"Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will."

-Mohandas Gandhi

Quietly, the sun peeked over the horizon, spilling its light across the shadowed landscape like rose champagne tipped onto fine, dark velvet. It was cold out and the sky was clear. Not a single cloud in the sky. He looked up, wishing he could count the stars behind the dawn's fine curtain. The air was getting warmer, spring was coming. He could see it in the naked branches of the trees as they stretched upward – new growth yearning to burst free and unfurl its bright green leaves, so well hidden behind the dull, grayish buds that protected them from winter cold. Despite all their wanting, it would be at least another few weeks before those buds would see the light of day. The wind was brisk, and though the air had warmed there was still crispness there held firmly in place by winter's iron fist.

His breath came in shallow gasps, puffing out in front of him softly once it hit the cold air. He had just finished a kata, one of the more difficult he knew. Cracking his neck, he sheathed his sword and found a log to sit down on so he could rest, think and maybe watch dawn crest into day. He yawned and itched his shoulder, all the while trying very hard not to notice how uncomfortable he was. Thanks to the already vigorous nature of that particular kata and the fact that he was doing it in five inches of packed snow, there was now a light sheen of sweat all over his body. It dampened his clothes, which stuck with unforgiving coldness against his skin.

Blocking it all out, he closed his eyes and focused his mind. She would be here soon, and once she was there would be precious little time for him to think. A conundrum if there ever was one. All this time, he had tried his best NOT to over-think things, but lately he'd done far more than his share. Pushing everything aside to simplify the over-complex situation he found himself in had been a great help, however, the situation had irrevocably changed. So, he spent what little free time he had ruminating on the whys and wherefores of this "mission" he was on, because the pieces just didn't fit.

Nothing made sense...

Opening his palm, he looked down at the black materia. It should have glinted in the sunlight like any other materia, but it didn't; instead, it sucked all light into it, turning its surface a dull, muted black. It was a void, a vacuum. A dead thing. He set the materia in his hand like a child holds a marble, rolling it forward as if to flick it into a playground circle. If he listened really hard, he could almost hear the satisfying tack of marbles hitting against each other. The memory was magnificent.

To his thinking, it seemed counterproductive to bring back a force of virulent destruction like the black materia. The thing was a menace, even in the hands of someone supposedly so pure and righteous, it had seemed to twist her to its own purpose if only for a moment.

Perhaps there was a reason for bringing it back and giving it to him, and he was just too dull to see (no matter how unlikely that seemed.) Perhaps not. Perhaps they were just sadistic bastards up there, playing him for a fool. He hoped they were having a good laugh over it if that were the case... In any event, it was clearly beyond his capability to fathom their decision; if it was theirs at all, a fact which he now firmly doubted.

The materia was restless. He could feel it moving, struggling – for what, he didn't want to imagine, and even though he was the true master of the thing, he could feel the bite of its darkness against his flesh. Worse, he could feel the gentle stirrings of something deep and hidden within himself which had been awakened the moment he'd set foot into the black materia's temple.

Ifalna had said that he'd been purged of most of Jenova's influence. Keyword: most. There was still enough left to hear the call. He hadn't expected he would. Jenova was dead, therefore the call to reunion... well, there shouldn't be one. Yet he could feel it, and it terrified him.

It meant that a piece of Jenova, or something very much like her, still existed. A powerful piece, if one judged by the strength of the call alone. He hadn't told the flower girl. He should have, but he didn't. Her trust in him was shaky, but it was there and better than nothing. He wouldn't – no he couldn't sacrifice what they'd built so far, not if they wanted to get this over with as soon as possible. And sooner was far better than later, especially if he could feel the call.

Sighing deeply, he rested his forearms on his knees, carefully rolling the black materia from palm to palm. It was an oddly hypnotizing activity. He rolled it around in one palm and over the back of his hand; a trick he'd taught himself a long time ago. And as he rolled it up and over his hand again, balancing it between two fingers before rolling it over to the other hand, he could reflect on only one thing – how much he hated touching it.

Holding it with his bare hand was repulsive, and even when he had gloves on he found the sensation it brought unbearable, yet he found it hard to just put it away and forget about it. It was like poking at a sore tooth...

He stopped toying with the materia. His fingers closed around it, and he quietly put it in his pocket. Looking out at the sunrise, he found it hard to shake off the cold, heavy feeling of the materia from the tips of his fingers. It lingered... like a memory.

When he held it, he sometimes thought back to a time in his early youth when he had found one of the lab mice dead. He must have only been five or six, but he could still clearly remember it – he'd taken to sneaking food to the mice in the lab after all the scientists and assistants left for the day. At the time, Hojo had given him free reign with the proviso that he didn't touch or disturb anything. Clearly, he'd neglected to follow the rules, but he hadn't been able to help it. He considered those mice kindred spirits; plus, he'd liked the way they'd smooth their little whiskers after they ate.

Each mouse had a number, just like he had. They all had their own little cages, just like him. But unlike him, they didn't have any names. It had bothered him. He had a name, and he was just the same as them: Trapped.

The one he'd found dead that night he'd named Horatio, after a character in a book he'd read. Horatio had a small black speck underneath his nose that looked like a moustache that had grown wrong. It had made him laugh whenever he fed Horatio, because the mark moved so funny when he ate. Even now, he smiled mutely at the memory... Horatio had been his favorite. He'd been shocked to find him stiff and cold, lying on his back with all four paws up.

Even so young, he knew the mouse's fate. The lab assistants would come in the morning, find Horatio dead, and then they'd eagerly dissect him – to find out what went wrong, mind you. His organs would be preserved and cut up into little slides for future viewing.

He finally understood why the lab assistant had laughed at him when he asked why they didn't name them. Still, the thought of them doing that to Horatio made him uncomfortable. So he'd stolen the little mouse's body and buried him in the flower bed near the barracks where his own little cage was located. He'd gotten the beating of his life for doing that... but the flowers under his window had never grown more beautifully.

Touching the materia had reminded him of the lonely journey to his barracks... it reminded him of the way little Horatio felt in his hands as he carried him: cold, dead, and so very heavy for such a tiny thing.

The wind gusted cool air across his fevered brow, and he looked up, trying to find any kind of light in the sunrise he could hold onto. She'd be with him soon. So he sought to find a bit of peace before having to "entertain" the flower-girl.

Since she'd started shadowing him and disrupting his alone time, he had decided that they both might make use of that time more productively. His first thought had been to attempt to teach her how to fight – this had been a seemingly good idea, until he quickly realized she had no aptitude for it. Additionally, he wasn't all that familiar with a staff, her weapon of choice. Still, he strove to tutor her. He knew a few basic routines that he'd thought she'd have no trouble with, but during their sessions together she proved to be impatient and difficult, as usual. After arguing with him, complaining that Strife had told her differently and repeatedly insisting that he wasn't teaching her right, he'd given up and stormed off.

That night he'd come home and things between them had been as tense as it had in the beginning, until she apologized and offered to start again the next morning with a better attitude. He'd waved her off and told her there were no hard feelings. Not accustomed to softening blows, he had flatly informed her that her talents obviously lay elsewhere and that further instruction in the martial arts would be unnecessary and futile. Instead, he felt she should focus on her materia skills – she was, after all, naturally good at it.

She took it strangely well.

Three days later, the incident was entirely forgotten and life had gone on like normal. He had been out behind the house with the chocobo, leading the bird around a bit to give her some exercise. Earlier, he'd groomed it and had been considering taking her out for a quick ride, but the day turned a bit too cold and windy for it. So he was forced to choose this less vigorous workout for the bird. It was then that his little shadow made herself known.

"You're very good with him."

The bird was startled by her voice and he had to jerk the lead a bit to get it back in line. "Her," he murmured, patting the chocobo's neck absently.

"Huh?"

"The bird's female," he clarified.

"Oh," she hummed. Contemplating something for a beat, she spoke up again, "how didja know?"

"See all that banding?" he said, pointing out the mottled gray-black splotches on her plumage. "Males don't have that. – only females are this darkly banded. That's how I knew."

Aeris hummed her response, not put off by the curtness of his reply. She'd gotten used to it over the weeks; especially after all that happened... she was getting to believe that being rude was his way of dealing with things, just like being petulant and argumentative was her method.

The slight crunch of packed snow and cold gravel signaled the girl had moved from her spot. He looked back and saw her tentatively walking forward. Her apprehension was clear.

"I've never seen a white chocobo before..."

"They're common in this part of the world."

"To blend in with the snow, I bet." She paused for a beat or two. "Makes sense. How do you know so much about chocobos?"

"I've made it a point to study this world. Being that chocobos are a part of it..." He gave her a backwards glance that wasn't entirely condescending.

"Ah. Then how did you learn to ride one? Can't learn that from just studying," she pointed out, smirking in a prettily triumphant manner.

"In military school," he replied tersely.

"Chocobos make me nervous."

"So I've noticed."

She blushed and then went quiet for ten blissful minutes. "Teach me how to ride."

Sephiroth shrugged and turned away, intent on ignoring her – until he realized that her request wasn't all that unreasonable. But only a single question remained: could she be taught? He could hear her huff indignantly behind him as he led the chocobo away. Glancing back, he asked indifferently: "Are you coming or not?"

Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped, her mouth forming a perfect 'O' of surprise. She scrambled to catch up to him, until he instructed her otherwise. Chocobo were very nervous creatures and easily spooked.

"The way to a chocobo's heart is through its stomach," he explained, shoving a single carob nut into her hand.

Then he had her approach it slowly, holding the nut out in her flattened palm. She had been shaking so hard the nut fell out of her hand several times, forcing her to pause to pick it up. And once she was in front of the bird, she was so tense that it wouldn't matter what she did, the chocobo wouldn't come near her because it sensed her fear.

"Relax," he commanded. She shot him a dirty look, of all the impossible things to demand – relaxing when one felt least like relaxing. He smirked, and pointed happily to her hand. While she'd been glaring at him, the chocobo had sensed the decrease in tension and had been tempted by the nut, plucking it from her hand. She turned and gazed in astonishment at her now empty palm and the chocobo that was currently crunching the nut she'd so helpfully proffered. "Try another one," he said, slipping another nut in her other hand.

She smiled, encouraged by her success, and held the nut out. Though she still shook, it was more from breathless excitement than fear. She giggled when the chocobo took it from her palm a second time.

"It tickles," she commented, her voice full of sunshine as she dug into the feedbag and retrieved another nut for the chocobo. She didn't go as fast as the bird would have liked and it warked insistently, stamping a foot to punctuate its ire. The flower girl jumped a little, but remained mostly unfazed. Holding out the nut, she chided the bird, calling it greedy, despite her obvious delight when it once again ate from her hand. When she reached for the bag again, he closed it.

"Not too many." She looked disappointed at his admonishment. "It'll make her sick. Why don't you try petting her now?"

"But..." she trailed off; clearly worried about not having any more treats to give the bird. Treats equaled a calm bird and a calm bird equaled a calm Aeris, therefore no treats equaled anarchy, and, truth be told, she wasn't a fan of anarchy. And while she was so busy worrying, the bird had decided that it was being ignored for entirely too long.

It stepped closer to the new human, sniffing it delicately before bumping its head against her hand again and warking. Aeris squeaked a bit as the bird nudged her midsection but quickly calmed once she realized it was just looking for more treats. She giggled, tentatively patting the chocobo's neck. The bird didn't seem to mind, in fact, it seemed to enjoy the attention. It stopped searching for nuts and leaned in, allowing Aeris to lightly stroke her head. Cooing softly, the bird had decided it liked the new human. As for Aeris... she grinned widely, cheeks flushed from the cold and the sheer joy she found in the moment. She turned that grin back on her companion, real delight shining in her eyes when looking at him for the first time.

The next day he began to teach her how to ride. It wasn't easy, but it was a damn sight less difficult than teaching her martial arts. Her very first lesson went smoothly, though she was nervous. With each successive lesson, she consistently improved. He attributed it to the fact that she listened closely and took direction far better than she had when he'd attempted to instruct her in the use of her staff. Sephiroth wasn't sure, but he guessed that this wasn't a skill Strife had taught her and therefore he didn't have to struggle against ingrained bad habits she held onto due to sentimentality.

Attempting to clear his mind once more, he heard a twig snap coming from behind him and the distinctive thump of a chocobo's feet on the packed snow. She was here. He opened his eyes and stood, turning around just slightly to watch her exit the deep woods behind.

She smiled at him and jumped off the bird, leading it a bit away from them, towards a patch of forest where the bird could graze. And as she was walking back, she held up a package. "I brought breakfast," she said cheerily.

They ate quietly on a downed tree just about five feet from the chocobo. She'd brought a variety of fruits, sausages and a small loaf of brioche, cleverly decorated with a raspberry flavored glaze. He enjoyed the fruit, especially the grapes she'd brought. The sausage was really appreciated, especially the way she prepared it – steaming it just enough to cook, but not so much that it lost its flavor. The brioche turned out to be a bit of a trial. He'd never had it before and therefore was quite stumped upon first approach. It was a messy food and he wasn't all that fond of messy foods. Aeris took great delight in it, eating it with her bare fingers. He watched with a small bit of disgust as she sucked the festive glaze off her fingers. There was nothing worse in this world than getting your fingers dirty, at least by his estimation. He decided to attack the brioche with his fork, and he had to admit it was quite good, even though the flower-girl had laughed at him for eating it that way.

"You're supposed to eat that with your fingers," she commented lightly, a sparkle in her eyes as she stifled a peal of laughter.

He gave her a dirty look and continued to eat his brioche the way he felt was right and proper. And she laughed again when he'd smeared a bit of the glaze on his cheek. Without even thinking about it, she leaned over and wiped it off with a finger, sticking it into her mouth absently. To her it was an innocent gesture, devoid of any ulterior meaning, but for him – he had been so startled by it that he'd frozen for a moment or two and just like that, he brushed it away, resolving not to assign any meaning to it but his heart beat betrayed him, it jack-hammered in his chest like the wings of a bird beating against its cage.

She had violated his territorial bubble.

Once his heart regained its normal rhythm as he polished off the last bit of brioche, he could say he was quite satisfied, never having had anyone made food for him much less food that tasted quite that good. Pondering on it a moment, he could safely say that her cooking was one of the only things he could genuinely say he liked about her, despite her annoying habit of violating his personal space (though to be fair, it was only a habit she'd recently acquired.)

After breakfast, she chatted with him a bit and he endeavored to answer in as few words as possible. The less he said, the better – he'd found that if he didn't speak quite as much, he was less likely to get himself into trouble with her. They cleaned up, retrieved the chocobo, and left the little clearing: her riding the chocobo, him walking beside it - as they had almost every morning for the last week and a half.

Aeris stopped abruptly, gazing down at him with a searching look on her face. "Can I show you something?"

He looked to the left, looked to the right, and then looked straight at her, eyebrows lifting into his hair. He was sorely tempted to tell her it depended on what she wanted to show. She took offense at his wariness, mumbling huffily as she goaded the chocobo back into a light trot: "I didn't want to show you anyway."

Sighing, he crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. "What did you want to show me?"

She turned and glared petulantly at him. Part of her really didn't want to show him, but most of her did, and she was loath to deny what most of her wanted. Guiding the chocobo back to him, she scooted up a bit and patted the saddle behind her. "Get on."

There was a stilted nervousness behind that pat. Sharing the back of the chocobo with him before had been hard, having to hold onto him and all, but with things in reverse she would enter a whole new world of uncomfortable weirdness. He wasn't particularly pleased by the thought of being that close to her either, but if it was what she wanted... Strengthening his resolve, he swung up behind her, hesitantly wrapping his arms around her waist. She stiffened and then relaxed a bit, though he could still feel the tension coiling in every muscle.

She let out a shaky sigh after a second or two of hesitation. "Hang on," she commanded and then she encouraged the bird into a flat out run.

The suddenness of it sent him lurching back, and he actually had to grab her around the waist a bit tighter, lest he fall off. This time, she didn't tense as she was far too absorbed in her riding. She urged the bird on gleefully, while Sephiroth hung onto her as if his life depended on it.

Eyes nearly bulging out of his sockets, he couldn't believe her audacity. They hadn't progressed this far in her lessons yet – galloping was usually something handled once the rider-in-training had a bit more experience. His riding instructor had him just walking the bird and doing groundwork with it for nearly a year. Then again, he had struggled with it in the beginning because the birds tended to spook when he was near. Aeris had little problem with it, other than her own irrational fear. Whatever the case, the girl had been practicing behind his back at some point...

The thought was truncated as he was hit firmly in the face by a low hanging branch. It clawed at his flesh and hair as they passed. He pulled away instinctively, scooting in closer to the flower girl – jostling her. She looked back at him, noticing the thin red welts on his face before turning back to guide the chocobo.

"Watch your head," she called over her shoulder as she guided the bird between trees that were far too close together for his liking.

He pressed himself closer to her and kept his head low, scowling at the side of her face like he could burn a hole in it. Despite his scrutiny, she drove the bird onward as if she had a death wish – for him or for herself, he wasn't sure – thundering through the forest recklessly as if the hounds of hell were at her back. For his part, he was beginning to think she might be aiming for every low hanging branch in the forest, because it certainly felt like he'd hit every one. By the time her wild ride had ended, his hair was composed of fifty percent branches and leaves - that he would be spending the next few hours laboriously removing.

She jumped off the chocobo and was nearly breathless with excitement. Her eyes glowed and her cheeks were a vibrant pink. It was nearing midday now, and the sun cut clean and sharp against the bright blue sky – and it was a perfect spring sky, so full of promises. The sun hit her just right, catching her hair as floated airily around her and for an instant she looked like the blazing fire that ignited that sky. She was heaven as it met earth, something inside whispered and within that thought he realized that he had never seen her so alive – not since the day he'd killed her, ironically enough. The thought was so awful and so wrong he nearly laughed, managing to hold himself back by the smallest margin. If he'd laughed, he would have to explain himself and that just wouldn't do. It wouldn't do at all. In fact, he was sure that line of thought would effectively end the tentative truce he had with the flower-girl, if she didn't annihilate him first.

Fingers were snapping in front of his face – ah, he drifted off again. Focusing on the world around him, he glanced at Aeris, noting the look of bemused displeasure on her face.

"Space trucking?" He nodded and she accepted that explanation without further comment, plunging right into a subject that really interested her. "So, how'd I do?"

The expectant way she was looking at him, all google-y eyed and hopeful, unnerved him. He knew what he wanted to say and it was scathing and sarcastic, mostly emphasizing the crisscrossing welts on his face that made him something of a walking, talking roadmap, but that look on her face...

"You did great," he replied with as much enthusiasm he could muster, he almost even smiled.

Having gotten used to his taciturn responses the near smile was just as good as a parade down the center of town. She grinned and turned away to take the chocobo back into its makeshift stable to feed it and give it a good rub down. As she walked away, she called to him over her shoulder, knowing he was already heading inside. "As soon as I'm finished here, I'll have lunch ready. It'll be about an hour, think you can wait?"

He grunted out an affirmative and walked inside, wishing he'd been a little more polite in his acceptance when she mentioned what they'd be having. One bath later, he was feeling quite a bit more human and certainly less irritated about having his face mauled by an entire forest full of trees, and from the smell in the kitchen, he could anticipate, happily, the prospect of chicken parmesan in his future.


Things had been going rather well lately, Aeris thought as she lazily lifted a forkful of chicken parmesan to her lips before stuffing it into her mouth in a unladylike fashion. She noted absently that she might have outdone herself this time. Looking over at her companion, who had devoured the chicken in seconds flat and had proceeded to use one of his pieces of garlic bread to sop up what was left, she was quite certain of her success. Yes, things were going very well, she assured herself, until she gazed back over at him to find that he was already gazing at her with a look that was far too near expectation.

He looked down, sopping up the last bit of marinara sauce. "So, had any visions lately?" he asked casually.

It was no secret that he wanted to leave. She did too, but things weren't so simple. Aeris had tried a hundred times in her head to find a way to explain this to him without revealing too much, and had come up empty. Her answer had always been a sullen, embarrassed 'no', usually muttered under her breath before quickly vacating whatever room she was in. Sighing heavily, she suddenly didn't feel so hungry anymore.

"No," she murmured with predictable awkwardness, twisting her fork in what remained of her noodles to distract herself.

"Well, that is unfortunate."

"Yeah, sorry." It was a lame response, she knew it – but what else could she say?

He got up and put away his dishes. She tried her best to eat the rest of her dinner. After all, it'd be a shame to waste it. He made some post dinner tea, and took away her dishes as it was obvious she wasn't really eating because she was hungry. Pouring her a cupful, he sat back down and stared at her from over his cup. Timidly, she took a sip. The tea was very bitter. Oolong. She hated Oolong tea. Taking another hesitant sip, she tried unsuccessfully to hide a grimace.

"Tea too strong for you?"

"A little..." She licked her lips, thumbing the handle of her cup as she looked over at him. His eyes had that calculative glint in them. Oh, she hated that glint, the only thing worse than that glint was the knowledge that this was no casual conversation.

"We need to talk."

If she thought it'd do any good, she would have smacked her head in sheer frustration. He was going to interrogate her about the incident at Gaia's Cliff as if they hadn't gone over it a hundred different times. She set her tea cup down and massaged her brow, hoping to rid herself of the rising irritation she felt because she really didn't feel like losing her temper over this – because things had been going so damn well.

Hoping against hope, she swallowed her aggravation and gazed up at him, her expression disaffected. "About?"

He set his cup down and calmly leaned forward, steepling his fingers like a businessman closing an important deal. "You know."

Aeris rolled her eyes and crossed her arms, blowing her bangs as she settled back in her chair. Here we go. This was where the good times were going to end. She had been avoiding any talk about the incident – for a long time she had just pretended nothing had happened. Logically, she knew that bottling up what happened that night wasn't healthy, but she just didn't feel comfortable spilling her guts to her murderer – again. She knew he wanted to talk about it. But what was there to say? To him, anyway. Half the reason it'd happened had been his fault...

The pain of a life cut short, seeing her father's death so lovingly captured on camera, knowing that she couldn't turn to the people she loved and trusted – it had been too much. The black materia had somehow called all of that darkness out of her, until nothing was left but a yawning chasm of hopeless, bleak despair. That feeling – it was the most horrible empty thing she had ever experienced. It hollowed you out... and she had briefly wondered if he had felt it too and if he had...

But that was neither here nor there. She couldn't discuss what she felt, much less how or why it happened. Not with him. Not now, not EVER. Even if he might have understood her better than anyone in the world, because there were just some things she had to keep for herself – or for those she believed deserved to know.

"You know I won't discuss it," she said sharply, crossing her legs so violently that she banged her knee on the table. The jangling sound of shaking teacups unnerved her, and she resisted the urge to stop her teacup's epileptic dance just as much as she resisted the urge to rub her smarting knee.

For a moment, she could see a fire in his eyes, the same fire that always preceded a nasty fight. But instead of blooming into a full blown blaze of righteous anger, it died a quick death.

"Fine." The tone of his voice was apathetic, almost resigned in a way. He got up without another word and dumped his tea into the sink before walking away.

Aeris gaped at the empty doorway for a moment, stunned silent by his anticlimactic retreat. She huffed indignantly. He never backed away from a fight in the short time she'd known him. What the hell was he playing at? This was some kind of passive-aggressive reverse psychology thing, it had to be. Just give up and leave, knowing she'd come charging in there to tell him everything. Well, it wasn't going to work.

At all.

Dumping her tea in the sink, she set her cup down firmly, but gently, eyes staring out into space, seemingly glaring at the perfectly beautiful scenery outside.

Nope, it SO wasn't working.

What right did he have to expect answers out of her? She didn't know why it happened anymore than he did. There'd be no point in recounting what had led up to that moment on the cliffs. No point at all, except to go over memories best forgotten.

A small, very annoying voice spoke up then: What if, by finding out what caused this, you could figure out why the black materia was brought back?

But who cared... except... except the black materia had served its purpose. The only reason the white had been brought back was to open that door. A sudden, unwelcome realization occurred then. Yes, it had been reformed to open the door, but it should have been reconstituted at half power as it only had to last long enough to open the gateway to Eden's temple. She had known this in the back of her mind and had found it a bit strange that the white materia hadn't disappeared after they'd used it. Surely, it was odd, but it hadn't rung any alarm bells then, because, well, she really could use a powerful relic infused with white magic.

God, she should have known then. If the white materia had been brought back at full power, then the black materia had to be brought back as well – because neither could exist in their pure forms without the other.

"Damn." She muttered a few more invectives as she walked through that empty doorway for what she was about to do. This was just the stupidest idea ever. That was what she was thinking as she dug through her pack for her journal. Yes, she'd realized that swallowing her emotions was a bad thing, and having no one to talk to she wrote it all down instead.

Finding it, she pulled it out and held it to her chest, scarcely believing she was actually going to go ahead with this. But she just couldn't talk to him about it. She just couldn't. This was the only way.

Aeris stood in front of him determinedly, journal pressed to her bosom tightly as if afraid it might jump from her arms like a startled cat. He was reading the paper and doing quite a good job of ignoring her. It was really very irritating.

"May I help you?" he queried blandly, turning another page.

Very irritating.

With a scowl, she thought about throwing the damned journal right through his paper, but decided against it. Thumbing through the pages, she found where she needed to be and holding place with her fingers, she shoved it in front of his nose.

"Read from here on."

She waited until he took it, fighting her temper when he gave her an odd look. But he took the damned thing and he read it. That's all she cared about.

"Is this true?" he asked, gesturing with the journal, his thumb holding his place.

Her first inclination was to be annoyed with him and she went with it, retorting haughtily: "I'm not in the habit of writing fiction and I wouldn't have shown it to you if I was."

Evidently, her tart reply didn't faze him. She could see the gears in his head working. The clockwork mechanisms whirred and hummed to life, servos twisting and turning his face into worry. After a moment, he looked her straight in the eyes. "Then we're in trouble."

The certainty in his voice was disconcerting and she leaned forward. "What do you mean by that?"

Sephiroth pondered for a second or two, trying to figure how best to lay out the problem to her. The girl wasn't much for facts and figures, and he didn't quite like dumbing down what needed to be said to suit her. Rubbing a hand over his mouth, he gazed down at the journal. Inspiration came in that moment and he began to flip through the pages until he found what he wanted. "Read what you wrote here," he instructed, pointing out the passage and holding it out for her.

Cautiously, she lifted it from his grasp and began to read.

"...it was like something pulling me – as if a rope had been attached somewhere inside. Or maybe it was more like a magnet... Oh, I don't know how to explain it but... but... I felt like I had to go and see – see what it wanted me to see. I was compelled, I think..."

Snapping her journal closed, she frowned and gazed at him with confused exasperation. "I don't understand, why is this important exactly?"

He took a deep steadying breath. "It's important because what you described shouldn't have happened. Materia can't compel anyone to do anything on its own."

"But the black materia—"

"No, it can't. NO materia could do that. It needs a catalyst to work; someone or something has to activate it. What you described is, in all ways, impossible, unless, someone or something activated it remotely." He paused for a moment to let it sink it. "So, you see why we might have a problem."

"But activating materia remotely – that's just... there's no way. You'd have to be super powerful to do something like that!" she exclaimed, clearly worried.

"Exactly."

There were questions just under the surface of her skin, he could see it. He let out another long suffering sigh and began to explain most everything he'd been thinking about lately.

The home they were in had belonged to a professor, she knew this. What she didn't know was that he'd known the professor in question, personally. He pretended that he didn't know that kind Professor Gast was her father. That'd just get them off track. Instead, he began to talk about his library. There wasn't much of it left. All the important research had no doubt been moved to a secure location or destroyed outright by Shinra. But there had been several volumes left that contained pertinent information, allowing him to do some rudimentary research into materia theory.

It was a subject she detested, because she felt its approach was too clinical, too rational to be allowed. Materia came from the planet – from the lifestream – it was a wild thing; untamable and free. To try and pin down the very essence of life was a sacrilege and it'd only lead to the wrong kind of conclusion. Look at the mistake they'd made with Jenova; it was a classic example of science taking on more that it should have. Still, she listened to him, although she didn't always understand what he said she managed to glean enough to paint a rough sketch in her mind.

Really, it all boiled down to one thing: The black materia hadn't been designed to do what it did. Someone or something had hacked into its power and had used it in a way that was never intended, perverting and subverting the purpose of an already dangerous piece of materia into a far more lethal weapon. Moreover, he suggested that it was because the black materia had been brought back that the white had gained its full power, rather than the other way around as she had believed.

She had to admit, it made a scary kind of sense.

There was very little to say after that. She went to go take a bath and he sat back and read his paper, and that was that. And once she was in the quiet confines of the bathroom, staring at herself in the mirror, she was able to let go of the shuddering sigh she'd been holding the entire time. It wasn't just because she was worried about what they'd spoken about. She'd almost told him why she hadn't had any visions.


Aeris had shut off her connection to the planet. She had been born into this world for the second time the same as she'd left it: half-cetra, half human. As such, she had always been limited in power, and this task she'd been appointed with required quite a bit more than she was used to. The cries of the planet, once soft and soothing, were so thunderous that she got migraines during the day that were bad enough that she could barely function, and during the night, well, it'd become impossible to sleep. So, she shut the planet's song out, and, in doing that, she severed the only connection she had to the visions.

Aeris turned away from her reflection and started her bath. Soon the air was filled with pleasant humidity, fogging the mirror and soothing her senses. She tested the water before standing, carefully stripping down to her skivvies. Simultaneously, and without even thinking about it, she opened her connection to the planet, experimentally prodding the water filling her mind. The planet's song was as large and bright as she remembered it, but this time she let it in as a small trickle. Gradually increasing the flow, she let it fill her, and was pleased to find that it wasn't as overwhelming as it had been before.

Mentally congratulating herself, she wasn't prepared for the connection to surge, and like a hose with a kink in one end the images came forth violently as it was straightened and the visions were allowed to flow. The pain was too much, and she half gasped, half shrieked as she fell back, flailing her arms wildly as if trying to put out a fire. Stumbling blindly, she put a hand through the mirror accidentally. This time, she screamed. The sound was horrific. She collapsed to the ground, sobbing and holding her head, hand bleeding. The images never stopped once.

Mountains.

Wilderness.

Ocean. Miles and miles of ocean. Flying past like a film fast-forwarded.

She was vaguely aware of the coldness of the floor. It bit into her skin.

An altar that stood under the moon, placid water surrounding it.

Tears were hot and sticky against her cheeks, and it created a film over everything she saw in between the burning images from the lifestream. Her arm hurt.

A dragon, large and blue emerging from the sea. She watched the water drip off it, individual droplets running over its shimmering scaled hide. It hovered in midair – and it watched and waited, large golden eyes blinking slowly and in irregular rhythm –moving sinuously through the clouds, in one clawed hand it held a pearl while the other beckoned her.

From the other side of the door she could hear someone yelling, and shortly thereafter, that same someone began to pound on the door – as if to break it in. But she couldn't be sure. It sounded very distant and dull, like it came from very far away.

A golden pagoda, glinting in the sun – a girl stood on top of it as if she owned it, some kind of weapon in hand.

Someone picked her up, and she lay limply in his arms. The visions had started to fade and she could just barely see his face. Disoriented, she vaguely remembered that he normally was quite implacable, but he seemed very worried now. He was mouthing words she couldn't understand, her brain hurt too much to comprehend anything beyond needing sleep. Eyes fluttering, she placed her bleeding hand on his forearm and whispered one word before passing out.

"Wutai..."

She woke up hours later sore, disoriented and bleary eyed.

"How long?" she croaked.

"Four hours."

"Mmm... what time is it?"

"Late."

Aeris grunted, thinking that she really needed to get up and get some water, she was parched. With a groan, she tried to force herself up, but failed. In the wake of the visions, she'd been left with one helluva migraine – one so strong that it made even moving her head agonizing. Some pills were shoved into her hand followed shortly thereafter by a glass of water. She took them gratefully, laying back to wait for them to start to work. A half hour later the medication kicked in just enough for her to sit up a little. She could see him now that the light didn't hurt her eyes. Sephiroth was sitting – no, slumped would be a better word – in the easy chair near the couch, head cradled in one hand as he casually skimmed the contents of a rather large book (most probably taken from the library in the basement). He looked like a ridiculously tall school boy - completely bored with his work and trying his best to skive off without the teacher noticing. She would have laughed had her head not hurt so damn much.

"Feeling better?" he asked.

Aeris got the distinct impression that he didn't ask out of concern and that he didn't much care what the answer was one way or the other. Too tired to be irritated, she grunted an affirmative.

"Good," he replied flatly, without even looking up from his book. "So, does this kind of thing happen to you often?" For a minute she was confused, until he clarified the question. "Do you pass out like this every time?"

"No." Even though the pain killers had started to work, her head still felt like it was being compressed by boulders. She paused, rubbing her temples until the pain receded and she could think again, answering more truthfully: "Yes."

"Did you have visions before, in your first life?"

The question struck her as rather funny, and she laughed, immediately regretting it – it hurt like hell. "No, I didn't. Well, not like this, anyway." This got him to look up from his book. He titled his head to the side as he gazed at her, inviting an explanation wordlessly. "I mean to say, what I had before in my first life weren't exactly visions. More like, a kind of intuition. I had these dreams... really vivid dreams. It wasn't that I saw the future exactly, but they just gave me the sense of things... like... like a gut feeling, only stronger."

"Primitive premonition," he suggested helpfully, "where you sense something is going to happen, rather than know it... if you believe in such nonsense."

She huffed quietly, knowing it was futile to mention that disbelief in such things at this point in the game was rather ridiculous, considering their situation. "These visions I'm having now – it's not at all like it was before. They come when I'm awake and the pain that comes after is unbelievable." She paused thoughtfully. "I passed out the last time, too. I think... I think it might be because I'm only half cetra – I don't think I was meant to carry the visions. Ever since we woke up here, I've felt..."

"...that things are different," he finished for her. "Wrong, somehow."

"Yeah." She paused again, sitting up and regarding him seriously. "Aren't you going to ask why I didn't tell you?"

"Hm. Didn't really occur to me," he replied absently, looking back down at his book and turning a page. "Should I have?"

"Well, I did hide something from you. It's kind of expected that you be curious as to why."

He flipped an errant piece of hair over his shoulder and shrugged. "We all have our secrets."

"I suppose we do."

"So, we're going to Wutai?"

"Yes, how'd you know? I never told you..."

"Actually, you did, just before you passed out."

"Oh, well then..." Things got real quiet and she found herself staring down at her fingers. Her right hand had been bandaged. She barely remembered putting it through the mirror. "Did you do this?" she asked quietly, holding up her arm as if it were an exhibit in a trial.

"Mmhmm," he mumbled, not feeling the question dignified actual words.

"It's really tight."

"I know. It's supposed to be – unless you wanted to bleed to death."

"It was that bad?" she asked, a bit horrified.

Sephiroth glared at her from behind his bangs, clearly annoyed. "Obviously, it was. Otherwise, I wouldn't have bandaged it so tightly."

His terse reply effectively killed any further conversation for that night.


The days passed in a flurry of activity. Sephiroth had deemed it necessary to leave as soon as possible. He'd given them a week to prepare, which didn't seem like enough time to her. After all, there were loads of supplies they needed to gather and they hadn't much money. Aeris has spent it all on proper chocobo tack, including a pair of saddle bags.

When the mention of money was brought up, Sephiroth didn't seem overly concerned and she soon learned why. Over the last few weeks, he'd taken a job hunting monsters on the outlying ridges surrounding Icicle Village. Apparently, the village elders had instituted a bounty on some of the more dangerous wildlife. And annoyingly enough, there was no shortage of monsters to slay.

It was irritating for her, because she knew she had to depend on him already for so much, and she didn't want to add money to that list. And what made it worse was that it was blood money. Aeris firmly believed that all life was sacred, no matter how foul. Where the money came from wasn't the only thing that bothered her. She really wanted to contribute to the journey in a less mystical, more tangible way.

Though spring was well on its way there was still too much of winter left behind for there to be herbs to gather and she couldn't make tinctures, infusions or potions without them. She had a small supply of stuff she'd made before she died. It was still good, but there was only enough for their personal use. Buying herbs was out of the question; for one, they were too damned expensive. Secondly, most herbs found in stores were dried and that made them far less useful. Thirdly, even the small plants they sold in stores were loaded down with pesticides and fed with synthetic fertilizers, which made them even more useless than the dried herbs. It seemed that until they got to Wutai, she was stuck.

Aeris swallowed her pride and her bile, and tried not to think about it too hard.

Despite her reservations, things went off without a hitch, and, just as planned, they left at the end of the week. Their destination: Bone Village. Sephiroth had somehow managed to finagle one of the freighters docked there to ferry them and their chocobo to Wutai. Really, it was an amazing feat. Normally, the captains of those ships were pretty firm about not taking passengers, because they could lose their licenses. But somehow, he'd managed it – over the phone, no less. She wasn't quite sure how, and she'd been there.

He hadn't even had to resort to threats and intimidation (which was the tactic she'd assumed he would use to his benefit; after all, even over the phone Sephiroth was quite scary). Instead, he kept calmly insisting that they be allowed passage on their boat, going so far as to offer himself as a deckhand (at a severely reduced rate). He also had helpfully volunteered her services as a cook to sweeten the deal, which annoyed her a bit, but it didn't last long because the captain bit at the offer and gave them the date to meet at the docks.

They had four days to get there and they had already been traveling for two; riding for twelve hours before camping down for the night. On the morning of the third day, both of them had been puttering around camp, enjoying their own separate, mindless routines. Neither of them spoke much. They didn't really have to, having somehow worked out a system between them where words weren't entirely necessary. Aeris had taken care of breakfast and the cleanup afterwards. Sephiroth had attended to the chocobo before securing their belongings into its saddlebags. Everything was dull and quiet, as it had been for the last two days.

Sensing something the humans couldn't, the chocobo began to become agitated. It reared up, warbling in alarm and stomping its feet, its eyes bulging in fear. Sephiroth turned to Aeris. They looked at each other and then the chocobo, confusion written on both their faces. Glancing in each other's direction again, their eyes met briefly.

"What's wrong?"

Sephiroth didn't bother to answer; his gaze was abruptly focused to a point behind her shoulder. "Get on the chocobo," he murmured distantly, forcibly calming the bird with a violent jerk of its leads. His eyes never left that point behind her shoulder.

"Wha-" she began as Sephiroth charged forward, grabbing her by her upper arm and frog-walking her over to the bird wordlessly.

Clearly, she wasn't moving as fast as he wanted her to. Aeris didn't bother to fight him, even as he unceremoniously lifted her onto the chocobo's back. She was far too shocked to object. He leapt up behind her, unsheathing his sword in a single, fluid motion. "We have to leave, now," he commanded calmly. "You take the reigns."

"But—" And as she turned around she saw what it was that had spooked him and the chocobo.

Aeris wasn't quite sure how to describe what she saw, but she likened them to living, breathing shadows. They erupted like black flames from the darkness, stalking forward out of the forest predatorily. They were nightmarish, monstrous things. Bone and flesh fused to metal and whispering mist. She could see no eyes; they were hooded, hidden behind unknowable anatomy and their wide, gaping mouths. The skin around those mouths was pulled back into a rictus grin. Long ropes of ichorous drool oozed between their teeth, staining the ground and melting the snow, and she knew without a doubt that nothing would grow where their sputum had touched.

Dead things. They were dead things, she thought to herself.

And as they glided from tree to tree, coming ever closer, she could feel the blood drain from her face. Wide eyed, she kicked the bird into a flat-out run as those shapes in the forest surged forward, snarling as they trailed thick clouds of black dust behind them.

The wind shrieked in her ears, and for a few seconds, she'd given herself over to blind panic until she felt Sephiroth tighten his arm around her waist in warning. He leaned forward and whispered: "Watch the branches." She glanced behind which was a mistake. Not only did she almost run into a tree, but she could see those things had easily caught up to them. "EYES FORWARD!" he shouted in her ear. "Don't look back. Just keep riding."

And she did.

It didn't matter much, eventually the creatures caught up to them. Looking to her right, she could see one; its hideous, protruding snout bobbing forward and back as it ran. One beady eye rolled in its socket, glinting like an open sore as it locked its gaze on her. The thing snarled, more ichorous ooze dripping between its blackened teeth as it lunged. She shrieked, tugging the reigns so violently that the bird didn't so much turn as it lurched abruptly to the left.

Aeris tried to shake the leader as she weaved her way through the forest, making no effort to watch for low hanging branches. She heard Sephiroth curse behind her, and shortly thereafter she could vaguely hear the sound of a tree cracking as it tumbled to the ground. Looking back, she could see it as it fell inexorably, crushing several of their pursuers underneath its considerable girth. She smiled triumphantly, until she saw more creatures leaping over the obstacle as if it were nothing, treading on the bodies of their brethren without even breaking stride.

She was suddenly tugged to the left, the collar of her cloak pressing against her skin so tightly it cut off her breathing. A quick glance behind, and she could see that one of the creatures had her by the end of her cloak. It tugged again, this time with more force behind it. She was nearly unseated. The arm around her waist tightened, and she realized dimly that if it hadn't been for Sephiroth she'd probably have been dragged off and eaten by now, rather than just choking. Before she could even begin to fumble for the clasp, his sword swept out and liberated the creature's head from its neck and a great spray of blood and ash erupted from it as it tumbled back and back and back. Absently, she wiped the gore off her face with a shaky hand, digging her heels into the chocobo's side to make it go faster.

Aeris had never been a master strategist, but even she could tell they were being herded. To where, she really didn't want to know. The grim certainty that the enemy had decided to reveal themselves was shoved firmly into the back of her mind. She had just attempted a number of hairpin turns to get them pointed in the right direction, but she'd been cut off each time. Sephiroth was doing all he could to keep the things at bay and clear a path, but there were just too many. She had barely managed to keep the chocobo from panicking when she was halfway there herself. Her guardian, as if sensing her anxiety, pulled her back and leaned over her, protecting her with his body while beating the things back with the sword, though it didn't help much with the growing sense of helplessness as each avenue of escape she pursued was cut off.

Her anxiety was transformed to out and out fear as they came skidding into a clearing that ended in a cliff. She couldn't see over the edge, but she could see beyond it and she knew the drop had to be spectacular. Halting the bird's momentum, she tugged at its reigns, whirling around to face a sea of flaming red eyes. There was nothing for it now. It was either the cliff and certain death or the creatures and also certain death. Panic swelled, and she suddenly found it hard to breathe.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the creatures stalked forward, pushing their prey closer and closer to the edge of the cliff; tongues lolling and jaws dripping wet with stinking, black ichor. Quaking in fear, she tried her best to master it, shrinking back against her companion to whisper: "What are we going to do?"

But there was no answer.

She repeated the question and still received no answer. Justifiably concerned, she turned around to look at him. His face had gone deathly pale and his were closed tightly, his lips drawn thin in pain. "What's wrong?"

"I... don't know," he gasped breathlessly, his eyes opening a crack as he began to tremble.

The creatures all around them suddenly and simultaneously let out a low, keening wail that was eerie in its intensity. The wail became a cry which became its own melody as voices were added and taken away. Aeris had never before been on a real battlefield, but it sounded to her ears like the death rattle of a million people, all screaming out at once. It caused gooseflesh to break out over her arms and the hair on the back of her neck rose.

Something was coming.

The creatures went on and on, baying even louder as they began to rock back and forth in unison. Aeris's throat went completely dry. She made as if to turn back to her companion but was stopped cold when she heard him humming, mimicking, in his own human way, the pitch and tone of the creature's wailing. Aeris turned around, feeling as if her neck was made of stone, to look Sephiroth in the eye, hoping against all hope that she wouldn't see what she feared was there.

His face had gone completely still and was filled with shadows. Fat beads of sweat rolled off his forehead and down his long, aquiline nose. He was quaking epileptically, his lips moving in rapid, soundless conversation with voices only he could hear. His eyes, which had been closed, opened slowly, and she could see what had been hidden there. They glowed with cold, green light, shifting between rounded pupils that marked his humanity and the inhuman slits of those touched by Jenova. She swallowed thickly, despite the large knot in the back of her throat.

What was going on? she thought numbly. Cloud had reacted the same way when... and she left that little bit of pointless musing to hang on its own as she repeated her own interior mantra: Jenova is dead. Jenova is dead. Jenova is dead... and because she is, this shouldn't be happening. But he was reacting just like Cloud had... except this wasn't Cloud. And then she gazed out at the creatures as if the answers lay there.

They'd gone eerily quiet. Worse than that, every last one of them had their eyes trained on her and not one moved as they stared and stared and stared... And slowly they parted for some unseen thing that had lay in wait with them the entire time. She could feel the pressure of its presence, and it reminded her so acutely of the few times she'd faced Jenova that she couldn't help but tremble in fear.

"Oh, god..." she whispered breathily, feeling tears gather at the edges of her vision.

From formless mist it came, rolling, twisting and, finally, walking from darkness. Its arrival drove the creatures into a foaming frenzy. They paced, snarling, eyes locked on their prey, just waiting for their master to sic. And as that mist took form, Aeris knew it wasn't Jenova, it was something very much like her – only much, much worse.

The 'It' wore the skin of a woman. She was horrifyingly beautiful, far too terrible and strange to look upon. A perfect nightmare made of flesh and bone. Bloodless skin was drawn tight over fine boned features, stretched across its skull as if stitched there by a taxidermist's needle. Its eyes were at times too close together or too far apart, a mouth that was far too wide, a nose too sharp and long – her features shifted and twisted as if trying to escape her, tortured by their continued presence on her face.

Blood red lips stretching into a grim, mirthless smile, her eyes, bead bright sores burrowed into her skull, penetrated Aeris and made it hard for her to breathe, as if her very gaze stole the breath from her lungs. Panting, Aeris inhaled and exhaled desperately, gulping in stale, acrid air that smelled like dry death.

She realized, in that moment when it was far too late, how much trouble she was really in when she tried to slip a hand into her messenger bag to retrieve the white materia. The arm around her waist held her fast, and without warning, she felt cold steel against her neck. Aeris closed her eyes, her lips easily forming the words of prayer her mother had taught her so long ago. "La Mère Éternelle, dont la pitié est sans fin et inépuisable, je me soumets à votre volonté sainte..."

The 'It' laughed lightly. "Whip yourself with reeds and cover yourself in ash all you want, Cetra. Your prayers won't help you now," It taunted smoothly, the sound of its voice was low and hypnotic. Aeris couldn't help but open her eyes to look at it, though she didn't stop reciting. "Didn't help your ancestors much either." The comment was idly tossed out as the Crisis paced back and forth, skeletal hand passing over the muzzles of the now agitated creatures. "They died with their prayers on their lips... did you know that? I bet you didn't. They died to imprison us, just like you will."

"...donnez à vos enfants cette paix que le monde ne peut nous donner. En vous, ô ma Mère, j'ai placé toutes mes espérances..."

"How pitiful. That they send a filthy half-breed to face us, it really is insulting," It drawled, casually ramming her hand through the nearest creature's eye socket. The thing screamed in agony before it collapsed. She let the body fall, looking at it disinterestedly. Raising her arm, she gazed at it for a moment before experimentally licking the blood from one thin finger. Her eyes rose to look the Cetra in the eye. "I had so hoped to face your mother. Such a pity, bleeding like a stuck pig and left to die on a dirty train station floor... carted out like she was trash and buried in a pauper's grave. Not a very fitting end for the last true Cetra, don't you think?"

Aeris's jaw clicked as she forced herself not to respond. Instinctively, she understood she had to continue praying, that she shouldn't, couldn't, speak to the demon. "...dites-moi ce que je dois faire, donnez-moi vos ordres," she whispered urgently, hands clasping together as her eyes drifted to the sword.

That thing had done this. She understood now what the 'It' was. It was just like Jenova; perhaps a sister or a cousin to it, but it was just the same. She had been here before, and she had not been afraid then. From inside her bag where it lay hidden, the white materia pulsed.

"Mea culpa! Mea culpa! Mea maxima culpa! Ne me mori facias! Beg, Cetra. Beg for your life. You think your little word spell and that useless bauble of yours will stop me? Look where you are," It snarled, clearly worried as the hold over her long dead sister's son waned.

"Ma Mère, je prie de vous: aidez-moi, guidez-moi, fortifiez-moi."

The sword at her neck slipped, trembling in the hand of the one who held it, biting into her skin just enough to draw a small trickle of blood. And despite how much it hurt for her to speak, how really afraid she was, she raised her voice. "Je vous promets de me soumettre à tout ce que vous désirez de moi!"

Aeris felt the white materia flare as the effervescent song of the ancients rose from beneath her. There was a bright flash – almost like a mandala made of light that surrounded them - sending the creatures and their master shrinking back away from it in fear. For a moment, she felt the briefest exhilaration. Victory was fleeting.

When the light dimmed, the creatures still stood there, whole and undamaged. The 'It', which had taken to the sky in panic, gently descended to the ground, laughing madly.

"My, what a light show your gods put on, Cetra," It sneered. "I wonder - will they punish you for failing so entirely? Perhaps you should try another prayer."

"SHUT UP!" she cried, unable to hold onto her calm.

"Touched a nerve, have we? My, my, my... you really are quite pathetic."

Aeris's mind raced. She knew that the 'It' would kill her, knew that as surely as she knew she had no more tricks up her sleeve, other than to talk her way out. "You're the pathetic one. Why don't you just kill me yourself? What's the point of all these games?"

"Oh, games make it ever so much more fun," It purred, smiling unpleasantly, and as her eyes narrowed, it cruelly gave Sephiroth a final order. "Kill her."

The sword trembled violently at her neck, as if he were resisting. It was far too much for her to hope, Cloud hadn't been able to do it, and he'd only had a bit of Jenova in him. Sephiroth... he was lost and she would die by his hand, again. As if reading her mind, his hand snaked around her neck, fingers pressing uncomfortably into the flesh, and pulled her head closer to him. The 'It' could only smile wider, pleased that her nephew was so very compliant. She'd always admired his penchant for creative violence.

With no other avenue open to her, she began to weep.

Aeris could feel his breath on her face, the warmth of him pressing into her back and it only made cry harder. So hard, in fact, that she barely heard him whisper into her ear, until he repeated himself, whispering more forcefully this time. "Aeris, take the reigns."

"What—" Her heart leapt into her throat, eyes still sticky and wet with tears widening in disbelief.

"Don't speak. Just take the reigns. Do it slowly," he ordered shakily as he jerked the girl's head to keep up pretenses. "When I tell you, I want you to kick the bird into a run, hard and fast. I want you to head straight for that thing and I don't want you to stop. Don't hesitate. Don't change direction. Squeeze my hand if you understand."

She gulped, exhaling one long, slow breath before squeezing his free hand. Licking her lips, she inched her fingers towards the reigns. Each second seemed like eons until she touched the smooth leather; carefully hooking the leads with a finger, she drew them into her hands, all while breathing oh-so-slowly. Behind her, she could feel him practically vibrating as he fought that which thought to control him. As if it helped somehow, the arm around her waist tightened, his fingers pressing into her stomach with such force that it'd no doubt leave some kind of bruise. A violent tremor shook him. Panting harshly, he inhaled and with every ounce of strength in him, he pulled the sword from her neck. His eyes glowing with fury, he glared across the distance at the 'It' and slowly he pointed Masamune's tip at her. Even though it trembled in his hand, the threat was clear, yet the creature remained unmoved. It smiled indulgently at him as if it were greatly amused by something.

Then its mouth moved. No sound came out, but Aeris understood intrinsically what it was doing. One hand left the reigns, and clamping it over his, she began to whisper her prayers again. Aeris could almost taste the supreme agony he must have felt. Whatever it was doing to him, his entire body throbbed with it. His eyes narrowed in pain, losing focus. Sweat beaded his brow, his cheeks; all leaving wet trails down his neck and into his clothes. The large sword he held in his hand began to shake so much that she was sure he'd lose his grip. His breathing was loud and labored. Despite all this, he stood his ground and stubbornly refused to submit, no matter how much pain it put him through. He would not be controlled. Never again.

With a low, deep-throated snarl, he forced his arm to hold the sword firm; forced his recalcitrant body to obey. And this time, when he looked at the creature, he was in full control, the fire of a thousand suns behind his eyes.

"Now."

And with that one word, Aeris kicked the bird into overdrive, sending it into a flat, even run. Leaning forward to reduce wind resistance, she kept her eyes ahead, unwaveringly driving the bird onward. The wind shrieked in her ears, caused tears to form at the corners of her eyes, but she didn't stop. Behind her, Sephiroth had raised his sword; both hands wrapped tightly around it, holding it perfectly horizontal like a samurai of old. His silver hair whipping behind him wildly, he smirked at the 'It', his eyes glittering maliciously. Sephiroth concentrated, committing all his energy into his sword. The bird surged forward, and Sephiroth reared back, swinging the sword out wide. An incredible blast of energy followed the stroke, rippling through the gathered creatures like the incoming tide – it was a swift, merciless attack that reduced the frontline to dust and blew back those that had survived several feet. The thing that was and was not the Crisis took the brunt of the blow, as unexpected as it was. It let out an agonizingly long and high pitched howl, briefly dematerializing before it was torn asunder. The Crisis swiftly rematerialized, looking much the worse for wear as it goaded its brood into activity.

Aeris turned the bird just as the creatures regained their footing. They were still surrounded with no way out but the cliff. Mind racing, she was about to make another turn as the cliff's edge loomed, but Sephiroth grabbed the reigns and straightened the bird's course out.

"What are you doing?" Aeris shrieked, trying to wrest the leads from his grip.

"Trust me," he murmured huskily, sword held out behind him.

With the creatures nipping at their heels, the chocobo thundered towards the edge. Aeris held her breath and closed her eyes, the terrifying sound of the bird's footsteps and the howling wind stealing all sensation from her. Then they suddenly went weightless. The bird had jumped. Gasping, she looked, not exactly wanting to see how far she would fall before dying but out of sheer reflex. But they didn't fall; they hovered for a moment, before gently setting down on a sloping slide of rock just below cliff's edge. The bird didn't miss a beat. Its feet caught hold of the lichen covered ground, and it juddered forward; its gait uneasy, the ride bumpy, but still moving with more grace over the uneven ground than the creatures behind them ever could. The minions of the 'It' were at a disadvantage as they slipped on the skittering, loose soil of the cliff-face. Most of those who attempted to follow soon found a messy death at the bottom, and by the time they fell, their prey was long gone, galloping across the water towards freedom.

Aeris couldn't even believe it. Her breath was stolen from her as they left the rocky shore, moving smoothly across the water as ocean spray slapped against her cheeks, wetting the edge of her clothes as the chocobo ran. She looked out at the morning sun; bright strips of mauve and gold and brilliant lavender rolled out lazily from beneath the horizon as if cranked out by some heavenly stagehand. It was a new day, and she was alive. Pressing her back against her guardian, she began to laugh. It was wild, nearly hysterical, but at the same time filled with such joy. Her hand slipped over his once more and she squeezed, head tilting back long enough to whisper into his ear: "Go faster."

He smiled slowly, understanding, all too well, what she was feeling.

And as he kicked the bird into a faster run, she laughed again, more loudly this time – whooping and hollering in triumph as they rode the waves.


WOW! UPDATE AFTER A YEAR OF NO UPDATES!

Does anybody even read this anymore?

But I kid, home skillets. I hope you all like the chapter. I certainly agonized over it enough. From the research I did on horse riding (to get the bits with the chocobo just right) to the hours spent pouring over each sentence to make sure it sounded just right... it was a labor of love... all for you.

I have to thank Ardwynna for betaing this for me rather last minute. It's asking quite a lot to send someone forty one pages of anything, let alone forty one pages to look through for spelling mistakes. I've included some helpful breaks - for those who need to take breaks in between parts of this chapter. I won't apologize for the length. It's right where I want it and I feel like after a year long wait, you all deserve a forty one page chapter. Whether or not you decide it's a gift or a punishment is up to you.

Thanks for your patience everyone!

Much love,

Anne (aka: Noa)

P.S.: About the French bits... don't worry so much about what's said. I formed them from snippets of real French prayers I found online. If the spelling or grammar is incorrect, feel free to give me hell. (Though I expect you to be able to sufficiently back up your claim.)