbled into space and disappeared.

Still sliding fast himself, Vincent dug his metal talons into the hardwood. The raking digits dragged him to a near stop. In the blink of an eye, he sprang to his feet. Two stumbling steps brought him to the edge, and he leapt headlong into the wild night.

Nanaki squinted into the stinging wind, his stunned gaze locked in utter disbelief on the place where Vincent had just plunged headfirst off the edge. With all that he'd seen transpire in the last brief moments, he prayed that he was merely snared in the clutches of a vicious nightmare and would awaken very soon.

He didn'd have time to ponder the matter long though, because the airship suddenly underwent an astonishing transformation from a sleek, aerodynamic craft struggling to stay aloft, into a mortally wounded bird falling precipitously down through the maelstrom. Nanaki buried his muzzle between his paws and tightly closed his eyes.

Despite the veteran pilot's valiant efforts, Cid Highwind'd ship, his Lady Luck, was going down. She had surrendered her tentative hold on the sky and now plummeted earthwards, screaming in protest as she went.




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