Cold stone floor.
Black and white.
"Child?" one voice asked. "Are you all right?"
The young woman lifted her head from where she lay in a small pink heap on the floor. Deep green eyes stared blankly at nothing as she said, miserably, "No, Ancestor."
A shadowed figure at the back of the chamber looked up at the sound of her voice. He leaned against a pillar, as though he chose to be there. If one looked closer, however, one would see the manacles about his wrists, and the chains that led to the wall. He studied her dejected form with glowing, neon-green eyes.
Some of the voices had risen again, arguing, but the first one shushed them into silence. Her misty form turned its attention to the girl. "Please, Aerith, dearest, we need your help."
Aerith looked away. "You had my help," she said sullenly. Her hands clenched in her lap. "I did my job. I don't know what else you want from me." Fresh tears welled in her eyes. "I did what you wanted. I gave up everything for you." Her voice dwindled to a whisper, echoing in the chamber.
One of the voices, a male, sputtered. "How can you say that? We did everything we could for you. Gave you everything you needed, created a whole world just for you. Ungrateful girl!"
Aerith's head snapped up, causing a startled ripple among the other voices. The prisoner's eyes flared in interest. She hadn't seen him yet. She stood, body rigid in barely-suppressed fury.
"Ungrateful? Ungrateful? I?" she spat, glaring up at the one who had spoken so scornfully. "You say this from the safety of your comfortable place among your peers. I worked so hard for you! I was always the last Cetra,' your dear child,' your Guardian of the Planet.' I gave you my life! My love! I gave you EVERYTHING! And you tell me, at the last moment, that I may not enter the Promised Land? Worse, I may not be reborn on the Planet? Because of my heritage, a mix of human and Cetra, I am doomed forever to be alone, with no hope of an end to my loneliness?"
Slowly, she turned, finding each form in the swirling mists above her. "And what consolation for me? A false world, devoid of any living thing, in which I am the only inhabitant. My friends will never join me, for they are human, and will enter the Lifestream to be reborn. No family, for they are all FULL Cetra, and number among you already in the Promised Land."
The glowing eyes narrowed and glanced upward. The prisoner very much wanted to know what would happen next. He still had not determined what his role was to be in this, or even why he had been summoned to witness this exchange.
The form of the woman who had spoken to Aerith dissipated and re-formed before her. Hints of features revealed and hid themselves like the moon behind clouds. She moved forward to place a ghostly hand on Aerith's shoulder. "Child, you must know that we would change this if we could. The laws were set in place millenia ago. Nothing can change them." Her voice was full of sorrow. "Your mother pled your case as well. Many Cetra have exhausted themselves to help you. We cannot." Aerith tried to turn away, but the hand caught her chin and held it gently. "The world we created was a poor substitute, I know. We are trying, please believe us."
Pain crossed Aerith's delicate features. "I know," she whispered, "but it doesn't make it any easier." Her face crumpled and she threw herself into the ethereal woman's arms. "I just wanted so badly to be with you all!"
The woman held her, talking softly. The only sound in the massive chamber was her soft words of comfort and Aerith's heartbreaking sobs. The others were silent for a while, then murmurs began as they grew impatient. The voice of the rude Cetra started to rise above them.
The prisoner frowned. That one was beginning to get on his nerves. He remained still, but watched the area where the belligerent voice came from.
Down in the center of the room, the woman noticed the others' restlessness. She pulled back and looked into the girl's eyes. "A bit better now?" she asked sympathetically. At Aerith's tentative nod, she turned back to the gallery above.
"We need to address the matter at hand." Her commanding tone filled the chamber. "This council has been called because the Planet is requesting Aerith's presence again. It does not want any of us. It, too, feels that a great disservice has been done to her, its favorite child."
The rude one cried, "What? That half-breed is its favorite? What about m—some of us?" he quickly amended.
"This is not about you," came a smooth, careless voice from the shadows, "This is about her. Think about someone else for once."
Aerith froze in place. It was the last voice she'd heard in her mortal life, taunting her friend as its owner had pulled his blade from her back. She spun to see the prisoner for the first time. He was lounging against a pillar, wearing a white shirt and black pants. He was not looking at her; instead, his Mako gaze was fixed on a point somewhere above, in the gallery.
The woman, too, turned, and put a steadying hand on Aerith's back. "He cannot harm you, child. You are safe now." She indicated his chains.
The whispered words seemed to give her strength. "How is he here?" She murmured back, fear slipping away in the face of confusion. "Why is he here?"
Her last words were spoken during a sudden lull. All eyes, real and ghostlike, turned to her. The prisoner smirked from his shadows.
"I, too, would like to know. As far as I can see, this is a Cetra matter. I should not be involved at all."
"Silence, beast!" the angry male thundered. "You have no right to speak!"
"Then take my tongue, oh-great-and-mighty-Cetra. I did not ask to be released from my punishment." The sardonic words shocked the Cetra into paroxysms of rage. The prisoner didn't seem to care. He examined his nails unconcernedly as the other heaped verbal abuse upon him.
The woman next to Aerith finally spoke up. "Stop this!" she cried, "Derin, that is QUITE enough! I brought him here. Again, at the Planet's request. Are you going to argue this further?"
"Colene, I am merely curious," came a new voice, from across the gallery. "I understand that the Planet loved Aerith more than any of us. But why is Sephiroth here? I would think that the Planet would still be angry with him. I am surprised to find him here, chained or not."
Colene shook her head. "All I can say is that the Planet wishes for him to be here. It has promised to reveal all. Now, if there are no further problems, could we please let it know that all are assembled and ready for its visit?"
The others seemed to bow heads, clasp hands together. Sephiroth and Aerith looked at each other across the marble expanse of the tile floor. Her gaze flicked to his manacles, then up to his face questioningly. He shrugged, smiling in resignation. His eyes met hers then, curious.
She shrugged in response. Their attention was taken by a sudden flash of light.
AM HERE. The Planet's familiar voice filled the room. It appeared as a luminous, genderless body, clad in flowing white. WE START NOW.
Colene stood by Aerith's side. "Dear Friend, we have brought your child Aerith and the prisoner. What do you wish?"
WISH FOR AERITH TO COME BACK. Murmurs rose from the gallery.
Aerith bowed her head. "I will if you wish, my Friend. There is nothing else I can do."
Sephiroth pushed away from the pillar and stepped forward. "Wait--so she helps you again, for what?" He asked the Planet. It turned to him as if to speak but was interrupted.
"Silence! The prisoner has no rights!" Derin cried.
"You said that already," Sephiroth calmly replied, "And I think it's a valid question."
The Planet's presence flooded his senses. ALWAYS A CHOICE. AERITH IS UNHAPPY HERE. ONLY OTHER OPTION IS RESURRECTION.
"But she said it herself! There's nothing left for her to go back to. She's being punished either way. I can see putting me through torture for eternity, but why her?"
The Planet regarded him with amusement, while everyone else seemed confused. Sephiroth was speaking in Aerith's defense?
WHAT DO YOU SUGGEST? The Planet asked, watching him carefully.
"Let her into the Promised Land." He avoided Aerith's eyes. "She suffered enough at my hands to deserve it."
The Planet lowered its head sadly. CANNOT. COSMIC RULES APPLY. UNBREAKABLE. It looked at him. RULES MADE TO PROTECT PROMISED LAND AGAINST PEOPLE LIKE YOU.
Sephiroth scoffed. "So you also keep out the very person who worked her entire life to keep it safe." He grimaced. "Very smart. Whoever came up with that cosmic rule' wouldn't have lasted ten minutes in my tactics class when I led SOLDIER."
Colene looked between Sephiroth and the Planet, and something clicked in her mind. "Sephiroth, you have always been a warrior, have you not?
He nodded. "Indeed, I have."
"Would you say that it qualifies you to recognize threatening situations, and take action if someone is in trouble?"
"Essentially, you want to know if I can be a bodyguard." He sniffed. "I suppose so. Why?"
"You seem to find such work beneath you." Colene moved toward him, circling him. She stopped on a white tile.
He snorted. "Madam, I was the General of ShinRa. After that, everything else pales in comparison." He folded his arms and leaned against the pillar again. "Besides, who am I to protect? One of you?" He nodded toward the gallery. "I think not. I'd rather return to my personal hell, thank you. I have no desire to become a Cetra pet."
Colene sighed. "I see. Then you wouldn't be interested in returning to life?"
Sephiroth laughed harshly. "Life? It was as kind to me as it was to her." He looked at Aerith, pushing away from the pillar. Going to the extent of his chains, he stood before her. "Aerith, I am sorry for what I did to you."
Aerith was startled to hear the sincerity in his words. "Was it really you, though?" She asked softly.
"Yes and no," he said, looking down. "I was cruel, but Jenova had personal reasons to hate you. She was the one who killed you. Had it been up to me, I would not have murdered you. But...I wasthoughtless. I knew that by hurting you, I would hurt Cloud Strife. You were merely a means to an end."
She fought the tears that threatened again. "I know. That's actually the worst part."
Sephiroth tried to raise a hand to her face, but was stopped by the chain. He swore.
The Planet chuckled. CHAINS ARE OF YOUR OWN MAKING, SEPHIROTH.
"What?" He asked irritably. "What do you mean?"
It floated to him, moving to his side opposite Colene, stopping above a black tile. YOUR OWN GUILT. YOUR OWN SORROW. BELIEVE THAT YOU DESERVE MORE PUNISHMENT.
"So what if I do?" He snarled. "It's true, isn't it?"
"But, Sephiroth," Aerith said, catching his attention again, "If the Planet says you've suffered enough, then you have."
Neither the Planet nor Colene missed the way his face softened at her words. They shared a look behind his back. Colene seemed to smile, then quickly hid it when he turned to her.
"Is this true?" His voice was so hopeful, Colene nearly patted his arm. Instead, she straightened.
"Yes. They won't disappear until you believe they should. Simply wishing them away won't work, not for you. I can see that you insist upon punishing yourself further, so I have a job for you."
The gallery listened intently. Even Derin was quiet for once.
Colene continued. "Aerith has been called to return to life. She has new challenges to face, new enemies to fight. She may even have difficulties with those who were once her friends. Aerith needs someone to help her, and especially to protect her."
It was nearly comical, the way both Sephiroth's and Aerith's eyes widened at the same time. They spoke together.
"You don't mean—," began Aerith.
"Wait just a—," began Sephiroth.
Colene held up her hand. "I do, and no, this can not wait. This seems to be the answer to our problems. Sephiroth, you need to prove to yourself that you no longer deserve punishment. Aerith, you need a companion, someone who understands what you've gone through. I think this will serve quite well for both purposes."
The gallery above erupted into a cacophony of shouts. Colene argued with them, especially Derin. The Planet waited, watching the two half-humans before it. Aerith and Sephiroth stared at each other, stunned.
Aerith's mind whirled. I'm really going back? I'll see my friends again? And Sephiroth is going to be my companion? She closed her eyes, trying to shut out the shouting. What will Cloud think? What will he do? Will they believe me if I tell them that he's on our side? That I am his penance? Goodness, do I believe it? She bit her lip. But I wouldn't be alone, would I? He'd be there to protect me. A wave of happiness suddenly threatened to buckle her knees. I wouldn't be aloneI wouldn't be alone
Sephiroth, meanwhile, was sorting through his own thoughts. How can I protect her? How could she even trust me? How can my presence do anything but harm her? I killed her! How can the Planet be satisfied with this? He looked desperately at the brilliant being to his right. It nodded slowly at him.
GOOD. YOU ASK QUESTIONS OF YOURSELF. The voice echoed in his mind, and somehow, he knew that it spoke only to him. The sounds of the shouting faded, dampened by the presence of the Planet.
How is it good? He asked mentally. What can I do? How do I protect her? Won't I only make it worse for her, with people coming after me?
THAT IS THE DIFFICULTY OF YOUR TASK. PROTECT HER, PROTECT YOURSELF, HELP HER. The Planet looked past him at Aerith. SHE WILL ACCEPT YOU.
He followed its gaze to see Aerith's joy-filled face. Perplexed, he thought, Why does she look so happy?
The Planet seemed to laugh. ASK HER.
"Aerith?" He said, not sure she could hear him over all the noise the Cetra were making. "What is it?"
She did hear him. "I—I just was thinking," she said breathlessly, "That it would be so nice to have a friend."
"You would consider me a friend?" Wonderment colored his voice.
Hesitantly, she said, "The Planet seems to believe that you truly repent. Do you?"
"Yes." The thought crossed his mind that she looked sweet when she bit her lip. Then, like a bolt of lightning, realization at what he was thinking shot through him. "Aerith, I don't know"
"Listen, if the Planet says so, and you say so, I am willing to give it a try. Besides," a hint of bitterness crept into her tone, "I have nothing to lose. It's not like I don't know what I'm getting into. I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"
"I could kill you again," he mumbled, looking down at his hands. The electric touch of her own hand on his arm brought his eyes up again to meet hers.
"Then I would just come back here. I'd be no worse off than when I started." Her expression was sad. "Sephiroth, please come with me. Anything is better than staying in limbo. Even returning to life."
He stood speechless, searching her face for doubts or any indication of mistrust. Finding none, he sighed. "Very well, Aerith. I admit that it is an intriguing proposition." The corner of his mouth quirked upward. "I accept."
Colene heard him and stopped talking mid-word. Turning her attention back to Aerith and Sephiroth, she said, "You do?"
Both of them nodded at her, smiling. The Planet opened its arms.
SILENCE ABOVE. DECISION HAS BEEN MADE. THEY WILL BOTH RETURN TO ME.
Derin began to argue again, but a gesture from Colene stopped him. "They have agreed. Our task is to see that they return, Derin. Now, shall we get started?"
Derin grumbled, but prepared himself with the rest.
Water filled Aerith's nose and mouth, making her lungs burn with trying to hold her breath. She flailed around, trying to find which way was up, grasping at anything. I'm going to drown! Her panicked brain screamed. Help me!
Somehow, she managed to reach the surface, hauling herself halfway onto the bank. She lay there gasping, trying to calm down. Something was wrong. She couldn't put her finger on it, but there was something missing. As she forced her shaking arms to drag herself the rest of the way out of the water, then crawled to a small alcove nearby, her mind tried to sort through what had happened.
I was praying, I remember that. Then there was Cloud, and a shadow fell across his face. Then PAIN, and nothingand lonelinessCetra! The Council! And Sephiroth was there, they wanted to bring us back to lifeAnd the Planet wanted me backthe PlanetPlanet?
Dear Friend? She sent her mind casting outward, waiting for the familiar response, the caress, the colors and sensations that were how the Planet spoke to her.
My Friend? She huddled into herself, shivering violently as the water froze on her skin.
No whisper, no warmth, no music.
She could no longer hear the Planet.