Balance of Power Chapter 5

By Frank Verderosa & Jen Bond

Tifa looked up at the grey sky and squinted. A light rain had been falling all day, not enough to keep everyone inside, though she doubted that would happen in a militay camp even if it were coming down heavily, but enough to turn the dirt roads of the camp into a muddy mess. Tifa tried to watch her footing and keep to the side of the road where turfs of grass provided stepping stones for the wary, but even so her shoes were caked with dirt.

Still, she ingnored it as best she could as she made her way to the Colonel's headquarters. A week had passed since Wutai had invaded Rocket Town. The battle between Wutai and Junon had been raging since. Tifa had been talking to the Colonel almost every day, trying to keep informed of the progress of the assault, though she was sure the Colonel would have preferred if she left him alone.

Cid had recovered from his surgery and was now on his feet, though he still suffered a slight limp that the doctors had told him would go away in a few more days. Still, he was supposed to stay off his feet as much as possible, so Tifa was usually the one to go to the Colonel and pump him for information.

The door swung open in front of her. Two soldiers walked out, talking loudly. They stepped quickly out of her way as she entered the building. As usual it was crowded with soldiers. She walked up to the desk in front of the Colonel's office.

"Hello Miss Lockheart," the soldier at the desk said, giving her a warm smile.

"Hello Sam," she replied. Corporal Eddings was the Colonel's personal secretary, and he and Tifa had gotten to know one another quite well this past week. She could tell that he was a little bit smitten with her, and she would be lying if she said she hadn't used that to her advantage on occasion.

"I'm afraid the Colonel's in a very bad mood today," the Corporal commented.

"Why's that?" Tifa asked.

Sam shook his head.

"Not sure, news from the front, I suppose. All very hush hush, you know. But anyway, right now he's in a meeting and left specific orders not to be disturbed."

"How long do you think he's going to be?" Tifa questioned.

"Not sure, but quite a while, at least. The place had been a beehive of activity today, even more so than usual. I've already got a stack of twenty messages for him, and it isn't even noon yet. Whatever's happening, it's causing a whole lot of activity."

"And you have no idea at all what's going on?" she said as innnocently as she could.

"No really," he replied. "If I knew anything I would tell you. Usually you pick up something about what's going on, but today everyone in the know is keeping their lips sealed. All I can tell you is, it's something big."

Tifa nodded slowly. She was pretty sure if Sam knew anything, he would tell her.

"Okay, just let me know if the Colonel becomes available," she said.

"Uh huh," he replied. "Though you might have trouble catching him. Like I said, he's in a bad mood, and I think he's going to be even less happy to talk to you than he usually is."

"I have been making kind of a pain in the ass of myself, haven't I?" Tifa commented.

"Hey, that's okay with me," Sam replied. "I can understand how you feel. But yeah, the Colonel might feel that way. In fact, I'm sure he feels that way. But he's got a lot on his mind today, and I think this once it might be better if you just left him alone."

She knew the Colonel wasn't too thrilled with her constantly bugging him, but no one else would tell her anything, and it was the only way she could find out what was going on. Maybe she had been pushing her luck lately, but now that she knew something was happening, she was even less reluctant to leave him alone. Whatever was going on, it probably had something to do with Rocket Town, and if that were true, she wanted to know what was happening. But she couldn't just barge into his office, or he might really carry through on his threat to have her shot.

"Okay Sam," she said slowly. "Thanks for the info. But if something is happening to Rocket Town, I'd really really want to know."

"If I find out anything, you'll be the first to know," he replied.

She gave him a smile of thanks, and then walked back out of the building. Damn! It was so frustrating not knowing what was going on. She was tempted sometimes to take the Tiny Bronco up herself just to fly over Rocket Town and see the situation. The Colonel had told her that resistance to their attack had been greater than expected, and the expulsion of Wutai from Rocket Town might take longer than they had at first envisioned, but he still had no doubts that they would ultimately prevail. He had told her practically the same thing for the last three days, and she was begining to wonder whether he was just saying it to shut her up.

She started back down the street, then stopped at the side of the building. A narrow alley ran between the Colonel's headquarters and the supply store beside it. She knew from experience his office was on this side of the building. She even knew exactly which window it was, and could in fact see it from where she stood.

On a whim she walked between tbe buildings. The grass hadn't been trampled here, and it was a relief from the mud covered road. She had noticed when she was in the Colonel's office that he liked to keep the window open a little to let fresh air in.

She came up slowly beside the window, and was rewarded to see that it was indeed open just a hair. She looked back and forth, but she could see no one. Straining her ears she could hear voices coming through the window. She recognized the Colone's deep baritone immediately, and the voice of another man she had seen at the headquarters often, Captain Miller. There was also a third voice, one she did not recognize.

"I don't like it anymore than you do," the man whose voice she did not recognize was saying, "But orders are orders. And these are straight from High Command in Junon."

"All I'm asking for is two more days," the Colonel protested. "I know we can acheive a breakthrough in that time. The defending forces are weak to the south of Rocket Town. I'm preparing to lauch a mechanized assault on them even as we speak."

Tifa backed up a bit, making sure she could not be seen from the window. She couldn't believe she was actually eavesdropping on the Colonel's office. Seemed kind of ironic after the lecture he had given her about keeping her own mouth shut.

"Mechanized assault," the man retorted dismissively. "With what? All your forces are tied up on the assault from the east. You and I both know that you don't have the men or hardware to launch another assault."

"I've combined elements of the third and seventh brigade to form a new unit," the Colonel replied. "That's what I'm going to launch the assault with."

"The third and seventh?" the man said. "We both know those brigades got pounded two days ago. Nearly half their vehicles were destroyed outright, and of the one's left, what, maybe a third are funtional enough to use in battle? You wouldn't be able to launch a successful attack with those units against an elementary school."

"We've done some major field repair," the Colonel insisted. "Almost three quarters of the remaining units are ready for battle."

There was a momentary pause.

"I sincerly doubt that," the unknown man stated.

"I assure you it is true," the Colonel replied. "We are ready to start the assault tonight."

"It doesn't matter, it's too late. Wutai has already recieved reinforcements. It's the judgement of high command that we no longer have the resourses necessary to defeat the Wutai army in Rocket Town. They are ordering you to begin operation Scorched Earth."

"Dammit, we can take this town back!" the Colonel exclaimed.

"Excuse me sir," Captain Miller spoke up for the first time. "But I'm not familar with oeperation Scorched Earth. What exactly is it?"

"It's a plan put in place by Junon High Command in case we didn't succeed in taking back Rocket Town," the Colonel replied. "Only those with a need to know have been told about it, and as my top gunnery officer, you are going to need to know. As you know, the rocket launch pads in Rocket Town could prove vital to either Wutai or Junon in this war, and obviously both sides would like to have them under their own control. The best case of course, is if we had them under the control of Junon, but it doesn't look like that is going to happen. Instead it looks like they are going to remain in Wutai hands. Operation Scorched Earth is very simple. It states that if we can't have the lauch pads, then it's better that no one does. Captain Miller, prepare your artillery to fire on Rocket Town. Since we can't have them, we're going to pound those launch pads into rubble!"

Again their was a momentary silence, and Tifa suddenly felt sick to her stomach.

"But sir," Captain Miller pointed out. "The artillery is not very accurate. The launch pads are practically in the town itself. If we fire on them, we're going to destroy the town as well."

"I'm not too thrilled with the idea, Captain," the Colonel replied. "But High Command, in it's infinite wisdom, has decided that the town is expendable. The attack is to commence in one half hour. I suggest you get your guns ready."

"Yes sir," the Captain replied. "But one more thing. I know Captain Highwind is in the infirmary. He's not going to take too kindly to our firing on Rocket Town."

"I know that," the Colonel replied. "But it doesn't matter. I have orders about him as well. He is to be transported to Junon. High Command has decided he's too valuable to risk in this war. They think he'd be more useful to the war effort working on designing rockets instead of fighting. He is to be taken to Junon immediately."

"I don't think he's going to like that idea," the Captain said dubiously.

"I don't care whether he likes it or not. Orders are orders. I want him out of here before the attack commences. Do whatever you have to do. Place him under house arrest if necessary, but get him to Junon. Am I making myself clear?"

"Yes sir."

Tifa didn't stop to hear anymore. She turned and ran down the street, her heart in her throat. She couldn't believe this was happeing, she couldn't believe that the Colonel, that Junon, would even consider doing what they were going to do. After barely escaping from Wutai, she though that they at least were all fighting for the same thing. But now she saw how foolish that had been. Nobody in Junon cared about Rocket Town. The only reason the Colonel was helping her was because they were helping themselves at the same time. But as soon as it looked like Rocket Town might turn into a threat to Junon, they were turning on her and Cid, and all the people of Rocket Town.

She rushed into the infirmary, nearly bowling over a nurse as she rushed to Cid's bed. Cid was sitting up reading a newspaper when he saw her running over. The newspaper fell from his hands.

"Cid, we've got to get out of here!"

He noticed the distress on her face and asked, "What's goin' on?"

"There's not much time to explain. I overheard the Colonel saying they have orders to destroy Rocket Town and you're being ordered to Junon immediately for safety reasons."

Cid's immediate response wasn't one that she had expected. He calmly got up and began to put his boots on, tying the laces almost too slow for her stretched nerves. It was when he went to tie the knots, and gave them a vicious jerk, that she knew just how furious he was. And when he looked over at her, his eyes were blazing with the force of his anger.

"Tifa, we gotta get to the Tiny Bronco. But it ain't gonna be easy."

She nodded. She understood perfectly, and was ready to do anything so long as they got out of here. She knew they could probably make it, but what about Rocket Town? Two people in one small airplane weren't enough to stop a whole army from decimating a town. God, she hated war.

As they ran down the hallway, Cid felt fury and fear churning in his gut. He knew there was no way he and Tifa could stop Junon from destroying Rocket Town, and it angered him that they would kill so many people for their own selifsh needs. They had made a promise to him, to Tifa, and to the whole town that they would do everything in their power to stop Wutai. Now he realized the whole thing was a lie, and that promises meant nothing to them.

From behind them, they suddenly heard the murmer of voices and Cid's name was mentioned quite clearly.

"Don't look back. Just keep runnin'," Cid told Tifa, grabbing onto her hand.

Damn. The soldiers had come already. They worked fast. It would mean that he and Tifa had even less time to get to the Tiny Bronco than he had hoped. And there would probably be soldiers guarding that as well. He hadn't had time to grab his spear when the attack had erupted on Rocket Town, so he had no weapon and no materia.

There were shouts behind them now, and both Cid and Tifa knew their flight had been discovered. They were already running at a grueling pace, but Cid pushed on harder and admired that Tifa managed to keep up and didn't utter a word of complaint.

"Cid!" Tifa managed. "Their destroying Rocket Town because they don't want Wutai to have the rocket launch pads. And, they hoped to keep you in Junon working on plans for new rockets."

"Bastards. I know, but it doesn't matter," Cid replied. "They ain't gettin' me."

Although Cid knew they were running at a pace that would cause his legs to ache later, it seemed that they were going much too slow and that the soldiers behind them were gaining ground. He could see the door just up ahead. Now if only they could reach it.

"Keep pushin' Tifa, we're almost there!"

Tifa thought she had never ran so fast or so far in her whole entire life. It seemed like they would never reach the door that led to escape. Behind her, she could hear the pounding of the soldiers feet on the floor and the yells of the nurse. Where they trying to seal off the exits?

"Cid! We have to get out now! I think they're going to lock the doors!"

Cid nodded and pushed himself harder, sure that his heart was going to break out of his chest and his lungs were going to burst.

Finally, they made it to the door and pushed through just in time to hear the familar click of the locks.

"They didn't get us!" Tifa yelled in triumph, stopping to catch her breath for only a moment.

Cid leaned over, nodding his head in agreement, and wheezing. It seemed those cigarettes he loved so much were beginning to take a toll on him. And then, his leg buckled and pain radiated up it as he fell.

"Oh God, Cid! You're leg! And we've been running..."

He shook his head to silence her. "I'll be all right. We gotta keep goin'. Here," he added, reaching up his hand, "help me to my feet."

Tifa reached down at took his hand, shaking her head. "You don't have to be so macho about things."

Cid flashed her a grin to stifle the grimace of pain as she helped him up.

"Don't have a choice. We gotta get goin' before they reach us."

She nodded and took his hand, hoping to be able to give him some support in case his leg gave out on him again.

Cid ignored the intense pain in his leg, and concentrated on reaching their goal. Once they got into the Tiny Bronco, they had to take off immediately, whether there was enough room for it or not. In his present state of mind, he didn't give a damn who he had to run over to get his airplane out of here.

The door to the hospital burst open so hard, that the echo of it hitting the building reached far beyond the ears of Tifa and Cid. It alerted three nearby guards who had mistaken the sound for gunfire. Tifa chanced a look back and found that there were five soldiers chasing them. If they got caught, she knew they would have a hard time fighting off that many with Cid injured and weaponless.

"I don't think were gonna make it without fightin' them, Tifa," Cid panted, the Tiny Bronco now within sight.

"I was afraid of that. You're in no shape to fight."

"Well, you can't take them all on by yourself, so I'll have to give it my best shot."

Tifa wasn't about to argue with him, it would only waste time they didn't have. Once they reached the Tiny Bronco, they would have no choice but to fight. There wouldn't be enough time to get in and fly away before the soldiers reached them. And they couldn't chance that they would shoot the airplane down and damage it in any way. It was their only way of escape.

Cid knew as well as Tifa that they would have to fight. He only hoped he would be able to offer her some help. He hated how weak his injury made him. A week had passed and he still wasn't healed enough to move around like normal. And here he was pushing himself to the limit.

He should have known he couldn't trust Junon. A part of him hadn't ever, but being injured and in no position to argue with the colonel, he had no choice. Now it had all come down to this. They were running from Junon, running from Wutai, and they had no place to go. And they had reached the Tiny Bronco. Cid shook his head. "I can't let you face them all. 'Sides, we can't chance them shootin' the Bronco Shinra once did," he added, voicing her thoughts.

Tifa was surprised she could smile at the memory, given the situation they now found themselves in.

"They could shoot us," she said aloud.

Cid narrowed his eyes. "They need me. And I ain't lettin' them shoot you."

"Halt! Mr. Highwind, Miss. Lockheart, we have to ask that you come back with us."

Cid casually stuck a cigarette between his lips and lit. "Can't do that."

"Sir. We don't want to have to hurt you, and we have strict orders not to shoot or kill either of you."

"Bad move," Tifa replied, darting forward to sweep the legs out from under the man nearest her.

He hit the ground hard, and lay gasping for his breath. Although she hated doing it, she punched him upside the head to knock him out and leapt back up to prepare for the next assault.

Cid stepped in, wincing as the movement stung his leg and attempted to be of some help. The soldier facing him lifted his gun as though to use it and then sighed when he realized he had been ordered not to. He doged Cid's first attempt at a punch and managed to catch the old pilot just on the inside of the neck. Cid screwed his face up in a look of pain, stepped back, and kicked the soldier in the knee.

The soldier stumbled and fell. When he hit the ground, Cid rushed forward to take care of him completely, and then his leg chose that moment to give out on him. He fell too, reality shifting for a moment as his head smacked against the ground.

Tifa threw two swift punches and a good kick toward her current opponent, knowing they had hit hard by the look on his face. One soldier came up from behind her and grabbed her around the waist, pulling her back. Jerking her head back, she caught him full in the face. With a startled cry, he let go of her and she felt herself grow furious. It was bad enough that they had to be in the middle of the war in the first place, but when they were being held against their will...

Crimson fire surrounded her like a bright shell, and she moved so quickly, that they didn't have time to react. She used Beat Rush on the first, Summersault on the second, and Waterkick on the third. All that remained when she was done was the soldier that Cid had been fighting. He was up and moving now, and she saw that he was reaching down for Cid.

"Oh no you don't!" she cried, running forward and using two swift roundhouses to down him.

She hauled Cid to his feet and shook him, hoping to get him lucid again. She couldn't fly the Tiny Bronco without him.

"Whoa. Stop shakin' me dammit. My head's killin' me."

She grinned, wiping sweat from her forehead.

"Sorry to hog all of the action.

"Told ya I wasn't gonna be much help."

"Well, I hope you can fly us out of here at least."

Cid shook his head to clear it. "You betcha."

They climbed up in, Cid taking the front and Tifa the rear.

"Hang on! It's gonna be a rough take off!"

"Don't worry, I can handle it."

Their eyes caught and held for a moment.

"I don't doubt it," Cid finally said, starting up the engines.

It sputtered and acted like it was going to die on them.

"C'mon baby, don't die on me now," Cid muttered.

With a final cough, the Bronco lurched and started to roll forward. Cid regretted taking out the fence in front of them only because it was scratching the paint. When they were in the air, he circled above Junon.

"What are you doing?" Tifa asked.

"Just leavin' a little present," Cid replied, training his guns on the colonel's office.

The bullets struck the building, tearing off chunks of paint and splinters of wood. Tifa understood his frustration, but suddenly remembered Sam, the secretary that had been a big help to her.

"Cid, you might...hurt someone."

"That's the idea," Cid replied, pulling the Bronco up and around and training its guns on the artillery down below.

He knew he couldn't do a whole lot of damage, but he might be able to set them back a bit. Too damn bad he didn't have his Highwind. She could have blown anything up with her missles, and ended Junon's plans of destroying Rocket Town.

"Cid, we need to go! Their air force is taking off!"

Cid glanced down below and realized she was right. Once he had left for good, they might change their minds about his usefullness and decid to shoot him down. Whipping the Bronco around as quickly as was possible, he headed out and away from the Junon army camp.

Cid dropped the Bronco down to treetop level, trying to stay below Junon's radar. Tifa twisted around, trying to see in all directions at once. She could see aircraft off to their left, but they were still far away.

"There's planes over that way," she said.

Cid did not turn toward around to see which direction she was pointing, nor give any indication that he had heard her.

She was about to speak again when she heard a dull rumble, like the sound of thunder, only it didn't stop. She turned to look behind them, and saw tiny flashes of fire and puffs of smoke from the artillery. And farther away, off to the west, the horizen was lit up with flashes of light as the shells fell back to earth. She sat there, staring off in the distance, watching the explosions, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. After all they had done, after all they had gone through to protect Rocket Town. She couldn't believe this was happeing, that all they had gone through had been for nothing. All their efforts since the war had begun had been for the sole purpose of saving Rocket Town. Now what were they going to do?

Cid grit his teeth and tried to ignore the churning of his stomach. He wasn't facing Rocket Town, so he couldn't see it being destroyed, but he could hear it. A dozen faces flashed through his mind, and he realized that he would never see them again. He had failed. The whole damn town would be gone in a matter of minutes because Junon and Wutai weren't given what they wanted. It was a childish reaction, and one that had just killed hundreds.

He wasn't sure what was going to happen now. They hadn't been able to save Rocket Town, and neither of them had any place to go to, or to call home now. There was nothing they could do to stop the two warring powers from doing the very same thing elsewhere either. Unfortunately, they were only two people.

He felt as helpless as he had when he was stuck in the hospital. It was all he could do not to turn the Bronco around, and land outside of Rocket Town in the hopes of saving someone, anyone. But that wasn't possible, and he knew it was only a false hope to try and stave off the numbing realization that there was nothing he could do, and that everyone he had known, and lived beside for the last seven years was gone.

He gripped the controls tightly, causing his knuckles to whiten with the effort. It seemed he had lost everything he had ever held dear to him. His mother, his father, his dreams of outer space, Shera, and now his whole town. There wasn't anything left for him, and though he didn't consider himself a coward, he might have turned the plane around right now and faced down the fighters he was sure were chasing them. But he didn't just have his life to consider anymore, he had Tifa's as well. There was no time for grief and stupidity right now. They had to get away as quickly as possible if they hoped to escape with their lives.

Tifa turned and looked at Cid. She could only see the back of his head, but she could tell he heard the artillery as well as she, and though he never glanced back, she knew he was well aware of what the sound meant. Every time they heard the rumble of gunfire, she saw his shoulders shudder. Now matter how upsetting this was for her, she knew it must be ten times worse for him. It must be tearing him apart, having to listen to that, knowing that each explosion resulted in destruction and death in his beloved home town. The people he had known...

"I'm sorry," she found herself saying. She had lost a town once herself, when Sephiroth had destroyed Nibelheim. She knew how it felt.

Cid still did not respond. She wished she could see his face instead of the back of his head. She couldn't tell whether it would be better to leave him alone or try to say something to comfort him.

"It's not your fault," he said finally, the words coming out with difficulty. He said nothing more, and Tifa remained silent as well. She knew he had said that to make her feel better, but she couldn't help but think it was not true. She wondered if he would be as quick to flee, even in the face of everwhelming odds, if she had not been with him?

She looked around again and immediately spotted the planes she had seen eariler. They were much closer.

"Those planes are catching up with us," she felt obligated to say.

Cid glanced back for a moment, then shook his head.

"They'd be wise not to try to stop us," he said unconcernedly.

There were three of them, and they seeemd to be going much faster than the Bronco. Tifa watched them nervously as they approached. She was well aware of Cid's skills, and if he thought they were no problem, then she thought she shouldn't be concerned either. But it was one thing to tell yourself that and quite another to get yourself to actually believe it.

"Captain Highwind," the radio suddenly came to life, "This is Captain Miller of the Junon air force. We are under orders to escort your aircraft to Junon."

Cid ignored the radio. Tifa saw that they were over the water now. They were heading east, out over the ocean.

"Cid, where are we going?" she asked. With Rocket Town destroyed, they no longer had anyplace to go. Did he have a particular destination in mind, or was he just flying at random.

"Captain Highwind," the voice came over the radio again. "I repeat, wer are here to escort you to Junon. If you do not follow our lead we will be forced to fire upon you. Please respond."

The Bronco suddenly banked sharply. Tifa was flung roughly to the side, being caught completely off guard, and would have fallen right out of her seat if not for the safety harness. She heard the roar of the Bronco's guns. She looked ahead to see the other planes rapidly turning away.

Cid brought the Bronco around back to their origninal course.

"That should be answer enough for them," Cid growled.

Tifa looked at the planes to see they had turned back toward them as soon as Cid had broken off his attack and were following once more.

"They don't seem anxious to do battle," Tifa commented.

"They still want me alive, I guess," Cid stated. "As long as they think they have a chace of that, they won't risk shooting us down."

Tifa had to agree that made sense, and it made her feel a little better knowing that their risk of being shot at was less than she had imagined. Still, it was obvious to her that Cid was not going to obey them, and she wondered what they were going to do when they finally realized that Cid was not going to surrender to them.

"Cid, where are we going to go?" she asked again.

Cid didn't speak for a moment.

"We have to find somewhere that's not under the jusristiction of Wutai or Junon," he replied. "I was thinking of Cosmo Canyon, but all we would do there is hide. Red's not going to want to get involved in this fight, just like we didn't in Rocket Town. But I suddenly don't feel like much of a pacifist. I'd like to go someplace where we might actually get a chance to strike back. What do you think about Fort Condor?"

"I suppose it's as good a place as any," she replied slowly. Since the war had started their focus had been on Rocket Town, but now that that was no longer the case she wasn't sure what they should do. She felt almost as bad about Rocket Town as Cid, but even with Fort Condor's backing, what could they really do? Fort Condor might be strong enough, at least at the moment, to hold off any attack by Junon, but it certainly didn't have the manpower to go on the offensive. By itself it wasn't strong enough to take on Junon or Wutai, even if it was so inclined. She wasn't sure what Cid expected to accomplish.

But she wasn't going to argue with him. And she could certainly understand his urge to strike back somehow, especially now. He probably wasn't thinking very rationally at the moment, and it might be best just to get to Fort Condor and not worry about what was going to happen after that.

"Whatever you say," she replied. "Do you think those planes will let us?"

"They don't have much choice," Cid replied menacingly. "Fort Condor isn't all that far from Junon, and I think as long as we head in the general direction of Junon, they can pretend that we are actually going along with them and they won't bother us. Once they realize we're not going to land in Junon they might decide to cause trouble, and it they do, I'll be ready."

Tifa looked back and saw that they had left land far behind them now.

"How long will it take us to reach Junon?" she asked.

"Under an hour," he replied.

Tifa fell silent. The planes had fanned out behind them, one on each side and one behind, but all keeping a respectful distance. She sat back in her chair, trying to get herself to relax. She had been wound up for what seemed like hours now, ever since she had overheard the Colonel's plans for Rocket Town. But now it seemed like they were in no immediate danger. She looked out the window again, ahead of them this time. The ocean below was a deep blue, a light breeze blowing ripples for miles across it's surface. The paler blue sky above was speckled with huge puffy cumulus clouds. She sun shown brightly, and she could see the shadow of the Bronco on the water below.

Time passed slowly. Tifa kept looking out the window, watching the ocean below. Occasionally she saw the small shape of a ship below them, plowing gracefully through the water. But they were few and far between. Mostly all she saw was the blue of the ocean, but eventually the thin line of the coast appeared in front of them.

"We're coming up on Junon," Cid said. "I don't want to get too close. Those three behind us I can handle, but I can't take on the entire Junon air force. I'm going to turn south, and our little friends may not be happy with the idea."

Tifa did not reply, but she felt her nervousness return. The problem with relaxing moments was that they were so fleeting.

The Bronce banked and headed off in a new direction. Tifa turned and watched the other planes. They turned to follow.

"Captain Highwind," the voice come over the radio almost immediately. "You are turning away from Junon. Turn back to your original course immediately."

Cid looked back to get the position of the other planes.

"C'mon you bastards," he muttered, not over the radio. "Let's see what you've got."

Cid remained on his new course. For a few minutes nothing happened. Then the radio blared again.

"Captain Highwind, this is you last warning. Turn your plane immediately on a heading for Junon or you will be shot down."

Cid glanced back one more time. The plane's to either side didn't concern him, the one right behind him was the threat. He noticed it had started to close, though it had made no aggressive move yet. He knew that combat was inevitable, it might be better to make the first move.

He keyed up the mike.

"All right," he announced. "I'm setting course for Junon."

He banked the plane sharply to the north. The other planes followed more slowly. But instead of stopping when he turned north he kept right on turing, banking the plane even more sharply and swinging around toward the plane behind him. This manuever caught the other pilots unawares, and by the time they realized what he was doing, he was bearing down on the plane that had once been behind him.

Tifa heard a blast from the Bronco's guns. There was a flash of light, and the plane before them dropped like a stone.

Cid yanked back on the stick and the Bronce climbed swiftly, at the same time turning to face the other two planes, that had by now realized they were being attacked in earnest and were scrambling to gain a favorable position.

But Cid wasn't about to let that happen. He leveled out the Bronco and turned toward his enemy. One plane was coming straight for them. Both aircraft opened up simultaniously. Tifa watched apprehensively as the two aircraft hurtled toward one another, seemingly on a collision course. The rattle of the Bronco's guns reverberated in her ears, and as the other plane approached she could see the flash of it's own guns. Suddenly the Bronco shuddered as the bullets found their target and Tifa almost cried out as one pierced the canopy above them with a sharp cracking sound.

And then the other plane nosed downward. Before it dropped out of sight Tifa saw a burst of fire and line of smoke stream from the front of it.

"You okay?" Cid called back to her without turning.

"Yes," he replied.

Cid banked the plane toward their last advesary.

"Two down, one to go," he muttered.

But even as they turned toward their lone pursuer, the other plane suddenly turned away, and headed away from them to the north. For a moment Tifa thought Cid was going to pursue the remaining plane, but then he swung the Bronco around, heading south once more.

Tifa sat back in her chair again. No matter how many times she went through this, she never thought she would be able to relax. Cid had said the three planes following them would cause no trouble, and he had been right. For the first time since they had lifted off she felt confident they could escape from Junon's grasp.

But her relief was premature. Less than a half hour later she saw Cid glancing down at his instruments, then looking up ahead of them quickly.

"Uh oh," he muttered.

"What is it?" she asked.

"I've got some more aircraft on radar," he replied. "And they're in front of us."

"Junon's?" she asked.

"Don't see who else it could be," he replied. "They probably have patrols out flying near Fort Condor to make sure it doens't try anything, or maybe to provoke them into starting something. Whatever the case may be, they're between us and Fort Condor, and they're headed this way."

"How many of them are there?" she asked, her nervousness quickly returing.

"Hard to say," he replied. "Looks like about a dozen."

"A dozen?" she said. "Can we fight that many?"

"Even I'm not that good," he replied grimly.

"So what do we do?" she questioned, realizing the nervousness she felt was creeping into her voice.

Once more Cid dropped the airplane down just above the ground, and he turned even further south.

"We'll have to try to evade them," he replied. "Maybe we can swing around Fort Condor and come up on it from the other side. They may not have any patrols in that direction."

Tifa found herself staring out the window again, looking for any sign of the other aircraft. They reached the southern coastline shortly thereafter, and Cid turned the plane west once more, skimming above the beach. After fifteen minutes Tifa began to relax again, but then she sat up, looking to the north. For a moment she said nothing, not sure that what she was really there, but eventually the dark spots she had seen moving against the sky resolved themselves unmistakably into airplanes.

"I see some over there," she said.

Cid glanced back at her, then turned to the north. He could see the planes as well. He turned the plane south again, out over the water once more. Perhaps they hadn't been spotted.

"How many of them are there?" he questioned.

"I see four, least six," she replied.

"Great. Are they coming after us?"

Tifa was silent for a moment. The planes had started out as small specks, but as she watched they slowly grew. There was no doubt they were coming closer.

"Yes," she said.

Cid started to climb and turned to face his pursuers.

"I guess we've got to fight," he said grimly.

Cid glanced down at the radar grimly. As Tifa had said, there were six of them within sight and six more coming up within range. The Tiny Bronco was one plane, and she was slower and not as manueverable as the planes heading for them. She had put up a good fight so far, but Cid knew this really wasn't her game.

Unfortunately, he had no choice but to fight. They would simply fire at him anyway, considering he had just used up his last warning. He would rather go down fighting, than running like a coward. No matter how foolish that sounded, it was the way he did things. No one was ever going to be able to accuse Cid Highwind of turning tail and running from anything.

"There all within range now," he murmered, his thumb moving over the trigger.

With a warning to Tifa to hang on, he banked hard right and came up low and just to the side of his pursuers. Having the advantage only for a moment, he opened fire with the machine guns and shot stripes down the sides of the aircraft. He managed to hit three, before being forced to dive down and around behind them to avoid being fired upon himself.

The first airplane he fired on suddely faltered, and dipped dangerously, it's nose diving toward the landmasses below. On that one, at least, his aim had been accurate. He had hit it just in the middle of the fuel tanks, and at the speed it was going, the plane would lose fuel rapidly and its pilot would have no choice but to abandon his aircraft, or die with it.

The remaining 11 shifted easily and abandoned their formation, appearing to plan a conversion from all angles. At this moment, Cid wished for a few more planes on his side. With a muffled curse, he pulled the plane around swiftly and winced as he heard the sound of Tifa hitting against the side. At the moment, three were coming for him head on, one on either side of him, and the rest were coming from behind. As skillful as he might be, this was a trap that even the Bronco wasn't going to get them out of.

"Tifa! Where are we, can ya see?"

Tifa lifted herself up quickly, scanning the ground below. Dark was fast approaching, and it was getting a bit more difficult to see.

"I think...that we're somewhere over Mideel."


Cid pushed the Bronco forward as fast as she could go and opened fire on the planes in front of him. They in return, blasted him, forcing him to dive down and try to avoid getting damaged too severely. As he was descending, bullets struck the top and then the sides and he rolled swiftly. He hadn't liked the sound of the last hit. It had sounded like it was somewhere near the engine.

"Bastards!" he seethed, bringing the plane up so that he was facing the six behind him.

He opened fire on them as well, but he could do little damage due to the distance they were from him, and the fact that Bronco was only equiped with 50 caliber machine guns. Suddenly, the two planes that had been on either side of him darted up and shot at him. This time, they struck his engine and the warning lights came blaring.


"Shit! Tifa, we got no choice but to go down. The Bronco ain't gonna be in the air much longer!"

Tifa twisted in her seat, craning her neck nearly to the point of pain to see out and around the Bronco. There were planes everywhere it seemed. And she didn't know if they were all the same ones from before, or if more had come. They were beat, and there wasn't a whole lot they could do about it. She didn't want to just give in like that, but she knew she had to face the truth. They were only one plane against so many. When they made their forced landing, the Junon pilots would be all over them.

Cid brought the plane lower, scanning the land in front of him. There was ocean everywhere, and where there wasn't water, there was only open land. He knew he needed to land the Bronco, but he didn't want to do it where they were such a visible target. The problem was, he couldn't see anyplace to land that would at least offer them protection, if not the plane.

Dammit, he thought, I didn't come this far to let'em get us again. There's no way in hell. We're gonna find some place, and we're gonna make it, so open your damn eyes a bit wider Cid Highwind.

" there more planes?" Tifa asked.

Cid glanced down at the radar. He had been so intent on finding a place to land, that he hadn't been paying much attention to it. Sure enough, there were at least five more fighters to replace the ones that he had managed to take out and back up their comrades. They needed a place to land, and they needed it fast.

Just as he was about to give up hope, he saw Mideel in the distance. At least, it was the jungle, a place Cid wasn't particularly fond of. But landing there would offer them protection, except, they wouldn't be able to get the Bronco out after the Junon pilots gave up. This was going to take some fancy mauevering, but if he managed to land just on the edge of the water, within the jungle, he and Tifa would be offered a place to hide, and then a way to get the Bronco out after Junon gave up.

"Gonna land. It might be rough, so hang on," Cid warned, suddenly diving downward at an incredible speed.

Tifa gripped the sides of her seat, not quite sure what Cid was doing. He hadn't shared his plans with her, but she trusted him as a pilot and a friend. Though she really wished she knew what it was he had planned, since she wasn't overly fond of being left in the dark. Especially not when an enormous plane, that was the only protection between them and death, was now hurtling toward the land below like a stone.

Cid could see the perfect spot. It was smooth, but held a few ridges of dirt that would allow him to bring the Bronco to a stop much more easily. Leveling out, he pulled the lever to release the landing gear and then concentrated on bringing her in smoothly. He wanted to make this landing as comfortable as possible, for both the plane and them. He was already mentally calculating the scratches and holes in the Bronco's nearly new paint job and the amount of time it would take to get her all fixed up again. It wasn't that he minded working on his air transportation, it was the fact that Junon had done it that bothered him.

Tifa glanced out the window and saw the narrow stretch of land in front of them. She was fairly certain that it was where Cid planned to land, but the fact that it was a bit short for a runway hadn't escaped her. Cid was a good pilot, but the thought of using one of he enormous trees to stop was not a vision she entertained. She supposed that it was better than being taken again though.

Cid grit his teeth at the first touch of the wheels onto the sand. They set down, lifted, and then set down again, jerking the plane forward and to the side a bit. He held on tightly to the stick and guided her in, hoping like hell that the ridges he had spotted would keep them from running into the cluster of huge trees at the end of their make-shift runway. He wasn't too sure the Bronco could be repaired that easily should that happen, and she most certainly wouldn't be getting them out of the jungles of Mideel if he screwed up this landing.

The plane was slowing as it reached the two large uprisings of land ahead. Tifa leaned forward in anticipation, her breath fanning the hair on the back of Cid's head. With a muffled oath, Cid jerked the stick up like a rookie and nearly botched the landing. Mentally berating himself for being an idiot, he set her back down and winced as they hit the bumps. Tifa, unprepared for the force of the impact, flew foward, only to be yanked back by her restraints. Rubbing at her aching neck, she held her breath when she saw that they were nearly on the large cluster of trees.

"C'mon baby, don't fail me now!" Cid muttered, sweat trickling down his brow and onto his cheek. "Daddy'll get ya a real nice paint job if ya don't smash yourself all to hell."

Suddenly, the Bronco slid to the right, so that the front was facing the water, and then came within inches of hitting the trees. With a audible sigh of relief, Cid threw of his restraints and hollered to Tifa to do the same. Throwing aside the canopy, the two leapt out of the plane and ran into the jungle for safety. Not long after, Junon planes flew overhead, each diving down as close as they could get and sending a line of bullets into the Tiny Bronco. Cid, who was crouched down beside Tifa, cursed them loudly and damned the fact that he didn't have anything to fight back with.

The planes didn't seem to want to give up, for they kept circling back around and taking shots at the plane. Not all of them hit, but enough so that it was making visible damage to his baby. Each time a bullet pierced her body, Cid winced and pounded his hand against his aching leg. As far as he was concerned, his damn leg was nothing but a handicap he didn't want or need. And strangely enough, pounding on it seemed to make it feel better.

Tifa watched Cid react to the damage being done to his plane, and felt bad for him. She knew how important his planes were to him. It was almost like Yuffie and her liking for materia, though Tifa would have to consider Cid's pastime a bit more healthy. She settled down against the trunk of a tree, noting that Cid did the same. There really was nothing for them to do but watch and hope that after a while, Junon would give up. They weren't accomplishing anything with their antics anyway, except for pissing Cid off.

Trying to give him some sort of reassurance, she said, "They'll give up soon. They can't keep this up all night. They aren't accomplishing anything."

Cid reached into his pocket and pulled out a lighter, stuffing a cigarette between his lips and lighting. Already, true to Tifa's words, the planes were thining out, and one by one, returning to Junon.

"Yeah. Well, they sure had fun tearin' the hell outta my Bronco."

Tifa shook her head, smiling slightly, and feeling surprised she could even do it. Cid's concern for his planes just amazed her sometimes. There was no mention of the fact that they were both alive and well, just the fact that his plane was being harmed.

"You should be gratefull we're alive," she told him.

"Huh?" he glanced over at her, tearing his gaze away from the Bronco. "Oh, yeah. But I knew we'd make it," he added, not bothering to tell her that he had a moment of doubt back there while landing.

By now, all of the planes had pulled back and headed for Junon. Without the whirring of the engines and the sounds of bullets striking metal, it had gotten almost eerily quiet. With that problem out of their way for the meantime, the question of what to do next arose. The plane wasn't in any condition to lift off from the ground, and even if she was, they didn't have enough space to accomplish that. Tifa was also fairly certain Cid wouldn't take to leaving his plane behind very well.

"What do we do now?" she asked.

Cid inhaled deeply, sending a stream of smoke toward the midnight black sky. "Sleep. I'm tired."

"I meant about the plane and getting out of here."

"We'll worry about that in the mornin'. I got a few ideas though."

Tifa crossed her arms. "Care to share them with me?"

He looked over at her. "Yeah. We're gonna cut down some trees and make pontoons. We can push the Bronco onto the water and then float her down to Mideel. But it ain't gonna be easy. I only got one saw and it's a manual one. Not to mention, those goddamn trees ain't gonna be light."

Tifa yawned, getting the impression that this was a far bigger undertaking than escaping, itself, had been. But right now, she was far too exhausted to hash the details over with him. It made her feel more secure that he at least had an idea of what they were going to do.

"Where are we going to sleep?" she asked. "It's not a very safe environment."

Cid pointed to the plane. "You sleep in her. I sleep against this tree."

Tifa stared at him. "But...something might attack you in the night."

Cid shrugged. "There ain't enough room for both of us in that plane. And I'm fine. It's so damn hot out here, I don't need blankets."

Tifa looked doubtful. Cid pointed to the plane again and told her to get in it and get some sleep. They were going to need all their strength for the morning. This wasn't going to be an easy job, nor one that completed itself in one day. It was going to take work. And as far as he was concerned, this tree was a good a place as any to sleep.

Tifa awoke to the crack of timbers. She sat up and groaned. She bowed her head and rubbed her neck, stiff from her cramped position in the cockpit. She straightened up and looked around, blinking in the bright sunlight.

Cid was hard at work using his hand saw on the tree he had just felled.

Tifa got up and stretched, repressing the urge to groan again. It seemed like every part of her body ached. In the cramped position she had been in, she was surprised she had gotten any sleep at all. But she wasn't going to complain. Cid hadn't even had the comfort of a seat underneath him.

She hopped down out of the Tiny Bronco. Cid looked up at her as she strolled over to him.

"Sleep well?" he questioned.

"Miserably," Tifa replied. "How 'bout you. Did you get any sleep at all?"

"Some," Cid replied. From the way he said it, Tifa suspected it hadn't been much, but she didn't press him on the matter.

"You didn't have to start by yourself," she continued. "Why didn't you wake me up?"

Cid shrugged.

"Didn't want to disturb you. I know how you women need your beauty sleep."

Tifa gave him a sour look.

"Don't be a jerk," she said, smiling. "What can I do to help?"

Cid put down the saw and stood up and wiped the sweat off his brow. Even this early in the morning Tifa was uncomfortably warm. She could imagine how Cid felt.

"You can use the saw," he said. "I need you to cut this tree up into small logs. About a foot or two in length should be good. They don't all have to be the same size. We need to make rollers so we can move the tree trunks were going to use as pontoons into position. They'll be too heavy for us to lift."

"I found a small hatchet in the Bronco," he continued. "I'll use that to start cutting down the trees we need to make the pontoons."

Tifa nodded. She shaded her eyes and looked up at the sky.

"Do you think they'll come back?" she questioned.

Cid didn't seem to be too concerned.

"I doubt it," he replied. "They've got more important things to worry about then one lone plane that's already been downed. If they suspect we survived, they probably don't think we can do anymore harm."

Tifa nodded. She looked over at the Tiny Bronco. She could see plenty of damage from bullets, but the plane appeared intact.

"Are you sure she won't fly?" she questioned.

"No, I checked it out," he said. "It's too badly damaged, and I can't fix it without parts."

"Would it be easier to walk to Mideel ourselves and bring the parts back here?" she asked.

Cid shook his head.

"I don't think so. I'm not sure exactly how far we are from the town, but my guess is it would be about two days travel through the jungle. That's four days there and back, and that's assuming that I'm not going to need any parts that I haven't thought of. I'm hoping we can have the pontoons attached by tomorrow. The current runs east here, toward Mideel. If we set out tomorrow afternoon, we should be able to get there sometime tomorrow night. Even with delays, this way is probably a lot quicker."

Tifa nodded. She had no idea how close they were to Mideel, or how long it would take them to attach the pontoons to the aircraft. She was willing to rely on Cid's judgement.

She picked up the saw and started in on the trunk while Cid went over to Bronco and started rummaging around for the hatchet.


She hadn't had much time to think about their situation. Last night they had been too involved in staying alive, and afterwards too tired to care. But now without any life threatening events happening, she was begining to realize just how much trouble they were in. The only transportation they had was the Bronco, and the only way to get it fixed was to go to Mideel, a town under the control of Junon. And another thing, Mideel was the city that Shera had gone to. That being true, she might be able to lend them some assistance, but how would Cid feel about that?

"Yeah?" she heard him grumble.

"How do you propose we get into Mideel?" she questioned.

Cid hauled himself back out of the plane, hatchet in hand. He dropped down onto the sand once more.

"We'll time it so we arrive there at night. We'll have to beach the plane before we reach the town, and try to sneak in unnoticed. Mideel is far from any fighting, hopefully it won't be guarded too closely."

Tifa nodded slowly. She had a feeling it was going to be a bit more difficult than that. She bit her lip and looked at Cid. She wasn't sure how he was going to take it, but she just had to ask.

"Are you going to try to get Shera to help us?"

Cid didn't reply for a long time.

"We'll just see what happens," he said tightly.

Tifa let it drop. Although she had heard Cid's version, she wasn't really sure of the exact circumstances of Shera's departure. She wasn't sure how much help Shera would be willing to give them, even if they did ask. But she had a feeling it would not be easy for them to obtain what they were looking for without the help of someone in the town.

She set to work. The day was hot, and got hotter as the hours passed. The saw was only a small hand saw, not really designed for such heavy cutting, which made the work exhausting. They stopped right before noon to take a break. They didn't have any food supplies with them on the Bronco, and precious little water, only a three gallon can that Cid alertly kept for emergencies, but it was only about three quarters full. It was also digustingly warm, but it still felt good going down. After that they foraged around a bit and managed to find some fruit. If they were only going to be here a day or two, they were in no danger of starvation. The water supply was much more of a concern.

After they had eaten they sat in the shade of the Bronco for a little while, looking out over the ocean. But Cid did not let them rest long, and soon they were back at their labors. The afternoon sun burned down even hotter than before, until the air around them almost seemed to be on fire. Cid had long ago stripped off his shirt and cut his pant legs to create a makeshift pair of shorts. Tifa looked down at her sweat soaked shirt and wished she could remove it as well. What the hell, with all the sweat on it you could see through it anyway. Fortunately her bra was not very revealing. She suddenly felt embarrassed, glancing over at Cid, but he either was too busy with his work to notice, or too discreet to let her see him noticing. Either way she was grateful. She wished she could at least change, but she had nothing else to wear.

They had more important things to worry about, she said to herself, concentrating once more on the task in front of her.

They worked all that day, most of it backbreaking labor. By the time darkness fell, Tifa's arms ached and her hands were raw and blistered from holding the saw.

Tifa practically cried out in relief when Cid motioned for her to stop. She walked over to the Bronco and collapsed in the sand beside it, flat on her back looking up at the sky. Cid came over next to her and eased himself down with a sigh of relief, his back propped against the wheel strut. She could see he was as exhausted as she was. It was small comfort to realize she wasn't the only one suffering.

She looked over at him, sharply outlined in the rapidly fading light. He had worked as least as hard as she.

"You know, you're in pretty good shape considering you never work out and you smoke more than Krakotoa in it's prime."

Cid grinned.

"Thanks for reminding me," he said.

He opened his pack of cigarette's and pulled one out. Then he looked inside the pack.

"Damn, last one," he muttered.

"I guess that will give you added incentive to move even faster tomorrow," she said without looking at him.

Cid didn't reply. She turned toward him and saw he was looking over at their handiwork.

"We did good," he proclaimed. "We've got the rollors and the pontoons all cut. I actually thought it would take longer. Tomorrow we can set up the rollers and move the pontoons into place, then attach them. Then, all we've got to do is haul the plane out into the water."

He lifted a handfull of sand.

"That's not going to be easy. The wheels aren't going to move very well in this sand. That might be the hardest part of this whole procedure. But once it's done we're on our way."

Tifa looked back at the sky, not at all pleased with Cid's summation. If they had to work harder than they did today, she didnt' think she was going to survive. She thought she had worked hard in Rocket Town trying to put the defenses together....

The thought of Rocket Town brought a tight feeling to her gut. She wondered for a moment what was happening back there right now. Was there anything left of the town at all, or the precious launch sites, or had Junon turned everything into rubble? All those people, all the work they had put into making that town into something, and all for what? All those hopes and dreams, destroyed just like that, at the whim of some faceless commander in Junon. It made her sick to her stomach to realize just how helpless they all really were.

Cid's voice interrupted her musing.

"I guess we better get some grub before it gets too dark."

Tifa did not respond for a moment, torn between the urge to lie there and rest and to get up and eat. She felt like it would take a monumental effort to get to her feet, but she hadn't realized just how hungry she was until Cid had mentioned it.

Cid stood up and looked at her.

"You coming?"

Tifa groaned and stared at him.

"Fine, I'll go look myself," he stated.

"No," she said. "I'll get up. I just need to psyche myself up."

He stood there looking down at her, then extended a hand. She gritted her teeth, then took it and he lifted her to her feet.

The gathering darkness made it difficult to find their dinner, but forutnately they had an idea of where the fruit trees were from their earlier excursion, and after a bit of wandering around they returned and sat down once more. The fruit tasted better than ever, and Tifa found she was ravenously hungry. She quickly devoured the three pinapple like treats she had collected, but found they did not completely satisfy her hunger. She was tempted to go look for more, but by now night had fallen, with the stars and a narrow cresent moon as the only light. A light that did not penetrate beneath the dense jungle canopy. Even though she knew where the trees were, and they had seen no sign of dangerous predators, she still wasn't anxious to go wandering around in that darkness.

She looked down at herself. He shirt was still damp with sweat, and now had fresh fruit juice stains on it to go along with the dirt and grime that had accumulated while sawing the trees. He skirt wasn't much better off. Her hands were sticky with juice, even after she had licked them off. The fruit was good, but it sure was messy. She ran a hand through her hair but it didn't get very far before it hit a knot. She struggled for a moment trying to pull through it but soon gave up. It was all a hopless tangle. God, what she would do for a brush right now!

"I must look disgusting," she muttered.

She couldn't see Cid's features anymore in the darkness, but she could see him turn to look at her.

"No you don't," he said simply.

"Not in the dark," she said glumly.

Cid grinned.

"Not in the daylight either."

For a moment they just sat there looking at one another. His responses had sounded surprisingly serious.

"Thanks," she said slowly. She stood up and looked toward the ocean. They could hear the sound of the waves lapping on the shore, a soft counterpoint to the buzzing of the insects that came from the jungle. She was still exhausted, but there was one more thing she just had to do before she could rest.

"I'm going to clean myself up a little," she said. She couldn't stand being this filthy. "I wish I had some fresh water and another set of clothes."

"As long as you're wishin', why don't you wish that the Bronco was repaired?" Cid suggested.

Tifa didn't reply. She walked down to the shore, until the waves were lapping at her feet. The water was warm, slower than the land to absorb the heat of the day, but slower to give it up as well. She was tempted to strip off her clothes and dive in. She looked back at Cid. She could barely make out the outline of the plane, and she could not see Cid at all, which meant he probably couldn't see her either.

But salt water wasn't really what she wanted. When it dried it still left you uncomfortable, and if she took off her clothes, she knew she would never want to put the disgusting things back on again.

She knelt down and let the water foam over her legs. She reached down and scooped some into her hands, the liquid gleaming in the moonlight. She lifted her hands and splashed her face.

She looked out over the ocean. The moon hung in the sky directly south of her, over the ocean, casting a long line of light out over the water. The stars surrounding it were hazy and indistinct, but those father away were clear and sharp. She lifted her head to the heavens in awe. Mideel was far off in the jungle. Out here, far away from any civilization, the sky was literaly bursting with stars. The entire roof above her was covered with gleaming diamonds, more than had ever seen, more than she had ever imagined. The sky had never looked so beautiful.

With a view like that she could almost get to like it here.

A sudden howling sound made her whirl around. Instantly alert, she listened as the high pitched screech, warbling up and down, came from deep inside the jungle. She had never heard anything like it, and the sound of it made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. It went on for quite some time before it stopped as suddenly as it had started.

"Cid!" she called out. "What was that?"

"How the hell should I know?" he replied gruffly.

She started back toward the Bronco when there was a spark and she saw Cid suddenly outlined in the darkness. He was stooping down beside the Tiny Bronco. The light grew brighter and she saw that he had gathered up some sticks and branches to make a small fire.

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" she asked as she returned.

"Why wouldn't it be?" he questioned.

She shrugged. She was worried that someone would see it, but she realized that fear was irrational. Mideel was far away, and if any Junon fighters were going to come looking for them, they would have done it long ago. There was no one around for miles but themselves, and she had to admit the fire flickering in front of her was comforting, especially after the sound they had heard.

"Was that some kind of creature?" she questioned, looking at the jungle once more. The firelight did not penetrate very far into it, and made it's looming darkness look even more forbidding.

Cid looked at her and frowned.

"How should I know?" he said bluntly. "Whatever it was, it was far away. Let's hope it stays that way."

Tifa slowly sat down again, still looking nervously at the jungle. Cid seemed perfectly at ease. She wished sometimes she could share his stoicism. He wasn't going to worry about some phantom in the forest. If the thing came out here after him, then, and only then, would he become concerned.

"It might be safer in the Bronco," Cid said slowly, apparently senseing that she was somewhat uneasy.

She shook her head.

"No," she said. "I'll stay out here tonight. If we're going to get eaten, we'll do it together. Besides, the cockpit wasn't all that comfortable anyway, and I kind of like sitting by the fire."

Cid stretched out on the sand, rolling onto his back and slipping his hands behind his head.

"Suit yourself," he replied.

Tifa laid down as well. The sand was cool, not quite as soft as the seat in the plane, but at least she could stretch out. Already she could feel her eyelids starting to get heavy. She had gotten a second wind after she had eaten, but now the days hard labour was taking it's toll. At this point, she was too exhausted to care if there was a bed of nails underneath her.

The next morning Tifa arose first. She could see storm clouds over the ocean to the south, although the sky above them was clear. She wasn't sure how to proceed with the pontoons without Cid, and she didn't want to wake him, so she spent the early morning gathering fruit. This way they would have a day's supply ready for them and wouldn't have to waste time collecting it later.

When Cid awoke they had a little breakfast, then started in again on their labors. Cid decided it would be best to move the plane as close to the water as reasonable before attaching the pontoons. Although it was only about thirty yards from where the Bronce had landed to the waters edge, it took them the entire morning to move the plane that far. The wheels were almost useless in the sand, and they finally had to resort to half burying the rollers in front of the wheels and dragging the plane across them to get some traction. If the Bronco had been any heavier, they never would have been able to do it. But eventually, by early afternoon, the plane stood at the waters edge.

The storm clouds had been moving closer as the day progressed, and Tifa had kept a wary eye on them. Now they swirled almost directly overhead, and she felt the first fat drops of rain begin to fall.

"Do you think we're going to have a storm?" she asked dubiously.

Cid shrugged, showing his usual unconcern.

"Probably just a tropical shower," he replied. "You should be thankful. The rain will cool us off, clean us off, and we can use it to refill the water can. As long as it doesn't get to bad, we should consider it a blessing."

"As long as it doesn't get too bad," she repeated.

They both sat down to eat lunch, not bothering to seek shelter beneath the plane's wide wings. The rain started to come down harder, but after all that work in the blazing heat, it was a welcome relief. As the rivulets of water washed some of the grim off her arms, Tifa had to admit that Cid had made some good points.

The rain came down steadily, but did not worsen, as Tifa had feared, and gradually she relaxed. They soon were busy at work again. They placed the rollers between the logs and the Bronco and hauled the soon to be pontoons over beneath the plane, then secured them in place. Even with the rollers it was difficult work, for the logs were very heavy, but Cid said they had to be this big or they wouldn't support the weight of the aircraft. By late afternoon all was secure.

Cid wiped the sweat from his brow and looked at Tifa.

"Well, ready to get out of here?"

"Am I ever," she replied enthusiastically.

The final chore was to haul the plane out the last few feet into the water. It was no easier than it had been before, but both Cid and Tifa were energized at the thought of finally completing the task, and managed to get it done in short order. At first Tifa wasn't sure it was going to work for the plane seemed to keep sinking down as they hauled it out, but eventaully when the water was almost chest high on her, the plane moved suddenly, almost as if on it's own, and she realized it was afloat.

"Hop in!" Cid called out.

Tifa hauled herself up on one of the logs, then up onto the wing. Cid went back to the beach to gather the last of their supplies, and brought them back out. Tifa lay down on the wing and took them from him. A moment later he hauled himself out of the water. Even as he climbed aboard, Tifa could see that the current had was carrying them swiftly eastward.

Cid threw the suppies into the back of the cockpit and sat down on the wing with his back to the fusilage.

"Well, we're on our way," he stated.

Tifa let out a sigh of relief.

"For a while there, I wasn't sure it was going to happen," she said.

"Neither was I," Cid replied.

She looked at him thoughtfully. Not once had he shown any doubt that their plan would be successful.

Tifa sat down beside him and looked out over the water. The rain was still coming down, but only lightly now, and already the sky above seemed ot be clearing up. The plane was moving along nicely now. She had to admit that was a helluva lot better than hauling logs.

She turned and looked over the plane out at the vast expanse of ocean.

"How do you know we won't drift out to sea?" she questioend.

Cid sighed and gave her a sharp look.

"Dammit, woman, must you worry about everything?"

"Well, somebody has to," she replied defensively. "You don't seem to be worrying about anything at all."

He looked at her curiously.

"And that's a bad thing?"

"Well, yeah, it can be," she replied slowly. "If you don't worry about anything, you tend to be, well, a little reckless."

"So that's what you think of me?" Cid questioned accusingly. "You think I'm reckless?"

"No, I don't mean that, I..." she stammered.

"You think this is just some half baked scheme of mine that's going to get us lost at sea, is that it?" he cut her off.

"No, I didn't say that. I think it's a great plan. I just...I just think you should consider all the hazards associated with it a little, carefully."

Cid glared at her. Suddenly he reached up and grabbed her arm.

"Sit," he said.

She looked at him for a moment, then sat down beside him.

He pointed ahead of them.

"See the way the land bows out to the south ahead of us?"

"Where?" she questioned.

"Way up ahead there," he replied patiently.

"Uh huh."

"The current is carrying us east," he continued. "Straight towards that. That's the way the current runs here, that's the way it's run here for hundreds of years, perhaps thousands. Somehow I think it highly unlikely that is going to suddenly change. Assuming it does not, then when we reach that point up there where the land bows out, the current will push us right up to the beach. Mideel is right around that bend. It'll be just a short walk away."

Tifa was silent for a moment. She couldn't see anything wrong with his reasoning. Of course she wasn't an expert on this sort of thing, but it was obvious that he had thought this through a lot further than she had suspected.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"You don't have to apologize," Cid said, suddenly grinning. "I was only teasing you."

Tifa stared at him for a moment, then returned his smile.

The clouds scattered above them, and the sun broke out behind them. Though it was late afternoon, the heat of it was still apparent. It dried up the rain quickly and within a few minutes one would never have known it had rained at all. The air was still filled with moisture, however, the humidity making the heat even more stifling.

Fortunately, they no longer had to toil in it, but instead could relax and watch the world pass by. Tifa watched the little spit of land slowly approach them, and by the time they finally came to rest not far from the beach, just as Cid said they would, dusk was already well advanced.

As the pontoons scapped against the bottom Cid took a rope and jumped into the surf. He walked up onto the beach and secured the plane to the first sturdy tree he could find. Tifa hopped off right behind him, and together they set off in the gathering darkness for Mideel.

Cid wasn't exactly sure how close they were to the town. He figured they were no more than an hour away, but they had only been walking fifteen minutes when they both stopped, simultaniously spotting the light shining faintly further up the beach.

"Looks like we've found our town," Cid muttered.

They started off again, Cid in the lead, and walking much more cautiously. As they neared the town Tifa felt her unease begin to grow. The jungle hadn't been very hospitable, but at least there they knew what they were up against. Tifa hadn't visited Mideel since their adventures fighting Sephiroth, she hadn't been back since the town had been taken over by Junon. She didn't know what changes had been made, or how cautious they should be. There was a war going on now, she didn't think they would let just anyone walk in or out without questioning. Tifa had been a resident of Kalm, and as such was technically a Junon citizen, but after what they had done in Costa del Sol, she didn't think she would receive a warm welcome if they found out who she was.

The light ahead of them could be seen plainly now, and other's could be spotted through the trees. It was quite plain now they had found Mideel.

Cid stopped.

"I think we better cut around through the jungle," he said. "If they've got any guards stationed here, they're almost bound to be watching the beach."

Tifa nodded. Reluctant as she was to enter the now dark forest, she had to agree that it was the prudent thing to do.

It was pitch black in the forest. Fortunately they could see some of the lights from the town peeking through the trees, giving them a direction to go in. Tifa just tried to stay right behind Cid as they moved through the jungle. In the darkness they couldn't possibly pick out a trail, but it must have rained harder here, for the vegetation was still wet, which muffled, to some extent, the sound of their passing.

Eventually they came out of the jungle behind a large two story building. Tifa followed Cid as he walked to the corner of the building and peered out into the street beyond. He quickly ducked back.

"There's soldiers right on the corner," he whispered.

"Great," Tifa muttered.

Cid walked over to the other corner and looked out that side.

"There's more there," he said, turning toward her.

Tifa was more than uneasy now, she was downright afraid.

"What are we going to do?"

Cid rubbed his chin.

"We're obviously not going to be able to walk around town without being spotted," he said reluctantly. He looked up, right into her eyes.

"We're going to need some help," she said.

He nodded.

"Shera's sister's house is over this way," he said, and led her off behind the buildings. They walked cautiously, looking carefully out from behind the buildings before crossing. There seemed to be soldiers on every corner. Cid cuoldn't understand why they would have such a large force so far from the front. A couple of times they saw soldiers right in front of the buildings they were behind, and had to wait until they were looking the other way before continuing, but eventually they reached a long single story clapboard house at the north end of town. They came up behind the building and saw a door on the back. Cid rapped on it, trying to do it quietly.

They stood there for a long time, waiting impatiently. Cid rapped twice more.

"C'mon Shera...Dalia...somebody..." Cid said impatiently.

Tifa just stood there. She wondered how long it had been since Cid had been here. He obviuosly had been to Shera's sisters house before, but she doubted he had been here since Junon had invaded. She might not even live here anymore, and what would they do then?

They heard movement inside, and the door suddenly opened a crack. A woman with short black hair and blue eyes stared out at them. Her frown turned to a look of surprise when she saw Cid.

Her mouth dropped open, and she stood there looking at him foolishly.

Cid grinned.

"Hey Dalia."

Slowly, the shocked look on her face faded, to be replaced by a frown.

"Cid," she said slowly. "What are you doing here?"

Cid glanced into the darkness around them.

"It's a long story," he replied. "And it really isn't all that healthy for us to stand out here discussing it. Can we come in?"

Dalia did not reply for an agonizingly long time. Then with a toss of her head she stepped aside and invited them to enter.

They walked in. She motioned for them to sit down on her couch. She looked curiously at Tifa.

"This is Tifa Lockheart, a friend of mine," he said.

"Hi," Tifa said pleasently.

"Hello," Dalia replied. She seemed very distracted. Tifa could understand, with Cid appearing out of the blue like this. "What are you doing here?" Dalia repeated, looking at Cid.

He explained the condensed verion of what had happened to them. Tifa noticed he left out entirely what had occured to Rocket Town.

"We floated the Bronce along the coast and landed a little ways down the beach. We needed to get some parts so I can get it in the air again. We were hoping to get them here, but the place is crawling with soldiers, and I don't think they'd be all that happy to see us."

"We need your help," Cid finished. "Or Shera's. Where is she, anyway?"

Dalia did not reply. She stood there for a long time, and unreadble expression on her face. There was something about that look that made Tifa uncomfortable.

"Where's Shera?" Cid repeated, a hint of curiousity in his voice, and soemthing else.

Again Dalia did not speak, just stood there. Tifa frowned. Surely she must have heard the question.

Finally Dalia looked up, focusing on Cid.

"After all this time," she said slowly. "Seven months. Seven months she was gone, Cid. All that time, why didn't you come to see her?"

Cid looked down at the ground.

"She made it pretty clear she didn't want that," he said softly.

"But she did, Cid. She missed you every day. Every single day she waited, hoping for you to come through that door. For months. I told her she was crazy. I told her to forget about you, that you would never show up. I told her to stop tearing herself apart, to get on with life. We all did. But she didn't listen. All those years spent chasing after you, all those years with you ignoring her, or knocking her down to build up you own self esteem. Even after all that, even after she left you, she never stopped loving you."

Dalia turned away, her voice choked with emotion.

"How I wish she had never met you," she said, barely audibly.

Cid looked up at her as if he had been stabbed. For a long time neither one moved, neither one spoke. Tifa just stood there, frozen.

"Where is she?" Cid finally said, his voice incessant now.

Dalia turned back to look at him again, a fierce look in her eyes.

"She's gone," she replied.

"Gone?" Cid said. "Gone where?"

Dalia stared at Cid as if trying to bore holes in him.

"There's a small airfield here," Dalia said. "It was never used much, just to bring in occasional supplies or the rare tourist or businessman. But it does have a nice view looking out over the ocean. Shera used to go there all the time. Just to watch the planes, Cid. I don't know, mabye it was because they reminded her of you. She was there the day Junon invaded."

The color slowly drained out of Cid's face, and all of a sudden Tifa round herself wishing that Dalia would not continue.

"The defenses collapsed quickly," Dalia went on. "Mideel never had much of an army, and they didn't stand a chance against Junon's forces. They were quickly destroyed and the Junon army came into the city. There was still some resistance, and fighting in the streets. Shera must have tried to make it back here and ended up in the middle of it. She was caught in a crossfire."

She stopped for a moment, wiping her eyes. Then she continued in a soft voice.

"She's gone, Cid. She was killed."


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