The wench began its downward descent into the Lake of the Cetra with an unnerving, shivery shriek, the clarion call of a prospective widow confronted with a knock at the door. The assorted crew of Bone Village operators - leathery, tough men, every mother's son - stirred uneasily, sharing a collective nervous glance. This was the richest job they had undertaken in years, true enough, but the ethics of the thing were under serious scrutiny from more than a few of those in attendance. Still, gil was gil, and more pressingly no-one wanted to tangle with him. They swallowed their protestations and did what they were told.
With every fathom of water the salvaging claw penetrated, the tension on the surface grew. By the time it hit the bottom of the cenote the atmosphere was almost palpable, mud-thick and charged with an unexplainable fear. The man at the crank glanced worriedly at the foreman, who motioned for him to pull up with all the enthusiasm of an undertaker at a live birth. The chain rattled into reverse; the whole world held its breath.
In a shower of droplets the claw burst back through the waves. As one the crowd of men tensed, then relaxed, some laughing nervously as they finally laid eyes on the bounty the wench had dragged from the Cetra Pool's depths.
Clutched in the rusted prongs was a waterlogged old PHS, liberally coated with slime and algae.
The crank operator was still chuckling when Cloud's sword buried itself in the space between the man's shoulder blades and poked its tip out through the soft skin at the base of his throat. Blue eyes crackled at the rest of the workers over the collapsed body of their comrade, overflowing with a mad inner light. They dared dissent and defied questioning, even as blood began to slowly pool at the swordsman's feet.
"Get back to work, please."
There was no more laughter in the Forest of the Cetra that afternoon, save that of Cloud Strife himself when they finally recovered the thing he was so desperately seeking. It was a sound none of those assembled ever forgot.
The sun was at its zenith in a cloudless blue sky when Tifa arrived back in Edge, just returned from a month-long visit to Rocket Town. It had been a good stay - Shera was eight months pregnant, 'big as the goddamned rocket' according to her husband, and had needed help with the things Cid simply couldn't handle on his own - but Tifa was more than glad to get home. Her clothes reeked of cigarette smoke, and while she wasn't absolutely certain, she was almost sure she would never need to know that many variants on how the word 'fuck' could be used in a single sentence.
Her old pickup rattled and wheezed and kicked up a cloud of fine dust as she pulled into the drive and cut the engine. The sound of cicadas prostituting their short lives away replaced the motor-noise with aplomb, making the noontime air seem even hotter than it already was. A cold one and the dank darkness of her beloved bar had never sounded quite so inviting to Tifa's sensibilities; she kicked open the truck's door, leapt down from the sideboard into the sunshine, and promptly froze in place as if paralyzed.
Something felt ... wrong. Actually 'wrong' seemed an entirely unsuitable word for the atmosphere around the place; adjectives like 'eerie' and 'unwholesome' were squirming from Tifa's subconscious unbidden as she slowly stepped towards the bar's front door. Edge had never been exactly bustling, no doubt about that, but the silence this afternoon, even with the squall of the cicadas, was downright creepy, the kind that got under your skin and made it crawl into little ridges of gooseflesh along the surface of your arms and spine. The sound of an unruly patron crashing through the plate-glass window would have been a welcome distraction from this stifling, choking quiet, and considering how many times the damned thing had required replacement after just such an occasion and how much it cost, that was saying something.
Still, Tifa Lockhart had not faced down unspeakable horrors and an angry demi-god without sporting a pair of cojones at least as big as her bustline. With a deep breath and a steadying of nerves she stepped forward and reached for the doorknob, mentally preparing herself for whatever lay behind. After the gas chamber, how bad could it be, really?
The rusted hinges squealed in protest as the door slowly drifted open, revealing ...
... Nothing at all. Neither evil beasties nor deadly poisons waited behind the entrance to the Seventh Heaven, contrary to what Tifa's overly-jumpy sixth sense had been telling her. She relaxed and went inside, laughing a little at what a 'fraidy-cat the Great World-Saving Tifa Lockhart had become in the intervening two years.
Then the smell hit her.
It was a rotting egg sitting on a Nibelheim windowsill, crawling with maggots. It was a mountain of garbage taller than the houses festering in the Midgar slums. It was putrescence personified and given a name, PHS number, and address. Tifa had smelled many a rank thing in her admittedly short life, but this put all the others to shame and sent them crying home to Mother. It was all she could do to swallow the bile boiling up in her throat and grab onto a barstool for support, trying desperately to keep on her feet when the odour was doing its level best to knock her back to the floor unconscious. The sense of foreboding that had assailed her outside came back tenfold, almost as overwhelming as the smell.
Eventually she staggered to her feet, one hand clamped firmly over her nose. It didn't help much, but it blocked out enough of the miasma that she could almost think straight once again. The bar-room was deserted and dusty; from the look of things they hadn't had a customer in since Tifa left for Rocket Town, a month and a half previous. Where were all the Edge regulars that usually greeted her, good-naturedly competing for the barmaid's attention and beer? Where was Marlene, the Seventh Heaven's self-proclaimed mascot? Most importantly, where was Cloud?
A shrill whistle rose from the kitchen behind the bar, shattering the silence. The door to the back area was slightly ajar. Under the cold light of a bank of neon beer signs, she took several faltering, cautious steps forward and gave the panels a push, only halfway noticing that the floorboards underneath her combat boots were puddled and splashed with water. Let's try Door Number 2, shall we?
Surprisingly the first thing she noticed wasn't Cloud, nor was it Cloud's guest sitting at the table beside him. Her attention was straightaway drawn to the teakettle rattling merrily away on the stove, and out of all the things Tifa could have thought at that moment, the question that entered her mind was, Since when has Cloud taken up drinking tea? He had been a coffee man through and though for as long as Tifa could remember, leaving the tea to Cid and Aeris before him. For some reason this, more than anything else, disturbed her and screamed in her ear that something was wrong wrong wrong.
The back-kitchen was stiflingly warm, cozily lit with candles, and smelled like suppurating death. It was so strong in here Tifa actually did begin to retch; she didn't notice Cloud kneeling beside her holding her hair back until she'd finished, snot-nosed and bile-breathed and faint from the effort. She wiped her mouth with a last shuddering cough and let Cloud's gentle hands pull her from the floor.
"Teef? You okay?" he asked, peering at her face with some concern. "I didn't even hear you come in. Are you sick? Here, let me get you a chair ..."
He steered her to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair. Tifa was more than glad to fall into it; her legs felt like jelly that hadn't quite set right. Cloud bustled away to the stovetop and came back with a steaming cup of tea, which she also took gratefully. Old habits be damned, anything that would wash away the sick taste in her mouth and the wretched smell in her nostrils was a godsend. He could have been boiling tonberry glands on the damned hob and she wouldn't have questioned it at this point.
"Cloud, what is that smell?" she finally said after a moment's pause, draining her cup in one gulp and slamming it down on the table. "Where the hell are all our customers? Where's Marlene? I mean, I don't blame them all for not being here if its smelled like this ever since I left, but what the heck's going on? I haven't heard from you since I went to Rocket Town, and I was beginning to worry, and--"
Tifa finally glanced up from the depths of her mug to look him in the face. Whatever she was about to say was cut off like Masamune had just slammed down on her tongue when she finally saw the figure sitting beside him in the shadows. Recognization came in an instant.
It was Aeris.
More to the point, it was what was left of Aeris.
For some reason all Tifa could think was I should have known this was coming, should have watched him better oh god help us god help me what has he DONE
Half her face, swelled by submersion and time, had been gnawed away by the little nibbling things that lived in the water - minnows, crabs, whatever other scavengers called the Cetra cenote home. The flesh hung in tatters there; Tifa could see the teeth of the corpse's sagging lower jaw, still white, gleaming at her in a frozen rictus grin from across the table. She realized with mounting horror that the girl no longer had lips to conceal them with, and the sick feeling came back on her tenfold, warm tea bubbling up in the back of her throat like a geyser.
The other side was whole but bloated almost beyond recognition, half-nibbled tongue straining past where the lips would have been. Hair had come off in patches along with the skin of her scalp, but somehow, mockingly, that long, lustrous braid had remained attached, along with the waterlogged pink bow that held it in place. The flower-girl's clothes had long since rotted to shreds of faded pink cloth, barely covering the greying, peeling flesh underneath.
She stared across the table with empty sockets and Tifa stared back, nauseous but unable to tear her eyes away. The spell was finally broken when Cloud, beaming proudly, leaned across the table and gave the corpse a gentle kiss where its cheek had once been. He turned back to Tifa with the largest, most excited grin she had seen on his face in three years, and said:
"Well? What do you think, Teef? She's come back!"
The world turned upside down, and Tifa saw nothing but blessed blackness.
When Tifa finally came to, the first thing that greeted her eyes was Barret looming over her, fanning away frantically with a paper fan. Relief flooded over her like a warm bath. Barret was so rooted in normalcy - in the mundane, the everyday, the world of dust and grit and sweat and coal - it calmed Tifa just to look up at his big, broad features. He helped her to a sitting position, leaning against the kitchen cabinets.
"Barret? When did you get here?" she finally managed to mutter, joints cracking and popping as she propped herself up more comfortably against the counter doors. "Boy am I glad to see you. I think I must've fainted, and you wouldn't believe the nightmare I just had ..."
The burly man looked down at her, and there was an emotion Tifa had never expected to see in his dark eyes. Sheer terror swam in them, mixed with sadness and the more familiar Barret Wallace emotions of frustration and anger. He put a hammer-sized finger to his lips and shook his head.
"Wish'd to god it had been a nightmare, girl. Wha'd I always tell you 'bout that boy? He's gone right off the motherfuckin' deep end, ain't no gettin' around it no more."
The sound of bootsteps approaching from the other room cut him short. Barret only had time to add a whispered "Be strong, Tifa," before the door opened and Cloud strode back in, leading an addled-looking Marlene by one hand. His face brightened noticeably when he saw Tifa was conscious again.
"Man Tifa, you scared the hell out of Aeris and Barret and I with that trick," he said, pushing a spiky lock of hair out of his face with a relieved smile. "I know it was a surprise, but were you really that shocked to see her? I told you she'd come back someday."
Tifa could only stare up at him in numb shock, unable to respond or answer. Watching the man she had once loved ramble on in a kind of cheerful dementia was somehow more nausea-inducing than even Aeris's wrecked shell propped at the table had been. She fought to suppress the familiar feeling churning in her stomach as he went on, blissfully unaware that anything at all was amiss.
"I guess now the secret's out though, huh? Man, should I call Cid and Red and everybody first and tell them the news, or do we keep it to ourselves for now?"
He reached for the PHS hanging at his belt. Tifa, finding her tongue and her legs again, launched herself at his arm and stopped him before he even had time to unclip it.
no no no god-dammit I won't have them involved in this mess we'll work it out ourselves he'll get better I'll MAKE him better I can do it I know I can
But she knew the words for falsehood even as she thought them.
"W-why don't we ... wait a little while before we call the others, alright?" she managed to stammer, trying her level best to sound cheerful when all she wanted to do was run as far away as her strength would allow. "I mean ... Aeris must be awfully tired, right? We want to give her time to adjust before we have everyone else over, she must still be in shock!" Tifa shot Barret a significant look and added, "... As we all are, of course."
Cloud's blank blue eyes registered confusion, then understanding. He smiled at her and Tifa realized with a pang that he hadn't smiled this much in all the years she had known him. Hot, instinctive resentment at Aeris flashed inside her like lightning and was gone; try as she might, Tifa could not harbour a grudge against a dead woman, especially one that had been a close friend and comrade. This was not her fault. If anything Tifa blamed herself for ignoring the signs, for not trying harder, for pretending things were okay when they had been anything but okay for years and years. She had failed him. She had failed all of them.
"Good thinking, Tifa. For now it'll just be us, just like in the old days. Why don't we all go sit down at the table and talk?" Cloud glanced down at Marlene and looked back at Tifa with a secret smile that broke her heart. "Some of us haven't even gotten to see her yet, and I know she'll be glad to see them."
The sinking feeling in her stomach turned into a freefall. Barret's face darkened like the bottom of a mine shaft. Marlene wrinkled her nose, looked around at the gathered adults, and chose that moment to ask, "What's that stinky smell?"
Cloud didn't seem to notice the child's innocent question or care if he did. He scooped her up in his arms and started back to the table, Barret and Tifa trailing behind. There was murder in Barret's eyes; Tifa was quite sure if his gunarm had been attached, the swordsman wouldn't have lived another moment, demented or not. Years of friendship took a back seat when the welfare of his daughter was in jeopardy, as it very much was at this moment. Her future mental well-being was hanging by a thread, and Cloud seemed all too eager to unwittingly cut the cord.
Aeris sat where they had left her, head lolling sightlessly to one side. The pretty little china cup full of tea Cloud had set on the table in front of her remained untouched. Cloud frowned when he saw this, brow furrowed in concern.
"Aeris? Aren't you thirsty?"
The corpse remained silent. A tiny crab wriggled its way out through one of her eye sockets and fell into the tea with a wet plop.
"Hmmm. I guess you're right, maybe I did put too much sugar in it. Here Tifa, you have a sweet tooth, you can have it."
He slid the cup across to Tifa. She tried not to recoil and failed miserably. From his lap Marlene began to cry, tiny, sniffling hiccups punctuating the uncomfortable silence of the kitchen. Even a child of five could tell something was terribly, horribly amiss here.
"Daddy, what's wrong with the flower girl?" she snuffled, glancing warily at Aeris's listing form seated next to her. "She smells really bad and she's not sayin' anything and she looks like a monster and ..."
Barret interceded in a half-choked voice. "Jes' don' look, baby. Shut your eyes and don' look."
Marlene did as she was told. Cloud had been staring rather dreamily at the ruin of Aeris's face through this entire exchange, but snapped back to some semblance of reality when the little girl blew her nose on the front of his jacket. He glanced down as if he'd just remembered her existence and smiled that vacant smile.
"She's missed you too, Marlene, more than she can say. Here, I'll let you two get re-acquainted; I'm acting as though she can't even speak for herself! Sorry Aeris, my bad."
Before Tifa could leap across the table to stop him, Cloud had cheerfully deposited Marlene into Aeris's lap. The body, already leaning precariously, lost balance and fell forward over the girl. The screaming that followed left Tifa's ears ringing for a full two minutes afterwards.
Barret finally lost the tenuous grasp on his temper he had been maintaining the entire time and leapt to his feet with a bellow, overturning the table and snatching his daughter from the cadaver's lap in one swift movement. Teacups and saucers went flying and shattered on the floor.
"The HELL you fucking think you're doing, you motherfuckin' psycho?!" he roared, cradling the sobbing child in his arms like a ragdoll. "Don' you know that poor girl is goddamned dead?! Stop bein' such a fuckin' loony and SNAP OUT OF IT!"
Now Cloud was out of his seat too, arms wrapped protectively about Aeris's shoulders. He propped her gently back in place and glared over her head at Barret, angry and confused.
"For fuck's sake Barret, she's not dead, how deluded are you?! She's right here looking you in the face, are you blind?" He glanced down and tenderly stroked what was left of her hair. "I brought her back from the Lake of the Cetra myself. She was unconscious, but the holy water had preserved her. All I had to do was use a Phoenix Down, and ..."
"Boy, that is some fucking bull-shit and deep down you know it. We tried three of them fuckin' things on her the first time and it didn't do nothin', don't you remember?"
"Well maybe we didn't try hard enough, did you ever think of that? We just left her there, and after all she'd done for us, everything she had sacrificed ..."
For some reason all Tifa could think of, watching them bicker and yell at one another across the overturned kitchen table, was the one who made no sound at all.
Aeris had been a staunch comrade, a love rival, and one of the best friends Tifa had ever had. She thought of her tending her flowers in Midgar. She thought about the two of them trying on bathing suits in Costa Del Sol, each trying to outdo the other. She remembered the bedtime stories the flower girl used to tell Marlene, the time she tied pink ribbons in Red's mane and tail while he slept. Tifa recalled all these vibrant memories and tried to reconcile them with the rotten thing that sat slumped in the chair, but her mind would not fully comprehend it, refused to accept the truth. The conductor had left the engine long before; what remained was a husk, an empty shell like the abandoned train cars that littered Sector 7's railway graveyard. It was simply not Aeris any longer. Why couldn't Cloud let go?
She came out of her reverie just in time to hear him snap, "Well if you won't believe what's right in front of your eyes you're sure as hell not going to believe me when I tell you what Aeris and I did with Holy, now are you? Sheesh Barret, I knew you were stubborn, but ..."
Tifa's mind froze. Cloud babbled on; she interrupted him in mid-flow, shaking her head to get the cobwebs out. Maybe she had just misheard. "Cloud, wait, what? You have Holy materia? Right now? On your person?"
He gave her a curious glance and shook his head. "No, I threw it back after we used it. Too much temptation, and Aeris said she didn't need it any more." He gazed down at the body adoringly, oblivious to the clumps of hair coming out in his hands as he stroked. "She said she already had everything she needed. Once Zack gets here things are gonna be just fine, he'll snap you guys outta it. You'll see."
"... Come again?" Now it was Tifa's turn to be confused. "Cloud, Zack's as dead as--"
"No, he isn't. He really isn't. Aeris wanted to use Holy to fix him, so we did."
The clock ticked the moments away, as oblivious to their situation as Cloud himself. Tifa's heart skipped a few beats and then turned to ice.
Holy was a great power for good in the hands of a descendant of the Cetra. It did its master's bidding and granted their most fervent wish as best it could manage. However, Tifa had absolutely no clue how it would react to an order given by a half-deranged human being who didn't deal in specifications. It had saved the world, but left them to wither at the hands of Geostigma, after all - what practicalities would it miss out this turn?
Maybe it didn't react at all, she thought, trying to calm herself as hysteria danced just outside her consciousness. It probably just ignored him, Mako fusion or not. Stay calm.
As if on cue, there was a clatter from the other room, the noise of barstools being knocked over by something big and unsteady. Heavy, lurching steps creaked on the hardwood floor. It sounded like a drunken man dragging home the perfectly good sledgehammer he'd found on the way back after last call.
Cloud's face perked up.
"See, there he is now! I kept the front door unlocked so he could come right in. I knew he'd be here. I was so sure he'd be okay I left the Buster Sword at his grave." A small, modest smile played across his lips. "I was only ever borrowing it anyway. I knew we'd all be together again someday."
There was a pause. The noise from the bar-room stopped adruptly.
Tifa looked at Barret.
Barret looked back at her with an equally panic-stricken face, then at the door, then back at Tifa.
Cloud smiled beatifically at everyone concerned, slipping his hand into Aeris's.
Aeris lost another two fingers which rolled down the floor and landed at Marlene's feet.
Then the kitchen door shook as if under some great impact - like someone had stumbled headlong into it with an unfeeling shoulder - and another moment's silence ensued. It was interrupted momentarily by a slow, painful scratching on the other side of the panels, punctuated occasionally with the weak thud of an ineffectual fist on wood.
Looking about at his assembled friends, Cloud asked the question they were all dreading, raising his voice to speak over the steadily increasing din.
"Well, guys? Isn't anyone going to get the door?"