Vincent's feet knew the path, fortunate when all his attention was focused on the shallowly breathing body he carried. He wrapped Sephiroth in his cloak, pinning the wing heavily against the edge to keep it off the ground. It must have been excruciating, cloth dragging against the diseased flesh, but Sephiroth didn't flinch, didn't seem to feel it.
The doors were only half-standing, swinging back easily when he shouldered them open. Relieved, Vincent ducked into shadows, letting cracked walls shield him from the outside world. Even here, he wanted to keep their presence unknown.
As he stepped forward, a concentrated shudder ran through Sephiroth's body, his breath rattling desperately. Vincent could feel the chill in the other man's skin.
Sephiroth was dying.
Vincent looked to water that now covered most of the church floor. It seemed the only hope he had, but all he knew was it banished Jenova cells. Only the Lifestream and Hojo knew how many of those Sephiroth carried.
Vincent lowered Sephiroth onto the small patch of flowers growing at the edge of the pool, twining in the shattered floorboards. He drew back his soiled cloak. Touching the wing's skin made something turn in his throat; the flesh felt as if it were barely clinging to frayed muscle.
Sephiroth whimpered as his back and wing touched the wooden boards. Black blood fell onto Aerith's flowers, which seemed to pale under the foul liquid.
Vincent looked across the water. "Aerith, please…I need your help."
He voice echoed off the water, and his heart sank. Sephiroth flinched, and Vincent had to catch his head so he wouldn't choke. His fingerprints smudged the dark blood his cheek.
Panic reared its head in Vincent's heart, but he thrust it away sharply. He wondered if he should say something else, what else he could possibly say… Or if he should have left her in peace, instead of bringing her killer to bleed on her flowers.
In the space between one heartbeat and the next, the church was gone. Vincent found himself kneeling on firm, warm earth, surrounded by pale flowers. All around the world was a soft white.
Gentle hands held his, both the clawed and not. He looked up, found his tongue. "Aerith…!"
Aerith beamed, green eyes, pink dress, everything just as he remembered her, her hands squeezing tight on his. He found himself smiling.
But Sephiroth was gone and Vincent stiffened. Vincent looked at her urgently. "Aerith, where is he?"
Her smile thinned. Concern overrode his guilt.
Without looking, Aerith gestured with a tilt of her head.
Vincent saw him, several feet away, lying in a crumpled heap. The ex-SOLDIER lay frightfully still, eyes closed. Aerith's flowers seemed to shrivel where they touched him, dead blossoms on his hands. He did not appear to be breathing.
Vincent stood, and Aerith released his hands as he rushed to his charge.
Sephiroth's skin was so cold, so unnaturally cold the shock made something more than simple skin recoil in Vincent. He slumped into Vincent's arms as he lifted him from the ground.
"He's at the threshold of death." Aerith spoke softly as she watched. "Neither alive nor dead. He won't wake here. By rights he should already be dead."
Vincent closed his eyes. Aerith's presence at his side warmed him, even as the dying man left his hands numb, as if any warmth that seeped from Vincent was lost somewhere and Vincent was caught in between. He looked up at Aerith sorrowfully.
He knew she'd heard him, but he said it again, all the same. "Aerith…please. I need your help. I don't know what's wrong."
Aerith looked a long while, and for the first time in his life Vincent was afraid of her. He had laid in her hands her own murderer. Could he blame her for the way she looked at Sephiroth now?
"He died," she murmured, curling her hands into fists. "When Cloud killed him…Sephiroth really died. Or, he should have." She glanced at Vincent, with something like a wince on her face. "But…he holds himself here by force of will. And so…he suffers."
Sephiroth breathed slowly.
This was worse, if that were possible, than he'd thought. The Lifestream was fighting Jenova with its full power within Sephiroth's body, without any regard for maintaining life.
Aerith bit her lip as Vincent looked up at her. "You saw him. This has to stop," he said finally. "Aerith…please."
If Sephiroth could keep himself alive for three days through sheer willpower, how long would it take before he finally died?
Aerith was still for a moment, indecisive. "I…" But then she offered Vincent a brave, grim smile. "We can try."
"Thank you," Vincent replied.
Aerith looked down at her feet. "Don't thank me yet," she said, curling her lower lip between her teeth. She almost glanced at Sephiroth, before abruptly looking away. "We have to go deeper."
Vincent shrugged. Lifting Sephiroth, he followed Aerith as she turned. Aerith walked by his side as they approached the white-blurred horizon, and Vincent watched her, because it was better than watching Sephiroth's deathly stillness. Despite himself, he was counting each slow breath.
As they walked, a strangely arched tree loomed suddenly in front of them, a gate or a doorway. As they drew closer, Vincent could see small purple fruits hanging on thin boughs around the arching trunk.
Beside it stood a man, black haired, broad shouldered, with a sword-harness and mako-blue eyes. He was tall and imposing even leaned against the tree, his feet set firmly amid the flowers. He wore as a SOLDIER first. Aerith blinked, taken aback, and hesitated. "Mr. Hewley…?"
The man inclined his head politely. "Miss Gainsborough." He glanced over his shoulder, through the tree arch. "I've come to stand witness."
Then Vincent could see beyond, through the arched, white-barked gate, where a figure stood in a field of flowers. The woman, tall and armored in gold, made the rest of this place seem dreamlike and faded. The flowers beneath her feet arched towards her, suffused with glowing green. As soon as he saw her, Vincent felt something within him grow still in awe.
Aerith squeezed Vincent's shoulder and walked beneath the tree-a towards the woman, entering her glow. The being, a goddess, Vincent's mind insisted, turned slowly to regard Aerith and the hair on the back of Vincent's neck stood up.
'Hewley' rose from his place, calling Vincent's attention by a glance at Sephiroth. He hesitated, jaw clenching, as he observed the stillness of the man Vincent carried.
Vincent straightened, and then the stranger met his gaze. "You're dressed as a SOLDIER," Vincent said.
The man nodded, the eocho of a wince in the movement. "I was. My name is Angeal Hewley. " He looked at Sephiroth again, and he swallowed. "Sephiroth and I…were friends…once, long ago."
It did not end well, that "long ago," Vincent saw. When he reached out a hesitant hand, Vincent did not stop him.
With a gentleness incongruous with his large hands, Angeal brushed Sephiroth's cheek with the back of his fingers and Vincent found he wished to believe this story of the past. That Sephiroth once had friends had never before crossed his mind.
He assumed Hewley was dead, then, but Vincent did not want to ask.
Suddenly a crack of sound echoed in Vincent's ears. For a moment, he saw Sephiroth's flesh again, not spirit and heard a hollow whimper, the desperate gasp of a dying man. Black blood stained Angeal's hand.
Then he saw spirit only again, still and silent as the dead. Angeal frowned, and Vincent realized what he'd just seen, just heard, was perceived by the other man as well.
Vincent glaced from one man to the other in astonishment. He'd moved! Did he…had that been because of Angeal?
Angeal grit his teeth, cupping Sephiroth's face in his hands and bending down to whisper something in his ear. Vincent wondered if Sephiroth could hear him.
But Sephiroth gave no further response. Seeing him like this, unmarked and yet dying all the same was worse than watching him bleed. Here beyond the reach of Jenova who doomed and sustained him, he was lifeless, senseless, too weary to even open his eyes.
"I will save you." Angeal vowed, stepping back to glance past the tree to where Aerith stood by the fearsome woman. No one seemed to be speaking, yet the intensity of their exchange, convinced Vincent much was being said in the silence.
Angeal turned without a word of explanation and walked under the arch as well. Angeal towered over Aerith as he approached, yet still the armored goddess seemed to dwarf him as he stood before her.
The woman turned her terrible eyes slowly to Angeal.
Vincent found this second silent exchange frustrating, feeling Sephiroth's dimming breaths. So he followed through the arch, bearing his dying charge. He would speak, if no one else would.
Aerith looked at him as he drew close, and Vincent saw the same uncertainty on her face as before. She seemed to debate coming to his side, but her hands clenched in the folds of her pink dress, and he realized suddenly she was afraid to get too close to Sephiroth, even harmless and helpless as he now was.
He couldn't really blame her.
Angeal had no such anxiety. He did not even look at Vincent, did not break gaze with the goddess, but he stepped to Vincent's side, tall and rooted to the ground, a clear show of support.
The woman watched him with serene, distant eyes, before turning her gaze to Vincent.
Vincent's spine went rigid, the hair on the back of his neck prickling and his grip on Sephiroth tightened. No threat drew this reaction from him, but rather an ancient might behind her calm face, that thrummed in every fiber of his being.
Aerith would not be his most difficult task.
Vincent drew a breath, his voice echoing in the quiet. "Please."
She looked at him for a long time. Then, Minerva lowered her eyes to Sephiroth, who shuddered.
"Why…do you want her to?" Aerith spoke in curiosity, not challenge.
Vincent bristled all the same. He'd been dreading that question since failing to put a bullet in Sephiroth's skull.
Vincent looked down at the dying man - the dead man, by now, probably - in his arms. Sephiroth's face was lined in a grimace. Then he1 gripped him, as if to shield him from the goddess' dispassionate eyes. "Because he doesn't deserve this. This is cruel."
Vincent met her gaze. He could not lie in this place but he couldn't force himself to say the rest, that he needed to try for her son's life.
The Goddess met his eyes and his heartbeat stilled, and Vincent felt certain she knew all he held back.
"His death serves nothing." he said. "And…I would see it end."
The Goddess' life brushed against Vincent with a strange warmth, combating the growing coldness in Sephiroth.
Angeal spoke. "Nothing will change if he dies again. Please, let him live."
Aerith's attention tingled on Vincent's skin. "But…is it worth the risk…to grant him life again, I mean?"
He could not forgive Sephiroth nor ask Aerith to forgive him. He could not forgive himself, or Hojo, for creating this wretched man, for letting him end up like this.
"If no one tries, it can never be worth the risk," he murmured at last, and looked up at Aerith.
Guilt did him no good, she'd told him once, holding his brass-clawed hand to prove she wasn't afraid. He was here now. That was most important. Aerith lowered her eyes to Sephiroth, the man who'd taken her life, who lay helpless in Vincent's arms. Vincent could see her bite her lip, take a deep breath.
He frowned. "If it comes to it, I will kill him myself."
The goddess turned to Aerith. Aerith bowed her head. "I trust Vincent." Vincent inclined his head. She trusted him more than he trusted himself.
Minerva smiled and turned her eyes to Angeal. Something of great weight was conveyed between goddess and man.
Angeal smiled, eyes flashing with resolve. "It can be done. I have faith in him."
The Goddess' face was serene she turned now to Vincent. She smiled, and gave a slow nod.
The Lifestream broke through the white, swallowing Vincent's perception. The clearing and the figures in it disappeared. Vincent felt a brief sensation of a strong hand squeezing his shoulder and Angeal's voice said, "Thank you," in his ear, but he could not see the man, only feel when he let go.
Time passed and the rushing slowed, then stilled back into a world of white. Vincent tried to regain his bearings, disoriented by endless whiteness around him. There was a breathlessness in his chest, as if this was a pause to recover before the remainder of the journey.
Someone was standing at his back, their hand twined gently with his claw. Vincent closed his eyes. "Aerith…"
She laughed. "I'm not angry, you know."
"Aerith…" But words failed him again. "Thank you."
She shrugged. "I think… I'm just worried for you."
He squeezed her hand. "I'll do what I have to. No one will get hurt," he promised. If he must, he would pull the trigger.
He just didn't how he'd admit to Lucrecia he'd shot her son.
Aerith's voice was gentle when she spoke. "Angeal…seems certain you'll be able to do something no one else could. He…he cares about Sephiroth a lot."
"He hasn't had many people…who cared about him, I think," Vincent replied.
Aerith nodded. "Then maybe this is what was meant to happen."
"Then it will be worth it," he promised grimly.
She squeezed his hand. "I hope it is."
Her fingers unthreaded from his, and he was alone. Vincent waited. It stood to reason this could take time.
Sephiroth appeared in front of him at last, still and silent as before, eyes closed. He hovered in the air, held by some invisible force. Vincent reached out as Sephiroth began to drift downward.
Then, as abruptly as before, the white faded.
Vincent blinked, startled by sudden blinding light reflected off water? He stood waist deep in water in the church. Flower petals floated around Sephiroth as he lay half submerged in his arms, hair drifting around them like silver roots.
Glowing green trails of light danced on the water's surface, as if scattered from the sunlight, and they came from the water into Sephiroth's body. The geostigma sores glowed, their blackness overtaken by piercing green. The wing, splayed out into the water, shed its feathers, surrounded by such light Vincent couldn't look at it.
The planet returned the life it had rightfully taken.
When the lights faded, Vincent lifted Sephiroth from the water, everything else momentarily forgotten. Cold and wet and heavy the ex-soldier slumped in his arms, still as the dead, soaking wet, water streaming from him freely, sloughing off black and red stains. Vincent stood there in the middle of Aerith's church, surrounded by flower petals on the water, waiting, his heart pounding.
A deep, steady breath broke the silence, and Sephiroth shifting as he exhaled. And then took another. And another.
Vincent walked them to the edge, stepping out onto the floorboards. His robe was soaked and heavy, as was Sephiroth's wing. Vincent realized his arms were trembling, and there at the flower-strewn borders of the healing spring he sat down, to listen to Sephiroth's even breaths. The ex-SOLDIER sighed and shifted in his sleep, settling against Vincent's chest, water dripping off his wing into Aerith's flowers.
Vincent knelt there, shivering with wet and cold and relief. He would have to go back soon, to figure out what he would do now. They'd catch cold being soaked like this. But, for now he stayed still, briefly at peace. Sephiroth was breathing. Sephiroth was alive.
"Thank you," he whispered to the silence, and had no doubt this time that he was heard.
A/N: Gasp! A chapter! D : How is this possible?
Happy Holidays, GNXmike! Told you I'd get it out in December. (shakes fist in triumph)
I am really sorry for being away so long, guys. But I'm back, and I've revised the first four chapters of this fic so I like them much better now. So basically the whole story is newly polished.
Minerva is hard to write! I hope she came across alright.
Thank you, my patient readers, for liking this story, and I'm very sorry for the lagtime.
You make me happy for reading