LES: Wow… it's been forever since I've updated this story. (And it actually has been.) But, just in the last few days, I've developed the urge to update this story again, just to give you all hope. In fact, I'm planning on re-playing Final Fantasy VII to get back into the mood. And… Aerith is making her official début into this story! Well… better late than never.

Chapter V: Those Left Behind

Elmyra sat at the table, watching her adopted daughter with concern. It had been four years, but she was yet to recover from the news that was brought to her flower-covered house by that kind-hearted Second Class SOLDIER all those years ago.

She knew what it was like to lose a loved one, and she did her best to comfort Aerith. But it was for naught. Aerith's normally bright and intelligent eyes were constantly shaded with an unspeakable sorrow. She didn't play with the Slum children anymore. She divided her time between being alone in her room, the old church, and selling flowers. Sometimes, the cycle was punctuated by a bout of letter-writing. Elmyra had lost track of the number of letters she had sent to that young man.

If only that SOLDIER, kind though he may be, had not delivered that news four years ago. Little did she know that Aerith's thoughts were also on that day.

Aerith remembered that day clearly, for it had been one of the worst days of her life; up there with the day that her mother had died.

Aerith had just gotten back from the church, dirty but really pleased. It was the time of the year for the most beautiful plant in her garden to begin to bloom. She had found the first blossom that very day.

The first bloom is always the most beautiful. Aerith thought to herself. Even though she doubted that Zack would appreciate it as much as she did, she was already planning to give him the blossom when he got back from his campaign. (Free of charge, of course.)

Aerith moved into the house of her mother, and froze at what she saw.

Sitting at the table with her mother was a SOLDIER, Second Class. He was in full uniform, helmet included.

"Mom? What's going on?" Aerith asked.

Her mother sighed, and the SOLDIER stood up and removed his helmet. "You're Aerith?" He asked, and the young woman nodded, setting down her garden supplies. "I am Kelsel, SOLDIER Second Class, and… a friend of Zack's."

"Zack?" Aerith asked. "Have you heard from him at all? I haven't heard from him in days, and when I call, it says that the line was disconnected…"

"I have… some news…" Kelsel sighed. "The Ancients have cursed me with this job, but I think you should know from someone who knew Zack rather than the media." Aerith noticed that his eyes were red, like he had spent the last few hours in tears.

"What happened?" Aerith asked, horrified to know the answer.

"Zack… was killed in action." Aerith gasped in horror. "General Sephiroth too. 'Killed in honorable battle', or so says the President." Kelsel sighed again. "I'm so sorry to tell you this. Zack was my friend… hell… he was a friend to every SOLDIER and infantryman out there. And I know how much he cared about you." He noticed that she was on the verge of tears, but was holding back. "Go ahead and cry." He said. "I'm SOLDIER, and I still cried."

Aerith burst into passionate tears and buried her face in her hands, barely managing to stay on her feet. "Zack!" She cried out with fresh and horrible pain.

"Aerith…" Elmyra tried to comfort her daughter, but it was much too early for comfort.

"I never even told him that I… I loved him!" Aerith cried.

Kelsel moved forward and pulled the woman who he believed was a kindred spirit into an embrace. "I'm sure that he knew." The SOLDIER said.

"He can't be gone!" Aerith cried into Kelsel's shoulder. "He just can't!"

Denial. The first stage of the grieving process. Followed by anger, acceptance, and then healing. All grieving had those four steps. The only difference is that some of the steps lasted longer for each individual person.

Kelsel's denial lasted only a few hours, and then went straight into anger. He was angry at Shinra, for sending Zack on the doomed mission to the Mako Reactor. Angry at himself, for somehow being unable to convince Zack not to go. Angry at the Gods, for taking away just a loyal friend during the prime of his life.

Aerith's pain was a hundred times worse than his. She had been in love with Zack. Kelsel loved Zack like a brother, but Aerith was in love with him. Slowly, he pulled away. "I'm sorry. If you ever want to talk about Zack…" He borrowed a pen and paper, and wrote down some numbers. "Call me anytime."

Aerith let out a small sob. "Okay."

Kelsel nodded, and then put back on his helmet and left.

The older woman glanced worriedly at her adopted daughter. "Aerith… I'm so sorry about Zack…" She said.

"Mom… I just… need to be alone for a while." Aerith said, her spirit broken, as she began to go to her room. Once the upstairs door was shut, she could hear Aerith sobbing loudly.

She sighed. She knew that there was nothing to do but wait for Aerith to recover from Zack's death in her own time. Rushing her recovery would not help in the slightest.

After her own husband had died, she had cried constantly for days, and cried herself to sleep every night for months. Even now, years later, she still often felt the urge to cry for his loss.

Aerith may not have been married to Zack, but she had an innocent and pure love for him. She loved him for who he was, through and through.

"Take as long as you need, dear." Elmyra said softly.

Little did Elmyra know then, that four years later, Aerith would still be in the denial process. Aerith was still trying to convince herself that Zack was not dead by continuing to write him letters.

The day after Kelsel's visit, President Shinra had personally announced to the public the deaths of SOLDIER General Sephiroth and SOLDIER First Class Zack Fair. The deaths of the two infantrymen who accompanied them on their mission was an after note.

Hearing the President calmly announce the death of her first true love was a fresh wound to Aerith's heart, and she cried more that day.

Most people mourned for the loss of General Sephiroth, but Zack was only mourned by people who knew what an extraordinary person he was. No one seemed to care about the dead infantrymen, so Aerith mourned for them too. Everyone deserved mourners, and she had more than enough grief to spare.

The day after was the public funeral for the four who lost their lives. Aerith had attended, dressed not in her usual cheerful white and pink, but black. She did still wear the ribbon that Zack bought for her.

"In honor of our first date." He had laughed as he bought it for her in the Slum's marketplace.

She watched, tears running down her face, as the President himself awarded all four of them posthumous Metals of Honor and Bravery. So, Zack, you've achieved your dream. Aerith thought. You've become a hero… but you had to die to achieve it.

Next, several Shinra suits and SOLDIERS spoke about the good qualities of Sephiroth, Zack, and the two infantrymen.

Sephiroth… how he was strong and loyal… and intelligent and great General who had not lost one SOLDIER under his command during his long career in Shinra.

Zack… his bravery and sense of honor. He had an inspiration to lower-ranking SOLDIERs. The speaker, probably Kelsel, recalled Zack's words of advice to every new recruit: "Embrace your dreams, and, whatever happens, protect your SOLDIER honor."

Next, a small amount of time was given to the two infantrymen. She recognized the name of one: Cloud Strife. Zack had told her about him. He was a friend of Zack's who desperately wanted to join the SOLDIER program. Zack described him as a young blonde with spiky hair that resembled the rear end of a Chocobo, thus earning him the nickname: 'Chocobo Head'.

So many dreams shattered and lost… and for what? Aerith thought to herself.

Apparently, they had been in Nibelheim, and an army of monsters had attacked. Sephiroth, Zack, and the two infantrymen fought against the monsters, but they had been cut down by overwhelming odds. Nibelheim had been burned to the ground. All for nothing.

The next day was the private funeral, which Kelsel had invited her to, but she did not attend. Her heart could not bear it.

She had barely been able to handle the weeks of discussion of what went wrong in what would be known as the Nibelheim Incident.

The same question was on everyone's mind. "How could a bunch of monsters overpower two First Class SOLDIERs, one of which was the greatest warrior alive?"

No one could figure out how it was possible.

A number of times Aerith had considered going to Gongaga to visit Zack's parents. But she had never worked up the courage. She didn't have the courage to face the vast blue sky without Zack at her side, and she didn't have the courage to meet his parents.

What could she possibly say to them? 'Hi, I'm Aerith. I'm a friend of Zack's from Midgar. I'm really sorry about your loss.' She didn't know them at all.

So she suffered and mourned alone, except for her adopted mother.

She closed her eyes and tried to listen to the voice of the planet, to see if she could find Zack's voice in the lifestream. But in four years, she hadn't found him. Of course, she had to consider the large number of souls floating around in the lifestream, but her powers were slipping away. She could not hear the planet so well in her grief.

All her life, she had been able to hear the soft, comforting voice of the planet. But now it was gone, and so was Zack.

"Where are you, Zack? Is something wrong? Were you not able to get back to the planet?" She asked hopelessly as more tears ran down her face.

Only the flowers in the church gave her some comfort. She sold every flower to Zack's memory and, once a year, on the day the most beautiful flower first bloomed, she would cut off the bloom and visit Zack's grave… his empty grave. She would kneel in front of his gravestone and slowly traced the letters of his name and military rank with her index finger.

"Zack…" She breathed. "I should have told you before… I love you." She laid the flower on his grave and gently sobbed. Four years later, and the pain of Zack's passing was still as fresh as the day Kelsel had told her of his death.

Little did she realize that she was being watched, by a man standing at his own grave.

Sephiroth had taken a quick pit-stop in Midgar before he headed to meet Zack in Gongaga, just to stand here… at his grave. Standing at one's own grave was surprisingly good at clearing one's mind, as it had cleared him of Jenova's madness that had plagued him four years ago in Nibelheim. He was hooded and cloaked so that no one would recognize him. All that could be seen of his face was the Mako glow of his eyes.

He watched Aerith's vigil at Zack's grave and realized that this must be the young woman that Zack always talked about.

Now Sephiroth was really in a dilemma. Dare he tell her that Zack was alive and well? Did Zack even want to reveal himself to her? If he was a monster, he would have to come to terms with himself before he was reunited with his old flame.

Sephiroth sighed and moved over to her. "You miss him?" He asked.

Aerith jumped slightly and turned around. "Who… who are you?"

"A friend of Zack's." Sephiroth said simply. "Are you Aerith?"

"How do you know that?" Aerith asked, a little nervous at his appearance.

"I am not going to hurt you." Sephiroth said. "Zack spoke of you a lot. Aerith: the most beautiful girl in Midgar."

"He… he said that about me? Really?" Aerith asked.

Sephiroth nodded. "He really cared about you, you know." He paused. "I saw a different side of Zack after he met you. He became… less impulsive and reckless… like he was actively making sure he could always come back to Midgar safely."

"But this time, he didn't."

"He tried. But he was too compassionate for his own good. He gave up a lot to save a friend from his own madness."

Aerith looked confused at his statement, but didn't question it. "I'll never see him again."

"You'll see him again… I swear." Sephiroth said, walking away.

"Wait!" Aerith called after him, and Sephiroth stopped. "I don't know your name."

Sephiroth sighed. "Monsters have no names." He unfurled his wing and took to the air, headed now for Gongaga.

Aerith stared in shock as the winged man departed. Zack had told her of two winged men: his old mentor Angeal, and Genesis. But Angeal, Zack had told her, had a white wing, and this man's wing was black, like…

"Genesis?" She asked in shock. She couldn't have been more wrong.

LES: Okay, I hope that was good enough for now. Who am I to deny the promptings of fate? LOL!