Cloud Nine

Cloud Strife, like many men his age, had a problem with a girl. Unlike with most men his age, the problem was that the girl was dead. Sure, he and his buddies managed to save the planet, and in the process he ended up getting hitched to his childhood sweetheart, adopting an unusually talkative doglike pet, moving into a cozy little home in the mountains, and finding more than enough work as a mercenary to support his picket fence and 2.5 kids, but he never really got over Aeris.

Funny girl, Aeris. He never asked her to start liking him. He just fell into her life out of the blue, and the two bonded over some flowers, a spot of tea, and a nice morning run to get away from some assassins. For some reason, Aeris hadn't even let Cloud's occupation (ecoterrorist) bother her. She even tagged along when Cloud went off to save his kinda-sorta-maybe girlfriend Tifa from a kidnapper, and she didn't complain much when her efforts to disguise Cloud to sneak him into the kidnapper's compound blew up and ended with the two of them fighting pretty much all of the place's employees anyway.

Maybe she liked him because she couldn't separate the image of him from the memories of her first love. Maybe she liked him because he had precisely the same problem. Maybe she liked him because his spiky, gravity-defying hair had a hypnotic effect on women. Whatever the reason, the two were definitely an item almost from the start. They had even spent late nights around the campfire perusing an Ikea catalogue in hopes of finding a cheap yet serviceable set of furniture for the country home they hoped to purchase upon saving the world from yet another mad would-be god figure.

They really only had one date together, and it was confusing to both – Cloud, because he was feeling all those strange and fuzzy emotions normal boys would get on their first dates, usually closer to age 13; and Aeris, because she never quite figured out why Cloud, when acting in that theater piece halfway through the night, kissed the girl in the dragon costume instead of her. Afterwards, however, both knew they would be together until death did them part. Ah, how technically true that was!

Cloud was, at the moment, thinking of his fling with Aeris while he plugged away at his home computer, searching the website of the life insurance policy fate had fortuitously caused him to put out on Aeris before they traveled to the Temple of the Ancients. At issue was whether or not her death could be ruled an Act of God. Cloud and his lawyer were trying to make the case that it was, since Sephiroth was, at the time of the slaying, far enough along on his journey toward becoming a god that they could get away with fudging the figures a little. The insurance company's lawyers were trying to argue that the being who killed Aeris was not even the real Sephiroth, but rather a clone created by Jenova for whatever nefarious purpose, which might have been clearer had the whole story not been mangled nearly beyond all comprehension through the process of translation. Besides, Sephiroth had been dead for nearly five years, and the policy simply did not cover attacks by murderous zombies.

Cloud quietly cursed the fact that Shinra went under. He would have loved to see how Rufus could collect on his father's murder, also at the hands of a Sephiroth clone. At things stood, he was forced to go through the case histories archived on the company's website, looking for something helpful while his lawyer was sunning himself in Costa del Sol. Surely there was some precedent for someone being stabbed by an entity that may or may not have been an extension of an ancient frozen god. Surely.

"Holy mother of Pearl Magic! That's it!" Cloud's outburst at his computer was enough to cause Yuffie, his guest for the weekend while Tifa was away teaching a martial arts camp in Wutai, to turn on her back, stuff a pillow over her head, and attempt a dirty look in the general direction of the disturbance before disappointedly realizing that the pillow was in the way. She softened up a bit at the thought that a happy shout was an indication that Cloud was a step closer to becoming rich enough to buy her that lovely jewel-encrusted materia storage box she'd been eyeing for some time now.

What Cloud saw, however, had nothing to do with insurance claims. No, what he saw, while casually checking his email in another browser window, was this:

"Revive Aerith in ten easy steps! Ask us how! Only 29.95. Click for details."

Though disturbed at how spam email and obnoxious pop-up advertisements were quickly becoming indistinguishable (with the present case being an archetypical example – Cloud couldn't even tell offhand which it was), he let his impulses get the better of him and clicked on the link offered. Ten minutes later, when he managed to get all of the new pop-up windows to go away, Cloud found himself looking at a painfully familiar summary of one of the more salient features of his life: the days before Aeris had kicked the bucket.

Pink text plastered across a lint gray background spelled out the epic saga of how Cloud, coldhearted mercenary and all-around good guy, had lost his loving and faithful if somewhat airheaded companion Aerith when some trenchcoated fellow with a gigantic sword turned her into a human shish kebab. Despite the girl being inexplicably renamed Aerith, the story was too much like what had happened in Cloud's real past for him to regard it as anything other than a retelling by someone at least passingly familiar with what really happened. His life had become internet lore. He suddenly felt even more embarrassed by the bit of cross-dressing that was absolutely and necessarily essential to the thread of the narrative and wasn't at all just an excuse for Aeris and others to have a laugh at his expense.

Reading through the entire recap of his journey to save the world somehow convinced Cloud that he could trust whoever was selling revival information. After all, if whoever this was knew each and every note Cloud had missed while playing the piano in Nibelheim trying to approximate that stupid overworld theme music, then who was to say the same person couldn't have power over life and death? Heck, Cloud himself had been stabbed, gored, gouged, mutilated, burned, frozen, zapped, crushed, poisoned, bashed, trampled, and shot more times than he could count, and he always managed to feel completely better after a quick drink or a night at an inn. Could Aeris's injury have been that much worse? (And why did he not think to use phoenix down on her at the time?) Totally forgetting rational thought, Cloud began to trust the mysterious internet stranger with Aeris's life and, by extension, his own happiness. The next logical step was, of course, to trust that same stranger with his credit card number.

Cloud filled in the required fields on the request form and was greeted by some large, cheerful letters telling him that the information he had purchased would be emailed to him shortly, that he was a valued customer, and that he would find happiness and fulfillment for years to come if only he would look into making more purchases on the same website. Cloud quickly rushed to his inbox, read the piece of mail marked "re: reviving Aerith," and smiled as he sent a command to his computer's printer.

End Chapter 1