Chapter 18 – When the Forest Sleeps

<<–Preamble/Prelude
<–Chapter 17                                                                                                Chapter 19–>

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: The below picture is located here. It was neither created nor does it belong to me.
Author’s Musical Note:  Two suggestions this time.  There will be a moment in this chapter where The Water Is Wide/O Waly Waly will be appropriate and where the opening song from Frozen, the Vuelie, is, as well.  I don’t want to say specifically where as to not give anything away, but I think you will know where each is appropriate, so I have provided links.  I listened to both of these songs while writing/editing, and they created a perfect, chilling mood.  There’s a third song I can’t believe I forgot (I’m adding this final part on July 27, 2016 so quite some time after posting).  It’s right in the beginning when Aeris is on the train (hell the last chapter would find it fitting, too).  “I Thought About You” by Frank Sinatra helped inspire this and the Chapter 17 scene.  Interestingly enough I recall the song usage in the movie Michael in which the characters are most certainly missing the titular angel, so it’s meta-fitting.

Warning: Potential rape and vulgar language.

“One may tolerate a world of demons for the sake of an angel.”
-Doctor Who

Winter Forest 2Trains are sleepy when woken that early and the before dawn thrummed in mauve. Aeris stayed awake so fueled by coffee clothed in brown dress and green coat. It was a bit warm, but it was better than laying the thick garment over her lap. She swung a crossed leg with heavy boot so it bumped against the seat. Her bag lay across her stomach while her staff was loose in her hand. She was happy the car was empty as she felt the tickle against her breast. Smiling with barest sheen of pink, the flower maid closed a fist to her heart. The black feather hidden from wandering eyes was her only tangible memory.

Costa del Sol was still in twilight, and the train station was high enough to see lonely waves. Her arrangement was scheduled for nine o’clock sharp, but the train only took an hour. So Aeris wandered again by the sea for the sunrise that honored the shore. The sand would be cold to clinging night air, but the Cetra didn’t care about that. She scrunched her face though at the sight of her boots and the thought of thick socks beneath. With a soft sigh, she relinquished that dream to just sit on the beach with knees clutched.

Her last visit to Costa had not been just for leisure for there was a shipyard here. One more established, one more experienced in sailing the icier seas. She had found a captain who’d take enough gil to bear the Cetra where she desired. Though it was deserted, as he had insisted, populated by frozen bones. No collectors even ventured there, no archeologists, not even thieves. The world had had its fill of death with no interest in its leavings, but the captain liked money and for the right price, he’d have taken the maid to Mideel. Aeris would’ve been destitute if not for the fact that she’d never be poor again. All the money she’d taken from her old house went to that exorbitant price. She could’ve lived for years in the bitter slums on a fraction of the cost, and the number of children that she could’ve saved made Aeris swallow her tears. Because of her though, the ship’s fee was cheaper for those going to Winterborough. They would have an extra day to wait, but the price was slashed by half.

Aeris stayed on the beach til the sun let her know she’d regret an extra minute. The shine from the water made her squint as she rose brushing sand from her dress. The clock struck eight, and she walked up the coast past where the sunbathers normally dwelled. The pier was much noisier guarded by gulls, which outnumbered the people there. Creaky wood groaned under her slight weight as she spotted her ship bobbing high. Her chest loosened slightly. She hadn’t been cheated. The whole world was not like Midgar. She read the ship’s name along its broad side. Moonfall to bring me to moonlight. It was painted dark blue despite silvery title, and the letters showed color more grey. It’s really not grey…the image stole through, as she flashed her ticket before climbing aboard. Not grey nor white, it’s truly silver, the color of moonlight and ash.

The captain knocked on her cabin door as she was organizing her things. It would take all night to reach that shivering shore, and Aeris decided that she would be comfortable. She’d take a nap before seeking out lunch. The bed looked more than adequate, and she hoped the sway would become soothing soon. Accommodations were like a lesser hotel, and hers were better than most. I suppose they should be. She stood on her toes to peep through the hole in the door. With a high, “Oh!” she jerked on the knob to the captain’s weather-lined face.

“Still set on this fool’s errand?” he asked, and Aeris stood straighter in pride.

“Yes, sir, I am. We have an arrangement.”

He snorted and walked away. Eyes wide the little maid dashed to the hall as the man swayed down to the rhythmic roll. He waved a hand back without turning around. “Tomorrow morning at six o’clock sharp.”

“Th-Thank you, sir,” she called and though he didn’t acknowledge, the Cetra still sighed with relief. Though the bed wasn’t her own, it still served its purpose as the early trip caught up. Far below the water she still sensed the Planet ever fluttering through her mind. Its song calmed her nerves and helped her ignore the lurch of the ocean beneath. Afterwards Aeris didn’t eat much lunch and was glad that there was soup. Food and sway did not please her stomach. It could stand one, but not both at a time. She gave up on that to sip broth and warm tea that was even weaker than water.

Retrieving her map Aeris laid it out, fingers a-tremble to trace the path. He’d left it for her, and she wondered at that, dismissing what she yearned to believe. Pen scratchings and word of mouth held promise she prayed the truth would keep. Darting her gaze between the two places Winterborough kept pulling her eyes, but the Planet whispered something else. I suppose I’ll trust you, my dear friend. I mean you were right about him.

Aeris didn’t want dinner. She just wanted sleep, sliding the feather into her book. Sighing at such a silly thing, as she read the fair words once more. The sunset on the endless water though drew her up to the open deck. Leaning on the rail, she shared a smile with a child so entranced by the light. A larger wave buckled against the hull, and Aeris gripped the cold bars tight. The youngster beside remained untroubled holding her mother’s hand, and the flower girl wished the ship were smaller so that she could blame the spray.

Six came too soon, but she witnessed five by the clock in her dark cabin room. She forced herself shower, gritting her teeth to the cold, but was glad for it helped her to wake. The towel was quite scratchy to tender, pale skin, but the flower girl cherished it still. She’d laid out her clothes the short night before to ensure she wouldn’t forget. Leggings and sweater to create layers under her heavier dress. It was summer in the Whispers and Costa del Sol, so clothes for the cold were sore lacking. Aeris had to make do with what she could find on the leftover racks from last frost. She slipped on heavy socks that covered the gap on her ankles and tight laced her boots. Braiding her long hair high on her head, the Cetra spiraled it in rosy bun. Her bangs she left as she always did, thinking of her ribbon with a smile. Scarf and gloves were put on next, the latter stirring memory. She buttoned up her dark green coat, a little clumsy with covered hands. Finally slinging her satchel over one shoulder before retrieving her oaken staff.

The chill above decks struck Aeris hard so she stepped back with a gasp. A burst of frost shimmered in front of her lips that already felt cracked from the cold. Wetting them was a bad idea for the north air just drank the damp down, but Aeris was stubborn and tapped her staff forth, letting it lead her to the prow. The shore was approaching, white as sea foam. But not silver. It can’t claim that.

The captain watched as she disembarked and a few curious passengers, too. There was a small pier, but nothing else, and Aeris stood alone looking up.

“You know I’m not coming back,” the captain called down with what could’ve been slight concern.

“I understand, sir…I think I’ll be fine.”

He didn’t try to hide his surprise. Then with a “Hmph” he stumped away back to the Moonfall’s bridge.

She didn’t know why she watched the departure as the bitter wind caught her loose bangs. Resolution was now her lifeline as the ship wove its way through the ice. One blast of the horn shook the still wilds, but dared not echo to disturb its deeps. Aeris left the sad dock with its splintering wood where frost limned the grass in wane light. It turned to full snow unpacked beneath, and the air smelled fresh as if newly washed. It was more mist than cloud that shrouded the sun so a pale nimbus ringed the light. Wind gust like gale tried to steal the maid’s breath, as it cut through her clothes to the bone.

Did you bring me this far to have me die now?

She heard again, Go to him, child.

Is that all you can say? Where do I go?

North, ever north, dearest one.

The snow seasoned air softly shifted to petals, but only in her mind. She remembered the flowers that grew by her porch, the mountain that shadowed the tide. She thought of the echo of starlight on sands and how foam stole that light for the sea. I may never see the Whispers again, but Aeris had long ago accepted that fate would do with her what it willed. She gripped her staff tight and prayed for protection, as she followed low, humming command.

*

She knew where she was. There could be no forgetting…she’d passed this way so long before. The village that death has long left in peace…how could I not know, my dear friend? Aeris walked between the bones of beasts that had died long before horror’s descent. She didn’t disturb them for they, too, were the dead, and the dead deserve nothing but rest. They’d certainly earned it for those who once studied and dug were a century gone. Their leavings were almost full buried in earth, making Aeris think of the layers of time. Perhaps one day long distant from now others will come in their stead. They’ll discover the tools of the ones from before. Then they, too, will leave and die, and others will find what they’ve left. On and on unto forever…and will I still linger? Will we?

She touched a still pine and spoke no word, but the forest awoke for the Planet’s dear daughter. It closed her around like a lover’s embrace, as the wind dashed with cold through dark green. Pushing against it with the help of her staff, the flower girl spun once around. Getting her bearings amongst the tall pines so century’s memory did descend.

The way to my city so long ago taken. She let her feet follow that path. Aeris knew it like the lines on her palm that though hidden were still part of her skin. My body, she wondered, boots muffled on needles. Is my broken body still there? Snow clung like white shadow to ever dark green, but little had reached the floor. Is this flesh new where I now reside? I have no wound but memory. How did you do it, my dearest friend? How did you bring me back? This morbid dreaming seemed to float above her mind like captured bubbles in murky glass. She pulled off a glove and the cold clenched her hand, prickling taut on the top of her fist. Aeris peered at her fingers so fragile and slim, incongruent rough nails with soft skin. If this were new flesh then her old flesh was gone, picked clean by bright fish and cruel time. The flower girl slipped back on her glove as she felt herself turning due west.

It was so silent she could hear the air freeze even as the sun spoke afternoon. Where are you taking me, dearest friend?

Follow…was her only answer. There were no monsters in the wood for this was a sacred place. It led to the Forgotten City, where Aeris had given her life. Something tugged at the Cetra’s heart, and she wanted to turn her feet there, but only shades now lived within, and that was not where he was. She was sure if she found him, she was certain if she asked that Sephiroth would take her there. Then grief would defeat him for in that fated place dwelled his most hated memory.

The flower maid had to stop before she stumbled near spent, but she couldn’t linger long for the cold. The wind blew snowflakes from the trees so it flurried with the sharp notes of pine. Sleepiness swept over as she leaned on a trunk, but Aeris roused herself quickly and stood. The cold would creep over far gentler than steel, and squeeze her heart with talons of ice. She was neither frightened nor stalled by such truth. It just was what it was. Unless I make fire…the instant she thought it, the snap of burnt wood turned her head. Smoke and scorched pine seared Aeris’s nostrils, and the Cetra bit her lip stepping soft. The clearing she entered let pine shadows dance, raking their needles over what crouched. Two men jolted up to this bright apparition, as Aeris caught her breath in surprise.

The men kept their eyes glued tight to the maid, and shadows bloomed in hollow pits. Each bore beards tangled and scraggly. Both smelled like moldy bread. The wind picked up to bring her this scent, unshaken by the chill. They’ve been here a very long time, she thought and was sorry for their plight. Their coats were ragged and held together by strips, and wear had given them fingerless gloves.

“Good…afternoon,” Aeris said quite clearly despite how unsure she was. Picking her way down the slight decline, she made sure they saw the grip on her staff. Flicking their eyes so brief to the weapon before the one returned to the lump in his hand. The other poked the fire and cleared his throat with a cough as harsh as a crow.

“Not much good in it, now is there? And it’s not afternoon anymore. Evening doesn’t wait up here.” He pointed, but Aeris didn’t follow, only nodded to acknowledge. She stayed back to keep both in her sight, wrapping her hands round the staff. Her Midgar senses were coming back, as the world jangled notes like crooked bird song.

“Well, sit,” the man said pulling forth an old knife to scrape its rust on a stone. “I don’t know how you got here, but you won’t leach any more heat from the fire by being about.” The other said nothing and continued to clean the young rabbit bleeding in his hand. She pulled a safe distance from the blaze, laying her staff before folded knees. Her satchel she kept couched in her lap just in case the time came to run.

The crack of the fire drew her eyes back down, but she let her gloves hold the warmth for her hands. With a scowl the speaking man barraged it with sticks. “The wood here burns like shit,” he grumbled as it squealed and split with more smoke than heat. “Too piney, too snowy, too cursed, I say.” He swung a quick glance to his companion.

Aeris swallowed anger that wasn’t her own saying, “Maybe it doesn’t want to be burned.”

Fire shadow hid the top of his face, but the bitter mouth twisted in scowl. “Well how else are we supposed to stay warm? It’s colder than a corpse’s cunt and only getting worse.”

“I don’t…I don’t know.” Her tongue almost froze in profanity’s echo, as she tried to rub heat back to her arms. The squelch of the other man’s knife turned to wet clang as he pried away tiny bones. “I’m sorry,” she stammered. That sound pulled swift tightness between her shoulder blades. “It’s just…i-it doesn’t like it. It doesn’t like it at all. The forest is what I mean.” Dearest friend, what should I do?

Wait.

The man guffawed as spit flecked dry lips and spattered his dirty collar. “The forest doesn’t like it? Are you stupid, girl? How they hell’d you make it all the way here?”

Aeris fingered the sphere ensconced in her staff, but said nothing in response. The quiet man reached over and stirred the flames, and the poker squeaked like a tortured rat. He tried to rouse embers to coax them to heat, and Aeris saw old wounds on his arm.

“What’s in your bag?”

She jerked at directness so different from her general. He was straightforward, but always polite, and his voice never oozed such…hunger. I need to stay sharp, she chided herself. The world beneath just pulsed soft and low.

“Some travel rations, bread and cheese, though the latter two are probably spoiled.”

They both rushed her, and Aeris jumped up, clutching her oaken staff, but they only attacked her journey bag, ripping through for any morsel of food. She half considered whacking them both over the head, but stilled her hand since they were obviously starving. They devoured everything that they could find, and she was happy her book was hidden. It could’ve been taken for over dry steak and been consumed as well. Not until they’d returned to their side of the fire, did Aeris retrieve her ransacked bag. Her hand twitched to hold the staff by her knee, and she kept her feet placed to easily rise. The silent man skewered the well mangled corpse onto a sharpened stick. The scent of burning flesh turned the flower girl’s stomach, destroying the remnants of appetite.

“What are you doing here, girl?” the other man ask, crumbs flecking his lips and torn coat.

“I’m looking for a friend.”

“Heh. You don’t have any friends here, girl, and neither do we. We’ve been stuck here forever. Your forest it seems won’t let us loose. We wander in circles and nowhere at all.” He flicked his gaze right and lifted his chin. “We’ve gone every way but out.”

“How’d you get stuck her?” She pushed a bang to the side, surprised her temple was prickling with sweat.

“Looking for bones, but none we found out there were fully uncovered. No one had done that in a long time. Figured we’d make a profit.”

“But…that’s outside where the forest doesn’t sleep.” She squinted trying to understand. “What led you in here?”

The man only shrugged taking a drink from his flask. He made a sour face, and Aeris figured it was brackish, steeped too long in pine.

“I could probably lead you out,” the flower girl offered as the rabbit popped and squealed even in death. “Though there’s no way to get back south.”

“There’s a passageway through the mountains to Winterborough, though it’s rough and filled with monsters. Still better than this accursed place with its silence and its cold.”

“I’m sure it’s cold in Winterborough, too. It’s always winter here.”

He half grunted to acknowledge and a sudden gust found them ringing all three in frost. The fire doubled over like a man kicked in the gut, fluttered, but didn’t go out. Aeris released her frozen breath unsure if upset or relieved. Both Planet and forest hated this blaze encroaching on its sanctity.

One by one the stars pierced the heavens so light could seep through the holes. The Cetra glanced past the two hungry men before letting them find what fell down. A shimmering curtain that rode through the sky like night fire painted in green. The pines stretched to this ribbon but could never touch where crimson flare crinkled like dawn.

“The lights…” she whispered and was rewarded with a snort that broke the spell as she didn’t quite glare.

“They fall every night it doesn’t snow.” Disdain covered the man’s ravaged face as he rolled his eyes up to the sky. “You get sick of ‘em pretty quick.”

“I don’t think I ever would…” The flower girl slipped her hood overhead and fixed the scarf about her neck. Even with a fire every particle of air floated within endless cold.

“You bring any blankets with you, girl?” her “host” asked as he slid near the fire.

“No.” Aeris stopped herself wrapping her arms around. “I just have my coat and scarf and gloves.”

“You’ll probably die before the night’s out.” He took a bite of the half-grown rabbit, spitting out a burnt bone with a curse. Firelight twinkled the emerald orb that was still duller than the curtain above, and Aeris stood to unwind her small body like a twisted screw. The stave in full swing smashed the other man’s jaw, and only the crack made a sound. His outstretched fingers went limp as he fell, but pine needles dulled the thud. Blood spurted out of broken back teeth making the fire hiss.

Blinded by frost in front of her lips, the Cetra whipped the oak staff back around. A knobby hand caught it, and with a sharp jerk, wrenched the weapon from the flower girl’s grasp. Aeris lurched forward and the man caught her wrist dragging her close as she squirmed.

“You killed my friend.” He glanced to the ground where the limp body sprawled before kicking it away from the fire. Aeris writhed like a cat in a trap while her wrist turned in his clutch. When he faced her once more the closeness did nothing to change his eyes from blackened pits. “You did me a favor. I was probably going to gut him tonight. Your chatter broke the silence. Do you know how long it’s been?” His eyes skittered over like a spider drunk on wine. “Since I’ve seen anything besides his ugly face?”

“You’re not going to do this,” she told him far calmer than she herself believed. The man coughed with laughter and washed the maid’s face with his rancid breath.

“What’s going to stop me? You with your stick?”

“You’ll regret whatever you’re planning.” She gave him her eyes praying they were enough. “I can lead you out if you let me go.”

He was done talking so twisted her wrist, and Aeris screamed as her knees buckled in. Scrabbling for purchase in the snow, the Cetra aimed a kick towards his ankle. It glanced to the side, and the maid lost her footing as he twisted her arm hard behind. The flower girl refused to soil her pride with the whimper that grew in her throat. She pushed on his chest tangling fingers in the strands of threadbare clothes, but the man’s knobby hand opened her smaller with a brutal squeeze. Keeping that pressure he kicked at her knees and her teeth flashed as she bit a hard knuckle. Howling, her assailant released his grasp as bloody skin scraped her teeth. His hand went back and Aeris braced herself as a dull thud heralded the blow.

Above her high, a much larger hand engulfed her attacker’s wrist. Breath burst from her throat on the wings of a gasp that brought bright tears to her eyes. It took her a moment to see that she was free as the man stared dull in confusion. Then he lifted his head to the light that fell down, a storm of boiling green.

The flower girl half stumbled back into a solid form. When the wind blew it spilled silver winter over her shoulders sweet as a kiss. Aeris tilted her face back and up, and the Planet sang to the rush of her heart. There was nothing in his eyes but empty fire, but he wasn’t looking at her. The little Cetra did not deserve the wrath that bled down from above.

“Did he hurt you, my little flower?”

Aeris flexed her hands, bit her lip, and could only answer, “Yes…”

Sephiroth destroyed his wrist in a wet, squelching crunch like a wolf crushing a marrow filled bone, and the man filled the north with the mist of his screams as he hung in that vice-like grip.

“Get down on your knees,” the Great General said with a voice like echoes in a forest of time, “and beg her for mercy. Beg for your worthless life.”

Those terrible eyes followed his fall, Mako split by shivers of night. Nothing moved that winter mask as the general rolled bone pulp in his fist. Shrieking through teeth so tight they cracked, the would-be rapist turned to the maid. He begged for his life. He begged for sweet death. He begged for this torture to end, and she could only stare in horror of what could’ve been and what was.

“Do you want me to kill him for you, Aeris?”

She spun. “No no, please don’t!” Curling her hands on her rescuer’s chest, she beseeched his eyes her way.

Sephiroth turned back to the cowering wretch. “Do you hear that? Do you hear this mercy?” His left hand clenched as he fought not to draw the great sword and defy his rose, but tiny fingers still brushed what skin was bare as warm as summer’s best day. He enclosed the flower girl in his free arm in gentleness belying the wrath. “Leave this place and you better pray if we meet again that she’s by my side. I wanted to hear you scream.” He jerked his hand away and the man struggled to his feet, cradling his ruined limb. Nary a glance was spared for the other as he ran through the frost limned pines.

Sephiroth wrapped both arms around his flower as she sobbed her fear away. Tears shimmered like stars on her uplifted face bathed in both lights from above. He wiped them away before they could freeze and murmured, “I have you, Aeris.”

“You really do,” she whispered. “You saved me again. How did you ever find me?”

Sephiroth softly smiled. “It’s always winter here. So when I caught a whiff of summer, I knew where I should go. And besides that, little flower, my joy is tied to the beat of your heart. I could find you anywhere…” The general crouched suddenly serious as he took her tiny hands. “Why are you here, Aeris?”

The Cetra could only look at him in pure awe, robbed of words by his beauty so near. The silent forest and hanging lights were hushed in the gleam of his eyes. She looked down at his hands, cloaked in black leather, and completely engulfing her own. They were the same that had crushed a man’s wrist, but were beyond gentle with her. “Would you believe me,” she stammered, “if I said I took a very long and elaborate walk?”

Laughter mellowed the emerald bright, as Sephiroth stood back up. Enclosing the maid in his arms once more, he laid a gloved hand to her cheek. “I haven’t laughed since the day I left you.” She turned her face to his palm, not carrying about the leather. “Tell me truly, Aeris.” That lifted her eyes and his lit summer green. “Why did you disobey? I told you you mustn’t follow.”

“A-Are you angry with me?”

He couldn’t stand the fear and pushed back her bangs to lay a kiss on her rumpled brow. “I could never be angry with you, little flower, but I am concerned. If something had happened to bring you to harm, I’d never forgive myself.”

She sighed and caught a long lock of his hair, the silk memory returned at a touch. “I was obeying another order…even higher than a general’s.”

Her words widened his eyes as light overflowed, and Aeris lost breath to his brief expression. It was concealed quick, but the Cetra had seen, and her shiver was not for the cold. Sephiroth tilted her chin and traced her lips, and the distraction did its work. His sharp slivered pupils were utterly still on the soft upturned face. Her hood had slipped back in her previous struggles, her braid tumbled down her back. Hairs had fallen into her face and her bangs wisped with want of a brush. Through this all, his eyes pulsed down as his thumb gently stroked her cheek.

“What…is it?” She blushed as she spoke which at least helped warm her cheeks.

“I forgot, little flower…how I forgot how tiny and perfect you are.”

“Oh, Seph…I must look awful-”

“You’re beautiful, Aeris. In this world of endless horrors you shine with undying light.” He bent down to her and she parted her lips, as the Planet sang bright in her ears. A full harmony, a chorus of joy to make up for its long time mute. Sephiroth drank deep of what he thought lost, sliding a hand beneath her braid. Aeris clung to his neck seeking up for the taste, her feet nearly leaving the ground. He released with a bite for just a brief moment before claiming her mouth once more. Around her small waist he tightened his arm, as his other hand warmed her chilled cheek. Defying the dark, defying the cold to the swirl of the northern lights. He kissed her brow. He kissed her eyes. He kissed her cheeks and throat. The latter made moan move low beneath as the Great General half smiled.

“Shall we go then, little one. You and I?”

She placed a swift kiss on his cheek before Sephiroth re-stood to his height. He brushed a knuckle to the spot, looking at his glove in gracious awe. “Let me just get my things.” Aeris turned in his arms, but he was loath to let her go. She almost chided him in jest until she noticed the form far from the fire.

“Oh gods!” Her hands flew up to her mouth as Sephiroth tilted his head. “The other man, the one I…” She whirled and buried her face in his coat to the general’s joy if slight confusion. Her words were muffled in blackest leather, but his hearing was made for such. “I killed him…”

“That troubles you?”

“Or course it does!” She stared up in shock. His face was calm to half-lidded eyes as she worried her lower lip. “I’ve never killed anyone before.”

“But you fought.”

“But I never killed.” She took a breath. “I have to see if he’s alive.”

Sephiroth’s expression did not change, but his arms fully locked around. He hated himself for caging her so even as he said, “His heart still beats.”

“Y-You can hear that?” Her palms rested on leather clad arms, and despite himself he smiled.

“Yes, I can, so he lives still. You know I won’t lie to you. I won’t cage you either,” he said with regret. “If you ask, I’ll still let you go.”

“You’re the best protector I’ve ever had.”

“And this is the sweetest reunion I’ve ever known…”

That made her so sad for his concealed pain, as he indeed opened his arms.

“You truly feel bad.” It wasn’t a question as Sephiroth followed her towards the flat form.

“Yes, I do.” Aeris picked up her satchel, sighing for the mess of crumbs that now dwelled within. She grabbed her staff, too, just in case the prone form suddenly roused. My general would still move faster than us. “If he were awake he’d be begging for mercy.”

“Let him beg,” Sephiroth replied. “He would’ve made you do far worse and then raped you anyway.”

She shuddered as she neared his side. “I know…I mean I know that’s true. They were desperate men.”

“Are you excusing their actions, little flower…as you’ve forgiven me?” He had placed himself where he could swiftly act if anything went awry. Calculating where she’d be if he had to slay this foe. I’d snap his neck before he touched her. She need not endure the sword’s sight.

“I’m not excusing them, Sephiroth, not in the least.” She bent over the still frozen form. “You crave absolution, but I still have to forgive even if it’s unasked.” The Cetra smiled sadly. “Even if it’s only for my peace.”

She didn’t want to touch the filthy man as the remains of the fire succumbed. The air only trembled to brief rising winds that sent snow from the trees in a flurry. Crystalline tears sifted through the night, coating her skin and his with its chill. The only one unaffected was the Great General standing tall above. His hair matched the shimmer and his skin seared with warmth that melted the most stubborn flake.

“We can’t leave him here,” Aeris decided. “He’ll die in the night’s bitter cold.” She clasped her hands and looked up at Sephiroth, the blank mask that shielded his face. “That death will be on my head,” she whispered, and the general’s breath misted with sigh. His eyes cut the man as they bored deeply in to turn his waking mind back on. He moved too quickly for Aeris to see enclosing her again in his arms.

The ever silent figure pushed itself up, wobbling around a fixed point. His hand went to his jaw as his mouth worked cracked teeth, spitting what was broken out. Frozen hate lifted his eyes that quick melted within boiling wrath. He cast bitter glare to the flower girl whose lip trembled as he climbed to his feet. No glance went to looking for his once companion, as the woods swallowed him down with a shush.

“I never want to commit an act of violence again,” Aeris whispered when he was gone.

“Don’t worry, little flower. You won’t have to. I’ll be the one to bear that sin. My hands are forever unclean.”

She took that “unclean” hand and kissed it in leather, still smelling his fair scent beneath. Sephiroth swept her up in his arms and carried her through the dark pines. Aeris tried to tell herself that this couldn’t be real and all would fade to summer’s dream. If she were lucky then she would wake in her bed, if not, then defiled and torn. Tightening her arms, the Cetra’s words tumbled as a way to maintain the veil.

“I’ve thought of a wonderful name for you.”

“What name is that, Aeris?”

“Love.” She shook her bangs away to see him plain as his lips split in slightest part. Eyes half shadowed could not contain light as they sealed only for her kiss. “You’re my general,” she told him laying a hand to his cheek. “Even if I don’t always obey your commands.” He cradled her briefly in one arm to cover those fragile fingers.

“You’re not mine to command. You’re mine to protect, but which one am I then?” He tilted his head. “Love or general?”

“I think,” she said, “you’ll have to be both. Can I call you that?” Aeris became aware of her daring. “You always seemed to hate it before.”

Sephiroth wrapped her in both arms again, and the flower girl quelled her tears. They would freeze to her face like drops of pure joy and only cause him more worry. “What have I told you, my little flower? You may call me whatever you wish. My truncated name, my once designation…or love, which is best of them all.” He whispered the last in his own disbelief and lowered his shimmering eyes.

“There’s also ‘hero.’ Let’s not forget that.”

“All these names…pulled from the past, lost in my heinous deeds.” He pressed his head against her brow. “And you alone can revive them and make them more than what they were. Though…” He couldn’t help the smile as Aeris beamed through his words. “Now you have more names for me than I do for you.”

She blushed as he carried her through the black woods, his boots as silent as new snow. The trees were grown thick and the lights from above could not pierce that darkness veil, but that didn’t matter for he made his own, and no shade could best that gleam. She laid her face against his neck where silver hair swam with sweet scent.

“How did you find me, Aeris?”

“I always know where you are.” Her little voice was quiet so close to his ear, but he’d have heard it between the worlds.

“Do you really, little one?”

“Mmhm,” she said shutting her eyes and thanking the Planet for this grace. It chided her gently for being so silly, before starting the symphony just once more. “My dear friend, who won’t stop rejoicing, tells me so.” She turned so she could see him. “You kind of…took my heart, and I need to keep tabs on that.”

Beneath his armor she felt him wince as he jerked his face away. “I don’t understand how you bear my touch. I should…leave you in the Whispers.”

“I’d just follow you again.” It was said as one would simply utter, “The moon’s out,” or, “The wind is blowing.”

He shook his head at his small, stubborn rose. “You would, wouldn’t you, my precious flower. As much as I want you to keep you safe, I can’t help but love you for that. How could I leave you…knowing you’d follow and put yourself in danger’s way?” Torture turned his head again, and he hid something behind his lids. Aeris stretched up to kiss his cheek, and Sephiroth could not resist. He caught her lips to let their tongues dance slow and deep with the wildest wish. He wanted her bare and breathless and willing as unworthiness shredded his soul. Her soft teeth to his lip did stir up a chuckle, as he held her close to the flower girl’s sigh.

“There’s only one way for us to return…”

She knew it so hid her face. His arms tightened around her so carefully in attempt to contain her quake, but he was afraid to crush her too close and hurt his little flower. It’s the only thing I fear in this world. Harm coming to this precious rose. I’ll do anything. I’ll face any horror…

“It’ll find me…”

And that was the worst. “No it won’t, Aeris. I’ll never allow that filth to ever touch you.” The hands clasped at his neck brought him deepest shame for he was also that filth, but she didn’t see that for the trust on her face could shatter the bonds of despair. If they hadn’t been here in darkness and cold, Sephiroth would’ve sunk to his knees. Instead he shook his hair away so it caressed her skin. Wearing the general’s face for a mask, he said, “I’m going to move very swiftly. If you wish to see, you mustn’t blink.”

She did quite quickly several times and shuddered in his arms. “I never want to see the in between again. I’m just going to shut my eyes.”

“But little one, we’re already here…”

And when Aeris looked up she was home. Starlight spilled through her bay window and the sea welcomed her back like a friend. The tiniest gasp escaped her lips, as her protector wore a smile. She kissed him drinking vanilla and warmth as moonlight swept over her cheeks.

“I kept my promise,” he murmured against.

“You’ve kept them all.” She held his face. “Every single one you’ve kept for me and even some you didn’t make. Now you tell me true. Why were you in the forest? You said you were going to Winterborough.”

“I did go there, Aeris,” he admitted, “but…something called me to the woods.”

“Something…called you?” She stiffened in his arms and despair pealed the mask from Sephiroth’s flawless face.

“Where else to bury what is forgotten than a village made of bones…” He bowed his head. “If only it was.” Lifting full eyes that both pierced her soul and apologized for the pain. “I never dreamed of beauty or hope, but I did dream of you. I’d given up on that mercy and didn’t dare sleep, but you found me anyway. Before waking eyes in the midst of storm, I saw as you wandered alone. At first I thought it was my lonely mind creating your image out of snowdrops, but then I heard you call my name, and knew where I had to go.”

She pressed her cheek to his in utter elation, as Sephiroth half-blinked in surprise. “The Planet told me to go to you and showed me where you could be found! I think,” she whispered to bare contained joy, “I think it wants us to be together…for you to be happy at last.”

He lowered his head and she laid a palm to the pain written on his face. “You know I broke a promise to you…a vow made while you slept.”

“What promise was that?” She still held her smile as though indulging perpetual grief.

“To never leave you, Aeris, to never leave you alone.”

She frowned. “You said you’d leave me someplace safe, and that’s exactly what you did. When did you make this other promise?”

“When you were most vulnerable that stormy eve in nightmare’s bitter grasp.” His eyes lit her face. “What kind of protector am I, little one, to break such a promise as that? I have nothing else besides that vow, no other purpose in this world.”

She laid her head to armored shoulder, tangling fingers in silver hair. Breathing his scent brought long held tears that this truth would turn to dream, and beneath it, she feared his words unspoken would bury him in mourning.

“I never thought I’d see you again…”

“And that brings you highest grief.” Sephiroth tried to fathom from her face what he couldn’t delve in to see. “I don’t understand it, Aeris, this joy you find in me.”

She took his rue with her lips to his for no one need bear such burden. It was the only way for the maid to convey what lay deep in her soul.

He’d kept his eyes closed still after their embrace and her breath stirred those glorious lashes. The darkness of the in between still clung to his leather coat, as did the memory of swiping claws. They’d missed because he’d been too swift, but the monster had gone straight for her. He couldn’t full manipulate for like was like, but his will still bested the beast. It wanted her. It wanted her badly and was enraged that he would not obey. He’d heard the horror calling his name the moment he’d left Aeris’s presence, but he had no hatred left for it to latch onto his soul.

You have no power over me. I have nothing left but grief, and I’m not your son you foul get of the darkness. The rage I now bear is for her.

“I’ll never let anything hurt you, Aeris, and I’ll never leave you again.”


Author’s Note:  The sweetest reunion…but I have a few caveats.  I apologize for being lazy in putting Aeris into the same situation she came up against in the first chapter.  I’ve been thinking a lot about that particular rhetoric since that one particular Game of Thrones episode that created the Sansa Situation, which I discuss extensively here if you’re interested.  I don’t want to use that particular thing willy-nilly, but (unfortunately) in reality it is a situation that far too many women come across.  I hope you can forgive me for resorting to it once more.  I needed to put our heroine into peril, though of course by doing so, I create a situation for which she “needs” to be rescued *sigh*  I’m trying to look at it from the point of view that Seph will always protect her, but I can’t help but feel like a bad feminist.

The other potential issue is (hopefully) more forgivable.  Aeris states near the end of the chapter that she’s “never killed anyone before.”  I…can see this being realistic as she is more of the party’s healer and her actions mostly centered on that and support,  I hope you’ll indulge me in this supposition.

Now that my apologies are ended the next chapter is titled With Love Upon Your Name and it will be posted July 24.

Again and again I thank you all for your likes and follows!

<–Chapter 17                                                                                                Chapter 19–>

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7 thoughts on “Chapter 18 – When the Forest Sleeps

  1. That horrible crime does sadly happen frequently in our world. It’s foolish to ignore the problem, and we become more empowered if learn to defend ourselves. It’s just reality that men are born 40% stronger than women, and small minority of evil out there is capable of such ghastly acts upon those they see as “weaker”.

    If any of my fellow females out there have fears of running into such a devastating real life situation, I highly recommend taking a self defense class. I’m personally taking a martial art from called Combat Hapkido that anyone can learn. I can easily take down a powerful bodybuilder twice my size with some of the techniques I’ve been taught. You’d be surprised how easy it is to send a scary monster to the ground, crying on his knees, by just using a simple to master wrist lock.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There’s also some major stigma for women building muscle which is ridiculous and annoying. It’s like we get blamed for being weaker, but if we try to make ourselves stronger, we’re called “mannish” as if muscles just belong to men. Ridiculous contradictions and double standards.

    One of my favorite stories is when I was in college my friend’s cocky (now ex) boyfriend decided to boast about how touch he was, and another friend who was female said she could take him down in less than a minute…and she did. He insisted he wasn’t ready so she let him get ready…and took him down again 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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