When Aeris saw his name in the papers for the first time, she didn't know it.
They had never had the chance to exchange introductions, and the people around them had never used their names. She was 'the Ancient' or, when she wasn't meeting expectations, 'the half-breed.' He was simply 'the subject.' She'd only ever seen him in passing, a strange older boy who would come into the lab, but didn't have to stay there. She'd never understood what brought him back, if he could leave.
And then one day, he'd dropped his keycard, as if by accident. No one else had noticed. Aeris had pretended to trip, and carefully slipped it into a pocket before she picked herself back up. That was the only time he'd ever looked her in the eye. He didn't say anything. They passed each other.
The night of the escape was a blur. Aeris remembered holding desperately to her mother's hand as she used spells Aeris had never imagined to clear a path out of the lab. When she saw beyond it for the first time, the city that sprawled outside the glass of the elevator had scared her as much as the men who chased them.
Shouts and gunfire had followed them almost to the station. Her mother collapsed inside the train, and only then had Aeris noticed the dark stain spreading through her dress. Her magic had been so small then, not enough. The train people forced them off at the end of the line, and that was where her mother had died.
She had gone home with Elmyra, terrified of everything and understanding only that this was the first stranger to call her by her name. She couldn't have imagined the house, the soft bed, the room she was allowed to leave whenever she wanted. She didn't at first, not for a while. She kept waiting on permission, but slowly, slowly she started to grow past it.
Even before her fears subsided, she had so many questions. Elmyra, sometimes at a loss to answer them, had encouraged her to read, and she did. Elmyra taught her about Midgar, but the papers taught her about the wider world.
A few years later, when she saw him mentioned for the first time, all she thought was, That's a funny name. It was another year before he appeared in a photograph with some other soldiers, his back to the camera, but she recognized that hair. She ran her finger over the picture.
Still a funny name.
Aeris cut the picture out and kept it in her nightstand, and sometimes she'd take it out and look at it, and try to puzzle out how she felt about him.
He'd helped her to escape that awful place. But that escape had taken her mother from her.
The papers said he was part of the elite group SOLDIER. He was strong enough to fight the Wutai armies, but she didn't know if that made him strong enough to fight the Professor. The Professor... was a frightening man.
On some days, when she stepped out of the house to play in the yard and felt the dirt crumble between her fingers, what she felt was gratitude. He had given her the key to a wider world, to a future of possibilities that she couldn't quite grasp yet.
On other days, when her mother's voice was too soft to make out and Aeris said things that Elmyra didn't understand, she hated him. Why hadn't he done more? Why hadn't he protected them as they fled, the way he fought for his fellow soldiers? Why hadn't he been there to keep the Shinra from killing her mother?
As she grew older, she started to understand a bit better. After all, he'd only been fifteen at the time. Nearly an adult from the perspective of her seven-year-old self, but still just a child, she began to realize. At twelve, she certainly didn't envision having the power she'd ascribed to him in just a few more years. The Professor still scared her. Anything outside of Sector 5 still scared her.
Though she imagined it sometimes, she never expected to see him again. He was someone who existed now in faraway places. The front line of a war whose cause no one had ever explained to her satisfaction.
So when she stepped into the old church and caught sight of the back of his head and shoulders above one of the pews, she didn't think it was real. She stood in the aisle and rubbed her eyes, expecting his image to resolve into that of some old silver-haired lady who lived in the neighborhood. It didn't.
She started cautiously forward, and stopped when he glanced at her. The glance turned into a stare, and she shifted uncomfortably under the intensity of his gaze.
"...it's you," he said at last.
"It's me," she agreed. What else did you say to that?
She approached the front of the church to get a better look at him. It was different, seeing him in person, easier to compare him to the boy in her memory. He wasn't in uniform, and he hadn't been then either, but he'd grown taller, his shoulders broader, his long hair even longer. She could see in his eyes that he was older. Twenty now, the papers said.
"So you're Sephiroth," she said.
He sat straight-backed on the pew, his hands in his lap, unmoving in a false calm. She realized he was trying not to scare her; a lot of people were scared of men from SOLDIER. "I never knew your name," he said.
"Aeris... How are you?"
"I'm... good," she decided. "It's better here."
"And your mother?"
Aeris dropped her eyes to her feet. "...she died."
She could feel him staring at her, and she could feel it when he looked away. "I'm sorry. What I did was impulsive. I didn't think through the consequences."
"It's okay," she told him. "I decided... it wasn't your fault. Mom doesn't-- didn't blame you either. She was glad I got out. I never thought I'd see you again, but since you're here... I wanted to say thanks."
Sephiroth nodded without saying anything.
"...why are you here?" she asked finally, throwing a glance around the church. Not even many people from Sector 5 came here. It was her special place.
He shrugged. "I was looking for a place to think."
"Weren't you at the front?"
"They let me come back to the city on leave."
"But you're not from Sector 5," Aeris stated. She would have known by now if he was. "You're in SOLDIER, so you must live on the plate with all the rich people. Why come down here?"
"To get away from all the rich people," he said, giving her a wry smile that said it was a joke, though not entirely untrue. The smile quickly faded, and his eyes drifted up to the altar ahead of him. "I don't know. Maybe I'm hiding."
"Hiding? From who?" When he didn't answer, she ventured cautiously, "Is it him?"
Sephiroth looked back at her sharply, understanding exactly, but he shook his head. "No. It's... all of it. I wonder about going back."
Aeris climbed up onto the pew next to him, her feet dangling. "You don't like fighting?" she asked.
"It's what I'm meant for. I'm good at it. Very good at it."
She didn't think he was bragging, even though he said it like that. "But do you like it?"
"No one likes fighting," he said, looking straight ahead. It wasn't an answer.
"When I first came here," Aeris said, "Mom was always asking me what I wanted, and I didn't know. People never really asked me that before. Maybe you should take some time and think about it."
There was a pause, and then Sephiroth laughed. "Are you giving me advice?"
"What's so funny about that?"
"You're just a child."
Aeris pouted. "I'll be thirteen next month," she said, though she knew he was right about that. Who was she to give advice to a man who'd been to war? She'd never even been out of Sector 5.
"My apologies. You must be very wise, at almost-thirteen."
"Don't make fun of me. You know I said it because... you and I come from the same place."
He glanced at her again. "We did," he said, "but you and I are very different." He got to his feet. "I'm glad to see you're doing well. Make sure they never find you."
Not even a full week passed before he was back in the papers. Back at the front. Aeris would study any photos of him, trying to figure out from his expression if it was where he wanted to be or not. Elmyra grew to think that, like a lot of girls (and some boys) her age, she had developed a crush on the silver-haired SOLDIER. But it wasn't that.
She couldn't help thinking: she'd gotten out; he hadn't.
Another five years passed. The war ended, but SOLDIER's missions only changed. Aeris had fallen in love with a different SOLDIER, and around the same time that he went missing, an article in the paper announced that Sephiroth had died.
She wondered if she could believe it. He'd fought all through the war without ever coming to harm, and now he'd simply died, without explanation. Some people called it a 'mysterious disappearance.' Aeris remembered their brief conversation and wondered if that was more likely. That he'd gone out on a mission and simply decided never to come back.
Maybe Zack had decided that, too.
With no word of Sephiroth, he at last began to fade from mind. She moved on from thoughts of SOLDIERs and carved out a living in Shinra's shadow. She ventured farther and farther from home, coming to know the city better than she ever had, and she dreamt of leaving it.
She didn't recognize the sword at first either, the night she finally did leave Midgar. It was Cloud who said it, and only then did Aeris remember it from the photos. Sephiroth's legendary sword, the Masamune, impaling the body of President Shinra. It meant something to Cloud and Tifa that she didn't yet understand, but she wondered.
Did she owe him this escape, too?
Later, Cloud told them his story. About how Sephiroth had ceased to be anyone's hero, about how he'd lost his mind.
Aeris admitted to herself, reluctantly, that his downfall didn't surprise her. Here was a man who hadn't known himself well enough to know what he wanted, but who hated the course his life had taken. The Jenova Project had assured him that he was special, it validated his violent turn as holy retribution. He had a destiny greater than anything Shinra had intended for him.
She wondered, if she could have spoken to him at Nibelheim, if she might have persuaded him down a different path. Had he known what she was all those years ago? Surely he didn't think he acted for her, too. If only she had thought to tell him why she came to that church, about the voices she heard and the things the Planet truly wanted.
But they never would meet again face-to-face, and he was no Ancient, she came to realize. She saw him only through his projections, illusions of his face with eyes that never seemed to know her. Did he have to work to hide it? It was hard to imagine a man like him would have forgotten. A part of her wanted to believe it wasn't really him.
In the end, it didn't matter.
His would be the sword that killed her. Moments too late to stop her, too late to mean anything for his plans. Did he do it because it was what he was good at? Because he'd never really escaped where he'd come from?
Rather than hate him for it, she pitied him.
He hadn't thought through the consequences.