Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII, its characters, and settings are all property of Square Enix so I can take no credit nor claim any ownership of that. I do take some credit for the story’s plot.
Artwork Disclaimer: I did not create and therefore own no rights to the featured artwork. I was unable to locate any source or artist for the work seen below, so was therefore unable to request permission or even give credit. If you are the creator of this phenomenal piece and you do not approve of me using it for my fanfiction, please let me know and I will remove it immediately from this site and all others. If you are the artist and are fine with me using it, please give me your information, and I will gladly give credit. I apologize that I was unable to locate the source in order to request permission prior.
Author’s Note – Music Suggestion: Years ago I had a creative writing teacher in undergrad and later grad school who consistently insisted that life does not come with a soundtrack. While I agree with her assessment, I respectfully disagree with this applying to stories. I have been often inspired to write by music or find that certain melodies remind me of scenes or vice versa. With this in mind I would highly recommend the song “God Help the Outcasts” from Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Soundtrack during the church scene in the middle of the chapter below. I put the link in the song title so it’s only a click away.
***Warning: Extremely graphic violence occurs at the end of this chapter.***
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” -Psalm 23:4
Sephiroth descended the stairs with chains jangling, leaving Aeris so that she could dress. The basement door was still shut to his glare as he heard the scratching ever below. Forcing away his gaze, he spied the leftover soup tightly covered in a bowl on the counter. He hoped that wouldn’t be her morning meal. The maid deserved a far better breakfast. There was a worn step stool in front of the cabinets, which was unneeded for his search within.
Upstairs Aeris brushed her hair until it was almost dry. The mirror was murky from moisture’s touch, but her pale image swam softly through. The flower maid could not dispel the absurdity that her murderer lurked downstairs, but she’d lived long enough in the belly of the wolf to know that safety was an illusion. Even here in her mother’s old house, the best refuge had been below.
Her fingers had threaded chestnut hair into braid without notice, and she carefully brushed her high bangs. No longer was she that pink ingénue…but that ribbon still twisted her hair. Her skin was whiter than the walls of her bathroom, the price of living beneath the stones. The maid wondered if age would ever touch her face for she seemed no older than when she had died.
Blowing out the candle when she was dressed, Aeris descended the stairs. Last night meandered like a lost dream that had trickled over to morning. The sight before dissolved that fancy like a spider web in a storm. Gone were the shackles around his wrists though they were still circled by silver bracers. That made her suddenly sad that even without chains he was still forever bound. The leather gloves were back on his hands so arm to finger was endless black. The latches on his coat matched the ones on his boots the former fastened at his waist. Black leather flowed all the way to his ankles, and Aeris averted her eyes from the straps ‘cross his chest. He’d not only see her blush, but smell its heat beneath her skin. A lock of hair had fallen across his face, and he shook it away with nary a hush. He was all black and silver with winter white skin, a study in monochrome save for those eyes.
Aeris could barely breathe as her foot slid against metal, the shackles that had ringed wrist and neck. Looking down the flower maid’s fear revived for the bonds had been literally crushed. Steel sheared down along one end before the cuffs had been ripped apart. The neck clasp with its remnant chains was discolored and warped where he’d snapped it. If he’s strong enough to do that to steel, what could he do to me? Sephiroth must’ve sensed this thought for his eyes narrowed as he frowned. This served only to boost her terror until the table caught her sight.
“You…you made me breakfast?” The words disintegrated all trace of fear as she choked them out. Aeris ran forward, but her foot caught the collar, and she stumbled with hands thrown forth. No sight could’ve captured his movement as he clutched the flower maid around her arms. The Cetra didn’t know at what moment he’d knelt, but she was at level with his eyes.
“Am I less frightening now, little flower?” he murmured as she did blush this time.
“I think you’re always going to be frightening,” Aeris told him, biting her lower lip, “but I’m trying hard not to be scared.”
Sephiroth lowered his lids. “That’s acceptable, child, and I’ll try to be worthy of your trust.”
“Aeris,” she gently reminded him.
“Aeris…” His voice made her name shiver soft against skin as he rose to his feet with grace. “And to answer your question, yes I did. It’s the least I could do for you.” He gave a quick glance to the repast. “Also, it’s…refreshing to do something that doesn’t involve blood or death.”
It was only toast and eggs with jam set on the side along with a cup of hot tea, but Aeris wondered if he’d read her mind to know that’s what she’d been craving. The thought chilled her heart since he was a manipulator, but the Planet’s song eased her fears. The maid sat to eat, glancing up at him, but he stood near the counter with hands clasped behind.
“Do you-” He shook his head before she could finish, shivering silver along the black.
“I’m fine, little one. Enjoy your meal. We’ll go to Sector 2 and then out of this cesspit to wherever your heart desires.”
Aeris felt the moisture threaten to ruin her eyes so she bit into her toast. Sephiroth observed she wore another brown dress that would’ve been drab on any other. Even her frumpy, loose bed gown couldn’t disguise this delicate rose, and he truly wondered what power she had to survive in the slums unmolested. She’s the true daughter of the Planet, he thought, while I tried masquerading as a god… He was used to shielding pain and squeezed his hands tight hidden behind his back. She sipped her tea merrily swinging her feet, while he concealed awe of such innocence.
“You used to always braid your hair, didn’t you, little one?”
Aeris gulped the brew at the sound of his voice. His presence was like a ghost. “Y-Yes, I did. It was easier for travel, but in the slums I wore it loose. A braid is far easier to grab, you know? I suppose I could’ve cut it,” she mused with a frown, “but I’ve always liked my hair long.”
Sephiroth folded his arms, looking down to the past and far into oldest memories. “As do I…mine was cut for some insolence once, hacked raggedly and uneven. I forget what I did, but I was twelve then and still vain so I mourned those silver strands. I remember gathering them up and trying to replace them…childish dreams are such a folly. Afterwards I think I was locked in the darkness for days or even weeks. It’s hard now to remember. The only light I had issued from my own eyes and I was in terror of the shadows they caused.”
She lifted a hand to her mouth and tried to swallow unstoppable tears. Sephiroth tilted his head unable to fathom how she could hold pity for him.
“That’s how the greatest generals are made,” he said, “or so I was told time and again.”
“And they beat you, didn’t they?”
“Each and every day.” The former general only looked sad for her sake as he stared into distant past. “Until I grew strong enough to fight back, then the beatings only grew worse.”
She tried to clean her face without his notice, but eyes that don’t blink miss little.
“Aeris…my past life need not trouble your ears. Are you finished with your repast?”
She drank the last of the tea and stood up, approaching him with tentative steps. “You didn’t deserve it.” Her lips were pursed as she looked up. “None of it at all.”
“After what I did to you and this world, I deserved every brutal blow.”
Aeris shook her head, and the almost smile touched his lips.
“You should do that more often,” she told him with hers so genuine and full. Sephiroth raised a brow.
“Smile. It makes you far less frightening.”
Aeris insisted on cleaning up, refusing his help for it was only fair. She wanted to run her fingers on every glass and absorb each chipped plate’s memory. She was leaving her mother’s house again, but the memories would cling. The cracked wooden floor, the buckling table, the living room with its coating of must. Midgar was dark and lifeless, but she’d found hope in here. If she could figure out a way to let the light in, she’d let it shine eternal on this place.
Her grey cloak was torn, so she put on a green coat that dared not rival her summer eyes. It made more sense anyway. She was going out into the world, no longer rotting in the slums, and she should wear something nicer. A jolt of memory stirred her and Aeris opened the basement door. Descending the creaky steps, she retrieved the bag of gil Elmyra had left long ago. Aeris was glad that sometime in the years, they’d started using paper, otherwise she wouldn’t have made it up the steps. Her once murderer had his hands braced behind him on the counter taut as the skin of a drum, but at her reappearance he stood up straight.
“I supposed I should find a bank at some point,” he thought aloud as she counted out bills.
Aeris looked up trying to hold the number, but curiosity stole it from her head. “Wouldn’t your account have been closed when you…died?” There was no other way to say it.
“Yes, little one, that’s true. It would have, but I had other accounts under different names. I knew better than to trust my employers.” It wasn’t bitter in the least. It was only simple truth. “I had every intention before the…incident to retire then disappear.”
“The future was stolen from both of us, wasn’t it?” the flower maid said with saddest smile. Sephiroth didn’t answer as his hair fell in front of his face. No light sheered through to prove his eyes were closed. Aeris wished she could erase the past from his memory, and the thought was so strange to have for her murderer that the maid had to leave the room. She only went to retrieve a worn satchel from the closet, but the hiatus served its purpose well. After the money and a few other essentials had been stowed away, Aeris returned to him with her hands clasped before.
“I need the bowl from the counter behind you,” she said and he elegantly stepped aside. Curiosity tinged the tip of his tongue, but he quelled it as she grabbed the container. Glancing around the old kitchen just once the more, the flower maid sighed, “I’m ready.”
He went before her to wait down the stairs as Aeris locked the door. The bowl was large within her small hands, but she juggled it well between. Sephiroth gave her room as she passed by, her gaze frozen up as she did. She had yet to turn her back to him, and he couldn’t blame her for that.
The reason for the bowl became apparent when they entered the house’s front yard. Aeris put it down and removed the lid, giving a click of her tongue to call. Sleek furry bodies slid through the dirt each with eyes that mirrored his own.
“They’re always hungry.” She looked aside, and Sephiroth wondered if she noticed that, too. “But I’ve never seen them come this quick.” Five or six had gathered around the bowl lapping the remains of the soup, while the others paced with waving tales as they waited for their turn.
“Do you do this every day?” His hands were behind his back again as if in cold calculation of this “feast.”
“Yes…” She wanted to see if the white furred one was as soft as it looked.
“Then I’m sure they’re grateful for your kindness and know you won’t bring them any harm.”
The flower girl bowed her head in a moment of guilt. They’d have to fend for themselves from now on. “But it usually takes at least five minutes for even one to come out. The only thing different is you…”
Sephiroth raised an eyebrow at that as one waiting cat bounded over. It was clearly a youngling, mewling and rolling against his leather boot. The flower girl hid a gasp behind her palm, but it quickly turned to a giggle. He looked at her with brow still raised and a frown that tried to hid his confusion, but Aeris stopped laughing when others joined in.
The little brown tabby she almost expected. He seemed friendly and purred all the time. The kittens and yearlings were not too far-fetched being too green to know any better, but the grumpy ginger tom couldn’t have been more of a shock. He’d hiss at scraps of street debris and would attack if approached from behind.
Ever so slowly Aeris approached to scratch a calico behind the ears. Her hand remained intact though the Mako gleam bored down on her from above.
“I can’t believe this…” she whispered, struck by the strangeness of her petting stray cats at her murderer’s feet.
“I do have their eyes,” he said without mirth. “Why does this one not have any?”
“Oh…” She looked the far way up. His face was that expressionless mask that showed naught but flawless beauty, and though his hands rested behind his back, it would take nothing to strike her down. “People aren’t…kind to cats in Midgar. Their eyes…” The brown tabby had pushed into the other’s place, and she concentrated on the base of his ears. “Well, their eyes, they look like yours.” It was said almost beneath her breath, but Aeris knew he’d hear. She peered up again and the emerald in question had diminished to half-veiled light.
“It’s a sin that anything else should suffer for the horror that I am.”
“They’re not your fault, Sephiroth. You didn’t ask to have slivered eyes, but…oh!” She stood up so quickly it made her sway, and he immediately held out his arm. The thought of how ridiculous that was came after, but was shattered the instant she took it. Unfortunately, her head continued its spinning for something Aeris had just recalled.
“Everyone knows what you look like!” Her little hand squeezed the solid muscle beneath leather, lip trembling as she looked up. “I’m so stupid,” she sobbed and he blinked bewildered. “They’ll know by now that you’ve escaped and they’ll be after you.” Her dream of leaving crumbled to ash, falling like the plate from above. A gloved finger gently lifted her chin and there was concern leaking through the stark mask.
“Little flower, please don’t weep. I can still take you out of the city.”
“How?” Her voice cracked around that one small word. “They’ll know you immediately and come for you, and-”
“They’ll be more blood I’ll have to shed?” He finished gently, touching his thumb to her lips.
Aeris shuddered for she hadn’t thought that, but she suddenly wished he wasn’t wearing gloves.
“If it wasn’t for my promises, I’d let them take me again. It’s more than I deserve to be beaten and chained, but I vowed to see you someplace safe.” She wanted to argue, but he hushed her again as the light pulsed soft from his eyes. “You needn’t worry about such though. People only see me if I wish…”
“What do you mean?” Her eyes were huge as she looked up like his every word were gospel. Pain shot through Sephiroth’s heart at that thought. He suddenly became aware of her hand on his arm and his fingers beneath her chin.
Letting her go, he backed away and then took a step to the side. Aeris gasped as her eyes turned to liars. It was as though he’d stepped behind a curtain of air that covered complete his large form.
“Sephiroth?” She stumbled forward and a few of the startled cats hissed. “Sephiroth!”
“I’m right here, Aeris.” The voice came from behind and she whirled with a both hands to her chest. She would’ve fainted in shock if he hadn’t caught her swiftly in his arms.
“I’m so sorry, little one,” he whispered and beneath his skin the sound of his heart calmed her tremor. She tilted her chin to see contrition and grief splayed harsh on angelic face. Her mind swam as though drunk. Dear gods, she thought, his beauty is blinding. It’s all that I can see. And the Planet echoed this mantra as moonlight and ashes tumbled over the flower girl’s face.
“How did…how did you do that?” she stammered.
“I sidestepped,” he answered softly as his arms slid slow around. Let…her…go. What the hell are you doing? Do you think she wants her murderer’s touch?
“Sidestepped…?” Aeris pulled herself closer with her hands curled against his chest. She had never felt such living heat radiating from off pale skin, but even more than that she’d never felt so safe, and that made no sense at all. He’s put a spell on me. He’s bewitched the Planet. Why am I so calm?
Sephiroth was not made to tremble, but he could barely hide his disbelief. The little Cetra was the epitome of peace with her face turned aside with a smile. Never had he seen anything more beautiful, and she was held tight in his arms.
“Aeris…” he whispered for fear his voice would break. “I’m going to let you go.”
“Oh…” Her eyes opened but before she could blink, Sephiroth stepped away.
Most of the cats had disappeared, but a few were sleeping off their meal. Aeris focused on that tangible thought as his embrace echoed through her skin.
“You…” Aeris swallowed. “You vanished.” She turned back to his impassive face as the Planet hummed along quite smug.
“I sidestepped,” he said again.
“And what does ‘sidestepped’ mean?”
“It means I stepped between the cracks of the world.”
“Like where you put the sword.”
“Yes…” He lowered his head. Of course she’d remember that. “I’m placing myself in between.”
“What’s it like?” Curiosity filled her as she stepped closer.
He ran gloved fingers through his hair and regarded her uplifted face. That moment had hollowed a space in his memory facing his horror filled past.
“The world’s a little greyer though you can’t really tell down here, but you…” She swore his lips quirked up. “You look the same. Bright amongst the shadows, a little flower blooming in the slums…”
His soft words flooded her cheeks and Sephiroth tilted his head at her blush. “But sidestepping won’t protect you from danger. If anyone threatened you, I’d have to appear and…alleviate the problem. It would be better for you to be seen with a protector than wandering about alone.” Aeris bit her lip, trying not to remember how he’d “alleviated the problem” before. Sephiroth clasped his hands behind his back and neon eyes lit his whole face.
“Wh-What are you doing? Your eyes…they’re…different somehow…” She trailed off as if silenced by the light.
“You still know me, little one?” he asked, shutting them for a few brief moments. When he opened them again, the incandescence had returned to its original emerald gleam.
“Yes, of course, why wouldn’t I?” Aeris was more confused than frightened. He was even more of an enigma as a friend than he’d ever been as an enemy. He’s a friend now? Her teeth found her lower lip even as she worried she’d chew it raw.
“I can make it seem like I’m not me,” he explained. “I still have the silver hair, green eyes, and same face but people don’t equate that to who I am. They see me, but they don’t see me, if that makes any sense.”
“Oh okay.” She nodded. “So it’s as though while you look like you, you’re not the Great General Sephiroth.” She couldn’t help the giggle behind a cupped hand until she saw what that title did.
“Yes…” He let his gaze sear through the sector. “So I can take you through the city. I can protect you and no one will know it’s really me.”
“Maybe…” Aeris slid closer so she had to look up again. “Maybe one day they can.”
“I doubt it, little flower. They’re always going to hate me as they so rightly should.”
“You don’t know that,” she insisted as she took his left hand, and as much as he tried to hide his surprise, Aeris saw it and replied with a smile. “I don’t hate you…and I’m becoming less afraid every moment.” She squeezed his fingers, but he stilled his own upon her delicate bones. “But I don’t understand why I could still see you, you know, as you truly are.”
He shrugged. “You’re the daughter of the Planet. It must not work on you.”
“Maybe, oh and Sephiroth, I’m…” She paused before she said “sorry” beneath his lifted brows. “I mean I meant to mention this before. I’d like to go to my church. I know you want to ask the Followers about your mother, but-”
“Little one…” He laid a hand to her cheek before he could tell himself not to. Aeris continued smiling, shutting her eyes to the leather touch. “Before these moments, I thought my mother was a monster. What is one more errand or one more hour to me? I owe you more than two lifetimes can bear. I’ll take you to your church.”
The desiccated husks in the train yard held searching eyes and hungry fingers. Sephiroth stayed beside her, but she still felt the tingle in her bones. Never had the flower maid really considered how many lawless men did lurk. Sephiroth had only to glare their direction to send them scurrying away like rats. Even if they couldn’t see his true face, the intimidation bled through the seams.
Beside his charge on the train tracks, his boots made nary a sound, while hers crunched atop sere, brittle wood that whined even beneath her slight weight. A compartment listed in shiftless slouch, held up by a less fortunate car. It was far too high for Aeris to climb, but she didn’t have time to ponder. Sephiroth’s arm encircled her waist as he ascended it with ease. She didn’t know if he jumped or flew, but they were within the dank dim. Hissed curses and scratching assailed her ears as the inhabitants shuffled back. Their eyes were dull within their wane lamps as they skittered over her in the gloom. Angry defeat echoed there, but Aeris was gone before it fully registered. Her now protector clutched her again and left the outlaws to their sick dreams. The flower girl could’ve sworn they floated to the ground so gently did he descend.
The corridor of the destitute was next, but the man who’d warned could only mumble. She dropped a few gil coins as usual, and the scramble for them was worse than the cats.
“You do this every day, too, don’t you, little one,” Sephiroth asked as faces peered from the hovels.
“I must,” was her reply. She looked up at him in strange contemplation as they passed through the filth and debris. How something so shining could end up down here seemed the basest sort of tragedy, but his return gaze told the flower girl that he thought the very same.
Aeris sighed smiling at the sight of her church, and her shoulders released their tension. She stepped forward and Sephiroth was surprised for that placed her vulnerable back before. Hands behind his own, he observed her laying a reverent palm on the old doors. The creak of it opening stirred age old dust, and Aeris was half through before turning.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked.
“Why not?” The door still ajar spilled light across her face.
“Aeris…” He wasn’t sure how to explain. “This is…a church. Your church. I can’t enter such sanctity. How could you have your murderer within?”
The flower girl put her hands to her hips and gave him a scathing glare.
“This is no more my church than it is my air. Anyone is welcome to enter.” Her voice softened. “Especially someone like you…”
“Someone like me?”
“Someone so in need of forgiveness.”
“A forgiveness I’ll never deserve.” He bowed his head to the shadows below where the past forever lurked.
“You’re not my murderer anymore,” she insisted.
“The past can’t change, child.” And his despair forced her to sigh.
“I know that it can’t, but…you do look like an angel and that should be reason enough!” She smiled up at him, hoping her humor would draw out a little mirth.
Those great emerald eyes shut so tight, she feared they’d never open again. “An angel…” he murmured as if the word were a curse. “The truth from innocent lips. I was designed to look like one, little flower. Merely a programming of genetic code.”
“It’s more than that,” she insisted. She would’ve taken his hand, but he’d hidden them behind. “And I’m not talking about what you turned into…” She shuddered. “I’m not talking about that at all.”
“I didn’t turn into anything, Aeris. It’s what I’ve always been.”
“You’re not that now, and I’m the daughter of the Planet. I can see the real you.”
“Well,” she murmured, standing so close she could smell his frost white skin. “You certainly do look like one, regardless of how or why.”
Sephiroth raised his head and the regret swam through the green. “And you look like a weak child unable to stop a monster on his quest to destroy the world. Let go of this deception. We both know each other’s truth.”
Summer green vied with emerald, and Sephiroth sighed in defeat. “If you’re commanding that I enter-”
“No. Never a command. I’m asking you to.” She held out her hand and he took it slowly, still surprised for the little maid’s smile. “I want you to know you have the right to seek peace and sanctuary.” Silence seemed better than argument as he let her lead him inside where light washed over his face.
The flowers bloomed in their myriads along the wooden paths, and Aeris released him to wander ahead, swimming in the sea of this scent. The entire Planet hummed beneath this place so that even the fallen could feel.
“This is…” he whispered as tranquility stroked his skin.
“I know…” Her little voice came from close and below and when he looked down she was bearing a flower. A lily white as ice held high in her hand, the same hue as moonlit silver. Aeris peered up from behind her bangs, as he grasped the delicate stem. Against his black glove this bloom pulsed like white fire, and the smell made him dampen his senses. Among it fresh as a new June day swam the scent of her summer skin. He held on to that as he twirled the white petals between his thumb and forefinger.
“Thank you,” he told her, and she tilted her head peering up with a shy, little smile. Then whirling around, Aeris almost skipping away, and he was shocked again to see her back.
Does she trust me that much now? Sephiroth thought as the maid approached the altar. Cracked stained glass speckled through the light so a kaleidoscope made her a dais. He walked between broken and missing pews, but where they were gone more flowers did grow. Every space that could’ve been empty and grieved was filled with the light of life. If I am an angel, I’m one of the fallen…I don’t belong in this place. He almost turned to escape the shame, but Aeris reached out her hands. Her coat was balled in a neat green pile on the ashy wood, looking almost like another rich bed from which new blooms could flourish.
When Sephiroth took the little fingers, Aeris grimaced to the leather beneath. “I wish you’d take your gloves off…oh.” For no sooner said than it was done. She barely had time to register before her hands were enveloped again. But once in that heat, she smiled so bright that his lips parted in utter awe.
Is this what I stole? Is this what I took? Is this what I destroyed? The agony welled in his chest so great he was certain his heart would seep out, slow and bloody between his fingers as he failed to contain the pain. Aeris stepped closer and he blinked just once so black lashes beat winter skin.
“I trust you, Sephiroth,” she whispered.
Why indeed, my dearest friend? Is it because he looks so sad? “I don’t know…I just do. I know you’re not going to hurt me.”
“Again…” He had to turn his face away from the forgiveness written in hers.
“No,” she assured him. “I don’t think you ever did. Not the you that you are now at least.” She grinned. “If that makes any sense. I’m telling you this because I’m going to pray and well-”
He fell to his knees before she could finish, making the flower girl gasp.
“You’re telling me this so you can pray in you sanctuary without the fear of icy steel through your back.”
Aeris chewed her lip and pushed the hair from her face, looking down at the top of his head. “I know you’re not that monster anymore, but I know you still have those memories.” Gods know I have them, too…
“Do you forgive me, little one?” He lifted his face, yet sorrowful emerald still would never bleed. The mask he wore was so gorgeous in its attempt to be utterly blank, and she laid a soft palm to his cheek.
“Oh Sephiroth…I forgave you a long time ago.”
He covered the hand on his face for a moment, shaking his head in disbelief. It was there in her skin, the sweet pain of absolution. She would give, but he could never accept not even in a place full of gods’ grace.
“Say your pleas, little flower,” the fallen finally said. “You have nothing to fear from me.” He rose smoothly and whirled, his hair a soft banner that flew before painting his coat. He heard the flower maid slip to her knees and he occupied himself with the walls. The building was more than dilapidated, but still it stood by some power unknown. A hundred years, he mused, and more it’s endured and given this little rose haven. If he’d wanted to he could’ve stole into her thoughts to see what Aeris prayed for, but that would be foul a invasion, and he wanted no part of that ever again.
You answered my prayer, didn’t you, dearest friend. I wished I wasn’t alone. I never thought you’d send me him, but he’s not evil anymore…maybe he never was. Please help him see that. I know he can’t hear you, but you can still comfort the troubled. The way he looks at me…like he’s bracing for hatred, expecting to be tortured and lashed. And if he were he’d just accept it as though he deserved the pain…
The flowers near her knees bent their petals at the drops that slid down her folded hands.
Her breath burst forth like it had been held captive and she tried to quickly wipe her face. He was approaching her with a quizzical look and concern in his unblinking eyes. Standing, the flower maid rubbed reddened cheeks and cleared her throat as she coaxed a small smile.
“It’s alright,” she assured him. “I can get a little emotional when I commune with the Planet.”
“So long as you weren’t crying about me. I never want to be cause for your tears.”
Her eyes softened at the corners to frame brighter smile, and he noticed how pink her lips were.
“We should go,” Aeris said noticing the dim outside. “It’s going to be evening soon…”
“Little one,” he murmured stepping close, “I’ll protect you regardless of the time.”
She was cast in his large shadow as dust motes churned in the air. The shaft of light he was standing in seemed to lift from the crown of his head.
“Yes…” the flower girl answered. “I believe you will.”
Outside the church the air was heavy, and Sephiroth glanced back at the old crooked doors. It was far more than just a building in the slums. Something lit it from within. Glancing at the small maid before, he could guess what that “something” was. Her influence lingers long after her touch. And he looked down at his gloveless hands.
Aeris fiddled with the buttons of her coat as she walked away from the path she knew. Usually she’d go to the center of Midgar to peddle her flowers there. The church was bright behind her, but the way was dark before. A long stretch of forbidden ground was strewn with the rubble from above, and they were forced to climb over broken machines that had tumbled down to the slums to rot. Crumbled luxuries from those above once they no longer had use, and amongst them marauders scavenged and searched for sweeter things than mere metal scraps.
“Sephiroth?” Aeris whispered looking back through the entrance. Mold ringed it like scars to look like dark eyes sunken into deep pits. It had taken some climbing so their height difference was less, and she grasped almost desperately for his hand.
“I’m here, little flower.” He took her small fingers, but frowned in the pall of her fear.
“Th-This is why I’ve been trapped in the slums. The things that happen here are just too terrible…”
“I’m certain they’re not more ‘terrible’ than me.” He almost smiled again. Aeris stared appalled for a moment, then gave a little laugh.
“No, I guess not.” She squeezed his hand, and it was solid, warm, and strong.
There was a steep decline on the other side made of layered steel and stone. Decades worth of broken technology so casually discarded. Though rust muffled some of the glitter, there were still parts that tried to shine. Aeris slipped just once before she was scooped up, her cry lost in silver hair. Sephiroth slid down the defile with grace, holding the flower girl in one arm. The Cetra didn’t know what to do with her hands, finding them first upon his pauldrons. The metal was as cold as he was warm and made her soft palms ache. His high leather collar edged his neck so she slid her arms around that. Though there was heat there, she felt him stiffen, and the pulse strong beneath caught speed.
“Sorry,” she said softly as his hair brushed her lips. “I don’t mean to be a hindrance.”
“What did I tell you about apologizing, Aeris? And you’re not a hindrance at all.” He kept his eyes forward and his jaw set tight as he ran gracefully down the rough hill.
“Well, I can’t possibly be a help…” She wanted to shut her eyes and fall asleep to this scent like nights full of moon and fresh snow. But that was absurd because she was in danger. But am I really? I’m in his arms. Of course that could just be worse….
“Little flower, you weigh nothing,” he told her as he leapt over a rusted crane claw. “And I owe you your life. You couldn’t be a hindrance to me if you tried. I was much more of one to you.”
The ground beneath dirt was broken cobblestone as if this place had once been refined. “I’m going to put you down now, Aeris,” Sephiroth said, and the little Cetra would never admit her regret when he set her on the ground.
Far, far up the unnatural hill lay the passageway back to her church. The flower girl could never make it back on her own, and she half-trembled to be stuck at his mercy. Before them structures made of what fell below had been shaped into corridors and walls. Buildings near high as the plate above rose, but they were windowless and dead as shadows. Once they must have been apartments for those wishing for a better life, but that hope had fled or been extinguished by the “mercy” that reigned down below. All the light here was yellow and dying like a squeezed out, broken sun. Shapes materialized before her eyes, banished as Aeris blinked, but she was unsure which truth to trust.
The cobbles screeched to a rough blade’s scrape as a figure jumped atop a low heap. A long whistle sounded and the darkness erupted with those who sated their hunger on death. Chains rattled against ripped and faded clothes, bruising hands that caressed guns and edges. These were the ones whom poverty had trampled until desperation twisted them raw. The whistler on the mound held tight his crude axe, sharpened iron strapped to a pipe. His one glove was fingerless and fiddled with the haft, while he locked his other fist to a hip. He seemed neither old nor young, but the wrinkles on his brow overshadowed his eyes and his head held no trace of hair.
“There’s a toll for passing through our domain.” He stepped forward and his walk was all swagger. Aeris backed up and hit a solid wall, tilting her head to find Sephiroth above. He placed his gloved hands on her shoulders, but kept neon eyes sharp before.
“If it’s reasonable I’m sure we can pay,” he said, calm to the discord of snickers.
Their host jumped down and Aeris wanted to melt into the strong, sure form behind. The only move he made was to tighten his hands and the flower girl forced herself still.
“It’s ‘reasonable’ if you want to keep your life. We’re many to your one.”
Sephiroth cast his gaze about, looking so bored he nearly yawned. “I’ve seen worse odds. How much do you require so we can be on our way?”
Full laughter burst forth to the rattle of steel and the flicking of tongues on gun barrels.
“We ‘require’ her.” He grinned pointing his axe at Aeris. “Then you can be on your way.”
“Unacceptable,” Sephiroth snapped standing up straighter as the Cetra trembled beneath his hands. “She’s not mine to give. It’s more like I’m hers, and you should beg her for grace.”
The leader laughed quietly leaning a hip to his axe. “The strong rule the weak,” he replied. “So you can give her to us and pass through unharmed or we’ll just take her from your dead hands.”
“Or I could just kill you all. Would that payment be sufficient?” The general asked this as casually as a man deciding between beer or ale.
Hefting his axe, the outlaw grimaced. “So be it,” he said as he rushed.
The wall of the lawless closed in on them, but Sephiroth had infinite time. He put Aeris behind him meeting her eyes with smile soft as a candle long lit. Terror streamed past her lips with each breath as summer shivered in widened green. He shook his head to her fear in the brief motion telling the Cetra that there was no need. Then back he turned to the foe right before, the glamour dropping as the sword found his hand.
Blood rarely has sound unless one can hear the rush of fluid in living veins, but when steel invades beneath the heart, it’s what fills the air in a scream. Bubbling from his lips the man drowned through his breath beneath a face devoid of pity.
“Se-” It was swallowed in blood but recognition still spread horror across his face. His legs had crumpled beneath him, but the end of his sternum rested on the sword.
“Now you know me.” It was said lowly and Sephiroth flicked his gaze to the side. “But do you know her?”
The man’s whimper burbled like a stopped pipe, and he couldn’t tear his eyes from that visage. One fist was still clenched to his useless weapon and the other clutched the Masamune. Sephiroth’s pupils shrank to thin slivers as he crushed those fingers for daring to touch. Around the blade, his dying enemy jerked and Sephiroth gripped his face in his hand.
“Look at her,” the once general commanded jerking the man’s head to the side. Aeris’s hands were clasped as she tried not to remember the pierce of that pitiless steel.
“She saved you all, you worthless fool. She saved you from me long ago.” He twisted the blade so it slid so smoothly, but he refused to let it eat at his heart. “But no one here can save you now. You can only beg for mercy.”
The robber tried. He truly did, but his lungs were blocked by steel. With his broken hand he scrabbled against leather until the steel entered him deeper, sliding elegantly through his back so his body could only dance.
“I will play your flesh up the length of my sword until you find breath to beg.” The unblinking eyes glanced at the blade. “It’s going to be a very long song…”
Sephiroth glanced over to meet Aeris’s eyes and she was pleading over folded hands. A sudden horror filled his face that was quickly covered by flawless mask.
“Be it so,” he said and ripped the sword out in blackened rush. Death came before the body collapsed, but only Aeris felt the spirit depart. Sephiroth held his right hand up as the Masamune bled from its offering. The gang now leaderless howled for vengeance and unfroze to complete their rush, while the once general smiled only to himself for it was too horrible to let her see.
They came and attempted to pass him for her, and he cut through them like a scythe through wheat, but wheat could neither scream nor bleed, nor hold severed limbs in its clutch. Wherever he went death followed behind framed by gunshots and swinging steel. Aeris hid behind a car on cinderblocks, but she could not tear sight away. He was made for killing, she thought in hollow truth. That is what he’s for… But what she didn’t expect was that it would be beautiful, a perfect song played with blood. He could make no move that wasn’t robed in grace and she couldn’t turn away from the horror. Over several he leapt, killing three in the process and leaving the rest without hands to grasp. The dead littered the ground and buried the living as they struggled to rise and run, but he chased them down enraged for new reason besides the ones that had burned him before. One’s body was halved by a swing of the sword and the inverse took half a man’s head. Red mist and brains seared through the air as Sephiroth slid in between. Another he skewered through the front, lifting the sword so he slid slowly down. The man struggled screaming til the sword parted his spine and he jerked like a waterless fish. Blood and guts painted the perfect steel while Sephiroth grabbed his victim’s head and twisted in slow silence to snap.
The sector became a city made only of death and black boots walked over without care. There was only one more, quivering in the corner, trying to hide beneath mounds of dead men. The general ripped the bodies away and lifted his final foe free by the throat. Dropping him he laid the Masamune there until he heard the cry, “Enough!” Holding up her dress, Aeris ran toward her protector as he pushed the hair from his face.
“Please,” she begged. “Please it’s enough. Don’t kill anymore for me.” Her voice was hoarse from the tears in her throat as she stood over the condemned. The man reached up to clutch her hand, and the sword tip cut the hairs on his chin. The outlaw was far past the days of his youth, and the crags on his face wept with the dead’s blood. His mouth worked soundlessly as his eyes darted wild between his death and his salvation.
“Please,” she said again and the man mouthed her words, praying mimicry would grant him grace. A drop seeped from the end of the blade and slid down greasy skin like black rain. Sephiroth lifted and swung the weapon swift to the side, scattering the remnants of battle. He held the sword vertical on his palm so it shimmered as it slipped back between. The captive let a whimper escape clutching Aeris’s wrist in slick sweat.
“It’s alright,” she promised with eyes lifted high as she tried to free her limb. The general reached forth to clasp the man’s hand and it opened like a broken door.
“You live this day because of her mercy. I would’ve killed you all.” His gaze flicked to her face, and she swore she saw shame before he motioned for her to come. The flower girl gave the man a pitying look as he shrank beneath innocent green. Over and between the fallen she stepped trying to ignore the horror. So many faces twisted in death in that moment made pure beneath. Aeris knew she was foolish to entertain such. They were going to take her for payment…
Sephiroth barely glanced to the maid at his side, but what he sensed told him more than he needed. The pulse at her throat tattooed her pale skin and he could hear the rush of blood in her veins. Even amongst death he could smell her fear like a stormy summer dusk. The bodies were strewn where they’d been flung, and he wanted to lift her above. But he was unclean, ever so tainted and could not touch her now. He could take off his gloves, but his hands still were dirty fouled with the blood of the slain. And her blood…ever her blood on my soul. Her blood is the most damning of all.
“Sephiroth…” Aeris began as they wove their way through silent, hunched tenements. “I…should thank you. I could never have gotten through this on my own. It’s a terrible thing to be small and weak-”
“You’re not weak, chi…Aeris.” He turned to her at the correction. There was a skittering just below his hearing, but no squeak proved it mere rats.
“I was too weak to get through this myself. I needed your strength for that.” She was looking up in what he hoped was not admiration.
“Yes,” he admitted, “I can break men, but you have the power to stop me…I’m glad that you did so again.”
“I’m glad I was able to…do you feel any guilt?”
“For them?” His brow knit. “No. No, none at all. They were going to hurt you and were less than vermin….but they were still better than me.”
“How can you say that?”
“Because I’m a monster. Nothing can change that fact.” It wasn’t bitter. It wasn’t even sad. He was just stating the truth.
Aeris raised her eyes sorrowful to pristine white tormented by utter darkness. Not a hair on his head was stained by crimson. He’d danced with grace through raining blood drops to come out pure between.
“Nothing,” she repeated. “Not even now you’re good and your mind wasn’t your own before?”
“No, Aeris,” he told her. “That will not change it. I’ve done too many terrible things.”
“What if I told that I don’t believe it? That I don’t think you’re a monster at all.”
“Your belief won’t change the truth, little one, but I thank you all the same.”
She laid a hand to his arm beneath its black leather, and he almost revealed his surprise. She looked down at the gloves again coating his hands then back up again with a grin. Without a word he removed the slick skin, and she buried her fingers in his warmth. Both her hands were small enough to fit in his one as she leaned against him as they walked. Sephiroth blinked several times in shock staring down at the top of her head.
“Little flower…” he whispered and Aeris looked up with a smile that lit all the slums.
They entered Sector 2, though the scratching still lingered as if something thrashed deep down below.
Author’s Note: It ends where it begins…with the scratching. The next chapter Imminent Darkness will be posted Friday April 24. I thank you all profusely for your continued support! <–Chapter 3 Chapter 5–>