Chapter 13M (Mature)

Aeris felt a bit different now, brushing her hair halfheartedly in the mornings. She'd look at herself in the mirror and think that if a past version of herself could look at her now, it might not be so impressed. It might in fact, see her as a total stranger. She wondered if it was just part of growing up, though at seventeen, there was probably still quite a ways to go. Did she want to go all that way, when she was looking at herself now and wishing a bit for her old self? She thought of the hope in Cissnei's eyes, and how she felt a little...jealous, which seemed to be something she was feeling too often now.

Jealousy for the freedom to come and go she would think about every time Sephiroth left through the doors, or said he'd be gone awhile on a mission somewhere farther than she could even dream, jealousy for the people that walked around under the plate without tails in blue suits, or without a planetful of voices hanging over head.

She didn't think it when he'd looked into her eyes that night, while his fingers and lips were so convincing in the dark of his apartment, but she had really thought the trade of her body would be enough. That maybe if she let him take all he wanted that way, he'd stop asking her all the things she was afraid to answer. Opening herself to him seemed so much easier in comparison. When had she become jealous, wanton? When did she become comfortable lying to herself and other people, taking dangerous, stupid risks?

Aeris wove her braid tightly. Maybe it was the moment he'd walked through the door, and she looked at him and saw a million opportunities, something in him that she thought she would be able to touch. But somehow he had remained in so many ways this distant, untouchable man, while she had come totally undone in the process, to him and everyone around him. She was embarrassed now thinking about it, didn't know how she could ever look him in the eye again. It was a good thing then, that it wasn't even a possibility.

Even if- and she could admit to herself now, looking in the mirror, even if she loved him.

And she did it often. She looked in the mirror and said it out loud to see how it felt, to see if the next day would bring some sense and change it to just another lie she had told. But to say that she loved him always felt exactly right, no matter how many times she told herself that it was infatuation, that she was too young, that she didn't love him so much as the freedom he had allowed her.

And she had used him, but that wasn't it. She got the feeling that she would've loved him the same even if he wasn't as powerful as he was, just knowing him, holding his rough wielding hand and sharing with him an aloneness they both understood. She could see it now, how similar they were that way. And every day she regretted never realizing it before, she regretted not telling him, or believing that he'd understand and not turn his back on her. But there was also still hurt there too, for his betrayal of her trust. And she thought sometimes, as she declared to her mirror that she loved him, there was no way he could feel the same.

She remembered times she opened her heart to him and was met with immediate suspicion. She remembered the way he looked at her in the labs, like he was disgusted, wanted nothing more to do with her. She remembered admitting how much she needed him on the phone that time ago, and his stark silence. She wondered if she wasn't just a puzzle to him. She knew that Hojo had an agenda, but she often thought about his words. Especially his words about her father.

Aeris headed down the stairs, smiling weakly when Elmyra looked up from a pot of something she was stirring on the stove. They hadn't really talked much since the night she'd come home, and both she and her mother had tried to breach the topic, and failed. Aeris felt bad, knew Elmyra was aware of the drastic changes in her, and unsure how to go about addressing it. She certainly couldn't demand anything of her, and she never really had. There had always been a kind of distance between them because of her heritage, a subject that didn't often come up in their house, except subtly when Aeris mentioned in passing that she was going to the church.

Around when she was ten, the voices started to gain prominence, and she would get frequent headaches that Elmyra would help her with, but that was it. Now, Aeris only wondered how to overcome her own awkwardness to talk about Sephiroth, who had for so long been a secret she never intended on revealing. How did she talk about how it felt to be kissed and touched by him, when her mother thought he was a demon general, the reason she'd come home at two am in tears?

That certainly hadn't helped make a good impression.

How did she expect her mother to be a shoulder, when all the pain she felt now was just a consequence of her being hardheaded and willful?

"He's not an evil man." she said softly, and Elmyra stopped stirring, turned and looked at her. "And it was my fault, the whole thing-" Elmyra frowned.

"He is a grown man, Aeris."

"But...I knew what I was doing."

"No, I don't doubt that, but I'd expect he'd know well enough to leave you alone. If he cared for you, he would've done just that." Aeris had a very strange feeling of deja vu.

"He...cares for me." Aeris said, looking forward. But her uncertainty was all too apparent. He did care for her, at least until she'd pushed him away. But that was necessary. How could she feel sad that he hadn't even attempted to see her after what she'd done? Elmyra sighed.

"Desire and love are two different things," she seemed to be conscious that they had never talked like this, "even if one can seem like the other." she came forward and touched her cheek. "I am only an outsider. I've been young, I know that nothing I say can properly reflect what you two have only shared together, but my outside eye is good for seeing things objectively, and-" she shook her head. "I've never seen you so unhappy, you haven't been to your garden in weeks, the faith that I used to see-"

"It'll come back, I'm just feeling sorry for myself-"

"Is that it? I know that there are probably many things you haven't told me, and-" Elmyra's face dropped, " some things you probably never will, but I don't need to know any of it to see that this isn't good for you. Love doesn't feel like this, Aeris. It can be pain, and it can be work but when it takes good things away from you-it's not worth it anymore. You have to leave it. I—I don't want you seeing him anymore."
Aeris looked on hopelessly into her mother's face. They both seemed to recognize her silence as answer enough.

"But what if...I can't. What if I can't just leave it?" Aeris bit her lip. "There's so much I never got to tell him, so much time we should've had, and I just feel like...as long as I live, this won't be finished."
Elmyra paled just as the phone rang, and when she went to go get it, Aeris ran forward to the stove where the pot was bubbling over.

On the little transistor radio they kept in their kitchen, there was a grainy report of a soldier gone awol, but she couldn't catch the name. She lifted the pot off the fire, and looked through the kitchen window to where the dark haired Turk stood watching.

For three weeks, she'd spotted him around the house more frequently than she ever had. But only now did the fact that she could see him seem a bit strange. That had to be deliberate. Without putting on her sandals, she went slowly out of the door. The outside felt good the moment she could feel it on her face, and she was never more aware of how much time she'd spent lying around her dark house, doting.

She almost laughed as she opened her eyes to the artificial and filtered light. She took soft steps towards the back of the house, realizing the moment she came to stand in front of him that she had never actually set out to approach him before.

"It's strange, usually we just pretend that we don't see each other." She tried to smile, but didn't quite make it. She couldn't forget what it was like to have her wrist firmly in his grip, his quiet words on the things they had no choices in. In so many ways he was the most prominent face of her nightmare, but she found herself standing there, as if none of it had happened.

"I never pretended not to see you." He said. She blinked, straightened out herself out.

"I guess you're right." She put a hand against the back of the house.

"How are you." He asked in his flat tone, and she just looked at him, incredulous. She bit her lip, and looked away. Maybe she couldn't pretend. Just his polite conversation made her skin crawl, made her a bit upset that he could pretend so well.

"Why?" she asked in a little voice, which however little, still betrayed her suspicion. She felt sorry for it when she saw him recoil, clearly not expecting it. She thought it was strange he'd have any reaction at all.

"I don't want anything. Just to…give you this." He bent down and picked up a familiar rod out of the grass. She went still. It was the rod she'd dropped on the stairs, taken from Sephiroth's apartment.

She thought again of his hands on the open skin of her back, of swinging blindly and meeting the hard resistance of a Turk's jaw. She tried to keep her breath steady.

"That's not mine. I don't want it." She said a bit anxiously, and the Turk paused. She took a step back.

"I thought-"

"Why are you doing this?" she said, looking into his eyes. "Why are you here?" He seemed frozen then, before a shadow passed over his face.

"I thought you would want it back, or if you decide to venture outside again, you could use this." He said, not looking at her face. "Your perimeter has been opened, to the surrounding sectors." Her eyes widened, that was a bigger perimeter than she'd even had before. She felt an unexpected resentment. Was she supposed to be thankful, happy?

She entertained the idea of turning around and going back in the house. Instead she nodded and took the rod, feeling in it an odd familiarity. How often had she settled for something good enough, shut her mouth and just taken what she was given? Was it out of prudence or fear?

"Thankyou." she said softly, looking at his face.

And he was looking back at her, mouth opened as if he meant to say something. They stood in silence, and she felt the air change between them. Perhaps this was why they had never talked, because all they had to do was skirt around him being an unwanted guard, her being the thing he was guarding. But then, if anyone was already open to her secrets, it was him.

"Hojo knew my father." She said, and she knew she had his attention in a way she never had. She refused to look away from his eyes, wanted anything to give her some clue, even if he said nothing.

And he said nothing.

"So it's true." she said, swallowing.

"That was before my time." he started moving away then, and she grabbed onto his arm. It only seemed like a mistake the second he turned his eyes back to her, but she stood her ground. She was a bit discomfited to note that although he appeared thin, her hand was full of sinew. Was it the suit that disguised it?

"Please." she breathed, and he turned to her, sighed. "I need to know." She said, surprised that he hadn't yet tried to move her hand. She took it away on her own, when he turned back around.

"It is not my place to-" he began and Aeris breathed out.

"Oh, places!" he looked at her, shocked by her outburst, "Does it really matter what our places are? Why should we be where we ought to be, when where we ought to be is really nowhere in particular?" She bit her lip. "I'd give anything just to be somewhere, to know something real... even if it's terrible."

The Turk frowned.

"Everyone says that. Until they find themselves in terrible places."

"Well, nothing can be more terrible than this." she said, going rigid when he grabbed her around the shoulders, pushed her back against the house, and she looked from his hands to his face. She was frightened because he had never touched her if it wasn't warranted, didn't even talk to her really, unless it was strictly necessary, or if she approached him dumbly like she had now.

"Don't be ungrateful." he said, and somewhere close just above the plate a cloud shifted, and shaded them over. "You've only begun to see what terror is, and the moment you were close to it you opted instead to be smart and protect yourself. Just as you should have. You'd be surprised how many people long to be nowhere, instead of in the places they find themselves. We're in our places because without them there would be chaos, people who destroy and take what they want without the threat of consequence." She looked at him, and imagined there was no other time she had seen him talk as if he had a heart.

"You should be able to take what you want." she said realizing that now, she really did believe that. It seemed so long ago that Sephiroth had said that to her. The Turk's eyes stayed trained on her face.

"And if I want something that I shouldn't?" he said, face dark.

"We always do, though." she said, "Just like...men will keep destroying things, taking, even if the consequence is bigger than they are. Chaos is all around us, and we're just pretending to keep it contained." She felt a strange pull in her heart, an unusual synchrony of the constant chatter of voices in her head. "And I think soon, we'll see that chaos lives in even the highest order, in the hearts of powerful men who deny it, pretend control over it, until it consumes them, and as a consequence, everyone else."

The Turk stepped back away from her, as if she had sprouted another head. The synchrony dissipated too, just as the remnant of a breeze was sweeping in. From where she stood, she could smell something burning. She remembered the pot she had on the stove.

"I have to go." she said, and the Turk watched her until the door was shut behind her.

Later, after she and her mother had cleared the dishes from the table, Aeris thought of her flowers. She went upstairs to brush her hair, but found all she could do was look at the mirror and try not to say familiar words. She went to her closet and spun through the rack for a long time before she realized she was looking for a dress she didn't have any more.

She had left it in the labs, as she had left so many things. She took the stolen staff and went quietly down the stairs, didn't realize her intention until she found herself looking into her mother's sad, tired eyes.

"I'm going to the church." she said as she reached the bottom of the stairs. Elmyra folded her hands together, looked passed her and then to her own hands.

"Be careful." she said and Aeris nodded, stepped into her shoes.

"I'll be back soon." she said, heading out of the door. She looked back once, and Elmyra hadn't moved.

The way to the church seemed so much longer for all the time she had stayed away, and all the certainty she had that Sephiroth would not be there. If there were eyes watching her on the way there, she didn't notice them, for all she could think of was feeling the emptiness of her church.

But when she approached the doors, there was someone standing there. Not Sephiroth, but the very first SOLDIER she had ever met. She couldn't smile, even though he was, or rather making a valiant attempt to. It was worse to see the smile not reach his eyes, odd.

"Zack." she said, feeling as if her call to him was too soft, swallowed entirely by the night looming large overhead. A streetlight came on and she noticed there was a scar on his face that she was certain hadn't been there before.

She went to open the church doors, but Zack grabbed her hands before she could.

"Wait," he said, looking into her eyes, "How've you been?" Aeris wondered how many times she would be asked that today.

"Good, I guess...I have a lot to be thankful for." she said, though it seemed more something she was supposed to say than something she really meant. "Were you...waiting for me here?"

"No." he paused, let go of her hands. "Yes." She looked at him.

"Why?"

"Don't know really, you'd think a First class SOLDIER would have all this really important world saving to do..." her eyes widened.

"Oh! Congratulations," she said going forward to hug him, but it was only when she had her arms around him and his arms came up strong and squeezing, that it felt very awkward. Separating, they stood further apart than they had been standing before.

She looked down, certain her guilt was totally irrational. But there were times she would look at his face, hear something he said and feel as if they were connected in a way they had no right to be. After all, all he'd done was fall through her ceiling, really, she didn't know him at all.

But she felt like she did sometimes, when he was standing around and inside her church. It was weird, like she was remembering something that hadn't actually happened. Like when you smelled cooking, laundry or perfume and struggled to match it to a distant face or happening.

"I wanted to see how you were." he said voice low.

"I'm..." she blinked, could not even believe the renewed heat behind her eyes. "I told you already." she said, looking away.

"I'm sorry." he said.

"Don't be. I didn't mean to-"

"No, not that. I just...feel like a total idiot, for not noticing sooner that you were in trouble that night. I mean, shit, it was right there on your face, and when I introduced Cissnei to you, I didn't think that-" He shook his head.

"You couldn't have known." Aeris said, wrapping her arms around herself. Zack was silent for a few beats.

"I don't know." he shifted against the door. "I don't know what I know anymore. And the people who I thought I knew, they're just...monsters, and people who follow orders without caring about who it hurts."

Aeris blinked, unsure of what to say.

"Pink looks good on you." he said with a half smile. She looked down at her dress.

"I meant to find a way to give it back." she said, thinking of Cissnei's large brown eyes, soft hands.

"It's fine, pretty sure Cissnei wanted you to keep it." he said in a rough voice.

"How is she?" she asked. Zack frowned, turned out of the light of the street lamp.

"Don't know, haven't talked to her in a while." he shrugged. Aeris had the distinct feeling he wasn't saying something.

"Is she alright?" Zack was silent. "Zack?"

"Yeah, the Turks... just lost one of their own. He was in the hospital for weeks, just sufferin.' it's a good thing he's not anymore." He sighed, "SOLDIER too. They're dropping like flies." Aeris felt the blood draining from her face. "I'm sure you already heard about Genesis."

"No." she said, thinking of the redheaded soldier, his sneer, his perceptive bright eyes.

"He went AWOL some weeks ago, and Angeal-" He stopped, shut his eyes. She could nearly see it on him, the death. He looked more like a soldier than he ever had. "But enough about that, Ciss told me a while back that Tseng made it so that you could go more places?"

Aeris felt a bit embarrassed to hear him talk about it, but paused at the name.

"Tseng?"

"Yeah, Wutain guy, never smiles?" Zack said, and Aeris stilled, realizing she had let so much time pass by without even learning his name. He was the one who opened her perimeter? She wondered why he would bother doing something like that.

"Oh, yes, I saw him today. I never know what to say to him."

"That makes two of us, though Turks and SOLDIERs never really get along that well, and now-" he stopped himself, and Aeris frowned. Again, there was something she was sure he wasn't saying.

"Maybe I should go." he said after a while of silence.

"No don't." she said, surprising herself. He stayed where he was, and she tried to find something to say that wasn't about Sephiroth, tried to ignore the voice in her head that told her she was pathetic for not being able to be alone. "You know everything about me?" she asked.

"No, not really. Ciss wouldn't tell me anything and Sephiroth-" Aeris shut her eyes, and Zack stopped, "shit, I'm just making things worse aren't I? I'll-"

"No, I...how is he?" she asked breathlessly, as if they both didn't know the question would eventually come up, feeling naked when he looked at her with eyes too full for her to pick any one thing out. She waited with bated breath, didn't even know if her heart was beating. Zack swallowed.

"A lot's happened Aeris." he said bowing his head.

"I know."

"No, I mean bigger than us, it's-" Zack stopped.

"What aren't you saying?"

"Aeris-"

"I can handle it." she said softly. "I can." Zack looked passed her.

"Sephiroth, he's...I don't know. He wasn't easy to read before, but now I don't know what to think. He'll say things, or he'll get this look in his eye, like he doesn't care about anything. But I don't know if it's because I don't really know him that well, or if I should be doing something. When-" Zack paused. "When Angeal was around, I could tell that he was worried, you know. But from the outside it just looks like normal Sephiroth, it's not like was ever a big bag of sunshine." Zack laughed uneasily and ran a hand through his hair. "And with Genesis and Angeal and the Turks, I'm kind of worried too."

"The Turks?"

"Yeah." Zack said, and Aeris could tell he was reluctant.

"What happened?" She asked, but she could see from Zack's face that maybe it wasn't something she wanted to hear, maybe she should be happy knowing what little she did. But was she ever? "Zack?" she prompted.

"The Turk they lost this week, Sephiroth...he was the one who-" Aeris paled, thought of the blood on his sword that night.

"Was it that night?" she asked, but she didn't need him to say yes, just to look at his face, and think back to the wild look in Sephiroth's eyes. "Oh Gaia." she breathed, covered her mouth. It was strange. She knew Sephiroth had made a career of death, was accustomed to it in a way any veteran soldier was, but just this one seemed worse, seemed real for the closeness of it.

She covered her face, felt childish in her antics, but couldn't look at him. She thought of Genesis' words, his smile when he told her she had yet to see what Sephiroth was capable of, Sephiroth's morbid stories, the times he claimed she didn't really know him either.

For the first time, looking into Zack's bright eyes, she considered the fact that Sephiroth might be exactly as he was painted in the newspapers, exactly like the cruel caricature that inhabited his war stories. Would it be dishonest of her to claim he was otherwise, unfair to him? Would it be hypocritical of her to be repulsed, when for so long she had begged to see more of him?

It wasn't if her secrets had been pleasant ones to find out.

"Hey, don't-" Zack put a careful hand on her shoulder, "don't do that." She looked at him, face pale.

"Don't you see? If he hadn't been trying to find me, none of it would've happened, it's...my fault." she said, thinking her hands might as well have been Sephiroth's.

"Aeris, there's no way-"

"No, I knew that there could be consequences, but it didn't matter, it is, I'm responsible for it too." she shook her head, thought about Tseng and how he had brought back the staff for her, opened her perimeter, even though one of his own was dead because of her. She was ungrateful. "I yelled at him..." she said quietly. "I always do that, do things and says things, even if I don't know the half of it. I just think I know..."

Zack reached forward to touch her cheek but then stopped himself.

"No, you were just...thinking with your heart." he smiled. "My mom used to say that sometimes, when I'd get in trouble." he laughed. "And I'd always get in trouble."

"Really?" Even to her own ears, her voice sounded young.

"Yeah." he said, breathing out, and his breath smelled like Christmas, like peppermint. She watched him, uncertain of when they had closed the awkward gap between them.

It occurred to her that maybe he was too close, and she felt that old guilt again, tempered in that easy familiarity she couldn't place. But she knew him, his dark skin, the blue blueness of his eyes which went brighter still, the way she now knew men's eyes would do when they thought about some girls, about touching them or kissing them.

And she was full of fear and reservation when he kissed her with dry lips, thinking of Sephiroth emerging form the dark, and that he was only the second man to kiss her, Sephiroth being the first. She felt that it was bad timing, that she should be angry he would try something like that when things were the way they were, she thought it odd he hadn't tried it before.

But mostly, kissing him made her sad, because she couldn't bring herself to really kiss him back. It was Sephiroth's kisses, full of force and flickering control that she needed, and she didn't really want anything else, even though she could feel in Zack something better for her, more appropriate.

"I'm sorry." he said, and she had the feeling that he really was, that when he'd said it before that was what he really meant. She nodded, and turned to the doors of her church.

He waited by her side when she opened them, and maybe, she realized, he meant he was sorry for what lay in front of her. Even though she was certain he had nothing to do with it.

Before her, her garden lay in ashes, and beyond that was Sephiroth, standing by the windows. And he was in full armor, the way she had never seen him. Even as they stood there, he didn't turn around, though Aeris was certain he knew they were there, if he didn't hear their heartbeats, then he must've heard their words on the other side of the door. If he hadn't heard that, then she knew he felt her as she felt him now as potently as the first time, with all that wonder and fear.

But there was something different now, and when she turned to Zack and asked him to leave, she was confident he would, even though he looked as though he might not, might stay and be a hero, and make things worse. But she wasn't really afraid, even if everything around her told her she should be. Familiar territory. She was confident too, that they would come to some end tonight, good or bad.

After Zack's footsteps had long faded and she had gone on quiet feet to close the doors, she settled against them. She watched him stand in silence by the windows, where his hair caught the light like a long wedding veil.

He didn't visit her in full armor, there was usually no need. But now he had on the shoulder guards, the long boots, the coat she'd only seen him in a few times. He looked like an older version of the image on the news after the victory in Wutai. And his sword was in his hand, not inside the sheathe.

Warily, she approached him through the dust of her flowers, unable to cry or scream for the total fullness she felt at the sight of it, the sight of him.

"Why did you do this?" she asked, received no answer. She held her staff close to her.

Of all the things she imagined he would do, this wasn't one of them. She looked all around her, and imagined he had always gotten the things he wanted.

"Sephiroth." she said, with as much force as she could muster. Right now, she didn't feel that need to be close to him, just to understand. And she wanted to understand, not to be afraid but-his silence was not one of the tacit General she knew, but one she could feel on her skin like the touch of his naked hand, pressing soft and then hard, impossible to to anticipate. She had a headache.

"I wanted to know how it felt to kill something beautiful and helpless, in preparation." he said, quietly. "I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would."

He turned and gave her a sideways glance, his eye an acid green, burning its color outwards into the dark, onto his cheek.

"Because you're not-"

"How would you know what I'm not?" he asked softly, turning fully from the window. Her breath caught because he was beautiful. As if they both didn't know, but it had been so long. And he was right, how would she know? If anything, the past hour should have taught her how much she didn't know.

"I wouldn't." she said, looking up at his face.

"No, you wouldn't. You would rather dream I'm something else, and claim surprise when you are wrong."

"I'm...not surprised." she said, which made her pause because she hadn't planned to say it, didn't know it, until it was out of her mouth. He raised an eyebrow.

"Don't lie to me, you've done enough of that." He looked around. "Even this garden of yours, lies. For where it is, it is rare and beautiful. But if you kill it, it is dirt. Just as common as its origin, just as meaningless. Look at how ugly it is now."

She bit her lip, knew he was trying to hurt her.

"No, I knew you could be cruel, that war was a part of you, I just...know there's more."

"Oh, and that was the more you wanted to see?" He smiled. "And what if it isn't there Cetra-" She stilled, not used to hearing it said out loud like that, and with such vitriol. But she felt herself getting angry too, maybe with the help of a chorus in her head, screaming. For as much as she still didn't know about it, she was never going to be ashamed of her heritage, or ashamed of hard decisions she made that were for the best. She suddenly felt that he was petty and cruel, selfish for thinking he was the only one who was struggling with it.

"Don't call me-"

"But that is what you are isn't it." he said, raising his voice. She felt her breath coming fast.

"And you want to punish me for it? Or is it because I denied you something you thought was yours? I did what was necessary, I...won't apologize for it. "

Sephiroth frowned. She realized then that he hadn't expected her to talk back like that, that he was playing a game of terror, and had expected her to play in accordance with the rules. But she refused to be intimidated into silence, wondered how he could think she would be after all the rules they'd broken together.

"I also did what was necessary."

Aeris stared at him, stirred up a cloud of flowerdust with the staff.

"This wasn't necessary." she said quietly. She felt sick, looking at him, wanted for the first time to grab back her heart and run away with it. "Killing that Turk wasn't necessary."

He moved forward, wrenched the staff from her hands and threw it down. His closeness did make her heart jump, in fear, in longing for memories past. She could smell that potent nothing smell of his she had noticed in the beginning, and she shocked herself in how much she wanted to pull him close for more. She looked up at him, and he was that much taller she thought about rising up to her toes to say something else exactly to his face, but probably just as an excuse to kiss him.

"What do you know about what is necessary? You are only a child, you know nothing of war-"t

"War?" she breathed hotly, "This wasn't war it was..." she left off, and he laughed outright.

"Love?" he said for her, eyes full of laughter, "Really, so fast?"

"I..." It was humiliating, that he would laugh, know exactly what she hadn't meant to say. She wished for her mirror.

"Did you," he narrowed his eyes, "did you think that I would reciprocate?" She tried to moved away but he grabbed her wrists. "Tell me you love me, girl." she didn't know this man.

A silence passed in which she just kept her mouth closed, avoided his eyes. He frowned.

"You are naive to think that would even be a possibility. I would have to be even more of a fool than I am now to believe that the charity you have so selflessly given in the form of your heart is anything other than th-"

"Charity?" she breathed. Did he really believe that? She searched for the right words. If anything his love had been charitable. He could've had anyone, decided earlier she wasn't worth the trouble. That was always what she'd feared. "It wasn't like that, I only wanted-"

"It doesn't matter what you want." he said, looking down at her. "What you wanted was what I am not, and when you realized this, you thought it better to run and hide in the 'protection' of your Turks, when you became bored pretending to tame the beast-"

"What?" she stilled. "I never pretended, never. Even now when all I want is to pretend that everything you've done is enough to make me hate you."

"Why don't you hate me then," he said, "Because I hate you," he said and she closed her eyes against it, as if she'd been physically hit, "more than I've hated anything, more than I hate myself for enjoying nothing in your absence, for listening to your pathetic phone message as many times as I could play it," she looked at him, wide-eyed, "for burning your flowers and hoping that you would cry or choke on the ash and die if you won't be mine. I hate you, for being so foolish as to think that you still aren't mine, that you could ever leave me, and that I wouldn't kill and paint the walls of your church with the blood of a million more Turks if it meant I could have what is mine." She wondered if she was just imagining the hard pounding of his heart, the tremor around his eyes and mouth, the way she felt like she wasn't breathing, when he inhaled and looked away from her.

"And I...hate you," he began again, "for being fool enough to love, even though I do things like these, and wonder how it is you think war and love are two different things, when the only difference in love is that you can die over and over again, without ever claiming a victory."

His hand shook around her wrists, and he took it away. He went to turn completely away, but she put her hand up to his cheek. she wondered for a second if he would force her hand away, but he didn't. He turned back to look at her with a blank expression. It was unnerving that she could see so much seething there, and then a second later there would be nothing.

"Sephiroth." she said, couldn't really think of anything else to say, except that maybe she was unrepentantly hardheaded, gaga for not turning and leaving through the church doors. She supposed she deserved whatever pain brought her way, if after such an extensive list of reasons he hated her, all she could hear was something that was other than what he said, undertones of something else that rang of the opposite spirit. She wanted to laugh, cry, for how morbid he had made it anyway, wanted to stop the unprecedented uproar in her head, and any whisperings that told her she was telling stories to herself.

"Then if that's what it is...I'll die." she said, and the blankness of his expression was breaking, "Even if victory seems too far away, too impossible." He looked at her then, like he had in the beginning, as if she still had that inscrutable thing about her, that faith he wanted for himself. She looked back into his green eyes, and when he reached forward to wipe her tears away she blinked, not even aware she'd been crying. If anything they were happy tears, because she could feel her faith renewed but deeper inside she was sad, though she couldn't figure why.

She shook the feeling entirely when he leaned forward to kiss her the way the light in his eyes said he would. And she had known his kisses so many times before, but she felt a desperation there that had never been there before, felt in the force of his kiss, that time was finite, moving quickly along passed the drama of theirs that was unimportant relative to the planet.

When they came apart, she could feel his question, but also his surprise in her anticipation of him, for she had already begun to undress herself, made up her mind that if she was going to give it to anyone it was going to be him.

But he held her hand still, and she looked up at him, felt silly for rushing when all in his hands and mouth was languor, nothing recognizing what was outside the church waiting for them. Consequence, disapproval and pain seemed like nothing compared to the way it felt to be laid down in the ashes of her own garden, and touched all over by the same hands that had set the fire.

It was nothing compared the low sounds he made when she found the nerve to touch him back, to taste him with bold lips, and she felt powerful then, for the sweet grimace she put on his face, the way she kissed him after and she could feel his breath still short, uneven.

But what he smelled like really, was fire. Smoke. Louder than the salt smell of him she carried in her hair, than the sweet dead smell of flowers underneath them, coming up in the air when they moved against each other, with excruciating ginger, slowness. She could've been dying the way it felt to be with him, slowly burning away.

She listened to his voice rough in her ear, saying that she belonged to him, until she was saying it too, covered entirely by his heavy weight, and long hair that stuck everywhere, twisted like tinsel into her hair, tickled her neck, thighs, face.

And then she felt herself pull violently taut, heard him distantly say her name, voice faint as if she were settling into a dream without him. But it was dark all around her, like his eyes and the church. She might've screamed, she didn't know, just that her face probably looked very funny, and the best piece of pie she'd ever had, the most deeply colored, most lush group of tulips she'd ever brought up were absolutely nothing in comparison.

Blinking, and taking the first breath in what seemed like ages, she knew she was ruined.

She looked over to where Sephiroth had settled beside her, peered at him through her hair, though she couldn't remember when he had taken it out. He watched her, pulled her over by her little waist, hair dragging across the floor.

Until she put her head on his chest, she had been convinced they would sleep apart. That maybe he would get up and leave. When he didn't she started crying, and it was embarrassing, but thankfully he didn't say anything, just held her closer.

There was still so much she wanted to tell him, so much she wanted to ask him. But it didn't seem like the right time. She curled into him, closed her eyes. But she could feel that his were still open.

Even when she awoke, he was already awake. He seemed preoccupied, and there was something heavy about his face that made her pause as she slipped on her dress, her shoes.

But just as he had fastened his boots, he stood up, looked at her from across the aisle. It seemed to be the same look from hours before, but somehow starkly different. This time he didn't bother taking off her dress, or his armor, and his shoulder guard was hard against her face when he pulled her dress up around her thighs, put her down into a pew.

His face had a desperate look when he was inside, and it was like a disease that desperation, because she felt it too all of a sudden, and moved against him as best she could with her inexperienced hips, trembling fingers that grabbed onto shoulders, hair, sword sheathe, anything.

His breaths were short, hot on her face, and his kisses were full of teeth, it was all she could do to keep up with him. Still it was good, and when it was over, they dressed in silence.

She thought to ask if something was wrong, but she also felt that heaviness. She picked up the discarded staff, what had been his, and was now hers. There was the tiniest glimmer of mirth in his eye.

"Come with me." he said finally, and she blinked. Looked to the outside where morning was breaking.

"Where?" she asked, finding her voice sounded strange after a night of only saying his name. She felt like they were two different people.

"Just to the train station." He unfastened his coat. "I think that is nearly within your perimeter now."

"You know about that?" she asked, and he only looked at her, held up his coat. She slipped her arms in and pulled the length of it up around her waist, just like she had done the first time.

They set out of the church and started toward the station, and Aeris couldn't help but think of her mother's bracelets. Sephiroth's phone kept ringing on the way there, but he kept turning it off, saying that there was time enough.

"It's not like Fair to be so prompt." he said wryly.

"Is he waiting for you there?" Aeris asked, as they passed the shop window they'd passed on the first night. All around them light was breaking through, real and artificial.

"Yes. And a few others." he said, and Aeris imagined the way he talked now, it was almost as if he hadn't told her he hated her, made love to her desperately maybe a half an hour before.

"Well, I don't know. It feels like a bit of a strange day already." she said as they neared the station. Sephiroth nodded.

When they reached the bottom of the stairs to the station, Aeris stopped.

"My perimeter can't include this." she said, as she unfastened his coat and gave it back to him. He took it and put it on, went up a few steps.

"Come just to this stair." he said, and she did, looked up at him. There was real light from the station behind him, and she stood completely in his shadow. He looked over to where the platforms were, and she followed his gaze to a group of people standing farther away. She saw Zack, behind him two troops, and beside him boy who was putting his helmet on over a head of wild, blonde hair.

She smiled, but then got this sudden wrenching feeling. She looked back at Sephiroth. Almost found herself asking him not to go. She laughed at herself.

"I'll be back soon." he said, taking her hand. "And if you are going to use this, you'll need to hold it properly." he fixed her grip on the staff. "Try striking like that, you'll find it is more effective."

"Thankyou." she said, and he nodded. She folded her hands together, a nervous habit she'd gotten from her mother."Be careful." she said, but he had already turned away from her, gone up the rest of the stairs.

And she watched him go, until she couldn't see him anymore, could only hear the noise and bustle of the people above catching trains, listening for whatever train was coming in next. She listened, and above her a flat, mechanical voice rang out over the station, calling out places she'd probably never go.

"Carriage 237 to Costa del Sol, All aboard."

It didn't matter though, she had Sephiroth and no threat on her freedom was worth being without him.

"Carriage 864 to Junon, All aboard."

She didn't have to hide anymore. She felt brave enough to take that freedom, fight for it.

"Carriage 354 to Nibelhelm, Departing."

And she knew that if she had to, she would even die for it.


Author's Note: The End. So, I'm really, really, sorry for the wait. I tried to make it worth it. Real life kind of punched me in the face these last couple of months. :) But this was always right there at the back of my mind when doing finals, opening docs to write essays about blah blah at two am. Haha, most especially because you all have been so ridiculously supportive that I was really anxious to finish this up for you guys. So here it is, a lot happened here, and I originally thought I might do an epilogue, but considering how things are going lately, it might be a while, if ever. Still I really hope you liked it, I do have a few Aeriseph ideas brewing already, so maybe I'll see you all sooner than I think!