Chapter 23 – Judgment

<<–Preamble/Prelude

<–Chapter 22                                                                                               Chapter 24–>

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 do not own the rights to the featured artwork, which is located here I was unable find a way to contact the artist for permission. If you are the creator of this piece and if 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 where it is used.
“Justice can sleep for years and awaken when it is least expected. A miracle is nothing more than dormant justice from another time arriving to compensate those it has cruelly abandoned. Whoever knows this is willing to suffer, for he knows that nothing is in vain.”- Mark Helprin, “Winter’s Tale”

Sephiroth Chained in the Garden

Aeris was broken, curled in a ball against her guardian’s body. His head was turned sharp to one side, darkened eyes dull through their slits. Salt shimmered on his face like a starlight mask in beauty dead as a fallen flower. Near her feet was the oak staff, useless and grey as old wood. Why hadn’t it worked? He’d still been alive. Had her powers failed her at last? Maybe the Planet wasn’t now mute. Maybe she was forsaken. Her tears were trapped in his many wounds, the mortal and grim, and moonlight spilled in sorrow tangled deep in blood and ash.

A scrape and a clatter lifted her head, eyes dull as a year without rain. If darkness was rising once more for her blood, the Cetra did not even care. She’d beg it for moments alone with her grief before completing the sacrifice. And before her sight was the changed girl, though that was no longer right. Phaedra crept to his other side careful around the broken wing. Her lips were parted and dry to her tongue. The tremble rode her skin like a wave.

“Is it…it is really him?” Her voice was high and shy. She was only a child as Aeris had been merely century ago. The Cetra stared blankly forgotten the moments where they’d faced the world’s true foe. This had been its vessel, but now she was blank like a water jug ever unfilled.

“Yes.” The word was croaked like a crow, and Aeris laid a hand to his belt. That strange insignia was now rimmed in blood still warm beneath her fingers.

Phaedra stretched a hand slowly forth, but pulled it back as though struck a sharp blow.

“He was beautiful…”

“He still is,” Aeris said, meeting her gaze at his face. “Death can’t tarnish that truth.”

Phaedra lurched up, pushing tipped hair away from her hollow face. She took in the vestiges of torture strewn about the deep room, forcing her eyes avoid the inevitable if they ever wanted to see something else. The stairway was crumbled too far up to reach without the power of flight. She picked at the tattered lace on her hands staring into that yawning maw. The scratching was ceased, but horror still lingered. Memory to make nightmares real.

“We should…get out of here,” she whispered, and Aeris glanced over still wrapped in a dead angel’s embrace.

“You can go. I need to…abide for awhile.” She finished with her head on his chest.

“I won’t be able to see.” Small tentative steps brought the girl towards the passage. Her boots crunched on something, a scalpel more rust than steel upon the floor.

“How did you do it before?” Aeris asked then wondering at the distance.

Phaedra half turned, unsure of her back within the sight of that tunnel. “When…it was in me, my eyes had light…similar to his.”

“No.”   The word made the Follower jump back so she bumped against a desk. Cobwebs were strung between two computers as though spiders had written that code. “They weren’t like his,” the flower girl countered, clenching her fist on leather black. One tear had escaped his eye to shine on frost white skin. The Cetra knew it would be cold as if winter itself did weep. She lifted a hand suddenly ashamed and shut the thin veined lids. His lashes so long curled wet on his cheeks, brushing against the blood there.

Phaedra gave a glance to the dark before approaching Aeris again. “You’re the last Cetra…” she whispered in awe. “The one…the one he killed…”

“That was never him,” Aeris said softly giving the girl a sad gaze. “That was the horror that dwelled in you, too.”

“I’m sorry…I’m so sorry for that. I…shouldn’t have treated you so badly before. The abomination…it wanted him back, wanted him that very moment.”

“It’s…it’s fine. Please, please don’t…apologize to me…” But then she was lost in the tide of tears too great to be fully hidden. A sharp sniff stopped them abruptly, and Aeris made herself to sit up. The time for survival was forcing her sorrow away from the front of her mind. She was deeper in Midgar than ever she’d been with nowhere to go but through night. The webs of lost promises fell into tatters, sundered by death’s brutal cut. She wiped her face raw and let summer lift to her love for one final look.

“How are we going to get out?” the Cetra asked, keeping tight rein on her voice.

“There’s only one way.” Phaedra pointed and Aeris’s heart sank within.

“Is it straightforward at least?” Her tone had turned flat.

“I…I think it is.” The girl raked fingers through two toned hair, and the flower maid wished to surrender. If the dark did lead them away from this place, it would take her back to the slums. Sector 2 where she’d be trapped with no way to even reach her church. She’d become a mouse weaker than a rat trying to claw its way through a wall, but the Cetra had lived too long destitute to completely give up now. Sector 2 was closer to the edge than her church had been. She’d have to find a way past the fence and what waited beyond. Then through the wasteland rife with deep chasms and possibly to Kalm. The thought turned amorphous and somehow the maiden was walking on the beach by her home. The dream was inane and every step was more impossible than the last. You selfish girl…you didn’t spare a thought for the plight of the bitter slums. People rotting beneath a dead city…and the world below silent still.

Too many horrible things had occurred for the Cetra to feel that impact. It was just another swirl of grief to add to the myriad layers. She shut her eyes for she wanted memory to have a sweeter sight. Lifting her face Aeris kissed his cheek where that tear was ice on her lips.

*

He floated in summer within endless green with silver hair swirling around. Descending down though gently buoyant, his head tilted slightly up. His eyes were still shut as if sealed by death. Oblivion needed no sight. It would be darkness, empty and cold, what he felt now was residue. His projection of self still garbed in leather laid a hand to the lily within. He didn’t need to see the petals to know they still bloomed, and the fallen angel smiled. That piece of her was bestowed on him, and he was thankful for undeserved gifts. He took a breath he didn’t need and felt no pain at the pull. The memory of such seemed suddenly strange like summer swept in snow.

Light still circled painting a picture of utter joy in his mind. His little flower wrapped in his arms watching sunset stain the sea. It tried to tinge his ashen hair, but that belonged to the moon. Aeris clasped his larger hands, tangling their fingers together. Sephiroth looked down or rather witnessed his vision-self perform the act. His expression beat sorrow into submission for her ecstasy in his arms. It never made sense her joy found in him, but he couldn’t deny it was there. The image wavered and melted back into the core of his memory, but others replaced it with joy. Her stroking his moonlit hair in the night beneath a sky that swam with stars. Then her in his arms as his lips refused to leave her skin in peace. Within cerulean vaults above, he carried her to the wind in his wing. She wanted to know if it went on forever, and he wanted to show her it did.

He floated in place still blind behind lids though light was bleeding through. It couldn’t be his. That wrong had gone out forever in the depths. Here and now was not the place to think of that past horror. Soft currents caressed his perfect face like the memory of her fingers, and the scent of summer was far too great for it to not be her. He opened his eyes and the gentle pulse of green light welcomed him home. There was only one color like this in all worlds, and it lived behind her soft lids. He peered about within the swell and no movement brought any pain. The great black wing rose high above, and he winced slightly to full shame, but this was another in between. He could only be himself.

Child. The voice rang through his soul, and the once general spun around. Confused to the echo within and without as streams of light followed his turn.

Are you speaking to me? He thought it was aloud, but his lips didn’t move to his voice.

No tangible answer filled his mind, only a burst of sweetest accord. Sephiroth half-shaded emerald eyes, ashamed they touched this place. What poured forth from Mako bright melded within luminous swells. This was its source and the general in terror realized this time he’d be judged. There was only one verdict that could be passed. The guilt poured from his skin.

You call me ‘child’ as if I deserve to know my mother’s name. He floated there stricken to his unseen assessor wishing to hide his wing. It didn’t matter. His crimes were apparent to what he had sinned against. Why it didn’t burn through corruption, the fallen would never know. Another sweet memory filled his mind, lifting the general’s head. Light shimmered behind his resealed lids as Aeris murmured his name with love. He reached out his hand to her fading fingers though her vision remained in his clutch.

What is this light? he had to ask.

It’s the same that lives in you.

Sephiroth shook his head, shivering silver that floated amongst the swells. No. This isn’t abomination.

Neither is yours no matter the method it was given. You suffered in madness…but you endured.

I suffered. It had to be a cruel joke, but there no animosity. More I was the bringer of woe. I am the one who walked that path.

A path you didn’t choose… The presence grew around him, holding the fallen up, and he wanted so much to believe. You gave your life for her, my most precious daughter…

What else do I have to give? I owed her my life. I owed her my blood. I owe her my very soul.

These deeds must not be unrewarded.

Her life is reward enough. The emerald gleam swam along his long lashes that tangled in streaming lights.

And her happiness?

Sephiroth looked up in sorrow as memories flowed through his soul. She holding his hand and leading him down the sea strand iced in night.

You can’t deny what you know is true. She has never been happier and is buried now in despair.

His heart was cut through that pain. But do I deserve such utter joy?

You deserve so much more, and besides… Slight amusement lifted that presence. How do you suppose she will escape that prison beneath the earth?

Mako eyes widened in horror and grief and without thought he spread that great wing. Sweeping it down to push himself through the tide that filled all above. Gentle laughter without mock sped him on his way, as Sephiroth soared swift through the stream up and up and up…

*

Burbling came like morning birds below instead of through the sky. Aeris heard the voice that plagued her days and filled her dreams at night.

Child.

What do you want? She glared at the ground and shook to fight her wrath. How dare it speak to her now when all was late and lost? Leave me be. Leave me alone with the grief you gave. Where were you when I desperately called? Teaching me another lesson? Showing me I once more must wait with death as my reward? No…I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You will never hear my voice agai-

Child, look up. I bring you a gift.

The pull to obey was too well ingrained though she hated her full obedience. Aeris raised her head to a glimmer of light seeping soft through his lids. The great cry from her soul held Phaedra so afraid that the girl backed towards the dark passage. His breath was a whisper raised to a hush as his brows knit together in ash. Fingers curled at Aeris’s waist, and she shook in disbelief. Laying her hands to his epaulets, she locked her ear against his chest. At first it fluttered like unsure wings before breath helped it catch the beat. There was never a sight more wonderful than that deep emerald light. It poured and poured to defy the darkness that had once more failed. She threw her arms around his neck and sobbed to him holding her close, each moment tighter to his returned strength until he had to temper it back.

Please, she prayed, let this be real.

The world laughed to her near broken promise. There was no malice as it gently sang in harmony to joy’s tears.

“You’re alive. How? How are you are alive?” She kept clutching and catching the smooth, silver skein, shaking with fear this would fade, but his grip just grew tighter enfolding his rose as his cheek slid soft against hers. Sephiroth refused to open his eyes for that would sure break this dream. Summer bested the stale, tortured air, and her joyful heart sang in his ears.

“There are things that death cannot conquer,” he whispered, “and that hate cannot wash away.” Aeris fell forward with her lips to his and he tasted her sweet then pulled back. “Ah no, little one. Don’t soil your tongue. My mouth is tainted with blood.”

“I don’t care.” She fought against his grip and Sephiroth could not deny her. He cupped the back of her head driving hard into what he’d thought was ever lost. “And it’s not…” Aeris whispered against his lips. “It’s not tainted at all.”

Sephiroth knitted his brows together peering down at his once broken form. The only blood he bore was residual, the only wounds worn memory. His flesh was whole, and as he sat up his wing hushed against the air. It left light behind as he hid it away before fingering the rents in the leather. Through and through and one strap was sundered by the death that he had faced.

“It appears I shall need another coat or a way to repair this one.”

“I’ll fix your coat for you, Sephiroth!” And she clung again to his neck. Chuckling the Great General climbed to his feet with only a little less grace than before. As he rose the cascade of silver shimmered down the black, and though blood tinged it, silk still held light enough to bath his little love. He held her tightly in his arms as she sobbed upon his shoulder.

“Weep with joy, little one. All is well now. I promised I wouldn’t leave you alone.”

“Not even death can make you break that vow…” She cleared bloody hair from his face.

“That’s right. I’ll always be your protector.” A form caught the edge of his eye and Sephiroth turned to lay light on what had been its shell.

The girl was shaking as she looked up at whom she’d both worshipped then abhorred. For moments long the general just stared seeking out shreds of corruption, but the only he could find just lived in him, and he was no longer its to command.

“I’m…I’m so sorry sir…”

Sephiroth shook his head. Aeris soft smiled despite her tears, anticipating his answer.

“No one should ever apologize to me.”

Phaedra’s eyes grew wide at that. She squeezed her fingers pulling again at the lace in threadbare gloves. “She…it promised me things. I-It told me…” She shuddered hard.

The general lowered his face with a nod. “You let the dark in. I’ve been there, child. I’ve been there far too deep. It would’ve torn through you just like a used match once burned to be discarded. The promises of darkness will never lead to light.”

The girl sniffled and rubbed hard at her cheek, the worn lace scratching her skin. “I remember everything…”

“And you will forever. That is the worst part.”

“Why didn’t you just kill me?” Phaedra asked.

“I wanted to.” The poor child froze. Lifting her eyes with fear on her face at his staunch directness. “But I’ve shed enough needless blood. The flames within will never die.” He shifted his gaze to the darkest corner. None needed to see that…what still lived inside and left a hollow for his guilt.

“I’m…not really mad at you for that.” Phaedra looked up through her bi-colored hair.

“Somewhere, child, you are. But it’s alright. I deserve that hate.”

“But it happened a long time ago, sir. I…wasn’t even alive then.”

“But it still shaped your life,” Sephiroth said shutting his eyes to the weight. “Daughter to mother, mother to grand. What we do ripples in time…”

“But it doesn’t have to rule you,” Aeris broke in, her bottom lip trembling to dual griefs. “I don’t understand something, though.” He turned back towards her. Despite horror and death, the general found smile for the wonderful sight of his rose. Her braid was messy and ribbon loose. Her dress hung half off her shoulder. He wanted to taste that bare, beckoning skin, a thought wholly inappropriate. He did kiss her brow and the flower girl blushed as if she could read his intentions. Clearing her throat to his half grin, she continued her concern. “Why was I so lucid and still able to think?” She gave a glance to the Follower of Seph. “I mean it drove my people mad, and I couldn’t hear the Planet. My dearest friend might have offered protection, but it was silent in my mind. I couldn’t hear the horror either though. It never once reached me.”

“I blocked it Aeris,” Sephiroth admitted laying his brow against hers. “I took all the horror directed at you. It couldn’t touch me. I’m too much like it.”

“You’re not like it at all.”

He shut his eyes with a soft smile and for once he felt no shame. “It’s part of me, but not the only part, and I won’t let it ruin my life with you.” He shook the silver away from his face so that blood would not touch her, but Aeris defied that to tangle her fingers in his red lined bangs.

“There’s only one way to get back, sir.” Phaedra forced herself face that passage.

Sephiroth sighed and glanced at the girl. “You don’t have to call me that.” He approached her and the nearness brought tremble on her sunless skin. Ignoring that the general let his light pierce the tunnel that was now only dark. Then with Aeris still in his arms, he turned to fetch his sword. It was still waiting where it had fallen from his once weakened hands. The flower girl clung hard to his neck as he crouched to pick it up, but it was merely a weapon once more with its use determined by will. Whatever corruption had lingered on steel did not now dull the blade, and Sephiroth slid it in between to Phaedra’s unhidden gasp.

“Are you going to put me down so I can get my staff?” Aeris asked when he stood back up.

“I never want to put you down again, little flower. Maybe when we reach the Whispers far away from this place, but until then, until we’re gone from here, I want you in my arms.” He crouched again to retrieve her staff, and her little hand closed around.

“I don’t understand why it didn’t work,” she murmured to the dull gleam. The general stepped around the debris for graves should not be disturbed. No matter the horrors that had been preformed her, the victims deserved their peace.

“What didn’t work, Aeris?”

“My prayer. My spell. You were still alive…”

His thoughts turned inward to lifted lips. “Your ‘dearest friend’ had need of me…or rather I had the need.”

“Oh!” the flower maid gasped with joy. “You were in the Lifestream!”

“Again. Yes, little one, I was.” How gracious that was crossed his perfect face and left awe behind the mask. “And it was made up of only memories. Memories of you, little flower, better than any paradise. It was as though I’d fallen into your pure, green eyes, and I could only be myself, but not what I fear. I was what you see. You see me different. You see me pure.”

“I only see what’s there.”

He didn’t respond, turning to Phaedra. “This path isn’t wide and just high enough for me to pass. If you go in first my eyes will still lead you. The light in them is bright enough.” The girl quickly nodded, and he held a sigh for hero worship returned. “If I see or sense anything foul, you should try to get behind me. You’re not my little flower…” He squeezed her closer as if to ensure she still dwelled in his arms. “But it’s my fault you were in this position, and I’ll protect you, too.”

Residual light from that lowest lab attended them at the start of their way, but brighter before was burning emerald to part the deepest shades. His epaulets scraped against the walls, which were manmade and smooth. A vestige of a spy way, Aeris was unsure, though it hardly mattered now. The Cetra could barely see around his wide frame blocking the past light. An outline that shimmered against his bright armor, fading as a corner was turned. In utter darkness his pupils receded to float in a sea of green. Crystalline emerald that reminded the maid of the north she had only seen once.

Phaedra laid one hand to the wall for a tether to the mundane. The Mako gleam created shadows that reminded her of what she’d been, but glancing back almost seemed worse for the glaring source of that light.

“What will you do when we return? Do you wish to leave the city?” His voice shook cloying air.

It was more dry than damp, but Aeris clung tighter to the weight of the world above. Her friend spoke in nonsense, too overjoyed to provide much counsel now. The Cetra took that as a sign of no danger. And besides I’m in Sephiroth’s arms…

“Everyone wants to leave the city,” Phaedra said, picking at lace.

The flower girl had only half formed her reply as Sephiroth froze facing the wall. Shifting the Cetra, the general laid finger to a slim crack in the ancient stone. It felt like an abyss and not just a fissure dwelled amidst those two sides.

“Seph?” Her little voice broke through his mind. “Sephiroth, what is it?”

“It’s very thin here,” he replied in quiet, and his words seemed to be sucked inside. “Like the slightest slice could cut through the air.” The light dimmed low behind one lid as the other eye peered through the crack. “I can see in between…”

“But you told me you can’t do that in Midgar.” She couldn’t help it and started to shake.

“That was the case.” He noticed her tremble and wrapped her in both of his arms.

“That’s its world, isn’t it?” Phaedra’s voice was flat, but Aeris sensed her terror, too.

“It is,” Sephiroth affirmed, “but it’s gone now, and the beast so enraged is silent. Without madness whispering in your ear, any monster can be tamed…” He laid his palm flat against the wall and revealed, “I can sidestep from here.”

“Sidestep?” Phaedra asked and in his gleam the shadow of fear ruled her face.

“Yes.” He looked to Aeris then as she clung tight to his neck. “It’s alright, little one.” He stroked her soft hair. “The monster within is silent. It won’t hurt you and if it tried, I would kill it still. Besides…” He smiled. “I’ll be quick and take us to the surface.” He turned to Phaedra. “Take my hand.” And then heard her heart erupt. Two rapid beats flooded his ears, Aeris’s tied to a brief whimper. She ceased it at once, ashamed of herself, but still buried her face in his hair. His scent calmed her pulse, and she clutched the wood staff to ground her straying thoughts.

Phaedra’s fingers tentatively reached for that large hand, and the warmth fueled infatuation. So swiftly he stepped toward that thin crack, and dampness was torn by stale cold. It prickled the back of Aeris’s neck, but lasted less than a moment. That world that was dead was now also empty. The monster no more dwelled within. In the space of a blink he had time eternal, but in all that could not find the beast. Mortal eyes though would see nothing but blur, a monochrome world quickly faded, and then they were standing on the steps of the tower as twilight fell around.

The wound of dusk bled across the raw sky, but above the world it was bright. Phaedra fell full to her knees once Sephiroth released her hand. He laid those fingers to Aeris’s skin, tilting back the frightened face. The flower girl blinked and winced at the light that mocked the dead, somber city. She wished she could say her eyes merely watered and were not soaked again with tears. Poor Phaedra kneeling did not even try to hide what flooded her sight. Amidst the abandoned, debris strewn streets she wept in the fading daylight.

Aeris gave Sephiroth a brief glance and with reluctance he set her down. The Cetra stepped gingerly towards the poor girl and laid a hand to one heaving shoulder. “It’s overwhelming…I know.”

“Where is everyone?” Phaedra sobbed, and Aeris lowered then shook her head.

“Gone,” she told her. “Gone for years.” She glanced to Sephiroth for validation. He’d clasped his hands behind his back, bowing his head as though this were his shame.

“There’s no one here?” the Follower asked, lifting her eyes to the sun on the seam. She sniffled and passed a hand over her face, darting her gaze in disbelief. But no city dwellers shimmered before. Her tears obscure no absent forms.

“No,” the general’s low voice rang with grief. “They all left long ago.”

“Everyone in the slums. They…didn’t tell. They just fled and left us all here.”

Aeris rubbed the poor child’s shoulder as a swift thought turned her face to the tower. Sunlight reflected up the full length, though the monolith remained ever dull. Her hand froze and squeezed, and Phaedra half choked at the sudden dig of little fingers.

“Sephiroth,” she whispered afraid to speak too loud, and the general sealed the short distance. “You were able to open the tower up here. Could you do so below?”

He frowned in thought. “I suppose I could. The codes would be the same. I remember where the control room is and could override all the locks.”

Aeris’s heart full flooded with joy. “Everyone can get out! Out through the tower.” She shook Phaedra’s shoulder as the girl blinked confused. “Child, we’re going to open the doors. The slums will be a prison no more.”

*

Phaedra gaped in awe for so long both her eyes and throat dried out. The lobby so dusty still bested her memory for luxury never seen. She could only follow as her title dictated the general and flower maid. He was holding her hand as they walked to her pace, but the Cetra was surprisingly swift. The corners of exhaustion did weigh down her feet, but she fought it renewed by her task.

The silver doors were ignored in favor of stairs. Sephiroth would not retake that risk as he scooped Aeris into his arms. Up the stairs he nearly flew and Phaedra gulped breath to keep up. The luxurious hallway was coated in dust over the expensive carpet. He ignored it all, the empty rooms, the flood of bitter memory to let latter lead him where the floor fell bare and the hum of technology ruled. He shook his head as though chiding a forgetful child who’d left on the light in an empty house. The code came quick and illumination flooded harsh to motion a century late. His Mako eyes swept over monitors and blinks that proved everything that still fed. It wasn’t them all…that was just an illusion, a trick of corruption below. Giving Aeris a soft glance, Sephiroth set her down near the row of still humming machines. He knocked the dust off one of the chairs and cleared the cobwebs from a monitor. Not nearly as bad as the ones deep below, but he was glad it was old technology. That’s what I am, too. A sudden dark thought, but he was more than adept at its tongue.

Aeris tried to follow, but her poor eyes just blurred, the green streaming to ribbons of light. His fingers flew as graceful as he over the dusty keys. The codes and commands came back in an instant with each click leading him in. Green letters on black, paler than his eyes and fading before emerald light. His authorization was entered a half dozen times, and encryptions at least twice more. They had wanted no one to break through their walls, but the general found no resistance. One by one he unlocked every door and ensured that the lights were full blue. What the wretched in the slums might’ve thought to that sight sank Sephiroth’s ailing heart. I’ll know soon enough… He shook it away with the silver locks that had fallen forth.

Standing he turned to find Phaedra dumbstruck. “Bring me everyone,” he commanded. “The gates are unlocked. The doors are now open. The slums are a prison no more.” He smelled the tears from Aeris’s eyes before they could fully form. Her voice cut the hum of power from Mako still forged in reactors below.

“Sephiroth…” Despite whisper he heard it so clear. She had no strength left to speak. His speed was unreal as the general caught her before Aeris could faint dead away.

*

The flower maid dwelled in her own in between, but his embrace was ever there. His large, careful hand was laid to her face, as he nearly shouted her name. It wasn’t exhaustion. It wasn’t fatigue. This weariness went far beyond. Letting it take her was sweetest release. She knew he would never let her fall, and his arms were the safest of havens. Pale summer green fluttered to open drawn to that beautiful face. She smiled to dispel the pain in his heart wedded to guilt once again.

“I’m so sorry, Aeris. I’m so very sorry. I’ve neglected you, little flower.”

“Nonsense,” she whispered touching his cheek, but gravity was too hard to fight. She wanted to tell him it wasn’t his fault. That fell to full fear without rest. Or sustenance, she remembered and felt far away how empty her belly was. With horror loud calling something so mundane had meandered away from her mind. She faded again with a smile on her face for his ceaseless strength.

The Cetra woke with the scent of tea in her nostrils and thought, I must be home. Maybe it was all a dream, but I truly hope not all. Leather wreathed around vanilla and her head was slightly raised. She was warm and so she smiled, facing a tangle of chestnut hair. A soft swath of ribbon fell against her face, and Aeris cleared it to open her eyes. Dusky darkness filled her view that brightened as she focused. She was lying on something musty but soft, her head cradled on leather sleeve. The flower maid couldn’t help her smile despite hunger and lingered fatigue, for there he was kneeling by her side. A curtain-less window brought in wane light, but it bowed before emerald green.

“Where are we?” she asked almost whimsically as if the answer didn’t matter.

“Still in the tower.” Sephiroth shook his hair back to cascade on flawless skin. “I found an apartment that still had a bed and wasn’t completely ransacked.” Aeris went to sit up and the general helped her, taking her hands as he pressed brow to brow.

“How long has it been?”

“Over a night. You terrified me, little rose.”

“You in terror…” It seemed so absurd. Without coat he was utterly perfect. He reached toward the table to bring back what explained the scent of tea.

“Drink, little one.” It was soft command and her small fingers closed around.

“Where did you get this?” she whispered in awe.

“I went back to the Whispers.”

Aeris shook her head now completely convinced that this was dream. “But…but how-”

“I sidestepped there.”

“But I thought you couldn’t do that in Midgar!”

“I can now.” He peered up and haunting green eyes watched her gentle brush through his hair. Dried blood still clung there, and she registered her surprise that she smelled none on his coat. “When I opened the tower, I found that blocked door. I was right in what I surmised. It had been set up as a means of control, but was painfully easy to hack.” Sephiroth glanced away for a moment, pupils slicing the past. “And so I freed the fourth layer.”

“D-Did you say it was a full night?” She remembered his earlier words.

“More, little one. Here eat this. I brought you soup.”

“Is there anything you can’t do?” she whispered with awe.

“I can’t change the past. I can’t fix the horrors I’ve wrought.”

“You’re wrong about that.” Aeris shook her head as she closed her hands around the bowl. “At least the latter. You’ve more than made up for them all.”

“Not all, little one…” He gave her a spoon. “It’s only canned but it’s warm.”

Her raw hunger did not care. It was quickly stifled in just a few bites and the rest of the soup filled her up. It seemed so absurd to be sitting in Midgar, in the tower that had robbed all of life. And of course then there’s him…but he’s not absurd, at least not any more.

Sephiroth rose, taking both vessels when the flower girl was finished. Setting them down, he bent to her low and kissed the little maid on her brow. She buried her fingers in silver soft hair as he tilted her mouth up to his. Claiming her gently, he tasted the tea that stained her sweeter lips. The general sighed with his hands on her shoulders before turning towards the window. Aeris rose, too, beside the tall form, unwinding the leather to offer it back. He took it, slipping the coat over broad shoulders and making his hair light the gloom. One clasp was twisted and cold on his chest as a strap hung against his high belt. It didn’t matter. All that did now was his tiny flower was whole.

“Where’s our new friend?” The Cetra’s half smile was lost as he lowered his head.

“Fulfilling her task. You’d be amazed Aeris at how quickly such news can spread. I warned her to not mention my name. You told me what happened before…”

The flower girl leaned against his side, taking his larger hand between her two. Mako light seared the world beyond the window, and the mask tried to hide from her sight.

“Everyone will escape then we can go home…” Too much joy would make her burst.

Sephiroth sealed the emerald hard and turned to face his flower. “One of those things is certainly true.” His voice was a hollow stone.

“Sephiroth…what it is?” She squeezed his hand hard, and her general answered her gentle. He spoke just like a man condemned and that made less than sense.

“In that blackest of labs, the Follower said I could never be forgiven.”

“No, she didn’t say that. The false mother did, and you’re forever freed of those lies.”

He shook his head slowly, and moonlight hair licked all along Aeris’s arms. “They were tied together as I was long ago. Half truths are worse than lies. It’s hard to see where they sit in between, but I know that one thing is true. I will never be forgiven, Aeris, and I can no more hide.”

“What do you mean, Sephiroth?” Her palms slicked in sweat as the blood receded beneath now pallid skin.

“The people of Midgar, all those from slums…they deserve their justice.” He turned to her fully to summer soaked eyes wetting chestnut on her cheeks. Her heart beat in fear drowned by pure love, and Sephiroth could hardly stand it. This innocent maiden he’d killed and then died for who adored him above the sky. “I shall be tried and I shall be judged. It’s only fair, my little flower. They have the right,” he laughed without mirth. “An angel who forgot his place and tried to be a god…

“I suppose you won’t just step away.” Her voice was heavy to hide that shame.

“No. I’ve been hiding my entire life. Hiding behind madness. Hiding behind glamour. Hiding behind long dead lies. It’s enough, little one. It’s time to shed shadows. It’s time to face my fate.”

“Haven’t you already done that? Haven’t you been judged enough?!” It was wildly unfair, and Aeris knew she was being as selfish as a child. “You wandered in darkness for a hundred years. You were tortured all the days of your life. You were impaled and so paid that ‘debt,’ and you’re telling me that’s not enough?!”

“The slum-born deserve their justice, too,” he said so calmly it hurt. “And I am the symbol of all that oppressed them, the product of their grief.” Aeris wanted to rail and beat at his chest with tiny, useless fist, but he would just catch her or he would just let her. She wasn’t sure which one was worse. Besides she would never act in violence against her general again. “If they wish to re-cage me, I’ll accept it, my rose.”

“I’m not going to let that happen to you. I’m not going to let you suffer!” He raised his brow at her vehemence and slid a hand down her messy braid. In eyes ripe with anger tangled with fear, he saw the foundation was love. “If it comes to that,” she swallowed, “I’ll stay here with you.”

“No, Aeris,” he forced authority. “I’ll take you back to your seaside house. You mustn’t live your life in darkness for a murderer’s sake.”

“I will.” Her stubbornness trumped his command. “I won’t leave you.” Aeris squeezed both fists around his larger hand. “I won’t leave you to suffer such bondage alone. If you take me to the Whispers, I’ll find my way back.”

He narrowed the light til it cut, but she was immune and just kept glaring. “How will you survive down there alone?”

“I did it before, didn’t I? Besides,” she whispered stepping closer, “I won’t be alone. I’ll be with you. I’ll hold your hand through the prison bars just like I’m doing now…”

He swept her up in utter grief and tried to bury it in a kiss. Over and over tongue plunging deep until she wanted to cry his name. He held this moment savored so sweet for he had no hope for the future. He’d receive his reward in blackness so bound, chained in the dark ever more. Light was not meant for one such as he, joy was not made for a monster. This beautiful flower wrapped in his arms just had to be convinced, but though Sephiroth could crush men’s bones and bend their minds, he could not sway his stubborn rose.

The general heard the girl before she knocked on the open door. Two beautiful faces turned toward the sound, one blushing and one masked so pale. Phaedra had abandoned her battle torn dress though she was still dressed in black. Boots and buckles to try to match him and make up to whiten her face.

“S-Sir,” she swallowed the stammer. “Sir, e-everyone is ready.”

“What did you tell them?” He put Aeris down to wrap her in his arms.

Phaedra scraped her hair back, tips tickling her ears. “Only the truth…someone was able to unlock the gates. I just didn’t say who it was.” A quick smile coy covered her lips, and Aeris could see how the girl had survived. “I did tell my Followers, but they’ve kept their secrets nearly for forever. That’s why what’s left are still alive. Everyone’s outside the tower. They…didn’t want to come inside.” Phaedra rubbed her arm covered by long, fingerless glove. “There really aren’t that many people. There weren’t a lot of us left…”

“Aeris-”

“I’m coming with you,” she interrupted before he could say anything else. Sephiroth nodded, not willing to argue. There’d be no winning anyway.

“Are you alright to walk?” was all he would ask, and Aeris smiled while looking up.

“I’m fine for now and I’ll look more imposing if you’re not carrying me.” Her laugh brought a softness to bright emerald eyes, and his lips tilted up ever slightly.

Phaedra led the way through the muted dark hall that wore its luxury like defiance. The lights here were non-sensored and just dully gleamed though more than half were long spent. Paint peel and the scent of dry rot tinged their nostrils as they passed. Many doors were open and revealed scattered contents, the windblown, the ransacked, the lost. It was as though they had been late for the last train and if missed it would spell only doom. Aeris craned her neck wondering where they had gone. Were their descendants her neighbors now? Did Myrna or Nellie hold this fateful secret? Did Edwin’s grandfather hail from this rot? Edwin, she pondered his face indistinct. I’m surprised I remember his name. She squeezed Sephiroth’s hand as he breezed by the Follower who’d called the elevator to take them down.

The stair door was still there though it hung off its hinges, and Phaedra stumbled to catch up. “I took the elevator, sir,” she told him in pant watching the banner of silver soft sway.

“We tried to go down,” he said without stopping though he did pull Aeris close. “It ended quite poorly so I shall not trust it again.”

The lobby was humming and the skylight was bright so the lights above muted their gleaming. Aeris’s heart matched the stumble of her feet as she realized she should’ve been praying. Oh my dearest friend, though that title is tied, please let him be judged for the present. Her response was soft music, grey and forlorn, and Sephiroth tied their fingers together. The world had spoken to him only in death, but her grief was too easy to hear. His eyes slid to neon to buy himself time as they stepped through the lobby doors.

The girl had not lied. Their numbers weren’t many. Maybe two hundred, maybe less. This was all that had made it after the flight, after their high oppressors had left. White skin was pale and dark skin waxed grey in the unblemished afternoon light. Midgar still made the sky look yellow as if the sight of that scar made it sick. Many huddled against cars or in the shadow of debris for something decrepit to cling to. It had been all they’d known and though finally free, it can be hard to let go of one’s chains. The bravest sat or lounged with arms folded tight, trying but unable to look bored. These ones were rougher and neon swept over seeing within them survival meant violence. They’d been of that sector where it had rained blood, but had not been present that day. As if then past drawn, his eyes found the one he had spared by his flower’s behest. He hid behind one of the braver souls, a lackey through and through.

Aeris clutched Sephiroth’s hand so tight her fingers began to ache, but she had to do something when sight of his jailer crossed her innocent gaze. The man that she’d compared to a jackal who looked far more devious now. Then she saw the children and quick hid the gasp of relief and sorrow to their plight. They stood together oft clutching each other for that was what they’d clung to. A few pointed up at the sky above, more enraptured than any adult. All of the people were out of their element like lost mice awaiting the cat.

Phaedra hurried to where her Followers were gathered and whisper rose up like a storm. They were twenty strong maybe a bit more and stood separate and off to the side. Disgust and hatred emanated their way from the people Midgar had destroyed. Most dressed in black and they had clearly fared better than the majority of the slums, and not too far away were the other “elite,” proving hierarchy exists even below.

“Are you the one who opened the gates?” a voice called from the back.

Sephiroth let the neon burn almost too bright as he sought that speaker out. Aeris stood before him hard gripping his hand in all of her little fingers. Two hundred heartbeats and still he could find the one that made pain so sweet. He wrapped his arm around his flower running every thought through his mind. The only difference between here and below was now he was the only monster.

“I did.” His voice echoed through air. The Cetra couldn’t explain how those two small words held a wealth more answer than demanded. “But I’ve done far more…far more than that, and you deserve to know.” His glamour dropped like shattered glass and emerald dimmed the day. Fury and terror tore through the crowd save the Followers in fear and elation. Sephiroth turned toward them with a sad shake of his head, and their squeals and gasps died away. Aeris pressed herself into the wall that was him as hatred and fear did war. He’d been the cause of their long interment. This brief freedom above didn’t count. Sephiroth stood tall holding her close as the rumblings turned to a roar.

“Hear me first,” the once general said, his voice echoing in command. He’d done it on purpose though felt his guilt tearing his heart in that act. They mustn’t hurt her. If my words can stop that, I’d rip through every mind. Looking down he met Aeris’s gaze and took heart from purest light. “This little flower saved you all…saved you all from me. That must be told first.” He lifted his head and tossed silver hair aside. Aeris shut her eyes to moonlight brush wishing for different moments. She turned it to prayer, and the Planet low murmured tingling her feet through her boots. Sephiroth slid past her to approach the crowd that tensed like an angry snake. The glint of blades and dull sheen of gun metal only made him sadder. He ceased motion though when that wall of hate could not be discerned from the fear.

“She is the last Cetra.”

His voice echoed as the so-named clasped her hands distraught. A soothing cool flowed through her mind, and she shook at her dearest friend’s calm.

“And I once took her life.” He bowed his head, face obscured by long hair. “She saved you all and blessed me with forgiveness.” Sephiroth hard shut his eyes. He didn’t need sight to know if one moved, but though hatred steamed they remained still. The only reprieve came from the Followers, but they were in minority. “I cannot ask for such from you who rotted long in darkness, but at very least let me tell my story before judgment is passed on.”

The roughest men slid their weapons away as if sense descended with dusk. Hardened faces still glared at perfection as if to tear it to shreds, but the worst of the bile came from the common, the slum born who’d huddled in hovels. It was eating them hollow from the inside, hatred so held through the years. The only ones who looked at him with nothing were the children he had once walked among. There was neither assent nor was there denial. Metal scraped as the crowd tensed on cars, anger contained in taut skins.

The general paced the stairs to the tower, his heart heavy with the words he would say. Even when freed they would weigh him down more than the chains that would be his due. He looked to Aeris. It could not be helped and then she was there by his side. Sephiroth had to hold her before in these moments to tie her memory to his skin. There was no way in heaven or eternal dark he’d let her abide by his cage.

He started in darkness, the black labs below, where he’d been created and born. The years of injections, the beatings, the pain all rolled off his tongue. His voice never changed as though reading a paper about unfortunates long, long ago. Only Aeris’s tears spilled soft on his hands proved such terrible truth. The only time joy crept into his voice was when he spoke about first meeting her. Not all was remembered and Sephiroth told that, but the memory of innocence was pure. Then to his mission and then to his madness and then to a murdered maid. She’d prayed and prayed for the light to save them, but her answer was only dark blood. Sephiroth locked his arms at her waist and looked down for minutes long. The crowd muttered but mutely in his ears now as he took forgiveness looking up. The thought came to him, If Midgar so hates me, what then of Nibelheim? But this wasn’t the moment, and he took a deep breath to speak then of his quest for godhood. The false mother’s words like a worm in his brain burrowing through all that was good. He told of her friends and how they’d fought despair despite all he had wrought. Then death which should’ve been the end, but was only a brief release. Finally to cold and lucidity and the century before his escape.

When Sephiroth reached the part of his capture, the jackal was terrified. It didn’t help that emerald seemed to pierce his soul, finding it without any effort, but that gaze slid away to make all uncomfortable wherever the Mako light fell. The name of his mother caused the words dry for moments that could’ve bled dust, and Aeris tilting her head back and up poured love from her crown to her toes.

All of it told and all then confessed and he was grieved that he was so right. There was no release from the burden of it, as he bowed his head to wait. Sephiroth could hear the hum of reactors and smell their acrid scent. He held to the heart of his little flower flying so fast to his worry. The murmur of the masses melded with thrum of the Mako in their midst. Then it overrode it and shouting commenced, people screaming about what he deserved. Sephiroth dimmed his senses to the arguments about his punishment and fate. It troubled him only because Aeris wept to hear what some wished for her love.

“Whatever you decide,” the general interrupted, “I will abide by your wish.” That stilled the loud waters like pre-storm calm, and his jailor glared wary and taut. Sephiroth peered through as Aeris stared in horror reaped by imagination. They’d drag him through darkness back to his cell where they would leave him forever. Then like the others they’d just walk away after sundering the key. He wouldn’t fight them, and he wouldn’t escape no matter how Aeris would sob. Only her safety would cause him to act, but the slums would be still as a grave. The flower girl buried her face in his chest, her tears sliding on broken straps. Sephiroth gently rubbed her back with his unblinking eyes on the crowd. Their voices had lowered into the huddle that would decide his fate. Everyone now and then a Follower spoke up to be brutally cursed into silence. They were his only hope of absolution, and their words meant less than dust. He shut his eyes savoring the warmth of his flower in his arms. If he just imagined he could smell the sea mixed with her summer skin. The breeze that scattered debris in Mako reek was blown to sand and salt, and the murmurs of judgment changed to wave whispers as the gentle surf greeted the shore.

“Sir?” The dream burst in darkness, and emerald lit up Phaedra flanked by two of her ilk. Her lips were bloodless, thin, and white, her skin sallow in the sun. She flung her gaze over her shoulder to the jackal and his own followers. One glare sent her scurrying off to the side, and Sephiroth wondered how they would now fare. Their secret was out, but then so were the slums. Nothing held them here anymore. The rough men stood at the bottom of the stairs, and the general was a stone for their hatred. Aeris sniffed once and turned back around, jolted at verdict quick reached. She blinked away tears so summer turned sharp enough to rival the Masamune.

Even the hum of reactors descended to the bottom of Sephiroth’s hearing. The crowd was taut as a new strung harp, arms folded over their resolution. All were in accord and the Followers were blank, whispering among themselves. Even that died away to quick clinking of metal before silence fell down like the night.

“You are more than guilty.” The jackal leered up, the words too delicious to keep.

Sephiroth fell to his knees as Aeris’s sobs shattered his last thread of hope. Long hair tumbled in silver moon pool upon the black of his coat. He bowed his head to the slim arms round his neck and the prayers that were wept in his ear. Her dear friend said nothing but made soothing sounds as one placates a child about death.

The general lifted his face through the rain of ashen hair. “I accept my fate and take my punishment. I only ask one thing.” Emerald flooded the waste of that place, bringing a hint of chill to the air. “Do not hurt her.” He turned to his rose for only a moment, and she slid moonlight locks from his face. “I will kill anyone here who tries and then rot in that prison forever and more.” The sigh shook the great form low on its knees. “Do what you will with me.”

The jackal tapped the barrel of a makeshift gun before brushing against a length of chain. His cronies folded their arms and spat on the steps, peering at their leader askance.

“Time served.” It was grumbled as the crowd grimly nodded.

“Wh-What was that?” Sephiroth stammered. Superior hearing must have failed. Aeris clutched his shoulders, hands stiff on bright armor as her gaze ran like a stream through that throng.

“You served your time.” This came from the back, a woman’s voice heavy with years.

The general could only gape blinking as in that instant sorrow’s tears turned to joy.

“You can thank her mostly.” A man stepping forth said whose hair was too young to be grey. “If the last Cetra can forgive you, well…” He gave her a nod. “I don’t see how we could do any less.”

“It’s isn’t forgiveness!” the jackal spouted turning red. “It’s ‘time served.’ That’s not the same thing at all!”

Sephiroth peered his way, and the man backed up, fear turning his eyes wet and raw. The general didn’t see him and for a moment the past freed his mind. He could be guilty and he could be cursed, but he would not be parted from her. All he could know, all he could feel were tiny fingers entrenched in his hair. Turning to Aeris, he gripped the small shoulders and laid his brow to hers.

“Does the damned dare dream of light? Does the fallen dare think this can be?”

“Yes.” The word burst from her lips with joy’s tears, and Aeris threw herself into his arms. With grace never ending, Sephiroth stood, rising high with his little flower. “The smallest bit of hope will light any darkness. You’ll never be chained again.”

He kissed her uncaring that they weren’t alone, curling his fingers against her smooth cheek. “My deeds will always haunt me, Aeris.” He turned briefly to the people in this truth. “But maybe…just maybe, ah, who can say? My heart need not only bear grief…”

She slanted her mouth over his again, then beseeched him put her down. He did with reluctance that made Aeris smile so she kept a tight hold of his hand.

“What will you do now?” she asked Midgar’s forgotten, and they rustled like autumn’s lost leaves.

“Leave this place.” There were no dissenters and it echoed in repeat. In that instant the Followers even seemed part of the crowd for nodding heads in a wave.

“There’s no saving it,” a young woman spoke up, holding a child in her arms. “And we wouldn’t want to anyway. This city…” She peered around at once luxury, folding manors and rusting cars. Her lip curled up and she turned back to the Cetra for fear the sight would make her sick. “It’s brought nothing but grief. Maybe,” she murmured looking strangely to him, “maybe this is what you should’ve burned…”

Sephiroth paled so his skin flashed bright white in dusk that turned all else blood red. He shook his head letting his hair cloak his sight as Aeris squeezed his hand.

“We were left below,” a street urchin piped up, and though he was older tears still framed his eyes. “But now we have the choice not to be left behind.”

Aeris nodded her head in utter agreement to both human and below voice. “You can’t build a world on the backs of the bruised and expect it to stand firm. Where will you go?”

“Away, anywhere, far. We’ll leave this place forever.” It was all voices with that one accord. No one wanted to stay in the city. It truly was dead, rot eaten at heart, but she’d always known that truth.

“I’ll shut off the remaining reactors,” Sephiroth said. “Here is easier than elsewhere.” He lowered his head as Aeris looked up catching him lost in the past. Jade seared his eyes for her pale throat and pulse fluttering beneath his palm. “Is this all of you, though?” He tore himself from distraction as the flower girl forced herself still.

“I…think so,” came from Phaedra. “We checked all the sectors and loudly called that the tower was open.”

“There may be some people still hiding below afraid it was a trick.” The Cetra clasped her hands tight together, beseeching her general. It was unneeded. He knew what she wished and could never deny his rose. My church, she thought, I can see my church for one last, bittersweet time.

To Sephiroth’s surprise some of the slum-born went with them, but Aeris was not shocked. When a soul has lived life below the dank stones, they’ll help another to reach the light. Many probably expected nothing but death, but even doom was better than darkness. The lights were all blue and colored the drear, swimming along fog and dust. They were in Sector 5 and Aeris almost laughed at how close she had been to freedom, but she knew false mirth would turn to tears and the amount of them bury the slums.

“The doors around the hub are open, too, little one, but I know you wish to see your church, and I…remembered now this was here.” He cupped her chin, and she kissed his palm, summer shining with perfect love.

It was overrun with ice white lilies, over the pews and down the nave. The old wood had relented to the army of blooms as light through the stained glass poured. Aeris removed her shoes and wove in between, the earth cool between her toes. She squeezed her hand before her heart and let the lilies feel that beat. Her swaying step led her between broken pews to dusty icons with time worn faces. Saints whose names were long forgotten, martyrs long buried in dust. She was the last and bowed her head humbled for this grace. The altar was broken, but that didn’t matter. She still knelt to pray, guarded by an angel who bowed his head, as well. He did not plead to the gods above or the Planet down below. He had nothing to ask for. He had it all and could only be grateful and shamed.

The world’s soft music swirled through her soul and Aeris hummed her flower tune. To mortal eyes they would not have moved, and stranger ones were tightly closed, but she saw the vision that sang through her blood, the promise of a far future. Normally the Cetra pushed such aside for she never wished to know, but her dear friend flashed soft in her mind mere pinpricks of what was to come. The tower twisted erupting with green, fallen over by weight of the ages. All the plates caved in by time and not men’s greed and cruelty. Where reactors had hummed bees now buzzed. They were needed to tend to her lilies. The husks of those horrors were now home to birds and creatures both gentle and wild. Flowers covered all and hers reigned supreme, but they were kind and benevolent lords. A city of green that smelled only of life, the reek of corruption now cleaned. Her poor church was gone, long fallen away like a shell around purest gold. Its decay had fed what now flowed forth, the green, the good, and the growing.

“Aeris?” a low voice said by her side, and she lifted a face soaked in tears. Sephiroth tilted his head for this salt was not sorrow, but his little flower’s sobs called him still. She was still kneeling, her hands clasped before, and he frowned for it seemed she beseeched him. He caught her round the waist and lifted her up, and Aeris held to his solid forearms.

“Will you let the light in?” she asked and he followed her gaze to the window high, stained, and cracked. The church’s steeple that pierced through the plate and had allowed her flowers to grow.

Not just these flowers, Sephiroth thought touching her brow with his lips. My flower, too. He spread his one wing and flew up through sun stained light.

Aeris shut her eyes to the wind of those pinions imagining her brief time in the air. I can have that again…forever and all. She clutched a heart that would burst from pure joy. Softest petals tickled her ankles, and she brushed bangs from her uplifted face.

The one-winged angel laid his palm on the glass warm from the sunset behind. Mako roiled behind his halved lids as he drew from the well of that power. A crack appeared grown from one of the holes to connect jagged with another. Fissures and tremors tumbled in stained until a gust of his wing blew them away. Tinkling light song trickled down the old stone, and Sephiroth was washed over with dusk. The rose light caught fire within silver hair, though the flame burned whiter than pale. His black wing showed nothing, not even a glimmer. It had been made to swallow light whole. The sky above was bleeding down on the people that now walked above, and the general sighed again thinking how close his flower had been to the heavens.

His descent was graceful…it always had been, and she led him back out through the lilies. Sephiroth never faltered to step on a bloom, his boots ever careful between. Aeris laced up her shoes with one final look before leaving her church forever.

They found no one in the empty slums but a cold wind that swept the streets. As though the earth knew now was the time to clean and make it new. Sephiroth sniffed and opened his ears, but no other heartbeats flew. Weariness again clung to Aeris’s bones through the most destitute corridor. Her protector swept her up and she whispered love that filled his still ailing heart. A sour, dry scent made him turn his head to a passageway duller than stone. The Planet flared a note in its daughter’s head, and she asked Sephiroth to set her down. He did so, but kept a hand to her shoulder as Mako light pierced the inside.

“He’s dead, little flower. I’m sorry for that.” Those gleaming eyes poured their remorse.

“Oh…oh no,” she whispered, seeing in sadness what had huddled there. He looked like a mound of sodden grey leaves, the wretch who had warned her, “Get out.” Hands flew to her face, and she shook her head not wanted to ponder it, but unable to not. Had the searchers just missed him? Had he been alive, but too afraid to emerge? Had the promise of light come too late?

“Come, little flower.” Sephiroth blocked the view that decay was just starting to take. “There’s nothing to be done once death’s had its due…at least not this time it seems.” Aeris nodded glumly to match his regret, her weariness now more pronounced. She allowed him to carry her out and away and must’ve slept for next she saw light. It was waning as evening took hold, but it was still better than the slums.

“Tell them.” She heard that beloved voice say, the low tone that could shiver her skin.

“I will, sir.” A higher response.

“It won’t last for long. There’s only one left. The rest have been shut down forever.” Gentle press held her closer and she turned towards that scent that was better than freedom or light. “No more will they torment this world she so loves. Even past death they cause pain.”

“Yes, we agree. It won’t take too long.” A pause and a shuffle, the sliding of feet against soon crumbling stone. “Where will you go, sir?” Her voice quivered the words like a butterfly battered by breeze.

“Home…” he whispered, and Aeris opened her eyes to the wonder on his face. Never in her life had she seen such awe at just that simple word, but he’d never said it for he’d never had it and could barely speak its sacred name.

“The kingdom lies beneath the foundation,” the Follower said, ducking her head as she stilled her hands’ tremor.

“And the foundation is rotting above,” he replied holding her gaze within cold green light.

Phaedra reacted far better than her cronies who could hardly look his way. They were all gathered still near the tower spread out along the stairs. A few sullen glares assailed the Cetra, and Aeris blinked confused. Then his arms shifted and the maid thought, Oh, and was embarrassed to be so envied.

Sephiroth backed away to their still rapt attention, gazing at his awakened rose. “Shall we go swift or shall we go swifter?” he asked, tilting his head with a smile. “Either way-” The general passed his gaze along the throng. “-will cause quite the spectacle.”

“As fast as you can.” Aeris kissed his cheek and rested her own on his shoulder.

He let that warmth battle the twinge in his heart for what was ever unfound. He couldn’t blame the Follower whose mind had been held with lies he himself had believed. But as he prepared to sidestep he heard whispered words.

“Phaedra didn’t lie to you…and I know where your mother is.”


Author’s Note:  You didn’t honestly think I was going to leave Seph dead and Aeris all alone with only that poor shell of a Follower?  I’m cruel,but I’m not that cruel.  I had a question about how the reactors were still working in a previous installment, and, honestly, the only thing I can say is this: I didn’t really figure in the events of Advent in this tale, and my assumption was before those above and in control left, they set up some to continue running, thinking it was a “kindness” for those below when rather they  should have done something to let them out/open the tower, but then…they might not have known the codes for that.  Don’t hate me too much for not being too detailed if you are a purist fan.

The next chapter is entitled Simple Gifts and will be posted next Friday August 28.

Thank you all for sticking with me for this long!

<–Chapter 22                                                                                               Chapter 24–>

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