" And I feel it like a sickness – how this love is killing me. But I'd walk into the fingers of your fire willingly. Dance the edge of sanity - I've never been this close . . .
In love with your ghost."
-- Indigo Girls 'Ghost'
Six months after Meteor burned up against the power of Holy. After Sephiroth met his maker. After Barrett went home to Marlene, Cid to Shera, Yuffie to Lord Godo and her family at Wutai. After Vincent found his way, alone, back to the Shinra mansion, only to meet his Lucreia there, waiting. After Reeve, our 'Cait Sith', moved to Cosmo Canyon to study Planet Life, and Elena of the Turks back to her mother's house in Gongaga.
Six months later, I am in bed with Tifa, naked limbs entwined, her soft sleep purring on the pillow beside me. Its almost ten o'clock, and I've been up since seven, struggling with these thoughts, this mutiny. And she sleeps, unaware.
Now, as brilliant new sunlight creeps through the window of our rented house in Kalm Town, I kick away the covers and slide out of bed, careful not to stir her. Footsteps light on the creaky floorboards, I grope for clothing in the half-darkness of the room. Of course, this sneaking, this careful avoidance of creaking boards, reminds me of her.
But then, everything reminds me of her.
Dressed, I go out into our small kitchen to make something for breakfast. But my stomach is churning, and eating actually doesn't seem too appealing. So I put away the bread and jam, shut the fridge, walk to the window. I don't know what this stirring in me is – the aches happen in flashes, like my memories of Nibelhiem. Tifa, suspicious, will challenge me with her name, a brief recollection of something she did, and the waves of sorrow will rush in and drown me in secret. I can't flinch, but for Tifa's heartbreak. I do love Tifa.
But not like I loved her. Not like Aeris.
Last night, she was the one who brought her up. She made me dinner when I came home from work – volunteer business we've all been doing since 'The Incident', and the fall of ShinRa – trashing Mako reactors, recycling the scrap metal. It was beef stew and beer bread, Elixir Ale and angel food cake for desert. It was all going smoothly – I always take note of the particularly easy evenings, when things start to feel natural. Then she had to go and mention Aeris, as we were heading for bed.
" I thought I'd never get to share the bed with you," she'd said, falling backwards onto our dark green sheets, " I used to cry, you know. Sometimes, at night. When you were . . . with her."
She startled me with her honesty – I had always suspected she was jealous, but lonely sobbing?
" I'm sorry," I said stiffly, " I never meant to hurt you."
" I know," she'd insisted, pulling me down to her. It was difficult to go through the motions of making love, after that, after being forced to remember those first innocent nights with Aeris. Later, lying awake, I tried to place the Inn where we'd first spent the night in each other's arms.
Was it the Chocobo Ranch? I remembered our night there, before crossing the Midgar Zolom's swamp on Chocobos. We stayed in the guestroom of the Chocobo wrangler's small house. Aeri woke up that night, I remember hearing her leave the room. Following her. No, that wasn't it. She and Tifa had slept on opposite sides of the same bed, that night. Barrett and I had our own beds, while RedXIII curled up on the floor as always. I remember that night clearly – our first night out of Midgar.
The night I fell in love with her.
She'd gotten up late that night, just as I was beginning to fall asleep, ignoring the uneven bars of Barrett's snoring. But I shook myself awake and sat up in bed, followed her outside. It was dangerous out there, after all. And I was her bodyguard, promised to be paid handsomely.
I found her standing in the field of tall grass just beyond the ranch. She was a strange one, looking up at the stars, alone outside in the middle of the night. She heard my footsteps and turned, smiled at me.
" I've never been out of Midgar – not that I can remember," she told me, breathless, " I wanted to see the stars," she explained, looking up again, her big, green eyes glued to the heavens. " Something I've wanted for a long time," she mused. She took my hand, in a moment of unthinking happiness, " They're so beautiful," she said, squeezing it. I flushed red and warm, nodded. I'd seen stars. She was beautiful.
" C'mon!" she then said, letting go of my hand and taking off for the rolling hills in the distance.
" Where are you going?" I called. She just giggled, and ran to the top of a hill, turned and waved at me. Just like a little girl! Sometimes she would be so naïve, so childlike, and then would surprise me with her depth, her intelligence about things I couldn't grasp – the study of Planet Life, the Lifestream, the Cetra. Even now, the facts that she seemed to inherently know blur into a light green glow in my mind.
Her playful spirit surprised me – that she could be so lighthearted, even then, with everything she had on her shoulders! She'd laid down on her back and rolled down the hill in a clumsy tumble, laughing. I'd met her at the bottom, I couldn't hide my grin.
" What the hell?" I asked, shaking my head, " Its nearly two o'clock in the morning! We need to get some rest." She jumped up and grabbed my hand.
" But I'm not tired!" she insisted, pulling me to the top of the hill. " C'mon, just try it with me, once. I used to do this in the garden when I was a little girl. My mother used to tell me I'd ruin my dress – but now I'm free!" She threw her arms up and spun in jubilant circles, " I've never been on my own before!"
I caught her arm, " You're not completely on your own," I reminded her, trying to give her a seductive look. I was never very good at being suave – luckily, Aeris made it easy for me. She smiled, kissed me on the cheek and then took off back down the hill, calling for me to follow her. I felt like a fool, but I realized my fate then. I'd follow that girl anywhere. To the ends of the earth.
And I did.
When she took off to the edges of the world to save the planet, I followed her. A lot of good that did. I feel the familiar jab in my chest – the masume cuts through me every time I remember.
But it wasn't until we reached Costa Del Sol on the new continent that I'd told Tifa she could have her own bed. I remember the confused look on her face – she and Aeris were the girls, it made sense that they would share a bed while the men stretched out on couches or curled up in chairs to avoid sleeping even ten feet from each other. Not bothering to explain myself, I had slid into bed with my arms around Aeris's shoulders and let Tifa figure it out for herself. God, I should have been more careful with her feelings. I wonder if she cried that night – she must have, in her lonely double bed.
Love had made me blind to her and everyone else. Aeris and I had fallen together so quickly – after our adventure in Wall Market, the night together at the Chocobo Ranch, and bonding during travel – we even shared a Chocobo while crossing the swamp – it was all leading up to that sunny day when we arrived in Costa Del Sol. She wanted to relax and have fun after the battle on the ship with Jenova, and I sure as hell needed it. So while Barrett went off to do questionable things in a sailor's uniform, RedXIII played soccer with the local kids, and Tifa reminisced with some jerk she knew from Niebilhiem, Aeris and I spent the day together.
Aside from a run-in with Hojo, the day was pure sunshine. I felt like I was on my honeymoon – or the closest I'd get, anyway. Back then I was relatively sure that I would eventually die at Sephiroth's hands. I projected a front of extreme confidence – even cockiness - but in truth, I was afraid I was a failure, that Tifa and the others would have to go on fighting alone. I wanted to enjoy what time I had left. Aeris made me feel like a normal person. We fell asleep together on the beach, listening to the waves, instead of Barrett's usual nasal symphony. She put her hand on my arm – her skin was warm from the sun.
" Cloud," she'd whispered, coaxing me out of my thin slumber, smiling when I opened my eyes, " Hey," she'd said, rubbing my cheek, " You're getting burned."
" Mmm," I'd moaned, leaning my face into her hand, " I don't care." She'd laughed.
" C'mon, we should go in," she'd said, sitting up. God, I remember her like she was there only a moment ago, her silhouette sitting tall against the glare of the sun, hands moving to adjust her ponytail. " I'll rub some lotion on your burns," she invited, winking. She knew how to get me motivated.
The others were away for most of the night – Barrett at the bar, RedXIII on the beach, watching the waves and surely contemplating life, Tifa doing who knows what with Johnny. I never wanted them to come back. I was afraid that Aeris would find out how shallow I was, how soon I would abandon our quest to spend our planet's last days with her. I later found out that Tifa had the same fear, that I would discover her motivation was not truly to save the planet, but to save me, from myself.
And she did. Didn't she? Or was it Aeris? Or was I saved?
Either way, that was the night that sealed the deal, that promised Tifa a lonesome bed to cry in for the rest of our journeys until Yuffie came along. Aeris made good on her promise to sooth my burns, and I needed it – working in and around Midgar kept my skin a ghostly pale before then, and it was quite shell-shocked after a day of sun. But her touch – I swear, pain couldn't survive it. She had healing energy in her blood, her spirit. It was her healing energy, after all, that saved the planet.
We'd stayed in and ordered nachos from the hotel's room service, ate them on the bed, she lying back against me, tucked between my legs while we watched the small black-and-white TV in the room, scoffing at the ShinRa commercials. I hadn't even kissed her yet, but when the others returned, it was a matter of not wanting to move, we felt such comfort with each other. We simply rolled over and pulled the covers up, and I fell asleep much easier with my face pressed against the soft place on her neck, where I could smell her hair and pull her closer when I had my nightmares.
The rest was a whirlwind – our time together was so short, but we were so intense. At Gold Saucer we ditched the others, trying to hold onto the carefree feeling we allowed for each other. I assaulted her with kisses on the Gondola, held her arms steady on the Speed Coaster while she blasted virtual airplanes and flying saucers, and even conceded to play the most girly, boring game of all time: Mog's House, in the arcade. I loved her – it was kind of terrifying. She was my first 'girlfriend', my first love, hell, even my first kiss. Aeris, who had barely been out of the slums of Midgar, was more experienced than I, a traveling mercenary in a muscle shirt. It was embarrassing, but perfect. I was glad I waited for her. I would have wasted those things on anyone else.
Walking to the window, I wonder if I should let myself remember what happened next. How she held me in her cocoon and then tossed me from it abruptly when she ran off . . . to summon Holy. And the aftermath. A cold pond, filtered sun light, a watery grave that I've visited more than once since our trials have ended. Once, in grief that neared madness, I nearly dove in and swam to the bottom, expecting to find her there, alive, waiting.
I grip the wooden frame of the window and realize that I have no choice.
I remember making love to her, for the first time, at Cosmo Canyon. I had no idea what I was doing, it just happened like magic. It was the night of our trip through the caverns, the night Red found out about his true heritage. We all felt drunk on do-gooder 'Planet Life' theory. Our spirits were raised, we felt like we could truly save the planet with the support of Budenhagen and his knowledge.
Aeris, as a descendant of the Cetra, was especially moved. I remember taking her up to see Budenhagen's little astronomy show, how her eyes lit up, how she seemed so calmed and enlightened by his words. She always loved the stars.
I'll never forget that look in her eyes when she pulled me away from the campfire that night. She was so happy – she finally knew who she was, and what she came from. I, on the other hand, had a long way to go in finding these things out about myself. But I didn't care about any of that – I only wanted her happiness; Aeris's smile made the sun rise, as far as I was concerned.
She led me into one of the many dark little rooms that were carved into the canyon. It was empty, and she pulled the thin curtain that served as a doorway shut once we were inside. My heart rate increased. We got only a few moments alone during the day; it was always exciting to finally have her to myself.
" Cloud," she'd said in a gush, pulling me to her, kissing me in a implicative kind of way, " I feel like I'm floating." Her eyes sparkled, and she snuck her hands under my shirt, running them over my chest like she was discovering it for the first time, " And you," she said, pressing her body against mine, shutting her eyes, " Feel like heaven."
" Aeri," I'd said, trying to keep my head, " You haven't shared the 'peace pipe' with any of those elders, have you?" She laughed.
" No," she said, rolling her eyes and leaning back against the canyon wall. " I just feel so alive here! I can speak with the planet, Cloud. You have no idea what that's like," she shut her eyes and ran her hand over the red rock of the canyon like she had my chest.
" You're right," I said, stepping forward and putting my hands on her waist, " I don't."
" Its like being thrown up into the sky with the stars," she mused, capturing my lips for a moment, " It feels . . . infinite."
I started to kiss her again, but she pulled away, her eyes fiery.
" Make love to me, Cloud," she said, fumbling with my belt while keeping her eyes on mine. " I want you inside me," she whispered, " I want you to know how this feels."
I nearly finished just at hearing her say those things, but I managed to contain myself for a moment. Our first time together didn't last long, but it was almost better that way. It was a perfect burst of something spectacular, something infinite. I wasn't sure if I was feeling exactly what she felt that night, but it sure as hell felt good, either way.
" Aeri," I'd moaned when we were done, zipping and buttoning before we found our way back to our room at the Inn. "Are you okay? Did it hurt?"
" Yes," she'd admitted with a tiny smile, kissing my cheeks, " But, in a good way? Do you know what I mean?"
" I guess so," I'd said, taking her in my arms, " I'm sorry." She laughed.
" Don't apologize!" she'd said, hooking her arm through mine. " You can make it up to me, though. Let's get our own room," she'd suggested, " I'll help you pay if you don't have enough gil."
" I've got enough," I'd said, even though I needed to save so I could buy weapons on the way out. But I'd do anything. " I'll take care of you," I promised as we made our way to the Inn.
" I know you will," she'd hugged me, " My bodyguard!" She winked. We stayed up all night in our beloved private room, me alternating making love to her and cooing in her ear afterward, so afraid that I'd hurt her in even the smallest way. But Aeri was strong, and she knew what she wanted. She told me something that night that made me feel like a million gil, more important to me than any First Class rank I might have earned in SOLIDER.
She was lying on her back when she said it, looking up at me as I doted over her, reaching up to stroke my forehead, smooth my hair. She cocked her head and looked at me, studying my face, narrowing one eye and considering me seriously.
" You," she said, " Make me feel close to the planet." I was taken aback – the ultimate Aeris compliment.
" Why?" I had asked, grinning.
" Because I love you so much," she'd answered honestly, " I think it's the most significant, natural thing a human on this planet can do. Loving you makes me feel like . . . I'm on the right track."
Tifa's voice jerks me roughly back to the present. I let go of the window and turn to see her standing in the doorway of the bedroom, wearing one of my t-shirts, stretching and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. I see that she's sexy, desirable – I feel it when looking at her. But its as if I'm feeling these things through a glass wall of detachment. Its there, its appealing – but its not what I want, not exactly what I want. I let myself imagine Aeris waking up like this, coming to find me in the kitchen, what she would look like, how she would stretch. But I know that if it were she and I living together I would have stayed in bed with her as long as I could, watching her sleep as I had on many a restless night toward the end of her time on the planet.
" Morning," I say to Tifa, mustering up a smile. She can sense, of course, that I'm in one of my moods. She smiles all the same, comes to me and kisses my chin.
" What'cha doing out here?" she asks, going to the coffee pot.
" Nothing," I say quickly, " I just woke up, too."
She makes breakfast, asks me about work. Tells me about her dreams. Asks if I had any of my own.
" No," I lie. " None that I remember, anyway." I feel guilty for lying, but how can I tell her what I really dream every night, the reason I sometimes cry out in horror, the reason she's probably guessed already but still doesn't want to hear? Aeris's death haunts my dreams. Always, always I'm walking down the crystal staircase – no, running, screaming along, trying to warn her, to stop him, to get to her in time. I never make it. There is always a millisecond – not unlike the way it really happened – where I reach her, where she looks up at me with those big, green eyes, and I believe I've done it, everything is going to be alright this time. And then, as she stands, the dark whooshing sound behind her, like a cloak being dropped to the floor. The glint of the blade as it rips through the front of her dress -
" Are you okay?" Tifa asks me when she sees my coffee cup shaking in my hand. I let go of it and look up at her, put on a happy face.
" I'm fine," I say, " Just tired. I've got to get dressed for work, Barrett will be here soon to pick me up."
" I know," she says, pouting a bit. " I was hoping you could take a day off sometime. Maybe next week? You and I could – we could make a trip somewhere, maybe go to the Chocobo farm for a day, have a picnic, do some riding? What do you think?"
" Sounds great," I lie, rising from the table. My heart breaks at the thought of returning there, to those rolling hills where my first feelings of love for the flower girl came to pass. But I can't explain myself. How could I ever explain myself? So I'll go, and bite back the pain. Maybe someday soon I'll get so good at biting it back that it will disappear, or at least burrow deep within me, never to rise to the surface again.
I dress alone in the bedroom, my usual ratty work clothes are pulled on. When I hear Barrett's commanding knock on the front door I move numbly to the foyer.
Tifa is there before I am, opening the door and asking Barrett how the project is going.
" Great!" Barrett, who has been in wonderful spirits since the Planet was saved and ShinRa and Sephiroth destroyed, says. " We're almost done with numba six," he tells Tifa. " There my man!" he says as I walk toward the door.
" See you later," I mutter, kissing the top of Tifa's head.
" Sure," she says, patting my back as I go. " Good luck today."
Barrett and I climb into the truck that will take us and the other volunteers to the Mako Reactor site. Among us are a few familiar faces – Reeve, the city planner who's spybot Cat Sith traveled with us for most of our journey, and Cid, the gruff pilot who's ship saved us from the north crater's collapse after Sephiroth was dead.
" Hey, Cloud," Cid says, lighting a cigarette. " How's it hanging, hair boy?"
" Not great," I say, leaning back against the hard edges of the back of the truck bed as it pulls away from the house.
" What'sa matta, foo?" Barrett asks, giving me an accusing glance. " You got everything you want, doncha? Peace, freedom – Tifa."
" S'a hot bod," Cid mutters thoughtfully.
I give up on trying to explain what I'm going through to them and shrug. I catch Reeve looking at me with sympathy – I know he was fond of Aeris; she had always been as kind to him as she was to our human companions. He had told us once, as Cait Sith, that we were perfect for each other.
"Aeris's star and Cloud's star! They show a great future!"
When we arrive at the Mako Reactor, there are already several teams there, dismantling, tearing it down as best they can. We have to make sure the technology doesn't survive, Barrett tells me, or someone will revive it.
Reeve walks over to me as I'm pulling on the work gloves that the team leaders provide us with. He smiles timidly.
" You okay?" he asks.
" Yeah," I lie.
" It feels like we don't know each other," he says, " But really, we were together since Gold Saucer."
" Since my first date with Aeris," I say without thinking. Reeve frowns.
" You still miss her, don't you?"
" Of course I do," I say, not looking at him, wishing I hadn't let this conversation begin. " Its only been eight months since she died."
" Eight months?" Reeve says gently, " Cloud. Its been over a year."
" Whatever," I say, huffing away.
" I'm not trying to embarrass you," he promises, following me. " I miss her, too, and its okay to still be grieving – but – but –"
" But what?" I snap, whirling at him. He baulks.
" I don't know," he says weakly. " I don't know what the answer is, but as your friend, I'm worried about you."
I feel like telling him that we aren't really friends – just a couple of people who once journeyed together, and barely, since he was along in the form of a spybot. Instead I only stomp away.
" Maybe you should get away for awhile," he calls as I go, " Take a trip up North or something. A little mountain air to clear the senses –"
I round a corner and dunk behind a rusted hunk of metal that was once part of the reactor we're tearing down. I sink to my knees and lean back against it, shutting my eyes. So my 'friends' are worried about me. Hmph. They're probably right to be. Its obvious enough that my heart isn't in the work we're doing – I would reactivate every Mako reactor on the planet just to go back in time and be with her again.
But she would hate me for it.
This is the dichotomy I'm faced with – I'm longing for a time that she had abhorred, because she saw the larger picture. She saw that while we were falling in love, the life was being sucked from the world around us – there were greater evils afoot than those that ripped us apart. And her death stopped all of it. More than my killing of Sephiroth, Aeris's spirit through the lifestream saved us all. To long to see her alive again is to chagrin all that she believed in, what she literally gave her life for.
Vacation up North, that's Reeve's suggestion. Something about the words sticks in my head – yes, I've heard something similar before.
From Sephiroth, right after he murdered Aeris.
" All that is left is to go North," he had said, his eerie calm fueling my rage as I held her bloodied body in my hands. " The Promised Land waits for me over the snowy fields."
The Promised Land. Over the snowy fields. I open my eyes.
Behind me, work has begun again. Aeris would want me to help; its an effort she would have believed in. She would prefer my activity against the reactors to this moping in her name. I stand and head for the sound of hammers falling and towers crashing to the ground.
But something stops me in my tracks.
The Promised Land. Over the snowy fields.
I've been so wrapped up in going over my memories of Aeris since Meteor was destroyed that my epiphany upon defeating the man who said those words has nearly escaped me. But it starts coming back, slowly, as I regard the others working to tear down the reactor, as the hot afternoon sun beats on my back.
It was some nonsense I had mumbled after Tifa saved me from falling into the darkness of the crater.
" I think I understand now," I had said, shell-shocked from the events that had just taken place, from the finality of killing Sephiroth at last. " An answer from the planet . . . the promised land . . . I think I can meet her . . . there."
" Yes," Tifa had said, delirious herself, or perhaps only playing along for my sake. " Let's go meet her." In that moment of validation I felt it was possible – that Tifa and I would rise to the ledge, take the Highwind away, see Meteor destroyed by Aeris's long-ago prayer, and then jet off to find her in the Promised Land.
Of course, it didn't happen that way. Holy didn't destroy meteor, the lifestream and the flower girl's spirit itself did – or at least, that is what we choose to believe. It will be debated until the end of time.
When Meteor was destroyed we put the Highwind down and went to Kalm to find Elmyra and Marlene. I fell to my knees, exhausted, and told Aeris's adoptive mother what the daughter she had raised had done for all of us, for the planet. She wept, and we embraced. I was badly injured, and she put me to bed. She and Tifa cared for me over the following week, most of which I spent in a deep, fathomless depression. Though I had suffered enormous grief when Aeris died, I had then still had her death to avenge. Once the deed was done, her killer brought to justice, her planet saved, my life was over. I had no purpose. I had no Aeris. I wallowed in bed, feeling half-alive.
Tifa dragged me through the motions of life for the next few months. We set up house in Kalm, we helped organize the reactor-dismantling project, and preformed what, to me, was the charade of a finally realized love.
All the while I felt dead inside. I had slept with Tifa the night that everyone left camp to find their reason for wanting to fight Sephiroth. I had felt desperate and lonely that night, needed something to hold onto. When I reached, Tifa was there. And I did love her – I do love her, immensely. I've been trying as hard as I can to foster it into a real love, something that is even a fragment of what I felt for Aeris. But I don't have the energy.
Lost in the mix was my plan to seek the Promised Land. Was it ever really a plan? Did I ever actually intend, in a conscious moment, to find out if the fabled Promised Land really existed, if a mortal could really enter it?
Could I really meet her there?
The very idea sends a shudder of happiness through me, and I feel suddenly prickled with excitement.
All through the day, plans begin forming in my head. During lunch break I sit alone, plotting – the trains have begun running again, and the tickets are cheap, since many are still afraid to travel in this brave new world. I could tell Tifa that I'm going to visit my mother's grave in Nielbilhiem, that I need some time alone . . .
I could leave tomorrow, I think, happy and guilty as I eat the sandwich Tifa packed into my lunch.
As I'm finishing my meal I notice Reeve watching me warily.
You were right, Cait Sith, I think, a devious determination settling over me as I down the last of my Elixir Ale.
All that is left is to go North.
To be continued in Part 2.