I could hear the waves crashing on the shore below me. The sound of the rushing water around and over the rocks an ever present backdrop, a sonorous never ending ballad for anyone who sat on the cliff above. People often came up to the bluff just to listen to the sound of it, to relax, look up at the sky above and hear the sound of the water below. To get away for a few moments from their hectic lives and find some peace.
But that was not why I was here. For me there was no more peace.
I had come up here every day without fail for the last two months. Ever since I had returned, returned from the journey I had started soon after I and the rest of Avalanche had saved the world from meteor. A journey I had hoped would somehow fill the emptiness in my heart.
Could it really be almost a year now that Aeris was gone? It seemed like just yesterday. I will never forget it, of course. I will never forget seeing her looking at me as the life slowly faded from her eyes. It had seemed almost a questioning look at the time. I will never know, of course, just what she was thinking, but I cannot help but wonder if it was why I had failed her. I had promised to be her bodyguard and I had not kept my word.
I don't think she ever realized just what she took from all of us when she left, or especially, what she took from me. I know why she did it, and deep down inside I think I realize it was the only way. But still there was a part of me that could not accept what had happened, that could not let go.
We returned from the northern crater and been hailed as heros. It should have been the best time of our lives, but I could not extinguish the ache in my heart. Our triumph had been permanently tainted by Aeris loss.
Afterwards the others had gone their separate ways. Most back to their home towns to continue their lives as best they could. Cid to Rocket Town to build another rocket and pursue his dream of returning to space. Red to Cosmo Canyon to continue his education as the protector of his people. Barret to Corel to try to rebuild the city he blamed himself for destroying. Yuffie to Wutai with most of our materia. Cait Sith going back to Midgar to help Reeve rebuild that city. Vincent....well, no one was quite sure where Vincent had disappeared to. To whatever mysterious roads his feet took him, I suppose.
I settled in Kalm. I don't know why. Midgar held too many unpleasent memories, and the Nibelheim that I had known no longer existed. There was always the house in Costa Del Sol, but somehow I would not have felt comfortable living in a resort town, not after all that had happened.
Tifa stayed with me in Kalm. There we had tried to get on with our lives. She opened up another bar. I helped out there some, in between what jobs I could get as a mercenary. With Shinra gone, and most of it's mako created monsters, there wasn't much call for that sort of work anymore.
I think she could feel the hurt that I still had inside me, although she never mentioned it. I don't think there was any way I could hide it. Not from her. Of course, she tried to remain her usual optomistic self. She had tried to keep her own feelings inside. She had done everything she could to help me get over what had happened. I knew she loved me, of that I had no doubt. And I loved her too, but not in the way she wanted me to. I knew how badly she hoped I would get over this. How she wished I could somehow let it go, put behind me what had happened and look forward once more to the future. I knew she hoped that somehow we could move on and build a life together.
But it didn't happen, and the longer we went on together the more certain I became that it never would, that no matter how much she loved me, I could never let Aeris go. I think she knew, I think she knew all along. But what could she do? I knew I could never be what she wanted me to be, and I knew that as long as we kept going on like this I was only hurting her. And I didn't want to hurt her. I didn't want to hurt anyone I loved ever again.
So one month after our return to Kalm, I left. I didn't say goodbye. I don't think either of us could have borne it. I slipped out one night, leaving a note behind. A note that said I was sorry. I know I must have hurt her then, but I also knew it was better than seeing her die a little bit every day.
I didn't know where I was going to go. I had no set plan in mind. All I knew was there was something missing that I had to find, and I didn't know where to look. I retraced the steps of our great adventure. I passed through the towns of all my old friends once again. But I didn't stay long. They had all gotten on with their lives. They all had new plans and new ambitions. To tell you the truth I think I made them all a little uncomfortable. I was a relic, still lost in the past. I was a reminder of what they had lost, and they no longer wanted to be reminded of that. They were sympathetic, of course, and some even tactfully suggested that I should go back to Kalm and make a life with Tifa, that is was time for all of us to put it behind us.
But I knew I couldn't do that. So I moved on. Of all of them, Vincent was the only one who really seemed to understand. Yes, I did find him. One day while walking near Lucricia's waterfall I saw him sitting on a hilltop, looking down at me curiously. We had stayed together for over a month, talking of times past and what we had both lost. But eventually I moved on. Though Vincent could share my sorrow, I was still restless. I felt there was still something missing, something more I had to do.
For a long time I wandered alone. I stopped at the mansion in Nibelheim and searched through the books, much as Sephiroth had done before putting the town to the torch. I revisited the northern regions, lingering for weeks in the abandoned city of the Ancients, often just staring for hours into the pool that was Aeris final resting place. I went back to the north crater where we had finally confronted and defeated Sephiroth. But in all these places I found no sign that my search was any closer to reaching a conclusion.
Despondent, I turned south once more. From the very begining I hadn't known what I hoped to find. I guess all this time I really believed that somehow I could find some way to bring her back to me. That she wasn't really gone forever. That if only I searched long and hard enough I would find some way to right the wrong that had been done to her.
But I had retraced almost our entire route and found nothing, and now I was begining to think that maybe I would never find the way. But I wasn't finished yet. I still had not been to the southern islands.
I made my way south, past Kalm and Midgar, avoiding all cities this time, all contact with civilization. I no longer fit in there. I was an outcast, I no longer belonged anywhere. My only desire was to find the piece that was missing within me.
I reached the Temple of the Ancients, but all that was left was the blackened pit, just as it was when we had last seen it. There were no clues there. So it was on to Mideel. The last place I hadn't been to. My last hope.
The town had been rebuilt whem I arrived. There was no sign of the destruction that had been wrought by the coming of Weapon and the upwelling of the lifestream. As everywhere else, time had healed their wounds.
But not mine. I walked through the town, but everything had changed. This town, like all the others, had left the past behind.
In despair I found myself at the local bar, determined to drown my sorrows in alcohol. But I had barely gotten started when I heard two of the locals talking about a new lifestream pit that had just opened up in the forest not far from the town.
Thinking perhaps I would find some clue there I set off into the woods and soon came upon a pit filled with the deep green fluid of the lifestream. I sat at the edge looking down at the glistening substance for a long time, all the rest of the day, in fact, until the sun started to sink below the horizen. The lifestream bubbled up at times and glinted with light that seemed to emenate from below the restless waters, but there was no revelation. I became angry, staring down at the lifestream below, hands clenched, demanding an answer. Demanding some sign. When nothing came of it, in one final fit of despair, I threw myself into the center of the pit, and sank slowly down within the bright green waters.
I didn't struggle. At that point I don't think I cared whether I lived or died. I only knew I couldn't go on without some kind of answer. I knew there had to be more, that it wasn't meant to end like this. But I didn't know how to find what I sought, and I was tired of searching.
I don't know how long I continued to sink, deeper and deeper into the darkness. I could see nothing around me but green light. There were no walls, or ceiling or floor. The lifestream was empty around me. I was floating in a sea of nothingness, not even sure if I was still moving. It was a peaceful place. At this point, nothingness was starting to seem pretty appealing.
But then I heard her voice. My heart skipped a beat. The moment I heard it, I knew it was her. I would never forget the sound of her gentle voice.
I looked around, frantically turning my head in all directions, but I could see nothing.
"Aeris," I called out, desperately searching for some sign of her. Hoping that it had not been some trick of my mind. But she answered almost immediately.
"Cloud, please go back."
"I can't," I replied. "Aeris, I want to be with you."
"Cloud, please," she said. "It was not meant to be."
And suddenly I could see her. She was above me, looking down at me with those innocent eyes. Just the same as when she had last stood before me, a moment before Sephiroth's sword had plunged through her.
"Aeris," I cried out. "I love you. I can't live without you."
She moved closer, and for the first time I could see that she had tears in her eyes.
"I love you too," she said. "I always will. But your friends are right. It is time for you to move on. You cannot join me, it is not yet time. Cloud, do you want me to be happy?"
"Of course," I replied immediately. It was all I had ever wanted.
"Then you must stop this. For what you are doing now is breaking my heart. You must stop torturing yourself for something that was not your fault. I know you love me. I know you want to be with me. And even though that cannot be, I cannot be there standing with you any longer, even so I want you to know that I will always be there in spirit. I will always be right by your side, whether you can see me or not. So please stop this. I can't bear to see you doing this to yourself. If you care for me at all you will let it go."
I did not reply. I wanted to be with her so badly, I loved her so much.
"I don't know whether I can," I said finally.
"Please," she said softly. "Please do it for me. Go back Cloud, go back to where you came from. Tifa loves you. And you love her too. I know it. You've just been weighed down so much by the grief of my death that you can no longer see it. Return to her, and be happy, for my sake."
I just looked at her for a long time. I felt tears in my own eyes. I wanted to stay, I wanted to be with her. But I knew I couldn't. And I knew that if I really did love her, there was only one thing I could say.
"I'll try," I said, though I could barely speak. And somehow I knew that this was the end. This would the last time I would see her.
"Promise me," she said. "Promise me that you will. And that you will not try anything like this again. If you love me at all, make me that promise."
Again my voice choked in my throat, but finally I managed to get it out.
Then she smiled, even thought tears still ran down her face, and she extended her hand.
I reached out and took hold of it. She pulled me closer, and our lips met. I wrapped my arms around her, squeezing her as tightly as I could, hoping this moment would never end, but suddely she was gone, and I was gasping on the surface of the pond. As I scrambled up out of the pit, I could hear her voice echoing in my head.
Two days I remained in Mideel, mulling over what I had seen and all that had happened. And at the end of the two days I left, headed north once more. Headed back, at long last, to Kalm.
With each step my heart grew lighter, my spirit uplifted. I had found the missing piece. Aeris had been right, just as had all my friends. It had just taken her to finally get me to see. She would want me to be happy, I knew that now. It was one final gift she had given me.
The closer I got to Kalm the more I thought about Tifa and all she had done for me. I hadn't really given it much thought in a long time. I hadn't really taken the time to think about how I really felt about her. In my grief and feelings of guilt I had shut her out. But now I began to realize just how important she was to me. I began to realize, just as Aeris had said, that I really did love her.
I finally reached Kalm late one afternoon. Each day I had become more excited, anticipating the look on her face when Tifa saw I had returned, when she saw I had come back to her. When she found out I was healed. By the time I reached the bar I was practically running down the street.
I stepped up to the entrance and then stopped suddenly. The doors were shut, and there was a sign in the window that said 'Closed', even though she had always been open this time of day. I looked around, puzzled. There were a few people in the streets, and I recognized one as someone who had been a regular customer at the bar before I left.
"Hey, Brandon!" I said, rushing over to him. "I'm back. Where's Tifa? I have something important to tell her."
The man turned and looked at me coldly. For a moment he said nothing.
"What the hell do you care for?" he spate out.
"Look, I know I kind of ran out on her, but I was confused. I know I can make it up to her. I realize now what a fool I was. Where is she?"
He continued to look at me with that same cold stare. For a moment I thought he wasn't going to say anything, but then he shook his head and pointed to the north.
"Up on the bluff," he said, and walked away.
The sun was below the horizen now, the reds and purples slowly fading into darkness as I watched. The sky was fading into the edge of twilight. I could see a few stars glinting up above off to the east. I turned and looked south, back down the narrow trail that led to Kalm, the narrow trail I had climbed so eagerly two months ago.
I turned back and looked out over the ocean. I stood up slowly and walked to the very edge of the cliff, looking out over the restless water. The waves were stronger now, crashing on the rocks below in a shower of foam. I looked down at the jagged rocks. I stood there motionless for a long time. Just one more step, and I would be over the edge. One more step and I would be free.
I sighed and bowed my head. How many times in the past few months had I thought about taking that final step?
But I had made a promise. I had promised Aeris I would not do such a thing, and no matter how much it hurt, I would keep that promise. I had already failed her once, I would not do so again.
I looked out over the ocean once more. This must have been the spot. The spot where Tifa has stood the day she had come up on the bluffs.
Yes, I had come up here every day since I had returned, to stand in the spot where Tifa had stood, looking out over the ocean much as she must have. I had not missed a single day. And each time I had come, I had brought fresh flowers to put around the cross that bore her name.
A wind blew in off the ocean. Far off I heard the cry of a seagull. A long time ago I would have looked out, trying to spot the bird, taking it's cry as a sign of hope. But no longer. Those days were long gone. I had no more hope.
I felt like crying, but there were no more tears. I had long ago used them all up. There was nothing left, nothing left inside me. No more anger, no more grief. Though I had lost everthing that had ever held meaning for me life still went on. A new day dawned, a new night fell. Through it all I waited patiently. For I knew someday it would all end. Someday I knew my time would come and my last hope might be fulfilled, that by some miracle at that time the Gods would forgive me and let me find happiness with both my angels.