Another Time, Perhaps

By mihoyonagi

Chapter XI

Aerith peeked her head around the doorframe. "Did I hear Cid right?" she inquired excitedly. "Did they really find Cloud?"

Sephiroth's hand tightened into a fist, but he forced himself to remain calm; he wouldn't let the mere thought of the blonde and his feelings for Aerith outweigh his rational thought. Instead he turned to Aerith, mustering up the most genuine smile he could, given his inner feelings and want for her happiness. "He is at Hallow Bastion with your other friends, and given our course, we'll be there shortly."

Aerith smiled, her eyes full of hope and anticipation. "I'm going to get ready!" she chimed, twirling on her heel and practically skipping down the hall. The general heard the bathroom shower come on, and he could only assume she would do her best to look nice for the up-coming event.

No, Sephiroth shook his head. That wasn't giving her enough credit; all of her kisses had had something behind them- meaning. She wouldn't simply throw them away for another, that much he was sure.

But despite his knowledge of her loyalty, he still couldn't help but feel uneasy. Cloud had been normal, to say the least, around him, after Sephiroth had explained all that had happened. The blonde savior hadn't forgiven him, but hatred was lifted, and in its place pity was left. What the general had done wasn't exactly forgivable, or at least he thought until he had run paths with Aerith…

Ideas surged through his mind- ideas he hadn't given so much as a single thought until the call had ended.

Would Cloud be angry?

What a dumb question- of course he would be angry! He had traversed nearly all of gummy space before settling for a few weeks at the coliseum, and now that he found her- oh, the idea was painful. How could Sephiroth even compete with such a man, such a hero? Cloud had saved the world when it was Sephiroth's own anger and hatred for all of mankind that had put it in such a position as to need saving in the first place.

Who was he to want Aerith's affection when it was he that caused everything to go wrong? He had hurt her…

In his daze, lost deep in his mind, he didn't notice the intent stare of the flower girl whom stood in the doorway. Even when she cleared her throat he didn't turn his head. Sephiroth's eyes had long since clouded over with the dreaded prospects of the future he didn't want to come.

Hesitantly, Aerith placed a hand on the general's shoulder. Much to both of their surprises, he jumped, inhaling a sharp breath as he spun to face her.

"Seph, we've landed," she informed him, brow furrowing with worry and confusion. "What's wrong?"

Was it really written so plainly across his face?

"Just some bad memories," he replied, waving off her worry with a swift hand movement. "Bad memories, and even worse ideas of what's to come. I'll be fine."

She didn't look convinced with his well-being, but Sephiroth knew that she would push it no further. Instead, she nodded and made a grab for his hand. Pulling him behind her as she went, the flower girl led the general off the ship. Beyond the small gummy-ship door lay what Sephiroth quite honestly thought to be the most heartbreakingly beautiful place among the stars. His mind tore back to long before, and he remembered the run-down church, a sunny patch of flowers growing in the middle of the rotten structure, and the pink object of his affection standing, then, in the middle of them. Hallow Bastion was only the second heartbreakingly beautiful place in the stars…

Sephiroth only noticed that Aerith had let go of his hand when she walked a few paces in front of him, mouth open wide, hands brought up to cover the gaping hole her lips made in astonishment.

The beauty of the place was beyond magnificent; waterfalls surrounded the gummy port, water as crystalline as the irises of the general whom stared into its depths. A winding pathway of stone wound its way up to the tops of the falls, and perched upon the horizon was a grand castle.

A scuffling sound tore the general's attention from the scenery. A shadowed heartless moved across the path before them, but hurriedly fled from their line of vision before Sephiroth could move to attack. Aerith stepped back at the sight, running into the one-winged man behind her.

"Perhaps we should proceed quickly?" he suggested. As much as he didn't want to hurry to meet Cloud, he didn't want Aerith to be in prospective danger, either. While he knew her heart and spirit to be stronger than anyone else's, her physical strength was visibly lacking, and the last thing he wanted was for her to be afraid or hurt.

He started up the winding path to the castle, his pink-clad companion following close at his heels. The trail was difficult to climb, and more time consuming than Sephiroth would have thought, but they made it to the top no less. Stopping their journey just for a moment, both looked up, neck bent, eyes wide, at the magnificent castle that sprawled out before them. The lack of heartless made Sephiroth uneasy, but they continued down the path regardless, toward the castle's large wooden doors. Pressing two black-gloved palms flat against the wood, the silver-haired man pushed. The door swung open on its hinges, letting a tremendous howl, telling all those inside the house or out that its hinges needed to be oiled. Desperately.

Aerith visibly cringed at the sounding of the door, but she gently rubbed her ears, making no complaint. She looked up to her companion, giving him a kind smile. Sephiroth couldn't help but return her sweet smile with a small one of his own, even if he dreaded what was to come.

Despite his trust of her, he couldn't help but feel hurt. Sighing heavily, he decided, much to his own dismay, that he would support any decision she made, even if it didn't involve him. It was his only wish to make her happy. Dutifully, he followed her inside.

Cloud's gigantic sword swung down upon another head of a heartless, this one, much like the last, and those before, no challenge for him. Inhaling a deep breath of musty sewer air, the swordsman sheathed his sword behind him. Turning around, his dark cape catching a light wind and fluttering only slightly in his wake, Cloud turned to face the elder man with whom he searched the sewers.

"You doing alright, Cid?"

The elder man ran hand through his short, graying hair. "I'm doing fine, spike," he replied, shouldering his hand-made spear with experience. "Yourself?"

Cloud shrugged. "I think that's the last of them."

A large grinding sound alerted the two in the sewer that the front doors of the castle were opening. Cloud's expression perked up. "It's her," he whispered more to himself than to the man next to him.

Cid shifted from one foot to the other, uncomfortably. He hadn't the heart to tell the blonde swordsman who it was Aerith was traveling with. He knew something was going on between the two, and as much as he hated Sephiroth for killing her in the first place, Cid didn't want to admit that she looked livelier while in his presence. The color had returned to Aerith's face when she last came to his shop, looking for Cloud, but in the ex-general's presence. He hadn't meant to be so cruel to him when they spoke, but Cid couldn't help holding his grudge.

Cloud turned his attention back to Cid. "Should we go meet her, then?"

Cid rolled his eyes. "Of course. I think that was the last of the heartless around here anyway."

As they wound their way back through the sewers, Cloud's mind swirled with hope, happiness, but most of all, anxiety. He had searched all throughout the stars for her, and now that he had found her…

For countless nights he had rehearsed what he wanted to say to her, but now that he knew he was finally going to see her again, Cloud's mind went completely blank. The only thought that traveled though his mind was of her face, smiling, happy to see him. His hands shook, but he didn't noticed.

He had failed her once- he hadn't saved her from whom they chased. Even if Cloud and Sephiroth had become little less than friends back in the coliseum, the still harbored hatred for him deep within his heart- he had killed so many, and even if it wasn't him, it was done by his hands. Cloud, while he understood if only slightly, refused to forgive the general.

But he wouldn't fail her this time- he owed at least his heart to her. That much he was certain of.

"Hello?" Aerith's sunny voice echoed throughout the empty hall, reverberating from wall to wall, then back again to her. Once more, she turned to face Sephiroth. Not knowing what to tell her, he simply shrugged in response. He began up the stairs, knowing she would follow.

He pressed open another door, this one smaller, and was humbled by the beauty beyond it. A magnificent library lay before them; books drenched in sparkling sunlight upon their shelves seemed to welcome them in. And so they stepped inside, both in awe, at the wondrous books upon shelves upon walls of literature.

"Hello? Anyone here?" Aerith called out again.

Their ears were met with another scuffling sound, and Sephiroth slowly moved his hand to the hilt of his monstrous katana, readying himself for whatever might pop from behind any bookcase at any given moment. Much to his relief, it was Yuffie who popped out. Grinning wildly, she lunged at Aerith, locking her long-time comrade into a tight hug. "I'm so glad you're here!" she chanted, laughing.

Aerith laughed as well, hugging the spunky young girl in return. Leon poked his head out from behind the shelf in which Yuffie had only moments before, raising a gloved hand in greeting, nodding slightly. "Cloud and Cid are taking care of a few things. They'll be back in a while." Leave it to Leon to get right to the point. No less, Aerith smiled up at him, happy to see him again.

When Aerith turned around, Sephiroth was nowhere to bee seen. Feeling a little abandoned, Aerith informed Yuffie and Leon that she wanted to simply look around and stretch her legs. Not wanting to bother her, Aerith's two comrades disappeared down the small book-lines hall they had come from. Aerith turned down the only other corridor the general could have slipped down without her noticing. The door hadn't made any noise, so she hopefully assumed she would find him wandering the books.

Indeed she did. He stood, tall and handsome, fingers gently browsing past the countless tomes of literature that stacked the high walls. He turned to look at her not long after, but made no change in his facial expressions. Inside, Aerith grew weary- people's emotions were usually worn on their sleeves, but his face remained cool and passive, as if he were trying to hide something. Sephiroth leaned against the corner of the bookcase, enclosed in a shadow that the sun couldn't quite reach. She could still see his outline, and his deep mako eyes glistened back at her, reminding her of the ways he had looked at her so many times before.

His heart swirled with unfamiliar emotions. Sephiroth knew what it was to feel fear for the first time in his life. Would Cloud try to steal her away? What of her friends? What if they didn't approve of their feelings? Would she ignore their criticism and stay in his company, or would guilt run her dry and force her to return to those she knew before he came along? Those she knew cared for her?

Sephiroth heaved a heavy sigh, heart weighing as much as the world beneath his feet. How could he ever prove he was true? He didn't deserve her, he knew he didn't- but she didn't care what he thought. Her kisses had been so warm and inviting- how could he deny her what she wanted? It was only wrong to reject her.

He tried to gather himself, but with her eyes staring at him so intently, so longingly, he couldn't.

"Does something trouble you?" he asked calmly.

"You," she responded almost immediately. "You've been acting strange ever since the call."

Sephiroth sighed, not bothering to hide the distress in it. "Indeed," he replied simply, eyes still locked with hers from within the shadow.

"Seph, listen to me." Reaching out a hand into the darkness, Aerith placed a hand on his face, the flat of her palm gently resting on his cheek. "I-" Whatever Aerith had to say was cut off by the sound of un-oiled hinged being forced to move.

"Aerith?" Cloud's voice resonated throughout the library.

Sephiroth placed his own hand on Aerith's, pulling it away from his face. "Go." He closed his eyes.

She stood firm with a determined yet worried look strewn across her face.

"Go. We can talk when you are finished."

She knew he meant what he said, but behind his words was a hidden message: 'I don't like what it is that is going on, and I need time to myself.' Respecting his personal space, Aerith gave him a curt nod and a slow, sad smile, then turned on her heel and fled toward the entrance.

Sephiroth stood in his dark corner. His mind was a mess, and he didn't know where to begin. Luckily, he didn't have to- he heard Cloud's deep voice call out Aerith's name, and the general heard them coming his way. He ducked further back into the shadows, concealing himself- watching, waiting.

Aerith and Cloud stood face to face, his deep blue eyes burning into her emerald ones. She smiled up at him, a smile for old-times sake, and the general in the darkness watched as the blonde hero embraced the flower girl so lovingly.

Sephiroth believed his heart would break.

His hand moved to the hilt of his sword in a gesture of pure jealousy, but he stopped short when he noticed that Aerith didn't return the embrace of the blonde swordsman. A flicker of light shone in the corner of her eye, and Sephiroth knew that his jealousy hadn't gone unnoticed. He began to feel a little sheepish. "It's good to see you too, Cloud. We have lots of catching up to do."

Cloud let Aerith free from his arms, slight blush rising to his cheeks.

"You look so different," Aerith smiled up at him.

He nodded. "As do you."

Aerith continued to smile up at him. "It's still me. I've only changed on the inside, really."

A light chuckle escaped Cloud's lips, and he shyly smiled down at the woman clad in pink before him.

In the shadows, Sephiroth stood, completely breathless, watching the pair. His heart sped up. He didn't want to spy, but he couldn't tear his eyes away from them, either.

Placing a hand on her cheek, Cloud sighed heavily. "Do you know how long I've waited for this, Aerith?" His voice was strained, as if he were attempting to hold his emotions in check. "I've rehearsed this a million times in my head, but now that you are here, right in front of me, I don't know what to say."

Aerith let out her own sigh. She brought her hand up to her own face and placed it atop Cloud's. Carefully, she pulled his fingers away, and let his arm go slack.

Instantly, Cloud's face dropped. "There's someone else, isn't there? Someone you've found to replace me…"

Looking a little more than hurt, Aerith shook her head. "I cannot replace what was never there, Cloud. I care for you, but as a friend. I knew I could never have been with you, despite how much I tried to convince myself otherwise before the incident."

"But, if it didn't happen, could-"

Aerith held up her hand and shook her head, signaling him to stop. Instantly, he ceased his speech, waiting for her to gather the right words.

"Despite what I felt for you, and perhaps against what I still might, it was never meant to be. Not in this life, or in any other."

Cloud turned his head away from her, looking to the ground. He didn't want to hear that…

Reaching out her hand in a gesture of pure innocence and love for her dear friend, Aerith wound her fingers around his. "But that's what makes our friendship so special to me, Cloud. I could never replace you, nor do I want to."

Forcing himself, Cloud once again made eye contact with the flower girl. "Who is it, then?"

Aerith blinked in surprise. She hadn't anticipated such a question. Biting her lip, she realized there was no easy answer to his question. Her gaze left his, then traveling to the shadows in the corner. She let go of his hand.

On cue, Sephiroth stepped from the darkness and into the light.

"You!" Cloud seethed.

Sephiroth heaved another heavy sigh. "Yes, me," he replied calmly, if not a little sadly. He dreaded this moment from the minute he confessed his heart to Aerith, but fretting over it would not change anything. Instead, he stood tall, despite the fact that for one of the first times in his life he felt smaller than a speck of dust caught in the morning sunlight.

Cloud wouldn't have it. "You stole her away in one life, and again in the next- is there no limit to your greed, Sephiroth?" The blonde spat out the general's name with such distaste, Sephiroth cringed.

"I suppose there isn't," he sighed again, not sure what to say. Despite what a terrible thing Cloud had said, Sephiroth couldn't deny it; he was greedy. He wanted Aerith's affection all for himself.

"You can't have her! I won't allow it!"

That caught Sephiroth's attention. His cold stare met that of an equally icy gaze of blue, but the general didn't falter. "Aerith isn't some carnival prize that can be won. She has her own feelings, and can decide for herself- she's human, after all."

"Which is more than can be said for the likes of you!"

"Cloud!" Aerith gasped. The blonde turned his attention toward her, scowl fitted to his face. "You know it's true!"

Aerith shook her head. "Listen to yourself Cloud!"

"No, Aerith," Cloud responded sharply. "It's true- you know he's a monster!"

Why couldn't she see what he was saying? It was ludicrous- had she actually fooled herself into thinking she loved him? Cloud was rendered speechless at the look in her eyes; she hadn't fooled anyone- she really did love him, didn't she?

The general said nothing as Aerith closed her eyes and inhaled deeply.

Cloud drew his sword.

Sephiroth only glared. "What do you propose we do Strife? Fight for her hand? Simply how naive are you? She isn't some thing to be won! You can chop me up all you want with that dammed sword of yours, but I won't raise a single finger in defense against you. I refuse to fight over her like some kind of child with a plaything."

"You bastard!"

"You really have changed, Cloud," Aerith's quiet voice sounded, stopping the swordsmen's conversation. A silent tear dripped down Aerith's cheek. "But you are still as thick-headed as ever."

Cloud blinked a few times in confusion.

Letting off a small laugh while another tear blazed a salty path down her delicate face, Aerith shook her head sadly. "There is someone who needs you more than you'll ever know."

"What are you talking about, Aerith? The only one that needs me is you and-"

"Cloud, you just don't get it. There is someone else that you were meant to be with. And once our world is restored, I bet she'll be waiting patiently for you to return, just as she always had, even if you never saw it."

Biting his lip, Cloud shook his head. "Aerith-"

"You idiot," Aerith laughed, thought she was still crying silent tears. "Tifa always loved you, but you never even gave her a second glance."

Realization slowly began to show in the blonde's eyes. "You mean-"

"Of course that's what I mean, Cloud. Tifa needs you, not me. You were my bodyguard, but you know what?"

"What?"

"You really sucked at it. I died anyway."

She was right, and Cloud knew it. He had devoted his life to finding her, even when there was someone more important waiting for him, to find them all along. Aerith never needed him- she was meant to die so when she came back, she could finally be happy. Even if it was with the one who killed her.

Maybe he deserved to be happy as well; he had, after all, suffered the most…

The three of them stood quiet for a long while. After a while, Aerith chocked out a small laugh and her silly little joke, and Cloud couldn't help but smile at her attempt to make him feel better.

Raising a hand and pointing at the general, Cloud shook his head. "I still don't like this, and now I don't like you more than ever. But as much as I don't want to admit it, you're right- Aerith can make her own decisions. Besides," Cloud added, sheathing his sword. "I have someone else to find now. Someone who was there all along, but whom I didn't realize until Aerith pointed her out for me."

Sephiroth nodded in understanding. "This doesn't mean I like you, either, Strife."

Cloud nodded. "Then let us agree to disagree."

Sephiroth outstretched his hand and was met with a firm shake halfway. Both smiled, but only slightly.

Turning back to Aerith, Cloud smiled kindly. "Thanks for making me see things a little differently."

Aerith shook her head. "You never needed my help in the first place; you just needed to open your eyes."

Rolling his eyes, Cloud laughed. "I guess so," he shrugged. "Well, if I'm done making an ass out of myself here, I think I'll go."

Aerith giggled. "Where to?"

Again, Cloud shrugged. "Well, I found you one way or another. Maybe I can find Tifa, too."

This time, it was Aerith who hugged Cloud. "Good luck."

When she let him go, he turned on his heel, tattered cape twisting in the sunlight. Despite the trouble he and his heart had gone through to find her, Cloud didn't turn around to look back at her. So long as she was happy and well, then maybe he could be too. Besides, now he had another smile to welcome him in- and this one, he knew, would be waiting for him.

Aerith turned to Sephiroth within the shelves of the library. "Now that he's gone, will you talk to me?" she persisted.

Sephiroth took a moment to let his frantically beating heart slow down to a normal beat. Words couldn't even begin to express his happiness over the fact that she chose him, and here she wanted to talk. He searched his mind for the right words, but came up shorthanded.

"You know, I was really scared," Aerith sighed.

"Of what?" the general inquired.

"Of the idea that you didn't mean it…"

Ouch, that one hurt. Sephiroth winced. "How do you mean?" Curiosity got the better of him.

"Well," she began, sighing. "I don't really know how to explain it."

"In all honesty, Aerith, I was so afraid he was going to take you away," the general shyly turned his gaze to the floor, praying that he didn't sound weak. Spilling one's heart is serious business, and he was lacking experience, but didn't know how else to tell her what he wanted to.

The Flower girl shook her head. "I was afraid that maybe it was all some kind of scheme to make Cloud suffer. I feel terrible for thinking that, too. When I saw you nearly jump on him from the shadows as he hugged me, I knew that you weren't merely pretending." She, too, turned her eyes to the floor, a slight blush rising to her pale skin. "I didn't mean to doubt you, it's just…"

"Difficult," he finished for her, still gazing intently at the stone pattern on the floor. "As much as I don't wish to admit it, I doubted you as well. I didn't want to, but thoughts just kept rising to my head, and I couldn't push them out."

Without realizing it, the general had reached out his hand for that of his beloved flower maiden. She smiled warmly at him, knowing neither had to speak any longer. He pulled her as close to him as he could, reveling in the way their bodies seemed to fit together as if made for one another- a lock and a key.

Biting down on the tip of his middle finger, Sephiroth pulled his gloves off, one by one, leaving them to fall to the stone floor. Gently, he reached down and cupped Aerith's face in his palms and brought his face down to hers, pressing his lips against her own rosy ones. She smiled against his kiss. When he pulled away, he still held her face in his hands. Their gazes met and Sephiroth forced the lump in his throat down. "Aerith?"

"Hmm?" her face remained in his hands, a warm hue present on her soft skin.

It was now or never, the general concluded.

"I love you."

Aerith's smile only grew, as the rosy color in her cheeks glowed deeper red. "I love you, too."

Moving his hands from her face, Sephiroth let his arms circle around her waist. Again, he pulled her closer, his love, simply content to hold her in his arms.