A Pain That Won't Leave Part 15

A Pain That Won't Leave

By Soul Hunter


Part Fifteen

(Conclusion)

Within the emerald tornado, the suffering lion-beast struggled to extend his consciousness beyond his previously known limits. He fought against the discouragement, against the plague in his will coercing him to stop. But above all, he battled the gnawing melancholy in his heart. As he meditated, he fought against his heart's silent wish to feel her hand on his mane once more. As he drew his breath to call her essence back, he asked himself a question of whether he has a right or not to decide on her life.

But he knew, to his sorrow, that the answer will always precipitate to but one truth.

"Unnhh Cloud?"

"Aeris! What's happening to you? Come on, tell me!"

"I I don't"

Within a matter of seconds, Aeris was overwhelmed with a sharp pain in her stomach as the wound inflicted to her by the blade of the destroyer suddenly opened up. Looking down at the widening mark of red on her dress, her face became awash with terror. She knew they were coming, but she never expected them to move so fast. Her skin began to slowly lose its color as the excruciating pain started to dig deeper into her body and soul.

" It It didn't hurt this bad before. Cloud why is it so painful?"

Nothing was written on Cloud's face except that of the look of intense fear. While trying to treat the wound from where rich blood was gushing out, his frightened thought floated back to the time when his detested enemy, Sephiroth, plunged the cold steel of the Masamune inside Aeris. It entered her back and made its way through her body like hot knife through butter, and came out on the other side, creating the wound that he touched a few moments prior.

That same wound that opened up anew, draining her of the essence and threatening to take her life once more.

And he suddenly realized that Aeris' return was by no means a permanent one. Whatever forces or powers that enabled her to defy death and walk back among the living, those forces were now losing their energies. Whatever nurtured her borrowed existence, it was taking all of it back now. Still, he fought against crippling despair to fabricate a hope that he feared could not exist anymore.

"Aeris, don't worry. I'll get help, you're gonna be just fine" Cloud stammered, trying to feign courage.

"Cloud, no. I'm not going to make it. Our friends our friends have come They have answered my call"

"What? What do you mean?"

"Cloud, I" Aeris winced, pushing herself hard to voice out her words. " I DON'T HAVE much time left. Please"

He paused, feeling his blood freeze at the sound of her words. What did she mean by not having much time left?

"Please just listen to me"

The dawning of her words' meaning struck him like a speeding doom train. Cloud felt light-headed. She can't possibly be saying that she was leaving him again.

"Cloud I heard your voice. Even within the Lifestream, I was still hearing your voice. The sounds of your distraught heart echoed to me and lingered in my soul"

He was hearing her. But Cloud had to concentrate, his mind struggling hard to make sense of her words as it fought to endure another wave of despair.

"If I'd been alive I should feel happy. But I wasn't, Cloud. I I have moved on I've crossed into the other realm But your voice kept me from crossing into the planet. Your pain kept me from completing my journey. I was stuck because you won't let go of my memories. And that's why I can't complete my voyage. Your voice was drawing me back.

"I was hearing you listening to you listening to your sad heartbeat that won't let me go. I wanted to rest and just ignore your voice. But I can't because"

She doubled up as the burning pain undulated inside her body. And for a moment, Aeris caught a glimpse of a dark tunnel that was bidding her to enter. She bit her lips, the pressure of her bite nearly causing her paling lips to burst. She struggled with the remaining strength she had in fighting off the cold suction of death. It drew frighteningly close, and yet she held on. She still hasn't done what she came here to do.

His mind saw a towering wall in front of him, a wall that he knew stemmed out from the Ancient's stubborn resistance to heed his call. The lion-beast wanted to cry out in anguish, half-detesting this role that was forced into him by grim circumstances. He knew he was called here to make sure that the consequences of her action were rectified. And yet, he still cursed his role. His mind knew exactly what to do, but his heart defied it.

He heard her pleading voice that begged for more time. She still hasn't done what she appointed herself to do. And yet, the threat of a planet's essence unraveling right from under them prompted him to ignore her begging voice, no matter how it pained him. With much agony, the lion-beast pushed on, burying his affection for his emerald-eyed friend for the sake of the multitude who had more right to continue on living.

"Aaahhhh!"

"Aeris" Cloud muttered, his voice nearly inaudible due to the bitter strain in his heart. His eyes were already hurting from the stress and the tears that were flowing from them, and even the feel of her soft fingers against his lips, prompting him to stay silent, was not enough to lighten his burden.

" Because I love you. And I just can't turn my back on your voice."

Her cold hands gripped his like a clamp. His teeth gnashed tightly. He was starting to lose her, and he knew it. Cloud desperately wanted to snatch Aeris from the unforgiving grasp of death that was pulling her away from him. But all he could do was weep in utter helplessness.

"That's why you have to let me go, Cloud." She stuttered, her words nearly obstructed by the short and shallow gasps as she labored for every breath. "We have to let each other go"

"But what about my pain?" Cloud's broken voice interrupted.

Aeris tried to force a smile through her exhausted lips while lifting a hand to his face. "I am your pain, Cloud. A A pain that won't leave because you won't let it. But you have to let it leave because it has already left you. I have" Fresh tears fell from her tired eyes. " I have already left you. I hated doing it but I had to because that's what my life was about."

" Aeris no! I beg you"

"No, Cloud" Her voice came as a whisper now as her life ebbed away. "I called our friends to close the the wound in the planet that I created. And they're almost finished, Cloud. They're finished "

His tortured howls reverberated throughout the vast expanse of the Forgotten City, echoing far and wide in its harrowing resonance. His friends felt the anguish, and they themselves wept, having fully understood only at this moment the voices, visions or dreams that brought them here: to make sure that their beloved friend, who had denounced death despite the danger it spawned, was returned to her final rest. One year ago, they stood in torment, and wept helplessly when the gentle-faced Ancient had her life snuffed by the insane destroyer. They can still remember the grief that engulfed them then.

But that sorrow became nothing compared to what they had to undergo today. For this time, the decision to end her life once more was entrusted on their reluctant hands. And even though they knew it was for the survival of the planet, they still smote their hearts for having been responsible for her second death. She was taken away from them once more, perhaps this time with finality. And they were the once who did it.

And he felt his fingers tingling once more his mouth drying up his eyes burning. Cloud rocked himself, as if mindlessly. In his arms lay Aeris' lifeless body.

----------

She held on tight, her tiny fingers wrapped around his thumb as if her life depended on it. Slowly, Marlene inched forward, careful not to fall into the water as she placed a single flower by the foot of the makeshift raft padded with a soft layer of pink, red, yellow and blue blossoms. Barret watched his adopted daughter intently, and then lifted her up on his shoulders before turning his somber eyes toward the figure lying on top of the flowerbed. Reeve later walked beside him to toss another flower into the floating structure where Aeris' remains lay.

"I'm sorry you didn't get the chance to meet her, Reeve." Barret said softly.

"Yeah, me too." The Shinra executive replied. "In a way, I did. But things are much more different from how I saw things through Cait Sith."

The former leader of Avalanche didn't answer back. Deep inside, he was contemplating on the arcane circumstances that went down, particularly that strange urge he felt a couple of days later. He was not one who believed in ghosts or angels or anything spiritual, conceding his belief for the planet's life as the only thing that ruled conventions. However, that uncanny, soundless voice that spoke to him not-so-recently bothered him to no end, not knowing what it really meant. He remembered capitulating to the voice, secretly taking the KotR materia from Cloud's safe box in the process. He didn't know why he had to lie to everybody, telling them that he had gone to North Corel when in truth, it was to Wutai he journeyed to, subsequently meeting with Yuffie and then going with her back to the Forgotten City. He didn't have the answers then, all he felt was the strong drive to do those things.

He never even imagined where the silent voice came from. He never even thought that the Ancient might have been behind them all.

Vincent then walked up to him, with that same shadowy disposition that they had grown accustomed to.

"I take it you dreamt about her, too." He opened up.

"Nope. Is that what happened to you?" Barret returned the question. However, the grim gunman was drawn to ignore the reply when he heard faint sobs from behind him.

Yuffie wept silently, somewhat careful not to disturb the solemn atmosphere. She can't help thinking about a moment she spent on this very spot, a month previous, when she sat in solitude and sought reprieve for her loss. The young ninja can't avoid marveling at the circumstances.

"I I was here only a couple of weeks ago." Yuffie mumbled to Cid. "If I'd known this would happen, I would have stayed a little bit longer. Maybe maybe Aeris wouldn't have needed to go away again."

"Ah, don't be so hard on yourself, kiddo." The pilot returned. "Nothing you would have done could have changed the outcome anyway." Cid furthered while tossing his eyes toward Tifa. "At least not the kind of change that's been giving me the willies."

She didn't want to let the others see that her mind was in complete shambles. Only yesterday, Tifa made a resolve that no matter how hard, she would try to get out of Cloud's way, with the understanding that he had finally gotten what he had always wanted. She was preparing herself for a life of solitude, a life of patiently enduring her sorrow with hopes that things will go for the better once she had learned to let go. She didn't have an idea how to do it, but she also didn't have any choice. Cloud and Aeris were finally together. And even though she insistently professed on being happy for them, the thought still pinned her down like railroad spikes driven through her hands, feet and heart.

And now, Aeris was gone. And she didn't know how to take this tragic turn. Would this mean she's now free to be together with Cloud? She didn't even consider the thought. All she knew was a troika of pains, a triangle offense of hurt beginning to rear their ugly heads on her.

Considering the aggravating circumstances, she should have been the last person to admit that she was affected by the demise of the Ancient. But the fact simply attested to its bare truth. Looking at the floating structure made of light wood, bamboo poles and abaca yarn, all she could feel was pain. She could barely look at the one who lay on top of the flowers. Aeris. Her friend had left them again, shattering the promise of sisterly love that once permeated between them after they first met. No matter how conventions decree that she was a rival, Tifa didn't seem to care. The only thing that she saw from her departed friend was the sister that she never had. The best friend that can no longer offer her a listening ear on a consoling shoulder. Never again.

She looked around, but didn't see Cloud anywhere. Tifa bit her lips, feeling sorry for the pain that must have been eating into him at this very moment. She knew only too well how much he longed for her. She was aware how hard it hit Cloud when Aeris first died. Seeing her die again, after a false promise of hope, must have been nothing short of unbearable. Tifa wondered if only there was something she could do

If only he would let her.

The third pain. This wasn't exactly an ideal situation for the two of them to find their way back to each other again. And the possibilities frightened her. What if Cloud could never recover from this experience anymore? What would happen? Why was she feeling the harrowing fear that she had just lost him completely?

Her melancholic musing was broken by a blazing streak at the corner of her eye. Looking to her left, Tifa was stricken anew with grief when Vincent finally handed a burning torch to the weeping Elmyra. The drenched eyes of the mother strained and squinted as she shoved the torch into the layer of dry hay beneath the flowerbed where Aeris lay. As the blaze on the floating burial bed grew larger, Cid used the Venus Gospel to push the structure into the lake. It drifted off silently, the flames unusually making little noise, as if sympathizing with the eight souls left behind along the stony shore.

The flames grew bigger, its silent fury consuming the remains of the last Ancient. The bright yellow resplendence mirrored brightly along his glistening eyes. Cloud stood silently on top of a tall ledge overlooking the lake, his face showing no semblance of expression as he stared at the funeral pyre slowly dying down. As the sooty remains of the burial raft smoldered, the smoke had little time to bellow as it began to sink into the pristine lake taking her ashes with it.

Aeris is gone.

Cloud shed no tears. Apparently, he had already used up all his tears. His face didn't contort or scowl in anguish, already exhausted from expressing his pain

"She went to incredible lengths just to get to you."

He didn't utter a word. There was nothing else left to say.

"All she wanted was for you to be at peace. She could never rest in her own peace otherwise."

The spiky-haired warrior sniffed. He glanced back at the proud ferric color of the warrior lion with the tail that shone like a torch. But his eyes were empty, as if gazing right through and past Red XIII's body itself. And one look in his eyes made the lion-beast shake his maned head in frustration.

"Cloud let her rest. Let her stop worrying about you."

Still, he maintained his unsteady silence, training his reddened eyes back to the spot on the lake where the burial raft sank with what remained of the woman he loved. His expression remained stoic, cruelly hiding the bitter resentment dwelling inside his heart. Cloud wondered How could Aeris be so selfish? How could she know about his great yearning for her and still decide to leave him behind?

Red XIII had no power of telepathy. But he didn't really need it to predict what's on his comrade's mind.

"If you're thinking that, don't. It wasn't easy for Aeris to do what she did. She knew the risks, and she still took it. Never mind that she asked us to clean up after her mess. She knew what she did was dangerous. But she felt she needed to come to you because of your pain. She thought the only way to ease your suffering is for you to see each other again, so that she can tell you in person that you have to stop dwelling on the 'could-have-beens'."

Red XIII's resolute way of talking somewhat stimulated Cloud, eliciting a slight look of bewilderment from his indifferent visage.

"Aeris was never selfish, Cloud. Besides, we both know it wasn't only your pain that she tried to vanquish."

He trained his one working eye downwards, locking it on the distant figure of the girl with raven-hued hair.

"She tried to do away with as much pain as she could. But she didn't have enough time to do it. And in the end, Aeris had no choice but to leave it all to you to decide."

Cloud followed Red XIII's line of vision, likewise fixing his gaze on Tifa.

"Will you continue to selfishly imprison yourself in self-reprisal? Or will you cease these futile wishes for things that could have happened but didn't? It's all up to you, Cloud. It's all up to you. Things happen for a reason, the same way that people live and die for a reason. And if you can't even figure out how to recognize if something was meant to be or not, how can you lead yourself to your own reason for living? You can't. And you'll just end up trapped in a hopeless maze of your doing, forever imprisoned in your painful fantasies."

Cloud hated it, but he knew something flickered inside him after hearing the lion-beast's hard counsel.

"My friend, to die once must be horrendous. But to die twice? I can't even begin to imagine. Please do not let Aeris' suffering and sacrifice be in vain."

Red XIII started walking away, but not before throwing a final glance back at Cloud. But the latter wasn't looking anymore, his eyes focused on the starry night whose serenity offered him no comfort. He was still quiet, brooding, and yet unflappable in his expression. His eyes though, darted swiftly from one point in the sky to the next, searching for an answer. Cloud still felt bitter inside, his heart still felt hollow as if its inside was carved out with a spoon.

And yet, he knew his comrade was right. There had to be a reason why he didn't get his heart's desire. For whatever or whoever it was controlling the fates of all who breathe couldn't possibly be that cruel. There had to be a purpose behind the denial of his wish. Somewhere, there had to be a window opened to make up for the door that was slammed shut in his face.

Struggling against his devastated emotions, Cloud uttered a silent prayer

----------

TWO WEEKS LATER

Peeping inside Cloud's room had almost become a morning routine for her ever since he left. Tifa didn't know why she still bothered. Perhaps it was because of the hope that he will someday return. She kept asking herself if it was healthy to keep her hopes up despite the fact that he left most of his things behind. It did suggest that Cloud's departure was only temporary. But still, there's this anxiety in her heart that nagged her not to expect too much however she wanted to.

He said he needed time for himself, to think about things. To ponder about his life and its direction. And in her mind, he may as well have all the time he wanted. The events of two weeks past wasn't exactly one of the easiest any person could bear. It was harrowing for Cloud, having to come face to face with the person he had been wanting to see badly, only to see her vacate his life once more. For all intents and purposes, Tifa knew she shouldn't view these tidings without at least a hint of resentment. She just witnessed the man she loves agonize over the loss of someone else. At the very least, she should feel her pride slighted.

But to her consternation, she can't seem to feel any pride in herself at all. She still remembered what she told him a long time ago.

"As long as I'm with you, as long as you're by my side, I won't give up even when I'm scared."

And Tifa was indeed scared. She had never been this scared in her entire life. Much as she hated to admit it, she knew that her life would never be the same without Cloud. She reflected this same fear everytime she took a peek inside his room every morning. And she realized this fear time and again during the last two weeks everytime she saw his room empty and his bed neatly made.

Like in this one.

Sighing with resignation, she then proceeded down the stairs, dejectedly. Like how she had been doing it during the last mornings. Being the first day of school, she had gotten up earlier than usual today to prepare Marlene's breakfast. She knew the child was supposed to leave the house at 8 AM. And looking at her watch, she realized that she still had at least one hour to do her chores. That, of course, included the tedious routine of putting up with Mimi's tantrums while she milked her.

Making a beeline past the kitchen, Tifa nonchalantly proceeded to the barn where the stubborn cow was stabled. And again, she remembered Cloud, and how during mornings like this she would hear his exasperated complaints while Mimi gave him time much tougher than they had fighting the ludicrous Proud Clod. As she reminisced, she thought she heard his voice come alive in her mind once more.

"Stand still, you dumb cow! You're spraying milk all over my face!"

Tifa snickered. Those were the days

"Mimi!!! One more time you shove your butt in my face and you're a cheeseburger. Do you hear me?"

"Huh?" She suddenly wondered. That voice wasn't just coming from her imagination. They were emanating from inside the barn.

Could it be?

"C Cloud?" The former bargirl of 7th Heaven stammered after opening the door and seeing Cloud on his usual, tumultuous perch behind the irritated cow. "You You're back"

"Oh, hi Tifa." He returned before another glob of milk splashed on his face. "Hoo boy, she's becoming tougher with each passing day."

"Yeah I suppose" Tifa answered. But her reply almost passed over her head, as she suddenly became unaware of the surroundings. She was totally surprised to see him back.

"By the way, Marlene left with Barret and Elmyra earlier than usual. They said registration procedures have changed in school so they had to get there as early as possible. Wished I'd told you this sooner but Mimi's having her usual fit again. This lady still hate me, it seems."

Totally dumbfounded, Tifa found herself completely at a loss for words. She simply spent the next few minutes watching Cloud struggle to finish the chore, chuckling on occasions everytime the irate cow bumped him on the head with her behind or whack his face with her tail. But despite the apparent levity, her heart was pounding violently. Though she was undeniably happy to see him, Tifa still can't shake off the anxiety besieging her heart. Wishful thoughts began flooding into her mind, threatening to overwhelm her with their shaky promises. Tifa opted to still her excitement at least until she had heard what he had to say.

Finally, Cloud gave up after managing to get a half-full bucket of milk from the cow. He then proceeded to transfer the milk to the aluminum containers before proceeding to an adjacent water faucet to wash the sticky sensation off his face. And when he finally faced her, she felt the drums in her heart beat even more fiercely.

"I hope you don't mind me coming back and all."

Coming back? In what sense?

"Oh of course not, don't be silly. This is still your house, you know." Tifa stuttered. "So How are you? Are you okay?"

"Me? Oh yeah, I'm great. Never felt better." Cloud quipped back with a smile.

"Really? Are you sure?" Tifa persisted. The unfathomable smile on his face almost brought her to regret her question.

"You mean that?" Cloud feigned a question. "I'm okay. Don't worry about me."

"Oh alright, then. It's nice to hear that."

"Yeah" Cloud trailed off, walking toward the makeshift bed he sometimes used whenever he didn't feel like sleeping inside the house. Tifa felt anxious once more as she noted his silence. She wanted so badly to just come out and ask him those otherwise sensitive questions that she feared he wasn't ready to answer yet. It had only been two weeks, she thought. But still, the questions kept rapping against her soul, begging to be released.

"So where've you been during the last couple of days?"

"Oh just traveling. Here and there paid a visit to the Forgotten City two days ago. You know, the usual suspects."

So he visited Aeris' grave, Tifa thought. Maybe she shouldn't be premature with her excitement. Her face was just about ready to relinquish its merry shade when Cloud spoke out once more.

"I was thinking about Aeris. What she did what she tried to do and how I should respond to her."

"Cloud I'm not asking for us to talk about this. I know how painful it must have been for you so"

"No, no. Hear me out first, okay?"

" Alright"

"Okay. As I was saying I was thinking about Aeris. And well, let's just say I'm not going to underplay the fact that I really loved her."

"Yeah I know." Tifa answered as she felt a slight pinch in her heart. "That's why I'm still worried about you. I'm thinking that maybe you might not be able to accept having lost her."

"Uh-huh, that's what I thought at first, too"

The long pause slightly alarmed Tifa. Her need to hear out his next words nearly overcame her.

"But the thing is I never really had her. And it's impossible to loss something that I don't have, right?"

She looked at him, perplexity written all over her face.

"Yeah, that's correct. So what are you driving at?"

"Well it's just that I already had someone. In fact, I believe I've had her from the start, since we began meeting on that old well. You know where it is, right?"

"Yeah, I know." She retorted with a slight smile.

"Anyway, she's a very wonderful girl. At least as far as I know."

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN 'AS FAR AS'?" Tifa abruptly stopped herself. Her impulse for being offended by his obviously joking remark was instantly replaced by a realization that there's a reason why he was referring to her in third person. " Uhh, sorry. Okay, go on"

"And because of some things that I tried to hold on to but weren't really mine to begin with, I hurt her. I hurt her real bad. And I really feel terrible about it."

"You SHOULD! Err Uhh I mean Really?" Tifa pretended to stammer. She flashed a cheery smile toward Cloud to prompt him to continue.

"Yeah, I feel terrible and sorry for what I did. I want to tell her that I've finally come to my senses and realized just how much she really means to me. But" His forehead wrinkled in feigning deep thought. " How can I do that and convince her at the same time that I'm not doing it on the rebound? I mean, how can I tell her that" Cloud's eyes then fixed on Tifa's. " That she's everything I've ever wanted, and everything I'll ever want in life?"

Her smile disappeared, and was replaced by the glistening in her eyes. "Why Why do you think that?"

"Because She's always been there for me since the start That even though I hurt her, she still thinks about my well being over hers and that that she's the only one who truly understands me."

"Cloud"

"But most of all" He followed, his voice starting to crack. " Because I love her. And I suddenly realized that I can lose all my friends and I can lose all my possessions and still survive in this world. But if I happen to lose her I wouldn't last even a single day"

Beads of joyful tears consequently dripped down from Tifa's eyes as Cloud's words completely melted her heart. And for the first time in a long, long while, she felt her greatest fear releasing its hold on her. For the first time, she felt the lingering pain leaving.

"So?"

"So what?" She stuttered back at Cloud while wiping away her tears.

"So how am I gonna convince her?"

"I don't know It's a tall order for you but you can try. But I think you may need to do a great deal of work to convince her. I mean you did hurt her that much, right?"

"Yeah I did."

"So you still plan on trying?" Asked Tifa.

"Yep" Cloud nonchalantly quipped back. "She's worth it"

The End