On lazy days when there was nothing else to do, Zack gravitated to the beach; Aeris loved the relief of the ocean's warm buoyance supporting her weight, and Cloud followed wherever they went through sheer instinct. Sephiroth also took to the water, but something in it drew him in deeper than the others.
The world in the ocean was much simpler, much cleaner -- no question of politics or power or wars that left their shadow of destruction on even an old and strategically worthless shrine to gods that had had the misfortune of being worshipped by the losing side. Under the water, all that mattered was the silence, and the way the sunlight flickered through everything, and the strange flitting creatures that shimmered through the sea fronds.
And then, of course, there was the occasional distraction of some unwary predator that made the mistake of trying the 'food, mate, or rock?' assessment on a genetically engineered killing machine.
Sephiroth had never enjoyed what he had been created to be -- but he understood the value of being the best at what he had been created to be. And it didn't take long for the sharks to notice, either. All in all, Sephiroth preferred the simplicity of the world under the waves to Shinra's artificial machinations and the life he'd struggled with in a world made by humans for humans, not for those made inhuman.
Under the water, nothing stared or whispered, and if something flinched away, well, he was a predator -- a predator just like any other, designed or not. It was peaceful, and quiet, and even if he didn't fully belong, at least he wasn't so aware of not-belonging.
Aeris was the one who'd tried to explain that to the other two, when Cloud had been a bit anxious at how far away Sephiroth felt, and how deep. They'd been happily entwined in each other in the shallows, Zack's tentacles cradling the back of her head so that she could utterly relax in the ocean without concern for a mouthful of waves; Sephiroth had brought them fish for lunch, but he'd gone back to the ocean depths afterwards, and Cloud worried even though there was nothing but calm coming through that dim, softly rippling connection.
"He's got to be too far down to surface," Cloud pointed out, brows crooked together in distress. "How long can he hold his breath?"
"We don't need to breathe in the water," Zack pointed out with a rueful grin. "The tentacles take care of the respiration part for us."
"So why do you stay at the surface all the time?" Cloud asked, stroking a fingertip over the tentacles that curled about Aeris.
"Because he can't talk when he's underwater, obviously!" Aeris teased. "This is Zack, remember? Talking's much more important than breathing."
Arms crossed, Zack glowered and dripped seawater on her forehead from a tentacletip; Cloud bit his lip hard, but the laugh escaped anyway.
"Look, he's not denying it," Aeris pointed out, ever so helpful.
"Don't make me dunk you."
"Oh, I'm sure you can come up with more creative punishments than that," Aeris said. "You're a tentacle monster. You're supposed to ravish me every opportunity you get, remem-- eep." A moment later, her eyes widened further. "...ahhhh."
Nothing was visible really, because Aeris' loose dress floated about her like a soft-petaled underwater flower, but Zack looked much too smug. That was a pretty reliable indicator all by itself.
"Maybe I should go get a chocobo," Cloud murmured, squinting toward the horizon; that glint of silver had been the sun on the waves, nothing else...
"Don't you dare leave me now," Aeris said. "I'm -- ooh -- I'm being molested here!" She sounded quite happy about it, too.
"I know," Cloud said, because he wasn't thinking enough, still caught up in concern for the one who made them complete, the one who wasn't there because there was something in the depths that-- that--
--those were some rather insistent tentacles twined around his thighs.
The hands pulling at his waistband were entirely Aeris' fault, though. "Wait," Cloud managed. "I thought he was the molester?"
"Can't let -- oh, that's good, right there! -- can't let the tentacle monsters have all the fun!" And one of her clever little hands slipped down the front of his shorts.
The tentacle monster was certainly having quite a bit of the fun. He tugged Aeris' hands away despite her grumbles, wrapped himself around Cloud as a hot, sticky-slick, faintly-throbbing substitute, and shifted all three of them to line them up quite helpfully. Then another tentacle pushed into Cloud and rocked his hips forward, and any protests Aeris might have made were cut off with a squeak of her own.
At least he wasn't the only one who squeaked that embarrassingly, Cloud thought with the last fast-fading scraps of coherence, because there was a second tentacle pushing into him at the same time as the wrapped-around-and-wriggling tentacle was doing things that were against several military regulations to both of them at once, and ...water really was good for doing this, because positioning got a lot easier when the water cradled everyone's weight and they didn't have to worry about anything as long as they kept their heads up.
Zack didn't even have to worry about that part -- and, being Zack, he was taking full advantage of it -- and that tentacle right there wrung another embarrassing sound out of him but he was pretty sure Aeris couldn't hear it over her own encouragements to their enthusiastic tentacle-molester.
Much later, after a futile hour or two vaguely toeing around in the sand for shorts he suspected were long since washed away in the tide, trying to keep track of the status of the game with a mind stuffed three quarters full of satiation and tentacles and Zack's smuggest grin, Cloud realized he'd utterly lost track of who won that round.
On the bright side, though, obviously they'd each scored.
...but darn it, he'd liked those shorts.
Sephiroth's hair still smelled of brine that night, shimmering in the moonlight like molten silver. It was as if he brought the sea with him, the silence and the drifting, distant strangeness, the ebb and flow of tides in breath and motion, unfathomable strength and breathtaking beauty at once.
He spoke nothing aloud, but he didn't need to; touch expressed everything more clearly, and he twined himself through all three of them at once, stroking and examining, reasserting his familiarity with what was his and with where he belonged.
Zack blinked his way back to consciousness and opened his mouth to make some appreciative comment; with a faintly exasperated crook to his brows, Sephiroth filled his mouth for him, and all that emerged around the tentacles was a muffled croon that didn't sound displeased at all. Aeris put a hand over her mouth, but her giggles escaped anyway -- then a small squeak, and then a soft, wordless sigh of pleasure. They had learned a while earlier that Aeris responded most gratifyingly to having the persistently aching hollow of her back rubbed while she was being stroked from the inside as well; the glint in Sephiroth's eyes was smug enough that Cloud couldn't help grinning.
He wasn't sure he could manage a laugh, though, because laughing required some level of control over things like, say, breathing. And Sephiroth was rubbing against the fiercely sensitive spots at the insides of his thighs, then wriggling further up, probing where his legs joined-- trailing backwards and forwards at the same bloody time, and then a push, and Zack was being helpful now too, and...
yeah, self-control of anything was not going to be in the cards for a good long while.
When Cloud blinked his way back to consciousness the next ...day, because it really couldn't even charitably be called 'morning' at that point, he found himself face-first in what looked like a flower garden.
His first muzzy thought was oh shit, did we have a containment failure at the chicken-wire perimeter?
His second involved trying to determine whether the first thought actually made sense, because chicken-wire perimeter really wasn't part of any standard operating procedure he could think of.
But it was coming back in bits: temple, tentacles, Aeris, book crates, all those bloody vining flowers, the chicken wire that had come from Gongaga with the book crates, how insanely dangerous Sephiroth looked when he had several dozen long whippy ends all armed with sharp things lashing around at the same time...
The flower garden mumbled something in a deep velvet baritone and turned over. Around a faceful of the periwinkles that were floating in a river of silver-white silk, Cloud blinked and wriggled until he could get a glimpse of the rest of the room.
Aeris' grin and the fingertip to her lips didn't really explain the why, but it sure explained a lot about the who and the how.
Belatedly, Cloud groped at his own head, and discovered an enthusiastic patch of golden orchids.
"Wha...?" he managed before his offended sinuses decided it was time to sneeze.
"Laundry day!" Aeris whispered, her fingers deftly weaving together a chain of morning glories that almost seemed to be growing in her hands. "You know how Zack gets when he thinks he can get even more clothes off of us. So I needed a distraction." She started braiding a half dozen of Zack's tentacles into the morning glories next -- into the morning glories, and into each other.
"Uh," Cloud said, because he hadn't had anything resembling caffeine for a very long time. "Um."
"Shhh!" She braided Zack's tentacles around the bedposts twice for good measure, then picked up a few of Sephiroth's tentacles and braided those in too. Her flower basket looked as though it was still about to burst, though.
Cloud thought this through as well as he could manage on the aftermath of a lot of fairly mindblowing tentacular sex and no caffeine since their tea stash had run out mid-monsoon-allergies.
On the one hand, there was a pair of genetically enhanced Soldiers who might take badly to being turned into breathing topiary. ...Currently, into snoring topiary.
On the other hand, there was getting himself on the wrong side of Aeris' sense of mischief. And Aeris was wide awake and grinning straight at him.
It didn't take much thinking to decide that he was safer picking up tentacles and a bunch of jasmine fronds and starting to lace them around a pillow like a pair of army boots on an ankle; he never had really figured out how women got their hair into braids, after all.
Half an hour later, Cloud was still regretting the lack of caffeine in his world. Aeris kept trying to take one of the laundry baskets from him, and he kept saying no, and she kept giving him the Disappointed Face. And he just wasn't coherent enough to come up with a safe way to say "you're getting awfully round, and you don't need any more weight to carry, and the baskets are going to be even heavier when we come back with wet clothes in them, and besides I'm almost a Soldier." Because there just really wasn't a safe way to say anything like 'round' or 'weight' or 'heavy' around her lately, and Soldiers didn't have any intrinsic claim on laundry skills other than the tentacles that Cloud himself didn't have.
Once they got to the freshwater stream formed by the snowmelt trickling down from the mountain's peak, Cloud kicked himself for his lack of caffeine and foresight again. He was fine kneeling on the edge of the bank for an hour or two bent over scrubbing things, and Sephiroth had it even easier with all those tentacles, but Aeris didn't have tentacles and did have an awful lot of awkward weight making her back ache and her balance unsteady on those wet slippery rocks.
Really, he should have braided her into the tentacular cat's-cradle of Zack-distraction, if it weren't for the fact that she didn't have tentacles and also would probably have noticed since she was, well, conscious at the time...
A damp fingertip rubbed at the little worry-crease between his brows, and Cloud flinched back from the wet touch, startled. Her eyes were much closer than he'd expected, and crinkled at the corners with amusement and affection and rue all twined in together, like the flowers.
"You think too hard," she said playfully. "You're giving me a headache with all that thinking!"
"Er," Cloud said. "Sorry. But I should have brought something better for you to sit on than rocks and really I shouldn't have brought you at all because I can do the laundry even if I'm not as fast at it as Seph is since I'm not like Zack and won't find an excuse to have all the underwear go missing and most of the shorts with it so you could trust me to get the laundry done and you could, er, rest--"
"--Cloud." She'd finally resorted to putting her hand over his mouth, and bent her head forward to touch his, brow to brow, so that he couldn't avoid her amused eyes. "The laundry can wait, I promise. And I'll let you scrub if you let me wring. It's just been forever since I've had you to myself for a bit, and... I wanted to make sure you're doing all right."
"That I'm doing all right?" he echoed, blinking. "I'm not the one I worry about."
"Yes, that's it precisely," Aeris said, with a rueful curve to her lips. "You don't worry about yourself enough, and you worry about everyone else quite a bit."
"That sounds about right to me," Cloud mumbled. "I'm the only one who's not having... er. Medical complications."
Aeris laughed, and hugged him close -- he could feel her middle, curving against his ribs, and it made his heart jump into his throat and get stuck there. "It's not a medical complication, silly," she said, patting her curve with untroubled affection. "It's your child."
"I know," he said, half strangled, feeling his face burn. "I just... I worry. I can't help worrying. Because you're so ...little, not fragile exactly but you've got such delicate little bones, and you're so important. To me. To us. And... it's not... easy. Having a baby, I mean." Then the rest of it burst out despite his best intentions: "And you're getting so big that it's -- it's got to be soon now, and there's nothing I can do to help! And I hate that! I hate that I can't help you at all -- I'm going to have to just sit and watch you h-hurting, and knowing that it's my fault you're hurting and--"
This time it wasn't her fingertips stopping up the spill of words; it was her lips instead, soft and smiling even through the kiss, nibbling on his bottom lip until he stopped making protests. Then she took his hands in hers, and kissed his fingertips, and settled his hands where she wanted them -- one arm about what remained of her waist, the other atop her curve, off to one side, where the baby was kicking her.
"Cloud," she said, gently. "I promise you. I'll be fine. I know I will. I'm not saying I think I will, or I hope I will -- I'm saying I know." Settling herself more comfortably into his arms, she smiled up over her shoulder at him and trailed fingertips through his unruly hair. "Now. How much do you trust me?"
"I trust you, but -- damn it, you always ask the hard questions," he muttered, scowling fiercely at a rock that had never harmed anyone.
"How much, Cloud?" She put a hand over his, and twined their fingers together. "Do you trust me with your life?"
"You know I do."
"Do you trust me with my life?"
"...damn it, yes." He blew all the air out of his lungs, took another breath, and said, "But I hate knowing you're going to have to hurt so much, and it's my own damn fault."
"But you know it'll be all right," she said, untroubled, letting her head tilt back against his shoulder to gaze up at the sky. "Because I know that I'll be fine, and because you trust me to know that. I'm all about life, really. You know I'm good at things that have to do with life. And this is as pure and raw as life gets. So -- you know I'll be fine. Right?"
"Yeah, probably," Cloud muttered, "but I still don't like thinking about it."
"You'll do just fine," she told him, laughing. "And don't tell me you won't be any help; you'd better! You're going to have to keep Sephiroth calm, you know. I can't do everything when I'm in the middle of labor."
Cloud blinked a few times. "Sephiroth? I mean -- Zack's even worse about watching people he loves hurt than I am..."
"When the crisis comes, Zack plants his feet and anchors himself for the rest of us to cling to, solid as the earth," Aeris murmured, wistful and gentle. "Sephiroth is the one who doesn't understand how to hold on and wait. He's the one who doesn't trust the world enough to believe that the crisis will always pass on, and that it doesn't have to mean the end of everything."
"How exactly am I supposed to keep Sephiroth calm when I'm not so sure I'm not going to panic?"
Aeris glanced up at him coyly, and even fluttered her lashes to get the full impact out of it. "We could start fermenting some coconut milk," she offered. "Getting the new fathers drunk out of their minds is positively traditional."
Cloud couldn't quite figure out a non-hysterical-sounding way to protest: wait, crazy man's xenobiology experiments, see also 'bad ideas Shinra has had' and 'altered blood chemistry,' not to mention 'they're both how much stronger than me to start with,' and you want to LOWER his inhibitions, and THEN ask me to keep him restrained?
When she started laughing at the expression on his face, he couldn't decide whether he wanted to complain at her taste in jokes or kiss her for letting it be a joke.
"Okay, point for your team," Cloud conceded, rolling his eyes. "I've kind of lost track of the score, though."
"You're adorable," Aeris said, still laughing, and ruffled his hair for him.
"I'm serious," he said. "How am I supposed to keep General Sephiroth from panicking when I'm panicking too?"
"You're capable of more than you think, Cloud."
"That's fine, but that's not helpful. ...No, seriously, Aeris, I mean it. How the hell--"
Aeris hadn't entirely stopped teasing him by the time they got back to the shrine. On the other hand, Cloud couldn't say he'd come out worse on the teasing scale, because even after he and Aeris were finished hanging the laundry to dry, Zack and Sephiroth were still picking flowers out of everything.
Pretty literally out of everything.
Cloud tried really, really hard not to wonder what the vaguely pulsing blue-green slime covering several dozen orchids had come out of, just for starters.
Zack looked like a demented Puck-fairy with his lopsided crown of tiger lilies and far-too-suggestive-looking orchids and a grin that said I have no shame, and Seph does; lucky, lucky me!
Sephiroth looked like the goddess of the borderland between winter and spring, with a riot of tiny purple flowers spilling through that ice-pale hair and the pallor of his porcelain skin giving way to the verdant life-green striping of his tentacles.
...Also, Cloud thought judiciously, whoever she was, she was also a very proud and very offended goddess. Possibly related to cats, given how the tentacles kept twitching in a way that had nothing whatsoever to do with the contented pleasure of a dog's tail-wag.
Sephiroth held up a snarl of lilies tied in a military-regulation mooring knot around three tentacles at once, and arched one eyebrow skyward, with his pupils contracted all the way to slits. Cloud gulped hard.
"Oh, come on, Seph," Zack said, still grinning like a fiend. "You know she's scarier than we are."
Sephiroth turned the look on Zack next.
"Seriously. We've only got some tentacles and some combat training. She's got the entire bloody jungle listening to her!" With a wry glance sideways, he added, "Besides, can you blame him for having no willpower left when she asks for anything?"
"Oh, sure, Mr. Tough Guy, I dare you to look her in the face and say 'no' the next time she says 'please,'" Zack chuckled. "Especially if she does that thing with the eyes while she's at it."
Sephiroth turned the look on Aeris next. She countered with finesse, dropping her chin a little, looking up at him soulfully through her eyelashes, one hand poised atop the baby-curve as a silent but inescapable reminder.
Cloud had to give him credit for not blinking, though his tentacles had gone very still with the concentration it was costing him.
Aeris tucked a lock of hair back behind her ear, and smiled shyly; she reached up to brush one delicate hand against his shoulder, then trailed her fingertips forward and down over the pulse-point in his heart, and then stepped close enough to lay her head against his chest.
"Point made," Sephiroth said stiffly, though he still refused to surrender a blink until she laughed and hugged him.
There was something indefinably wrong, the morning that it happened. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, couldn't put words to her unease, couldn't be certain it was anything more than uncomfortable sleep and ongoing aches and the pressure of a storm front passing through.
Zack was distracted and restless too, but then Zack was distracted by nearly anything. She could hardly call his tendency to glance out the eastern gate toward the glitter of the morning sunlight on damp leaves a presentiment of doom. Or else if it was, then the world must have been doomed years and years earlier, and was being awfully tardy about getting around to doing anything about it.
Sephiroth had left hours before dawn, well before the first wave of the storm broke; he'd gone to the deep, where the shifting pressure and the bash and crackle of thunderheads couldn't disturb him. Aeris almost wondered if he'd gone back to sleep in the ocean depths -- if he'd made himself a thoroughly under-waterbed, maybe lined with soft seaweed, for the times when the storms on the surface made too much racket to sleep in a mountaintop shrine with chickenwire windows. If unwary starfish might nestle into his hair when he slept, mistaking the pale drifting strands for bleached seaweed, or if that was how he lured in some of those enormous yellowfins...
She'd have to tease him about that later, she decided, gathering up the breakfast dishes with Cloud and taking them outside to the dish-bucket.
When they came back in, Zack had left. It was a little odd for him to slip away without a single word, because Zack was conscientious about making sure that someone was with her all the time -- and on top of that, he really did seem to prefer talking to breathing sometimes.
But, Aeris told herself, it wouldn't be the first time he'd wandered off into the jungle for hours because some unusual, brightly-feathered bird had caught his attention amid the trees and he'd followed it home so that he could find out whether there were chicks. Chicks would turn into more pretty flying distractions later, after all. Even for someone who'd grown up in a jungle not too far away from this island, he was constantly exclaiming about creatures and plants he'd never seen before.
So she put it out of her mind while they dried the dishes and stacked them in a box with a lid heavy enough to keep the morning glories out. Cloud took a look at the horizon, and picked up Sephiroth's sail-canvas umbrella when they went down to the beach so that she could float in the shallows for a while.
She wasn't really worried until Cloud stood up and started wading away from her and toward nothing -- not toward the coming storm, not toward land and the shrine, just... nothing. He was wandering through the shallows with no regard for the curve of the beach, following something in an unnervingly straight path toward the northeast.
He yelped when she grabbed his arm. She hadn't meant to grab quite that tightly, but his eyes weren't entirely seeing her, even when he turned to protest.
"Where are you going?" she asked, trying hard to keep her voice steady.
"Don't you hear him?" Cloud asked, and even with both of her hands around his arm, he was turning away again. "He's calling us."
"Who's calling, Cloud?"
He opened his mouth to answer as though it was supposed to be obvious, and then she watched the shock flare across his face when he realized he didn't know the answer.
"It's not Seph," he said, and now his eyes were there for hers again. And scared. "I thought it was, but it's not. It's not Zack either. It feels almost like them, but it's wrong--"
To the northeast, Aeris realized in a sick rush of panic, is Midgar. Hojo's laboratory.
"He said he was the prototype," she whispered, and Cloud clung to her hands hard enough that it hurt, but he was there and he was holding on.
And Zack was somewhere else. And Cloud had only had the barest beginnings of that thing poured into him; Zack'd had a lot more of it, enough to give him the changes. And Sephiroth had been the first, the one most damaged by it, the one Hojo had meant to use as the focus.
Had meant to, until they'd left.
Hojo's prototype had escaped his control. And they'd left Hojo alive.
"Where are they?" Aeris demanded, ignoring the strength of his grip because she was holding on just as tight. "Can you hear them? Either of them? Where are they now?"
Cloud shut his eyes tight, turning slowly, testing his way with hesitant steps through the water, almost as though he were trying to follow a scent; but when he settled on a direction, Aeris had to catch at his shoulders again.
"You're facing towards Midgar," she told him, fighting back tears. "Stop. Don't listen to it."
"But we've got to stop them," Cloud said desperately. "We can't let it take them -- damn it, if I could hear anything over that -- that thing--" He dropped to his knees in the surf, uncaring that the water rushed up to his throat, hands knotted in his hair. "Seph. Seph--!"
Aeris slid both hands under his arms, grateful for the water's buoyance, because it meant she didn't need to carry his weight, only to keep his head above the waves. "Cloud," she said, trying to keep the urgency out of her voice, "we need to get out of the water, okay? Come on. We need to get you--" safe, she'd almost said, only she wasn't sure where would be safe from the voices in his own mind. "Further up the beach. The tide's coming in, Cloud, and I can't carry you right now..."
Cloud turned in her arms and struggled to set his feet under himself again, but then he looked past her shoulder, and his face turned gray.
Aeris turned despite herself, and wished she hadn't.
It wasn't just a wave. Waves didn't rise out of the horizon like a wall three hundred feet high. Waves didn't blot out the noonday sun.
That's not a tsunami, she thought, in the peculiar sense of timeless calm that came with the knowledge that there was nowhere to run. The entire sea is rising up.
And then it screamed, and she realized she was wrong again.
Something writhed at the core of the blazing mass hurtling across the ocean, closer and closer and she wondered if she'd have time for a third breath before it hit because it wasn't just the ocean either; the living weapon at its core had demanded all of the unspeakable power in the deep -- and the Lifestream itself had risen to its need.
How strange, she thought absurdly as the wave swept them both under. I'd really thought I was going to live...
Lost amid the green shining of a million dead souls all dreaming of power, Aeris held tightly to her sense of self -- glimmers of sunlight teasing at spring-green leaves; the deep slow roll of the earth's power beneath her bare feet, growing within her belly, heavy fruit patiently ripening toward the day when its own life would burst free -- and she held Cloud just as tightly, following the thread of her daughter's soul back into her father's when he tried to fray apart in terror.
She wove together her favorite childhood dreamscape from tendrils of power and from her own desperation, and dragged him into it with her -- an unending field of green grass and lilies, all the life that she'd never seen growing in Midgar, verdant and brimming over with life; and only then did she realize her childhood self had never dreamed of seeds or fruit, just of flowers. But then, as a child, she wouldn't have needed to dream a mother's dreams -- perhaps one day, if she grew to be old enough, her dream-world would be full of falling leaves and harvest-ripe wheat and air crisp with the first hint of snow.
But before she could grow old enough to dream of autumn, she needed to keep all of them alive. And then she needed to find their way out before their bodies forgot how to hold their souls, and then they'd better not have been swept out to sea in the backwash of that surge; but first things first...
She dreamed Cloud's shape back into being under her hands, careful of the details: the strength of his shoulders, the feather-soft, seawater-drooping spikes of golden hair, the pulse of his heartbeat; the sword-calluses he hadn't let himself lose, keeping up his training in the forest, playing with Zack. Sometimes with Sephiroth too, when the General unbent his dignity enough to indulge his unspoken enjoyment of shamelessly showing off in front of such an appreciative audience.
And then there was that lifestrand that bound them all together, by Hojo's design; she almost wished she could cleanse Cloud of it then and there, but he wouldn't forgive her if it meant that they lost their most reliable link to the others. Because most of Cloud was brave and loyal and stubborn and shy and recognizably human, but there was that one nagging shadow of something other, something that didn't belong to this world. It was stronger in Zack, for all that his vivid, bright-burning self masked it better; it was strongest of all in Sephiroth, who'd never tried to fight against it until Cloud had hit him first with ten pounds of steel to the skull and then with pure, unwavering acceptance. That alienness in them was a thread she could follow, although she didn't dare reach out yet, because it could still lead her to Hojo's newest creation as well.
It trembled in different directions when she touched it -- strongest of all to Cloud, whom she held so tightly together at her side, keeping him safe from the chaos of the millions of voices of the dead. But, beyond her safe shelter, there were echoes -- one dim and fading, another discordant, another--
Her world flared into ash, torn away by a blaze of incandescent, implacable rage that poured over her like molten steel and seized:
It took a while to realize that it didn't hurt.
She couldn't even imagine herself breathing in the grip of such all-consuming, soul-devouring hatred, and she hurt for the soul that felt it, but it wasn't hurting her. It was wrapped all around her, white-hot like some unholy crucible of fury, but she didn't burn.
She remembered having hands, and flexed her fingers a little, and found that she still felt Cloud's heartbeat under her palms when she wanted it badly enough. And he didn't burn away, either. He was trapped in the same prison, ringed about by rage that burned like starfire, but he was part of that adamant possession.
Holy Mother of us all, Aeris thought, in pitying horror.
She'd assumed that the Planet had wakened one of its Weapons in response to Hojo's creature calling together the strands of that alien virus. But it wasn't the Planet's weapon that had come screaming out of the deep like the husk of a raging alien god.
The Planet's weapon wouldn't want them.
There was a savage flare of satisfaction, and then the snare clamped down harder, like a vise around her entire body; even knowing that it was just a manifestation of pure will, knowing that she didn't need to breathe yet, the part of her that had been born human struggled in panic.
Something dim and massive as a dying star turned a glance toward her, and then the universe shifted beneath her and Zack was there, with them, twining around them both, voiceless but desperate, and they were falling through the core of starfire together and ...out the other side, to where the fury burned more dimly, more distantly.
He'd been burning them to diamond, frozen clear and immobile and flawless beyond the touch of time itself, but now Zack wrapped them in pearl, translucent and dream-luminous and yet mortal-fragile; and it didn't matter so much that they were still falling because they were all together, all safe, all encased.
"Oh, gods, Seph," Zack whispered into the night-dim silence of their shell, his voice thick with tears.
Aeris remembered how it felt to have an arm around his waist, the shift and flex of muscle and the sheer living warmth of him, and so she could still hold him when she tried.
"I love you," she said to them both. "But I love him too. We all do. So please don't be too angry with me."
She heard Cloud catch his breath, and Zack cried her name, but she couldn't bear to listen.
She was the Planet's lastborn child. Beneath the unfathomable vastness of the sea and the insurmountable void between the stars, beneath the unearthly power and terrifying strength, beneath the deepest of the ancient mysteries, there was a cushion of earth and a cloak of stone and the molten iron core of the Planet itself, and that power was hers to hold and to nurture.
Somewhere a thousand leagues above their deep, safe, dark shelter, at the surface where storms raged and heaved and living things were swept away like gnats, he made one last raging strike, and then the power burned through even Sephiroth's legendary control. And he let himself fall into the maelstrom; he had nothing left to hold on to, nothing but wistful, satisfied thoughts of that sinking pearl.
Aeris took hold of that filthy, corrosive thread of Jenova's undying not-life, and stepped through, and then opened her eyes.
And then she saw what he had become.
...what was left, of what he had become.
"Really, you're such an overachiever," Aeris scolded, rebandaging the thirtieth seeping, wounded tentacle; there were a few dozen more for this morning, and then she could go and resterilize the spare bandages for the afternoon before something else claimed her attention. "Didn't you ever think about leaving some vengeance for the rest of us to wreak?"
Sephiroth made a painful, dissatisfied noise almost too deep to hear. Zack chuckled a little, and ran fingertips and a few tentacles through Sephiroth's hair again.
Zack had dissolved that pearl of crystallized alien excretions from the inside out, and they'd found that Sephiroth had dropped them into the shrine -- it was the place where he kept his precious things safe from Shinra, after all. And then they'd looked out into the garden and discovered Aeris pouring healing spells into Sephiroth like water into a leaking bucket. He hadn't stopped stroking Sephiroth's hair since. Of course, he hadn't let go of Cloud since then either; and Cloud hadn't protested even a little, even for form's sake.
"Well?" Aeris demanded, pausing in her ministrations to set her hands on her hips and arch her back a little. "I'm fierce! I can wreak vengeance with the best of them!"
Whatever image floated in Sephiroth's mind behind that slit-eyed, exasperated look, it had Zack thumping a spare tentacle against the floor as he covered his mouth with both hands to keep from laughing out loud. Aeris transferred her glare to him.
"All right, squidboy, what did he just say?"
Zack waved a warding-off tentacle in the air, still gulping back hilarity desperately.
Cloud buckled much more satisfactorily under the glare. "Flowers," he mumbled. "Uh. Kind of a tidal wave of flowers. Bursting out of the Mako reactors, drowning the Plate up to about the thirtieth floor of Shinra Tower; it was all... um... very pink."
"Very funny," Aeris replied, and hoped her lips weren't twitching too visibly. She bandaged another tentacle, and then paused. "The reactors didn't explode, you know," she said, much more gently. "You dragged the entire Lifestream into a new channel behind you. The cores must have drained themselves dry before they could melt down, or else I would have felt..." More casualties, she thought, but carefully didn't say. "I would have felt it, anyway."
Twirling a lock of Sephiroth's hair around a tentacle until he was striped like a silver, tan, and purple candy cane, Zack said, "I'm sure the Soldiers evacuated the place before the Tower went up, boss. They'd have felt you coming." He tipped his head a bit to one side, and then added, "Yes, even with that thing singing in their heads. I heard you coming too; I just couldn't swim fast enough to get out of the way."
Sephiroth tried to turn his face away, and then discovered that Zack's tentacleful of candy-striping also served a practical purpose as a leash.
"None of that," Zack scolded lightly, cupping a hand to the still-too-pale curve of his cheek. "I thought you said your life's mission was to remain the biggest thorn in Shinra's side? I'm pretty sure you're going to hold that record for a good long time!" He glanced over at Aeris. "How long do you think it's going to take before any of the reactors are even usable again?"
"Months, if ever," she said, with a rather vindictive pleasure in her voice. "Chances are good the Midgar wellspring will never come back to the same level, considering how deep you burned that channel." She propped both hands in the hollow of her back and stretched carefully, then gathered up another tentacle.
Zack's brows crooked together, and then he glanced toward Aeris. "We're pretty sure the clones are toast," he said, "or at least that central knot of them in the main lab are. If there were any out-liers, chances are good Hojo's the only one who knew of them, and nothing else is ...activated, not yet anyway. But we can't hear Hojo the way we can the rest of us. Do you know whether he got out?"
"I don't know," Aeris replied, scrunching up her nose a little, "and I don't want to go sniffing around for the reek of that kind of a soul. And there are so many voices in there -- even if he'd died, I doubt I could recognize him by now. If he came apart like most humans do, that is."
Zack sighed a little. "Okay, so I guess we live with the cockroach question-mark a little longer. Still. Seph. It's going to be okay, I swear." Smoothing his hair gently, he added, "We're safe now. You took us back. Nobody's ever going to take us away from you again."
"They'd have to be idiots to even think about it," Cloud agreed. "It's all right. They didn't get us."
There was still something knotted up behind Sephiroth's eyes, though, something that had nothing to do with physical pain.
"Aeris," Cloud said softly, "can you forgive him?"
She didn't pretend not to know what he was asking; instead, she took Sephiroth's hand carefully between her own, and kissed the back of it, and curved his palm against her belly. "Centuries ago," she murmured, "part of her was a Cetra. She died when Jenova came, and she's been waiting two thousand years to be reborn. Part of her is my mother, and Cloud's father, and all our parents' parents, all waiting in the earth's dreams. And you... even riding the crest of that horrible power, blind to everything but rage, you held us like gemstones. Like something precious and irretrievable. The only thought in you was that we were yours."
Stroking her fingertips lightly over the tattoo marked into the back of his hand, Aeris told him, "She'll open her eyes into a world where there are fewer city lights burning to block out the stars, and a riot of green growing things in Midgar's desolate floodplain, and a set of fathers who come with several more tickling and hugging options than usual. And you'll even have her outnumbered when it comes to the number of squirming limbs trying to wriggle away from diaper changes! That's going to be a first in all her lives, so I suspect it'll take her some time to surrender to the notion."
She flashed a dimpling grin; Sephiroth watched her with starving, desolate eyes.
"I know that we all could have died," she admitted, with a small, soft sigh. "I thought she wouldn't live through that. I thought I wouldn't either. But right now I am the earth itself, waiting for spring; even you can't reach deeper than the earth itself. And even if I'd lost her, even if I'd died -- I would still forgive you."
Sephiroth closed his eyes, because he couldn't turn away, and Zack made a frustrated little sound.
"No you don't," he said, wagging a finger under Sephiroth's nose. "You don't get to refuse that. Just like you don't get to refuse bandages or food or water or anything else, except tickling which would probably hurt too much when you thrash right now. Yeah, it was overkill. Seph, if you hadn't noticed by now, you are the undisputed champion of overkill. Always have been, always will be. And we love your unmanageable ass anyway; got it?"
After an exasperated moment's silence, Zack muttered, "You do so have an ass. Because as soon as you can move again, I'm going to kick it up between your ears, and you'll know what it is by the time I get it there. ...No, I don't need feet for kicking, either. ...Yeah, well, watch me..."
She'd left Sephiroth's hand resting there a moment too long, though. She'd had her hands busy with bandages, and hadn't wanted to lose her place; and by the time she realized it was happening again, so had he.
Zack cut off abruptly mid-rant, and he and Cloud both snapped around to stare at her in unison, and then Zack literally tripped over himself trying to scramble his way to feet he no longer had.
"Since when -- how long -- what do we -- Ifrit, we need fire materia! And water to boil and--"
Aeris sighed in exasperation, caught a double-handful of tentacles, and pulled sharply to drag back his attention. "I told you I'm going to be fine," she said. "And did you really think she'd be willing to wait around inside after all that excitement? She's my daughter. Of course she's going to want to know what's going on as soon as possible!"
Watching Zack sprawl flailing limbs across the floor in the unresolved debate between need-to-touch-everyone and need-to-get-supplies, then untangling himself with a rebound that sent him tumbling towards the door and out the eastern gate toward the water, Cloud said with a shaky laugh, "I thought you said he was going to be the calm one."
"Oh, he will be, before it's over," Aeris said with a sigh. "I've got at least two hours left."
Sephiroth blinked, and Cloud said in a much lower voice than she'd expected, "Two?"
"At least," she said.
"TWO? The gynecology text indicated that you should need at least eight--"
"What," she said wryly, "do you think I've been doing since we got back?"
"And you wasted your healing strength on me?"
She didn't even pretend to address her words to Cloud; it was his voice, but not his words. Instead, she shifted her weight over and sat on Sephiroth's chest to keep him still, then reeled in another tentacle to bandage.
"I wasn't wasting it; I couldn't help myself," she said, smiling. "It's pouring through me the way the mindlink is pouring through you. I couldn't stop if I tried, and really, I don't intend to try. You can't imagine what it feels like..." Then she stopped herself short, and remembered what he'd just gotten done with, and she laughed. "All right, you can imagine. But I guarantee you that I'm better at handling the aftermath than that."
"Teach him sometime, please," Cloud said in his own voice again, and took a deep breath, and blew it all out like he was preparing himself for a marathon. "Okay. What do you need first?"
She couldn't help herself; she reached over, caught a double-handful of the blanket Zack had wrapped around him, and hugged him tight. "Just that," she said happily. "Just ask first. That's all I need."
"No boiling water?" he asked, cautious.
"Oh, that's all later. Right now? All I need is right here."
Zack came clattering back into the shrine, hauling buckets and the washtub and a good-sized piece of what must have been a boat's hull before he'd decided to make off with it. "Okay," he said, still wild-eyed and twitching a lot, but clearly working on dialing down the panic since the baby hadn't managed to get itself born during the minute and a half he was gone. "Where do we start?"
"Hugs!" Aeris suggested brightly. "Hugs are always the best place to start."
He gave her a look of bewildered concern, and said, "I meant with the washing things and the disinfecting and all that ...stuff."
"Hugs are still always the best place to start," she said, and smiled when he twined several tentacles about her carefully. "See? Much better already. And the next step is to breathe. You, not me," she pointed out. "I don't forget when I get overexcited."
"And the step after that," she continued, "is that we finish making sure Seph isn't going to fall apart any more than he already has, and then I'll be ready. Got it?"
"Uh," Zack said, scratching behind an ear with an uncertain tentacle-tip.
"Right. Hand me those bandages, will you?"
She really wished she'd paid more attention to keeping the calendar on track, she thought a while later, carefully cradled in a supportive nest of Zack's tentacles, leaning back against Sephiroth's chest and holding Cloud's hands. This was certainly going to be a day worth remembering.
Although, really, someone was bound to have written a newspaper article about the abrupt deactivation of every reactor on the planet -- the question would be whether there was a non-Mako-powered press anywhere on the Planet in order to print it...
She had to stop letting her mind drift for a moment and concentrate, but when the contraction ebbed she smiled up at them and glanced around again.
Cloud's careful chicken-wiring had been torn to shreds by Sephiroth's raging drive to the peak of the mountain -- to where he'd found safety, to the place where he protected what was his, before he'd reached through tides of raw power and turned the inexorable rush of the Lifestream beneath Midgar against Shinra Tower itself. The vine-flowers had nearly gone mad at the amount of life-energy that had been poured over the island, and she couldn't even see out the gates anymore; everything was a dim green haze with the sunlight flickering through leaves, but the flowers had left her a respectful distance to bear her child.
She'd have to apologize to Zack later for thinking about teasing him for bringing every single bucket they had. It was probably going to be a few days before they managed to hack through enough of the kitchen corner to get at the rest of the dishes.
Better to wonder where the dishes were than to pay too much attention to her body right now. The Planet knew life, and she was the Planet's, and she trusted it to see her through this; but she really didn't envy humans, who couldn't let their minds drift into the white field of flowers as easily as she could.
Very close now, though. Not much longer...
She wished, oddly, that she could have done this in the middle of the ancient capital -- could have dug her toes into the earth and let the silent shining trees hear the first cry of a new Cetra. Life was life, though, and the Lifestream was all one.
One more push, and... there.
...Maybe her daughter's voice echoed in the forgotten city after all, she thought wearily, panting for breath. She clearly had good lungs on her.
She felt Sephiroth chuckle at that thought, and Cloud and Zack were hushedly indignant in unison at them both; Zack brought over a couple of buckets, Cloud reached for the old towels, and they worked together as though they shared a mind. Maybe right at the moment, they did.
Cloud reached over and smacked Sephiroth on the shoulder, then turned back to Aeris. His hands were almost steady when he lifted the knife and cut, and she was so proud of him she thought she might burst.
...Except that she'd already burst once today, and didn't really have the energy for a repeat performance.
"So what did he say now?" she asked Cloud, exhausted, but still curious. She was getting a vague impression of pink and white and smug contentment, but couldn't quite make out the details
It was Zack who answered, his eyes glittering in the green-shaded sanctuary.
"You remember that idea he had about Midgar drowning in flowers?" he asked, half hilarity-choked. "Seph's wondering if you want to take any bets."