[size10 [font "times new roman" Because of its claustrophobic infrastructure, living and working inside Midgar suspended all belief a world endured outside steel. One becomes forgetful of the great world that exists outside sectors because they cannot see it. Beyond its walls is a man-created desert, a land seemingly incapable of supporting human life, a land starved with monsters frothing to devour – but from the outside, just a hike to the west, the perspective shifts. Midgar looks no better than a pile of scrap. Its green mako glow highlights the city’s toxicity and emphasizes the shadows past from where life once thrived.
Midgar wasn’t safe anymore; not even Barrett argued this decision. Their return could endanger their comrades and loved ones’ lives depending on Shinra media’s decision whether or not to publicize their faces as the ones who murdered their president. They needed rest, time to process the bizarre events that occurred within the span of two days, and strategize their next move. Just to the north was Kalm, a much more modest town where the party could lay low for a day or two. Storms gathered and showered them with rain and though his clothes hung heavy on his tired body, it felt as though it rinsed away the grime and sins of the urban dwelling.
And it inspired everyone to walk a little faster.
Cloud’s mind was miles away. He maintained a brisk walk
behind Tifa, whom he would never hope of outrunning
and though he really did want to reach out and maybe process things like a mature adult, he opted to keep to himself and instead brush off conversations until they reach Kalm. Admitting the effect of tremendous loss coupled with hours of adrenaline and vague memories of walking the same path leading to where he just came from was an impossible feat for the self-proclaimed merc. At least the exercise was therapeutic – just like old times, grinding from mission to mission.
The familiarity of Kalm’s simplicity gave the former SOLDIER some relief once they’d finally arrived in clear weather. “Nice to see some life again,” he thought aloud as he transitioned back to reality.
“I almost forgot what clean air smelled like,” Tifa agreed. “I never thought I would until I just realized it one day.”
“Nobody should ever have to get used to that,” Barrett said, the last to approach the town’s gate. He leaned against a wall, machine resting on his lap. “So what’s the plan now? We getting a car or some shit? Cause this is stupid.”
Cloud ignored his comments. “We’ll rest here for the night and come up with a game plan. The inn’s just up the road and to the left – I’ll see what vacancies they have and we’ll regroup there. That work?”
Barrett grunted. “A man’s gotta eat. I’m getting take-out.”
Meeting Aerith’s gaze was an unavoidable accident. He hadn’t intentionally avoided only her; he was trying to keep his distance from everyone – but his pulse became much more shallow and erratic; he wasn’t completely convinced anything he said that could come out of his mouth would be delivered the way he intended and honestly, he thought if he allowed her to examine him too closely for too long, she’d notice the cracks in his exterior that spiraled by the minute.
“You should go with. Moony’s Sandwich Shop is way better than lab food,” he suggested with a ghost of a smile – just an impression of what that might resemble. “I’m definitely not worried at all someone might have an opinion about what we just did.”
Water splashed beneath boots with every step into the unknown awaiting ahead; freedom. That’s right. That’s where they were headed. Towards boundless and terrifying freedom. They did it. They really did it. This is what they fought for, after all, she was the one to guide them down this path. The rowdy group walked in solemn silence, each appearing to be lost in their own thoughts; herself included. They needn’t speak out, nor vent, she was aware of the feelings burdening the group. More than they could understand.
There was the reflection of rain clouds onto emerald hues every time she dared look up to the sky, the very same sky that claimed everything when met with the end; some of the dearest people in her life. Drops of rain streamed down her soft cheeks, not minding the fact she was drenched in rain as much as she minded the sky above her. It made her uneasy. A slight shake of the head, the action could easily be mistaken as an attempt to fix her hair, when really, the motion was to shake the anxiety coursing through her mind. she couldn’t be derailed off the path, not after their first step towards defeating Sephiroth.
“It truly is like a never-ending sky” Red’s voice brought her back to, her gaze dropping to the group’s canine companion. Though, to her, he was no different than the rest, a dear friend from the moment she graced him with her touch. A friend to them all. “It offers endless possibilities” he added quietly, offering a different perspective to ease her troubled mind— from what? he wasn’t sure but he took notice. She wasn’t alone, she realized. Not anymore. Lips curled upward, small but an assuring smile on her visage; she nodded in appreciation.
With the change of environment, came a shift in her demeanor as well. A complete viridescent transition, Midgar paled in comparison to where they were now. This part of the planet wasn’t crying out, not like back home. There was a familiarity about it as they approached the village, the gates coming into view and she would’ve began to reminisce if not for the blonde mercenary and the exchange in conversation with the rest. She listened closely but orbs scanned the perimeter, concerned more with what could be around them, taking it all in as she stood idly by Tifa. Long lashes fluttered as she blinked, satisfied with what she didn’t find. A discrete sigh of relief, she was being paranoid. . right?
Aerith fixed her gaze on Cloud instead as he spoke. Arms stretched out in front of her, fingers lacing together as she got on her tippy toes— still the shortest of the group as she stretched the rest of her strained body out, then soles of her boots meeting the ground again as arms dropped to her sides. She returned to her usual lighthearted-self as Cloud took charge. ’Huh’ a curious thing, the broody merc stepping into the role of leadership. Something she’s noticed him doing more often since rescuing her from professor Hojo’s lab.
A gentle smile formed on her elegant face, it was only a matter of time, he was doing well in that sense— also a matter of time their eyes met. For a fleeting moment, he flashed a smile that vanished as quickly as it had come. Although short-lived, worthy of engraving into her memory. He was right to avoid anymore eye contact with her but it was futile. She could see what was seeping through the cracks of his facade.
“— And leave ALL the fun to you?” that was a solid no. Truth to be told; she lacked the appetite after just about. . everything.
“Hm, I think I’ll pass on fun for now. I’ll go reserve some rooms at the Inn, I’m dying for a shower— Aerith, you got this, right..?” Tifa chimed in, wine orbs silently pleading at her friend.
“You know it!” a thumbs up from the perky female, bracelets dangling on her small wrist. An agreement amongst women, the ex-soldier didn’t know it but. . they were the ones taking care of him now. A quick nod from the taller woman, beginning to walk away. “Don’t be late” she called out, her figure smaller as the distance grew.
As if on cue, Aerith stepped and leaned forward towards the remaining other; “You aren’t the only one worried” she turned her head the direction Tifa headed, frowning somewhat. Gazed fixed on him once more, standing up straight again.
“C’mon, You aren’t fooling me” she reminded him. “I’m offended you’d even try that after all this time!” she scolded him, a playful smack to his shoulder. “Unless you’re ready to talk about it, we should take a look around now” she prompted, taking a few more steps into the town.
There were active towns people outside, most occupied and others free roaming. Looking closely, she could spot a few troubled faces; opportunities she’d call out if Cloud couldn’t recognize them to put him on the path, as she has been doing since meeting him back in Midgar.
‘– and leave ALL the fun to you?’ Aerith replied without missing a beat. Cloud’s eyes grew wider, his scarred and bruised arms crossing at the chest. Reserving rooms and washing away blood he couldn’t identify and the dizzying toxic smell of mako. But before he could speak a word, Tifa had to intervene.
‘Hm, I think I’ll pass on fun for now. I’ll go reserve some rooms at the Inn, I’m dying for a shower— Aerith, you got this, right..?’ Tifa was always faster than Cloud. Even with the supernatural agility bolstered by mako, she was fast and focused and she won again. This wasn’t the first time Tifa claimed a shower before he was able in the few days they’d spent running for their lives. Cloud was fine with it at first. She’s a woman, and he’d spent a hell of a lot more time going without in his past life in SOLDIER. But the Slums’ plumbing is dog shit, so she enjoyed twenty minutes of hot bliss and his lips turned blue in three.
“. . .fine,” Cloud huffed. Describing something as ‘fine’ for him meant whatever it was, it was not fine.
The flower girl knew it. She just didn’t care to entertain his immature behavior. ‘You aren’t the only one worried,’ she started in, rose colored lips wilting from a smile. She gave his shoulder a smack and loosely threatened not to return until she was satisfied with whatever she was trying to get out of him.
“We have an hour,” he reminded her, gently massaging his vulnerable shoulder. He followed behind Aerith at a leisurely stroll, attention more or less purposely divided between his company and the ambiance. He’d passed through here before; he knew the streets, places of interest. But the memories, the experience, it felt like a dream. All of this felt like a dream.
“There’s a weapons shop up the street we should stop in,” Cloud mentioned, dismissing the topics he so desperately wanted to avoid. There were supplies he’d left in the apartment Tifa set him up with back in Midgar he needed, like a sponge and polish for his sword. And he wasn’t going to explain this to her because it really had nothing to do with her, but despite his stress and exhaustion and strong desire to isolate himself, he knew she didn’t deserve it. “My sword needs polished. The Buster Sword.” He regretted it. “You know what I mean. . .”
He should’ve given in to her demands. Opening the door of a shop marked by a sword and bow for Aerith, Cloud followed, surveying the shelves of the merchant’s supply for anything shiny after being greeted.
“How. . .are you doing?” he asked, voice low enough to be heard by only her ears. His tone shifted, from outside to in – softer, with genuine interest. Cloud was concerned for his protectee-turned comrade. Aerith had spent a full twenty-four hours under Professor Hojo’s supervision and he had no idea what could have occurred. He deeply regretted sending Aerith away before elevating the beam; he thought he was protecting her, but had they stayed together, he wouldn’t have allowed her capture.
Still, she saved Marlene’s life. The fact didn’t make him feel any less ashamed.
He wanted to ask specifics. Did he touch her? Hurt her? But he knew only too well not to say anything. It’s dishonorable at best.
Although he informed her about the shop, it wasn’t new knowledge to her when it should’ve been. She was already on the road serving his interest, conveniently. “ Only an hour? “ she whined half-heartedly as she strolled with, her long braid lightly bouncing off the small of her back. She had a pleasant air to her despite recent events as she sometimes would make eye contact with others; who didn’t mind them much— except they’d stare an awful lot at Cloud’s sword.
Speaking of swords.
Pearly whites bit down on a bottom plump lip, disguising a smile; amused by the other’s fragility, in both physique and character. She didn’t interpret his sword that way until he got all defensive. Oh, Cloud. A slight tilt of the head, fixing her gaze elsewhere to not embarrass him any further as large orbs quickly blinked— she’d cut him some slack this one time. "Right, righhhht ” her tone was honeyed, unconvincing but he could appreciate the effort.
When the ex-SOLDIER claimed he needed to restock on material for sword maintenance, she believed it. . some of it. Not a single complaint from her pretty mouth as she entered the shop, greeting the owner with a friendly wave. This being Cloud’s territory; she followed closely, mostly spectating. She wasn’t particularly interested in anything, only in the other’s presence and emotional state. What she revealed to him back on the highway; it was dire but. . it was light in comparison to the weight on her shoulders, weight she wish to bear alone to protect his heart.
There were unspoken truths she longed to shed light on— to him, to spill her heart out. Holding back was no easy feat when she wore her heart on her sleeve around him in her most vulnerable moments. She was sure he had questions eating away at him, much like the guilt he carried at this exact moment. She could tell; the way he spoke— careful with her as if she were fragile, handling her with care.
She didn’t answer him right away, eyes scanning the shelves in the meantime. It was easy to tell she was holding back. . for now. “ Aha! “ she stepped forward, in front of him as her pale hand reached for a small bottle of some sort of wax on the top shelf. “ Mm— mnnugh !” noises of struggle from tightened lips, her not so long arm struggling but determined to fulfill the task without his help. Few more seconds of this and it was in her grasp. She took a step back, beaming a smile in accomplishment, even if it wasn’t guaranteed that she found what he was searching for. Thumbs stroked the label, reading the large letters imprinted on said bottle.
How was she doing?
After being kidnapped, taken back to Hojo’s lab. .
She recalled the words of the mad scientist regarding her mother. All that effort back then to get away from Shinra and him. . yet her corpse ended up back in Hojo’s hands. It was infuriating at the time, devastating to say the least. However. . Cloud came for her.
Surely, there was nothing on the bottle worth staring at for as long as she did. Finally, soft lips parted again. " I’m okay” she was just as soft spoken. " Thanks to you” her words were sincere, she truly believed it, if only he would. “ I didn’t doubt you for a second when you said you'd come, you know?” she hadn’t realized what she just said, that she may have possibly confirmed a mysterious dream. Sometimes, she lacked caution with her words. It wasn’t the first time she’s slipped.
Her hand holding the wax extended out to him, offering the merchandise to him. “ So we don’t need to worry about me, I have the best bodyguard ever !” she made an effort to cheer him up, to ease his troubled mind.
“ What about you, hm? “ it was her turn to address him.
As Aerith stretched onto her toes to reach an elevated shelf, Cloud stepped beside her, gloved fingers resting against the small of her back. I can reach that, he nearly suggested; yet like the instinct to protect her from the dangers of stumbling and monsters, he kept quiet, knowing she preferred independence. Her braided crown brushed against his exposed arm; the air smelled of a garden’s morning dew. He was suddenly paying more mind to the subtle sun-kissed skin of her neck, the pulse fluttering just beneath.
With the product in hand, the former SOLDIER replaced the space between and uttered a quiet ‘thanks’. His visage was notoriously difficult to read; he seldom offered large, expressive smiles or deep scowls. His mouth was fixed like a statue. But for the petite flowergirl, mako-infused eyes would light and warm, a pool profoundly void of life finding the sun.
“I’m fine,” he answered vaguely. And he was, just as she was ‘okay’. He supposed it was a stupid question to ask anyone who was affected by the chaos festering in Midgar. Cloud stared for far too long at the space of miscellaneous tools before choosing a cloth within reach. But it wasn’t just that she was mirroring his infamous generalizations and deflecting – something Aerith said was off, and he had to retrace her words silently to find the error.
He can’t recall telling the Ancient he would come for her. He couldn’t tell her anything at all, because he never saw her in the time she was kidnapped through to her rescue. Maybe she was simply inferring she knew he would come, but. . . no. If that’s what she meant, she would have said so.
Cloud fell deaf and quiet while moving to the merchant’s counter to make the purchase. Lost to a storm of thoughts, he all but ran out the door to stand in the street, chin up to the sky. How could he ask her if she could welcome herself to his dreams? To appear so vividly in his imagination and ward his anxieties, only to fester them with a benign declaration. Whatever you do, don’t fall in love with me.
Don’t I get a say in all this? he challenged her. It was apparent more than ever that no, he didn’t get a say in this, or anything at all. She didn’t allow him to protest, to tell her the truth, that he was already falling for her despite clawing anything he could grasp on his way down. And when he finally hit the bottom? What then? Was the bottom the flash he saw when his eyes closed, the Masamune penetrating Aeriths body, the seven seconds in the dive down, down, down. . .
Vacant, like a hardwired machine, Cloud marched further into the depths of town seemingly without paying mind to his comrade. You’re tired, he thought to himself; ‘You’re being emotional because you need sleep. It’s just a girl, just a contract, just a dream.’ Be in the moment. There’s not many, so enjoy the time given.
That’s what she said.
In the dream. “It wasn’t a dream,” he confessed aloud, stopping just before a front-facing patio serving afternoon pints. “You knew it wasn’t a dream.”
His chest deflates. He’d faced off with Sephiroth twice, and yet the hardest thing he’d had to do was meet Aerith’s spiraling green hues. “You’re going to die soon. Is that it? Is that why. . .?”
She acknowledged his answer with a gentle smile radiating warmth, nodding once. Just the response Aerith awaited, he wasn’t a man of many words. Still, It was an answer, all she sought out for the time being. She wasn’t aware at the moment of her mistake, observing him only at surface as he grabbed the last item.
“ So it WAS wax, neat!” hands clapped together a few times in celebration, hips shaking at the same time excitedly. Together, they approached the merchant, but then something odd happened that told her different from what he claimed; he wasn’t fine. Instead of stopping at the counter, he bolted out the building— he left— without paying. “ Cloud?!” dumbfounded, absolutely dumbfounded. A quick shake of the head, stepping forward to chase after him till. . .
“ You are paying for your boyfriend, right?” the merchant interrupted, vexed with the pair, arms crossed over his chest to intimidate her.
“ Huh? But—“ a pale hand reached out for the door, watching as the door swung a few times, one moment he was in view, standing thoughtfully with his heads in the clouds, the next. . gone.
And she didn’t have the heart to not pay, actually, she was sure she paid more gil than they owed, checking out as quickly as she could in pursuit of her bodyguard. Thank goodness for the flower business. The Ancient stood where he did previously a moment ago, head turning in search till she found direction; his spiky blonde hair, and buster sword sticking out from a distance. Legs moved quickly, jogging to catch up. “ Cloud!” It was like his mind ascended from the planet. She slowed as she neared, realizing something was wrong now that she was right on his tail. He kept his back turned to her at first, not minding her. She couldn’t make sense of it, yet. She recalled the ghost of the past that haunted them, the demon tormenting them— him more than anyone else.
Sephiroth. It had to be him. Thin brows gently furrowed, taking another look around their surroundings. It was too soon for him to show again, right. . ? She couldn’t sense him. . then why. . ?
” It wasn’t a dream” he began. He’s correct. “ You knew it wasn’t a dream” She did.
“You’re going to die soon. Is that it? Is that why. . . ?”
That was the line to take her breath away, as if Sephiroth’s sword had already pierced through her body. Words have never hurt so much. The truth that haunted her along with that man, her very demise. Lushes fluttered bout, taken aback— in her body language as she retreated with a step back, her gaze dropping to the ground as chestnut bangs concealed her frowning face.
She was. She is going to die. Right. . . ? Even if they were now defying destiny, there was no guarantee. As long as that man continued to plague the planet. .
At a loss for words. . how did he figure it out? did she cross the line. . in that dream she initiated. It was so much more than a dream. What she said was too vague, that left it between the Whisperers, and Sephiroth. Did he see it too. . As vividly as she did back at the alley in Midgar, when she returned to herself. However, ever since the Whisperers, she’s felt. . . incomplete. Her death was one of the only remaining sure things. Even her own death was a blur now. .
That terrified her.
Her body moved forward, a hand atop where her restless beating heart resides, threatening to burst through her chest. The distance between them was closing. . she wanted to comfort him now that he was aware, that he sensed inevitable doom. Her free hand wanted to take a hold of his cheek like that time but she recalled her warning to him. The truth was, he was the fragile one, ready to break in her hands. . he would, eventually— if she failed.
She could feel the weight of it all crushing her again. What was more terrifying than her death was the new found hope they’ve discovered, that could so easily be ripped away. Aerith turned away, avoiding eye contact, an unusual action from her as she tried to regain her composure but she yet to have it.
“ We all die eventually” she gave a similar answer just as then. “ You remembered. .” The bitter sweetness of it all at the tip of her tongue.
She looked to the patio, sadness she couldn’t mask gleaming in glossy green hues. “ I’m glad. .” her smile just as glum, wondering somewhere at the very back of her mind if they’d ever get to return for the simple purpose of indulging in drinks. Wishful thinking, it made things more difficult. . to admit out loud.
“ There are worse things in this life than death, so much more at stake, things much bigger than us. . “ than her is what she really meant. They, as a pair, were not excluded from that. The whisperers, they took away so much from her. . she couldn’t see it all as clearly anymore but she knew her role was crucial.
“ More now than ever. . everything we do counts, like a butterfly effect” unclear if those words were meant for his comfort or herself. Both could apply. Words she feared to regret. Her personal feelings were influencing her, as they did when she decided to challenge her own destiny; for a chance.
‘We all die eventually,’ Aerith would answer, not quite confirming but also not denying Cloud’s accusation. The melody of her voice was like the honey of flowers she grew: sweet, sticky. It goes down smooth as he drinks it in and anticipates the touch of her hand. But like the dream, she’s unreachable, and turns away before closing the space between.
“How could I forget?” he uttered, losing the edge in his tone. Funny, she believing he hadn’t replayed every word she’d ever said like a call inside the void. Details of the last seven years of his life were admittedly grainy at best, but he remembered Aerith smelled of fresh soil and lilacs the first time they met. He was paying attention. He just. . .suffered lapses is all, as evidence of the bottle held inside a tight fist.
The flower girl was much braver than he; she was never swayed by his awkwardness and pushed boundaries when he was reluctant. She was comfortable with her vulnerability and in small increments suggested he should, too. In the dream, or the vision, or whatever their plane of reality was, Cloud reached for Aerith, but she hadn’t appeared as a corporeal sight and faded under his touch.
This time he would make sure she wouldn’t disappear.
His heart beat a little faster as he reached for her wrist to pull her closer. “I want to see how old age looks on you,” he admitted, desperate to maintain a level of confidence in spite of the shyness creeping in the tips of his reddening ears. “You deserve a full life. If there’s a chance, I’ll fight for it.”
I would rather die, he hesitated to say on account of protest. In another life, he must have continued to live after her death – but he couldn’t fathom how. Had the circumstances changed? How could he possibly breathe knowing she, the person who loved life most, was robbed of every opportunity to ever smile again?
Caught trying to memorize every speckle of her irises or fine lines beneath, Cloud’s gloved fingers brushed her hand as it fell away and back to his side. “Thanks for covering my ass,” he changed the subject a little meekly, a ghost of a smile gracing his features. He liked how he didn’t need to explain himself to her for his erratic behavior. Falling through her roof, crossdressing, losing himself to trauma-induced migraines – she needed no explanation. But it didn’t make his recent behavior any more acceptable. “I guess I owe you this time.”
He owed her a lot more than a drink but it was a start. Cocking his head in the direction of the pub they lingered outside of, he gaged her interest. “Let me buy you dinner and beat you in a game of darts. Sound good?”
This time. . she was within his reach; he didn’t miss the opportunity, and she didn’t fight it, her body betraying her as she stepped forward, facing him now. Her heart was listening, swooned by the things he said; all the right things, all she’s wanted to hear, words she didn’t know she needed to hear. Words from the heart, his heart. She’s never felt safer.
’I want to grow old with you’, she could’ve said— she thought she may have said, but she was captivated by baby blues specked with mako speaking to her as well. . they carried the same adoration as hers did when she looked to the bodyguard. Could he see the twinkle of happiness in her eyes? the way she smiled, even when she shut her eyes to fight back joyful tears forming, cheeks pronounced before lids fluttered open again to take in the sight of him.
“ Ohh” she softly cooed, lashes wet as thin fingers brushed at the corner of her eyes. “ Cloud. .” his name spoken with pure affection, her voice dripping in dulcet sweetness. This was another precious moment she’d cherish, no matter what her fate. She understood now, understood why she couldn’t return to the promise land, in the past or near future — how could the ancient possibly want to return when he was her promised land. If she were sent back to the lifestream — she’d wait for him all over again. Always.
The smallest brush of his gloved hand gave her chills, content with the little things. His presence, usually enough. It was why she didn’t complain at the loss of his touch. She was learning that they’d be embracing more moments together as he offered to buy her a drink — her face lit up with sincere curiosity; was. . this a date aside from their arranged payment?
Should she be excited? wouldn’t this only complicate things? The longer she gazed at him, the harder it was to resist. But she wore her heart on her sleeve, and there was no masking the excitement manifesting in her expressive visage.
Aerith was quick to nod, seizing the opportunity as if it’d slip away, a fruity giggle emitting from the florist. “ Bold of you to assume I’d let you win !” shoulders brush as she walks past him, walking in a light bounce towards the building’s doors. “ Dinner AND dessert !” she added, a bangled wrist pulling open the door, not waiting for him to play the gentlemen part as she stepped into an entirely different atmosphere.
There weren’t many bars she knew of to compare to, but this specific one seemed lively with towns people and music. Lips formed an ‘o’ as she took in the room in awe. The music took her back to Wall Market, where Cloud impressed her with rhythm neither knew he possessed in him. "Think you’ll dance again?” she teased playfully. “ You really did look like you were having fun back then” the way he moved, he had to be. Then again. . this was Cloud; skilled and talented.
“ Maybe. ." a thin digit took a silky brown strand of hair, curling it around her finger as she stood in place thoughtfully for a bit. “. . . You can teach me a thing or two sometime?” she wasn’t making fun of him, no, she really wished for it. Couldn’t hurt to try, right?