Balance of Power Chapter 7

By Frank Verderosa & Jen Bond

The mid-morning sun sparkled from the ocean below them, seeming to twinkle like a thousand brightly lit stars. It had actually been a long time since Cid had flown like this. After they all went their seperate ways, he had gone back to Rocket Town and fallen into the same old rut. It was as if nothing had changed. Yet, it had. Somewhere inside, where it counted, he was different.

The problem was, he had been too much of a coward to do anything about it. Change was different, it ripped familiarity and comfort right out from under a person. The years after the failed launch of the Shinra 26, he had grown too set in his ways. Gone was the reckless young pilot who had taken any chance that had been thrown his way. In his wake, he had left an old pilot who craved routines and tea more than adventures and actual flying.

That had all changed when a mis-matched group of strangers had shown up at his door. Suddenly, he found himself remembering what he had been missing all those years. Still, it was no one's fault but his own. He had chosen to wallow in self-pity rather than kick disappointment to the side and start again. So why was it, knowing this, that very little had changed?

He had treated Shera decently enough when he returned home. He no longer yelled at her for every little thing that went wrong with his day, nor did he criticize and belittle her. No, instead, he had ignored her. Ignoring her was easier than facing up to all the emotional baggage they both carried around. Cid Highwind, who was tough as nails and faced just about anything that was thrown his way, couldn't face his feelings. It was the one thing that he had never been good at.

It was why he spent so much time with machinery. That was easy to figure out. If something was wrong with it, he fixed it. It was as plain as that. If something did happen to confuse him, there was a manual to consult to help him out. There was no such thing where humans were concerned; especially not women. He had never been particularly talented when it came to women. Most found him too abrasive and rash. And if that didn't put them off, then his smoking and his love for machinery took care of the rest.

Even when he was young, that had never really bothered him. He was more interested in flying and raising hell than in a steady relationship. Commitment hadn't exactly been a word that invoked thoughts of comfort. That hadn't changed much over the years. He still didn't know a damn thing about women, and if he had been smart, he would have realized just how much of a gem Shera was. But it was no use thinking that way now. In a matter of weeks, his world had been ripped apart. There was nothing for him to do but react and find a way to survive; and just maybe, live a little smarter.

He wasn't really certain why he was thinking about this know. Perhaps loss made one reflective. Perhaps it made a person realize how very easy it was to lose everything one held dear to them. Maybe it forced them to see what happened when one took things for granted. Losing his dream of outer space, and very nearly losing his life while battling for the Planet had evidentally not made that big of an impression on him. Losing his home town, and the woman who had nearly known him better than he did himself, had hit closer to home.

How was he any better than Wutai and Junon then? Sure, he had helped save the Planet, but he had never stopped to consider the magnitude of it all. He had taken for granted that they would all be safe, that Aeris' sacrifice wouldn't be in vain. But it had. No one gave a damn that they were tearing the Planet apart from the inside out. When they were finished fighting over what didn't even belong to them, there wouldn't be anything left.

Sighing slightly, he held the plane steady with one hand and reached up to the pack of cigarettes held in place by his flight goggles. Tucking one between his lips, he lit it up and inhaled deeply. Instead of letting his mind wander over what he knew already, he forced himself to concentrate on the moment at hand, and the way it felt to be flying the Bronco. They had a long flight to get to Cosmo Canyon, and it would be better if he forgot about the war for the time being. There would be plenty of time to worry about it when they landed.

Though he didn't dwell on the specifics, he did have to watch out for enemy aircraft. The last thing they needed to get caught up in was an air battle. They wouldn't stand a chance, especially not with the 'patch and go' job he had done to get them flying to begin with. This wouldn't be the first time he had jerry-rigged a plane together to get himself out of a scrape. He only hoped his luck prevailed, and that the Bronco would hold until they got to Cosmo Canyon.

Cid had never been a big fan of conversation just for the sake of converstation. So it was with some surprise that he found himself opening his mouth and asking Tifa, "Tell me about workin' in the bar."

"What?" Tifa asked, seemingly startled that he was talking to her.

"Tell me about workin' in the bar," he repeated, somewhat gruffly and reluctantly now that he had had time to realize just what he was inviting.

"Oh... well there really isn't much to tell. It's just a means to make a living. Some days I enjoy it, some days I don't. I get a lot of men who... it doesn't really matter now. I've probably lost the bar for good."

"It matters if you cared about it," he replied, his tone harsh.

To his surprise, Tifa laughed softly. "That's just it. I don't know if it really did matter to me. I... I'm not sure I've ever had the chance to really think about it. Or to really think about what I could be doing otherwise."

Cid had a pretty good idea why that was. It wasn't hard to realize that most of her life, Tifa had been counting on a wayward, ex-SOLDIER whose primary concern was himself. Cloud had blown back into her life without an explanation and left it just the same way. It seemed that everyone knew how Tifa felt about him, but Cloud. The man was as blind as a man could get. And Cid thought he was the bigget fool that had ever walked the earth to leave Tifa for the loneliness of a wandering mercenary.

Shit, Highwind, he thought. It's not like you have any right to judge the kid. You're as screwed up as he is when it comes women.

Her voice floated up from behind him, interupting his thoughts. "What about you? What made you love flying so much?"

For a moment, he couldn't respond. No one had ever asked him that before, not even Shera. It had just been assumed he had been born loving to fly, hnd that was all there was to the subject. As a matter of fact, no one had ever asked him anything about himself. He wasn't certain if that was because of his standoffishness, or simply because they couldn't care less.

Not even Shera knew anything of his life before meeting her. His childhood had went to the grave with his father. Only now, Tifa was asking, and strangely enough, he wanted to answer.

"Cid?" Tifa asked again, wondering at his silence.

"Yeah. It was my old man."

"Your father?"

"Yeah. He was a pilot with Shinra. Flew with 'em 'till they didn't need him anymore. When they let him go, he opened up his own shop. He worked on anything mechanic, but he loved planes most of all. I helped out with what he'd let me... hell, I idolized the man. I woulda worked with him all day if he hadn't forced me to go to school..." he trailed off, memories long forgotten rising up like embers from the ashes of the past.

His old man hadn't been all that much older than him when he had passed away. When Cid thought of him, he saw the gruff, vibrant man of his childhood, not the frail, wounded pilot looking so lost and sunken among the volumes of white sheets and medical equipment.

"Where is he now?" she asked in his silence.

"Dead." Cid replied matter-of-factly. Then, continuing on before she could reply, he said, "He died in the war with Wutai. Shinra recruited him when they were low on men. He got shot down over the ocean... floated on the debris of his plane for three days before they found him. Said it was a damn miracle there was anything left of 'im. He was busted up and sufferin' from hypothermia. He held on for two more weeks in the hospital. Doctor's were amazed. I wasn't. Hell, the Highwind men have always been tough."

"That must have been hard," she replied quietly.

Cid shrugged. "It was a long time ago. I was 17. Green as all hell and thinkin' I could take on the entire world. Only reason I wasn't up in the air then was 'cause they wouldn't let me. Probably a good thing too, or I wouldn't be here talkin' to you."

Tifa smiled slightly, finding it hard to imagine Cid as a teenager.

"My old man dreamed of goin' into outer space too. But in his time, Shinra wasn't interested in space exploration. We used to sit outside sometimes at night and look up at the stars. He'd tell me what damn near all of them were. I still remember some of their names," he added, smiling crookedly.

"Enough about me," he said, smashing the remains of his cigarette in the tray bolted on the dash. "Your turn."

"Oh no, we're not done with you yet. I want to hear about your days as a pilot."

Cid was as surprised that he didn't feel irritated by her request, as he was that she would even want to know more about him. Giving a short laugh, he said, "You mean my hell raisin' days? Lessee... me and my squadron sure as hell knew what the inside of a bar looked like. We got in some pretty damn good bar fights too. I think the worst one left me with two broken ribs. Let's just say I was lucky I didn't get kicked out of the airforce."

"Why am I not surprised?" Tifa replied wryly.

Cid grinned. "We weren't always fightin'. We were a damn good team. I trusted those guys with my life. It had to be that way or you weren't worth nothin' in the air. Those were some wild days, flyin' by the seat of my pants and livin' my life the same way. It got pretty tame after I was drafted to head the project for the Highwind. Part of me was excited as hell, and part of me knew I was goin' to miss the way things were. I never realized just how damn much..." he replied, subdued as he remembered.

At times, his days spent with Shinra seemed like a lifetime ago. It was hard to believe that he was once a wild-eyed kid with nothing more to worry about than the next time he would be going up in the air. In those days, he hadn't thought about loyalty or what Shinra was actually doing while running Midgar. His entire life had revolved around flying. He was determined to prove to himself that he could achieve his father's dreams, even the one that seemed most unattainable: outer space. And he damned near had. A small twist of fate, and one woman had changed the course of his life forever.

"Like I said, enough about me."

"All right, fair enough. What do you want to know?"

"Didn't you have any dreams when you were little? I find it hard to believe you didn't. Everyone does."

"Well, none as grand as yours. Most of my childhood was spent concentrating on my training under Zangan. I wanted to be the best student he had ever taught. I think at one moment, I might have had dreams of traveling and teaching martial arts like he did. But my... my childhood was cut short. When Sephiroth destroyed my home town and killed my only thoughts were of revenge. That was all I had."

"Shit. I'm sorry. Leave it to me to screw this up," Cid replied, uncomfortable with the mess he had made out of the conversation.

"It's all right. I was a long time ago, and I would like to think I got the closure that I needed. It wasn't all bad. I had the bar to keep me busy and when I met Biggs, Wedge, Jessie, and Barret, I was so involved in Avalanche, I didn't have time to dream. Well maybe that's not entirely true..." she trailed off, her thoughts wandering.

Cid had a pretty good idea she was thinking about Cloud. Something foreign and unfamilar stabbed him in the gut, and he frowned, reaching for another cigarette to distract himself.

"Maybe I did dream. I hoped that things would get better, that we could all create something worth living for, something we could be proud of. We started off wrong, and we were doing it for different reasons, but in the end, we all had one common goal. I only wish that our efforts hadn't been wasted, that they hadn't been for things to turn out like this. I sometimes almost think it would have been better to let Meteor destroy the Planet."

Cid started briefly, startled to find his thoughts spoken aloud. In all the time that he had known Tifa, he realized that he had never actually *known* her. It was strange now, in the middle of this crisis, to finally find out just how much they shared in common. It was saying something, that he talked to her like he had never talked to anyone before, save his father.

He was not entirely certain he wanted to dwell on the reasons why either.

As he stared out the window, Cid realized that they had covered a great deal of air while talking. He could faintly see the outline of the continent below them. It was nearing mid-afternoon now, and it wouldn't be that much longer before they reached their destination. He only hoped that Red was safe from the effects of the war still; partly for selfish reasons, and partly out of concern for his friend.

"Won't be long now 'till we land," he said offhand.

Tifa had the feeling that the conversation they had shared was over now. In that short amount of time though, Cid had shared more with her than he had with anyone else. When they had been traveling together, he had talked about the Shinra 26 and the company itself, but nothing else. She had almost gotten so used to Cid as he was, that she hadn't even thought of him having a childhood to speak of.

Slowly, Cid began to bring the Bronco down and closer to the land. He planned to fly over Cosmo Canyon and then land on the stretch of grass on the outside edge near the ocean. It had not escaped him that Rocket Town, or what was left of it, was not far off from their landing place. He just prefered not to think about it right now. Because it hurt too much to realize that *if* this war ended, he would have no place to return to.

The ocean slid away and the land stretched out before them for miles. It was amazing to think that at one point, they had actually covered that distance on foot. It had taken quite a bit of time, and the traveling hadn't all been pleasant. Especially not with Yuffie around. It seemed that the young Ninja had lived to start arguements. More than once, he and Barret, who lacked the patience the others posessed, had put her in her place.

Smiling ruefully, he evened out the wings and kept a steady pace. It was then that they heard something akin to a loud pop, and smoke started pouring out from the engine compartment in front of him. Cid immediately rose up in his seat and stared out the front windows, his hands steady on the controls. When flames started licking up and around the smoke, he knew they were in trouble.

"Cid? What's wrong?" Tifa asked, smelling the smoke, but not actually being able to see it.

Cid cursed. "Seems like that part isn't goin' to hold after all."

"Are we going to have to land?"

"You bet your ass," he replied, not adding that if the fire continued to spread the plane could blow up.

"Dammit," he bit out, darting downward at nearly a breakneck speed in the hopes of putting the flames out. "Shoulda known my luck wasn't worth shit."

By now, Tifa could see the smoke, leaving a trail across the sky and branching out like thick, black clouds. Her hands tightened on the edges of her seat, and her heart picked up slightly. Everything had seemed to be going their way for once... she supposed it was simply too much to ask.

The smoke was thicker now, pouring out toward Cid, nearly blinding him, and obscuring his vision forward. Tightly gripping the controls, he concentrated on the little bit that he could see. He had flown in worse situations than this, and he was determined to land them without ripping his plane all to hell and injuring them, or worse.

All at once, the smoke cleared slightly and the earth rushed toward him so quickly, his heart leapt into his throat. He was closer to the land than he had thought. Slowing down seemed to make things worse, as the whole front of the plane suddenly burst into flame.

There wasn't much choice now. He had to land, and he had to land fast. To hell with the state of his plane, he wanted to live to see tomorrow.

Reaching out his hand, he lowered the wheels and tossed to Tifa over his shoulder at the same time, "Hang out tight! This is gonna be a rough landin'!"

The wheels touched down once, ripping up the earth. Cid winced, sweat trickling down his brow as he and Tifa were nearly jarred from their seats. This was definately not the place he would have chosen to land had they had a choice. The ground was so pockmarked and lumpy, the wheels were having a hard time catching. Slowing the plane down even further, he touched down again. It caught and held this time, the plane dragging along as Cid's arms were nearly wrenched from their sockets from attempting to slow it down.

It seemed like they had slid forever before the plane finally stopped. Though his arms were aching, Cid wasted no time. Throwing his restraints aside, he turned around and barked, "Give me the fire extinguisher and then get the hell outta the plane!"

Tifa tossed the extinguisher to him and he raised the hatch, leaping out and onto the wing. When he jumped to the ground, his leg gave way and he collapsed to one knee. Cursing, he rose and rushed to the front of the plane, spraying the engine until the fire was gone and all that remained was smoke.

In a fit of temper, his chest heaving, he hurled the fire extinguisher onto the ground and fisted his hands on his hips, his expression thunderous.

Running the back of his arm across his forehead, he turned to find Tifa standing not far away, her eyes on the rising smoke. Since he couldn't ascertain the damage until the smoke cleared and the heat died down, he added to it by lighting up a cigarette. After he had inhaled deeply and exhaled it through his nostrils, he walked over to where she stood.

"We're screwed," he stated bluntly.

"Do you have any idea of where we are?" She asked, her arms folded around her middle and her expression strangely subdued.

Cid glanced around. "I'd say we aren't that far off from Gongaga. That's still one hell of a walk to get to Cosomo Canyon," he added bitterly.

"You don't think you'll be able to repair it?" She asked, though her tone suggested even she didn't believe it.

"Not likely," Cid spat. "I haven't seen the damages yet, but somethin' tells me she's out of commition for good. I'll probably be lucky if I ever see her again."

"I'm sorry. I know how much she means to you."

Cid glanced at her for a few moments before saying, "Not as much as our lives."

For a brief moment, Tifa looked so dejected and lost, Cid had the overwhelming urge to fold her into his arms and comfort her. Scratching the back of his head in embarrassment, his cheeks flushing slightly, he turned so that she could no longer see his face. What the hell was the matter with him? This was Tifa he was thinking about here. Though he didn't consider their age difference that much of a difference at all, the fact remained that she cared for Cloud. And what made him think she would want to put up with him anyway? He was a good for nothing, cantakerous old pilot that had already driven away one woman with his sour disposition.

"We might as well grab what supplies Dalia sent with us outta the plane," he said, turning abruptly and walking past her.

Once they had gathered everything into one small pile onto the grass, and double checked to make certain they weren't missing anything, the smoke had cleared enough for Cid to take a look at the engine. He was right. It was severly damaged, and he soon realized it was burnt beyond repair. A few more moments in the air, and it might have exploded. Sighing nonetheless, he jumped back down and grabbed one side of the heavy engine cover. Tifa was immediately there, picking up the other side, and together they fitted it back over the Bronco.

Wiping his dirty gloves on his pants, Cid surveyed the land. The Bronco had left an uneven trail of dirt and grass in her wake. Shaking his head,

"Shit," he muttered.

He turned to look the other way and found nothing but grasslands stretching out endlessly. It was going to be a long time before they reached Cosmo Canyon. Though he wanted to say that they could stop overnight in Gongaga, he wasn't certain it was smart to chance it. As small as the town was, it made an ideal place to station troops and watch over Cosmo Canyon.

Turning back to Tifa, he said, "We're goin' to have to sleep outside tonight. It's too late to get to Gongaga by nightfall."

She nodded and smiled wryly. "It won't be the first time."

Cid managed a weary grin. "Yeah, but at least it won't be as hot and there won't be any sand."

Wrinkling her face up, she replied, "Sand I could do without."

It wasn't the first time Cid was struck by her natural, unpretentious beauty. Though he didn't openly admire her, he couldn't help but stare a while until he forced himself to look away. If Tifa had any idea of the direction of his thoughts, it would make traveling together uncomfortable and tense. It was better that he just forget about it altogether.

Settling as much as he could carry of the supplies on his back, he said, "We might as well start out. It's late afternoon already."

Tifa picked up what Cid had left for her, saying, "Cid, I'm much stronger than I look."

Cid's head swiveled around. "Huh? Oh... well hell, I know that. There's no way I'm stickin' you with a bunch of crap if I can carry it myself."

"Well if you throw your back out, just don't be too macho to let me take some of the load," she teased.

"I ain't that old," he muttered, though he was smiling as he turned his head.

They walked for the better part of the afternoon, sometimes in silence, sometimes talking about something as nonessential as a plant one of them had spied. Neither wanted to discuss the war or all the loss that they had suffered in the past weeks. They had done enough of that already.

As early evening was approaching, and the sun was dipping low in the horizen, they still had not run into a single soul. They hadn't even seen ay animals It was as though the entire Planet was deserted. They both knew that wasn't so. They weren't the only ones that were wary. War affected everything, not just the humans that lived in the villages and towns that were invaded.

It was growing darker, and they were both certain Gonaga was not far off, when a sound in the thick brush off to the side caught their attention. Cid raised his hand, silently signaling for Tifa to stop. Squinting, he scanned the bushes quickly, hoping to find the source of the noise. It turned out they didn't have to wait long to find out. Two men, in tattered, worn clothing slipped out when they found that Cid and Tifa were not the threat they had anticipated. Instead, they were delighted to find that the travelers appeared to be carrying food.

Licking his dry lips, the first one introduced himself as Dar from Gongaga, and asked hopefully, "Do you have food?"

The second one, whom Dar called Maglias, hung back and watched them with hosility. Though Cid didn't like the looks of the guy, he could hardly blame him. Dar explained that Gongaga was overrun with troops from Wutai, and that they had managed to escape and were hiding out. They hadn't eaten a decent meal in three days and missed their families. It wasn't hard to see they were ashamed of themselves for leaving, even Maglias.

"We have some," Tifa said. "It isn't much... but we'd be willing to share," she added, looking to Cid.

Though Cid knew they were going to regret the decision later on, he couldn't in good conscience keep it from the men. After all, he and Tifa had eaten just this morning. They hadn't eaten for days.

Settling down upon the grass, Tifa spread out some food for them all and cautioned the men to eat slowly so that they wouldn't be sick. Both she and Cid enjoyed Dar's company as he talked of Gongaga, his family, and his life before Junon had invaded. Both had to admit it was nice to have company that wasn't hostile or wanting their loyalties in some way. The only dark spot among it all was Maglias. Though neither Tifa nor Dar seemed to notice, Cid had caught Maglias' gaze falling on Tifa more than once, and he didn't like the look he saw in the other man's eyes. As much as he was enjoying Dar's company, he would be happy to be rid of both men and on their way.

After they had all eaten, Tifa explained that they needed to continue traveling on. She offered both Dar and Maglias invitations to travel with them, much to Cid's dislike, but the men declined, saying that they wanted to stay close to their hometown and attempt to get their families out as well.

"I don't know how to thank you for what you've done," Dar said. "It's not often you find people willing to help complete strangers."

Don't we know it," Tifa replied ruefully. "Take care of yourselves."

"You too," Dar replied, and waved as she and Cid started on. As they walked on, Dar and Maglias long out of sight, Tifa said, "Meeting those men made me realize how good you and I actually have it. At least we had someone to help us, and we don't have to worry about our families being prisoners."

"That's because we don't have any family to speak of," Cid replied.

"I'm beginning to think that's a good thing," Tifa answered quietly.

The day stretched on, reaching into night. They walked on in the darkness, the adrenaline from the plane crash still keeping them far from thoughts of rest. They had reached a small stand of oak trees when Tifa stopped suddenly.

She looked around, frowning.

"What's that smell?"

Cid hadn't noticed anything unusual. He took a deep breath, and immediately regretted it. There was a faint stench in the air. A oder he had smelled before.

He looked around slowly, but the trees prevented them from seeing very far.

"What is it?" Tifa questioned, seeing the look on his face.

"Death," he said slowly.

Tifa's face paled slightly, but she said nothing more. Cid led them onward, keeping his eyes open for any sign that they weren't alone.

The smell slowly got worse, until it permeated the air around them, but still they saw nothing but the forest around them. Tifa looked at Cid with a sickly look on her face.

"This is terrible," she said. "Isn't there any other way?"

Cid shook his head.

"This is the quickest way to Gongaga," he replied. "We don't even know where the smell is coming from, so another way might be even worse. Let's just keep on going, it's got to get better soon.

But he was wrong.

They came over a small ridge, and the trees fell away suddenly, revealing an open plain one more, and on it was a sight that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. For miles and miles, the land was littered with broken bodies, the inhumanity of war stretching out in front of them for as far as the eye could see. The moon was high in the sky, shedding its light upon the dead and leaving a ghostly vision in its wake. Fog had begun to rise from the ground, and it curled around the bodies of the slain, men and mere boys, who had fought only to die, their bodies lying at grotesque angles across the grasslands.

It seemed to never end. No matter where they looked... they saw death. It was like a living graveyard. It was almost as if they expected the men to get up and walk away at any moment. Neither had been involved in a war, neither had ever seen a sight as excrutiatingly painful as this.

They hovered along the outside edge of the battlefield, neither daring to step foward even one step, neither wanting to. So many lives wasted, so much pain. Tifa found herself looking down at one man, almost peaceful in his death, and wondering who he had left behind. Both she and Cid were too shocked, too numb to move.

"Cid..." Tifa finally whispered, her hand clasping his upper arm.

Cid found his own hand reaching across himself to close around hers, squeezing it slightly to offer comfort.

"There's no way around it," he answered tonelessly.

Tifa shivered involuntarily, unconsciously moving closer to Cid, so that her hip was pressed against him. She couldn't comprehend all this death, much less walking through it. Though neither of them wanted to look on the battlefield any longer, they found it was hard to tear their eyes away. They were like children that were frightened by horror movies, yet were drawn to them with a morbid sense of curiosity.

"We're goin' to have to walk through it," Cid added uneccessarily.

"I know," Tifa replied. "I can't move."

"Horrible, isn't it?"

They both whirled around, Cid's body visibly tense, Tifa's fists raised.

From out of the shadows, a man stepped. When they both recognized him, Tifa relaxed, Cid did not.

"Maglias. What in the hell are you doin' followin' us?" Cid accused.

Maglias shrugged. "I thought you might need help."

"I thought you had a family in Gongaga..." Tifa asked, confused.

"I don't. Dar does."


Tifa trailed off when Dar produced a knife in his hand, the blade gleaming wickedly in the moonlight. Upon seeing it, Cid half-stepped in front of Tifa, shielding her with his body.

"What the hell do you want? The food? Take it all and get out of my sight, you sonofabitch," he spat.

Maglias grinned, the effect eerie in the dark. "Not just the food, but the lady too. Don't cause any trouble old man, and I won't hurt you."

"Are you crazy?!" Cid snapped, before Tifa could reply.

Stepping out around Cid, Tifa said firmly, her eyes flashing, "I'm not going anywhere with you."

"You don't have a weapon, you don't have a choice," Maglias replied.

Cid watched as she fell into her fighting stance as though it were second nature for her. If Maglias got anywhere near her, he was in for a big surprise. Yet, Cid couldn't take his eyes off the knife, and the thought of it touching Tifa caused his anger to rise.

"Slip your supplies off your backs," Maglias instructed.

Both Tifa and Cid willingly obeyed that order, knowing that it would help them move easier. When Maglias started toward them, Tifa lashed out with her leg, catching him off guard. The force of the blow pushed him back a few steps, but he still stood.

Whipping the blood from his freshly cut lip, he snarled, "That was a big mistake."

"No," Tifa replied, "following us was."

She darted forward, spinning around in an attempt to knock him from his feet. To her surprise, he leapt nimbly to the side and brought his own leg up to kick her forcefully across the face. The hit knocked her from her feet, and left her face numb with pain.

When she had first moved, Cid had spun around, looking for a weapon. He found one on the ground near the fallen man. It was a javelin, and the closet thing to his own spear he was going to find. For once, he felt luck was on his side. As he turned back around, he saw Tifa fall. Fresh rage rushed through him, and he darted forward, spining the javelin in his hands. When Maglias attempted another kick, Cid brought the javelin up and knocked it away with a stinging slap. Maglias slipped backward, his leg burning.

"This old man has a few good years left," he snapped, leaping up into the air with an ease the belied his age.

He brought the javelin down with all of his strength, striking the earth where Maglias had stood only moments before. He spun back around, but not fast enough to avoid a kick directed for his middle. As he sucked in the pain, Tifa caught Maglias from behind with a spinning kick that smacked him upside the head with the reinforced side of her boot. Their opponent stumbled then, the world waving before his eyes as he struggled to hold onto consciousness.

He was lucid enough to turn Cid's way and throw the knife, however. The attempt was clumsy though, and Cid easily dodged it. As both he and Tifa closed in to attack at the same time, he surprised them by suddenly dropping to the ground and rolling. Suddenly he lunged forward, toward one of the bodies on the ground. He fumbled with it for a moment, then turned around. When he rose to his knees, he had a gun in his hands.

Smiling grimly, he said, "Too bad I have to do this."

The sound of gunfire caused their bodies to jerk as though physically hit. But the outcome was not what they had expected. Maglias' body slumped face down in the grass, his blood staining the already soiled earth. Behind him, a few feet away, standing among the dead, was a man they had not seen since they had parted ways two years before.

Vincent Valentine.

Both Tifa and Cid just stood there in shock, stunned to see Vincent appear like and apparition out of the darkness. Without a word he strode forward, then bent down beside the body of Maglias.

"Vincent, what are you doing here?" Tifa finally found her voice.

Vincent did not reply. Tifa wasn't sure what he was doing in the darkness. Curious, she stepped closer to see that he was rummaging through the man's pockets, removing whatever he found.

"Vincent, what are you doing?" she asked.

Vincent still did not reply. She waited impatiently for him to say something. Finally he stood up, placing what he had taken in a pouch.

"Are you taking that man's valuables?" Tifa asked.

Vincent looked at her for a moment.

"He's not going to need them anymore," he replied.

Tifa fell silent. She had to admit what he said was tru, but it still didn't seem right to her.

"It's good to see you," Cid cut in. "We'd have been dead if you hadn't showed up."

Vincent just stood there looking at them impassively. Vincentt had been a great help in their fight against Sephiroth, there was no denying that, but there was something about him that had always made Tifa feel a bit uncomfortbale. Maybe it was the living in the coffin thing, or just the way he never seemed to engage in casual conversation like a normal person. She was sure it wasn't his fault, not after what Hojo had done to him. But still, there had always been soemthing about him that left her uneasy, and now she felt it stronger than ever.

"What are you doing here?" Cid asked.

Vincent stared out into the darkness around them, loking over the battlefield.

"Collecting things," he replied.

Cid looked at him curiously.

"Collecting things? Like what?"

Without turing toward them Vincent patted the pouch hanging from his belt.

"Whatever I can find," he replied. "This is a very good place to find things."

Tifa frowned.

"You've been stealing from the dead?" she questioned.

Vincent turned his gaze toward her. Whatever protest she might have voiced died in ther throat at the look in his piercing eyes.

"They have no more need of them," he repeated.

They stood there in silence for a moment. Tifa looked at Cid, but he just seeemed to shrug it off.

"We need to find shelter for the night," he said. "We were hoping maybe to make it to Gongaga, but we can't run into any Wutai troops. Do you know what the conditions are like in Gongaga?"

Vincent paused before answering, something he seemed to do everytime he spoke.

"After this battle, Gongaga is crawling with Wutai troops. You'll never get in without being seen. I have a place you can stay. Follow me."

He started off without waiting for a reply, headed straight into the battlefield. Tifa hesitated, looking at Cid, but he he just shrugged and started off after Vincent. With a sigh of frustration, Tifa followed.

Vincent led them silently across the battlefield. The bodies seemed to go on forever. In a way, Tifa was glad it was dark. Most of the bodies they passed were horribly mutilated, riddled with bullets or torn apart by explosions. It was bad enough walking thorugh it in the darkness where she couldn't see the details. She wasn't sure she'd have had the strength to do it in the full light of day.

It was eerily silent. There was no wind, no background noise from birds or even insects. It was as if nothing dared to set foot in this dead zone. All she could hear was the slow tread of her feet and the crunch of Cid's boots behind her.

Vincent walked silently. His own feet made no sound, almost seeming to glide over the ground without touching it. Tifa's facw was pale. In spite of the darkness, she could make out enough details to make her sick. They passed countless rotting corpses, but the worst was the pieces. An arm here, a torn and bloodied torso there. She could hardly stand it. First her eyes had strayed from their path, but soon she kept them fixed firmly on Vincent's back. But even then she could still see things with her peripheral vision. And there was no way to shut out the almost overpowering smell.

She glanced back at Cid, who had dropped behnind her to the rear. He looked up at her, giving her a reassuring smile, but she could tell he wasn't finding this anymore pleasent than she.

Of the three of them, only Vincent seemed unperturbed. In this field of death and silence, he seemed perfectly at ease.

Vincent stopped suddenly. He bent down over one of the bodies. Tifa could't see exactly what he was doing. And she thought she was probably better off that way. She shuddereed and turned away, but all around them were more bodies, more death. In desperation her gaze turned toward Cid. He saw the look she was giving him and immediately came over to her and put an arm around her shoulders. She buried her face in his chest, the only comfort in all this death and decay. She could understand Vincent's argument that the dead no longer needed their possessions, but she could not condone what he was doing. There was something perverse to her about stealing from the dead.

"Can't we just get on with this?" Cid questioned irritably.

Vincent did not reply, but he stood up and started on his way once again.

Tifa gave Cid a wane smile of thanks and they both followed.

In the darkness ahead Tifa could see a line of trees approaching. Her spirits rose a bit, thinking perhaps they had come to the end of this killing field. But her optimisim was shortlived. They reached the wood and continued on, and so did the bodies. The battle had raged through forest as well as field.

A three quarter moon hung in the western sky, giving off more than enough light out in the field, yet it left black pools of darkness here under the trees. She coudln't imagine those shadows holding worse horrors than she had already seen, yet still the irrational thought that something might be lying in wait there brought chills to her spine.

They reached a small creek, it's waters black as night. Vincent splashed through without even pausing. Reluctantly Tifa followed. She shuddered again as the water closed around her ankles. The world was black and white in the stark illumnation from the mooon. The swirling water around her feet was black as ink. Yet somehow she knew that if she could see the water in the light of day it would be stained with red. She felt sick to her stomach.

"Are you all right?" Cid quiried.

Tifa just nodded, her face as pale and ghostly as the moon above them.

"How much farther?" Cid asked.

"Not far."

Cid scowled, but there was nothing for them to do but follow.

Tifa walked on, trying not to think about anything, just putting one foot mechanically in front of the other, like some kind of zombie. But she could feel the strain begining to tell on her. How much father could this possibly go on? How much more could she stand?

Cid walked silently behind Tifa, watching her carefully. She looked like she was going to be violently ill at any moment, and he couldn't say that he blamed her. He considered himself pretty strong when it came to this sort of thing, but he had to admit it was getting to him as well. He had never seen carnage like this before.

But his own unease was tempered by his conern for Tifa. She looked like she could barely put one foot in front of the other. He wanted to tell her to sit down and rest, but he knew it wouldn't do any good, not while they were out ehre in the middle of this. They needed to get out of here, and soon. He had to admit he wasn't too pleased with Vincent's vague answers, nor his apparent unconcern for Tifa's condition.

"How much farther?" he asked again with no hint of politeness.

For a long moment he thought Vincent wasn't going to reply. He felt an angry outburst welling up inside him.

"Almost there," Vincent finally said.

"Christ, that's pretty much what you said the last time," Cid said bitterly.

Vincent made no response.

"We can't go on much farther," Cid snapped.

Again there was an annoyingly long pause before Vincent replied.

"I"m afraid you don't have much choice."

Cid glared darkly at Vincent's back. He opened his mouth but then stopped when Tifa touched his arm. She looked at him and shook her head slowly, then turned and followed Vincent once again.

He fell in silently behind her.

Tifa gritted her teeth. She wsa trying to be strong, but she could tell from Cid's words that he could see through her front. The last thing she wanted was to have Cid and Vincent bickering, especially if it were her fault. Somehow she would have to be stronger.

She focused her eyes once more on Vincent's back, trying to block out all else, praying that this interminable ordeal would finally end.

And eventually it did. Gradually the bodies around them became less frequent. Tifa refused to get her hopes up this time, thinking it was perhaps just an area of lesser carnage in the middle of the battlefield, but soon the bodies thinned so that she could look around in the forest and at times, not see any at all around them. The smell began to diminish as well, and finally she began to let her hopes grow that they had reached the end of this.

They came over a small rise and then dropped into a narrow gully. Suddenly an inky black hole appeared in the lesser darkness in front of them and Tifa realized they were standing in front of a cave.

"This way," Vincent said, instantly disappearing inot the darkness.

Tifa hesitated. She couldn't see a thing in there. Cid came up beside her.

"Vincent, where the hell are you leading us?" he questioned. "You might run on sonar, but we don't. We can't see a thing in there."

Instead of an answer they heard the creaking of a door. Flickering light shone out of the room the open door revealed, illuminating Vincent standing in the entranceway. Without a word he stepped into the room.

Cid frowned, but Tifa quickly walked in, thankful to get out of that borrible night. Cid followed and swung the door closed.

Tifa breathed a sigh of relief. She ahd never been through anything like that before, nor did she ever want to again. The trek thorugh the battlefield they made that night would haunt her for the rest of her life.

She still felt sick to her stomach. Though the stench outside had diminished, it still lingered. Even here, shut inside the cave the foul smell of death could still be detected. It seemed to cling to her and all here clothing. She wanted nothing more than to strip them off, to toss away these garments forever, and find clean water somewhere to try to scrub the taint out of her skin.

But as she looked around she realized that probably wasn't going to happen anytime soon. Vincent's abode was a crude cave carved out of the limestone of the hill. A fire burned near the back, the smoke exiting through a natural chimney in the rock. There was a table and chair in the middle of the room, and what looked like a coffin on the floor near the fire. Various other items were strewn haphazardly around the room, obviously the fruits of vincent's labors among the dead. Their mere presense made Tifa uneasy. There was no running water, nor anyplace to clean up. Apparently her hopes of a nice long bath were a long way from fulfillment.

"You're welcome to stay for the night," Vincent offered. "You wouldn't have gotten much farther on our own anyway. There are Wutai patrols all over the place this close to Gongaga."

Cid looked at Tifa wordlessly asking her opinion. Tifa wasn't all that thrilled about the idea of remaining here, but it seemed they had no choice. conditions were no better outside, and on top of that they'd risk being picked up by a Wutai patrol No matter how uncomfortable she was, it was probably better to remain.

She nodded.

"Thanks," Cid said.

Vincent did not reply. He placed his latest aquisitions on te table and began to sort through them.

There was an awkward silence.

"It's good to see you again, Vincent," Tifa said. "What have ou been doing these past two years?"

Vincent did not look up from the items he was examining.

"This and that," he replied.

"We're trying to get to Cosmo Canyon," Cid said. "We seem to have gotten ourselves in hot water with both Junon and Wutai. We thought mabye Red XIII might be able to shelter us."

The crackling of the fire was his only reply.

"Perhaps you'd like to come with us," Tifa offered. "Might be nice to get together again, see some old faces. You're welcome to join us."

Vincent pushed the items aside and picked up some papers beside them.

"No," he replied rather brusquely.

Tifa frowned. Again he had surprised her. She though he might say no, but not so apruptly.

"Why not?" she asked.

Vincent still did not look over at them.

"I'm happy where I am," he said.

This was apparently more than Cid could handle.

"You're happy being a grave robber?" he exclaimed. "You're happy living here, in this dump? The smell of death is all around this place. I thought you were morbid, but I didn't think you were this bad! How could you possibly like it here?"

Vincent looked up at him at this outburst, his own face remaining perfectly calm. For a long time he didn't speak. Cid waited impatiently.

"It is fitting," Vincent said finaly. "I must atone."

"Atone?" Cid said, screwing up his face. "Are you still on that atone kick? I thought you made your peace when we finished Sephiroth."

"Nothing I do will ever give me peace," Vincent replied.

"Well, that doesn't mean you have to beat yourself over the head for it," Cid responded.

Vincent did nor reply. Cid turned and looked at Tifa. She just shrugged. She didn't know what to say anymore than he did.

"You came with us last time," Tifa pointed out.

"That was different," Vincent replied, for the first time without hesitation. "You were after Hojo. But he's dead now. I've already had my revenge, hollow as it may have been. There is no more I can do."

He went back to reading his papers. Tifa looked helplessly at Cid, who just glowered at Vincent. Tifa couldn't understand how Vincetn could act this way. She knew the loss of Lucrecia had been horrible for him, but life went on. There was nothing wrong with greiving, but eventually you had to move on. How could he just give up like this?

But she had known before what he was like, though he seemed to have gone downhill since the last time they had met, at least in her opinion. The bottom line was, it was his choice. They couldn't force him to come with them.

"You'll have a difficult time getting to Cosmo Canyon," Vincent said, apparently considering the other subject closed. "There are Wutai patrols everywhere."

"We'll take our chances," Cid said grumpily.

"Fine," Vincent replied. "But perhaps Reeve can help you."

"Reeve?" Cid said. "How can he help us? Is he in the area?"

Vincent nodded.

"He's helping supply a refugee camp that has been set up near Gongaga. Kind of a middleman, I guess. I don't know much about it. He had connections with both Wutai and Junon, though alligence to neither, as far as I can tell. If anybody can get you through, he can."

"I thought Reeve awas still in Midgar," Tifa said. Last she had heard he had opened his own company and was helping to rebuild.

Vincent merely shrugged.

Cid rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

"I thought so too," he said. "But a lot has happened lately, now hasn't it? To all fo us. I'm not surprised. If any of us come out of this all right, it'll be him. He's a survivor."

"Where's the refugee camp?" Tifa asked.

"Not far," Vincent replied. "I'll take you there tomorrow."

"Thanks," Cid said.

Vincent stood up abruptly and walked toward the door.

"Where you going?" Tifa asked.

Vincent didn't even glance at her.

"I'll be back," was all he said. A moment later he was gone.

Tifa frowned.

"I don't understand him at all," she said. It was quite late now. She wondered where he was going at this hour. Perhaps to look for more collectables? She could picture him wandering through the dead bodies like some kind of ghoul. She felt herself shudder at the thought.

"You okay?"

She turned to see Cid lookinga t her. She smiled.

"Yeah. I was just picturing Vincent out there strolling around like it's a Sunday afternoon in the park."

Cid grimaced.

"He is an odd duck, isn't he?"

That seemed an understatement to her.

Cid felt his stomach rumble. He couldn't remember the last time they had eaten.

"You hungry?" he questioned.

Tifa shook her head. The ordeal they had been through had made her appetite disappear. Right now she felt like she wouldn't care if she never ate again.

"Well, I need to have something," he said, pulling off his backpack and starting to rummage through it. "I'm starved."

"I'll make some soup," Tifa volunteered.

Cid looked at her.

"You don't have to do that," he said. "You said you weren't hungry."

"I don't mind," she said. "I need something to do anyway, to take my mind off things."

She slid off her own backpack, pulling out the cooking gear. She accepted the packet of soup Cid handed her and brought it all over by the fire. She could see Vincent had pots of his own lined up on a crude shelf by it, but she didn't want to use any of his.

A few minutes later the smell of soup filtered through the air, almost, but not quite, masking the faint odor of death. She poured the soup off into a cup and brought it over to Cid, who was seated on the floor with his back against the cavern wall, puffing on a cigarette.

"Thank you," he said when she handed it to him.

She sat down beside him and looked at him as he ate. She couldn't understand how he could have an appetite after all they'd been through.

Cid noticed her looking at him. He paused in mid spoonful.


She just shook her head.

"Nothing," she said.

It didn't take him long to finish. He put the cup down and looked around.

"Well, I think we better get some shuteye. It's been a long day, and I don't know if tomorrow is going to be any easier."

Tifa nodded, although she couldn't see how tomorrow could be anything but better. Or at least she hoped so. She looked around as well. There were no beds, other than he coffin, if you could call that one. But the floor of the cavern was covered with a soft brownish mosslike growth. Tifa had never seen it before, but it felt reasonably comfortable. Cid got up and picked up a battered blanket from among Vincent's possesions and looked at Tifa, but she just shook her head. The less things she touched in this place, the better she would feel.

Cid dropped the blanket and came back over beside her. He sat back down, his back against the wall once more.

Tifa slid over beside him until her shoulder rested against his. It seemed as if the whole world had gone mad. Everything was different, and it seemed that even Vincent had been changed by the war. And she still felt sick from the scene outside.

She looked at Cid, more thankful than ever that he was with her. Through it all he had stuck by her, been someone she could depend on. Her rock in a sea of turmoil. The only place she could turn for comfort.

"I don't like it here," she said.

Cid looked at her. Her face was still pale, and there seemed to be lined of worry there that he had never seen before. Of all of them Tifa had always been the optimitic one, always the one to make the best of any circumstances, no matter how dire. Even when faced by Sephiroth in the northern crater she ahd been strong, never backing down or showing fear.

"It'll be all right," he muttered, not really knowing what to say.

She bowed her head, staring down at the floor. The constant running, the threat of imminent death. When was it ever going to end? Could this really be the world they had fought so hard to save?

"Get some rest," Cid continued. "We'll be outta here tomorrow. We'll meet up with Reeve and in a few days we'll be tanning ourselves on the cliffs of Cosmo Canyon. You'll see. By next week this'll all semm like a bad dream..."

His voice faded off into silence as he realized his attempt to cheer her up was falling flat on it's face.

He looked at her, staring dejectedly at the floor, and felt a knawing in his own stomach.

He reached out, putting his arm around her and pulling her closer. At this point he would have given anything to make her feel better.

She didn't look up at him, just rested her head against his chest, feeling the slow rise and fall of it. He as so warm and comfortable. The only comfort she ahd now, and right now she needed that more than she ever had in her life.

"I'm scared, Cid," she said softly.

She felt his arms tighten around her. She kenw she couldn't run from their problems, but there were times when they were just too much of a burden, when she had to put them aside, at least for a little while. Right now was one of those times. If she thought about it anymore she would go mad. Cradled in his arms, head nestled against his chest, she hoped to find the escape she so desperately needed. She shut her eyes and, though it seemed an impossible task, tried to will her mind not to think about anything but the comfort of the body beside her.

For a long time they remained there in each others arms, without saying a word. Just knowing the other one was there was enough. Tifa had thought she would never be able to fall asleep in this place, but the travails of the day had taken their toll on her, leaving her more exhausted than she realized. And soon her wish to get away was granted, and she slipped mercifully into the oblivion of sleep.


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