Everlasting Lilac
Chapter 1
a Final Fantasy VII fanfic
by Krista Fisk

Author's Note: This fic can be considered a companion piece to my other Final Fantasy VII fanfic, All But Blood.

~*~


   Are flowers the winter's choice
   Is love's bed always snow
   She seemed to hear my silent voice
   Not love appeals to know.

                 ~ John Clare


~*~


Zack Forrester. SOLDIER 1st Class under the command of General Sephiroth in the ShinRa Company's military. He said goodbye to me in this garden of blooming daffodils on the rise overlooking my mother's house, kissed the tears from my closed eyes, my cheeks, my lips, and promised to return as soon as the mission was over.

That was five years ago.

At first, I searched for him. I combed the net for any news of his mission to the little mountain town of Nibelheim on the western continent, but there was nothing. I wrote to the mayor of the town, and three weeks later I received a letter from him in which he claimed that no ShinRa military representatives, let alone General Sephiroth and a SOLDIER 1st Class, had ever been there at all.

Had they never even made it to their destination?

Finally, in desperation, I dared send a message to Tseng, head of the Turks, ShinRa's team of special operatives. He had been kind to me when I was a child in ShinRa custody, and I liked to think that we had a bond of friendship; but I also knew that his loyalties would always be first and foremost with ShinRa.

The message he sent back wasn't traced, to my relief, but he also sent no useful information -- only a predictable plea to return to ShinRa, with the promise that no harm would come to me. But I already knew just how much ShinRa promises were worth.

The only person I truly trusted, aside from my adoptive mother Elmyra, was Zack. And he had apparently vanished without a trace.

He was alive. I knew that much, at least. But alive where? And if he was alive... why didn't he come back to me?

Weeks passed without a word from him; then months, and years. Sometimes I would go to the little run-down, abandoned church in the slums of Sector 5 to meditate. It was one of my favorite hiding places in Midgar, and one of the few places in the great polluted city where I could feel the life of the earth under my feet... and hear the voice of my mother. My real mother, who had died in our effort to escape from ShinRa's laboratories almost fifteen years earlier.

I suppose I have ShinRa to thank for something. If it weren't for their interest in my mother's and my "special talents," and the consequential experiments, I probably would have thought I was going crazy when my dead mother started to speak to me.

But even she couldn't help much when it came to finding Zack. She traveled the Lifestream of the Planet with countless other souls and... well, though our bond often drew us together, and I could feel her love and concern for me, I guess it's hard for the dead to focus on the needs of the living. She tried to find him, but Zack was just one person out of millions.

I searched so hard for him, and eventually the inevitable doubts and fears began to take root. What if he didn't want to be found? What if he decided not to come back? What if he found someone else? What if the mission was a ruse, to pacify me so that he could leave without the hassle of dumping me? What if....

Five years of waiting, wondering, hoping, despairing, and ultimately trying to forget.

And then, on a spring night not unlike the night he left me... I felt him die.

Years ago when I was a child, not long after Elmyra took me in after the death of my mother, I felt her husband die. Her husband was a soldier in the war with Wutai, half a world away. I had never met him... and I still felt him die. I felt his yearning for his wife, the woman I had come to think of as mother, as his spirit traveled the Lifestream... but that yearning wasn't enough for him to reach her, and after a while I lost the sense of him amidst the vast rush of souls through the Planet.

I had never met the man. He was a complete stranger to me, but I felt him all the same.

So when Zack died, I felt it like a blow; a white hot clarity bursting behind my eyes that brought me, gasping, to my knees.

So close! Not a half a world away, but just outside the city. He was just outside of Midgar... and now he was dead, his life abruptly extinguished.

Murdered. I couldn't see him, I could only feel. The terrible violence of his death swept through me like a chill wind, freezing my blood even as I cried out his name.

Then I felt him.

There was something different... something wrong with him. Normally when people die, I feel a sense of their peace as they join the Lifestream. Zack was not at peace. He felt... angry, confused, anxious... and diminished somehow. I felt his soul brush by me, and I held out my arms as if I could catch him; as if I could calm his turmoil and keep him close.

A touch. A flare of recognition. Of love, fear, sadness, regret. Aeris, he said, whispering my name.

And then he was gone.

The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back, looking up at the sunlight filtering through the cracked city plate above me, my head throbbing in time with my heartbeat. Elmyra was kneeling next to me, her face a mask of worry that didn't ease much as she helped me sit up.

"Aeris... what's wrong? What happened?"

I looked at her, dry-eyed, feeling hollow; as if my own spirit had fled along with Zack's. "He's dead, Mom," I said. "Zack was just killed on the outskirts of Midgar."

She paled, her hands flying to her mouth. "Oh... Aeris." She knew what this meant. Five years of hope and fear, culminating in this. She was probably feeling it more than I was at the moment. I couldn't feel anything. I was almost surprised, as I got shakily to my feet, that her expression changed from worry to alarm. "Where are you going?"

I paused. I was going, but I hadn't consciously realized it until she asked the question. "To find him," I said matter-of- factly. His spirit was gone, but his body was out there. I needed to find it. The thought of Zack's slain body left alone in the middle of nowhere... the thought of Zack....

"No!" Elmyra clutched me by the arms and shook me a little. I blinked at her. "You can't. Aeris, please... if he was killed -- and you know I don't doubt you," she said at my expression. "But Zack was a SOLDIER 1st Class. If he was killed, it was probably by ShinRa -- or worse. If you go now, you risk being captured."

She was right. For a moment, I didn't care. But then she touched my face, all the love and worry of a mother in her countenance, and I remembered... she knew exactly what I was going through. Years ago, hadn't I broken the news of her husband's death to her, asking her first not to cry?

I couldn't cry... but I felt a bit of warmth seep into my cold body at her touch. It was enough. I drew away, because if I let myself feel more, I wouldn't be able to do what I needed to do.

"I'll wait, then," I said softly. "I'll prepare... and go after dark."

Elmyra didn't look happy. "There might not be anything left to find by the time you get there," she said.

"And there might," I replied. "Either way, I know where it happened, and I need to see for myself."

She didn't argue with that, because yes, she knew how it felt.

We already had most of the tools I needed, thanks to our gardening hobby, but as the grey light of the Midgar day faded, and rational thought slowly filtered into the maddening silent-scream whirlwind of my mind, I realized that I would probably need a vehicle of some kind. I ended up spending most of my savings renting an old beater from Mr. Kullen at the Sector 4 market, with a bit extra to remind him that it was none of his business what I planned to do with it, as long as I returned it on time and in the same condition.

I was finally ready to go when it was full dark out. The last thing I threw into the vehicle was the long Guard Stick I had with me at all times when I was away from home. It had been a while since I had been out of the city proper, but if memory served me, there were as many dangers outside the city as there were under the plate. Even if I didn't run into ShinRa, the constant drain of the city's eight Mako reactors on the planet had an adverse affect on the surrounding wildlife, to put it mildly.

Elmyra gave me a brief hug and warned me to be careful and to "run like hell" if I caught even the hint of ShinRa on my tail. "Don't try to fight them," she said -- her ages old mantra. "Just get away."

I nodded, slipped into the driver's seat of the old clunker, and headed out.

It took about an hour to get out of the city because pedestrian traffic was thick in the market areas, even at the late hour. I had more than one irate person cast me a dirty look or thump the hood of the car as I carefully made my way through the streets. Normally, I would have just smiled and apologized for the inconvenience, which usually was enough to calm ruffled feelings, but my face felt like a mask. I felt that if I tried to force a smile, it would crack.

Once I finally made it out of the city, travel wasn't much easier because of the complete and utter lack of roads. The car Mr. Kullen had rented to me wasn't made for rugged terrain, but even worse, a recent rain had turned the dirt to mud. As soon as I realized that there was a good chance of the car getting stuck, I parked, gathered my things, and headed for the east ridges overlooking Midgar on foot. The clouds from the earlier storm were gone, the moon was near full, and the glow from the city behind me made it so that I didn't even need my lantern.

I don't remember much of that long walk. Just trying to put one foot in front of the other, following the beacon that had been seared into my brain to the place where Zack had died. When I reached the base of the cliffs, I had to find a way up in the dark that took me out of my way. In retrospect, it was very foolish of me to climb those muddy cliffs alone in the middle of the night, but then, rational thought was a stranger to me at the time.

Somehow I managed not to break my neck, but by the time I reached the top, I was scraped up, bruised, sweaty, and caked in mud. It would have been a small matter for me to heal my abrasions, but the sting and ache of physical pain felt insignificant next to everything else.

The faint light growing in the east told me just how much time had passed since I began my trek from the city. Looking north, I could see the dark blue expanse of ocean in the distance. To the west, down in the valley, Midgar sat perched like the husk of a great black insect. The glow from the Mako reactors cast a poisonous green pall across the landscape that wasn't diminished with the onset of daylight.

I turned south, and started walking. I was close. I could feel it in the throbbing ache behind my eyes.

And then, there he was.

I don't remember a lot of things. I don't remember my knees giving out, or the cries that left my throat hoarse, or the tears that must have finally fallen, leaving my face wet and my eyes burning.

I do remember that the rain had washed away most of the blood. I remember how pale his skin was. His eyes were open. The strange Mako glow that lit his blue eyes was extinguished. But still, I remember taking his cold hand and trying to tell him that I was wearing the hair ribbon that he had given me; that I had worn it every day since he left me in the garden. I remember asking him where he had gone, where he had been for five years, and why... why only now when he was so close, did he have to die. I knew I was speaking to an empty shell. His soul was gone. Still I pled for a response, for relief from the all-consuming grief... and was answered with silence.

The sun was a pale grey disk high in the gloom when I finally regained some of my senses.

I had planned to take his body back to Midgar, but that was an impossibility now, with my transportation sitting in the mud down in the valley. Instead, I hunted around the barren landscape until I found a gnarled tree that actually had a hint of green in its few leaves.

I buried him beside that tree. And as I did, I felt my mother, and heard the whisper of the Planet. It may have been my imagination, but it seemed to me that the earth yielded to my efforts to make a place for Zack; and when I was through, the tree that shaded his grave seemed more green and alive.

For the first time since I had felt his death the day before, I felt a touch of comfort.

Exhausted, I slept under the tree. When I awoke in the morning, there was grass growing beneath me, and on the fresh grave.

When I made it home late that evening, Elmyra was waiting for me. We cried together.

In a way, it was a relief to finally have a bit of closure after five years of not knowing. But I was left with so many unanswered questions, and no way of finding the answers.

Well, perhaps ShinRa had answers, but if Tseng wouldn't tell me, no one would.

~*~

A few weeks passed, and I started to think about things that I wasn't able to face during those first few days. Zack had been riddled with automatic weapon fire; it had nearly torn him apart. Maybe ShinRa was responsible... maybe mercenaries... but I was betting on ShinRa.

Knowing, or at least strongly suspecting who was responsible didn't make coping any easier. ShinRa had killed my mother. They had killed Zack. And they were killing the planet. A near constant groan of pain issued from the poisoned earth beneath me, and I found it difficult to be anywhere near the Mako reactors, where the groans became screams. I did my best to block it out, but my head always ached.

And even worse, sometimes when I was out running errands in the city... I felt Zack.

It was nothing like feeling Mother, or other dead souls in the Lifestream. It was more like... when he was alive. And then, just fleeting impressions of his presence.

Enough to make me start questioning my sanity.

Sometimes I found myself looking for Zack amongst the crowds and had to forcibly stop myself. Then, just when I thought I had my head back together, another one of those fleeting impressions would leave me chasing after shadows.

I wanted to do something. I needed to do something. I needed something to occupy my mind so that I could finally stop dwelling on the past... because the past was literally haunting me.

Elmyra told me that keeping myself out of ShinRa hands was the best thing I could do, and that I shouldn't do anything foolish. I agreed... but I couldn't help wishing I could do something more.

Since the vehicle rental had depleted my savings, I began selling flowers on the streets again to earn gil. That was when I first noticed the Avalanche posters.

Don't be fooled by ShinRa! Mako energy doesn't last forever! Mako is the planet's lifesource! The end is in sight! Protectors of the planet: AVALANCHE

It was gratifying to see that I wasn't the only one who understood the danger ShinRa was posing to the very life of the planet. I did a bit of investigating, and discovered that Avalanche was an underground organization actively out to sabotage ShinRa.

I began to wonder if there was a way to contact this group, to see if they were taking new recruits. But money was tight, and Elmyra was already worried enough about me. Once I rebuilt my savings and had rid myself of old ghosts, maybe then I could run off and join the rebellion.

But then I met him... and everything changed.

~*~

I was in Sector 8, selling flowers in the theater district, hoping to capitalize on the crowd headed to see Loveless in concert. It was the day I found another small spot in the city where its deadly hold on the earth wasn't as great. In a little side street off the main square, at the base of a crumbling building... I discovered a little flutter of true life.

I remember kneeling next to it, listening, hearing the pulse of planet's life, feeling its place in the great vastness of space... and underneath it all, that echo of pain.

I did my best to coax some strength in to it, but with the press of the city all around me, it was difficult. I determined to come back later, when there weren't so many people around, to see if I could do better. In the meantime, I had flowers to sell.

Not that they were selling very well. My big plan to take advantage of the Loveless crowd was a spectacular failure, since most people were too focused on getting to the concert to pay attention to a flower girl.

And then, selling flowers became a moot point as Mako Reactor 7 exploded without warning, sending a great plume of fire into the sky, shaking the entire city and sending flaming debris falling like rain both above and below the plate. The streets erupted in screams and chaos, and I confess, at first I was one more voice in the din, running for shelter from the deadly rain. Then, as I began to understand what had happened, the question of why the reactor exploded weighed heavily in my mind, but mostly my main concern was finding and healing the injured -- for with an explosion like that, there had to be many.

Easier said than done, since I was trying to make my way to the destroyed reactor, and all the non-injured were running away from it. I was just starting to make progress up the stream of people when a man rounded the corner, looking over his shoulder at the burning reactor, and plowed into me, sending us both to the ground. He was up in a flash and running off without a word.

Before I could get to my feet... I felt him.

Zack. The feeling was unmistakable. I would know him anywhere. Before I could question my sanity, I scanned the crowd for him... and saw the uniform of a SOLDIER 1st Class amidst the throng.

I think my heart stopped.

I got to my feet, feeling him get closer. My heart, which had seemed at a dead standstill a moment before, was now racing so fast I felt light headed. He was headed right for me. It was him, he wasn't dead, somehow he wasn't dead, and he had come back for me....

Then he stood before me, and I looked up... and into the face of a stranger.

The shock was like being drenched with ice water. Not Zack. Blond, spiky hair, not black. The face... not the same face. And almost a head shorter. Someone else. Someone else who felt exactly like Zack. Someone who stood the same way he did. Someone who looked at me with eyes that glowed Mako blue; who cocked his head at me in a gesture that was Zack through and through.

He seemed to be assessing me to see if I was hurt, and now that he could see I was unharmed, he was turning away.

"Excuse me," I blurted, and he turned back. I realized, for a long, awkward moment, that I didn't know what I wanted to say. "What happened?" I finally managed to ask.

He shrugged a little. "Nothing," he said, and his voice wasn't Zack's. But, like Zack, he was a bad liar. His brief shifting from foot to foot revealed that he was hiding something. Every bit of his body language was practically screaming Zack, and it was all I could do to stand there and feign nonchalance.

As if sensing my disbelief, or my general discomfiture, he deftly changed the subject. "Hey, listen," he said, gesturing to the basket hanging from my arm. "Don't see many flowers around here."

"Oh, these?" I asked, holding them up for him to see. It was just what I needed. Mundane conversation, and the two of us falling into the roles of merchant and customer, instead of... whatever weird dynamic was going on before. I latched onto the comfort zone like a lifeline. "Do you like them? They're only a gil."

He responded by digging into the pants pocket of his uniform and pulling out some gold coins. Holding them in his palm, he picked one coin from pile and handed it to me.

"Oh, thank you," I said, and in return, I picked the prettiest flower from the basket and handed it to him. "Here you are."

His fingers brushed mine as he took the flower, and I inexplicably wanted to cry. Instead, transaction completed, I turned and walked away from him as quickly as I could, without a word.

I walked without direction, my mind spinning in useless circles. What was going on? How could this be? Why did that young man feel so much like Zack, and wear his mannerisms, right down to the inflection of his voice? Zack was dead, and I was supposed to be moving on with my life, and now this had happened, and why? I didn't understand. I just wanted to find a place to hide, to sort out all my confusion and fear and grief and...

... and I stopped in my tracks. I felt my eyes widen with sudden realization, and before I knew it, I was running back to the street where I had left the young man with the spiky blond hair and Mako blue eyes. The panicking crowd had thinned, and I made it there quickly... but I was too late. He was gone, and there was no sign of which way he went.

But there was no mistaking it. I had seen it with my own eyes, and I remembered it clearly.

Zack's Buster Sword. There wasn't another sword like it in the world. Zack had it custom made just for him when he was promoted to 1st Class in the SOLDIER program.

And that young man had been wearing it, strapped to his back.

There was no question in my mind now. With that man lay the answers of what had happened to Zack. I needed to find him.

And the next time we crossed paths, I wasn't going to let him out of my sight until I finally understood the truth.

~*~


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Krista Fisk