Disclaimer: I own no part of Final Fantasy VII.

Beyond Forgiveness

You see? Everything's alright now.

I walk into the light beyond the ruined portals of the church that once served as my hiding place without another glance over my shoulder, another glimpse of the world of the living. Zack waves his hand as I pass, and I sense the movement of his turning away seconds before that world vanishes, to be replaced by a sea of shimmering white veined with green tendrils.

"Is something the matter?" he asks. His voice echoes through the infinity around us. I used to find that effect strange; now, I can't imagine him having spoken any other way, although surely he must have when we were alive.

"Whatever do you mean?" The reply, and the deflection it symbolizes, come easily to me. I have, after all, had extensive practice in their use.

"Nothing, I guess. Just checking." I feel the environment shift around us as he moves away, a bit further off to my right, and turn my head so that he won't catch my soft, almost sardonic smile. People are so quick to believe in easy answers; as long as I'm willing to help them pretend everything is alright, and thus spare them the effort not only of deducing what's wrong, but also of correcting it, they're more than willing to accept my generosity. It doesn't seem to matter to them if anyone else is in pain, as long as they can remain insulated from it themselves.

To my surprise, though, Zack doesn't vanish into the Lifestream. Instead, he simply continues speaking. "It must have been rough, to see him again, huh?"

I shake my head. "Not really." This, at least, is true; it wasn't very difficult, seeing Cloud again.

"No?" I can almost see the smile spreading across his face, that smile that promises omniscience, and in which I never quite believed, even as a cloistered girl in the ruined church, a lifetime ago. "Was it fun, then?"

I shake my head again. "No." I blink, and hold my eyes closed for a moment or two longer than necessary. "It was… disappointing."

"Disappointing, huh?" The mirth is not quite gone from his voice, although it is fading. "How so?"

I pretend to reflect for a moment, although I have already analyzed my emotions thoroughly. "I would have thought that he'd have… come farther, you know? I would have thought that he'd be stronger, more together, more… independent."

"You were expecting him to have learned to live without you." His words are a statement, not a question, and I shrug.

"Maybe. It's just that…" I chuckle. "I thought that it would end, once I was gone, you know? I thought that, when I died, that was it. Everyone would just have to learn to clean up their own mess, to put themselves back together, as best they could." I wave my right hand dismissively. "And yet, here I am, and nothing's changed. Cloud's still getting into trouble, and I have to fix it for him, even from beyond the grave." I cross my arms over my chest. "I'm just wondering when it's going to be over, when it's going to be my turn to rest."

"Do you… resent it?" Zack's voice is more hesitant now; we're treading on dangerous ground, too close to his own vulnerabilities, his own sins. It's a place he'd rather not go, and though part of me realizes that I should step back, and allow him the chance to avoid it, I can't seem to bring myself to do it. I can't live with my old habits, with the woman I used to be, for one more second.

"Yes." My tone, at least, is free of bitterness.

"Why didn't you tell him that, then? When he said he was feeling guilty about letting you die… why did you lie to him?"

I laugh aloud as I turn to face him. "Oh, come on. What was I supposed to say to him? 'Yes, you let me die, and I'll never forgive you for it?' That would only have made him degenerate further into whimpering immaturity." I smile, but know that the mask no longer covers my eyes. "He had to be protected from the consequences of his actions. He had to be allowed to believe that there's nothing beyond fixing, or beyond forgiveness. He's just like all the rest of them." My smile becomes a strained grin. "He's just like all the rest of you. All he wanted from me was a surrogate mother."

A darkness rises into his eyes, and I know that I've wounded him, as I used to believe that I secretly wanted to. Now that I've done it, though, I realize that I never actually wanted to hurt him, or any of them: I just wanted the freedom to choose whether or not I would.

"I'm sorry," I say, sincerely. "You don't deserve that."

He raises his hand, and forces a smile. I can tell that it's forced; I've certainly been in his place often enough. "It's okay."

"No, it isn't." I shake my head. "It--"

"It's over now." His voice, suddenly so gentle, quiet, and wise, shocks me into silence. "Cloud, and Sephiroth, and Meteor, and Holy, and Shinra, and SOLDIER… everything we lived through, everything we were before, even ourselves, as we knew them… it's over now, isn't it?" He steps forward, and embraces me. His arms are weightless, but they nonetheless send a current of energy through my form. "All that's left to do is bury it."

I remain perfectly still in his arms. "And what about the next crisis, and the one after that? Won't I have to go back, and save them all again? Won't that just bring everything back, no matter how deeply I bury it?"

He raises his hand to stroke my hair, and chuckles indulgently. "You're free, Aeris. Even if something else happens to the Planet, whether you choose to help or watch… it's your choice." He lowers his chin until his lips are nearly touching my forehead. "It's always been your choice."

He's right, I realize, even before he's finished speaking. I could have stopped at any time; I could have run away, and left the work up to someone else, just as they had left it up to me. I could have done exactly what I wanted instead of what I felt I should have, and if I had, perhaps I'd still be alive. Why didn't I?

Because, a voice inside me says, with unquestionable certainty, that isn't who you are.

I begin to cry. I cry for my mother, whose return to the Planet I don't believe I ever allowed myself to properly mourn, for fear of inconveniencing the woman who had been kind enough to adopt me. I cry for Zack, for whom death was honour's only reward; I cry for Cloud, whose path seems to stretch endlessly into hardship. Finally, and most bitterly, I cry for myself, for the woman I never had the chance to be, and the saint I could not help but become instead. Neither of these versions of myself, I now realize, was ever appreciated as she deserved, and perhaps that is my greatest sin.

Through it all, until I return to a more ordinary awareness, Zack holds me, and gives selflessly of his energy despite his own pain. "You see?" he whispers, once my tears have spent themselves, and I am once again able to register the words. "Everything's alright now."

I believe him absolutely, as Cloud did before me.