(( A/N: Gah it takes me forever to do anything... anyhow... it's that chapter, finally! Aerith discusses the dark problem with Sephiroth and her childhood...))
The Longest Journey
Echoes and silence, patience and grace
All of these moments, I'll never replace
No fear of my heart, absence of faith
All I want is to be home.
People I've loved, I have no regrets
…some I remember, some I forget…
…some of them living, some of them dead…
All I want is to be home.
The Foo Fighters, "Home"
Chapter Seven: In Ways So Broken
She spoke softly to them; she spoke with words she had held inside for too long. She told them of the days of her youth, the days she had dreamed would last forever. Their faces were a rapt audience as she wove the story of her life and painted for them with colours they had never seen before, with sounds they could never replace again, that which had come to make up her present, that darkness which dominated her every nightmare.
She began slowly, she began where all things should begin and that is, as with many stories, at the beginning…
She was light and Tifa was darkness, and together they went hand in hand, in perfect harmony. She was sunshine and smiles, as Tifa was moonlight and quiet. She broke the day with her thoughtless laughter and Tifa picked up the pieces considerately.
Since a young age, as long as she had been able to walk, she and Tifa had been friends, the best of friends and the closest of friends. Tifa was rich, but that didn't bother Aerith. To Aerith, there was more to the world than material gains. When Tifa brought her presents, she exclaimed more over the colour of the wrapping than of the gift itself. When they went to play, Tifa would attack the jungle Jim with a kind of furious energy, whereas she sat in the grass and listened to the world.
For as long as Aerith could remember, there had always been the voice of the planet in her ear. Her mother said it was because Aerith was of the special old blood, within her lay the blood of those who had come to Radiant Garden many, many years ago and made their home here, protecting the flow of worlds against the tide of darkness. It was their blood that ran in her veins and gave her the gift of powerful magic. To Aerith, the voice of the planet was never more than a kind whisper, a loving soothing touch on her soul that said softly, it would always be there for her. With her gift, the world was alive with conversation; from the birds and the bees to the very plants that grew and sustained the world. All of it spoke to her, comforting her when she felt sad and offering advice and help for when she was stuck with problems.
Aerith knew that Tifa could not hear the Planet, and this made her sad, that her best friend could not hear it. There was someone else who also knew of Aerith's special gift in those precious days of youth, before others would discover her powerful heritage. His own magic was as strong as her own, but darker, violent in its own way.
Sephiroth, her elder brother.
He was handsome, she supposed, with his finely chiselled looks and his swathe of silver-blonde hair but his eyes chilled her faintly and with each passing day, their burning intensity upon her fragile pale skin grew to uncomfortable degrees. Those eyes, catlike and devouring her with an all-consuming need to possess that which she did. For poor, elder brother Sephiroth did not hear the voice of the beautiful planet. There was no voice in his ear, any gentle whisper or loving touch. For him, there was only silence.
Once he said to her as she pulled on her boots to play with Tifa, not long before her sixth birthday, "Aerith."
"If you could never hear it again, would you?"
It could only mean one thing, and she looked up at her brother, older than she by many years and tilted her head in confusion, "I don't understan'."
"Aerith," his hand came to rest on her head, fuzzing up her golden brown locks of hair. "It doesn't matter, not really."
"Brother, what's wrong?"
And she smiled up at him thoughtlessly, for she loved her brother and he loved her. No one was more special than her elder brother, gifted, brilliant and someone she looked up to as a hero. Sephiroth had great things planned for his future. He was talented not only with magic but with the sword and tactical matters. They spoke in not-so-whispers about him joining the Heart Guard.
But in the months to come, someone else came into her life that would set schism between all aspects of her otherwise perfect life.
Strife by name and strife by nature, the recitient young boy was in her own year at school, whilst unlucky Tifa was a year under them, missing out by a mere few weeks of the scholastic cut off. So it was that lessons at school were taken with Cloud and she found herself, as she grew older, looking upon him as more than simply an awkward, shy friend. Blossoming towards teenage hood, Aerith began to develop confusing feelings surrounding this young man.
Tifa on the other hand, was not amused and did everything she could to prevent the two from getting any time together. Only it was then that the fire happened.
Aerith only remembered sketchy details at the best. There was a fire in the home, and it blazed uncontrollably when she had been fast asleep. Her eldest brother was already far away in the capital, learning to be a Heart Guard. So her parents had struggled to save the frightened child from the flames.
There had been screaming and blood and the burning blaze of fire on her skin scorched it still to this day. And when Aerith had awoken, days later in the local clinic, she was told her parents had died from complications. Smoke inhalation meant nothing to her, and whilst she knew she should be broken and weeping, their voices were there with the Planet and the young girl knew implicitly that they were content.
And abiding in this knowledge, she was content too.
Tifa's father, a rich local business man and kind of heart, who had lost Tifa's mother, his wife, many years before to a sickness that had tore through the populace; he took Aerith into his home and took care of her. But as kind as he was and as happy as it made Tifa, she insisted on living in the small tenancy on his lands, close to nature and where she could hear her parents voices as she grew older. It was in the year following that the rite of testing came through the villages…
"Don't fidget so much," she said calmly to Cloud who was yanking at his tie nervously, the tousle of blond hair tamed for today only into something quite manageable, the only hint of the unruly mop a single flick of hair that refused to be slicked back by his right ear. His blue eyes gave her a vaguely reproachful look and she was unable to help the impish little smile that she returned to him.
They wore their uniform neatly or as neatly as any bunch of ten and eleven year olds could. Their teachers watched over them with hawk eyes, hands folded sedately but ready to spring into action should anything happen to thwart the course of the rite. She was close to the front with Cloud, the line of students not as patiently waiting as many of their teachers would no doubt have liked.
It's a routine test; the voice of the world beneath her feet assured her nervously fluttering mind. Don't worry too much, you have the ability to make them very excited, but they won't do anything alarming.
Aerith wasn't sure what the planet meant by this, but the next group of children were called forward. The room was fairly spacious, cleared of breakable things and a long low table was set out with five head-dresses of dubious design, fitted each with a gem that seemed dull and lifeless. The walls were whitewashed and there was another table where a young man sat in a suit and to the side, two people in varying degrees of clothing but on each, the pattern of the thorny heart repeated; the glyph that represented the Heart Guard.
"Children," said the young man at the table, a small portable computer open and running next to another device fitted with five gems, colours corresponding with those on the diadems on the low table. "Please choose a head-unit and place it upon your head."
"…mmm," Cloud hesitated unwillingly, but Aerith seized his wrist and practically forced him towards the table.
The headdress she picked up was one set with a greenish gem and carefully she set it upon her head, moving her long bangs so they wouldn't be crushed under the metal. It felt cold and lifeless against her skin and she sighed softly. What had she expected?
The young man watched them all and when they all wore the head pieces, he swept on, "Now then, any questions?"
"Why are we doing this?" a girl in their maths class piped up, her braces helping to shape the words oddly.
"Good question; each year we test young children so that if any with the spark of magic are found, we can help guide their talents so they won't burn themselves out. Yes?"
The girl had raised her hand again and asked, lisping, "What do you mean, burn out?"
"Magic is a strong and mysterious force. There is always the chance that untrained; it would turn back on the user. The force could very well render an unprepared mind useless and numb."
Cloud tilted his head and Aerith followed his eyes to the Heart Guard members who watched with vague interest, "What about them?"
"Huh," the young man looked at the guards, then at Cloud, eyes flickering guiltily to Aerith, "well…"
"We're here to make sure accidents do not happen," the taller of the two said. He was a stern looking man in his late twenties, perhaps early thirties. He wore a strange long, half open jacket with many belts and buckles, and a sort of high collar to the shirt underneath that hid the lower half of his face. Unreadable eyes peered out over small sunglasses and his black shock of hair was very lightly touched with the first fingers of silver. "It can sometimes occur that young people get a bit too excited about magic. The results may be… interesting to say the least."
Aerith had not imagined it this time, the Guard's eyes moved very deliberately from Cloud to her, fixing her with a curious gaze and almost as soon as it had been there, it moved away.
"Well said, Guard Auron," the young man coughed and looked back at the children lined up. "Now, the exercise is simple, before you is a blank piece of what looks to be paper. The substance it is made from is reactive to thoughts and magic. We'd like you to project upon it the latest dream you remember having, bring it to life for us."
"We just think it at the paper?" the lisping girl clarified.
"Yes, please, begin." He tapped a few keys and then watched.
Aerith furrowed her brow and looked at the paper, willing her dreams to appear there. She was unaware of when exactly she was no longer aware of her friends at her side, or when the dizziness and joy began to overtake her. But there was her dream, slowly flushing on the paper at first, a wide field of flowers and the brilliant sunshine. But that wasn't enough: soon there was the scented and warm breeze, rustling the grass. Sprawling out of the paper was an image of her, running in the grass and laughing, wearing a pink and white lace dress, beside her, Cloud and Tifa, each laughing happily. The flowers grew wild and the grass long, spilling from the confines of the pictures and springing about her, the scent of summer and the warm heat of the sun, as hot as flames… as hot as the fire that…
A shriek snapped her from her reverie and she looked up from the page, shocked to see the young man who had been at the desk snatching the head-piece from her, stamping at the flames on Auron's coat which had caught light with fire. About the entire room, roots and vines of vibrant, wonderful flowers grew, as brilliant as her memory remembered and a glance down surprised her with the fact that her clothes had somehow changed from her uniform to the pink and white lace dress.
Cloud though, instead of the quiet companionship she had grown used to, there was wonder, awe and also… fear. She looked at him with trembling hands clasping at her threaded necklace, her lungs clamping up with a similar kind of fear. "Cloud…"
He looked away from her and in that moment, her young heart shattered. Drooping just a little, she was dimly aware that fatigue was sweeping through her, hands helping her stay upright. Voices spoke about her, around her.
"What else could we expect… she is…"
"…and must be trained, for her own safety!"
"…she may be the most powerful practitioner… in a long time…"
Cloud hates me now, she thought miserably.
No child, the planet whispered soothingly, that's not it at all. Do not be alarmed by what they tell you. You are coming along just nicely. Just give it time and your powers will bloom…
…that's down to Cloud now, it sighed softly.
She didn't cry, the Planet was right, and tears now were pointless.
She was thirteen, or thereabouts.
Tifa stood to her side, looking at the willowy height of a man who happened to be not only her brother, but the Heart Knight. In the intervening years, Aerith had taken up tutelage under Merlin. His casual skill with the crafts of all magic had inspired her to learn all that she could, white or black, it did not matter. Years of practise had honed those impressive talents she had displayed so openly. Her natural skill was almost an art unto itself.
The sun was bright overhead, as she stood on the step of Tifa's mansion house, the manicured and beautiful gardens wavering a little around them, the heat rising from the floor was so intense. Tifa wore dark shades, even in the summer weather they were having, she had stubbornly clung to black slacks and a white shirt, her only offering to the summery months. Her hair was worn loose and long, a shade of midnight and her claret eyes were unreadable.
Aerith's fingers trembled as they were curled about the handle of the small bag she carried. Other bags were being loaded into the transport laid on by the Heart Guard to bring their newest magic user to the fold. She was aware of her brother looking at them every now and then. A gust of wind made her white and green dress flutter, her sturdy and worn gardening boots peeping out from under the flare of the skirt sometimes. She lifted her eyes to Tifa's.
"So," the slightly younger girl drawled, trying to find the right words.
"So," Aerith echoed, feeling foolish for her own inability with words; pretty soon she supposed, they would be stood together in painful silence, neither one willing to make that first break away from one another.
"He's gotten tall," Tifa noted, "He's become strong as iron, but as cold as it."
"Don't 'Tifa' me. You see it too, you're not impossibly dense after all," the claret eyes were touched with fondness and then, the vague sparkle of tears. "You'll be fine there, you know."
"How d-did you know…"
"That you were thinking it? Your hands are shaking."
The finger that pointed accusingly at her shaking hands indeed seemed most unfair to Aerith and she almost formulated a little retort, but it died on the back of her throat as she watched Tifa sigh and blow some of the heavy dark fringe from her eyes. Childhood was over; it had been for a while. She had handed her notice in at the ice-cream parlour and was packed, ready for the vocation that would become her life-long career; ready to invest her soul in the mysteries for the sake of peace in this beautiful world.
"You're right," she said softly, a small smile coming to her lips, her voice so gentle that it drew Tifa's eyes as bees to honey, "You're really right. I'm frightened, he has changed, so much is different. But you know, going so far away, going as far as I am; I'll do it to keep you safe, Tifa. I'll be there, watching out for you… I promise it!"
"Watching out for me, eh?" Tifa smiled then, "Isn't it the other way around? A hero for the damsel in distress?"
"I'm in distress?"
"No, no, dis-dress."
"…Tifa," Aerith murmured, "Your puns do not improve with age."
"Shut up!" Tifa barked, and then they both laughed together.
Tifa was the night, and Aerith was the day; and neither could live without the other. But turning away from her friend finally, she said softly as their laughter died down, "You know what else?"
"I wonder exactly what will be waiting there for me."
"Who knows? But do your best, I'm applying you know."
"To the Heart Guard?" Aerith blinked in surprise.
"No, to the lollipop parade… of course the Heart Guard! I'll come be your fists," Tifa flashed her erratic grin, bunching an arm up, showing off her toned muscles; "I'll be your weapon, Aerith."
Dryly she muttered, "Whatever happened to friends? My, oh my…"
"Just be careful, Rissy. He might be your brother but…"
"Then well… I won't say goodbye!" Tifa pushed her form from the doorframe, fighting those tears, "Because you know, this isn't goodbye. This is just a 'see you later', so you know. It'll be no time at all and we'll be there, banging down your door. And don't you worry, I'll make sure Cloud doesn't make an ass of himself too much, you can depend on me! So," there was that self assured, determined grin, "do your best!"
"Yes!" She agreed, smiling back then and lifting her bag, "I'll be seeing you!"
"Go on then, before I cry!"
She laughed and spun, saving herself from seeing her best friend cry and hurried towards the transport back to Radiant Garden, pausing only long enough to let her brother help her inside. One last glance back at the beautiful mansion and the waving Tifa affixed it forever in her memory, and with a satisfied little sigh, she leaned back.
Sephiroth, who had grown taciturn and distant over the separating years, spoke sparingly on the way to the capital, only to question her about her spells, her studies and her interests, and once, her physical health. Not once did her beloved older brother say to her that he had missed her, and after hours of travelling, she stepped from the carriage into the centre of the bustling aisle that led to the Heart Guard domain; her heart felt heavy and already the cries of encouragement from her best friend were fading in her ears.
"…are you sure?" He said suddenly and she looked upon him, tall and with long silver hair, his handsome face inscrutable. His clothes were vaguely old fashioned in cut, but designed to be formal yet functional. He did not wear shoes, but sturdy leather boots with silver bands, and his hands had leather gloves upon them which creaked.
"I am sure, elder brother," she replied.
"You can turn back now, if you wish."
"…No. I promised. To do my best, I promised that."
"I see, then welcome…"
Welcome she was indeed, to the Heart Guard.
Radiant Garden was a beautiful city built around the towering castle where King Ansem resided. The castle was almost gothic in appearance, but saved from severity by roses and beautiful pennants which snapped in the wind of each day and night. A beacon of light shone from each parapet and the regular guards wore their grey uniforms with the red stripes down the left side with pride. The gardens were beautiful, a city of houses that seemed to have no real pattern to their planning, large plazas with tinkling fountains, parks and wide open spaces for markets, where children played underfoot.
The actual quarters for the Heart Guard were located somewhat to the side of the large castle. Set evenly distanced from the centres for each skilled use of talent, magic, physical or educational, the quarters were a set of barracks for the trainees and small apartments for each member of the Guard at full-fledged status. The highest apartment was a penthouse, reserved exclusively for the Heart Knight and to the second set of smaller apartments, that top layer was for the Heartcaster.
A couple of years had passed since Aerith had left their small village behind, and a few unusual things had occurred. Tifa and Cloud, in tandem, had joined the Heart Guard together, Tifa finding any way she can to suck up Aerith's spare time. It was also during Tifa's time in the trainee section that she had become friends with a young man called Squall, and the three as lower ranked Heart Guard members were often put on missions together. Squall, unlike Tifa and Cloud, was not completely melee in his fighting – he had some rudimentary use of magic. As such his respect for Aerith was magnified twice over, not just for her talents, but for the fact that Aerith had risen to the position of Heartcaster.
As much respect as this had gathered her from almost everyone else, it had only seemed to widen the gap between Aerith and Cloud. He did not speak to her; in fact, to get a single look from him was almost amazing. He used a bulky looking sword and was increasingly clumsy.
She supposed this was only natural; she was the highest ranked magician in the entire Guard now. And her elder brother, frightening in his darkness, was the Heart Knight.
It was in those years, that Tifa's father died in a freak accident.
The voice of the Planet in her ear calmly told Aerith that he was at peace, as happy in death as he had been in life. A small little part of her, looking at the stony stiffness of Tifa's expression wished that he could at least have felt a little guilty about leaving his daughter behind.
Tifa did not weep. She did not fling herself upon her bed and sob her grief out. She did not sit listlessly, nor did she ignore anyone. Her expression was almost perfectly schooled to cheerfulness around people, her voice never cracking nor showing a single hint of what she felt inside. At the funeral, there had been lots of people, it was obscene in how lavish it was, but even in the sea of people, looking over his coffin towards Tifa's face, hidden behind the black silk, there were no tears. The face was pale, certainly, but the eyes were mysteries of calm.
After many days of being unable to stand this kind of protective nothingness that Tifa invested about herself, did Aerith finally get her alone, and flung herself upon that girl, hugging her so tightly until her arms should break. In her calmest and most reasonable voice, she demanded outright, that Tifa speak, that she let her know how she felt.
And when the first tear slid down the perfectly smooth cheek of the younger, yet taller Tifa, Aerith knew she had been so close to falling apart all this time.
"There's just not enough time, for everything," Tifa sighed softly, after the storm of weeping was over, and they had gone out to sit in the gardens, looking upon the day.
Aerith smiled gently, "It'd be easier if you just talked to me."
"I find it hard to. I'm not like you."
"I know that, and I love you despite it." She grinned a little.
"Pfft, tough love." Tifa tucked her knees to her chest, then lowered her chin to rest on them, "He wasn't going to join you know."
"He said, he didn't think he was strong enough."
"Strong enough for what?"
"I don't know. Cloud's been getting weirder ever since you came here. He's … quieter than before, if such a thing is possible. He idolises Sephiroth… and hates him too, I think."
"Hate him?" Her big green eyes widened with surprise, "Why would he do such a thing?"
"Probably because your big brother has become downright creepy! He was watching you bend over the other day and I swear…" The gloved hands tightened so the leather creaked, "I wanted to vomit."
"Don't say such horrible things, Tifa."
"What if, this time, you're wrong?"
Her blood chilled; true, she had an extreme amount of difficulty reading and interpreting her brother at the best of times, but she couldn't be wrong. He loved her, he protected her fiercely. He was completely incapable of doing something to harm her or anyone she loved.
"I'm not wrong," Aerith asserted.
"I hope you're not." Tifa sighed, "…it'll be the time for the Summer Fire Festival soon."
"I always liked that festival. I'm looking forward to the honey bread!"
Tifa's sidelong look was amused, "All you think about is food."
…but the festival was to bring hard realities…
She came to his apartments a couple of days before the Festival. Almost three months had passed since she had spoken with Tifa. The sky was dark outside and his apartment poorly lit. There was about it, the scent of something spicy and forbidden. It tickled her nose and without meaning to, she wrinkled it. She wore her formal clothes, having just returned from a meeting with Merlin and Ansem; a dress cut to her mid calf in an a-line shape, the bodice tightly moulded to her slender chest. It was high necked, coming up under her chin, with puffed shoulders and the sleeves hugging her arms. The entire affair was black for the most part, with luscious red thorns crawling up the skirts, encircling her waist and on the front, the thorny heart of the Heart Guard, emblazoned over her chest almost completely. Her hair was worn up and tied back into a complex braid with dark pink ribbons that bordered on red.
She knocked a little, thinking on how she had impressed the King Ansem with her proposal about Tifa's heritage fund and providing support for the magical enhancement of regular people, including a different way of testing and teaching. The old way was good enough when the talent for it already existed, but people were able to learn magic to some extent. Perhaps the re-energising of new blood would help stimulate the magical 'deformity' she supposed it could be called that defined the old blood. It was a naturally occurring magical genetic trait that was passed from parent to child.
"Come in Aerith."
His voice was dark and deep, and unwillingly she opened the door, stepping into the hallway, lit only by candles that seemed far too dim. The hallway stretched down towards a darker living room, the walls smooth as if sheathed in marble like some mausoleum. She shoved those vagrant thoughts to the back of her mind and walked without fear towards that room. There was a single candle burning there, and seated on the low divan close to the expensive grand piano, was her elder brother, Sephiroth.
His green eyes lifted from the floor, almost burning as he looked at her, then with an expansive hand, free of black leather glove, he patted the divan. "Sit with me, Aerith."
"Yes, brother," she agreed automatically and came to sit by his side. From the side view, his expression seemed almost pensive and broken, tormented. The green eyes moved to the floor once more and bangs of white covered his face from her, a veil parting the two. Aerith was vaguely surprised to find that her hands shook with unspoken jitters.
"I've wanted to discuss something with you for the longest time."
"What is that, brother?"
"I'm not your brother." There was a vague hitch of his shoulders as she filled the silence with wordless surprise. "I was adopted into your family when you were but a babe. My father was a scientist who worked with your father… I don't even remember my mother."
"I don't understand, why didn't they tell me?"
"Who knows," his sigh was heavy, "I've known for some time now. I'm jealous of everything you have…"
Aerith stiffened, only a touch, there was a dark note in his voice, a note of covetousness when referring to her. She crinkled her hands into the material of her formal dress, mind filling with all kinds of questions she wanted to ask, but he continued speaking on.
"This power you have, the magic in your blood. I don't have that magic, but I have magic of my own. You hear the planet, what do I hear? The emptiness… the great and vast emptiness of everything in this world. The stars are silent, the world is silent, and the hearts of people are closed and silent to me. Everything that you can hear I am denied… I want that power! I want to be able to see, and to hear, all things!" He turned to her now, those catlike eyes seized by madness and desire, "I want you."
His hands grasped her shoulders and a little terrified, she pushed against his chest. But he was stronger than she by far, much more physically developed, and he held her firm against her struggles, "I love you, my little sister, my little Aerith. We'll marry, our children will be powerful, more powerful than anything…"
"No, you're my brother!"
"We're not related, there's nothing against it!"
"I don't love you!"
"What do I care if you love or not?!" His hand skidded to her neck and with a single move, he pinned her by the throat to the divan.
It was in one of those bizarre moments of clarity that she realised she would have to admit to Tifa that she had been right. His hands fumbled at her clothes, tearing the material at the neckline, sliding up the skirts and ripping the thick skein of fabric covering her legs from the chill of the day, one of her slippers working loose in the struggle to get him off her. Closer and closer he came, she could feel his lips at her neck, his teeth biting into the delicate skin of her shoulders and just when it seemed like he would finally be able to force himself on her after many terrible moments of clawing and struggles, the voice of the planet froze everything around her.
This shall not be. This shall not be at all. Come, child, imagine freedom. Anything you imagine is within your power to achieve. Think of those bonds deep inside your heart, and follow it. Follow your heart, for it shall lead you to safety, to home.
"Mine!" he snarled.
"TIFA!" she screamed in horror, "CLOUD! HELP!"
There was a blinding light, pushing him away, tearing at his skin and the trousers he had shoved down to his knees. It threw him off her, knocking over the candle and in the process, pushing him directly through the grand piano. Behind him there were a couple of feet of solid wall and a window, stained glass of an angel perching at an altar. It struck him through this too, the ground miles below him and she stared in terror for a split second as he reached a hand out to her.
Then, the light consumed everything in her sight and when it vanished, she was tottering on exhausted feet outside the barracks, shaking badly.
Lifting her hand, she knocked on the door.
What just happened there? What… what is going on…? Her mind was a blur of feelings and distress.
When the door was answered after many moments, Cloud and Tifa were there, Squall just down the hallway with a couple of younger soldiers. They all stopped to stare at her, in her ruined state, the heavy bruising about her neck, the swollen cheek, scrapes and bite marks; the dress all but torn from her fragile frame and her hair ripped from the perfect braid.
"…" she wavered on the spot, "…Tifa… Cloud… please help me…"
"Shit," Tifa pushed at Cloud but, to her surprise, it was Cloud who got his hand in the way of her first, dropping his bowl of rice to get into the cold, throwing his arm about Aerith and hauling her inside. Aerith was somewhat bemused by this turn of events, but she was swept inside gladly, and down towards the privacy of Squall's ground-floor room.
Word spread like wildfire as she was hustled along, people coming out to gasp and murmur, but she didn't care, and she felt empty and broken. Squall prudently found her one of his heavier tunics and gave both Cloud and Tifa long looks.
"What?" Tifa said.
"If you don't mind, turn your backs."
"What!? You're a guy, Squall, I should be doing this!"
"You have about as much magical talent as a block of wood. Turn your backs so I can fix the worst of her injuries, please," His moody eyes were calm and reasonable; "Unless you want to see how badly she is hurt?"
Tifa swallowed hard, and again, Cloud said softly, "He's right."
"No, she's… she's my best friend… I…"
"I know," Cloud murmured, "But he is right. Aerith," he added, looking at her. She jumped a little, hands shaking helplessly as she collapsed onto Squall's bed, tears in her eyes. How long had it been since he'd said her name, and looking into his brilliant blue eyes, she was almost certain for one moment, he cared deeply, she could almost touch what made Cloud, Cloud. "I'll fetch some clothes from your apartment. Tifa will make you some of her hot chocolate, won't you Tifa?"
Tifa stuttered, "Y-yes…"
"…see…then you can tell us what happened. Come on," he got Tifa from the room and Aerith was under the distinct, dim impression that her best friend hadn't expected Cloud of all people to act so calm under this kind of situation.
Squall gently handed her the tunic once they had left, "Change into this. I might not be a perfect magic user, but I know enough to get rid of your worst physical wounds. I won't look, I promise."
She held the tunic a moment… and then nodded, bursting into tears. Squall said nothing, he didn't have to, but he simply turned his back so she could have the privacy to change into the overly large piece of clothing and just his reassuring, stoic presence meant more to her than a silence filled with endless and meaningless chatter.
Once she was into the tunic, she tossed her ruined formal clothes aside and sat there, feeling blank and empty.
What had happened?
Squall's hands were nimble and he soon got to working on her worst injuries, the twisted shoulder most of all, from where Sephiroth had forced her arm overhead at a very awkward angle as she had fought against him with all the strength she could muster.
Her eyes looked at the rather plain quality of Squall's room. It was magnolia, grey and blue, with highlights of black here and there, even silver. His bookcase was filled from top to bottom with reading materials on both magic and combat. A small desk had his computer, and propped by it, his gunblade; a weapon that fired magical shells that he charged before each battle with his own skills. His bed was comfortably sized, and neatly made. On the desk was a picture of Squall, Cloud and Tifa, all in their uniforms on the day they had graduated into the Heart Guard.
There had been a great magically created light and it had hurt Sephiroth. But that was about all she could remember of that… it was as if the very Planet had risen up to deny him what he had wanted to most.
Tifa and Cloud came back once Squall had managed to lessen the bruising on her neck, and with her chilled and shaking hands cupping the mug of hot chocolate and her three friends gathered about her, she found herself staring aimlessly at the floor.
It was, characteristically, Tifa who spoke up first. "What happened, Rissy?"
It took her several minutes to get the words ordered in her head, but when she did, the darkness, the bleakness that followed them, threatened to devastate her understanding of the world… but once spoken, they would be but one chain in the link that led to the destruction of Radiant Garden.
With bloodless lips and chilled heart, she wept, "He tried to… my brother, Sephiroth, tried to rape me."
The Summer Festival of Fire was a tradition that actually belonged to the tribes of Utai, but the tradition, like many tend to, transcended one society and was adapted by the greater one, to the delight of everyone who attended such things. There were fireworks blooming in the sky, the large bonfires where people danced about, paper lanterns filled with small candles set into both the sky and lake, floating and flying away like tiny angels from the shore and land.
Aerith, dressed in her second set of formal clothes, wore her hair in an intricate coronet of braids set with a fiery tiara of rubies, flanked by three high ranked Heart Guard members. One was Auron, the scarred battle master who had come to her testing years ago and someone she had grown to look up to like a beloved uncle. The stood on the dais and with a flourish, to the onlookers, Aerith smiled as two hearts of flame burst into being in her hands, stretched to each side. The crowd, as one, screamed their delight.
"The Festival of Fire celebrates not only life, but continuance and eventually passing. Celebrate that which you love, and think fondly of that which is lost. Let the fire burn!"
The crowd shouted back gleefully, "Let the fire burn!"
She twisted her hands, skirts billowing about as with one toss of her arm, then the other, the two flames hit the large bowl of oil and with a thunderous belch, caught and rose in a pillar of flaming wrath to the darkening skies, the stars twinkling back as in response. The crowds thrummed with cries of delight and joy, and for a moment, watching them, Aerith was swept into that sensation.
There was no shadow here, where she was safe among people.
The Festival progressed pretty much as normal, and when she got away from her duties, she and her friends spent their time wandering about stalls and eating all kinds of food. Like Tifa had joked and teased her about, Aerith was greatly taken with the many types of food there was on offer, but Aerith didn't have the heart to tease back that Tifa was just as obsessive over all the kinds of chocolate there was on offer. Even Cloud had started to loosen up.
Once, when Tifa had turned away with Squall to have an attempt at some shooting arcade games, he came to stand there with her at the shore as she held the paper lantern and candle, the massive lake reflecting the night back up at the sky.
"Aerith," he said softly.
"Oh, Cloud!" She straightened her hair self-consciously, smiling. He was very close to her, his blue eyes almost glowing as he took her in. "I didn't see you there."
"You've really grown up…"
"It happens to the worst of us," she chuckled.
She noticed that in his hands, he too held a lantern of paper and they trembled just a little. Attached to the lantern side was a small paper note, but she decided not to ask. For that moment, she instinctively knew that Cloud was trying to be open with her, and that a moment like this was a rare chance indeed.
"Aerith, ever since we were young… that is…"
"When… you discovered your magic. It was painful to me, to think of you… like that…"
"…Oh…" Well alright, not exactly what she had wanted to hear, and she smiled a little, "You know Cloud, you have such a hard time with yourself. You should give yourself a break, when you can."
"A hard time?"
"Talking… thinking… …feeling…" She flushed a little, lowering her eyes from his.
His hands jittered worse than before on the lantern, "I mean, well, what I wanted to say… I might… not always show it… at all even b-but… I-I-I… I wanted… to you… h-how I… f-feel… um…"
Oh my goodness, her mind screamed suddenly, he's going to confess!
Her heart hammered against her ribs and she lifted her eyes to his, scared beyond reason and also desperate to hear him say it, after so long. His lips parted to speak, just as fireworks exploded overhead. They both turned, looking up at the flowers which bloomed into the sky, brilliant colours, shattering the night with fiery shards of light.
Her eyes shimmered with the wonder of it, then, she smiled softly and said, so only Cloud could hear under the noise of the fireworks. "You've always known how I feel about you, Cloud, and things are unlikely to change."
"And one day, when you're comfortable with yourself," she looked at him, "that special day, when your heart is at peace and ready to come home, I'll be waiting here."
"Aerith, I lo-"
"What's going on?!" Someone screamed.
Aerith dropped her lantern as the shouts of horror and screams suddenly broke the wonderful mood of the fire festival, the paper object forgotten as it lay in the mud. Explosive detonations rocked the ground and as one with everyone else, she fought for her feet. There was a showering of earth and heated fragments, as in the distance, closer to the lab areas where the festival sprawled into, for those labs held the fireworks, a massive fire was raging, illuminating the sky with ugly rage.
Lifting her skirts, leaving Cloud a heartbeat or two behind her as he fumbled for his sword, she ran into the crowds, using her magic every now and then to shield the crowds from large chunks of superheated rocks that appeared to be thrown down from the very sky, trying to strike at them with futile temper.
Tifa and Squall and eventually, the rest of the Heart Guard were there, surrounding the building and looking about. Some with the talent for magic were attempting to help douse the fire, summoning water from the very air with graceful motions of their hands, stirring the life essence of the world. She glanced around, and it was then that Tifa lifted her arm and shrieked.
'Him' turned out to be a long figure who, with hands held to the sky and face turned there, wore shadows like cloaks and his face filled with a cruel exultation.
"Sephiroth," she whispered.
But no one could have coped with what happened next, for his speed was incredible.
Cloud moved as if born of lightning, his sword held up. Tifa tried to snag him back but her hands grasped onto thin air. He dove directly at Sephiroth, and with the dreadful snick-clang Aerith knew that her adoptive brother, her would-be-rapist and Cloud, her beloved childhood friend, were fighting… to the death. It wasn't long until others, shocked, also attempted to join in. Auron pulled her back when she tried to surge forward.
"No! You are our leader now," he growled, "Let us deal with this demon!"
Demon. Monster. What was Sephiroth now?
The fight raged, the fire was burning wildly out of control. Aerith stood frozen in the middle of it, hands reaching up to her throat, to the twisted thread-necklace she wore, her eyes swimming in tears.
"What do I do?!"
"Planet? Planet, tell me, what should I do?!"
Sephiroth has done something unthinkable. He has aided a great evil in his quest for power and dominance, in his unquenched desire to possess you.
Can you not feel it? My pain… the pain…
Aerith knelt slowly, putting her fingertips to the planet's surface and was, suddenly, surprised she had not felt it earlier. It was there, a festering darkness that was slowly eating away at the very world underneath her feet. The pain of the planet was sharp and agonising, but the voice it spoke to her with was filled with deep love and regret.
This is the darkness of a power called the Heartless. They consume planets and once one is opened and consumed, it will move to another. Their power is a dark and hateful thing, it will know nothing but how to destroy.
"…oh my…" she wept.
…I do not know how long I will have left. The King, Ansem, was researching into this power, to attempt to contain it, to prevent it. But someone used it against him… I am dying, child.
…I am dying…
She looked up, just to see Sephiroth, who had knocked everyone else away with his fearsome talent, skewer Cloud on his slender blade. The younger Heart Guard screamed in agony, coughing up blood.
…and for the first time in her life, Aerith was consumed with anger.
Throwing aside all caution, for her anger was that of a friend, an anger of someone who loves, the anger of the very planet beneath her, Aerith strode into the flames and made a sharp gesture with one hand, them flames bending and giving way to her. She made her way up behind Sephiroth and when she was twenty paces from him, shouted; "Stop!"
"…Aerith… your name is like stardust…" Her elder brother turned; his eyes catlike and green, filled with undisguised greed and longing, a sick love for her. The flames grew more intense and in return she could feel the wind of the world rising up to protect her.
Her skirt fluttered around her, her hair rising free of the coronet and fluttering up to the sky above. She set herself between Cloud's body and Sephiroth. "No more."
"No? Come to me, be mine… I will destroy this world, and all worlds, and find the ultimate power and when I do; you shall belong to me…"
"AERITH!" The scream of her best friend was a knife that cut the air.
Aerith's eyes blazed with power, shining brightly, more brightly than the fire about her. There was nothing but anger, there was blood on the floor, on the slender blade of the Heart Knight, there was fire and anger, anger, so much anger in her that she thought she die. The world burned to cinders and it burned her just as badly, inside to out.
"My beloved Aerith," he murmured with his sneer dark on such a handsome face.
"Brother!" she screamed.
And the world was made of light…
…and Aerith was made of light…
…and everything burned.
It was maybe six months we had left after that. Cloud grew withdrawn and the world frightened. I made Ansem aware of the sickness inside the world and even though we had thought ourselves prepared, and most of the populace had managed to evacuate the world long before the event happened, some stayed stubbornly. The Heart Guard was the last to leave. We were the last line of defence and so we clung to the world we loved.
In those final few days, I wept for the Planet underneath me, but the voice was gentle and sweet, and loving… It loved me, beyond all things, for I was the only one left who could hear it.
When the terrible day arrived, Cloud had gone to help Auron and Quistis. I assumed he would have been right back, but he wasn't. On the edge of the docks where we would take that ship to safety, Tifa said she would find him for me… and left too.
…and even though we are so far away, my heart, it tells me, there is a way home.
The journey is long… but when we arrive, there will be those we love.
I have to believe it.
As for Sephiroth… he too is out there… and one day, we will also have to deal with him… no. I will have to deal with him.
…for that is my problem and mine alone… for all the ways I am broken…