To Those Who Believe
By Meriko Robert
Let this work...please let this work.
He sent up a silent prayer with all his heart as he stood before the shimmering lake of lifestream. The citizens of Mideel were all slumbering peacefully in their tents near the makeshift village that they had constructed around the ruins of their former home. And so there was no one to witness the blonde mercenary dive into the lake with the body of a young woman in his arms.
A full month of desperate searching all over the world had yielded only false hope and bitter disappointment. No one knew of a way to bring back the dead, whether they were Cetra or human...or both. Guilt-driven need had burned down to a quiet desperation...he would find a way to restore her to life, or die in the trying. His had been the hand which had been the key to her death...now he must be the instrument by which she was brought back to life.
Days and weeks of thinking up and then discarding ideas...nothing feasible, and then a dream. Actually, more like a memory. A flash of semi-consciousness before waking that had left him a priceless pearl of hope. In his dream - after defeating Sephiroth - he stood in a void slowly being filled by the light of life...the light of lifestream...and then a pale hand reached out for him. Their fingertips brushed - had brushed - and he'd felt a slight tingling before the dream - before she - had faded.
She hadn't returned to the Planet yet...she hadn't gone to her Promised Land. She'd stayed behind somehow in order to watch over her friends, in order to help them save the Planet.
He remembered the impressions of life and emotion that had filled him. Pride, regret, happiness, and love. He'd touched her spirit - he was sure of that. And if he could only find her again, would it not be possible for him to not only brush against her, but to grasp her and bring her back to the land of the living? To pull her from the lifestream in which she was - hopefully - still suspended and return her to the body from which she'd been pulled too soon.
And so last week had begun with a trip to Choco Billy's stable to retrieve his golden chocobo. A side trip to Wutai in order to wrest the underwater materia from Yuffie's unwilling hands had taken a bit more time and effort. And the most emotionally draining of all had been the chilling descent into Aeris' watery grave. He'd brought her limp form to the surface with no problems, but once on the shore with her unresponsive body in his arms, he'd broken down and wept.
The tears had surprised him just as much as her death had, and they were just as uncontrollable. He cradled her in his arms and let the tears fall as they would, his body racked with harsh sobs as he finally let go of the years of accumulated grief. The loss of his home and family to the flames, the horrors of Mt. Nibel, the manipulation of his mind and body...all were embodied in Aeris' death. A heart-wrenching symbol of his failure to keep safe those who had depended on him.
As the tears finally abated, he looked down upon the angel in his arms. An angel not just through her beauty and purity, her innocence and goodness...an angel through her ability to walk through the fires of life and come out shining, through her noble sacrifices, and her guardianship of the friends she could never truly leave behind. He smoothed back damp strands of hair and laid her arms across her stomach rather than have them flopping loosely to the side.
And there it was, just below her breastbone, two wicked inches from top to bottom, button to button. Biting his lip, he felt along her back to find corresponding tears in the fabric of her jacket and dress. They hadn't been able to use their materia or any of the Phoenix Downs before her lifestream had left her body. Battle wounds and poisons slowly wore down the body, but left a space of time in which the spirit lingered in a damaged body, waiting to be restored. But this, this clean, simple wound - ironically easier to repair than the multiple wounds and broken bones sometimes incurred in battle - had torn away her life in the space of only a second.
An eternity in which she slowly fell to the cold marble altar. Countless moments in which he'd watched in horrified disbelief as delicate lids closed over the dim green eyes he'd grown to cherish. And the rest of his life stretching before him - a picture of a long, lonely road walked with the burden of a newborn guilt and anguish ever in his heart.
He couldn't heal the dead, but if he released a spell just as her spirit returned to her body...surely she could be restored to health as well as life.
And so he prayed, held her body tightly to his chest, and this time, instead of releasing her gently into a lake, dove into shimmering green lifestream with her.
Green...everything and everywhere the same shimmering green of lifestream. Like emeralds under the harsh light of a jeweler's lamp, like magic materia held up to the flickering of a campfire, like her eyes in the morning sunlight.
He called out to her with his heart and mind, as shouting into the liquid would serve little purpose. Strange, how the greenish liquid - the spirit and knowledge of so many in a more solid form than usual - could sustain him as well as air. Lifestream filled his lungs as it had a few months ago, and once more the voices rang through his mind...voices from his past and present, his mind and his heart, his friends and his enemies, and overlaid through them all, the mighty song of the Planet.
...why are you here?...
...you'll never be a Soldier...
...I hate you!!!...
...I love you...
The voices grasped at his mind, clamoring at him with the memories they carried, driving him just a bit further from his hard won self-control. Trying to push them aside, he focused all of his attention on the body he held and called out to her one more.
...why are you here?...
Zack, Tifa...two more people he'd failed so miserably. Unable to find within himself the friendship and love they had sought from him, and equally unable to protect them as he should have. The dark-haired Soldier who had befriended him was long dead on a lonely bluff somewhere outside of Midgar, and Tifa would forever wear a hideous scar from shoulder to side as a memento of Nibelheim's fiery death.
...Cloud, what are you doing here?...
And there she was, one voice among the many, yet instantly recognizable. The only voice that came through pure and clear, not distorted by time and memories. The only voice that didn't claw at him, need from him, scream to him.
Aeris! he called out, are you still here?
Of course I am, silly, she laughed, and then stepped out from the mists before his very eyes. Not merged with the greater river of spirits, she still retained a ghostly form, long hair flowing unbound past her waist as she approached him.
Her eyes fell upon his burden, and a frown appeared and then disappeared just as quickly, replaced by a flicker of fear.
Cloud, you know you can't stay here with me...your place is still up there, with the others...Tifa, and everyone else. She glanced upwards towards where the surface of Mideel's lake shimmered above, and then gave him a regretful smile, shaking her head as she spoke, It's so good to see you again - I've missed you so much, but you can't stay...
Temporarily overcome by the sight and sound of her, Cloud took a moment to gather his wits while she continued to smile at him between half-curious, half-fearful glances at her own dead form. I didn't come to stay, he replied, and was rewarded with another smile, warm and still curious. I came to bring you back.
The frown reappeared, and after a slight pause, she managed, I'm dead, Cloud...you have to let me go. Besides, I don't think the Planet would allow it.
You're not really dead! he cried, desperation strong in him once more, with his goal so clearly in sight. You're still here in the lifestream, whole and alive...you just need your body again, and I can bring you back! I can bring you back Aeris, you can live again. We have to try...Planet's permission or not, I have to try...
This question brought him up short, and his surprise and bewilderment must have shown on his face, for the corners of her mouth lifted in a quirky smile before she turned away from him and repeated her question.
Why, Cloud? Countless people have died...for worse reasons than me...for no reason, sometimes. Why do you have to bring me back?
Why? Cloud's mind whirled as he grasped for all of the answers within him. If she needed a reason to live again, he had plenty of reasons for him to bring her back, that was for sure.
You were murdered, Aeris. Sephiroth took away the life you were supposed to be able to live out...I just want to give it back to you...
Still with her back to him in the bright green expanse, she replied, So I need to live again to right a wrong? What about all those innocent people who died in the Wutai war? What about the people caught up in the Sector 5 reactor explosion? What about your mother and Tifa's father? They were killed by Sephiroth, too. I can't live again just because my death was 'wrong,' Cloud.
But...well, you're the last Cetra...the Planet needs you; people need you.
I still talk to the Planet, Cloud. How do you think I called up all of that lifestream when Meteor finally came? And I'm only half Cetra, after all. If the Planet needs a Cetra, then it should be my mother who you're trying to bring back, not me.
For me, then? he tried. She glanced back at him, over her shoulder, her gaze questioning. For me, Aeris. I wasn't able to be the bodyguard you needed, in Midgar, at the Temple, and when you died. I failed you so many times...help me to right the wrong I did you.
To his utter frustration and not a little fear, she turned her head away from him once more and shook her head. That's not reason enough. People fail each other every day, Cloud, and not even a tenth of them get to make things right again. You're going to have to forgive yourself on your own...there's nothing for me to forgive. You don't owe me anything...
...except a reason. He racked his brain for another plea for her to embrace life once more. Didn't she want to live again? The questioning, hopeful glance she'd given him. "...not reason enough." She wanted a reason to try this far-fetched experiment, but nothing had qualified in her mind as of yet...and the only reason Cloud had left was an utterly selfish one, with nothing to do with reparation or justice...nothing to do with duty to the Planet or noble motives...
...but it was all he had to hold on to these days...
Give me a reason, Cloud. He looked up to find her only a few steps away, facing him once more with a softly sad expression. Give me a reason or go back home...to Nibelheim, to your home...and your neighbors.
To a reconstructed copy of the town he'd lost so long ago...filled with actors and strangers. To an empty house haunted with ghosts of his past. To Tifa, who would no doubt welcome him with open arms.
There was nothing in Nibelheim for him. Everything he needed, wanted, lived for...it was to be found here in the lifestream, because
I love you...
Green eyes widened, and she locked gazes with him as if to judge the sincerity in his eyes.
That's the only real reason I'm here, Aeris. Honestly, I could care less if the Planet needed a Cetra, or how you died...I need you. Just for me and my own selfish reasons...just for me. He watched her expression change slightly, but as worked up as he now was, it was entirely unreadable.
Cloud...you're just feeling guilty, and making something out of our friendship that it's not.
Hopeless, and yet helpless to walk away, he turned his face down to the pale one in his arms and said simply, You're wrong. I started falling in love with you the moment I woke up in your flowerbed and I saw you leaning over me with that...with such a funny look on your face, he laughed mirthlessly. Shaking his head as if in denial of the heartbreak welling up within him, he continued, I've been living my days in the hope that I might be able to be with you...I need you Aeris, I need to have you in my life...for the rest of my life. I love you. I know that's the most selfish reason of all, but if I can't make you come back with me...well, you can't make me leave, either.
Yes I can, she said, and the sudden laughter in her voice made him look up once more into the living face of the one he loved. I'll just go with you, she said, and ran into his arms...
...and faded as she made contact with herself.
He staggered back as the cold, lifeless form in his hands suddenly convulsed. Bright blood flew from her mouth as she coughed, and then dissipated into the lifestream. Crimson rivulets trickled down her dress as her heart stuttered to life once more, and then began to fail.
With an inarticulate cry, Cloud clutched her to him as if he could stop the bleeding with his own body, and frantically focused on the Life materia in his arm band. Brilliant diamonds of magic wove their way through the body held tightly to his chest, and he felt her pulse steady. But it was dangerously faint, and he knew that unless he cured her quickly, he would lose her for the second time...and they might not be given a second chance.
As he prepared to release a series of Restore spells, the lifestream around them suddenly flickered as if lightning had passed through the lake. Pale lids fluttered open weakly, and a pair of emerald eyes and a pair of aquamarine eyes watched in silent wonder as several shimmering strands of lifestream separated from the sea around them and wrapped Aeris in a tightly bound cocoon of magic.
Her heartbeats quickened and became strong under his fingertips, and between the jagged edges of the tear in her dress, the gaping red mouth of her wound closed before their very eyes.
Well, Cloud ventured shakily, at least we know the Planet's going to allow this...
You mean our marriage? came the lighthearted reply. Predictably, Cloud replied with a startled, Huh? The now-living angel in his arms looked up at him with an uncharacteristically serious expression.
You brought me back to life...that means my life belongs to you now. And that means you've got to keep me. Cloud found himself smiling at the image that floated into his mind; of finding and rescuing a stray kitten. Why do you think I kept asking you for reasons? I lost you, Cloud...to life, and I thought to Tifa, too. I'd kind of accepted it, and then you show up, wanting to drag me back to the surface. I didn't want to live again if it was just to watch you walk away...you did say you wanted me for the rest of your life, didn't you? She finished with a slightly questioning look, and the sudden vulnerability in her eyes shook him to the core.
Until the day I die...whispered Cloud brokenly. His amazement at the miracle had been temporarily overshadowed by her abrupt suggestion, but now it began to seep back into his heart, and he found himself quite literally choking on emotion. After a few mutually tearful moments, he made a conscious effort to collect himself and asked, Were you serious about getting married?
Laughing her tears away, Aeris cuddled her head into the curve of his neck and said, I guess I can't blame you for asking such a stupid question...I never said those three little words to you, did I? She lifted her face to his, and with joy lighting her eyes, said softly, I love you.
Good, said Cloud decidedly, earning him another laugh and a fond look. Let's get out of here.
A short swim later, they had gained the surface and shore, and Cloud was startled to find that the starry night sky had been replaced by a rose-pink dawn. A muffled giggle brought his attention around to his newly regained dream once more, and he suffered a slender hand to run its fingers through his hair.
"Your hair is all wet and spiky," she commented. "Of course, it's always spiky, I guess." Finding no appropriate reply to this inane observation, he changed the subject. A lot.
"Will you marry me?"
She dropped her hand from his hair to his face and touched his cheek tenderly. "This is real, isn't it?" she asked quietly, "I'm really alive again."
He smiled and nodded, pale green droplets falling from his hair. "Will you marry me?" he asked once more.
As if she hadn't heard, she searched his eyes and put forth another question, just as unnecessary as the previous one, in his opinion. "Do you really love me?" she asked, blushing charmingly with the first hint of shyness he'd ever seen in her.
"Yes," he said, "Yes I do."
She smiled brilliantly up at him and announced happily, "Then yes, yes I will."
Sopping wet from their adventure in the lake, clad in a wrinkled and torn dress with her hair a tangled mass flowing over her shoulders, still she seemed more beautiful than anything he'd ever seen in his entire life. Faced with the bright and smiling face of the one he'd loved and lost, Cloud was left with only one option.
Still in a daze of not-quite-believing, he hesitantly dipped his face towards hers. He felt her chilled nose press against his cheek, and he nuzzled her cheek with his lips, reveling in the silky sensation of her skin. "I love you, Aeris," he whispered, then tilted his head slightly and pressed his lips to hers in a soft, tender kiss.
* * *
He gazed out the window at the ever-sifting snow for a while, and then shut the curtains with a theatrical shiver. "I can't believe I let you convince me to move here," he commented to his wife, who was curled up comfortably on the couch.
Raising her head from the bundle in her arms, she laughed at him rather unsympathetically. "You know you love it here, Cloud. You go snowboarding practically every day!" Shaking her head in apparent sorrow, she mourned, "I can't believe I let you abandon me every time there's a fresh coat of powder on the slopes."
He joined her in laughter and then on the couch, peering over her shoulder in pride and love at the tiny wonder wrapped in a soft, pink blanket. "Come on," he said, "I've hardly stepped outside in the past month. I'd hardly call weekly supply runs and woodcutting abandonment." Aeris gave what sounded much like a snort and replied, "Only since Rose has been born. I'm almost jealous! Did you hear me, little princess?" she asked, bending over her daughter to rub noses, "Papa won't stay home to help Mama put up curtains, but he'll give up snowboarding to drool over his little baby, won't he?" With a sidelong glance at her husband, Aeris added, "I guess I've lost my girlish charm since I became a mommy."
Cloud tore his gaze away from the diminutive brunette with the milky blue newborn gaze to eye her mother. Long, glossy chestnut hair had been piled on top of a petite head, and several tendrils spilt down her neck in a curling cascade. Pale skin, rosy lips, and brilliant green eyes had not changed in the year and months since their wedding. And the 'girlish charm' that Aeris mourned had been replaced with the soft curves and glowing aura of a young woman. The slender, charming girl that he had married had grown into a grace and beauty that at times took Cloud's breath away.
He could hardly put into words what he'd felt just this morning, upon waking and finding her seated in a corner of their couch with their daughter in her arms. The pale, watery sunlight coming through the windows had fallen just on the nape of her neck, surrounding her hair with a silver-gold halo. With the gentle look that only mothers could have on her face and the light surrounding her with an ethereal air, he had half-expected her to sprout wings like the angel she was.
Something of this memory must have shown in his expression, however, for she caught his gaze and then smiled impishly. "...or maybe I haven't lost my charm, after all." He grinned in reply and then fell to admiring Rose once more. "Do you think your parents ever look in on their old house and watch over us?" he asked suddenly. Aeris glanced around the room as if to search for ghosts, and then replied softly, "I'm sure they do...and I'm sure they're happy for us, too. We're going to live out the long, happy life together that was stolen from them."
He nodded and then said with love and laughter full in his voice, "I love you, Dear."
A giggle, and then, "I love you too, Darling."
Meriko Robert's Fanfiction