She wears red every night. And every night, it falls away, and she sees herself just the way he loves her:

Bright green eyes. A smile that's learned and earned its charm by the years. Thick, wavy brown hair falling past graceful shoulders and curling over her breasts and hips, just curvy enough for her liking...and apparently enough for his too. Looking in the mirror under the soft yellow-tinged light and feeling certain of her desirability is its own little arousal, a giddiness that has her bouncing on the soft carpet to the balls of her feet and touching herself, from the side of her neck to her collarbone to her breast to her stomach where the excitement dulls; her hand pauses, and then flattens, fingers splaying over the skin to hide a jagged scar.

She hates that mark. It shouldn't mean anything, it doesn't deserve to mean anything, but it holds such a terrible significance. She stares at the mirror, trying to untangle its grip on her and missing both his approach and her name being called. When his warm hand displaces the cold air over her own, it's as though he's appeared from nowhere. But she knew to expect him. The way he's missed her is written all over his face, laid barer than her skin.

His body is significantly more covered up, since all of his clothes are still on. At least the armor's not.

"Sorry. If I'd been quicker..."

"Why are you always overdressed for this?" she complains, turning around to pluck at the faded fabric of his shirt, and totally sidestepping his apology. She knows he's not regretting his tardiness tonight but a different time altogether, one she'd rather not revisit.

He presses, though, his hand still cradling hers between their bellies. "If I'd figured it out sooner..."

"You figured it out just in time. I'm here, aren't I?" She hates the scar as a sign that she could have not been. The moment's still fresh in her mind, as though it just happened again: Sephiroth swooping down, and Cloud having only enough time to pull her out of the way of a fatal blow with one still being received, such a painfully vivid memory...but she is here.

She's here.

The hair on the nape of her neck prickles and she turns her hand to lace their fingers together, stepping closer to have more of his body heat. "So. This is a serious question I have. Why are you always overdressed?"

He looks at her a moment longer, his bright blue eyes so uncertain and vulnerable. Happily, he relaxes into a small, mischievous smile. "When it makes you pout like that...I just have to be."

"You're a bad tease."

"Sorry." A full grin now. His sense of humor is so simple, and such a delight to see when it means that he's truly comfortable. "I can fix it-"

"Ah ah ah! Leave it to me."

When she kisses him, the soft exhale she feels from him tells her he's laughing. Amusement turns to earnestness as their lips hold for longer and his tongue starts to explore, with him pulling back only once she's peeled his shirt up his chest. By that time his pupils have started to widen, dark arousal pushing back the irises' mako glow as he cooperatively lifts his arms for his shirt to be pulled off.

Even with his help, though, there's a moment they get tangled up: his fault, she'd say, for wearing turtlenecks with collars that want to get stuck over his head and wild hair. The pouting is audible by the time she frees him and flings the garment aside. Her giggles probably aren't helping. But pressing close to him and bringing her lips to his neck to nibble, tease, and lick reassures him of how much she wants him, silly moments and all. He slides back into action with his hands running down her back to cup her ass; he squeezes, and she's just managed to open his pants and start to lower them before being lifted into the air with his hungry kisses trailing a path from the crook of her neck to her breast. There he lingers and takes his time, and she knows he's enjoying much too much how he can make her groan. Knows she's not discouraging him, either, wrapping her legs around his waist and sliding one arm behind the back of his head to hold him close. Even if he's being a bit of a show-off, not even giving her a wall to brace herself against because he could carry two of her with ease... well, she's not opposed to showing off when it feels this good. It's obviously making him feel better.

She can feel him hardening against her, muscles throughout his body drawing taut in anticipation. It's strange how she feels more attuned to his quickened breath than her own, hears him and his pulse as she would hear the Planet's. But then, she reasons, it's not so odd at all. He's her core, something she decided when-

Her back stiffens; her hand slips off his head. Oh. Oh, she'd really thought she could have this with him.

Blue eyes glance up at her through a muss of blond hair. The question he's about to ask is so obvious that she doesn't wait to hear it, cutting him off with a kiss.

Is she okay? Yes...yes, of course. As long as he doesn't remember. But he's going to, because every night he does. He'll remember: Sephiroth doesn't miss, and she doesn't live.

Every night he dreams he's saved her. Every night he dreams he was faster, stronger, more clever than anyone has a right to be. She knows he did everything he could.

He dreams of having done more.

She breaks the kiss, turning her lips to his ear with an urgency that startles him. She can feel his surprise and talks quickly, before alarm can make him remember the worst. He's learned to remember bad things more quickly than good ones. "I love you."

"I-" His voice and actions both stutter. Of feelings given freely, he's learned how to respond to vitriol more smoothly than love.

"You don't have to answer. I just need you to know. Cloud, I love you. That never changed. It's all right."

She's pleaded with him like this on some earlier nights. She remembers now. She can't tell if it helps, though; it's always the same once he remembers.

There's tension seizing up his muscles as he looks at her with confusion, obviously wondering what the matter is. She sees the moment he realizes their meeting here is all a lie, his eyes now darkened with horror, and then she sees nothing. Her weight sags forward against him, and her legs slip from where they were twined around his waist until her feet dangle limply on each side of him, toes pointed straight to the dark carpet. She can't move; a corpse shouldn't. But she's allowed to feel all the dead weight of her body, because he remembers carrying it to the lake so clearly.

She tastes bile in the back of a throat that can't swallow it down, and it's hard to tell if it's a memory from when she was dying, or a fresh disgust at being made into such a precious burden. Death was not the end. She could help him even now, if only he would believe in her.

But he never did learn to trust love. Even now, something like a sob is choking in his throat, the sound tight with anger and self-disgust at the fantasy he's been allowed to have. No longer a tender moment, all it appears in his eyes is selfish perversion. He doesn't trust that she really would have given him this much trust or intimacy. And he'll wake and not believe Tifa should give him the love she does. He already is waking up, his distress shredding through the vestiges of the dream as it jolts his body into panicked awareness.

Aerith wants so badly to just lift her hand to his cheek, soothe him, make him stop hurting himself over this sick guilt trap. There's no reason why she shouldn't be able to when they're connected. Except that in his eyes, she's dead because of him, and that eclipses every other aspect of her. She isn't loving, isn't giving, isn't wanting, isn't kind. She's just dead.

The bitterness is too strong. When she finally lets go of their connection, to not see any more of the pain she can't relieve, she can hear Sephiroth's laughter, though faint as if from a great distance. Because she fell for the initial illusion just as badly as Cloud, yet again.

Sephiroth knows, after all. As there are things he wants to shatter with his own hands, there are still things she yearns to do with her own. Reassurances to give. Pleasures to share.

The hard truth she has to contemplate, once more apart from her love, is that if she is going to help him, she may need to give those desires up.