“Aeris, come look! There’s a great view of Midgar from here!” Tifa tugs her by the wrist; her grip is firm, but not bruising.
Tifa is the only one who treats her as though she won’t break.
They step onto the overhang. Midgar sits below, Reactors churning, gritty metal nearly bright from the hazy rays of the sun, the Shinra building stretched to the sky—like a steeple. Aeris takes another step and—
—can’t let Cloud die. She reaches for her sword—
—stops , frowning. “Tifa?” she turns to the other woman and sees—
—but there are so many SOLDIERS. Even with her new strength—damn Hojo—she can’t fight them all off. She holds the sword before her, between herself and the guns, and then—
—she attacks. It’s hard to believe how easy this is, the killing. But they’re never-ending. Eventually, they’re going to get her. She glances back at Cloud—poor guy. What a mess. If only Sephiroth hadn’t…She dodges a bullet. Crap. The bullets fly around her like rain, and there's no way even Sephiroth could move fast enough to dodge them all.
“—wrong?” Tifa looks her firmly in the eye. “You’re really—”
She falls, feels her blood streaming down her face, and—damn it—Cloud’s going to die, and she’s never going to see her parents or Aeris again.
“—pale.” Tifa puts a hand to her forehead. “You’re not—”
Death is quick, nearly so quick as to be painless. Her spirit leaves her body and it’s—
“—feverish. What’s going on?” Tifa looks so concerned that Aeris opens her mouth to—
—it’s Zack. Zack is the one who’s dead, the one who saved Cloud. Above the corpse, an image of him—whole, not bleeding—looks directly at her and grins.
—say something but it catches in her throat. Aeris covers her face with her hand, feels wetness, and—
“I was wondering if I’d ever get to say goodbye.” Zack smiles and wraps her in a hug. Maybe she only imagines it, but Aeris can feel his warmth. “I’ll see you in the Promised Land."
—somehow, she’s sobbing into Tifa’s shoulder, and choking out—
“Take care, you hear? I love you.” And then he’s gone, as though he had never been.
Tifa simply holds her and lets her cry. Kalm can wait. The others can wait. Grief has been waiting five years; it can’t wait anymore.
Gongongan nights are alive: Frogs outside croak symphonies, while the wind whips the leaves into a frenzied accompaniment. When she’s sure the others are asleep, Aeris crawls out of the bed—they’re all so relieved just to have a bed, even if it’s only for a night—and slinks out of the makeshift inn.
Somehow, it isn’t surprising that the lamps in his parents’ house are still on. Hands shaking, she knocks. Aeris hardly has time to blink before the door opens.
“Yes?” the elderly woman asks, and—oh, oh no—she has Zack’s eyes. She can't do this. But what choice does she have? “Can I help you?”
Aeris shakes her head. Zack’s resemblance to his parents is so uncanny, it’s hard. His mother has his eyes, and ears, while his father has Zack's jaw and smile. Her heart churns. “I’m Aeris Gainsborough. I knew your son.”
There are three seconds of silence—is that all? It seems to stretch on for eternity—and then the woman’s arms are wrapped tightly around her. She smells like peppermint and dirt.
“We’ve heard so much about you! I’m Edith Fair and this is my husband, Garfield.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she says and clasps Edith briefly in return, before letting go.
“Come inside,” Garfield tells her, “We’ll get a pot of tea going. There's no reason to stay out here.”
They lead her into a small room. Everything is so simple here—furs hang from the grainy wooden walls and everything’s lit by oil-fueled lamps.
While Edith bustles into the kitchen, Aeris turns to Garfield. She opens her mouth—but what words do you use to tell a father his son is never coming home? What do you tell a mother?
How do you tell them he died a hero for a man who doesn’t remember it?
“I—” She catches the apology on her tongue. That’s not what he needs or wants to hear. It isn’t her fault; she’s lost him too. “Zack is dead.”
Garfield blinks at her thrice—once for each word—and exhales. “After a year, we always thought…but it was easier to keep hoping.”
“Especially for him,” says Aeris offering a smile.
“We used to get letters once a week,” Edith calls. She comes out of the kitchen and hands them both a cup of tea. “He used to fill pages about you.”
She feels her cheeks redden—oh, Zack—and because this might be her only opportunity to, she asks, “What was he like? As a child?”
“He was a terror. Not on purpose or maliciously. He just had so much energy—he was always playing in the fields and tearing up the turnips…” Edith smiles and sips her tea.
“The fields?” Aeris tilts her head to the side. “Are you farmers?”
Garfield sighs softly, and sets his cup aside. “We were, before Shinra put the Reactor in.”
“What happened?” she asks, but she can guess.
Aeris can feel the pain of the earth, the yearning for life it has. Despite herself, she turns her head in the direction of the looming Reactor. It’s long dead but the land... the land remembers; it still bears the scars.
“Shinra told us that the land where our crops grew was fertile with Mako and that they wanted to put in a Reactor. We were… unsure. Our crops were how we survived but they assured us…” Edith falters and sips the dregs of her tea with a grimace.
“They promised us that the Reactor would make us enough gil,” Garfield continues, picking up his own cup, but he doesn't drink from it, “and that we could buy food, and still have more than enough gil. They promised us prosperity.”
Aeris looks down into her tea. “And then the Reactor exploded.”
“There was no more gil—Shinra didn’t rebuild the Reactor or help us—and the land couldn’t bear crops anymore. Now, we sell timber and medicines and shun technology; no good has ever come of it. We help one another and get by well enough. Winter is the hardest, but we make it through.” He shakes his head slowly, worry lines accentuated by his frown.
She gives a nod, thinking, and then says, “I need to go. My friends will be wondering where I am.” Aeris stands to receive another hug from Edith and a pat on the shoulder from Garfield.
“When I’m done saving the world,” she promises, “I’ll come back, and we can tell embarrassing stories about Zack.”
They both laugh a little—she can hear the hint of a sob from Edith—and release her. “You’re always welcome here,” Garfield tells her.
Nodding with suddenly tearful eyes, Aeris leaves into the light-edged morning. In all honesty, she means to go back to the inn, but the dawn’s just starting to color the horizon and the dew is starting to shine like earthbound stars. Such sights were nonexistent in Midgar, even in her garden. So she isn’t all that surprised when she ends up at the edge of town, instead of the inn.
Who would have thought she’d meet Zack’s parents? He’d always promised but…
She kneels in the grass, and runs her fingers over the wet blades. Greedily, they stick to her hands, perking up and filling her mind with a contented purr.
It’s like petting a slippery cat, she decides with a giggle as she stands. With her hands gone, the grass clings to her boots, folding in around them whenever she takes a step. She can feel their dampness seeping into her shoes.
Gently, Aeris places her hand on the trunk of one of the trees that guard the perimeter of town. It takes a moment, but the boughs unfold, releasing their tension, and stretch their leaves higher into the coming dawn.
“Hello,” she says to it. Her palm tingles warm in the tree’s greeting. “How are you?”
Beneath her hand, the tree sags slightly, its leaves drooping, and her palm cooling. “I’m sorry, what's wrong?”
The warmth surges and an image flashes in her mind—it’s the outline of the Reactor in the distance. “Is there anything I can do?”
Its boughs lower again, the warmth fading to a tingle. “You just need rest, then.” She’s about to leave, when there are footsteps behind her. Aeris swivels, suddenly alert, but it's only Tifa. Aeris smiles at her.
“I’ve been worried. What are you doing?” Tifa takes a step nearer, eyeing the hand Aeris has on the tree.
“I was…” She glances at it, and then meets Tifa’s eyes. “I was talking to the tree.”
If this is surprising, Tifa’s face doesn’t show it. She steps closer and pulls Aeris’s hand away from the trunk. Her eyes widen almost imperceptibly. “It’s warm.”
“I can’t hear words so… heat is a way the tree talks to me. Heat and images and… body language?” Aeris smiles—honestly, it’s a wonder they don’t all think she’s crazy. “Your hands are cold.”
There’s a beat of silence and then they both laugh softly. The town is still sleeping, the dawn still slowly creeping across the sky.
“Do you do this a lot?” Tifa asks, releasing her hand.
Aeris can’t help but smile at Tifa’s self-conscious blush. “It’s not really something I can control… but yes. Back in the church, I could spend hours with the flowers. We spent so much time together, I could nearly get words from them. Out here… there are so many plants, Tifa, and I can feel them around me. It’s… nice. I’m never—lonely.” Aeris falters, her throat nearly catching the lie before she even realizes it’s a lie.
Regarding her thoughtfully, Tifa nods. “Because you’re a Cetra,” she says slowly, “So that day we were leaving Midgar, was that something like this?”
“Yes, it was… I… don’t know how to explain… As a Cetra, I’m… connected to the Planet, to everything. On the cliff there was… a soul, who went through a lot of pain and—”
“Zack?” Tifa asks, tucking a strand of her dark hair behind her ear. “That’s where he died?”
Aeris nods, then frowns. “You knew him?"
“We met once, but it isn’t important. Not really. You two were together, right?”
Briefly, Aeris considers not letting her change the subject, but she’ll have time to ask more about it later, so she nods. “Anyway, the pain he was in, the fear he felt… it left an imprint on the land, on that cliff. And I could see the imprint of his soul, of his final moments. I lived it… his death. And then his soul, the piece left behind saw me and… said goodbye…” She pauses. “Am I making sense?”
“You haven’t slept at all, have you?” Tifa asks with a knowing smile, “Come on. Let’s go.” She starts to lead Aeris away by her hand.
Tifa turns back, then smiles brightly at her. Relief rushes through her—Tifa believes her. Aeris smiles and nods.
As they walk back to the inn, Tifa doesn’t release her hand.
The next morning, as they're all gathering at the edge of town to break into teams and go monster hunting—they're running low on gil and potions and antidotes—she approaches Cloud.
"Cloud?” She taps him on the arm. “Can I stay here?”
He turns, brows knitted. “I… Why?”
“I like it here. You’re just hunting; you don’t need my help for that.” She smiles up at him and squeezes his shoulder.
“All right,” he says, “Just stay here. We’ll be back soon.”
Her smile widens. “Don’t worry. I can take care of myself.”
Cloud gives a subtle smile in return, and Aeris waits until everyone is out of sight before heading to the destroyed Reactor.
As she gets closer to it, she can feel the soil weakening even more. There is no clinging grass here, only ash and exhausted dirt. It hardly reacts as she runs her fingers through the fine soil, but it does soften slightly at her touch. The earth wails at her, pleading, pained. “It’s okay. Calm down, I’m going to help you,” she tells it, giving it a light pat. “I’ve got an idea. You rest, I’ll only be a second.”
The wails cease and Aeris stands up. Shoulders squared, she looks up at the warped and blackened Reactor. She takes a breath and moves to it, running her hand across the gritty metal. Where her fingers touch, the metal clears, until it gleams in the sun. All the ash clings to her fingers, desperate. A weak warmth spreads from it to her wrist.
She finds a place where nearly all of the Reactor has been blown off, and then jumps over what little remains of the wall, carefully, so that she won't cut herself on the jagged edges.
Her boots sink half an inch into the ash and it starts heating rapidly, almost uncomfortably so. Just what she was looking for. Not caring that the ash sticks to her dress, she kneels, scooping up a handful of the ash. At her touch, it condenses, emitting a fiery heat that nearly hurts. It sings in her head—at once, happy to see her and apologetic, sorrowful.
“It’s all right, it isn't your fault. In fact, you’re going to help me.”
The heat settles into a more contented warmth, as opposed to the fiery desperation of before. Aeris smiles at the handful of ash and this time, uses only one hand to pull herself over the remains of the Reactor wall.
Humming, she moves away from it, to a clear spot of earth. Aeris kneels again, and gently scatters the ash across a small bit of land. The ground is soft, soft enough she is able to knead the ash into the deadened soil. Gradually, it begins to hum, the dirt and ash together—in harmony. “You’re going to save Gongonga,” she tells it. “With a bit more help.”
Aeris stands and walks towards town, trying to convince the ash to stop clinging to her dress. It merely grows warmer and what can she do but smile?
“Excuse me,” she says to a brown-haired boy about to scurry past on his way out of town.
He’s a little thing—he can’t be more than eight or nine—with a smattering of freckles on his nose and ears that stick out too much to be considered anything but comical. “Yes?” he asks, stopping to eye her blackened dress and fingers.
“I’m looking for seeds,” she tells him, “Vegetable or herbs, preferably. Do you know where I could—?”
“I might know,” he says but doesn’t move to leave.
“Would you like to help me?”
Honestly, she's dirty, not a bloodstained monster. She gives a rueful sigh. “An experiment. Get me the seeds and I’ll show you,” she promises.
The boy hesitates but at her encouraging smile, runs into the village. It takes him only five minutes to come back with a tiny black pouch. “Turnips,” he says by way of explanation.
With a nod, she leads him back to the Reactor and points at her little ash-enriched patch of land. “This is ash from the Reactor. It’s Mako charged, because the Reactor had Mako in it when it exploded. It’ll help the plants grow, since Mako is the lifeblood of the Planet.”
He blinks at the ground, then at Aeris. “Give me the seeds,” she says, “and we’ll plant them.”
She takes the pouch and takes two of the seeds out. Gently, she digs a small hole with her fingers, and puts them in. “Want to cover them up?” Aeris asks kindly.
Glancing at her, he nods, and then kneels next to her, pulling the displaced earth over the seeds snugly.
She grins at him and a smile spreads across his face. “I’m Jacob,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“Aeris. Now I have a favor to ask you, all right?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow, and I don’t know when I’ll be back so I want you to look over the plants and water them, and once they start growing, get the adults to help. After that, they’ll know what to do.” Aeris hands back the pouch with a smile. “Make sure that they know to use the ash from inside the Reactor, though, or else it won’t work.”
Solemnly, he nods.
“Great,” she says.
They go back to the village together, and Aeris smiles at the pride in his eyes. Even if this doesn’t work—and she’s sure it will—at least he feels important. It’s enough. Her day has been well spent, even if Gongonga continues to struggle, because she put a smile on the boy's face and gave him a purpose.
The second they reach town, he scurries off, probably to tell his friends. She laughs and leaves the next day with the rest of AVALANCHE. If any of them notice her blinding smile—so much brighter than those she normally gives—they don’t comment. Somehow, it’s better that way.
It’s months before she comes back to Gongonga. The sun sets, coloring the skyline orange and pink. Gingerly, she reaches up and feels her cheek. Her bruise throbs, sharp, and it’s still hard to believe that Cloud gave it to her.
Not that she blames him—it wasn’t his fault.
She could see it: Sephiroth with his phantom grip on Cloud’s mind. Aeris takes a breath—he has to be stopped.
They’re running out of time, the Planet screams and she looks north. It’s up to her now. It’s up to her and the others can’t help. She’ll save them. There’s too much pain in the world; she can’t let it continue, not without doing something. Not when she can do something.
The materia in her hair warms.
As she’s sneaking out of the inn again, she glances at the sleeping forms of her friends. And meets Vincent’s glowing eyes. “I—”
“I saw nothing,” he says with quiet understanding, turning over in his bed.
Aeris nods and slips out the door. On her way out of town, she stops at the Reactor site.
Ash covers the once dead soil and it’s been plowed into neat rows and there are tiny sprouts just starting to peak out into the world. Alone, away from the rows, are two full-grown plants. The turnips she had planted that day with Jacob.
Her face curves into a hesitant smile. Sure it stings a bit, but she’s done some good here, in Zack’s hometown. He’d be proud of her.
Somehow, her success here seems like a good omen. If she can save Gongonga, how much harder can saving the world be?
With a spring in her step, she starts the trek to the land of her people and doesn’t look back again.