The official version of what happened to this fic involves ninjas and a fainting goat, and you know how they are, so I dare not say more.
Aerith slowly pulled her boots on and glanced reluctantly at her staff that was leaning the corner by the window. She had put this off long enough; the feeling of dread was only increasing with each day she waited. It would be a lot easier if she had been able to hear the planet properly, like her mother had. Ifalna would have known what to do... what the planet was trying to say... Aerith just had a general direction. It would have to do.
Pushing herself off the bed, she steeled herself and went to knock on Sephiroth and Cloud's door.
"Just a sec," Sephiroth called. Aerith heard a muttered, "Ah, fuck it," moments before the door was opened. "Oh, hey, Aerith. Sorry, we slept in a bit this morning. Cloud should be done in the shower pretty quick, if you don't mind waiting a few minutes. Come in."
Aerith glanced around the room, worried. The evidence was still all over the place. "You two had sex, didn't you?"
Sephiroth shrugged. "Yes, we didn't really get around to cleaning up, sorry."
Sephiroth shot her a look that could kill. "What?"
"Was he really ready? Are you sure?" Seeing Sephiroth's furious look, she quickly added, "Look, I know you would never purposefully hurt him, I'm just a bit worried that maybe it was a bit too soon. He's still—"
"We're both grown men, Aerith," Sephiroth spat out. "We don't need a babysitter to tell us when we can fuck. Do you really think that I don't know enough to make sure it's what he wants?"
The bathroom door opened while Sephiroth was talking and Cloud came out in a waft of steam. "G'morning, Aerith. I take it she knows?"
Aerith opened her mouth to speak, but Sephiroth cut her off. "Yes, she does."
"And she's worried?"
"Yes, she is."
Cloud let out a heavy sigh as he flopped down on the ottoman, rubbing his hair dry. "What Sephiroth said. I appreciate the concern, but it's not necessary. I know how to say 'no'."
"I know that, Cloud. I know that you would say 'no' if you felt you weren't ready, and that Sephiroth would listen. That's not why I'm worried," Aerith said, feeling a little frustrated that they were just brushing her off. "But what if you had had a panic attack in the middle of things? What if Jenova had attacked you? Did you guys plan for that at all?"
"We would have handled it like we always do," Sephiroth said grumpily. "We don't need a contingency plan for everything."
Cloud giggled into his hand. "We could, though, if it would make you happy. We can make a list. Number one: if Cloud starts trying to kill Sephiroth while they're fu—"
"It's not funny, Cloud," Aerith snapped.
"Well, what sort of plan were we supposed to make? I mean, I think we both knew that if something happened, the sex would stop and the problem would be dealt with."
"Fine, I guess whatever works for you. Look, the reason I came by was to tell you that I have to go."
"What? Aerith, I was just teasing, come on." Cloud dropped his towel, looking concerned.
"What's going on?" Sephiroth asked.
"I'm not sure, exactly, but the planet has been trying to tell me something for the past few days. I know that I need to go south, and that it's urgent."
"All right." Sephiroth stood and glanced around the room with a purpose. "Give us half-an-hour or so to get our things packed and we'll be ready to go."
Aerith's jaw dropped. "Just like that?"
"Of course, just like that," Cloud said quietly. "You said it's urgent."
"That's sweet of you guys, but you can't come with me."
"You expect us to let you go off in some random direction alone?" Sephiroth raised one eyebrow questioningly.
"Yes. I do. You know I can take care of myself, and you guys need to keep up your training. You know you've got to get in as much as you can before we go wherever we're going, Sephiroth. You can't deny that."
"Zack will kill me."
"Not if I kill him first for taking so long to send me a bloody message," Aerith said with a pained smile. She was still furious about that. "I'll deal with Zack."
Sephiroth hovered indecisively, looking back and forth between Cloud and Aerith. She could have giggled at the sight of Shin-Ra's top general at a loss over what to do.
"You can't be in two places at once," she said gently. "Cloud needs you here. I'll keep in touch with you and let you know how it's going. I promise."
"Don't do anything stupid," Sephiroth finally said. "Don't fight anything unless there's no other way, don't engage the clones, don't use your real name, just... don't get hurt."
"I won't, I promise." Aerith breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't quite understand why she wanted to go alone; it was just a sort of gut feeling that this was something that wasn't meant for humans.
Cloud and Sephiroth saw her off, with Cloud shouting a few cautionary words and wishing her luck as she clucked at Flora. She knew she had to go south, which meant crossing the marshes. Sephiroth had assured her that chocobos were faster than the Zoloms that lived there and she certainly hoped he was right. After seeing him fight them when they crossed the marshes the first time, she was certain she wouldn't be able to take one on alone.
"All right, Flora," she said, patting the chocobo's neck when they reached the area where the ground started getting soft beneath the bird's feet, "Are you ready to sprint?"
Flora made a warking sound and rattled the reins, ready to go. Aerith clucked once, and they were off like a shot; it barely felt like they were even touching the ground as Flora dashed over it. She saw a giant serpent's head rearing up in the distance and trembled. They could feel the vibrations and would be coming soon.
"Come on, Flora, you can do this." Aerith could feel the chocobo straining to keep up her pace and worried that they wouldn't be able to make the entire distance, but there was nowhere safe to stop in the marsh. Aerith chanced a glance behind them and saw a dark shadow following behind them. "Good girl, Flora, keep going," she encouraged her, trying to keep the fear out of her voice. The shadow was keeping pace with them, but it wasn't gaining on them at all. She faced forward again and ducked down, leaning in close to Flora's neck, hoping for a bit of extra speed. They were so close, just a little bit further.
The wind was forcing tears from Aerith's eyes, but she squinted and looked straight ahead anyways, trying to see how close they were. That was when she saw it. Coming straight at them was a second shadow, and they were headed directly for it. Aerith bit back a scream and grabbed hold of her staff. If she had to fight, she would fight and she would win. There was no other choice.
Seconds before Aerith was sure the serpent was about to strike, however, Flora made a gravity-defying leap into the air and soared over the snapping jaws of the Zolom. Aerith clung to her neck as they landed hard on firmer ground and made a final dash towards the safety of the mine entrance. She couldn't help but glance behind when Flora finally came to a stop and saw the circling shadows at the edge of the marsh, searching for their lost meal.
The mines were dark and damp and full of monsters, just like she remembered. It never took more than one Fire spell to kill them, fortunately. She wasn't able to ride Flora through the low-ceilinged tunnels, but the chocobo stuck comfortingly close to her as they made their way through. The monsters were easy enough to deal with, but it was still creepy. After one particular wrong turn that ended in a dead end, she found a small chest that held a couple potions and an ether.
"Not bad, hey, Flora?" she said cheerfully, holding up her loot to show the chocobo. "Maybe we've got adventurer blood in us after all." She changed her mind after being cornered by two dragon-like creatures and getting blasted by a sheet of flame. Flora had bravely occupied one of them while Aerith chugged a potion and took out the other dragon. "Maybe I'll stick with the doctor idea instead," she muttered as she checked Flora over for injuries. That seemed a lot more appealing than getting set on fire.
It was nearly dark by the time she reached the other side of the mine; there was a tower in the distance that Tseng had said had been taken over by anti-Shin-Ra rebels. No one had gotten around to dealing with the minor fort by the time Tseng had left them; hopefully that was still the case. She really hoped that they'd be willing to put her up for the night; sleeping on the ground again didn't appeal, despite having a warm chocobo to snuggle up to. At least in the mines she had been able to barricade herself in a room. Out here, there was nothing to protect them from wandering monsters. She swung up onto Flora's back and headed for the tower, hoping for the best, and planning for the worst.
Aerith ran her fingers through Flora's crest soothingly; apparently she wasn't too fond of water. She couldn't really blame her—this boat had definitely seen better days, if the constant sputtering of the engine was anything to go by.
"So what's a girl like you needing to go out to some abandoned island for?" the scruffy old man steering the boat asked.
"I'm looking for something," Aerith replied. Truth be told, she still had no clue what she was supposed to be doing, but after seeing the map at Fort Condor, she knew it would be on the island they were headed for.
"Humph, seems awfully vague to me. You should come back to the fort when you've found it. We could use someone with your skills."
Aerith made a sputtering sigh of a noise and rested her chin on her knees. Those people did need help; they were waging a war against Shin-Ra and they had no healers. "I would, but my friends are waiting for me. I think they're going to need me a lot more." She didn't know where they were going or what they were planning on doing, but they would need her. She just hoped that Tseng would be able to figure out where Hojo and Jenova were. All this not knowing was starting to get to her and she couldn't help but feel more than a little inadequate.
Sephiroth squinted at the mountains across from the marsh as they rode towards them. This wasn't a good day for it. The sun was too bright and... well, that was all he could think of, really, but that was enough. Besides, Cloud was still recovering. He pushed Cloud hard when they trained together, but he wasn't actively trying to kill him. This would be different.
"You don't have to do this today, you know. Or at all," he added in a quiet mutter.
"No, but today's as good a day as any. I'm ready." Cloud looked over at him and smiled confidently. "Don't worry."
"I know, it's just you're not going to have to fight anything like a Zolom, so—"
"You don't know that. You've got no clue what Hojo's cooking up in his vats. He's probably got things that are way worse than Zoloms, so I might as well start small." Cloud reined in his chocobo at the edge of the marsh and jumped down off its back, drawing his sword. "So you're going to let me do this, okay?"
"Okay," Sephiroth grumbled and swung off Yellow.
"I mean it. No helping me unless I specifically say 'help me'. Or if I'm dead. You can help then. But dead dead, not just knocked down or something."
"How about unconscious? I'd rather help you before you actually die. Because that's rather irreversible. You've got your materia equipped, right?"
Sephiroth sighed loud enough for Cloud to hear and held out a ring to him. "Here." The ring appeared to be bronze, though it reflected the light oddly and it had large red flames surrounding a tiny piece of materia as a decoration.
"What is it?" Cloud asked, studying the ring closely.
"A fire ring. Zoloms use an attack called Beta, which is basically setting you and everything around you on fire. The ring will nullify that."
"Isn't that cheating? I want to beat it on my own, not because I had a ring."
"Wear it," Sephiroth ordered. He wasn't going to let Cloud get turned into a crisp because of some arbitrary rules he had made up. "A large part of being a good fighter is using whatever you have in order to win. Never let yourself take unnecessary damage."
"And you just happened to have this lying around?"
Sephiroth shrugged. "I've got a lot of things I picked up over the years. Never know when they might come in handy, so I bring them with me on most missions. A ring doesn't take up much space. Wear it."
Cloud made a face, but tried the ring on until it fit on his right middle finger.
"Zoloms will try to knock you away from them if you start doing a lot of damage to them, so be prepared for that. The tail will swing to one side an—"
"I know, Sephiroth. We've gone over it all. I promise not to die, okay?"
"Okay." Sephiroth took a deep breath and tried to convince himself that Cloud would be all right. He was just being overprotective, as usual. He needed to stop that. It was time for Cloud to get back some more of the confidence he had lost in Nibelheim. But nothing was going to stop him from helping if it looked like the fight was going badly. "Good luck."
"Don't need your luck!" Cloud stood on his tiptoes and gave Sephiroth a quick peck. "You stay right here and watch the chocobos."
He watched Cloud jog over to the edge of the marsh. Cloud checked over his equipment, settled his sword in his hand, and stepped forward. Sephiroth clutched at Yellow's feathers as Cloud walked further into danger, making a conscious effort to remember to breathe. Cloud would be fine. He was strong, and he was capable. Zoloms were ants in Cloud's path.
He couldn't see it, but he could feel it coming. The subtle trembling of the ground gave it away. Could Cloud feel it? He wasn't sure—it may have been honed battle instincts, or it may have been something anyone could do, but he didn't want Cloud caught by surprise. He had to clamp his hand over his mouth to keep from calling out a warning. "He knows," he whispered to Yellow. "He's ready."
Cloud had taken up a defensive stance and was facing the direction the Zolom was coming from. He was too tense, though. He needed to relax a bit so he could react more easily when it appeared.
"Relax your muscles!" Sephiroth yelled, unable to keep quiet.
"Shut it!" Cloud yelled back.
At that moment, a great serpent's head burst from the ground and all thoughts regarding the state of Cloud's muscles fled Sephiroth's brain as Cloud sprang into action.
Cloud spat out a mouthful of marsh and readied himself as the Zolom reared back to prepare for another attack. He kept a careful eye on the snapping movements of its tail. It had tried to fling him away twice now—that had to mean he was doing well, though from the look of it, he had barely made a scratch on the giant snake.
The Zolom didn't move to strike, however, and Cloud was at a loss. He watched its head swaying above him and wondered what it could be doing. A second's glance at Sephiroth showed that he looked about the same—on the verge of panicking, but no more so than he had been earlier. The flames that erupted around him moments later and blocked out the sky served as a clue.
His first instinct was to panic. He wanted to run, but the flames licking at his skin didn't hurt, despite the heat he felt and the way the plants around him withered and charred. It wasn't cheating, he decided, to avoid something like that if at all possible. Ring or no, however, he was getting tired. The Zolom struck at him again immediately after the flames had died out and let out an indescribable noise when Cloud's sword cut deeply into its neck. Its tail swept at him as he was recovering his balance and he barely jumped in time. When he saw the tail coming towards him a second time, Cloud gave up on attacking its head and ran forward. It couldn't use that attack if he kept close to its body.
The ground squelched under his feet as he closed the distance between them and prepared to strike. The Zolom was backing up, but he was faster. Cloud struck, channelling all his remaining energy into four blows that fell rapidly and bit deep into the monster's flesh. The cuts he left on its body seemed to glow a pale yellow for a fraction of a second before fading. With one final swing, he saw the tense muscles of its body slacken and heard a final, ear-piercing scream.
The sound of it was still ringing through his ears while he stared dazedly up at the snake that seemed to be growing larger as it fell. His sword-arm was trembling and it felt like his knees would give out at any moment. "I killed it..." he murmured.
When the ground disappeared out from under him, he nearly lost his grip on his sword and panicked for half a moment before he realized that he had been picked up and was moving away from the Zolom. Seconds later, he was dropped unceremoniously on the hard ground outside the marsh.
"Ow." Cloud shook his head to clear it.
"All that trouble you went to to kill it and you thought you'd just let it fall on you?" Sephiroth's eyes flashed bright green in the sunlight, and Cloud could see a vein pulsing in his neck.
"I was going to move..." he began lamely.
Sephiroth stared at him for what seemed like an overly long time before raising his hand to his face and turning away with his shoulders shaking.
"Are you laughing at me?"
There was a loud snort and Sephiroth dropped his hand and burst into full-fledged laughter. "You were just staring at it! As it was falling towards you! What the hell were you thinking?"
Cloud felt his face flush; it hadn't seemed like that long. "I was—I mean—If you're mad at me, why are you laughing?"
Sephiroth turned back to him, dropped to his knees, and hugged him, still laughing. "I'm not mad at you, Cloud. I'm relieved and trying to recover from the scariest minutes of my life. And I'm very, very proud. You fought wonderfully. I'm also very confused about why you didn't move out of the way."
"It didn't seem like it was going to hit me anytime soon, and my muscles didn't seem to want to move. Did it really almost land on me?"
Sephiroth sat back on his knees and looked at him. "Yes, it really did, though I can't blame your muscles for not wanting to move. I've never seen anyone move as fast as you did for those last strikes. Do you know what you did?"
Cloud shook his head. "I just... I dunno. It felt strange. Thanks for hauling me out of the way."
Sephiroth gave a shake of his head and laughed again. "Come on." He held out his hand. "Let's go back to the ranch. You look like you need some food."