Chapter Two

Be Courageous and Be Brave

Other than Zack, Sephiroth had selected two more SOLDIERs to accompany them to Fumiyaki. With his typical no-nonsense demeanor he found them and gave them their orders. And it had also occurred to him that they should not make the trek alone. He sought Godo to discuss the possibility of finding a doctor to go with them. The emperor thought it a very wise idea and promised to look.

Sephiroth then went to the storage room. There he began to gather up medical supplies, warm clothes and bedding, and food and water. There was no telling what might be needed in a storm of this magnitude. It was good that the palace retreat had many such items prepared, in addition to the SOLDIERs being told to bring such items for themselves. Sephiroth would get his own personal items last. They were still packed and ready for when they would be needed. It would have been foolish to come to Wutai without such provisions, especially knowing that winter would soon arrive.

Godo approached him while he was still in the storage room. "You will need directions to Fumiyaki," he said.

Sephiroth glanced over his shoulder, a first aid kit in his hand. "I know," he agreed.

Godo held out a sheet of paper. "You will be traveling Northeast," he said.

Sephiroth placed the box in the bag before accepting the paper. His eyes scanned the written instructions, narrowing as he came to the bottom. "How dangerous are these mountains we have to go past?" he asked.

"There will be the danger of more than one avalanche occurring," Godo said. "Fumiyaki is right in between two mountains, and I do not doubt that part of it may already be buried, as the SOLDIERs believed."

Sephiroth nodded. If the rest of it was covered by the time they arrived, then it would not be likely that anyone had survived. It would be one of the situations that Zack hated the most--determining whether to stay and begin an attempt to dig the village out--which would almost certainly be fruitless--or to ensure the safety of the men and turn back, assuming that everyone was already dead. Sephiroth was not fond of such scenarios himself, but he had to use logic and practicality when faced with one.

"You are still going to take Commander Fair with you, I assume."

Sephiroth folded the paper, placing it in his pocket before returning to the task at hand. "Yes," he said.

Godo nodded. "I know you rarely change your mind, once you have made a decision."

"That's right." Folding a comforter quilt, Sephiroth wrestled it into the remaining space in the bag. There was still a slight bit of room left, so he slid in another first aid kit before sealing the container.

"I will see you off, General," Godo said.

Sephiroth nodded again, in acknowledgment. "We should be leaving within fifteen minutes," he reported.

"That is best," Godo said. "And I have found a physician and a nurse to go with you also. Let it not be said that the emperor does not care about the welfare of his subjects."

"As long as they don't get in SOLDIER's way," Sephiroth said. If they could co-exist, as he had hoped, then it would be welcome to have them along. SOLDIERs were not trained in every kind of medical procedure, though they were aware of some processes such as setting broken bones and what to do for heavy bleeding from wounds. But under these conditions it would be better to have an actual medical doctor with them.

"The doctor is one of the healers who treated you, General," Godo said.

Sephiroth nodded. That was fine then; he had the greatest respect for those who had tended to his wounds after he had collapsed at the palace. They had not treated him any differently than they would treat a Wutaian.

"He and the nurse are gathering medical items," Godo continued. "They will join you and the others outside."

He turned, heading back up the hall.

Now Sephiroth walked to the outside door nearest to the chocobo stables. Pushing it open, he stepped out and slid the door shut behind him. The wind had picked up speed just in a few short minutes. His hair was whipping in every possible direction. He might have to tie it back, as annoying of a thought as it was.

He set the bag on the patio before crossing to the stables and going inside. The other SOLDIERs had already selected the birds for the journey. Each was leading one to the doors. Sephiroth moved aside, observing in approval. They would be taking four. Two people could ride on one, which would leave two for the SOLDIERs and save the other two to carry the supplies--and any people they needed to bring back. Other chocobos and SOLDIERs would be sent for as necessary. He did not know how many the physician would want. The doctor would be getting his own.

The fowl warked in unison before dividing into their separate choruses. Sephiroth ignored the noise. Walking over the wooden floor and stray straw, he took down a bridle and halter before going to the remaining two chocobos that had been chosen. The nearest one watched him curiously, warking as it tilted its head to the side. Sephiroth slipped the bridle over its beak, placing the bit in its mouth. Thank whatever divinity there was that this bird was cooperative.

One of the SOLDIERs returned to take care of the second fowl. Sephiroth nodded to him, moving past with the chocobo he had outfitted for travel.

Zack was limping out the door when Sephiroth led the avian creature into the snow. A duffel bag was being dragged over one shoulder while he held onto his cane with his other hand. "Aww, he likes you, Seph," he smirked, watching the bird blissfully strutting behind his best friend.

Sephiroth grunted. "Are you ready to leave?" he asked, choosing to ignore Zack's comment.

Zack nodded. "All set!" he chirped.

Sephiroth took out his compass. "Emperor Kisaragi gave me directions to Fumiyaki," he said. "We travel Northeast. My main concern is that there may be a whiteout."

Zack brushed the wild bangs out of his eyes. "What's that?" he blinked. Suddenly it was dawning on him how little he knew of winter terminology. He had not needed such knowledge in Gongaga, and if there had been a lesson on it after joining SOLDIER, he had apparently forgotten that word. He could just imagine Angeal's stern look if that was indeed the case.

"It's where the snow is so thick that you can't see where the horizon is," Sephiroth explained. "It can also happen when there isn't any snow currently falling, if the sky appears as white as the snow on the ground."

Zack gave a low whistle. "In this storm, I guess it could happen. Sounds scary."

Sephiroth nodded. He reached for his own bag of supplies, pulling it over before raising and loading it onto the chocobo. Zack came over as well, wrestling with his duffel bag. It tilted forward, causing him to stumble. Sephiroth watched, ready to assist if need be--but at last Zack forced the bag high enough to lift onto the bird's back. The other SOLDIERs were now packing their supplies on the fourth chocobo. The first two were tied at the fence, ready and waiting to leave.

"You'll need these." Sephiroth pulled out a pair of snow goggles, handing them to Zack.

Zack took them, placing them on his face and slipping the strap around to the back of his head, among his spikes. "Snow'll really be blowing hard, huh?" he said, blinking at Seph through the lens.

Sephiroth nodded. "We likely needed these the time we were chasing Azazel Rakesh on the Northern Continent," he said. The snow had been blowing harshly back then, and it was much stronger now. He affixed another pair of goggles over his own eyes, then took hold of the halter and began to lead the pack chocobo over to where the others were. Seeing each other, they started to wark again.

"They sure are talkative," Zack commented, reaching to pat the downy neck. The bird perked up, making a cooing sound in its throat.

"You should know," Sephiroth grunted. "You have one at home." And Pala rarely stopped talking. She was not a good bird to have on a stealth mission--not that she would ever be required for such a thing.

"Yeah. But I mean they talk in groups," Zack said. "And if they're trying to talk to each other, how do they even hear when they're all going at it at the same time?"

"Who knows." Sephiroth turned back to face the palace. "I still need to get the bag that has my own supplies," he said. "Did you bring a scarf?"

"Right here!" Zack unzipped the duffel bag, pulling out a long, dark scarf. It whipped in the wind, forcing him to hold tighter onto it.

Sephiroth nodded in approval. "And you'll need a hat," he said. "A great deal of the body's heat can be lost without one."

"Hoo boy," Zack sighed. He was not fond of wearing hats, especially when he had to cram them on over his mess of spikes. And he knew Seph did not like them, either--mainly for aesthetic reasons. They would both have to sacrifice their personal preferences on this trip.

"I'll find one for you, too," Sephiroth grunted, walking past him to head inside. "Meanwhile, you could be getting yourself situated on the chocobo."

Zack mock saluted, even though Seph was not facing him. "Aye aye, sir!" he chirped.

He wrapped the scarf around the lower half of his face. It went around fully once, leaving the ends slung on his shoulders. Muttering to himself, he limped to one of the passenger chocobos and took hold of the reins. It looked like it was going to be a pain to get the scarf to properly stay up. It was probably going to keep slipping down no matter what he did. It might even unwind and trip him while he was trying to climb onto the bird's back.

The chocobo turned its head, watching him with curiosity as he fought to balance on one leg while thrusting his other over the side. At least he had been thinking good enough to get on the side of the chocobo where he would be balancing on his good leg. As his half-lame leg slid to the chocobo's other side, he began to hoist himself up. He gripped at the reins as he went, speaking softly to the bird and patting its neck at the same time. It warbled in response, holding still as he climbed aboard.

He let out a sigh of relief as he shifted into position. "Well, that wasn't so bad," he said aloud.

Sephiroth was already coming back outside. In one hand he carried his bag; in the other, an extra hat. One was already perched on his head, much to his irritation. A scarf was tied loosely around his neck, underneath the long hair. As he crossed through the snow, he paused at one of the pack chocobos and loaded his bag. Then he moved on, coming to where Zack was ready and waiting on the passenger chocobo.

"Hey Seph!" Zack greeted with a wave.

Sephiroth responded by passing the hat into Zack's hand. "Here," he said, and began to climb on in front of him.

Zack shoved the hat onto his head, jamming the spikes under it. "I'm gonna have some serious static cling problems when we stop," he said. He passed the reins to Seph, grabbing onto his friend around the waist. On the remaining passenger chocobo, the other SOLDIERs were getting situated as well. The pack chocobos' reins had been attached to the passenger chocobos', so that they would have to follow. They could not afford to have someone walk in order to lead them. That would take longer.

By now the final two had joined the party, leading two chocobos of their own. It was difficult to tell anything about them when they were bundled in winter gear, but it did not especially matter. They nodded to the SOLDIERs before climbing onto their passenger chocobo.

"Who are they?" Zack blinked.

"A physician and a nurse," Sephiroth said.

"Oh, so we've got medical people," Zack chirped. "Good deal!"

Sephiroth nodded. "I thought it would be wise to have them along. Emperor Kisaragi agreed."

"Yeah," Zack said. "No telling what we'll find when we get there."

Godo stepped out onto the patio, observing the scene. "I wish you good fortune in this endeavor," he said. "May the gods lead you to every survivor and bring all of you safely back."

Sephiroth settled into position, nodding in acknowledgment. "There will still be SOLDIERs here," he said, "in case there's any trouble. And we're taking a radio with us, but one is being left behind for communication purposes."

Godo nodded too. "There are likely other villages in danger besides Fumiyaki. Hopefully we will learn of all of them in time.

"You had best begin your journey now," he continued. "If possible, please contact us when you arrive."

"Will do!" Zack chirped. "See ya!"

Sephiroth shook his head. Only Zack would say such a thing to the emperor. After delivering a more appropriate farewell, he turned his attention to the impatient bird, snapping the reins. The chocobo ambled off through the snow with a loud wark, the others coming alongside. The snow swirled around them, stinging at any exposed bit of skin it could reach.

Zack struggled to raise the scarf again as it slipped down his jaw. "So we're going Northeast?" he called.

"We should be," Sephiroth answered. "According to the compass, we are for now."

"Hoo boy. So we could get all turned around?" Zack said.

"In this blizzard, anything could happen," Sephiroth said, his voice flat.

As they made their way through the mountains, the snow became increasingly fierce. Seph was right about the whiteout conditions; before long Zack could scarcely see anything in front of him beyond Seph. Everything was an endless blur of powder. If he was claustrophobic, that would probably be enough to send him into a panic attack. Hopefully the chocobos still knew the right direction. Otherwise they would be in serious trouble.

The wind howled through the canyons in the distance, the flakes no longer twirling and dancing, but roaring as they forced their way in and out of the passes. Zack could barely make out the shapes of the mountains if he squinted. Somewhere he had heard that wind could go as fast as one hundred miles per hour in a canyon storm. That was not a pleasant prospect. What would happen to anybody who got too close? Would they even be able to stay on their feet? Or would they actually get blown along until the wind died down?

"Fumiyaki is at the base of two mountains," Seph announced, raising his voice to be heard over the bluster. "If it's already completely buried under snow when we arrive, there won't be anything we can do."

Zack stiffened. "We'd have to just turn around and go back?!" he exclaimed. "What about any survivors?!"

"We don't have the proper equipment to dig them out of very deep snow," Sephiroth said. "It would be foolhardy to stay and try if the conditions are as severe as they are up there." He nodded to the canyon they were passing. At Fumiyaki, the wind could blow harshly from between the mountains and over the village at the bottom, bringing a great deal more of furious snow with it. It would be next to impossible to be struggling to dig under such circumstances, with or without the proper tools.

Zack gripped tighter at Seph. ". . . But if it was me, you'd try anyway, wouldn't you, Seph?" he asked.

That was not even something Sephiroth wanted to think about. "I would want to," he said at last. "That doesn't mean I would be able to." And it would shred his heart. He did not want to leave anyone stranded--whether they were strangers or his best friend. He would do everything humanly possible, but in the end, if Nature was determined to claim victims it probably would.

"A blizzard is not a respecter of persons. It claims people of all ages, genders, and stations in life."

Zack looked down, the horror and alarm gathering in his heart. So maybe this was not even a rescue mission at all. If there was nothing possible to be done, they would be forced to leave and any survivors would just suffocate under the snow. That was not fair.

"But we're SOLDIERs," he tried again, "Shinra's best! We've gotta be able to make it in there."

"SOLDIERs aren't indestructible." Seph's voice was firm, leaving no room for arguments. "And Zack . . ."

Zack swallowed. "Yeah?"

"If I say there isn't anything more we can do, don't try to do something dangerous to prove me wrong. You aren't as familiar with winter disasters as I am."

That was true. Seph had been caught in a Wutaian blizzard once before. Zack had only seen snow a handful of times. But still, he hated these terms.

"Do you understand me?"

Oh yes. He understood all too well.


The law of necessary sacrifice in war. If he was still the naive kid who had been mentored by Angeal, he might have protested it and downright refused to accept it. He might have even unfairly accused Seph of being cold and uncaring for saying that there would be nothing they could do. He still felt like such a rule should not exist. But he knew it did. And sometimes it had to come into play.

He went back to studying the white all around them as the chocobos continued to move forward. Already it looked like their footprints were being covered over by more snow. It was eerie, like they really were being swallowed up by the storm. There were all kinds of horror stories about people being lost in the snow when they were trying to travel somewhere. Some were not found until winter ended.

But he was just letting his imagination run away with him if he thought that would be their fate. He didn't, really; he was sure they would make it. Still, being right out in the snow was reminding him all too much of his and Seph's avalanche adventure. He recalled less of it than Seph did, as he had eventually succumbed to the hypothermia and sunk into unconsciousness. What he did remember was lots of cold air and frigid flakes nipping at him, and Seph trying to keep him warm with his wing.

"How long have we been going now?" he asked.

"About twenty minutes," Seph answered, pulling back his sleeve just enough to check his watch for a split second. Then he let the cloth fall into place again. "We still have more than halfway to go, traveling under these conditions."

"But those people probably need us right now," Zack said. He hated times like these, when he felt so helpless.

Sephiroth sighed to himself. There was no need to tell Zack that the villagers would have to find a way to manage until they could arrive--if the people were still alive and able to be helped. He was concerned too, though he was trying to remain detached. Immersing himself in the moment would not help.

For a long while they traveled in silence, the howling wind taunting them on every side. Zack continued to hold onto Seph as they bounced up and down on the chocobo. Any loose pieces of spiked hair were flying every which way, as well as any part of Sephiroth's hair that was not held down. An involuntary shiver ran up Zack's spine. He could generate a lot of energy when he was moving around, but while he was just sitting there the cold was starting to get to him. He hugged Seph closer.

It almost looked like a small beam in the distance, flickering up ahead on the bench. Zack squinted, leaning forward to look over Seph's shoulder. It was not a hallucination; he was sure of it! Now it looked like there was more than one.

"Seph!" he called. "Is that . . . ?"

"Fumiyaki," Seph confirmed. "They're not completely buried. They're struggling to send a signal for help."

Zack swallowed. "Can we go any faster?" he asked.

Sephiroth snapped the reins. The bird warked, sprinting faster over the snow. The pack chocobo behind them picked up speed to keep pace. The other members of the party followed suit.

The lights were gradually drawing closer. Zack focused on them, the tense feelings increasing. What would happen when they rode into town? Were there a lot of people hurt, or were they mostly stranded but unharmed? The person on the radio had said that his wife was hurt, and something about a baby. Was the baby hurt too? Maybe just scared. Well, Zack was sure he could remedy that. He had tended a lot of the village kids in Gongaga.

"Are we gonna have a rough time getting up there?" Zack suddenly wondered. "What if there's a big snowbank in the way or something?"

"The landscape is going to start sloping up," Sephiroth said, "but unless the snow is so deep that the chocobos' legs sink into it all the way, we shouldn't have any problems."

"Hope not," Zack said. "I've seen mountain benches before, but not with this much snow all over them!" He looked down at the piles of powder. They were already starting the upward climb, as Seph had predicted. But there was still a long way to go before they would be right by the lights.

The chocobos plodded on, not seeming to mind the swirling white. Their many layers of feathers and the down underneath provided much needed insulation. Zack grinned a bit. That was one good thing about having wings.

But then he frowned. The scientists had done terrible things in order to put the feathery appendages on their best SOLDIERs. It was horrifying to think about. He did not know what Angeal and Genesis had endured, but Seph had mentioned being forced to stay conscious through a long operation to graft the wing into his right shoulder. He did not want pity because of it, but Zack was still downright alarmed. He still wished that he had been there for Seph then. At that time, Seph had not known Angeal and Genesis either. He had been all alone.

"Someone's up there."

Sephiroth's serious and concerned voice brought Zack to attention. Sure enough, if he stared ahead and squinted it looked like someone dressed in red, waving their arms next to the lights. Obviously whoever it was, was desperate for aid.

Zack reached up, attempting to wave back. "Hey!" he yelled. "We're coming!" But the wind was blowing towards them, not to the village. Anything he tried to say was likely swallowed up in the furious flakes.

The chocobos, hearing Zack raise his voice, began to wark. Whether it was due to them, Zack's call, or simply being able to see them making their way up the incline, the person froze for a moment, as if staring in shock and disbelief that people were coming. In the next moment the figure turned, racing back to what was presumably left of the village.

"Now he's gonna tell them that we're heading their way," Zack decided. A bit of a grin slipped back over his features. So now he knew with absolute certainty that there were still people to save. They had not come out in vain.

"It seems so," Sephiroth agreed.

The chocobos were right at home with the sloping ground. They picked up their pace, increasing their speed to go as fast as possible without disturbing their various loads. Zack yelped in surprise but then whooped. Sephiroth stiffened in shock. Zack had taken off his hat, his spikes boinging every which way in the process, and now was twirling the cap around his head.

"Don't do that," Sephiroth objected.

"I'm letting 'em know we're coming!" Zack chirped. Seeing that person had put him in a very good mood, despite the circumstances. He had been terribly concerned that Seph's grim prediction would be the truth and that they would only find the haunting site of an avalanche. He would have been devastated if that had been the case.

"The sound of the wind might distort your cries so that they think they're going to be attacked by screaming banshees," Sephiroth grunted, only half-sarcastic.

"I'm a friendly screaming banshee," Zack smirked.

Sephiroth shook his head. "You," he said, "are hopeless."

Zack poked him in the back. "And you love me for it," he grinned.

"In spite of it," Sephiroth retorted.

Zack laughed, finally replacing his hat on his head.

Sephiroth decided to ignore his friend's antics. He focused ahead, keeping hold on the reins. But a slight smirk crossed his features anyway.

What an odd pair they were.

As they continued to travel, the lights grew nearer and brighter. Now they were visible as oil lanterns, wildly swinging back and forth from where they had been attached to one of the buildings. Even here, at the part of the village where they were fast approaching, the snow had gathered for many feet. On some businesses it had collected halfway up the doors, though at most of the homes the residents had struggled to dig pathways either to or from the entrances. Through the frosted windows, lights were visible in many of the buildings.

The chocobos were all but running now, leaping over the drifts as they bolted for the glow of the lanterns. Soon they were crossing into the village boundaries. Sephiroth pulled on the reins, bringing their bird to a halt right outside the first edifice. It shook its head, the feathered crest bobbing with the motion.

Zack looked to the closed door. His knowledge of Wutaian characters was still not that good, but judging from the basics of it as well as from the general look of the building, this place looked like it might be the village school.

He cupped his hands around his mouth. "Hello!" he called.

Sephiroth began to climb down from the chocobo. He was still wearing only his thigh-length boots to travel through the white, though he had come prepared with snowshoes in case they would be needed. They really were quite irritating to walk in, and he would prefer if he would not have to, but it would have been foolhardy to not bring some along, just in case. As it was, it looked like the people in the village had been busy cutting paths all through the heavy snow so that they could walk through it without as much difficulty.

The door of the schoolhouse opened. The person in red was standing there, a girl not older than seventeen. She gripped at her thin and threadbare jacket in desperation to hold it closed against the storm. As she stared at the little group, her eyes widened in surprise and amazement.

"You are SOLDIERs," she declared, in accented Basic speech.

Sephiroth nodded. "We received a distress call from this village while we were staying at the palace retreat," he said. "We came as quickly as possible. Emperor Kisaragi sent a doctor and a nurse with us."

Something flickered in her eyes. "There are many families here," she explained. "Their homes were destroyed or damaged by the avalanche and they had nowhere else to go."

Zack leaped off the bird's back, his expression grim. The building was so small. It did not even look as though it was more than one room. And he was all too familiar with that scenario. During the flood seasons in Gongaga, people had always needed to be evacuated. The school on a hill had been the main place of refuge. Zack had quite a few unpleasant memories of being crammed in with a whole lot of other people. As he had gotten older, he had tried to comfort the other children and take their minds off of the uncomfortable situation they had been in by making up little games for them to play. But even he, loving to be around other people as much as he did, had not liked his personal space being invaded so much. There had really only been room enough for each person to have a blanket and pillow and nothing else. But at least they had been alive and safe.

"Are there a lot of people hurt?" he asked.

"Some," she confirmed, "but mostly they are shaken. The very young children are frightened."

The doctor and nurse were already heading towards the building. The girl in red stepped aside to let them through, gratitude in her eyes. She spoke to them, relating the most serious injuries, before turning back to Sephiroth and Zack.

"Did you rescue anyone from a home containing a shortwave radio?" Sephiroth inquired.

She frowned. "I . . . don't think so," she said. "You can ask the people inside. . . ."

Zack started taking down the bags of supplies. "We'll get this stuff in and pass it around, but if nobody here has a radio, then we've gotta look around the village and find them!" he said. "Do you know anybody here who has one?"

She moved to step back inside, leaving the doorway free for them to come through with the needed provisions. "The leader of our village. And maybe the jailkeeper," she suggested. "The common families are too poor to afford such a luxury."

Sephiroth entered first, followed by Zack and then the other two SOLDIERs. He removed his hat and goggles, his eyes narrowing at the sight before him. The various families had huddled into their own groups. Some appeared to be engaged in conferences among themselves. Others were tending to injuries. Some of the children were crying, while others curled up wide-eyed in blankets and still others were asleep. Several people, around the girl's age or older, walked among them to see if they needed assistance. The doctor and the nurse had gotten right to work setting a man's broken arm. At one end of the room, a fire crackled in a stone fireplace. As many people as could fit were grouped around it.

"What is it you are most in need of?" Sephiroth asked. He set down the bag he was holding, unzipping it to peruse the contents.

"There are not enough blankets," she told him. "And we will likely run short on food."

"We have both," Sephiroth said, beginning to pull out several thick quilts.

Zack had already done likewise and was distributing the covers, limping as he went. The shivering people watched, not certain what to make of him but accepting the offerings in relief.

A small girl decided not to be quiet. "Thank you," she said, snuggling into the quilt as Zack wrapped it around her shoulders.

He grinned. "Hey, you're more than welcome," he chirped.

She blinked at him. "Why do you walk like that?" she wanted to know.

"Like what?" he replied in mock offense, placing his hands on his hips.

"Different than other people do," she said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Oh that." Zack nodded in thoughtfulness. "I got my leg hurt pretty bad a few weeks ago," he said. "It's still not healed up all the way."

"It figures that they would send a half-lame SOLDIER," someone muttered in the room.

Sephiroth's eyes narrowed as the remark reached his ears. The ill feelings towards Shinra were alive and well here. And it would not do any good to speak against the bias. This was not the time. If anything was going to change attitudes at this point, it would be actions, not words. But he doubted that even that would be enough for those who had been the most deeply hurt by SOLDIER in the past. They would never be willing to trust someone from Shinra's military, even someone as kind and good as Zack. There were those in SOLDIER who did not want to trust the Wutaian people, either.

The girl gave Sephiroth an apologetic look, having also heard the comment. But from her eyes, she did wonder why Zack had come in his state.

"Commander Fair wanted to come," Sephiroth told her. "No one else felt it wise, but he insisted."

She nodded. "I can't speak for everyone here," she said, "but I am grateful. SOLDIER can't be entirely bad, to heed a distress call from my people."

Sephiroth gave a slow nod of acknowledgment. "Feel free to look through the items and select what you are most in need of," he said. "I will distribute these, if you will inquire about the radio." He indicated the quilts.

"Of course. Thank you again, General." The girl stepped past him, weaving her way through the congested room.

Most of the villagers seemed to hold some level of distrust towards the SOLDIERs. Some did not speak at all, merely taking the quilts, and later the pillows, in silence or with brief nods. In turn, one of the SOLDIERs--Second Class Tyrell--was wary of them. After just coming through the latest terrorist scare, it was understandable. It was hard to know who was trustworthy--though surely not even the terrorists would attack in this storm.

At least, Zack hoped they would not.

He limped over to Seph, running a hand through his spikes. "Well, everybody's warm now," he reported. "The girls are fixing some of the food we brought."

Sephiroth nodded. He was standing with crossed arms near the doorway. At a moment's notice he would go back outside. He was waiting for confirmation from the first girl that it would be necessary. His goggles and hat were in his pocket.

Zack knew it, too. "I'm coming with you if you go out," he announced.

Sephiroth grunted. "You should stay here," he said. "I was going to take one of the other men with me."

"Aww, Seph. . . ." Zack gave him a pitiful look. "It'd be just as agonizing to be here as it would be back at the retreat!"

"At least here you would have some of the children to entertain," Sephiroth said.

"They don't seem much like they want any help from me," Zack said. "Or their parents don't. I'm just a half-lame SOLDIER, after all."

"So you heard that." Sephiroth was making a statement. He had not really doubted that Zack would overhear.

"Heck, I bet the whole room heard it." Zack stretched his arms out in front of him. "Oh well, I wasn't expecting much gratitude anyway."

Sephiroth was half-listening. The young woman in red was coming back over to them, her features concerned.

"What have you found out?" he asked.

She looked to him. "General, the family of our village leader is here," she said. "He was here too, but then he left to find others lost in the snow. And the jailkeeper and his wife are here. One of the children remembered a third person who has a radio in the village."

Zack blinked. "Who's that?"

"Mr. Hanaoki," she said. "He salvages old things and fixes them. He found the radio in a crashed SOLDIER Jeep several months ago."

"Is he married?" Sephiroth asked.

"Yes," she nodded. "His wife is expecting their first child."

"Expecting?!" Zack gasped. "But he said his wife was hurt!" Did that mean the baby would be in danger, too? Or would she even go into labor right then? What if she needed an operation for the baby to be delivered? Suddenly he was overwhelmed.

Sephiroth's eyes had narrowed. "Where does he live?"

"Near the edge of the village, closest to the mountains." The girl's eyes were shining with worry. "I had heard that his house was destroyed by the avalanche."

"At least partially." Sephiroth was starting to affix the goggles over his eyes before reaching for the hat. "Have the injured here all been tended to?"

"Yes, General." She half-turned. "Should I get the doctor to go with you?"

Sephiroth nodded. "That would be helpful."

She hurried away. The silver-haired man turned as well, his locks swishing behind him as he moved to the door. Zack was right behind him.

"If we are able to get inside, this could be very uncomfortable for you," Sephiroth said, his voice flat. He did not need to look over his shoulder to know that Zack was there.

"Yeah, I know," Zack said, fumbling with his own goggles.

"The nurse needs to stay here to monitor the conditions of the most seriously hurt," Sephiroth went on, pushing open the door. The snow blew at them with unyielding force, as if angry that they were daring to venture outside again. Ignoring it, Sephiroth stepped onto the porch.

Zack hurried after him, pulling the door shut. "So it'll be you, me, and the doc," he said. "No problem, Seph! We're in this together."

Sephiroth looked at him. The lavender eyes were filled with determination. It was obvious that Zack had no intention of staying behind.

And at last the General gave a nod in reply.