Distant voices echo across the water, and Aerith closes her eyes, continues her prayer.
Her time is coming to a close. The Planet told her as much, in the same murmur that it had told her how to stop Sephiroth’s plans. The thought scares her, a little; there is so much she wants to see, so much she wants to do with her friends. But the Whispers are gathering close around her even as she murmurs prayers and pleading words under her breath. This is her fate; she will empower Holy, and she will die, and her friends will be left to try and pick up the pieces of a broken world.
Boots slowly thud against the stone, drawing closer. She doesn’t have to look to know it’s Cloud; she’d know her friends anywhere. In the story the Planet told her about her death there was one version where Cloud struck the killing blow at Sephiroth’s behest. An attempt to break her friends, weaken their morale. In another version, Cloud resisted, and Sephiroth did the deed himself. The details don’t really matter; Aerith would die, and it would be Sephiroth who killed her.
Still, she can't bear to open her eyes as her friend stops in front of her. Can’t bear to see whether his eyes are glazed and empty, or are bright with confusion or hope or some other emotion. Let her be selfish and not see her death coming. Let her pretend she didn’t know.
For a moment the world is still and silent. Not even he gathered Whispers move. Aerith takes one final breath as she hears the creak of leather from in front of her, and the whistling of wind from above.
Aerith expects her death to come in the form of a deep cut from the front, or a piercing stab from behind. These are the alternatives the Planet has told her about. Either of these will lead to her fate, her death.
What she is not expecting, is an explosion, the wail of Whispers, the pounding of feet, a voice shouting her name as its owner barrels into her side with enough force to send her utterly off balance and toppling to the ground.
She blinks. Tifa is grinning down at her from her hands and knees. Aerith is on her back, bruised but otherwise unharmed. Tifa laughs breathlessly and tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear.
“You okay, Aerith?”
“Yeah, I-” she stammers, as Tifa rocks back to an upright position to allow Aerith to sit up. The Whispers are still swarming in a column around the pedestal she had chosen to do her prayers, but there is a smoking hole in the side where Barret and the last of their team are rushing in. Cloud is shifting from the end of an upswing back into a ready stance as Red XIII and Vincent flank him. And pushing himself back to his feet, with a gash diagonal across his chest, is Sephiroth.
Barret skids to a halt next to Aerith and Tifa. “Aerith!” He holds out a hand, which she takes after a moment and pulls herself to her feet. In turn she helps Tifa up as the man looks to her. “I take it the plan worked, then?”
“Sure did!” Tifa’s smile is bright as the stars, even as she turns to take stock of the situation.
Sephiroth wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. The rest of the party takes formation, forming a barrier around Aerith. He snarls, but there is a manic glee in his eyes. “Well done.”
Around them the Whispers close in, screeching in their rage. Sephiroth lets the wall envelop him, before it parts and in his place is a giant monstrosity that immediately sets its sights on her.
Aerith immediately recognizes it for what it is. A form of Jenova. Fate trying to course-correct.
As Cloud and the others leap into battle, Barret leans in. “Anything else you need to do here, or can we get outta dodge while they’re distracting that thing?”
Aerith looks at the spot where she was supposed to die, then at Jenova. She wanted to live, but the Planet had told her that it was her fate to die here, and she had accepted that. She doesn’t know how to answer the question.
“Hey.” Tifa pops into her field of view, smiles. “It’s just like before, right? We’ll always find you. What does it matter if we have to defy fate to do it? Now let’s get you someplace safe.”
At that, Aerith finally lets herself smile back. “You’re right. Thank you, all of you. Let’s go.”