Between then and there the road had been long and winding, but not entirely unpleasant. She'd seen so much of the world...met new people, made friends and enemies. Eyes that had been naive and virginal had been opened and finally saw with wonder the world. In her pockets of her mind she held faded photographs of all she'd seen. Erstwhile memories and snatches of tunes she was sure she'd never forget but she'd put them in the back of her mind, because all of those things had led her here.
And where was here, exactly?
So much had happened along the way.
How had she come to stand in the fallen capital of her ancestors? That simple question she'd asked so many months ago was such a simple question...asking a young, handsome man if he'd like to buy a flower and from that moment until now fate had guided her steps. There were no explanations. No clear and pleasant plan for anyone to follow or understand. Her fate lay here in the bowels of this city, a city as dead and forgotten as the people who once occupied it. It was sad, really. She should be sad. In a few hours, she would be dead. She should be afraid. She should be on her knees and begging the planet to take it all away, but she was beyond that now.
The minute she'd set foot in the city...something had changed. It was inexplicable and new, and faintly strange and a little frightening. Forbidding and familiar. She belonged here. This was home. There were voices everywhere and they all called her name. They welcomed her.
She knew she should be afraid.
She should be terrified.
This was the place she'd seen so many times in her nightmares. This was where everything ended at the end of a sword. Somehow, terror never found its way into her heart. Neither did sorrow or anger. There was no pain. None of the agony or uncertainty that she'd felt throughout her life. There was just this city and the feeling of...tranquility. She was at peace here.
The last of the cetra, bound to her duty, she returned so that she could return to her people...to take her place amongst them. To be a pure spirit once more, not bound by a prison of flesh and bone. Sudden sorrow assailed her. She didn't want to leave everything behind. Cloud...Tifa...Barrett...Elmyra...all of them. Her friends, people who were like family to her...she didn't want to leave them. Not when she just found them. But she knew...she knew what she had to do and it was for them. She had to stop him. She'd held such hope...but she really was a fool.
He was gone and the 'it' remained. Jenova had subsumed his soul and there was nothing left but the monster. In a way, it made all of this easier. She'd seen the human part of him so long ago and at the time she'd pitied him. Back then, she'd held hope that somehow his humanity would win out in the end and she wouldn't be forced to do what she would have to do. So naive...
The first time she'd seen him after joining up with Cloud, she knew exactly how naive that hope had been. He didn't even recognize her. His eyes were blank, soullessly cold and unfeeling. Aeris could see her behind his eyes. She lived in them...became them and not a scrap of humanity was left behind. So, she wasn't faced with a human foe any longer. She was faced with an absolute monster in a human skin and it would be put down like the abomination it was. Her people were not violent, so she knew she wouldn't be the one to land the final blow. No, she'd give that honor to the ones the monster hurt the most. But she'd make that blow easier to hit. She'd weaken it and allow the planet the ability to defend itself...she'd give the planet the power to hurt the abomination. To kill it, even.
And her one prayer was that when all was said and done, the human soul that had been devoured by the monster would find the rest he so rightly deserved. That all the souls touched by the crisis from the sky would find in her death that one moment of true peace. She hoped they'd find tranquility...as she had.
Smiling serenely, Aeris ascended the stairs that led to the alter and prepared to pray. She stood in the center of the alter and looked up. Light engulfed the delicate figure, making her look as breakable and fragile as she was while simultaneously highlighting exactly how unbreakable her spirit was.
What strange irony was in life...and she sighed, turning around to gaze at the figure she knew was there. Motes of dust danced through the light that poured through the ceiling of the cathedral and she could just barely see the shadowed figure just outside that ring of light.
It spoke a single word, in voice that was endlessly dark and void of emotion, "Cetra."
She held her head high, and spoke, "Sephiroth."
She should have called it by its real name, but she couldn't really separate the two like she would have several years ago. They were one and the same now, symbiotic entities that fed off destruction.
He hummed appreciatively when his name fell from her lips. Why he'd take pleasure in such a fact was beyond her. Perhaps he hoped to intimidate her. It wouldn't work. She didn't fear him. Not anymore. Their gazes locked and for several minutes they did nothing but stare, the quiet gloom surrounding them like an uncomfortable blanket.
His voice cut through the silence, echoing emptily throughout the solemn cathedral. And to her ears, he seemed to be in every shadow as if he'd become darkness itself.
"What do think to accomplish, Cetra? Why do you defy us, when you know you won't succeed?"
She said nothing, becoming as stoic and unreadable as he was supposed to have been. Blinking regally, she looked away and smiled slowly, and in that smile, she held a secret. A secret she meant for him to see but not know. She would succeed.
"Do you honestly think you can stop us?"
She stood a little straighter, held her head a little bit higher. But her eyes remained downcast, refusing to look the abomination in the eye. She wouldn't give it such a privilege.
"You are weak, Cetra. A pale imitation of your ancestors, a half-breed with blood sullied, tainted with human cowardice. There is no hope...yet here you are..."
She sighed as if she were bored, picking non-existent lint from her dress. Yes, here she was and she wouldn't answer the abomination's questions. After all, when exorcising a demon, it wasn't wise to speak with it...for the words and thoughts of a demon were nothing more than lies.
"Is that why you cling to the puppet so tenaciously? He is as weak and pathetic as you are. Even with your tainted blood, you should have more respect for yourself. For your kind. You betray them, you know...by standing by his side, by their side, you betray your birthright."
And still, she said nothing. Her face was passively blank. Aggravatingly calm and serene, she only reacted to his vicious words with the slight upward tilt of her lips.
"Why do you say nothing?"
He was angry now. Infuriated by her lack of response. She should be cowering before him, spewing out mindless, idle words meant to tempt him into not doing exactly what it was he was going to do anyway.
"Don't presume to think yourself brave for your indifference. Your silence proves nothing, Cetra. Other than your utter ignorance in all matters...foolishly thinking to protect them. Why? Why protect them? These humans deserve to die. They will all die and nothing you can do will stop me. Nothing. Any effort you make today will prove fruitless. Give up."
Clasping her hands together, she shook her hair out, allowing the long braid at her back to sway almost mockingly in the dim light. Another smile crossed her face, and she could feel the anger it brought.
"Foolish Cetra, do you really wish to die so badly? Would you give your life for them...when they wouldn't give theirs for you? They are selfish...greedy. They are the reason this planet is dying. You should be helping us. Instead, you hinder. You interfere. This is what the planet wants..."
Slowly, she raised her eyes and gazed at the point where she knew he stood. Her eyes locked with his and in the coldest voice possible, she answered him, "No, this is not what the planet wants."
"Your humanity deludes your senses. This planet aches...screams for an end. And the end I'll give it will be glorious. Would you stand in its way? Deny its cries for peace?"
She was as bendable as a reed in the wind as she looked at him, the solid oak that looked so strong, so unbreakable...he was the oak that cracked when the wind overwhelmed it.
"You know nothing and knowing nothing...I don't expect you to understand anything."
"Brave words, Cetra. You know why I'm here. I wonder, will you be so brave with my sword through your back?" He paused and she could see his glowing eyes glinting in the half light, "You could avoid your fate...say the word. Step aside...it would be so easy..."
And as he said those tempting words, he stepped out of the darkness, hovering at the perimeter of the light...his hand outstretched. She looked at his hand. Looked up at him and smiled even more serenely than before. Her deep green eyes answered his question silently. They fairly glowed with the strength of her conviction, and the faith she held in herself and the planet. No, she would not join him but...mirroring him, she extended her hand. Giving him the same invitation he'd given her. In the halls of her ancestors, she had great power and she accessed it, shifting the wind around them. It puffed out around her, rustling her clothes silently. The light from above intensified, and from the shadows the figure staggered into the light. He was all dark intimidation, blinking owlishly as the light assaulted him, stumbling blindly until he stood right before her and her proffered hand.
"You don't have to do this, you know. There's still good in you, I believe that. There's still a human being inside...if you'd only step aside and realize the truth behind the lies...as you said...it'd be so easy."
For a moment, he hesitated. She wasn't sure why, but she could see him thinking things through. Watching as some of that cold arrogance melted away and for a moment, it was the Sephiroth she'd seen so many years before standing in front of her. How it happened, she couldn't guess, but he held the same befuddled expression on his face. He looked lost and helpless as he looked at her, searching her face for answers.
"I remember you..." He said, his voice so soft, speaking as if he was far, far away.
His head tilted and he walked forward, looking at her outstretched hand curiously.
"And I remember you."
Sudden realization hit him, and his eyes inexplicably took on a glassy sheen. He knew, she supposed. He remembered what it was they'd spoke about so long ago and he knew where he was now.
"It's the end, isn't it?" He whispered, hand hovering just above hers...ready to clasp it like a lifeline.
"Yes," She replied, trying to keep the calm she'd held up until this point.
Why, why did he show his humanity now? Why did he have to remind her after she'd almost forgotten? She felt his hand settle over hers and for a moment, she felt like crying in joy. Despite being covered by his leather glove, she could feel the warmth emanating from him and it felt so real and disturbingly human. She looked into his eyes...his human eyes and for a moment she felt her faith wavering.
"It's too late, isn't it? You said that before..."
Suddenly, she felt desperate. She wanted to say something, anything...to...she didn't even know, and without thinking, she blurted out, "No, it's never too late." He looked at her with an expression that was so mournful she could almost hear the wailing. She squeezed his hand, and whispered, "You can come back to us...You can..."
He looked at her and smiled. It was the saddest thing she'd ever seen in her life. Shaking his head, he whispered back, "No, it's too late for me."
She knew it and he knew it. He squeezed back and she looked at their intertwined hands. She could just see it, a flash of pink on his wrist. Smiling, she knew what it was. The ribbon she'd wrapped around his hand so long ago. He'd kept it. She looked up at him, ignoring the tears that streamed down her cheeks. And for once, she didn't curse that things weren't so simple.
"You kept it."
He nodded, "I wanted to thank you...for this."
She knew he didn't mean the ribbon. Moving forward and without removing her hand from his, she stood on tip toe. Her hands grasped his shoulders and tugged him down. She gently pressed her lips to his in a languid kiss that seemed to last ages.
And whether it was a kiss of death or a kiss of absolution, neither knew.
"This really is the end, isn't it?"
He didn't have an answer and neither did she. With heartbreaking slowness, his grip on her hand slackened and he let her go, slipping into the silent dark with eyes that were still human. She knew then, that this was another game played by the It. It had allowed Sephiroth, the real Sephiroth, to surface to tempt her. She'd passed, just barely but her personal victory brought her no joy.
"Goodbye," He whispered, and she could hear the joy and the deep sorrow in his voice when he said it, as if he was happy to have one last thought that was his own.
"Goodbye," She echoed back.
The darkness took him, and his brightly glowing eyes transformed. He was the It again, the abomination that history would pen him into. She stood there, the martyr. The saint in slum girl's clothing. The mother to the world. She watched the darkness through the light and wished she could take it all back. Wished she could change things, but she wasn't a little girl any longer. Wishing would do no good, it was an empty hope and she was beyond believing in wishing any longer. Yes, she wished things were different, but that didn't change what was here now. Aeris indulged her emotions, letting only one, barely audible sob escape her lips. The sound echoed in the emptiness of the cathedral, darting through the darkness until it died and was no more than a whisper on the wind.
And when her time finally came, she barely felt it. Slipping into death effortlessly, the last sounds she heard were the cries of her friends embracing her in a warm afterglow. Later, when they looked through the little pack she carried with her, they engulfed themselves in her memory. They came upon a small picture book, with dozens of photographs and mementos inside. Photos of her and her mother at home in Midgar. Pictures of flowers. Of Rain. Of the sea and sky. Pictures of them all together. A photo of her, Tseng and Reno, just outside a theatre in Midgar. They realized then, how well and yet how little they knew her. A kind soul. A giving soul. And now that soul was lost, and none of them could understand why. None of them would ever understand.
All they would have were a handful of remembrances, static, faded pictures of a life turned to dust and all that's left...is memory.