Chapter 14

Aerith sat in front of the fire, slowly brushing her hair, smiling slightly as the flames danced and the slight wisp of smoke curled upwards into the diamond studded night sky. For the most part, she was thinking- about Tifa, and Cloud, and their baby, Sora- he was so cute! And Vince and the rest of the gang... Cid had gotten with Shera- finally married her, and though they had their problems, they had a baby on the way, and Yuffie was apparently putting Wutai back together, and Nanaki was running Cosmo Canyon, and Barret and Marlene had gone back to North Corel, where the coal mine had been reopened and the town had returned to life, much the way Aerith herself had.

Her thoughts, however, were broken into by the sound of a PHS ringing. Blinking, she looked around for the source, and finally found it to be hers. Pulling it out of her pack, she looked at the ID... "Cloud...?" she asked as she answered it.


It wasn't Cloud. It was even better than Cloud.

"Seph!" Aerith breathed, joy nearly robbing her of all thought. "Wait- you're on Cloud's PHS!"

He coughed softly, "He's... letting me borrow it."

Relief flooded her and she fell back in her blankets, giggling madly, "I guess he found you first. We lose."

"Huh?" Sephiroth asked, sounding confused, which wasn't surprising, considering that he was indeed quite confused.

Sniffling her giggles down, Aerith replied, unable to stop grinning, "Vincent and I were racing Cloud to find you. He found you first, so he wins."

For a moment, Sephiroth was silent, figuring that one out, probably, but he finally grunted, "And what's his prize?" he asked.

This made Aerith pause, thinking about it. "I don't know," she answered, worry dragging the smile off her face, but she heard Sephiroth relating the news of Cloud's victory to someone else and next thing Aerith knew, Cloud answered.

"I want a kiss from you!" the blonde stated, "as my prize!"

Sephiroth's protest was heard in the background, and Aerith burst into a laugh, "Okay," she agreed, cheer returning at the apparent lack of enmity between the two swordsmen.

Reclaiming the PHS, Sephiroth replied, "fine," though he sounded hardly pleased by the prospect.

Rolling onto her stomach, Aerith propped herself up on her elbows, feet swaying in the air behind her, and out of the shadows, Vincent stepped, blinking at her in the firelight. "Oh, it'll be alright, Seph," she soothed, "'Cause Cloud'll have to come find me to claim his prize..."

"True," Sephiroth grumped, still out of sorts, "Where are you?"

"At the pass," Aerith replied, "We'll be heading down the other side of the mountains tomorrow."

Sephiroth gave a grunt, "We'll meet up by midday then," he replied.

Aerith's brows knitted slightly, "Midday? That's..."

"Are they walking?" Vincent asked, and Aerith relayed the question.

Gustily, Sephiroth sighed, "No, we've got a bird, but it's about useless. Cloud managed to ride his gold off a cliff."

"Trying to save YOUR sorry ass!" Cloud shouted, Aerith moved the PHS away from her ear, wincing. And Cloud hadn't even been holding the phone.

Heaving a sigh, Aerith shook her head a little, "Guess some things will never change," she said regretfully.

"Or perhaps they do," Sephiroth replied, "...they just take time... and a good bashing over the head." There was a hint of amusement in his voice at that.

Biting her lower lip, Aerith giggled, "Are you speaking from experience?" she asked, then changed her tone, "You're alright, right? Cloud didn't hurt you...?"

Immediately, Sephiroth replied, "No, Cloud hasn't. My own stupidity, I'll... tell you later." There was something in his voice, a hint of excitement, a hint of a secret grin that sent thrills though Aerith's body, even though his words implied that something bad had happened to him. She wanted to know, but... he wanted to keep his secrets. She'd let him.

Giggling softly once again, she looked over at Vincent, where he'd sat on his blankets, poking moodily at the fire with a stick, "Oh-! Vince," she said, "They've got a Chocobo, but it's apparently not very good. Cloud's gold got killed in an accident." Turning back to the phone, Aerith asked, "How'd he get it to walk over a cliff!"

"You'll have to ask him that," Sephiroth replied enigmatically. He took a breath, sounding like he was going to say something further, then sighed, apparently thinking better of it.

Shaking her head, Aerith ran her fingers through her hair, "No- tell me!" she begged.

The smile she could hear in his voice melted her heart, "Tomorrow," he replied. "Get some sleep."

"Don't hang up- I'll never sleep now!" Aerith whined, knew she was whining, and couldn't help it. Desperately, she clung to the sound of his voice, he did sound well, he sounded happy – or perhaps it was just his happiness at talking to her again.

Softly, he snorted at her, "Should I have not called you then, my pink cat?"

Aerith huffed, "I'm wearing green today, and you should have called me before this- you shouldn't have left in the first place! made me worry..."

"Among other things, so I heard," Sephiroth replied, voice dipping into a lower volume and quieter tones. "...I'm sorry," he whispered.

A smile pulled at her lips and she rolled onto her back, staring up at the sky, "You're forgiven, so long as you come tell me that in person."

"I will," he promised, without a second of hesitation, voice lifting back into normal speaking volume.

Taking a breath, Aerith smiled brightly again, "Can you see the stars?" she asked, rather suddenly.

A pause, then a grunt, "Yeah...?"

"They're so pretty here. The air's clear..."

Sephiroth gave another mutter, "Sort of cold," he replied.

Laughing softly, Aerith shifted, wiggling in her blankets to get comfortable. "A little," she agreed, "but nice. You'll keep me warm tomorrow, won't you?"

"Lost most of my clothes," Sephiroth replied sourly, "sort of need what I have." In the background, she could hear Cloud's snork of laughter and demand to know what the conversation was about. "None of your business," Sephiroth snapped, obviously embarrassed.

On her side of the conversation, Vincent was snickering. Aerith laughed as well, "You're about unromantic, Sephiroth," she accused.

"...oh... is that what you were..." He fell silent as Cloud laughed even harder.

Unexpectedly, Cloud spoke again, "Tell Vincent his is coming next," he said.

Aerith laughed, "I won't. Tifa already chewed him out. You just leave him alone, Cloud. Everything's alright now anyway."

Though hardly reassured, Cloud returned the PHS to Sephiroth with a grumble. After a second, Sephiroth muttered, "Battery is dying," which was almost enough to make Aerith burst into tears. "I'll see you tomorrow," he told her.

Putting on a smile, she gave a nod, even though he couldn't see it. "Tomorrow," she agreed. Taking a breath, she held the phone tightly, "I love you."

He paused, breath catching. "I... you too," he said, and tears trickled from the corners of her eyes, disappearing into her hair. "Tomorrow," he reminded. "Good night."

"Good night." Reluctantly, she ended the call and set the PHS down, lifting her hands to wipe her face.

Vincent shifted, a look of worry in his eyes, if not on his mouth, "Something wrong?"

Shaking her head, Aerith sat up and smiled, "He said... he said he loved me too," she explained, "Not in so many words, but I know that's what he meant." She pulled her knees against her chest, wrapping her arms around them. "I don't know how I'll get to sleep!" a soft laugh escaped her- how funny emotions were! Incongruously driven to tears and laughter at the same time, and yet, they both seemed like perfectly fine reactions to the situation. She would see him tomorrow! Had he taken care of himself? Or had he done what she'd done to herself?

Turning her hand over, Aerith inspected the scar on her wrist, drawing her finger across it. "No," she said softly, "it didn't help." A smile curved her lips though and she wiped away the last of her tears. Picking up her brush, she finished untangling her hair and braided it. Laying down, she curled up on her side and closed her eyes, firmly telling herself to go to sleep- so the day would come earlier and she could set out earlier in the morning.

Sephiroth lay back on the Chocobo blanket, which he was using for bedding, staring up at the stars past the haze of the banked campfire. "Can you see the stars?" she'd asked- he could now, and looked at them, knowing that she was looking at the same stars. If he could name them, he'd name them all Aerith. Just cause.

Taking a deep breath, he let it out. He was still fairly dirty, but Cloud's pushing him into that freezing cold stream earlier had done a lot for cleaning the majority of the blood off. Except Sephiroth had been fairly cold afterwards, and road dust stuck to his sopping wet pants more easily and by the time they'd reached the base of the mountains, his legs had been caked with gunk. The fact that he had no shoes, weapons, or much clothes only made the journey harder and longer. He'd tried to assist Cloud in a fight against one of the wild beasts of the region, but, apparently the Planet wasn't willing to forgive him enough to let him use Materia- and neither was Cloud. Despite the clowning around earlier, Cloud was still giving the other man some seriously dark and sidelong looks.

Like Sephiroth would screw this up?

Then again, he'd screwed up everything else in his life. Stayed when he should have left, left when he should have stayed... That was all his life had ever been. One mistake after another and no intention to stop, because he'd never learned from any of it, well this one he'd learned from. He'd learned that he was miserable without her, and that was the bottom line. It didn't matter if the planet never forgave him, whatever had possessed it to let Cloud's cure spells work was probably a fluke- and more than likely because it had known that Aerith was close and was going to be upset if she saw what state he'd been in.

He took another breath- "Damn it, would you just go to sleep?" Cloud grumped.

Sighing, Sephiroth sat up, propping himself on his elbow, about to make some snide comment, but closed his mouth and got up instead. "Where're you going?" Cloud asked, sitting up as well.

"To take a leak," Sephiroth replied. "I'll be back." Turning, he headed into the darkness, careful of his footing, as he couldn't see the sharp little rocks that were hidden in the carpet of grass. He'd heard that last mutter by Cloud, but at least the blonde hadn't gotten up to follow. Sephiroth was feeling restless and antsy, wishing desperately that it was morning- knew that it would come sooner if he were to just go to sleep... But sleep refused to come and could not be chased, so instead, he took a walk, heading out to the stream that had originally been Sephiroth's destination- before those villagers showed up. Now he knew that he wouldn't have made it in one day from where he'd been, but that hardly mattered, as he was here now, and would meet Aerith tomorrow and everything would be alright.

"I love you..." she'd said.

Sephiroth took a seat on the ground, and closed his eyes, a smile curling his lips. That was the second time she'd told him that! ...and all he'd been able to say was "you too" both times. He'd have to work on that- mostly it was the embarrassment of having people listening in on his conversations with her that stopped him from speaking what he really wanted to say. He'd show her, though. He'd do something spectacular and show her that he was sorry, and that he loved her, and that he wouldn't hurt her again.

He flopped out in the grass, curling up on his side, and watched the water sparkling in the starlight- watched the moon rise- and planned.

Aerith was tired- but far too excited for her own good. She shifted from one foot to the other as she stared out over the cliff that was on her left side, affording a beautiful view of a valley below- hardly hidden, but impossible to get to without some good climbing gear and the know-how, which was why it had remained untouched despite being so close to a path that was often used. Behind her was a sheer cliff, and though the path was not narrow, there was still only one way to go while on it, any other direction was blocked by common sense.

They'd stopped- and been so for the last hour, the possibility of meeting Sephiroth at noon was growing slim, and Aerith was irritated. Why did there have to be a rockslide blocking their path! It wasn't fair! She wanted to throw a hissyfit at it, but that would solve nothing, so Aerith stood, looking at the scenery and holding onto the reigns of her bird as Vincent scouted around for an alternate route.

Softly, the gold nudged her shoulder and Aerith reached back to pet it, looking back to reassure the bird, but stopped as her eyes fell upon the two figures that stood blocking the only escape she may have had. One was bulky, the other thin and quick- and neither of them going by the names of Vincent, Cloud, or Sephiroth. Hastily, Aerith looked around, only to find herself just as alone as she'd been before.

"Yep," commented the scrawny man, "Thas right, lil' gurl, ain no one 'round t' 'elp ya." The bulkier man started laughing, a thick stupid sounding laugh. He knew his job in this, and he was good at it. "So's jus 'and o'er yer pretties an we won' 'urt ya ...much."

The thick man chuckled again, "Cann-I? Cann-I?" he asked, excitedly, "I ain dun nuffin in... in..." his eyes glazed briefly.

Rounding on his partner, the scrawny man- with a profile like a hawk, dark ratty hair cut short with whatever implements were sharp enough to cut it, and a beard starting to grow in- slapped the bigger man's arm. "Shaddup! Yu'll git 'er, affer I 'ave my fun."

Pouting at first, the big man- who looked like a potato; face and body, brown skin and all- smiled, flashing a set of teeth that looked like they belonged in some other beast of burden's mouth and leered. "I'm gonna git it!" he crowed happily. "Shes got lottsa 'air. Dun mess i'tup, 'Ren, dun mess i'tup!"

"Shaddup!" the scrawny man shouted and started forward purposefully.

Aerith took a breath and screamed as loudly as she could. Startled, the Chocobo jerked the reigns from her hand, leaving a burn on her palm and took off, running towards the two dangerous men. The scrawny man threw himself aside and the bird dodged the thicker man before he could get his grubby paws on the poor animal.

Chuckling, the scrawny man, shook his hair from his eyes, "Good try, buh we took carra yer friend back roun th' bend. E' ain getting up anytime soon... or e'er."

Her hands went cold, body shaking as her heart pumped, "Yo-you- you killed... killed Vincent!" she whispered, taking a step back, her foot coming in contact with one of the rocks that blocked the path. Somewhere, on the other side was Cloud and Sephiroth, and... and she'd never see him. "What... what're you gonna do to me?"

Taking a breath, the man sauntered closer, "Wheell... since I'm bettin yer goods were on tha burd, I'll take whatcha got in yer pants an let George 'ere play wif yer 'air. ... 'E likes 'air- gits jealous o' yu, wimmin wif purty 'air." Behind him, 'George' chuckled, grinning, his beady eyes eager. "E gen'rally takes da 'ead wif it tho."

"Yah!" George agreed excitedly, clapping.

The gunshot echoed off the cliff and Aerith screamed, before she could put her hands over her head, though, her arm was grabbed. Opening her eyes, she looked down the barrel of a gun, the greasy bandit standing behind it. "Don' move!" the man shouted. "Pucher gun down an come out wif yer 'ands up- or da gurl gits it!"

Aerith couldn't see- couldn't take her eyes off the gun, though she desperately wanted to know what was going on. "Let her go," a voice said softly- a reassuring voice.

"Vincent!" Aerith gasped, then shut her mouth as the gun pressed against her forehead firmly. The man was reeling her in with his other arm, trying to get a better hold on her, and all Aerith could do was let him and hope for the best.

Vincent stared at the scene from his perch on the cliff above- he'd shot the larger of the two, but couldn't get a clear shot at the other. The bastard had put Aerith directly into his line of sight, and it was too late to move- he'd been spotted. Swallowing, Vincent inwardly screamed in frustration. Leave the girl alone for a second and... No, it wasn't her fault- it was his. And now he would have Aerith's death on his conscience and Cloud would come after him, and Sephiroth would come after him- and Tifa likely would too. Oh Planet!

Claw digging into the edge of the cliff, Vincent scowled and sat still. "Drop yer gun down!" the greasy thief and murderer shouted, yanking Aerith closer, his hand creeping up Aerith's arm, getting a better grip on her.

There was nothing he could do from here... nothing... Reluctantly, he held his gun out over the cliff, fingers refusing to let it go...

The scream still echoed in his ears as if it had shot directly into his brain. Ahead, there was a rockslide that covered the path, but Sephiroth paid it no heed, his bare feet pounding across the ground while Cloud desperately tried to keep up- Cloud didn't have quite as much reason to go running into danger as Sephiroth did- though Cloud cared for her, Cloud didn't love her in the same way and Cloud didn't have the certainty that he couldn't die even if he got his heart ripped out.

So- Sephiroth ran, ignoring the pain in his side, the pain in his legs and feet and hands as he scrambled up over the side of the rockslide, fighting the loose grit that sent him sliding back down to the bottom. Somehow, he continued to gain ground against the forces that opposed him. Damn gravity! Damn it to whatever torments the most demonic and twisted minds could think of!

His heart thundered in his chest- One beat, two...

Would you die for her?

Without hesitating, Sephiroth gasped, "Yes!"

Reaching the top, Sephiroth didn't stop to think- just scanned the scene: corpse on path- no threat, Vincent on cliff- no threat, bandit holding Aerith- threat! Launching himself down the steep slope of the rockslide, Sephiroth rode the avalanche he caused, feet bloody and bruised, he leapt when he reached the bottom, arms folding around Aerith.

A gunshot went off- and time slowed, giving Sephiroth the chance to really think for a moment. Aerith stared at his face in shock, tears in her luminescent green eyes- how lovely she looked, even when terrified. Pain impinged on his thoughts, something warm trailing down his back and Aerith reaching around behind him, but he had too much momentum still and his weight was carrying them towards the cliff's edge. Another gunshot went off, this time from above. Sephiroth spun, shoving Aerith away as his foot slipped over the edge of the cliff. "I love you," he told her, as if it were the last chance he would get to tell her that, and for all he knew, it was.

His last sight before the cliff's edge blocked his view was of the bandit- dead where he'd stood, Aerith on her side and sitting up, reaching for him, tears tracking clear streams through the dirt on her face. Cloud reaching the top of the rockslide, Vincent leaping down on the other side of the path... Aerith's shriek followed him down.

Would you live for her?

"If given the chance..."

Sephiroth closed his eyes, realizing that he'd probably jinxed himself. The bandit's bullet- meant for Aerith- had hit his heart. Darkness edged in on his mind.

Cloud pulled her back roughly from the edge, Vincent dashing up seconds later to assist, and together, they wrestled Aerith away from the cliff. It was like fighting the fury of sixteen angry wet cats. She clawed and bit, kicked and flailed with every ounce of her being, all the while shrieking at the top of her lungs with a volume and pitch to burst eardrums.

Dropping his sword, Cloud did the only thing he could think of to pin her down, and sat on her, straddling her stomach, hands holding her wrists with all his strength- even then, she nearly knocked him off. Her fury abated- and so suddenly that it left Cloud wondering if she'd somehow died.

A shivering breath was sucked in, and Aerith's berserker fit was officially over- the wail of loss that followed it was far more devastating than anything she'd done to the two men physically. Vincent shivered, and fell to his knees, head hanging. "-I- I-" he stammered, voice barely audible over Aerith's tears. "I went to ...look for another route- I..." his fingers curled into his palm, the metal claw grinding holes into the packed dirt of the path.

Aerith's wailing took on a new pitch- a deeper humm- and Vincent fell silent... Aerith fell silent, the sound drawing her attention away from herself, at least for a moment. Cloud looked up, and towards the cliff.

Light welled up from below, blue-green Lifestream swirling upwards and onto the edge of the cliff after. Cloud yelped, his head cracking against the ground as Aerith abruptly shoved him off, scrambled to her feet and ran towards the edge. She got past Vincent before he could do more than blink, but at the edge, she stumbled to a stop, her pink dress- the one she'd been wearing when Cloud had met her- fluttering around her shins. Her hair had gotten free of its braid, bits of dust and brush clinging to it as the Lifestream swirled around her boots, her hands, stained with Sephiroth's blood covering her mouth.

Cloud sat up, rubbing the back of his head, Vincent climbing to his feet as something shot upwards.

Black wings blotted out the sky briefly as the owner of them spread them wide, catching the wind briefly- then circled downwards. Bare feet touched the ground and in a flurry of black feathers, the wings disappeared but momentum carried him forward another few paces. Aerith, broken from her shock, ran forward, her small body slamming into his chest, arms wrapping around him, nails biting into the flesh of his back, but it was a good pain.

Closing his eyes, he put his own arms around her, supporting her as she began sobbing again. "You!" she yelled at him, "You-!"

"Forgive me," Sephiroth murmured into her hair, "I wasn't thinking."

Swallowing, Aerith lifted her head, meeting his eyes. "As long as you don't do that to me again!"

"I won't," he promised, lifting a hand to brush errant hair out of her face, tucking the tangled strands behind her ear.

Sniffling, Aerith smiled at him. "Then... you're forgiven."

...You're forgiven...