Play Crack the Sky
This story's old,
but it goes on and on until we disappear.
Calm me and let me taste the salt you breathed while you were underneath.
I am the one who haunts your dreams of mountains sunk below the sea.
I spoke the words but never gave a thought to what they all could mean.
(Rest here with thee,)
I know that this is what you want.
A funeral keeps both of us apart.
You know that you are not alone.
I need you like water in my lungs.
She doesn't listen for the voices; the voices make her listen.
When she was little, only a few years old and still a bright, ignorant little thing, she became sick. Her entire body shivered and grew as frigid and numb as ice, but everything else and whatever it was behind her eyes burned like an insatiable fire that her mother began to fear, after many sleepless nights bent over in prayer and dabbing the girl as dear to her as any daughter with a damp cloth, would eventually consume her and her bright, bright Aerith would smoulder to ash before she ever truly got to shine.
In the incoherent tangle of fire and ice, drifting in, out and between consciousnesses, Aerith dreamt. It was consciousness in plural, because where she was during those sick days was not within her own mind. As her body was wracked in pain and her breathing laboured, Aerith felt herself drift to and wander in a place up above. Higher than the plate, this in itself seemed a concept unknown to the little girl. But here, she 's somewhere between being awake and sleeping as the voices reach to her, try to snatch at her and vies for her attention as she dreams.
Even when the sickness recedes and her mother breathes easily again, they never really leave. During the night, wrapped in the safety of her room and the warmth of her quilt it comes back. The voices return, and they're so scrambled and garbled they're more like the terrifying noises of the night, rather than voices. So she shrinks away from the sound and somewhere, in the part of a person during their dreams where they know that this isn't real, waits to surface into the real world again.
I can't breathe.
Fever dreams; Elmyra decides that that is what they are. Traces of the sickness that had nearly taken her daughter. But soon they are no longer only during her sleep; they begin to appear in every day. Sometimes, while she's washing the supper dishes with her daughter by her side, she looks up and finds Aerith, hazy eyed and not there, a sopping cloth in one hand and a dripping plate in the other.
Sometimes, her normally talkative and cheerful little girl sits on a chair turned towards the wall and stays like that for many hours on end. Sometimes, she is able to bring her back; sometimes, she can't.
I can't find my way back.
They draw her in, closer and closer. The planet speaks to her and only her, their desperation clinging to her like ash on her clothes. They speak with the hushed tones of upmost importance, like someone speaking on their deathbeds. Aerith is afraid though, because she's still very little and the voices are still just scary noises. She tries her best to do the task at hand with robotic concentration but before she knows it, time has passed and Aerith is still in the same place, in the same seat or with the same wet cloth in her hands.
Gathering up her beloved daughter in her arms, Elmyra can not to more than to simply rock her in her arms, knowing that the green eyed little girl she loved more than life itself would be safe even if Aerith, in another one of her 'moods', didn't know it.
"Just ignore them, love. Just ignore them."
Such a little girl.
"It's hard to."
Aerith comes to fear the voices.
Deny. Deny, deny, deny.
She doesn't find the church; the church finds her.
Another day, another elusive dart down another alleyway and another close call. Twelve year old Aerith knows not to stop yet though and takes another few twists and turns for good measure. Getting lost is of no concern to her; she knew the slums like the back of her hand through much exploring and escapades that had seemed so daring and adventurous to her as a small, small girl.
But what had been so exciting and unknown became a safe place; somewhere that would hide her from those black-suited people who needed her, who wanted her. Who believed that there was more in life for her beyond the confines below the plate but in turn, was only looking for what they were to benefit only themselves.
Aerith is no longer a silly little girl, but she's not finished growing up either; she can smile and frown prettily at will, she is confident in walking down even the shadiest parts of the slums and can talk her way out of anything. However, she has never ventured beyond the dystopia that is her home, never gone above the plate and never seen the sky. How could she possibly grow if she hasn't seen a blue canvas, a red horizon, a cloud in the sky? She half-thrives beneath the cement heaven that is all she knows, but knows enough that there is more, somewhere out there.
Her quick, controlled stride turns into a stroll when she's sure those strange men are gone and that she's safely back within Sector 5. Here, everything was much more familiar and home was close by. She is not anxious to return though; no doubt Elmyra, with her mother-radar on at all times, would see that the Turks have once again tried to take her daughter and try again, with no avail, to keep Aerith closer. She didn't like seeing her mother worry, so Aerith decided to keep wandering around her sector until her heartbeat slowed.
These chases had started not long ago, when one day her mother had set down her fork after supper in a grave manner and told Aerith to be careful and keep an eye out for men in black suits; they will try to kidnap her and that she must never, ever let that happen. She must be smart and on her guard; there will be no more aimless frolicking anymore.
Aerith, with the last bite of her dinner going down uncomfortably, feels the fear return. She knows (but denies) that it's about the voices and she knows (but denies) that there is something special about her. It's a fever dream all over again, and it's all she can do to not run up to her room and hide. But she doesn't, because that worried look in Elmyra's eyes is back. Besides, where would she go from being afraid? Never leave the house? Stick to her mother's side at all times? That was impossible, for practical reasons and sanity reasons.
So, she continues to go out and walk around under the plate, laughing with some friends and greeting acquaintances. But nothing is safe anymore and Aerith is constantly on edge. In the beginning, when those Turks begin to appear, Aerith would break out into a run and run, run, run until she couldn't anymore, but she learns that that is useless. They could be able to outrun her, for sure, so she'd have to outwit them instead. She adapts, observes and learns how to disappear in a crowd, how to dive down an alleyway and make her footsteps quiet. Now, whenever those Turks appear, she disappears like smoke.
But on that day she finds the church and a real, true safe place where running is unnecessary.
Her breathing is revenant, and Aerith wonders aloud how could she have not noticed this place before? She knows though; the church was just another run-down building in her sector, and when Elmyra trusted her enough to let her out of her sight, Aerith always travelled as far away as her sector as possible, to explore and soak in the newness that was hard to find when the redundancy of metal and cement was all around you.
There is no such thing in this place. Only wood, warmth, and... Flowers?
Flowers there are; blooming wildly, madly, beautifully and passionately in white and yellow. It's so beautiful that when Aerith drops to her knees and lightly grazes over them with her hand, she's not sure if it's because she wanted to see them closer or if the shock of a living thing besides human beings under the plate was too much to bear.
Then, there is the sky; noticing the warmth on her arms after sitting there, besides the flowers for a time, she looks up and gasps. There it is; for the first time her green eyes fill with the real, natural colour of blue and the unadulterated white of clouds. There it is. It's really there. The warmth, the flowers, the sky, the wood, the church and the safety. It reminds her of Elmyra and her motherly embrace, reminds her of rainy weather spent under her blanket in the safety of her home and of a mother and a father she doesn't remember. Of the 'something out there' that she's not entirely sure of.
The voices hush, peter out and disperse like fog underneath the real, true sun.
Though the hole in the ceiling is small and sometimes the sky is not always blue and the air not always warm, Aerith begins to grow and blossom.
She doesn't actively go and search for that special person; he literally falls into place.
Aerith is a very unusual sixteen-year-old, so her first impulse when she finds a handsome, dark haired man unconscious on the floor of her church (just narrowly avoiding her flowers, she notes, and for that she is grateful) is not to scream, but laugh. It seems all so funny for some reason and almost absurd that he'd had fallen through her piece of sky. She does giggle a little bit after the initial shock passes because hey, he's pretty out of it and won't notice for a while anyways.
When he does come to though and groggily inquires whether or not she's an angel, she's flattered and plays with the idea of going along with it, but decides to take pity on him. After all, it was a long way to fall and he probably wasn't in any real condition to handle her teasing. So she just laughs and corrects him.
"My name is Aerith. You fell through the ceiling; gave me quite a fright!"
The stranger recovers quicker than she imagined, and soon he's on his feet and introducing himself as Zack Fair. He is no normal young man, Aerith can tell right away; no one falls through a ceiling and recovers so quickly. And despite her knowing better, she finds herself slightly taken to this strange-eyed boy. Maybe it was because his coming brought a breeze through the church, sweeping away the musty stench that was so prevalent under the plate and filled the place with the fresh scent of life above.
"So how about it?" He gives her a grin and lifts up a finger. "One date; how about that?"
Aerith laughs. She's no stranger to boys; they seemed to run rampant around the slums, even if she did spend excessive time holed up in her church. "Why that?" She teases across the respectable distance
between them, but smiles at his friendly, open expression. And in her deepest self, Aerith is growing again as spring flies through herself and the church for the first time.
Wiping a stray strand of hair away from her eyes and looking up from the batch of flowers Aerith was currently tending to; she smiles at what she sees. That same dark haired boy, now a regular visitor, standing over a plot of dirt and looking like he had achieved a great accomplishment.
Standing up and walking over next to him, Aerith joins him in looking down on that patch of soil in satisfaction. "Yes, exactly like that." They share a smile, clothes streaked with dirt and looking utterly proud of themselves and the well-kept garden. "Okay, so." Clapping her hands together, she says to him, "You ready to transplant the flowers now?"
Zack gives her a sharp salute that Aerith was pretty sure he learned in ShinRa, the usually formal gesture marred by the fact that he had a spot of dirt on his nose and a boyish grin on his face. "Yes ma'am!" and quickly crouches down to get back to work, his movements full of enthusiasm.
With his back to her, Aerith stands there for a few moments and simply smiles. She hadn't expected to see him again, but there he was the very next day, looking a little sheepish at first but grinning when he asked if she'd need a hand in her garden. And though in her mind she had called the church her own for so many years, she really doesn't mind in the slightest because her church was open to everyone, even to those who hadn't used the door during their first visit. She does put him to work though, to helping her tend the flowers and spread new layers of dirt to ensure that they'd grow and blossom. They were definitely a miracle, but sometimes miracles needed to be nurtured and watered as well.
Zack is happy to help, and even with the labour he is always coming back. And some days, when he arrives with a haunted look in his eye and a tiredness surrounding him, they sit together in the pews, drawing comfort from one another and the warmth was always so prevalent in the church. Sometimes, during these times, they talk about each other and themselves, of the things that made them happy and the things that made them sad.
"Sometimes, I really do expect that everything stands still when I'm here in the church. That's why everyday when I leave, I'm so taken aback by the fact that the sun has already set. In my mind, it's always noon, even when it wasn't when I first arrived." Zack said this once, a nostalgic look on his face and his worries far away for a brief moment. "It's such a nice time of the day; the sun is high in the sky and you're completely awake, with the entire rest of the day to enjoy. That is, if the day is enjoyable." He closes his eyes and sighs deeply. "There are less and less of those in the military, but whenever I'm here, it's always noon. Always."
Next to him, Aerith smiles at his contented expression. Their hands are beside one another, resting on the pew's edge; just barely touching, but connected nonetheless. "I've always been fond of early morning myself. You've just woken up and you can smell breakfast downstairs wafting into your room."
She closes her eyes as well, and thinks of the scene before her. "The church always looks really breathtaking during that time. The light comes in brightly and slants beautifully onto the flowers."
"Hmm." She feels his hand edge in a little closer to hers, and feels the brush of his fingers over hers for a moment. "That time of day sounds really nice."
"You wouldn't expect this from a troop of men tromping around the wilderness together," Zack says one day, "but we actually got along really well. Tseng was as stoic as ever, but this trooper and I hit it off right away. You should see his hair," He tilts his head back and laughs, and Aerith enjoys the sound of his laughter filling the church, "It's yellow and spiky, like a... a chocobo!"
"Spikier than yours?" Aerith smiles and tugs on a small lock of his dark hair. "I'd be surprised; your hair is pretty gravity defying on its own."
"Har har." Zack jokes. "I'm telling you it is all natural. But anyways," He shifts his position on the pew so he's facing Aerith and mimics her by placing his elbow on the back of it and propping his head on the heel of his palm. "He is really young, and really cute. I'm sure that you'd abandon your flowers in a heartbeat just to fawn all over this little guy."
"Then you're lucky that blondes aren't my type." She gives him a friendly poke in the shoulder to emphasize her point and, giggling, she stands up and walks towards her flowers and the beam of sunshine permanently affixed on them.
However, Zack somehow zips in front of her, stopping her in her path. Abilities gained from being in SOLDIER, no doubt, but Aerith couldn't help but think that the curious look in his eyes, despite their mako glow, charming.
"Then, might I ask," Zack does ask, his tone neutral but for the spark of something stirring under his controlled expression, "What might be your type then? So I can scour the streets for the lucky person that might have what it takes to win your favour, beautiful maiden?"
Aerith crosses her arms and replies in the same mocking, doubtful tone. "Oh, and you'd be willing to bring him to me then, valorous knight?" Sidestepping him, she kneels by her flowers and smiles secretly just for them to see.
Hearing him scoff behind her, he joins her by the flowers. "Of course not. I'd hunt him down, beat him up and make sure he doesn't come within ten metres of you." Turning towards her and flashing another one of his 'charming' grins, Zack asks innocently, "You wouldn't mind, do you?"
It's hard to not smile, so there is a hint of one when Aerith rolls her eyes and gives him a playful shove. "Don't hurt the poor guy too much."
He laughs. "Okay, fine. But will you be okay without him? Isn't that 'person' something everyone is looking for?"
They just sit there and look into each other's eyes, her thinking and him waiting for her to speak. Aerith is always so surprised how at ease she is around him, even when he all but reeks of mako energy and the voices in her head speak more urgently, but no less undistinguishable, when he is beside her. She wonders why she doesn't have the impulse to run and disappear whenever she sees those familiar glowing eyes or knowing that he could easily kill or take her to those people her mother warned her about.
The answer comes easily; because it's Zack, of course. Beautiful, shining Zack.
"No, I'm fine with what I have."
For a few, short, fleeting seconds he looks surprised, then embarrassed, an uncharacteristic flush making its way across his face. Looking away after a couple more, not awkward but long silent moments, Zack turns away to stare rather determinedly at the flowers basking in the run and avoid her eye. But before she's allowed to worry or say anything, his hand reaches over and covers hers lightly.
For Aerith, this was definitely enough.
He builds her a flower cart and breaks the news.
"I'm going to Nibelheim on a mission and I'm not sure when I'll be back."
Aerith isn't sure how to reply, or maybe it's because she can't; the voices murmur and sigh, but they couldn't reveal why at those words, her heart pitched in a sudden pain of missing him. Missing him, even though he's standing right in front of her, searching her expression with those glowing eyes of his again. She doesn't want him to worry, not right before a mission, so she smiles and replies simply, "Alright, but come back soon, okay?"
His face relaxes, but only by a fraction. She knows that he knows about the Turks on her tail, and knows that he worries about her a lot, probably more than she does whenever he has to leave. Aerith wonders what he'd do if ever she'd get caught, but decides to not think about such scenarios and work harder in eluding them. For herself and for Zack.
"I'll come back soon," he says, earnestly, as if he's afraid she wouldn't believe him. "I'll write and call whenever I'm able, though I expect it won't take long." Zack grins in boyish excitement. "I'm going with that cute little blond kid again, and the great Sephiroth! Between the three of us, we'll get this thing wrapped up in no time."
"You're making it sound like a trip or a fun outing. I'm jealous." She teases as they walk back towards the church hand in hand. "Three ShinRa SOLDIERs all hanging out in the mountain...swapping stories by the campfire..."
"Yeah." For some reason in that moment, the smile on his face seems distant, as does the look in his eyes. But when he looks back at her, it's still the same, happy Zack. "Yeah," he affirms, enthusiasm returning, "It'll be exactly like that. And when we return, let's go out and sell flowers again, okay?"
Aerith laughs. "Yeah, okay." They enter the church, where time seems to stop for the two of them and the sun shines all the brighter. She's grateful, because every minute that ticks by brings Zack farther away. Away from her and further, deeper into his destiny that she was realizing, deep within her, was fated to not be a part of her own. No matter how much she wishes it. No matter how much she loves that smiling, dark haired boy with mako eyes that fell through her roof so long ago.
Her expression must have changed, because when Aerith is aware again Zack has let go of her hand and has gently put his against her cheek, those eyes looking deeply into her own. He never even has to say anything; everything has always been explained and understood between the two of them, like how the sun knows when to rise and set, and when a flower must grow and die.
Sighing, she wraps her arms around him, trying to make the ache go away with his closeness and drawing comfort from the sound of his heartbeat through his ShinRa uniform. "I'll miss you."
Aerith feels his own arms drawing her even closer, and his breath in her hair. "I'll miss you a thousand times more than you'll miss me. I prefer your company over even Cloud and Sephiroth's any day, you know that?"
"I'm glad to know it." She says lightly, trying to quell his worry. "Don't forget to bring me back a souvenir. And pictures too, okay?"
"'kay." Aerith can sense his smile. "A picture of the prettiest girl in Nibelheim to add to my collection, just so I can prove that no other girl compares to you."
She laughs and pulls away gently, so she can see his face look down on her with the expression that seemed to promise the world.
"Come on." Aerith says, "We have some flowers that need watering."
She doesn't know that he's won't return. However, she is aware of the newly vacant place in her heart.
There is only so much time that can be spent tending flowers to keep your mind off someone, Aerith discovers, but she stays all the same. Years pass, and the worry that began to spread through her when his phone calls and letters stopped became deep seated panic, to such fear that her entire heart began to numb after each assault of pain when she thinks about him.
She is no longer a naive teenage girl in love with a breath of life and sunshine. She didn't grow to be as pure, carefree and innocent as the flowers in her church. Every day, an older and slightly sadder Aerith lives with knowing that he'll never come back to her, but grapples with the darkness of uncertainty, of wondering if he's dead or alive.
The light from the sky still shines down into her church like a beacon, from the place wherever Zack is. It provides a little comfort and sometimes when she lets herself think about his smile and his time spent here with her, Aerith wonders if he's still enjoying the same warmth as her. And when she does, the place that was vacated joins the cacophony of voices in her head saying 'no, no' but she denies it, again. In spinning a delightful little story where Zack has settled down in Costa del Sol with a pretty girl, she doesn't feel pain, bitterness or sadness; she hardly feels anything at all.
Aerith still smiles though; she still laughs and teases and feels happy in her place under the plate. The part of her, of when she was young and the part of her that belongs to Zack is gradually cut away, like a tree that has been pruned of its dead branches so it can grow fully again. But Aerith still keeps those branches and the memories within herself, tucked away quietly and not to be disturbed.
However, when yet another person falls into her church, the place in her heart that the dead branches inhabit stirs once again.
"My name is Aerith. You fell through the ceiling; gave me quite a fright!"
And when she bends over him and smiles at his opening eyes, Aerith is ready to leave the church and the lingering imprints of him within it for the start of her own destiny.
This was not the end of their journey; however, it was her's.
During her adventure, she is often taken aback whenever she looks above and doesn't see the familiar wood panel ceiling of her church. It's disconcerting at times, being able to see the sky in its entirety. And every day, under this new, vast sky she fights beside these people, beside Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Cid, Red, Vincent, Cait Sith and Yuffie against the menace that is threatening the lives of everyone they hold dear. So very far this flower seller in the slums has travelled. So very far away from home.
Though she misses her flowers, her church and her mother, Aerith finds much happiness in her companions. Each fights for their cause and radiates determination and strength, and Aerith finds herself being carried along their passion. For the first time in her life, she's above the plate living the adventures she had only heard from another certain somebody, laughing with these friends of hers.
She finds it easy to bond with Tifa, which had surprised her in the beginning. The two girls were close in age and often separated from the group whenever they came to a break at a town to explore and laugh together. Aerith had never had the experience of having such a close girl friend before and cherished the dark haired girl as such.
However, it was another that captured the most of her attention.
The one that had fallen through the roof of her church back in Midgar. Cloud Strife, with the same mako eyes and shielded enigma, Aerith found herself inexplicably drawn to him. From their first meeting, she
knows that she must stay by him. So, immediately, she hires him as a bodyguard to protect her, so as to buy time and find out more about this person.
And as time draws own, she grows fond of him. His confusion and his loss echoes deeply in Aerith's own heart. At their growing bond, she feels Tifa draw away, and she has a feeling that the girl she's becoming close to on this journey is suppressing memories and feelings but she doesn't pry, because she, better than anyone, can understand the reasons why you'd want to forget certain things.
There are days though, where even amidst all the distractions and pressing matters of Cloud and threats of world domination, those things she wants to forget surfaces. And she does wonder. Whether or not this attachment to Cloud was because sometimes when he was deep in thought or the way he wielded his weapon...
They were the same, those two.
The night they go on a date in the Gold Saucer, Cloud is as taciturn as ever, even when fireworks alight into the sky and their basked in its colourful glow. And as he sits silent and unmoving she briefly, suddenly, she sees Zack; caked with dirt but smiling, planting flowers by her side. Watching his ineffective but enthusiastic attempts to sell flowers. That last day in the church, saying goodbye and not knowing that it really was the last time she'd ever see his face again.
'He really is gone, isn't he?'
When Aerith catches Cloud looking at her oddly, she smiles sadly.
"...first off, it bothered me how you look exactly alike. Two completely different people, but look exactly the same."
"The way you walk, gesture..."
"I think I must have seen him again... in you."
"But you're different."
"Things are different."
He's still sitting there quietly; she can never tell what he is thinking and it frightens her, how under lock and key is mind was, but when they leave the gondola he smiles and says he had a fun time with her. And it's small, but so genuine, so sincere and so Cloud that Aerith nearly cries. He's not Zack; he's Cloud. The boy in front of her is Cloud. And she will do whatever it takes to finally, finally meet Cloud as he is; the boy with the kind smile.
"Cloud... I'm searching for you. I want to meet you."
However, such small golden days are few and far in between. Cloud grows more and more confused, Tifa distressed and withdrawing away and everyone is on edge. And for herself, Aerith, the voices grow more and more insistent, louder and louder and telling her to do something but she has not in the
faintest idea what. It frightens her, because she knows that whatever it is that she's supposed to do would determine the fate of the Planet. It frightens her, being on the tipping point and the brink of any fate.
But maybe, she realizes when Cloud, near crazed with the realization of his own past that had been inexplicably entwined with Zack's, pushes her to the floor in a fit of rage, that maybe she wasn't standing on the brink. Maybe there was no choice. Or maybe, the choice was made when she left the safety under the plate to pursue her destiny. Then, that means there had been no choice; everything was fated. And somehow, that eased the anxiousness and fear in her heart, so that she's smiling when she says to Cloud;
"Then, I'll be going now. I'll come back when it's all over."
When she sees him again, if it was possible to cry in the Lifestream she would have.
But when the Lifestream is all around you, when it's wrapped around you with the gentleness of a mother's embrace and knowing there was still so much more, so much more to do, there is no room nor time to cry. Maybe later, but not now.
She watches the body she had inhabited sink to the bottom of the lake. As her friends wipe away their tears and continue their fight with renewed vigour in her name. Tifa, unveiling the secrets that had taken place in Nibelheim and their own sad childhood. Cloud, facing his demons and defeating Sephiroth. Her mother in Kalm, cradling a sleeping Marlene on her lap with tears in her eyes because a mother always knows.
And she realizes, suddenly, the voices come crystal clear. And she realizes that they're not the frightening sounds she had always believed them to be; they were voices of people, of the earth, of the planet. Each was different and the same; soft, gentle, urgent and loving, different cadences and different pitches but the same message was carried in each one of them.
This is your destiny. This is your heritage.
You are our hope and you've always carried with you our love and blessing.
She is with the voices now. She is a part of their love and their blessing. And she, along with others who died and now dwell in the Lifestream, are a part of the force that stops Meteor in its path, that shields those who are still living from destruction and ruin. Protecting her friends, those who watch in awe and whisper her name. And in her place far, far above Aerith smiles down at them with fondness.
So maybe, when she does see him again, maybe her first impulse wasn't to cry. When Aerith is caught up in his arms again like not one day had passed since he left for the last time, she feels only happiness. And once again, she's in the church, with the flowers, with her sky and her sun.
A year later, she'll smile at a loved one and lets him know of her love and blessing as well.
'You'll be alright now, won't you?'
"There was no girl in Costa del Sol, was there?"
"Of course not. Unless you had been willing to move there with me."
"Hmm... I knew it."