"What do you mean... she's gone?" Tseng demanded; his voice calmly quiet despite his growing ire.

He paused to regard the trembling mountain of flesh that stood in front of him. The young monolith was the newest member of the Turks, his name was Carl and by all estimations he was a certified idiot. That being said, Tseng had trusted him with the easiest assignment. Something most five year olds would have little difficulty doing, nearly impossible to screw up. Apparently, he was quite wrong. Tseng cursed himself for allowing Rufus to stick him with the lummox. At the time he'd reasoned that taking on Carl would allow him to curry favor with the Shinra heir but now...

Carl was Rufus's cousin and nothing more than a punk ass wannabe. None too bright and possessing no skills, he was a dead weight. Tseng had told this all to Rufus when Carl interviewed for the job and the Shinra heir had agreed with him completely. Carl had no place in the Turks, but his father had requested that he find his cousin a job, lest the boy be cutoff.

At Shinra, those who didn't push their weight didn't last long and Carl had a lot of weight to push. He'd had a string of menial labor jobs he'd managed to bollix, mostly because he was an ineffectual lay-about barely able to master the fine art of mopping. What Tseng really couldn't believe was that someone at Shinra actually thought it'd be a good idea to promote him to a higher level job when it was quite clear he couldn't be trusted to handle the counter at the company cafeteria.

The thinking was that if given a prestigious job that Carl would be more motivated to succeed. As if some kind of hidden industriousness would magically appear out of his ass and bless Carl with something resembling intelligence. Tseng wasn't really that surprised when it didn't. Carl was as useless as always. His slothfulness becoming more than just a way of life, it reached into the sky in legendary proportions like the world's tallest, fattest, most purposeless building.

The thing that galled him the most was that he actually trusted the boy this time. Hoping vainly that Carl would manage to at last do something right. Hell, this job was right up his alley. All the fat bastard had to do was sit on his ass and watch Aeris through a pair of thermal binoculars. If she made a move to leave, he was supposed to call Tseng. Ah, but Carl, being Carl, managed to find a way to fuck it up – really, it was a gift, he decided. Fucking up the un-fuckable. Tseng had found him twenty minutes ago, fast asleep with a humongous beef sub on his chest.

Knocking the sub off his chest, Tseng awoke the boy with a backhanded strike to his face. In the back of his mind he remembered promising Rufus that he wouldn't lay a hand on his cousin. Carl was to be given special treatment, lest he go back and whine to the President or his daddy, the Vice President. Currently, Tseng didn't really give a two sucks on a dead man's dick about the President or his promise. He'd lost patience with the boy and his anger wouldn't be denied an outlet.

He'd slapped Carl around a bit because his wrath needed a target, and it had made him feel marginally better once it was spent, until, of course, he checked Aeris's room with the thermal goggles and found her gone. Tseng closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose, feeling a massive migraine coming on. With a long sigh, he struggled to understand the levels of stupidity that one human being was capable of. Something would have to be done about the Carl problem, that fact was crystal clear, but at the moment, all Tseng cared about was finding Aeris. Sephiroth had gone missing for two days and was more than likely skulking around somewhere. This particular wrinkle in plans well laid was not helping matters in the least.

"I asked you a question," Tseng repeated, his velvet voice not betraying how irritated he really was. "What do you mean, she's gone?"

Carl looked at him with dumb cow eyes, answering with an ineffectual gesture toward her window. "Uh... she left?"

Bowing his head, Tseng turned around and clasped his hands behind his back. His posture was stiff, rendering him like a coiled spring in the muffled black of Midgar's night. Minutes passed and the Turk leader said nothing, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet. He was letting Carl sweat in anticipation -- besides, he needed time to gather his thoughts and cool his current temper because he was quite close to shooting the stupid prat in the head. After five full minutes, Tseng pivoted slowly on the spot, facing the younger Turk with dark eyes that gleamed with menace.

Wordlessly, he strolled up to Carl and casually tilted his head as he bent down to stare right into the boy's eyes. The corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly, though no joy touched the rest of his face. Raising himself back up to his full height, Tseng calmly straightened Carl's tie until it set in place neatly. With equal grace, he dusted off the crumbs from his jacket. Satisfied, he looked down at the boy once more, his face an unreadable mask.

"She left," Tseng stated simply, nodding his head to punctuate his thought. "She left." Upon repeating Carl's statement, Tseng began to chuckle. Shaking his head, the chuckle turned into a laugh. At first, Carl seemed reluctant to join in but after a bit, he laughed cautiously. When he saw that nothing came of it, the boy deepened the laugh. The joy he felt was short lived as Tseng caught him by the collar with feline grace. No longer taking care to hide his emotions, the Turk's face twisted in anger. Pulling the boy closer, he hissed: "Brilliant observation, fuck nuts. Why don't you tell me what color the goddamned sky is! OF COURSE she left, because she's not bloody well here. What I'm asking is where the FUCK did she go... we'd know that if you'd been DOING YOUR FUCKING JOB!"

"I... I... I..." Carl stammered, his mouth gapping and drooling like a fish out of water.

With a snort of disgust, Tseng roared: "YOU FAT SACK OF SHIT!"

He shoved the boy so hard that he landed with a grunt in a pile of rubbish. In a blink of an eye, he had his pistol out and aimed at Carl. The boy's eyes went wide and before he could even begin to plead for his life, Tseng shot. The bullet winged out with a nearly silent snap, embedding itself in a broken piece of concrete next to Carl's head. Tseng stood over him with his gun held at his side.

"Get up."

The boy numbly obeyed, unable to look into the older man's eyes, a dribble of piss wetting the front of his pants.

"Look at me," Tseng ordered, his voice once more devoid of any obvious anger. "You're a Turk. We expect better from you. Now go find Rude. Tell him what happened -- in detail. Find the girl..."

Carl had gotten his second wind, finding some hidden font of bravery, he interrupted Tseng. "Y-You had no right. I'm telling my Dad...You can't threaten me like that you know... I--"

"Daddy's out paying the bills, son." Tseng paused and leveled the gun at Carl. "Shinra was built on a foundation of corpses. I don't think anyone will notice one more. Do we understand each other?" He waited for Carl to nod slowly. "Good. Don't dawdle. Find the girl... Now."

Carl hesitated, regarding Tseng warily as if waiting for him to strike again. The Turk leader stepped back with a smile, holstering his weapon. The boy swallowed hard and slowly stood up to leave. Tseng watched the boy's bulky form retreat into darkness, bottomless dark eyes narrowing into slits. Yes, the Carl problem needed an immediate solution. He growled, lashing out at the piles of rubbish, kicking everything in sight.

"Keep it down, mate. You're gonna wake up the old cow with all the noise you're making."

Tseng twirled around to regard the familiar voice, his face communicating his current deficit of humor. "Reno, I'm not in the mood right now. Piss off."

"Whoa! Sorry. Didn't realize it was that time of the month," the red haired man replied, holding his hands up in mock surrender. "So what's got your panties in a bunch this time?"

Reno waited for his boss to answer, if there was one thing he knew about Tseng was a bit of humor always lightened his mood, even if he'd never admit it.

"Carl," Tseng growled, briefly recounting events to Reno -- who merely nodded as he listened.

Everyone was pretty much aware of the 'Carl Problem'.

It was obvious Tseng had some steam to blow off. In the last two days he'd become increasingly tense, his manner was seven flavors of jumpy and he seemed to snap at the most innocent of comments. Reno understood why, but at the same time he recognized it wasn't healthy to live that way. The way he figgered it, freaking out about every little thing lead to heart attacks and premature graying of the hair. This time, however, it seemed that Tseng's normal over the top reaction was merited. Carl had fucked up for the last time.

"So, what're you gonna do?" Reno asked as he lit a cigarette.

Tseng stared out into space darkly before answering quietly: "When you got a litter of puppies, you can't keep all the runts. Take him to Clarkesville."

Reno nearly swallowed his cigarette in surprise. "Are you serious?"

"Did I stutter?" Tseng replied, his expression becoming coldly somber. "Call Rude, get him on it."

Reno nodded numbly, pulling out his phone and dialing up the number by heart. Quietly the red haired Turk turned away, mumbling instructions to his sometime partner. Tseng waited patiently, though his thoughts were in a jumble. The only clear thought was worry for Aeris.

He thought of the whys and wherefores. Why he felt as if he had to protect her. It was a deeply held secret in his heart, one that he would never reveal to her or anyone else. He had broken the cardinal rule of the Turks; he had fallen in love with a target. Though to his credit, he'd loved Aeris before he'd become a Turk, not that it made it any easier. They had been childhood friends. He smiled as he recalled those memories from long ago, when he was still somewhat innocent. They had met in the old Sector 6 playground.

Aeris was a strange girl, even back then. She was enigmatic, so many secrets hidden behind those green eyes and that sweet smile. Talk to her one day and she was like any other child, talk to her the next and she seemed thousands of years older. Most kids stayed away from her. They thought that she was a freak, a weirdo who heard voices, though Tseng himself never thought those things.

He was as much an outcast as she. With his sharp Wutai features, he stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the white bread inhabitants of Midgar. For this, he'd been teased and bullied relentlessly. At first he just took it, but one day he decided he'd had enough, breaking a kid's nose in a rage. After that day, he'd promised himself to never again take shit from anyone.

Aeris was the exact opposite. She never fought back, preferring to take their insults with a quiet kind of resignation. It wasn't like they didn't hurt her. They did. She was clearly lonely. Watching all the other kids play with her large emerald eyes from the far side of the playground. Sometimes Tseng had wondered why she came at all because it obviously caused her quite a bit of pain when she did. But everyday without fail she'd come.

You had to admire her tenaciousness. Tseng smiled at that thought. He remembered the day they finally met. Despite her outcast status, it was recognized that Aeris was uncommonly beautiful. This fact was especially noted by all the boys, and hated by all the girls.

One day a group of girls decided to do something about Aeris once and for all. They were all at least two years older than Aeris and quite a bit bigger. Ganging up on the tiny girl, they'd pushed her to the ground and descended on her. Hitting, slapping and kicking her prone figure, and something inside Tseng snapped when he saw that.

He, like all the other kids, mostly ignored Aeris. She was small for her age and quiet, never really bothering anyone else. So they'd always left her alone. Everyone watched this spectacle with horror, too afraid to actually step in and help. Everyone, except for Tseng. He knew what it was like to be beaten because you were different. It was a peculiar and painful form of torment, and completely unfair. Balling his small fists, he charged over and pulled the girls off Aeris, threatening to kill them all if they ever touched her again, and he had meant it.

Aeris rewarded him that day with a kiss on the cheek, which made him blush furiously, though it cemented a bond that lasted between them for many years. For her, it was an obvious brother/sister bond and Tseng respected that, even though he wished for more. All the same, no one ever bothered her after that, he made sure of it.

Time passed and with each day, Aeris grew more beautiful but there was always a feeling that there was more within her than her human shell could hold, a power that lurked just behind her fair countenance.

Time counts and keeps counting. Sooner or later childish things are put away and replaced by the detritus of nearing adulthood. Friends that you loved in childhood grow up; becoming people you barely have anything in common with, if you ever did. Aeris and Tseng were no different.

Aeris was always a pacifist, preferring to tend to her flowers than submit to the ugly violence of the city. Tseng fought, as he always had. Taking what had made him feared as a child and developing it into a rather successful, but brutal, career. Different lives, different choices. Yet there was still a strong bond of filial loyalty. Not a bond of blood, true, but a bond non-the-less. Over the years, they'd lost track of each other but occasionally he'd drop by and see how she was doing. He still considered himself her older brother and her first real bodyguard.

Now he felt as if he'd failed in his duty. There had always been an unspoken promise on his lips that he'd make sure she'd be all right. Keep her out of the hands of Shinra, who sought to use her. Turk though he may be -- he was still loyal to his people's traditions. He'd made a promise to keep Aeris safe, even if it meant his life – his word was his bond.

It was the how that worried him. The Turks constant failure to capture Aeris would only last so long. Sooner or later Shinra would get fed up and assign her capture to another division. Hojo was already rattling cages about it, trying desperately to wrest control of her files from them. Tseng would fight it, but if push came to shove, he knew Hojo, having more seniority than he, would win. The last thing he wanted to see was his little sis in the hands of that pooftah or his albino errand boy.

"Tseng? Tseng you okay?" Reno asked, worried at the odd look on his friend's face.

"Yeah, fine. Hey, if you were Aeris where would you go?"


"Idiot, you've spent the most time with her. What places does she frequent?" Tseng snapped irritably.

Reno could only think of one place she'd go to, especially considering how stressful the last few days had been. "Her church. She'd be at her church."

Tseng grunted as a reply, checking the clip in his handgun before slipping it back into his shoulder holster. Reno twirled his EMR nervously, until he caught his boss's eye. For a moment they just looked at each other with resolute seriousness. With a mutual, wordless nod, they started for the church, walking with calm, measured strides. Determination would get you everywhere, but not fast enough for Tseng. Eventually they broke into an all out run, fearing the worst. Tseng's skin prickled, he knew that pale freak-show would be there; he could feel it and his worry for Aeris increased. His one thought in those precious few seconds was that Aeris had better be there and unharmed or Hojo would be less one precious specimen.

It's funny when one's worst fear comes true. The horrible knowledge that you were right, and, even worse, knowing that your being right didn't make the situation any better.

On the far end of the road walked a tall and imposing figure, his ghostly silver hair flowing behind him like tattered curtains in a broken window. There was no question of who it was and Tseng involuntarily curled his lip at the sight and his eyes narrowed. The General hadn't spotted the two Turks yet, looking as if he was in deep thought.

"What is it?" Reno questioned as he jogged up to Tseng.

The dark haired man said nothing, gesturing with a nod of the head to what lay plainly in front of them. Sephiroth. Reno gasped and went for his weapon. Dark eyes flashed, and Tseng's hand immediately intercepted Reno's sudden motion. Grabbing the red haired Turk's arm, Tseng raised a finger to his lips. Letting his companion go, he gestured to him that they ought to seek cover before the General noticed they were there.

The two Turks slipped into the concealing shadows of the debris from an old plate collapse. It gave them plenty of cover, without blocking their view of the road. The soft, almost imperceptible footsteps of the General passed them by. The Turk leader's face was stone cold, his coal black eyes trailing his enemy as he passed by their position.

The silver haired man paused just in front of the debris field, his head titling as if listening to something only he could hear. Sephiroth looked around and Tseng could do nothing but hold his breath. He got the distinct impression that Sephiroth somehow knew they were there, and it was only by luck of his seemingly pensive state that he hadn't pin pointed them. His bright mako eyes glowing eerie green in the darkness of the lower plate. Tseng held back the urge to level his weapon and shoot the sonvabitch in the head.

Sephiroth shook his head and continued on his way until his dark form merged with the shadows ahead. After a beat or two, the Turks emerged from their concealed position once they were quite sure he was gone. Reno didn't even have to ask, he merely started dialing, setting up a nice ambush for the good General. After all, he was late for his assignment and Reno would hate to see the mountain expedition lose any more time. Sephiroth had already held them up for two whole days.

Tseng shot Reno a quick look to indicate he was going to check on Aeris, as the phone call was becoming overlong. The church was only a short ways away, and Tseng was able to easily jog the distance.

For a moment he stood and stared at the crackled door of the church, something inside of him almost afraid to open it. What would he find in there? If Sephiroth had hurt her... the thought trailed. Furiously, he pushed the door open, the wood creaking on rusted hinges as light flooded the dark interior of the church. Tseng entered quietly, heart pounding.

"Aeris," he called, wincing as the sound echoed in the empty dark. "Aeris? Aeris where are you?"

"Tseng?" she called back, her voice soft and raspy as if she'd been crying.

Relief flooded him and he nearly ran into the main part of the church. Before he could even ask where she was, she appeared, silhouetted by pale moonlight. Her face cloaked in darkness, unreadable.

"Yes," he said, a gentle smile softening features hardened by life.

"You're here." It was a statement and a question at the same time.

"I'm always here. You're my little sis, remember?" Tseng paused, adding thoughtfully: "You're okay? He didn't hurt you, did he?"

"No..." She replied quietly, stepping out of the direct glow of the moonlight, towards him. As she approached, her face became more visible. It was dirty and there were obvious tear streaks that spread across her cheeks.

Tseng's heart broke as he looked down at her. How could she lie like that? "You've been crying," he stated simply, implying that he wanted an explanation.

She nodded slowly, understanding him perfectly, as she always had. "All my life, I never questioned my visions. I wasted so much time, time when I could have changed things. Tseng, do you think fate can be defied? Even if you know it's probably too late..."

"I don't know, Aeris. I'm not even sure what you're talking about," Tseng answered carefully.

Aeris looked up at him wide eyed. "I don't want to die, Tseng, and there were things I could have done to stop it. If only I had gotten to him sooner, if only I had warned him... and now." She stopped then, her voice cracking as she broke down, her tears choking her as she struggled to gain control of her emotions. After a bit, she continued, her voice sounding more broken than before. "It's too late. He's gone and it's too late. And I'm going to die, and he's.... oh god. It was so much easier when he was just... a monster. Before -- he's human. He doesn't deserve..."

"Who -- who doesn't deserve?" Tseng enquired, his blood running deathly cold, pleading to the gods to stopper her mouth before she uttered that hateful name.

"Sephiroth," she exhaled quietly, as a small amount of hope suddenly surged within her. "Tseng, you both work for Shinra. There's still a chance. If you could tell him everything I know – everything. Maybe if he knows, there'll still be a chance to avo--"

"I'm not telling him a damn thing. I don't know what's going on in that crazy head of yours, but I don't like the picture you're painting me. Do you actually pity that freak? That's fucking obscene; he's going to murder you--"

"Don't call me crazy! He's not a freak. I saw--" she cried vehemently.

Tseng cut her off, his own fury a match for hers. "You saw what he felt like showing you, but underneath all the angst ridden tortured soul bullshit is a monster. Pure and simple. You're a fool if you believe otherwise."

"Am I foolish in thinking I could save him? Am I foolish to try and avert my own death?"

"Yes, yes you are a fool, Aeris. I believe you -- I believe that he'll kill you. He has killed and will continue to kill, because he was built to kill. I don't want you to die either, but I hardly think a stern admonition or cryptic bits of wisdom are going to keep Sephiroth from doing what he was made to do." He was unable to stop the words as they poured out of him, despite the horrified look on her face. He was telling her everything she didn't want to hear, and he didn't want to have to say them – but they just wouldn't stop. "I've seen a million girls with the same look on their faces, the same hope in their hearts but you can't turn stone to flesh. You can't mold a monster into a man. Beauty will NEVER tame the beast. The only way this ends is with his death or yours." He paused for effect, enunciating slowly: "I choose his." His eyes were bright with righteous fury and he could see she understood the deadly implication of his last words.


"Why not?"

"I—You can't... he's human. If we could warn him somehow, make him see--"

"Sephiroth is NOT human. He's an abomination, a perversion of nature and a cold-blooded murderer."

She glared at him coldly. "And what makes you any different than him? You're a murderer, aren't you? That's what the Turks do, right?"

"There is a VAST world of difference between what I do and what he does. The people I kill are far from innocent -- mobsters and thugs who already have blood on their hands. I'm doing the world a favor by riding it of them. Sephiroth kills indiscriminately. I've seen his work, Aeris. He goes into an area and when he comes out, nothing is left alive. He's slaughtered entire villages, left them desolate and empty. Killed men, women and children, he mowed through them like summer grass. Don't think that you're any different in his eyes." He stopped his litany, letting the thought sink in before continuing. "I would NEVER hurt you. Never. I'm not going to kill you. He is. Your proof is in your dreams, Aeris. Sephiroth. Will. Kill. You."

Aeris looked up at him then, her face stricken with fear and sadness. She knew what he said was the truth, but there was a part of her that mourned for the loss of hope. Yes, for a brief moment after her exchange with Sephiroth, Aeris had dared to hope; believing that somehow, some way, she'd impact him and cause some kind of miraculous change that would flower and grow. Make him able to slay his demons and leave his tortured past behind to become a better man. It was every girl's dream, wasn't it? But the solid truth of it was built on a foundation of lies. A stupid fairy tale told to indulge imaginative young girls, to cushion them from the harsh realities of the world.

She had used this fable to cushion herself, to push back the reality of her own life -- her own death. Because... because she had wanted a normal life. If he changed, if she didn't have to die, then everything she dreamed, everything she wanted could be. There would be no bitter death. No half-lived life. There would be the limitless future – marriage, children, and grandchildren. And there was a flash of midnight hair and blue eyes -- a future with him, with Zack... all the things they planned, the dreams they dared to dream.

That future was dead to her now.

Her eyes dulled as she fully accepted her fate. Nothing mattered anymore. It was all on autopilot now, just a matter of time before she'd become the ultimate sacrifice. And the bitter, nasty part of her wondered if that it'd be murder or suicide. Aeris slumped to the floor with this realization, her arms hanging limply at her sides. The odd, disconsolate look in her eyes worried Tseng. He had been too hard on her and he cursed silently.

Kneeling down, he joined her and put a hand on her shoulder. She looked up with eyes still empty of life or love, drained by the fatal promise of her own demise. What could he say now that would soothe her soul? There was nothing he could say, no lie he could tell to make that haunted look leave her face.

"I know I can't change things. I know I missed my chance, if I ever had one. But..." Her voice was quiet, desolate, and it cracked as she spoke. "I had hoped. It was stupid, but I had hoped..." She stopped to collect her thoughts as tears rolled down her cheek as she shook her head. "I don't care if you don't believe me but I saw it, Tseng. No matter how infinitesimal in proportion, there is a part of Sephiroth that is human and will remain human. And I pity that part of him, for what he's lost and will never know. I can't help it. It was easier, so much easier before..."

She went deathly quiet, the lack of sound punctuated by muffled silence of the church, and for a moment it seemed like the whole world had gone still. Minutes later, it was broken by the soft sounds of her sniffling as she began to cry.

"Why, why does everything in my life have to be like this? Ending in blood and death and horror and violence? Just once. Just ONCE! I wanted..." Her voice hitched as a sob broke through whatever calm she had kept up to this point, the last of her words were nearly lost as she burst into tears. "It's like, everywhere I go, everything I touch... I destroy."

"That's not true," Tseng breathed with careful urgency.

"YES IT IS! EVERYONE I EVER LOVED, REALLY LOVED, IS DEAD. OR WILL BE! I'm forced to face a future that holds NOTHING for me but death. HOW CAN YOU SAY THAT! Nothing, nothing I've touched has come to any good. In the end, it all falls away -- slips from my fingertips. I wish I was never born!" she sobbed, her tears were hot silver rivulets that coursed down her face like an avalanche down a mountainside.

"Don't you say that, don't EVER say that," Tseng chided, gathering the flower girl closer.

There was a moment where he almost let his secret slip. Almost, but he held his tongue. He knew the burden she had to bear and he didn't want to make her life more difficult. Hell, he didn't want to make his own life more difficult. Even if she returned his affection, there would be a time when they'd be at odds. Sooner or later, his being a Turk would get in the way. It was his job to hunt her, after all. He could refuse, but then they'd just kill him and get a replacement that had no problem with handing her over to Hojo.

Holding her as she wept, he could feel her frail body as it was wracked with sobs and even as stoic as he was, he felt waves of uncontrollable sorrow to see her this way. He couldn't help her, couldn't stop it and what hurt the most was the sure knowledge that in the future he'd eventually be on the other side -- another thing that caused her pain. Their time as friends was soon coming to an end, but while it was here he had made up his mind to make the best of it. He would help as much as he could, even if it wasn't enough to make a difference.

His voice tight, he continued after a bit: "Aeris, I'm sorry about what I said. People like me, like Sephiroth. We destroy. We make this planet the awful place it is. Not you, never you. You... You're a beacon in the darkness. You give the world hope, where there is none. Look around you Aeris, look at all the life you've created. How can you say that everything you touch, you destroy? How can you say that in the face of life? Whatever your fate, it doesn't end with your death. It begins with your life. It always has and always will be your greatest gift. It's what you're put on this planet for. Not to die, but to live."

He looked down at his little sister then, who smiled back up at him tears still in her eyes. Joy mixed with unspent tears as he saw life return to her eyes. His voice was barely above a whisper, he smoothed her hair. "I'm so sorry, Aeris. Sorry that you have to suffer. I'm sorry I'm a bastard. I'm so sorry. But don't blame yourself. It's because of you that I can even get up in the morning and look in the mirror. You're the only good, pure thing I've had in my life..." He trailed off, unable to continue as his emotions had rose to the surface. He closed his eyes and whispered silently, to himself, I love you.

Minutes passed and Tseng continued to hold Aeris as her tears subsided. Apparently his little talk had done some good, which made him feel oddly as if the night hadn't been a total waste. There were few promises he could make her that he knew he could keep. One was that he'd always love her -- the other, a solemn promise that if Sephiroth ever laid hands on her again, if Aeris's dream indeed came to fruition, he'd put a bullet in the General's head himself, with or without Shinra's approval. These were things unspoken but Tseng got the feeling that in some way, Aeris knew and understood. She had always understood. Aeris shifted position to look up at him as she wiped her remaining tears away.

"Feeling better?" he asked and he was pleased when she nodded. "I'm sorry..."

"Quit apologizing. You don't have to," she said, her voice nasally hoarse from all the crying. "You know... that was really, really corny -- what you said."

Tseng laughed lightly; glad to see his sis was back again. "Did it work?"

"Yeah, a little bit."


Things were not perfect. Nor would they ever be. Aeris no longer felt the overwhelming despair that had nearly enveloped her but it was still there. She would have to be content to live at the moment. It was as simple as that. Strangely enough, Tseng had unknowingly given her the key to her eventual success. He had shown her the door where her power lay, in her life and those lives she touched. It was her connection to this world that made her a force to be reckoned with -- it gave her something to fight for and a reason to go on without fear. She laid her head on Tseng's shoulder, glad to accept the comfort found in the arms of her childhood friend.

"RAMUH'S ELECTRIC BALLS! GET A FUCKING ROOM!" Reno shouted in the loudest voice possible.

That broke the complete seriousness of the moment and whatever gravity there had been was dispelled. Tseng let Aeris go hurriedly, his knees popping as he got up in one swift movement. He helped Aeris up and as he did so he gave Reno a disapproving look that should have been enough to chide him into silence, but only served as fuel for his amusement. The red haired man laughed, dragging on his cigarette, a lopsided smile still on his face.

"Don't let me interrupt; I'll let you two crazy love birds alone. So, this means Aeris is off limits, right?"

Aeris and Tseng said, in unison: "Shut up, Reno."

Reno grinned, wiping away imaginary tears as he spoke. "Don't listen to the papers. I know you'll find a way to make it work. It's -- It's so beautiful."


"Damn, I wish I brought my camera! Because you know, black and white would really capture the moment just perfectly..."

With this comment, Aeris lost her temper and winged a small stone she'd scooped from the ground at Reno's head. It completely missed, flying wildly over his shoulder. Reno burst into wild gales of laughter, which served to irritate Aeris even more. His merriment stopped quite suddenly as another stone whipped out and struck him straight in the head. In surprise, the red haired Turk rubbed his forehead and looked over at Tseng, who stood there tossing another stone as if he had not a care in the world.

"That hurt, you know."

"Did it?" Tseng replied, still tossing the rock innocently. "Any more comments? No? Good. I think I've made myself clear before about Aeris and me--"

"Sweet! VICTORY IS MINE!" Reno hollered triumphantly, fisting his hands in the air. "So, Aeris, wanna go see Loveless with me Saturday?"

"Loveless... aren't tickets for that impossible to get? I thought there was a three year waiting period..."

"Hey, it's me," Reno answered smoothly.

Tseng snorted. "So who'd you sleep with?"

"No one." He went silent for a beat. "The Assistant Director." This garnered knowing looks from Tseng and Aeris. "Oh, don't give me that look! It's not what you think!"

Aeris snorted and Tseng outright laughed, muttering: "Oh, I'm suuuuuuure it's not."

"Hey! It's not! There was this free promotion thing for Shinra employees and--" They gave him another knowing look and it wasn't any funnier to him the second time around. Clearly, trying to explain was a waste of time, so he just gave up, sighing. "Okay, let's not split hairs on how I got them. I did and I want to take my Chica."

Aeris grinned. "Sure you don't want to take the Assistant Director?"

"She's not my girl."

"Neither am I."

"Is that a no?"

"You bet your red and spiky hair, it is."


"Leave her alone, Reno. No means no. Besides, according to Wutai tradition, you're supposed to ask her older brother for permission before dating a girl," Tseng explained, his face reflecting complete seriousness, belying the humor within his sparkling black eyes.

Aeris picked up on this and extended the joke, nodding. "He's right. Rules are rules."

"You're kidding, right? He's not even your real brother!" Reno whinged; he was unsure whether or not to believe either of them. "You're not kidding. Fine, can I go out with Aeris?"



"Because you're a punk."

Aeris couldn't hold it in any longer. The look on Reno's face at that last remark was too much. She burst out laughing. Tseng soon followed. After a moment or two of pouting, Reno started chuckling as well.

The three of them slowly made their way out the tiny church, teasing each other as they went. Memories were made that night, soon to become bittersweet reminders of lost youth. No matter how jaded, there is always innocence to be lost. Always those things we keep sacred and vaulted within our hearts, only to be stolen from us or defiled either by our own foolishness or the malicious intent of another. What a difference five years would make.

In the still dark, none of this mattered. All that did was the fleeting merriment of those who could be called friend. The two Turks had insisted upon walking Aeris home. She seemed flattered but also horribly embarrassed, and just a little reluctant. Tseng knew where she lived and informed her of it--he'd spent much of his time there as a child. If she was worried about them letting Shinra know of her whereabouts, she had no reason to worry. Tseng would never tell them. It was a matter of life and death for him.

With Sephiroth's departure her safety from him was at least somewhat assured. However, she wasn't safe from Hojo and he had thought of something that would keep her out of his hands, at least for a little while. The only hitch was, her mother had to sign off on the papers.

The reception from Elmyra once the little band reached her home was less than pleasant. Tseng couldn't blame her; the Turks had bad reputations besides the fact that they'd been hunting her daughter for the last year or more. Somehow, Aeris managed to smooth things over, it was her special talent and though the tension remained palpable, no plates were thrown.

Tseng outlined his plan and he could tell that Aeris and her mother didn't seem too enthused. Aeris's name was to be submitted to the pool of potential Turk recruits. He'd have to have Elmyra file it for him, as his name attached to it would draw too much attention. There was argument on the matter but Tseng was patient, answering all questions and doubts calmly. In the end they'd agreed, because it would require little in the way of commitment from either of them. In fact, their complete lack of interest might serve them better than if they wanted it.

Turks were normally hired because of their skill and prowess as fighters. A Turk was rarely hired because they wanted to be one; they were hired because they deserved to be one. The only exception had been Carl and by now, he'd been taken care of. The fact that Aeris didn't want to be a Turk would be to their advantage. Allowing the Turks to "pursue" her for her talent, yet allowing them to fail without censure.

It would also start the ball rolling on a voluminous ball of red tape that would stymie Hojo's efforts for quite some time. Tseng hoped at least five years or more. It'd give him time to think of a more permanent solution. What a difference five years would make. Quite a difference indeed.