.10.

Vincent Valentine soon confirmed Aeris' suspicion that he was as capable of defending himself as was she. As the ShinRa forces swept down the stone hall towards them he was absolutely still with his weapon—a unique three barreled shotgun—cradled in both hands. As the first among the blue uniformed ShinRa ranks opened fire, however, the former Turk exploded into action. He leapt ahead and with an incredibly lithe twisting of the body managed to put himself well beyond the line of fire. He was moving again an instant later, the crimson swirling of his cape the only mark of his inhumanly swift movements as he brought the shotgun up to bear and fired off all his rounds, reloaded, and began again.

Aeris had dropped to one knee, still within the shadow of the doorway and opting to forego her semiautomatics in favor of something with more stopping power. Ahead of her Valentine swiftly wove throughout the now scattered ranks of the enemy, firing with speed and accuracy that was startling. She slid the shotgun free of its holster, shucked a shell into place and aimed all in one breath; the nearest target was rushing directly for her, his own finger squeezing back on the trigger of his automatic rifle. She fired and the shot took him dead center in the chest; the spray from his weapon as he stumbled and fell had her diving to the side to avoid being hit. Coming up again in a quick roll Aeris managed to get off three more shots, felling one more man and sending another staggering through the door that Valentine had only just recently been entombed behind. She reloaded quickly, sliding the shells into the underside of the barrel with deft fingers, and came to her feet before realizing that there was no longer any commotion—suddenly all had become still.

"There are more above." Vincent said, shouldering his shotgun and standing in the midst of bodies. Aeris did a swift mental count; more than ten men had just been killed in under a minute …

"This is my fight," she told him, and carefully stepped over the bodies while re-holstering the shotgun. "I didn't mean to drag you into this."

"Yet here I am, regardless." He caught her arm as she walked past him. "Perhaps I've dwelt here far too long. I would aid you in your mission, if you'll allow it."

Surprised, she stared at him for a long moment before nodding. "Alright. I've got a buggy parked in the forest northwest of here. We can get ahold of Tseng once we're there …" she trailed off, thoughts becoming grim.

"Was it he that betrayed your presence here?" Vincent asked, knowing what she was thinking.

"No." She said firmly. "Not Tseng—"

"—subdued the target? I repeat, has target been subdued?" The radio on the corpse closest to Aeris suddenly exploded to life, reminding them both that this ordeal was not yet over. And then footsteps, though faint, could be heard pounding over the old wooden floors of the mansion so far above. The two of them exchanged a glance before beginning to move, Aeris breaking into a run and Vincent following close behind. Roughly halfway up the rickety spiral staircase they encountered three more ShinRa officers; Aeris made quick work of the first two with one semiautomatic, and the third slumped down the stairs bearing three large holes in his chest as testament to Vincent's accuracy. They increased their speed, racing as fast as they could over the stairs and taking heed not to plummet through the empty spaces on their way up. By the time they'd reached the top the steady, rhythmic thunder of a helicopter was clearly audible from somewhere outside. Aeris looked from the door leading to the landing to the window facing the mountains and made her choice; shielding her face with both arms she ran for the window and leapt through, curling to minimize the impact. The glass shattered and she landed in an awkward crouch, coming to her feet and turning to see Vincent follow her path. His landing seemed effortless, and he unfolded from his crouch with a fluidic movement before turning to her. Whatever he was about to say was lost as suddenly the roar of the helicopter became immediate; suddenly they were both bathed in the harsh, unrelenting glare of a search light that was effective even in the not yet full dark.

"Throw down your weapons and surrender!" An amplified voice blared from the helicopter as it circled them. The wind from the rotating blades was ferocious, and both Aeris and Vincent had to brace themselves against it. "Failure to comply will result in immediate termination. You are surrounded. Throw down your weapons!"

Aeris, one arm raised to her eyes in an effort to spare them the assault of the search light, was furiously calculating their next course of action. Her heaviest source of firepower was the shotgun, but it wouldn't be enough to take down the helicopter … and if they didn't do something soon, they'd be surrounded …

"Go!" Vincent shouted, and she turned her face to him. His hair, propelled by the fierce wind, was whipping past his face and partially obscuring it, but she was still able to read his intent clearly in his eyes. His shotgun was still held loosely in his flesh and blood hand, and as she nodded he slowly brought it up to bear. The voice from the helicopter brayed a sudden warning; Aeris whirled and bolted, utilizing all her speed to race beyond the search light's large radius. In a heartbeat she had reached the tree line bordering the town, but she stopped and turned before crossing over, looking back at her newest ally. He stood still within the glare of the helicopter's light, head tilted back and eyes fixed on the vehicle, red cape fluttering out wildly behind him. Suddenly there was gunfire from the helicopter, but Vincent vanished from the spot he had been standing. Just barely was Aeris able to track his movement, and she watched with newfound appreciation as the man who had been a Turk leapt sideways and used the wall of the mansion for leverage to propel himself even further into the air. He caught hold of the helicopter's landing bar and swung himself up and around until he was perched tenuously upon the metal; he maintained his position easily as he fired through the open hatch. The chopper began to buck and tilt, whether in an attempt to dislodge Vincent or because the pilot had been wounded Aeris was unsure. Suddenly the helicopter shot upwards and the search light died, leaving Nibelheim in abrupt darkness. Aeris stared after the chopper which was still ascending and hesitated only a moment before resolutely turning back to the tree line; Vincent had proven he was more than capable of looking after himself …

She saw the movement to the side an instant too late—her hands flew to the grips of her handguns just as another voice, this one emanating from only several feet away, rang out, "Do. Not. Move!"

She saw them then, two forms standing just beneath the overhang of the mansion's roof. Not heeding the warning she slipped the guns free of their holsters and was unexpectedly rewarded with pain as the figure on the right, the one that had spoken, opened fire. The bullet punctured her shoulder and her left arm was immediately numbed; the gun fell from her hand to the ground. She realized her mistake even as she swore vehemently in surprise—this was no mere member of ShinRa's military force, which was why he was faster than she had thought he would be …

"Remember me?" The speaker asked casually, raising his voice to be heard over the retreating thunder of the chopper, and this time when Aeris looked upon the two almost silhouetted forms she recognized them. It was the dark haired SOLDIER she had wounded the last time she'd been in Nibelheim, and beside him was his blonde ShinRa officer friend. As Aeris attempted to shrug her shoulder in order to assess the damage she let loose a low hiss of pain, and even in the growing dark she could see the satisfied, vindictive smile that crossed the SOLDIER's face. "Now," he called out, "we're even."

She didn't respond, instead eyeing the new combatants carefully. From within Nibelheim proper came the sounds of more units mobilizing: the pounding of booted feet on cobblestone, the blaring static from personal radios, the sounds of weapons being locked and loaded. The wound in her shoulder wasn't debilitating—yet. Even one armed she could still wield the other handgun and even the shotgun, but the SOLDIER could now pose a threat. His mako enhancement made him stronger and swifter than most, though his abilities were nowhere near the levels hers were. Her eyes flicked to the side—as she'd thought, the blonde officer had trained his rifle directly over her heart. Both men began to move closer, one careful step at a time.

"Let's do this the easy way, okay?" The SOLDIER said when he and his companion came to a halt only a few paces away, his tone almost placating. "You know there's no way out of this."

"You said that last time," Aeris replied with a cold smile.

"Last time," the SOLDIER said slowly, anger at her glib remark evident, "you weren't injured. Drop the gun."

She let the other semiautomatic fall from her hand, and it clattered softly to the ground at her feet. Adopting the front of compliance would allow her more time to formulate a way out of this, but she was more than aware that the chances of her escaping without further injury were slim. Killing them was an option, but more dangerous than just attempting escape.

"Get on your knees," the SOLDIER ordered. "Arms behind your head."

She did as he directed, sinking down on the grass and lacing her hands together behind her head while gritting her teeth as the movement further aggravated her already agonized shoulder. She stared at them both without expression, and without removing his eyes from hers the SOLDIER said to his companion, "Cloud, see if she's packing any more guns."

The blonde officer nodded and approached her slowly, circling around her, one foot over the other, careful to keep her in his line of sight always. He stopped before her, off to one side so that the SOLDIER's line of fire remained clear. "Don't move," the one called Cloud said in an even, threatening voice. Acutely aware of the muzzle of his automatic rifle pointed directly at her face, Aeris nodded once. He got down on one knee, keeping his weapon trained on her one handed, and reached for her shotgun, pulling it free from the thigh holster and tossing it to the side. Getting to his feet again, he moved around behind her, checking her form for the rest of her arsenal. She remained quiet and still, waiting for when next he was in arm's reach. If she could catch hold of him and use him as a shield, she was positive she could get the SOLDIER to disarm. Tensing, she watched out of the corner of her eye as the officer began to circle around in front of her once again—

A sound split the air, the violent reverberation of an explosion. The night sky above Nibelheim was suddenly illuminated as a fireball appeared high in the air. And as the glow died another sound grew, a tremendous scream of twisting metal and the crackle and roar of flames. Aeris got to her feet and threw herself to the side, knowing what was coming; the SOLDIER's attention, momentarily diverted by the explosion, jerked back to her and he fired too late at her retreating form. He was racing for her as suddenly the ground heaved and quaked; he fell and Aeris, lying on her back, lifted herself up to see the ShinRa mansion engulfed in flames with the scorched and battered body of the helicopter buried deep within its roof. The blonde officer had been knocked flying by the impact and was lying motionless quite some distance away. The SOLDIER, having gotten quickly to his feet, had spared the now demolished mansion only one glance before turning his attention back to Aeris, rising up and taking aim—

"Come," said a voice in her ear, and then there was an arm around her shoulders, propelling her forth. Her view of the SOLDIER was blocked by the torn, tattered fabric of Vincent's cape, and then she was running, assisted in large part by her newfound ally. Behind them gunfire joined the chaos of the helicopter wreckage, but they were already beyond reach. His speed was equal to that of hers, and they were out of Nibelheim, out of the forest, less than a minute later. They slowed after breaching the small copse of trees that bordered the town, Vincent removing his arm and stepping away.

"Is it serious?" He asked her as she lifted her right arm to assess the wound in the other shoulder.

"No," she said, but winced anyways as she probed it gently. The bullet would have to be removed, but she had no method of doing so here. Remembering the injuries she'd sustained after falling from the ShinRa building, she said with the ghost of an ironic smile, "I've survived worse."

Vincent didn't reply, his eyes on the now distant glow in the darkness that was Nibelheim. The flames from the mansion were evident even from here, rising above the treetops, reaching for the sky like flickering fingers of some ethereal, disembodied hand.

"Will you miss it?" She asked him then, for it had been for almost twenty years his home.

He shook his head. "No. Nothing lingered there but myself and memories better left forgotten." He turned his attention back to her. "Sephiroth was in the helicopter."

Her eyes widened slightly, "You're sure?"

"Positive. I have never sensed anything like that in a person before."

"He went down with the chopper?" She asked, but it was a redundant question; she already knew the answer.

"No. He jumped clear just before it went down." He gave her a moment to absorb this before going on, "We should continue on. They will send out search parties."

Aeris nodded, turned, and began to walk, covering the bullet wound with her hand as she did so. Vincent easily matched her stride, and together they traversed the gently rolling hills that led upwards into the thick forests that lined the Nibel Mountains. By the time they'd reached the buggy it was fully dark, and the quarter moon shone, a bright sliver, overhead. Aeris unlocked the vehicle and tossed the keys to Vincent, who took the driver's seat. As he started the buggy Aeris grabbed the PHS with her good hand, flipped it open and thumbed the button that would directly connect her to the Turks. It rang twice before it was answered, and she was greeted with only one word. "Tseng."

"There's been trouble." She said. "They found me here."

There was a momentary silence. "I've heard nothing about this."

"I didn't think so. They showed up maybe a half hour after I got here. Infantry, some officers and one SOLDIER. There was a helicopter, too, and the General was inside."

Tseng said one word softly in his native tongue; she didn't have to be familiar with the language to know it was a curse. He said nothing for a long pause, and so she said it for him, "You know what this means?"

"Yes." He sighed heavily. "We Turks have a traitor in our midst."