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Absolution

It was still standing. Picking her way carefully through the rubble and ruin that had been Midgar, wandering aimlessly, somehow she'd ended up here. She wasn't surprised, really. The place exuded a sort of timelessness; as if it had always been here, and always would be, a constant in the maelstrom of change. She made her way to the door, stepping cautiously around a hunk of twisted metal and a few jagged beams of wood to lay her hand on the rough surface of the outer wall. Her eyes closed briefly in a silent greeting.

Hello, Aeris.

One of the great double doors hung awkwardly from one hinge, the other lay fallen to the ground. Even this place had not escaped completely unscathed. She stepped quietly into the dim recesses of the church, breathing in the cool, damp scent of stone. She simply stood for a time, letting the stillness of the place seep into her soul and quiet her mind.

Pale beams of light fell from holes in the roof, highlighting dust motes that drifted languidly through the air. A single ray illumined the front of the church, littered with the debris that had ruptured the ceiling, and as her eyes drifted there her breath caught in her throat. Numerous candles glittered like fallen stars on the broken altar, flickering gently among bouquets of golden blooms that carpeted the fragmented stone. She moved forward, boots crunching on gravel and splinters of wood, to stand in front of the makeshift altar. There she knelt down, reaching out with trembling fingers to stroke the velvety surface of one petal.

Hundreds of folded scraps of paper lined the altar, spilling over onto the floor, and she plucked one curiously from its resting place. Written there was a single name: Maurice P. Whittleton. Eyes burning, she placed it gently back among the others. She saw now that each slip was decorated with a single, heartbreaking line; daughters, fathers, husbands, lovers, all lost to the destruction that surrounded her on all sides. Swallowing against the sudden tightness in her throat, she mentally counted the number of names she could add to the memorial, but she had no tears left to cry.

A noise behind her triggered battle-honed instincts, and she whirled automatically into a fighting stance. A solitary figure darkened the doorway, frozen in mid-step, and her eyes widened in shock at the last person she had expected to see. The moment stretched out interminably, eyes locked warily on one another as each waited to see what the other would do, until finally the man dropped his gaze and turned to leave.

Suddenly she felt tired, tired of feeling angry, of feeling hate, disgusted with the fate that had trained her body to assume peril even in this place of peace. Her fists uncurled, arms falling wearily to her sides. Here, at least, she would not fight.

"Reno, wait." Her voice rang out hollowly in the stone chamber, and he paused with one hand on the ruined doorway, his entire frame stiff with tension.

"You don't have to go," she said more gently. For a long moment he didn't move, and then his shoulders slumped and his hand dropped from the slanted door. She turned once more to the altar, eyes following the dancing flames of the candles, listening to his heavy footfalls bring him closer. He stopped behind her for a moment, hesitating, then stepped up to stand beside her in front of the ranks of paper ghosts.

Out of the corner of her eye she watched him bend down to place a folded piece of paper among the others. She glanced at him in surprise, then looked away quickly, the tiniest of frowns creasing her brow. Turks had always been like machines to her, designed for killing and not much else. That Reno might feel an emotion like grief trembled the foundations of her hatred, and she grappled uncomfortably with this new aspect of his humanity.

She slid her eyes sideways to look at him again. Nothing on his face betrayed his mental state, his features were blank and emotionless as stone. But as she looked more carefully, the signs were there. The set of his shoulders as he stood with one hand jammed into the pocket of his pants, the lines of strain at the corner of his mouth. Her eyes moved lower. In the hand closest to her, held low at his waist, he twirled a single bloom. Her breath hitched as for the second time that day she was startled by beauty.

Unlike the others, this one bled a deep crimson at the center, fading to brilliant orange at the outer edges of the petals.

"Where did you find it?" she asked quietly. He stayed silent for several moments before extending his hand to drop the flower among the others.

"I had to look for a long time," he said at last. Her eyes traced the graceful lines of the petals, and she wondered what name was inscribed on the card.

They both jumped as her PHS jarred the silence, and she fumbled guiltily for the unit.
"Tifa here."
"Hey Teef, we're ready to head out," Cid's voice crackled in her ear.
"I'll be right there."
She placed the PHS back on her belt, then hesitated uneasily. It didn't feel right to just walk away, but what did you say to an enemy who broke protocol by exhibiting evidence of possessing a soul? They hovered for a moment in awkward silence, looking anywhere but at each other. Reno shifted uncomfortably, both hands in his pockets now.

"For what it's worth," he said, "I'm sorry." She looked up, brown eyes meeting green for an instant before she let her eyes fall once more to the single extraordinary sunset bloom. She knew what he was asking for, and also that he didn't really expect her to give it to him.

The knot of hatred began to unwind within her, and she was suddenly afraid. She wanted to cling to that hatred, because hate is such a simple emotion; a dark, unthinking flame that had kept her going for so long that she couldn't remember a time when it hadn't smoldered within her. Her lashes fluttered shut. It was easy to hate, and everything else was so complicated...

The slightest of breezes swirled through the church, stirring the dust and rippling the candles, whispering with a memory of gentle laughter and green eyes in a different face. Air sighed past her lips in resignation, and she let forgiveness well up and extinguish the hate inside her. It was what Aeris would have done. She opened her eyes and raised them once more to his.

"Thank you," she whispered, and turned to leave, noting the surprise that flickered across his face. Pausing in the doorway, she turned once more.

"Reno." He turned to face her. "I don't ever want to see you again."

She'd never pretended to be Aeris.

He nodded once, and Tifa stepped through the door, the smoke of a dying emotion dissipating into the harsh light of day.

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