She opens her eyes before the first light. She hasn't really been sleeping; she can't relax enough to drift off. Still, she is resting as best she can, for the journey ahead. She turns and looks at him in the darkness, her eyes adjusting quickly. He's facing her, his eyes shut, his hands tucked under his chin. She smiles to herself, despite everything. She loves his sleeping posture: only when he's in the deepest slumber does he draw his hands up to his face protectively, like a child. She wants to reach over and stroke his cheek, but she knows that he will wake up if she dares a caress. He's a light sleeper, and she lets out her breath in an inaudible rush when she realizes how silent she'll have to be when she leaves him.

But not just yet, she tells herself, her heart breaking. She folds her arms into her chest and lies on her side, watching him. She doesn't want to think about the possibility that this is the last time she'll lay eyes on this man. She thinks about the first time she saw him – the streets of Midgar were crowded and chaotic that day, but he stood out like a beckon of light. Their eyes met, and she made the first forward motion of her young life: she stepped into his path. She didn't even stop to think about it. He was a stranger, but she couldn't let him get away. And when the Shinra officers came for him, he seemed reluctant to go.

She thinks about that day her world splintered apart in a blast of noise and brilliant sunlight. When he fell through the roof of the church it suddenly seemed obvious: she had known, even when she didn't, that they would meet again. She rushed to him when the dust settled, terrified that he might be dead. When he opened his eyes, when they looked at each other that second time, they were already lovers. God, she had loved him at once. It embarrasses her to think of it now, even after all they've been through, and she hides a girlish smile under a corner of her blanket, as if someone might be watching.

She mouths his name soundlessly, secretly wishing that he'll wake up and insist on going with her. But she couldn't allow it – she has to go alone. She isn't even sure what it is that's guiding her at this point – something she'll probably never understand. The only thing she knows for sure is that her burden is a lonely one.

She's thankful, she tells herself, that they're sleeping in a large tent with the others tonight. If they were alone they would have made love, and he would have fallen asleep as he liked to, pressed against her bare back, one arm draped heavily over her side. If she had spent the night in his arms she never would have had the will to leave him. She blinks away tears, knowing she should be grateful for the sleeping arrangements that have kept them at least a few inches apart, curled into the corner of the tent in separate sleeping bags.

Finally, before she can succumb to her desire to bridge the small gap between them and cling to him for dear life, she sits up, resolving to go. It will be morning soon; she can feel it. She looks over him, past the gentle rise and fall of his breath, and sees the others, all of them asleep. It is unusual for all of them to be sleeping at the same time, but it has been a tiring journey back from the Temple of the Ancients. She shuts her eyes when she thinks of that place, the memories pricking at her with the beginnings of a headache. She had felt possessed there, and doomed. And delivered, too. Looking back – and looking ahead – she doesn't know what to feel. She has to split from herself, she knows that much for sure. She has to become something more than this silly girl, in love with the boy sleeping beside her, preparing to leave her friends. Frightened for her life. She has to leave it all behind, especially the fear. Especially the fear of leaving him.

She rises from her sleeping bag with uncharacteristic grace, and she can already feel exterior forces moving her, voices calling to her from the woods beyond their camp. Steadying her shaking hands, she reaches for her staff and her sweater, and takes one last look at him when she reaches the tent flap.

I shouldn't have looked back, she thinks, frozen. He's stirring in his sleep, having nightmares. He always has nightmares when she's out of his arms.

She flies out of the tent, biting down hard on her bottom lip. She tries not to curse the lot she's been given as she pulls her sweater around her, the chill of the night air making goosebumps rise all over her skin. She glances down the hill at the excavators' camp, and two of the men are sitting around a fire. They look back at her and she nods to them and turns toward the dark forest path. She disappears into the trees before they can try to stop her, and walks quickly, without thinking, as the thick brush envelops her. After a few minutes she knows that if she looks back she won't find the trail out. She knew that coming in, and she doesn't look back.

The bone path crunches under her boots when she reaches the dead village. She feels as though she's been here before, and she walks straight through the center of the ghost town, knowing where she's going. She doesn't look to the left or right. The only sound in the world is her determined footsteps.

She feels him as soon as she puts her boot on the first crystal step, leading inexplicably down into the grotto. He's waiting for her, and there's nothing she can do. She doesn't turn around, doesn't look back, though she can feel Cloud following her already, seeking her. The first light of morning is on her cheek as she descends the steps, and it warms her, even as it's filtered through the layer of gray clouds that guard the ancient city. Her heart is pounding in her chest, reminding her that she is only mortal. But she cannot turn back for it; she is something more, too, as much as she has often wished she is not.

When she is halfway down the staircase her eyes adjust to the glowing light of the grotto, and she sees the clear lake, the stone gazebo, the faded sunlight falling on the water. And hope rises in her chest, exiting her body in a tiny gasp of relief. She is not afraid anymore. She has been here; she feels it acutely as she descends further, more quickly now.

She knows what she must do, but there is time still. She takes off her sweater, no longer cold, and lays her staff down, free from fear. She lets loose her long hair, feels the pleasant weight of it tumble over her shoulders. She smiles down into the water as she unties her boots. It's so perfectly clear; she realizes with a childish thrill that she is free to have a swim.

The water slides around her body, cool and clean. She floats on her back, smiling up into the darkness of the grotto's ceiling. She can feel Sephiroth there, watching her, and forgiveness flows through her like cold rain. She shuts her eyes and puts out her arms, floats, lets the water hold her. She is safe, she is finished. The most important task of her life lies directly ahead, and yet it is already done. The burden of her fate cradles her now, releases her from doubt.

When she climbs out of the water she is resigned. She walks to the altar, leaving her staff, sweater and boots by the edge of the lake: she has no need for them anymore. Her hair hangs around her shoulders in thick, wet strands, and her thin dress clings to her damp body. She has never felt more beautiful, more powerful, and she is overcome by an appreciation for this imperfect world, this forgiving planet that she is about to depart: it brings tears to her eyes, and she laughs a little, causing them to tumble down her already wet cheeks.

She kneels on the altar and prays. Her wish is already granted, her planet is already saved, its people are already absolved of their sins. The knowledge washes over her and she feels beams of light emanating from her, an invisible grace she's been seeking her whole life. She hears Sephiroth approaching in the darkness, and knows that he will not recognize his defeat. She feels only love for him, and in her mind she rises above the altar and comforts him, for he is in pain. But it is a beautiful pain, finely crafted, carefully woven, and she understands at last that his suffering balances her deliverance. His existence has made hers possible, and she is only grateful for what has been given, even as he moves to take it away.

" Aeris!"

The womb of her certainty shatters when he calls her name. She feels herself snapping out of the trance, and her head jerks up. It takes a moment for her eyes to focus, and as he rushes to her she stands, not knowing what she will do. Above her, she feels Sephiroth's rage bloom in vibrant horror.

" Cloud!"

It is the last thing she says. Not part of her prayer, not a component of her selfless incantation. No, her last sentiment, her last wish, is as selfish as the motives of the man who is dropping down behind her, like the sound of a cloak falling to the floor, and when she looks down to see her mortal body split by his anger, she does not regret it. She does not regret that her last thoughts were of Cloud, instead of the planet's salvation. Cloud: she watches him as blood soaks her dress, as Sephiroth draws the sword from her chest.

She feels herself falling away, but he catches her, and she looks up at him. One last look: his blond hair still mussed from sleeping, his mako eyes cracked with pain. Those tiny, light brown freckles under his eyes, washed with tears now. She wants to smile up at him but she can't, she's going, she's gone. His golden eyelashes: they are her last thought, the last image she manages to process, and they brush her forehead as he leans over her.

Oh, my, she thinks, dying:

He was beautiful.