Tseng had spluttered his last laboured breath on that sacred altar, his life ripped away from him cruelly at the blow of one sword-stroke. A sacrifice, perhaps? Aerith did not know. She gazed down into the pallid, wavering reflection of herself on the waters‚ surface, the image scattered now and then by the ripple of windswept waves. She thought a lot of Tseng these days and of Zack; dead remnants of her childhood, and of the days when her reflection had spoken differently to her. In those days, blood had not stained her mind. The eyes that stared so vacantly back up at her now had seen Death, and now∑Death was everywhere, Death was everything. He, it Ų whatever it was Ų it came to her at night, in her dreams. He clutched at her heart with spindly fingers, crept along the contours of her flesh as though to wilt it away from her, played against the shadows of her mind. He was close now; Death was staring over her shoulder and at her own reflection, his smile wicked. The holy light of the ancient city could not dispel her shadow from her side.
And now her human body, so young, so fresh, and once so eager, it seemed useless. The legs she had used to run, to seek, to wander in childhood felt limp; the feelings that had first stirred within her breast when Zack had touched her lay dormant; the cries of pain and hurt and rejection had worn themselves into incessant whispers now, that scrabbled at the base of her brain. Only moments left to live, and now how ironic it seemed Ų she was dying already. Inside her soul.
She stood there a moment, abstractly studying her reflection in the water, with the distracted kind of interest shown by those deep in thought. It was quite by chance that she‚d caught the sight of it; had it been the glistening leap of light as it had played on the water, the sudden flash of her golden jewellery in the crystalline luminescence? Or had it simply been the realization that this would be the time she‚d get to see herself? Her mind flitted over the set of possibilities like a butterfly on the summer breeze. They meant nothing to her, but, in a disconnected sort of way, they felt achingly important. She could not think why. She felt exhausted just trying to work it out. Mother, father, she thought. Elmyra, Tseng, Zack. Where are they now? Where have they gone? Oh childhood, I want you back.
She turned away from the staring green eyes, and to the stepping-stones that led to the altar. Her feet, unbidden, followed.
The steps, upwards, they seemed never-ending. They represented a time of carefree joy and laughter, a span of her life that had seemed to defeat the possibility of this moment she was living now. Somehow, her real mother‚s warm arms comforted her, though she could not recall such an event. The voice of Ifalna had spoken to her instead, had reassured her in a way Elmyra could not. Elmyra had watched young Aerith grow, a gawky, skinny child into a rarely beautiful young woman. And Zack, who‚d first noticed her, who‚d first touched that rare beauty and claimed it as his own. Naive, young love had filled her, she should have known it would not have lasted. And Tseng, he‚d loved her too, but she couldn‚t have returned it. For all he‚d once said he‚d give her, there had been too much pain and fear for her to feel for him. She did not regret. She cared for him deeply. But that was all.
For a long time at first, he had shocked her. The blood on his sword, on his hands, the fearlessness on his face; the way he killed without a moment‚s thought. His unearthly blue eyes, so cold, so distant, so inhuman, so brave: he was an enigma, a mystery to be solved. He was all the things she was not; he was a ghost from her past, a ghost who bore the lifeless name of őZack‚.
Oh Cloud∑And now the name drifted on her subconscious, sole and precious. Oh Cloud∑But more than that she did not know what to say. The price of knowing him, of feeling for him had been too great, and now∑words failed her, even in the great expanse of her reeling mind. In the face of all that had happened words seemed barren and insignificant, as small as the dust that swept from under her feet.
He had sat there, beside her Ų this was much later. He was not so much of a mystery then. He looked at her with a mixture of admiration and tenderness, but not love.
„There is no need to be afraid.š he had told her „I will protect you, you know I will, I promised I would be your bodyguard.š
The promise seemed so far away now, a contract of innocence that had in reality signaled the darkness of the coming days. They had sat there feeling the swell of the breeze as it lifted from underneath the Da-Chao statues and against their hair and legs. Down below the picturesque town of Wutai had twinkled up at them, the lights of the houses somehow watchful, and knowing. His promises, though sincere, were only words, and words, she reminded herself, were barren, as empty as the feeling in her querulous heart. For not long after his promises had proven themselves fruitless Ų for even they could not stop him from succumbing to Sephiroth‚s powers, and striking out against her, his self-professed ward.
She stopped in the center of the altar, her face illuminated by the dappled prisms of light that danced across her soft cheeks as they played off the water. To some outsider she would have seemed to be an ethereal vision, some angel clothed in sunbeams sent from the heavenly host above. The green eyes dimmed for a moment, a tender smile touched the lips. For all her divine serenity, there was still something inexplicably human about her. Even in the welcoming arms of the Cetra, those long-lost angels, she still held on to mortal life, grasped on with two trembling tiny hands.
Magnificent and empty, the memories were, like sand through an hourglass, leaking away, being discarded in the face of certain death, the only certainty in the world. Elmyra would have laughed at her for being so naēve, after she‚d been hurt so acutely once before. When Zack had left and she had waited for his return, for six months she had wept without stopping, wept as though she could not stop. Now, like words, she could not cry. The tears were stagnant within her, she was numb with pain, it no longer moved her. The rivers within her had run dry, she had nothing left to cry. Through her sadness, she felt happy in a vague, unfocused kind of way, for here she was nearing the end of her purpose, the end of her journey, and that of her ancestors. And the memories, they would dissipate, disintegrate on the tides of irrevocable time, never to return.
His kiss had owned her, had made her feel alive. She could remember, how he had caught the breath that had quivered in her throat and how they had known in that single, insoluble moment that it was going to happen. In the lunatic madness of their exchange, some measure of peace had filled them both; and his mouth, warm and wet on hers, had sought the secret whispers that only she could hear. Words she had given him in dreams had slowly merged into reality, the manic workings of Fate had struggled to bring them together on to this unknown plane. She had felt it in the urgency of both their actions Ų an unbreakable, irresistible force propelling them together, a collision of minds, bodies, souls.
Hopeless, desperate, hungry.
She had not dreamed it would be like this. Eyes closed, mouth open, her face to the heavens, she had shuddered at the blatancy of his eager touch. For all her nakedness she felt shielded, covered in some way, by something; his hands caressed the silken waves of her long auburn hair∑The wonder, speculation on his face as he ran his fingers through it, and as she lay quite still and watched, and slowly uncoiled herself from her old skin and into the new.
He had never said to her: őI love you‚. He had only said: őI will protect you.‚ She pictured the bloody sword, and the fierce gleam in his eyes as he defended her, and it was not what she wanted. She wanted his love. It was not enough to have his essence inside her, she wanted him to see her, to see her. And now what they had shared had shattered within her, shattered like shards of broken glass that now only caused her pain.
She knelt, her fingers clasped in prayer, her knuckles white. Who can say how this chapter ends but Fate, she thought, who can say but destiny? She thought of her brown and naked knees, buried in the soil of her homely little garden in Midgar‚s Sector Five. Above the knees rested the hem of her dress Ų green, vividly so, she could remember. Her heart leapt at the memory, the sudden inexplicable memory. The flowers of her childhood danced before her mind‚s eye Ų the yellow primrose petals, the azure of the blue forget-me-nots, the crimson of the rare red rose. The little girl in the muck and filth held on to the rose, blood, bright red in the scarce sunlight, held it to the green of her dress. Now prayers were all that little girl would hold on to Ų prayers to save the world. One by one they would rise, and touch the sky, and bring salvation. Life and love and pain; all the friends that had made her laugh and smile∑up they‚d float with her prayers, higher and higher, into the blue.
Oh! Oh! It seems so near, I can almost touch it∑!
Ifalna, warm and ghostly, emerged from the shadows, her arms, dead and transparent, closed around her kneeling daughter as she prayed on that altar.
„Mother,š came the timorous voice into her mind „is that how it ends? Is this how the story folds?š
The borderline between life and death, so impenetrable, so cold, now blurred as the words rushed between this world and the next. The ghost of Ifalna smiled.
„No Ų this is not how it ends. Nothing ends.š Her voice, placid, gentle, was rich and vibrant „There is no ending in death. There is only new life.š
And then, softly, the last memory burned into existence, a memory that was a beacon in itself, a light into an unknown world. She held the torch in front of her, as though afraid to see what lay behind the curtain folds of darkness. Her eyes raised; she was eighteen again, and in the ruined church, her face contemplating the life-sized crucifix before her. The man that stared back down at her in agony, the unknown god who suffered, whose ravaged face spoke out to her with brazen and tortured humanity. Who was this dying god? Why was he dying? For us? For humans? Why did he look so human? She gazed up at him, awed, moved to tears by this human god. In her young mind had awoken the desire to absorb that god‚s pain, to share in the great sacrifice she was somehow certain he‚d given to them so that they may live. In silent supplication she had begged to be shown the way, to inspire others in the way this god did her. That was why she loved the church Ų not only for her flowers, but for him. And the church was where her quest had begun.
And ended here, now, on this altar.
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Scattered on the wind, these secret whispers of her life, she would leave them behind now, for the others to catch. She would follow the unknown god, into the abyss of death, and then into the light. She wondered, fleetingly, whether that unknown god had ever been reborn, and walked these well-worn roads again.