by: Serena Gainsborough


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Stealing away in the middle of the night seemed like an ages old thing to do when one had to leave, but that cliche served no purpose to the demure young woman as she quietly left her friends’ campsite near Gongaga Village. Plumes of smoke rose from worn chimney stacks behind her as she walked further and further away. It pained her to leave the friends she had come to know and love in such a short time but upon her return from the Temple of the Ancients she had been haunted by what she needed to do.

Aerith Gainsborough clearly remembered seeing their nemesis Sephiroth materialize before the astonished eyes of her, Vincent and Cloud. He had spoken quietly, almost emotionless about the ultimate destructive magic Meteor and his plan to injure the Planet. Cloud had trembled with fury visibly as Sephiroth spoke, causally slicing the air before the trio with his dreaded Masamune sword. Although he was a man to be feared Aerith had found herself fascinated by him. His past had been so tragic, ultimately driving him toward these means. A pang of pity touched her heart even as she spoke to him. He wanted to become one with the Planet and gather its power to ascend into godhood. Aerith couldn’t, wouldn’t let him do that to the Planet she loved so much. As the last surviving member of the Ancients, the Cetra, it was her duty alone to save the Planet. But Aerith was not only going to where Sephiroth was to save the Planet, she wanted to actually prevent him from carrying out his plans. If there was some way she could go beyond his cold exterior to reach the man inside maybe...just maybe..

"You’re up and about early this day," came a voice directly beside Aerith, causing her to gasp and turn. Leaning against a tree stood the most mysterious member of their team, Vincent Valentine. Not much was known about him save for his once being a Turk and a woman named Lucrecia whom he had loved very much. He was very quiet and thoughtful, almost pessimistic in his nature, but the life that had been given to him by Professor Hojo had turned him that way. Aerith, a hand upon her chest as she tried to slow her racing heartbeat, met Vincent’s red eyes and spoke.

"I’m going to find Sephiroth and try to convince him to stop this madness. He cannot injure the Planet!" she said passionately, her eyes wide. Vincent stepped away from the tree, the moonlight gleaming off his metallic claw that now served as his left hand to stand mere inches away from her.

"Sephiroth has the Black Materia he can and will carry out his plans. Going after him with that foolish thought will only end up getting you killed," Vincent said, his soft voice so low Aerith could barely hear him. She shook her head, her long brown ponytail swaying behind her.

"When- when he appeared before us in the Temple of the Ancients, I caught a glimpse of his struggling humanity. He is being manipulated by Jenova to do this! Jenova is evil and it is she who must be stopped. Freeing Sephiroth from her control could perhaps save us." Vincent cracked a wry smile, uncharacteristic of him. Aerith wondered why he had suddenly smiled but just as quickly he became melonchaly once more.

"You remind me of myself. I would do anything to make up for my sin against Lucrecia, my beloved Lucrecia. I find myself lacking the courage to do what you are doing. Couragous as it may be, it could also mean your death. Do you realize that?" Aerith looked down at her folded hands.

"I know. It is my duty to protect the Planet from Jenova and whatever plans she has. As a Cetra I must." Vincent looked over at the camp, the two tents standing out against a broken down village which resided in the shadow of a failed Mako reactor. His keen ears could hear the sounds of Cid’s and Barret’s snores radiating from the mens’ tent.

"And what of Cloud?" Aerith looked up at him, surprised.

"You surprise me, Vincent. Here I thought you were so cold and distant, but you’re actually talking to me." Vincent shrugged nonchalantly.

"If I have something worthwhile to say I will speak it. Have you told Cloud you are leaving to pursue a hunch?" Aerith nervously brushed back a stray lock of chestnut hair as she sighed.

"I- I feel as if I have interfered with him somehow. I care for him a great deal, but whenever I look upon Tifa my heart aches. She has known him, been with him, struggled with him for far longer than I. If I told him he would try to stop me. He must live on," she said the last part in a soft whisper as tears started to develop in her eyes. Vincent, uncomfortable with the sight of her tears, looked away.

"I see. So you have accepted the fact that you may die?" Aerith smiled a bit as she bowed her head.

"Yes. I love this Planet and I am willing to die for it." She then placed a hand upon Vincent’s cloaked arm, causing him to jump slightly at her touch. His red eyes met her big aquamarine ones.

"I see your pain, Vincent. Let it go and live on. Lucrecia would want you to live on, like a man," she said softly. Vincent turned away abruptly at the mention of Lucrecia’s name. Aerith’s hand still remained on his arm, patiently waiting for him to reply.

"I am- not a man, Aerith. Not anymore. I am not worthy of Lucrecia’s wish for me to live on." His response was filled with suppressed emotions that he did not want Aerith to see. Taking her hand away from his arm, Aerith stared at the twin tents in the distance.

"I’m sorry to have upset you, Vincent. Please tell everyone I said goodbye?" Vincent said nothing, lost in his own thoughts. Sighing, Aerith gathered her Princess Guard, the few items she managed to take from the supply bag and turned away. She had only gone a few feet when she heard Vincent call her name softly.

"I wish you luck, Aerith. But there is one thing I must ask you. If you should perish, please tell Lucrecia I am sorry?" he asked. Aerith smiled warmly at him and nodded. Vincent did not return her smile but his eyes radiated his happiness. Aerith did not stay to watch him lean against a tree and weep silently.

The road to Bone Village was not an easy one and Aerith found herself lacking reliable transportation. She had encountered a few beasts along the way but quickly defeated them. If there were too many she would hide, waiting for them to leave. After many days of straight walking Aerith could not believe her fortune as she beheld a golden chocobo grazing on some wild greens. She had heard stories of these wonderful creatures but had never actually expected to see one! Aerith dug through her carry all to see if she had any greens for it but became distraught when none were found. As she thought of a way to catch it the chocobo suddenly let out a loud ‘Wark!’ as it spotted her. Feeling as if she had been caught with her hand in the cookie jar Aerith swallowed. The chocobo eyed her warily, its blue eyes blinking. Slowly Aerith approached it, her eyes never leaving his. The chocobo cocked its head to the side, curious.

Aerith had managed to stand directly before it, almost locking eyes with it when the chocobo warked and sped off. Aerith sighed. She was hoping to catch it but she would have to do without one. Gathering her things she proceeded to continue on her way when she heard the same chocobo wark again, only this time it was out of surprise. Aerith glanced over her shoulder to see two burly men cackling loudly as they restrained the poor thing with a rope.

"I’ll be damned if it isn’t the gold chocobo that was reported missin’ last week! Ol’ Dio sure will give us plenty of gil for its safe return eh?" grinned the first man, his big hands in a death grip on the rope. His companion withdrew his cigarette and exhaled, nodding in agreement.

"Maybe this’ll get us a full pardon!" Aerith gasped as the chocobo met her eyes. She could see that it was afraid and decided to help it. Grabbing her Princess Guard, Aerith bravely approached the two men. The larger of the two looked over and gasped.

"Hey look another surprise! Ain’t seen a woman as purty as that in a loooong time," he said, giving the rope another hard yank. The smaller one ran a hand through his dirty blonde hair and shot Aerith a smile.

"Why are you out here all by yourself pretty lady?" Aerith stopped before them, her grip never loosening on her weapon.

"I came to thank you for retrieving my chocobo." At this the two men laughed out right, causing Aerith to flinch a little.

"You seem to have your chocobos mixed up, missy. This here is Dio’s prize winner. In fact it’s the same one which made him a rich man to begin with! You sure this is yours?" the larger man asked, eyeing Aerith’s slim body up and down, his mind obviously on what her measurements were and not the chocobo.

Aerith nodded.

"He is mine, good sirs. I thank you for finding him." Turning her attention to the chocobo, she smiled.

"You naughty thing, running off and worrying me like that! For shame!" she saud, pointing her finger at the captive chocobo. The smaller man smiled.

"Then you must have the wrong chocobo, girlie. For one thing this is a she," he said, finding pleasure in causing Aerith to gasp. She felt very foolish at that moment and said nothing, only blushed.

"Know what I think? I think this girl’s trying to charm us so we can give up our pardons and reward money. That’s not a very nice thing to do." Realizing what kind of situation she had put herself in, Aerith raised her Princess Guard defensively.

"Ooo she’s a fighter! Well then you want to fight for it?" the large man asked before spitting to his left. Aerith said nothing, her fear of what may become of the chocobo in the hands of those cutthroats seizing her voice. They could kill it and claim a monster did it and maybe collect for trying. She couldn’t let that innocent creature die! The smaller man advanced, grabbing hold of her weapon and trying to pry it loose from her hands. Crying out, Aerith brought out her left foot and kicked him sharply in the shins. Stumbling backward he swore at her and raised his fist. Suddenly the man froze, his eyes wide in fear. His companion also stood perfectly still, all color gone from his face. Aerith wondered why they were so frightened and turned only to be engulfed by a strong arm pulling her forward. She barely had time to gasp the gesture was so sudden.

"I believe the chocobo belongs to her," said a sharp voice. Aerith couldn’t see who it belonged too since she was being held tightly against the stranger’s nearly bare chest. The small man slowly backed away, his eyes never leaving Aerith’s sudden savior. Aerith tried to look over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of a long sword pointed straight at the two men, who had already begun to loosen the rope on the chocobo. Once free the chocobo let out an angry wark and pecked at the two men furiously. Aerith had never felt so afraid in her life. What was this man going to do to her?

The two men managed to flee the angry chocobo and had already run faster than either of them thought possible. The stranger relaxed his hold on Aerith and stepped back. Aerith looked up at him and swallowed as her aquamarine eyes met sharp blue ones. They were glowing eerily, a result of exposure to Mako energy.

"Really my dear if you want to come after me so much do it by better means," he said, sheathing his long and deadly blade. Aerith found herself transfixed by his mere presence. By far Sephiroth was the most handsome man she had ever seen, from his long and flowing white hair to his intense blue eyes. He stood tall and looked quite menacing in his black leather attire. The Masamune stayed by his side like a loyal friend, always ready when his master called.

"Why did you help me?" she finally managed to ask. Sephiroth looked down on her, his hand never straying from the sword.

"Because it is not time for you to die yet. I would not let those petty fools ruin my well-thought plans." Aerith felt a chill run down her spine. He spoke of killing her so easily, like it was nothing! Her original plan to seek out his human side threatened to flee but she remained steadfast in her belief. There had to be a way to get through to that small part of him Jenova hadn’t already conquered.

"So you will prevent what could happen to me until your chance arises?" Sephiroth chuckled. Aerith felt herself grow hot as his voice rang throughout her ears.

"Oh, you do amuse me so." He regarded her for a moment, from her large eyes to her chestnut hair. "It’s a shame I have to destroy you. I cannot let anyone stand in my way, it is my destiny to rule this Planet! Mother has given me the power to do so!" He unsheathed his Masamune and raised it to the sky as if he were paying his respects to Jenova.

" It is you whom I pity, Sephiroth. Jenova is using you, can you not see that?" Sephiroth shot her a glare so fierce it would make a blind man tremble.

"Do not mock me, Ancient! Pity is for mortals....I shall soon become a god! Beyond your race, beyond humantiy, beyond any man’s wildlest dreams!" He then began to laugh. His laugh made Aerith tremble slightly. She shook her head sadly.

"Sephiroth, do not try to hide behind Jenova’s influence and the promise of power. When we encountered you at the Temple I saw your humanity, your-" At the word ‘humanity’ Sephiroth brought his sword down so fast that it was a blur. The sharp tip pressed into the delicate flesh of Aerith’s neck, but she showed no fear.

"Do not mock me!" he raged, his eyes wide. Aerith closed her eyes, waiting for him to run his sword through her neck. Sephiroth was furious, so furious that if he could rip apart the heavens he would. But he felt his hand tremble a bit at the thought of running this girl through. A tiny voice cried out for him to stop. Sephiroth paused momentarily as he heard what the voice had to say.

You must not kill her! She can help free you from Jenova’s control! Sephiroth blinkedm his sword still pressed against Aerith’s throat. Suddenly Jenova’s voice filled his mind.

Now is not the time to dispose of the Ancient. She is inferior to us, my son. Let her come to you so you can carry out our holy mission! Sephiroth regained his composure and withdrew the Masamune. Sheathing it Sephiroth glanced at Aerith.

"Fortune smiles upon you this day, Ancient. You are granted more time to live." Upon saying that he reached inside his black cape, withdrew a handful of gizzard greens, threw then at Aerith’s feet and faded away. Aerith stared at the greens, dumbfounded. The chocobo was suddenly upon the greens, eating away. Aerith looked up at the sky, curious to her encounter with Sephiroth. She had sensed his confusion again. Was he helping her out or was he only giving her the means to her ultimate end? Either way she would not rest until she helped the Planet- and Sephiroth.

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After Cloud had learned of Aerith’s disappearance he became frantic with worry and had woken everyone up the night Vincent relayed the news. They were a good three days’ travel behind her, for their encounter with beasts seemed to have multiplied. Cloud had defeated each one impatiently, his need to get to Aerith great. Leading the way, Cloud stalked the trail, his blue eyes staring straight ahead. Why? Why go after Sephiroth alone? That’s crazy, Aerith! Please don’t let yourself get hurt!, he thought. Walking beside him his childhood friend Tifa could read Cloud’s every thought. She knew the flower girl had touched Cloud’s heart and could not help but feel a pang of jealousy. Tifa had loved Cloud for a long time but refused to admit it for fear of rejection. She would be there for him always though because she did love him that much, even if his heart was with someone else.

"Damn we’ve been walking all fucking day without so much as a pit stop! When are we gonna stop?!" demanded Cid loudly from the back of the line of travellers. Tifa cast a glance over her shoulder at the irritated pilot. Cid had been very testy since his Tiny Bronco, their means of transportation, broke down and couldn’t even service as a boat. Walking was their only other option since the other night’s raid of greens by wild chocobos also cancelled getting to Aerith via chocobo.

"Can we stop yet Cloud? My feet are killin’ me!" whined sixteen-year old Yuffie. Soon Barret voiced his want to stop as well as Cait Sith. Tifa could almost feel Cloud’s anger grow as he turned to look at his party. He was about to yell at them when he realized he had been running them ragged ever since Aerith disappeared.

"Yeah, um sure guys, we can stop." A chorus of relieved sighs filled the air as packs were dropped to the ground and backs were stretched. Cid muttered about needing to take a piss and ducked behind a tree. Yuffie made a comment and cracked up as Cid shouted his displeasure to her. Vincent found a rock and sat upon it where he began to wipe down his gun, avoiding any conversation. Barret dug into his pack and retrieved some leftover food and heartily dug in. Red curled up underneath a tree and closed his eyes to take a cat nap while Cait Sith tried to make conversation with Barret.

Tifa dropped beside Cloud, who was leaning against the hilt of his Rune Blade. His eyes stared absently into the distance. She wondered what to say to him when he spoke.

"I hope she’s okay. If Sephiroth got to her before we do so help me-!" Tifa placed a reassuring hand on his arm, her face breaking into a small smile.

"It’s okay, Cloud. We’ll find her. I just know it." Cloud looked over at her smiling face and found himself smiling as well. Tifa sure had a way of making things sound all right!

"I hope so too. But one thing troubles me, why did she go alone? What is she hoping to accomplish?" Tifa shrugged.

"Vincent was the last one who spoke with her. Maybe he knows," she suggested. Cloud looked over at the red-clothed man absorbed in the polishing of his gun.

"Even if he does know I doubt he’ll strike up a conversation with us," Cloud remarked.

"It is not wise to speak about someone who can hear you perfectly well, Cloud," Vincent said suddenly, clicking his gun. Cloud stood and proceeded for the seated man, Tifa close behind.

"Do you know why Aerith went?" Cloud asked. Vincent glanced up at the pair before averting his eyes.

"I do." Cloud wanted to grab Vincent and demand to know why but Tifa had already knelt down and asked about the reason.

"She told me it is her duty to protect the Planet from all evil. She also told me that she wants to get through to Sephiroth’s human side." At that Cloud frowned.

"Human? Human?? Sephiroth has no human side!! He cares little for life and only wants to take over! How is someone like that human??" Vincent apparently was not affected by Cloud’s outburst and folded his arms beneath his cloak.

"I only know what she told me and nothing more." Tifa took hold of Cloud’s arm and shook her head.

"Don’t be mad at Vincent. He’s being honest. Save your anger for Sephiroth." Cloud exhaled slowly as he regained his composure and nodded.

"We’d better keep moving. I don’t want to arrive too late," Cloud said as he and Tifa walked back to collect their belongings. Tifa noticed a materia orb missing from Cloud’s blade and questioned its whereabouts. When she heard Cid’s angry voice fill the afternoon air and Yuffie’s squeal she knew the culprit had been found. Cloud shook his head and laughed slightly. Tifa smiled. She was glad that even during this time Cloud could laugh. It made her happy. The group trudged on, the only sound being Yuffie’s voice arguing with Cid’s over the ‘missing’ materia.

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Surprisingly the gold chocobo, which Aerith had affectionately named Goldie, was faster than she had expected and the pair made it from the outskirts of Cosmo Canyon to a day’s travel away from Costa de la Sol in good time. Aerith sat upright on Goldie’s back, her Princess Guard strapped to her back. Her bag, which had once been filled with items now looked limp from its postion on her right thigh. She knew she had to stop for supplies soon. Aerith’s share of gil had increased only slightly since Goldie’s speed made encounters with monsters a rarity.

Aerith’s thoughts went to her chance meeting with Sephiroth a few days ago. His eyes haunted her dreams at night, making sleep for her almost unbearable. The other night she had been jolted awake by a cry for help coming from someone. The voice was tinged with desperation and sadness, but after hours of searching Aerith could not locate the source. She assumed it belonged to the Planet and worried on it no more. Her directive was to make sure the Planet survived at all costs, even her own life.

Aerith looked up at the sky and closed her eyes. She missed everyone dearly. She missed Yuffie’s obnoxiousness, Cait Sith’s happy-go-lucky attitude, Tifa’s optimism, the arguments between Cid and Barret, the way Red would twitch every time she’d pet his nose, even Vincent’s aloofness. They were, in fact, a team and friends. She felt great love and respect for them all, especially him....Cloud.

Her thoughts suddenly went to Tseng, the leader of the Turks and at one time Aerith’s only childhood friend. Finding him bleeding to death upon the altar steps at the Temple of the Ancients had filled her with sadness. She always knew he had a soft spot for her, even when he was doing his job. In the past he used to go out of his way to make her smile, in fact it was he who first showed her the church in the Sector 5 slums.

"This is my gift to you, Aerith. I know how much you love flowers," he had said as she gazed upon the budding flowers nestled in the center of the room. Aerith had from that day on spent most of her time there, tending to her flowers and listening to the voices of the Planet.

Sighing, Aerith’s thoughts returned to the present. Tseng was dead now, returned to the Planet before his time. And Sephiroth had been his murderer. Aerith did not feel any spite toward Sephiroth for killing her one-time friend for reasons she did not understand. A normal person would be sworn to vengeance, but then again Aerith was not a nomal person. She was a Cetra, the last of her kind, and on a mission to save the Planet. Saying a silent prayer to Tseng’s soul within the Planet, Aerith focused on the terrain as it flew by.

Goldie warked softly as she leapt over fallen rocks and logs on the way to Costa de la Sol. Once there Aerith would have to bid a fond farewell to her chocobo friend before turning her over to the authorities. Goldie had told her that her owner was Dio, or as she put it ‘my favorite human’ and had agreed to return her to the Gold Saucer once Goldie got Aerith to Costa de la Sol. Exhaling Aerith raised her hand over her eyes at the sunset. She would have to stop soon. Her body ached from all the riding and she was quite sure Goldie needed rest. Aerith then thought of Cloud. Please be all right. It is important that you are all right, Cloud. Tifa needs you.

At that same instant Cloud’s head snapped up at hearing Aerith’s sweet voice within his mind. He glanced over at Tifa, who was looking down as she walked. She met his gaze, smiled then turned away. He could have sworn Aerith’s voice told him that Tifa needed him. But why?

"Say where are we exactly? My navigation skills ain’t as good as they used ta be," said Barret, getting a better grip of his duffel bag with his good hand- his only hand.

"We are passing Niebelheim as you speak, Barret," said Red from his place beside the large man. Barret grunted in response, muttering somerthing about the big red cat having a better sense of direction than he.

Cloud frowned as he remembered Sephiroth burn his hometown out of rage. Seeing Sephiroth standing among the flames, smiling so evilly had etched themselves in Cloud’s mind. Because of Sephiroth everything dear to him was taken away, gone with a wave of the Masumane-wielder’s hands and a Fire3 spell! Cloud gritted his teeth. He had to end Sephiroth’s madness. He felt it his duty and his alone. Turning to the others, he spoke.

"Come on, let’s keep moving until dark." The others mumbled in agreement but no one complained. Tifa looked over at Cloud’s stern face and sighed. His determination to seek Sephiroth out was eating him alive. She resisted the urge to take his hand and give it an affectionate squeeze so instead fixed her gaze on the orange sky.

That night Cloud sat staring at the fire Red had created with his materia, his thoughts preventing any sleep. The two tents were set up opposite each other with as well as a changing area. Cloud had barely noticed Vincent accidentally walk around the sheet which separated the changing area from the campsite and catch Tifa standing there with her her hands draped across her breasts. Nor had Cloud seen Vincent actually blush before turning away as if it had never happened. That had been three hours ago. The campsite was asleep, the sounds of crickets hardly harmonizing with the snores from Cid and Barret.

Cloud leaned on one arm, his other draped across his upright knee. The fire danced and shone within his Mako-enhanced eyes, casting shadows all over his face. He could feel something was wrong in his soul and that made his worry for Aerith increase. If he kept this up he’s worry himself grey!

Cloud then began to remember the time he and Aerith had to save Tifa from Don Corneo’s clutches back in Midgar. It seemed like that happened so long ago. Cloud’s feet still hurt from those damned heels and he had never been able to fully regain his masculinity after the experience in the Honey Bee Inn. But he found himself smiling as he remembered the way Aerith giggled at him when he emerged from the dressing room in a silk dress, blonde wig and his face all dolled up. She was so sweet and gentle...Cloud lowered his head and sighed. He had to find her.

Suddenly his head shot up as a vision filled his mind. He saw Aerith seated in a column of light with her hands clasped before her and eyes closed. She then looked up and smiled softly, unaware of the dark shadow that engulfed her. Cloud could feel himself cry out inside and got to his feet as if he were shocked. Sephiroth....he thought before clenching his fist and turning to rouse everyone for an early start.

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"Oh I’ll miss you too!" giggled Aerith as she hugged Goldie’s neck. The chocobo warked softly then nuzzled Aerith’s cheek affectionately. The Cetra smiled, ruffled Goldie’s head feathers and waved as the men whom were called in to bring Goldie back to the Gold Saucer began to walk away. Aerith shouldered her pack, made sure her materia was in place on her Princess Guard and headed for the dock. She was told by a villager that an excavation team from Midgar was departing Costa de la Sol for Bone Village on the Northern Continent and Aerith planned on being on that ship. Her gil could be expendable if she had to pay to get on. Where she was going no gil would be necessary.

Upon arriving at the dock Aerith saw the archeologists busy themselves with loading their equipment onto the barge. Aerith remembered the first time she had come here with Cloud and the others, happily joining Tifa for a swim. They had tried to convince Cloud to go but he had made up some excuse about not having any swimming trunks. Aerith smiled at the memory as she proceeded for the barge. Coming to a stop before a sailor waving his arms frantically Aerith leaned forward and questioned him.

"Pardon me sir? May I ask you something?" she inquired, ducking to avoid his flailing arms. The sailor stared at her and a huge grin broke out onto his face.

"Ask me anything!" he said. Aerith smiled slightly as she blushed.

"Is there any way I could get on board? I have to get to the Bone Village, it’s urgent," Aerith explained. The sailor rubbed his chin in thought before smiling again.

"Sure, talk to the Captain." Aerith bowed and walked away, oblivious of the way the sailor watched her bottom. Aerith found the Captain and questioned him. His reaction was the same as the sailor’s at seeing a pretty girl and he gladly allowed Aerith free passage, plus a cabin of her own.

"If it’s too much, sir-" The man waved off any protest from the flower girl with a smile.

"Nothing’s too much for a pretty and refined young lady. Welcome aboard! Shall I escort you to your cabin? You suddenly look very weary." Aerith bobbed her head in agreement, only then realizing her fatigue. She followed the Captain up the plank just as the first mate signalled they were ready to depart.

Hidden from view, shrouded by the mists of time, stood a silent forest. Eerie fog circled the tall, foreboding trees. Darkness engulfed the atmosphere, allowing no light in. The center of the forest was the only place where light could be seen and that was where a lone man stood. His head was bowed, his long sword sheathed and by his side. The mist caressed his frame, swirling up and around him as if he were a deity and the mist worshippers. Lowly winds streamed through his long white hair, fanning it out delicately behind him. Lifting his head, the light caught his unusual eyes. They glittered like twin stars, but if one drew closer he could see confusion within the icy blue depths. Confusion resulting from the words of Aerith Gainsborough when he had saved her from those two bandits. They had haunted him for days, relentlessly even. The small part of Sephiroth Aerith had seen inside him screamed at him to prevent her from coming to this place where death waited for her. But Jenova’s voice was strong, determined and fierce. Sephiroth was at an impass within himself. Torn between Jenova’s influence and Aerith’s words Sephiroth took hold of his face and closed his eyes. He bowed his head once more as he imagined the beautiful young woman’s face. Could he destroy her? Or would that voice win over Jenova and free Sephiroth the man?

The trip to Bone Village hadn’t taken as long as the way from Junon to Costa de la Sol and Aerith stood on deck, one hand over her eyes as the sea breezes danced within her chestnut hair. The foghorn blared, accompanied by the shouts of the sailors. Aerith couldn’t wait to get back on land and drew in a breath. She was very close now. She was being drawn to the mysterious place beyond Bone Village. Soon she would face Sephiroth again and then, only then, would she set out to do what she had to.

"Damn!" swore Cloud after a lone sailor informed him and his party that the ship to Bone Village departed the day before and would not return for a week. Tifa had to drag Cloud away before he erupted into anger at the poor man. The pair headed toward the others, who were spread out on the docking area. Cid was leaning casually against a barrell, a cigarette between his lips, his spear at his side. Barret sat near Cid, his eyes staring off the horizan. Red panted in the heat and licked his dry nose. His look told Cloud that if he didn’t get into an air conditioned room soon he’d pass out. Yuffie was nowhere to be seen, most likely having gone to resume her ‘part-time’ job as a salesgirl at the materia stand near the inn. Vincent stood out the most among the scantily-clad Costa de la Sol people and stares drawn his way were not uncommon. A native woman had even winked at him as she passed by! Cait Sith was off reading fortunes for children, his dance making them laugh with glee.

"Well? How’s a bout that ship?" asked Barret, getting to his feet and wiping his brow. Cloud sighed irritably.

"Unfortunetly the ship already departed for Bone Village. It won’t be back until next week," Tifa explained. At that Barret frowned, ready to throw one of his trademark temper tantrums but Cid was already there.

"Goddamnit! So are we stuck in this fool’s paradise??" Cid paused when a pair of bikini-clad women walked by, one smiling at him. Cid blinked and blushed slightly, causing Tifa to giggle. Barret rolled his eyes.

"There has to be a way we can get there. But how?" Cloud said, holding his chin in thought. Suddenly Yuffie rushed toward them, a big smile on her young face. Skidding to a stop, she grabbed Cloud’s arm.

"I got us good! C’mon!" Yuffie insisted, dragging Cloud after her. Tifa and the others followed suite, Red barely keeping up. Yuffie brought Cloud before the materia stand and introduced him.

"Max, this is the guy I told ya about. Ya see he needs a lift to Bone Village. Can you help us out?" she asked. Cloud was surprised at Yuffie’s attitude. Maybe she wasn’t such a bad girl after all.

"Oh sure I got me a boat. I’m in Costa de la Sol for cryin’ out loud!" Max laughed, his tanned face breaking into deep lines. Yuffie grinned and looked to Cloud for his approval. He scratched his head, then shrugged and nodded.

"Only one catch, hon. It can only carry me and three others." Cloud turned to his assembled group. He always hated having to select people to accompany him. If he didn’t choose someone he’d feel as if he were leaving them out of an adventure. But time was of the essence and Cloud was quick to choose.

"Tifa, Vincent, come with me. The rest stay here. We’ll come back here, and with Aerith, okay?" Cloud said. His party nodded. Vincent checked his gun for ammunition and looked up to meet Cloud’s gaze.

"When do we leave?" Cloud turned to Max.

"Hey we can leave now! You mind watching the stand?" Max glanced over at Yuffie, who was inspecting the materia supply. She quickly withdrew her hand and grinned.

"I don’t mind. I get seasick anyway," she said. Cloud could see an hint of mischief in her eyes and shook his head. His previous thought of Yuffie letting go of her thieving ways disappeared. Most likely she would make off with the poor man’s materia supply while they were gone. Cloud sometimes wondered why Yuffie did what she did but never questioned since sometimes he annoyed her.

Max pat Yuffie’s head and came out from behind the stand to stand before Cloud and the other two.

"Shall we go?" Cloud turned Cid, Barret, Cait Sith, and Red before nodding to them.

"Take care, man. Don’t go gettin’ your spikey ass hurt," Barret said. Cloud smiled and promised he wouldn’t. After saying goodbye to the others he turned to Vincent and Tifa, who readied their weapons and materia.

"Okay Max, we’re ready."

Aerith ran through the illuminated woods, her eyes searching for something, anything. It seemed like forever since she set foot into the legendary Sleeping Forest in pursuit of Sephiroth. She could feel his humanity here, even though it was small and quiet. Aerith brushed past claw-like tree branches and narrowly escaped shadow figures as they appeared, trying to grab her. The center. The center is where she would find him.

Suddenly Aerith froze on her tracks upon seeing a man standing alone, his head down. By his white hair and sword it was unmistakably Sephiroth. Catching her breath and smoothing out her dress, Aerith slowly approached the figure. He did not move, even when her boot snapped a twig in half. She was nearly on top of him when he looked up. Aerith gasped softly at what she saw. He no longer seemed so cold and calculating. He actually looked...scared. She could see him swallow nervously as his eyes searched hers. Aerith wanted to take him into her arms and hold him, soothe him but held back.

"Go back," he said in a soft voice. Aerith blinked at him in confusion. Was this his humanity?

"What do you-" Sephiroth suddenly grabbed her shoulders, pulling her closer to him. Aerith met his gaze, too startled to react to the fact that he had grabbed her.

"If you go any further, she will kill you. It is what Jenova wants. She wants me to kill you, but I cannot," Sephiroth said, his voice tinged with tenderness. Aerith’s eyes widened. This was his humanity!

"Listen to me, you can fight Jenova’s influence! Set yourself free from her control!" Sephiroth smiled sadly at her, bringing up a black-gloved hand to cup the side of her face.

"It is..too late for me, sweet Ancient. I thank you for believing in the human side that still resides within me. But I cannot fight Jenova alone," he said. Aerith shook her head, his hand never straying from her face.

"You won’t be alone, I’ll be helping you." Sephiroth closed his eyes on what Aerith believed to be tears.

"You are helping me now, Aerith Gainsborough. But I must make you go back. Do not set foot into the Forgotten City. Your death awaits you," Sephiroth said softly as he slowly lowered his face to hers. Aerith realized he was drawing closer and found herself helpless to resist. She suddenly felt even more compelled to help Sephiroth win his freedom from Jenova and wound her arms around his neck. They were inches apart, nearly one when suddenly a flash of light blinded them. Aerith cried out as Sephiroth was suddenly hurled into the light to be replaced by the Jenova-influenced Sephiroth. He looked coldly down upon Aerith, who had collapsed from the ordeal. His eyes flashed with an evil glow, his sword in hand.

"By all means, come into the Forgotten City, Ancient! I shall enjoy the pleasure of slaying the last Cetra in the capital!" Sephiroth cackled. Aerith got to her feet and pointed at him.

"You won’t win, Jenova! Sephiroth will be free from your control!" That statement only made Sephiroth laugh even more.

"Freedom? Freedom will shine upon me once I ascend into immortality! Until we meet again!" Sephiroth vanished in the blink of an eye, leaving Aerith alone in the dark forest. She clutched her chest as a searing pain coursed through her body. She looked down to see the Masamune jutting forth from her breast, Sephiroth’s cold breath upon her neck. He took hold of her hair and pulled her hair back, twisting the Masamune inside her. Aerith cried out as the sword ripped tender flesh asunder. Tears spilled from her eyes as she thought of the human side of the man who know drove a sword through her. The last thing she remembered before falling into the depths of darkness was Sephiroth’s manaical laughter.

Aerith snapped awake, her breath coming fast and furious. Perspiration broke out on her forehead and she hastily wiped her brow as she climbed out of the sleeping bag she was in. They had arrived in Bone Village in the middle of the night and Aerith had to wait until the morning in order to enter the Sleeping Forest. She needed the Lunar Harp in order to get there without any troubles.

Sephiroth tried to warn me not to go, but I must! I must continue, for the Planet...for Sephiroth, she thought as she stood up and started walking toward the entrance to the Sleeping Forest. Holding herself against the chill Aerith peered into the darkness. She gasped as she heard Sephiroth’s faint laugh, then his human side begging her to stay away. Aerith turned away from the entrance, suddenly finding herself wishing Cloud were there.

"There it is!" said Max, pointing to the village nestled within dark woods 45 minutes away. Cloud stared at the village, his mind on Aerith. Aerith, I pray you are safe. Tifa sensed his unease and touched his shoulder. Cloud did not turn to look at her. Tifa looked distraught and sighed, shaking her head. Vincent, with his arms crossed under his red cloak at the far end of the boat, glanced away from Tifa and Cloud. He, too, hoped that Aerith was all right. He already could see so much of himself in Cloud he was surprised he didn’t say anything. If Aerith were Lucrecia Vincent surely would be as nervous and worried as Cloud was right now. But he refrained from talking, instead keeping his mind on the situation at hand. Cloud suddenly sat up a little straighter.

"Sephiroth is near."

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The sun had barely managed to come above the horizan and Aerith was already out foreseeing the diggers as they searched the land for the Lunar Harp. She intended to use it to awaken the forest for her passage then was going to leave it with the diggers. She knew Cloud would need it, perhaps he was already following her. Suddenly a young man yelled to Aerith as he hastily uncovered something. Aerith walked over to him and smiled as he unearthed a silver d-shaped harp encrusted with mysterious jewels. He blew on it to free it from clinging dirt and dust before wiping it down and handing it to Aerith.

"Thank you so much," she said. The man put his hand behind his head and chuckled, his cheeks becoming slightly flushed.

"Hey, that’s all right, Ms.Gainsborough. Anything for a pretty lady," he said. Aerith bowed to him then proceeded for the entrance to the Sleeping Forest. She stepped in without looking back, consumed by darkness. She ran her fingers along the delicate strings of the harp, its melodious tune filling the air. Suddenly the darkness disappeared and everything was bathed in light. Satisfied, Aerith threw the harp back toward the village before walking on. Strangely enough the forest remained awake as she passed through.

No sooner had the boat touched shore Cloud was out and running toward the village. Vincent disembarked without so much as a thank you and followed Cloud. Tifa thanked Max for his kindness before telling him to get back to Costa de la Sol to make sure his materia was all there. When Max asked what Tifa meant, she merely smiled and waved before rushing off.

Cloud burst through the entrance, nearly knocking over a man digging beside the entrance. Vincent and Tifa were right behind him, Tifa slightly breathless. Cloud looked around for Aerith and became distraught when he couldn’t find her. Tapping the digger on the shoulder, Cloud asked about a young woman in a pink dress.

"Oh her? She went into the Sleeping Forest a while ago. I don’t know why, the place is damn scary. Brave girl to go by herself," the digger said.

"Where’s the entrance?" Cloud asked, wanting very badly to get to Aerith before Sephiroth. The digger gestured with his shovel to a higher plateau.

"Up there, behind the tent. Whoa, you can’t just go in there," he said after Cloud went to run for the ladder which led to the entrance. Cloud was rapidly losing patience and asked through gritted teeth why.

"Cause you need the Lunar Harp. It’s here somewhere. That girl must’ve used it though. Don’t know if she still has it," the digger explained. Cloud turned to Tifa and Vincent.

"Do you think Aerith left the harp for us?" Vincent asked. Cloud shrugged. Just then a young man approached them holding an object within his arms. He stopped before Cloud and the other two.

"I happened to overhear your story. Ms.Gainsborough left the harp for you. You must be the bodyguard she spoke of," he said. Cloud blushed a bit at the mention of being Aerith’s bodyguard. Tifa put her hands on her hips, trying hard not to show any negative emotion to what made Cloud blush so. Vincent spoke up.

"Then she has indeed left it for us." Vincent extended his good hand to take the harp from the young man. He stared at Vincent for a moment, taking in his red eyes, long black hair and partially hidden claw. Not to mention the gun attached to his thigh.

"Sure, here you are," the man said, giving the harp to Vincent then excusing himself. Vincent studied the instrument, as did Tifa and Cloud.

"Fine piece of art," Vincent said. Cloud only nodded before heading for the second plateau. Tifa followed with Vincent bringing up the rear. Cloud could feel both Sephiroth and Aerith. He hoped they would get to Aerith before Sephiroth did.

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Walking without fear and full of purpose, Aerith Gainsborough took her time. Upon clearing the Sleeping Forest she had come upon the Forgotten Capital of the Cetra. It was a marvel even in its ruined state. There was so little Aerith knew of her own race and would have liked more time to study the city. She promised herself she’d come back one day to stay there for a few days, maybe with Cloud. Strolling easily along the shell-like sidewalks Aerith could see the largest structure in the city. There, that is where everything would come to a conclusion. The feeling of being drawn there surfaced again and Aerith obeyed without question.

The Ancient comes, Mother.

Let the other one do your bidding.

I want to kill her.

No, first see if the other one will, then act upon it. She will not stop us.

Soon we will become one, Mother...

No! You can’t kill her, she’s the only one who will help us!

Be silent! Mother has everything under control....

We are Jenova’s prisoner, her puppet! That girl is the key to our freedom!

Ha ha ha....what more freedom could we want than to be free from the turmoils of the living? We will be more than human, more than the Cetra...we will be gods!

I do not want to be a god...I want to be human...I want to be human with...

Don’t say it!

I want to be human with that girl...she can show us so much from understanding to sympathy to love...

Love?! Love is a fool’s commodity! There is no greater love than Mother’s!

Jenova does not love us. She cares not for us....I care for that girl...


Do you see what I mean? The care for that girl is great....and it will help us...

Do not listen to that pathetic side, my son. I promise you eternal love...that girl promises you nothing!

You’re wronf Jenova! She promises us much much more!

We shall see...we shall soon see....

You have made us frozen....our heart must be opened to that girl...

We shall see....

Sephiroth opened his eyes, somewhat exhausted from the inner battle. He stood, Masamune in hand in a hidden place above an altar surrounded by water and bathed in light. Far beneath the Forgotten City he waited for her. As he stared at the water he found himself thinking what side would eventually triumph. Jenova was with him, and so was the side of himself that reached out to her in the dream. Sephiroth trembled slightly. He was, in fact, afraid. Not afraid of killing the girl as Jenova wished, but afraid to admit that what Aerith called his human side wad right..right about caring for her. Sephiroth tightened his hold on the blade. It would be decided soon.

Aerith stepped into the large building, staring down a narrow corridor illuminated at the very end. She walked slowly through, her hands clasped before her. Her breaths were quick as her fear mounted. She knew Sephiroth was here, somewhere. After that dream she feared what would happen if Sephiroth’s Jenova side won him over. But she would still do what she had to do in order to save the Planet no matter what happened to her. She was so deep in thought she didn’t realize she had cleared the corridor and came upon a beautifully crafted shell-like house. A lake with the bluest water she had ever seen shone brightly from the light that streamed down from above. It was a heavenly sight.

Hurrying her pace a little, Aerith walked down the twisting pathway, looking around at the trees. She came upon the doorway and hesitated briefly. She closed her eyes and could feel Cloud. He was here, like she knew he would be. She couldn’t wait to see him again. She had so much to tell him of her solitary adventure. Keeping her mind focused Aerith stepped into the house and saw a glowing orb situated near the doorway. Sensing the conscious mind within the orb Aerith bowed to it respectfully. She noticed there were more orbs aligning the walls as she walked up the twisting incline toward a transparent set of stairs.

Aerith set foot on them and nearly glided down to the ruins below. She closed her eyes as the words, feelings and knowledge of the Cetra washed over her. Yes, here was where she would pray. Here is where she would save the Planet.

Sephiroth became instantly alert. Aerith was in the altar. Glancing down from his hidden place he could see the lovely young woman skipping over the steps to the altar bathed in the sun. He watched her intensely, his eyes never straying from her form. He watched as she looked around the altar once before settling onto her knees, folding her hands and bowing her head. Sephiroth drew in a breath. Kill her now!, screamed Jenova’s voice within him. Sephiroth held the Masamune even tighter, so tight that his black glove dug into his hand. He exhaled slowly, trying to gather his composure. He was Sephiroth, the chosen one to rule the Planet! Destined to godhood! But he did not know why he was feeling so very, very...human.

"Cloud! Wait up!" Tifa shouted as she and Vincent did their best to keep up with Cloud, who had been racing through the city relentlessly. Cloud’s worry for Aerith and hatred for Sephiroth kept him going even though his sides ached and his breath came short and fast. He would not stop until he found her and made sure she was okay. With Sephiroth here anything could happen! Tifa finally managed to catch up with Cloud and grabbed his arm, gasping for air.

"Hey, take it easy! What good will you be to Aerith if you pass out from dehydration? Hey there’s a house over there, let’s see if we can rest. I’m sure there won’t be any harm done," Tifa said as Vincent joined them. He seemed unaffected by the sprint except for his sharp breathing. Cloud looked at Tifa, staring into her tired eyes before nodding. He wanted to press on but he was about to pass out. The three headed for the house and sure enough there were beds there. Tifa stretched out on one and sighed, falling asleep almost instantly. Vincent sat down on another one, but did not lay down. Cloud collapsed onto the third one, his tired body surrendering to sleep.

Aerith had been praying endlessly as Sephiroth watched, still enduring an inner battle. Jenova shriked within his psyche for him to kill her while his human part begged him not to kill her. Sephiroth wiped the perspiration that had developed on his brow with the back of his hand and stood rooted to his spot.

Cloud awoke in the middle of the night upon hearing Aerith’s voice. He stood near the exit of the house, his arms crossed and eyes fixed onto nothing. Vincent approached him, questioning him.

"What is it?" he asked. Cloud said nothing for a moment.

"It’s Aerith. I can feel her here, in my soul...Sephiroth is here as well. We must go," Cloud said.

"If you say so," Vincent said before going to rouse Tifa. She murmured about wanting to sleep more before sitting up and rubbing her eyes. She was instanly awake when she saw Cloud retrieve his sword and Vincent his gun. Donning her glove, she too, stood and announced she was ready to go. Cloud left the house first, stopping as soon as he got out.

"Cloud?" Tifa asked, curious. Cloud looked to his left.

"I can hear her voice. Come on, let’s hurry."

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When Cloud, Tifa and Vincent entered the altar where Aerith was, they were in awe by the surroundings. Tifa couldn’t believe how lovely the architecture was but when she saw Cloud’s gaze fixated on Aerith she rushed up. Cloud held her at bay, his getsure indicating he was going up to see her alone. Disappointed, Tifa agreed to wait with Vincent. Cloud smiled slightly at her before jumping from step to step until he was where Aerith sat.

Vincent looked around and suddenly saw someone standing on what looked to be a hidden ledge and pointed with his gun.

"Someone is up there," he said. Tifa looked up as well and gasped when the light caught the blade of a long sword. Panicking Tifa shouted for Cloud.

"Cloud! Sephiroth is up there!!! Be careful!!" she screamed, fear in her voice. Vincent tensed, waiting for Sephiroth to act.

Cloud stood directly before Aerith as if he were entranced by her. She sat, hands clasped and head bowed, deep in prayer. He admired the way the sun highlighted her hair and skin. She looked so angelic bathed in a holy glow. Aerith suddenly opened her eyes and lifted her head. Cloud blinked at her, speechless. She smiled, happy that he was there at last. Just then a shadow fell upon her from above. Tifa and Vincent called out to Cloud that Sephiroth was going to strike but Cloud did not move. He simply stared at Aerith as if she were the last person on the Planet. Sephiroth was practically upon them now, his sword pointed straight down.

Unable to watch the inevitable, Tifa covered her eyes. She couldn’t watch Sephiroth kill Aerith! Vincent’s hand on Tifa’s arm and his soft murmur telling her to look made Tifa uncover her eyes to see.

Cloud stood as still as a statue and Aerith was still kneeling before him. But the strange thing was Sephiroth on his knees beside Aerith, his Masamune on the ground beside him. She turned to look at him before extending a small hand. Sephiroth shakily accepted her hand. Tifa and Vincent rushed up the stairs and stood behind Cloud. The great Sephiroth, once a cold-blooded killer bent on world destruction, now sat before the trio holding Aerith’s hand as if she were his reason to live.

"I knew you would be free," Aerith said softly to him. She then enveloped Sephiroth within her arms, holding him close.

"What just happened?" Tifa asked in a whisper to Cloud. Cloud said nothing, but he was tense. He felt that Sephiroth was tricking them all. Tifa saw the glisten of tears under Sephiroth’s closed eyes and found herself tearing.

"She- she brought him around? How?" Vincent asked in disbelief. Tifa shrugged. Cloud then knelt next to Aerith, looking into her aquamarine eyes.

"You did this, didn’t you?" he asked softly. Aerith nodded as she absently ran her hand down Sephiroth’s long white hair. He clutched her tightly.

"Sephiroth has a human side, if you dare to look," she replied. Cloud looked from Sephiroth back to Aerith, his gaze questioning.

"Is this for good? Is he a threat?" Aerith shook her head.

"I promised him I would help him achieve his freedom and now I will help him with his newfound humanity." Cloud looked a bit surprised, then nodded slowly.

"You’re- you’re going to stay with him aren’t you?"

"I’m sorry, Cloud. Sephiroth needs me. I am going to stay here for a time, but I will come back to see you. The crisis is over, Cloud. Jenova’s control of Sephiroth the man is no more. His concern and care for his freedom saved him," she explained in a voice and manner Cloud thought Aerith couldn’t possess.

"Are you sure?" Tifa asked, wiping away her tears.

"Yes. Tifa, I must apologize for interfering with your and Cloud’s relationship. I never meant to cause trouble." Tifa smiled through her tears.

"We went through a lot of trouble tracking you all the way here." Aerith laughed softly at Tifa’s comment before turning her attention to Sephiroth. He was staring up at her intently, his face inches from hers. The look in his eyes said he wanted to kiss Aerith, his angel, the woman who dared to look beyond Jenova’s influence to free the man. He knew then that he would love Aerith Gainsborough always.

"Aerith, if I may do so one day, I would like to tell Sephiroth of his real mother. Beautiful Lucrecia, my sin to you shall be atoned for," Vincent said, closing his eyes. Aerith looked away from Sephiroth’s intense gaze to smile at her friends.

"Take care, all of you. Cloud, don’t worry yourself too much. Tifa, be honest with yourself. And Vincent, Lucrecia has forgiven you. Begin anew." Tifa leaned over and kissed Aerith’s cheek before whispering she’d miss her and walked away. Vincent bowed his head to her, smiling slightly beneath the red bandana before he, too, walked away.

At last she looked to Cloud, who she knew did not want to leave her with Sephiroth. Aerith touched Cloud’s face, smiling at him.

"Promise me you’ll take care of yourself and Tifa right?" Cloud nodded in agreement before he leaned forward slowly. Soon he was kissing her, astounded by his courage. Aerith broke it first, tears in her eyes and a smile on her face as always.

"Farewell, Cloud." Cloud reluctantly stood up and slowly walked away. He met up with Vincent and Tifa before turning to look up at Aerith and Sephiroth, already locked within a lover’s embrace. Tifa put her arm around Cloud’s shoulders and offered him a warm smile. Cloud smiled and reached for her hand. Tifa blushed slightly at their contact. The two walked away hand in hand, Vincent bringing up the rear. They left the last Cetra and great Sephiroth alone atop the altar where a new future awaited them.

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Side note: Lyrics to Frozen

You only see what your eyes want to see

How can life be what you want it to be?

You’re frozen, when your heart’s not open...

You’re so consumed by how much you get

You waste your time with hate and regret

You’re broken, when your heart’s not open...

If I could melt your heart...

We’d never be apart...

Give yourself to me...

You hold the key...

Now there’s no point in taking the blame

And you should know I suffer the same

If I lose heart will be broken...

Love is a bird, she needs to fly

Let all the hurt inside of you die

You’re frozen, when your heart’s not open...

If I could melt your heart

We’d never be apart

Give yourself to me

You hold the key

You only see what your eyes want to see

How can life be what you want it to be

You’re frozen when your heart’s not open...

If I could melt your heart

We’d never be apart

Give yourself to me

You hold the key

- Madonna copyright 1998 WB Music Corp (from Ray of Light)

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