In the Absence of My Flower Girl

Cloud ruffled his blond locks as he slipped his hand through his hair, the meat of his palms calloused by the incessant rubbing against the handle of a sword. Tapping his foot, he felt fidgety. He was never one to be pent up with energy, but he just felt as though it had been too long since he'd last seen her. Yes, it had been too long. Her presence was addictive.

Sitting at his desk, Cloud glanced down at the small bouquet of yellow daisies that lay in front of him. Their cheery faces reminded him of her cheery smile. He brought the flowers to his nose, nostrils widened to take in their gentle aroma. His mind was washed of all anxiety. He drew in their very essence, each flower-perfumed breath not passing his lungs but his heart. His soul felt soothed with every reminder of the field.

"Cloud?" a familiar voice said from the doorway. Cloud quickly dropped the daisies back onto his desk and turned in his chair. Tifa stood there looking both tired and concerned. "It's so late. Why are you still up?"

"Oh, I..." Cloud paused. The snapshots of the field that lay scattered over his desk were suspended on the cliff of his peripheral vision. Out of the corner of his eye, he glanced at them before turning his focus back to Tifa. "I was just having some trouble sleeping." Tifa's bare feet smacked softly across the floor as she walked closer towards him.

"I'll make you a tea to help you fall asleep if you'd like," she offered as she took a pause in her steps.

"No, no. You were sleeping. Sorry I woke you." Tifa dropped her gaze to the daisies sitting on the desk.

"Okay, just try to get some sleep, alright?" Tifa asked in her usual worried manner. Cloud nodded half-knowingly. She walked away to her room as Cloud continued to stare down at the dozens of yellow flower fields captured in the pictures on his desk. He ran his fingers over their glossy surfaces.

Cloud sighed deeply before turning off his desk lamp. He had completely forgotten all about the time. This was becoming such a common occurrence... losing track of time at his desk. He could sense Tifa's concern, but it somehow didn't quite reach him.

An hour after the sun had risen the next morning, Tifa sat at the table. She sighed in rueful frustration as she mechanically ate her breakfast. Ever since everything with Kadaj, Cloud had become more open. He laughed; he smiled; he was like a different person. But he would still disappear for days at a time without saying where he was going or when he'd come back. Even if it wasn't related to work, he'd still vanish for long periods of time on his Fenrir. Every time his spirit seemed to diminish a bit, he'd go away to wherever it was that he went. When he'd come back, he was suddenly full of happiness again.

Tifa didn't know why it pained her; she always wanted Cloud to be happy. She rested her chin in her gloved palm. Of course she wanted Cloud to be happy. But she wanted to be a part of Cloud's life. Wherever he went on his Fenrir, it clearly made him more lighthearted, but why couldn't he just tell her about it? Her unwomanishly toned biceps muscles flexed as she curled her hands into a set of fists. There was no need to be jealous. So Cloud had some sort of world on his own. Why should she be jealous of that? Because she wasn't a part of it?

The sound of Cloud coming down the steps jolted Tifa out of her contemplative state.

"I made breakfast for you," Tifa stated with a smile as Cloud reached the landing.

"Thanks," he replied impartially as he grabbed a plate and sat down. "I have to get going, so I don't think I can finish all this."

"Who are you delivering to?" Tifa asked half-expecting the answer that she wanted to deny was already coming.

"No one... I... just have to go. I'll be back later." With that statement, Tifa's tactfulness succumbed to her fears.

"Why won't you just tell me!" Tifa yelled with more sadness than frustration. Cloud looked up at her, puzzled.

"What?"

"Where is it that you disappear to for days at a time?"

"I just have things I have to deal with." Cloud stood up and left, his plate just as full as it was before he sat down.

..-+-..

Cloud's heavy boots strode down the dilapidated aisle. The aged wood moaned from beneath his feet with each step. A current of air flowing through the church made the surface of the Lifestream pool bob slowly up and down in a rolling series of miniature waves. The water slapped up against the wood perimeter of the pool in weak agitation. He sighed deeply.

Cloud took a seat in one of the pews, and made it creak under the weight of his muscles. He slumped down, lazily throwing his feet far out in front of him and allowing his head to fall back. The sounds of a busy Midgar seeped into the church, but Cloud payed no attention. All he could think about was Aerith... the gentle flower girl who he longed for every minute of the day.

He looked up at the tall, angular roof. A bird sat perched on the wood frame up in the ceiling- a wood frame that he once escaped from the Turks on. The bird looked from side to side in a paranoid manner before flapping away. Cloud squinted as a bright pillar of sunlight shone in through a large hole in the roof, illuminating particles of dust and dirt floating on the air.

Everything was so at peace here. It used to be that he would come to the church because it was the only place where the burden of his past felt lighter. But things were different now. He was different now. Memories no longer haunted him. And he knew that she would always be with him. But he still wanted to feel that proximity to her. The church- where she had grown flowers in a city where nothing could grow, where she had spent most of her time, where he had met her in the first place- was a reminder of her ever abounding empathy, her unwavering ability to comfort him when he never thought he could be healed, and her love that she plentifully radiated upon him without question... even after death. He had accepted the physical loss of what was precious to him, but he understood that it was not her end. Aerith would always be a part of him, no matter how much time passed. Maybe he didn't know why, but he felt as though he was bound to her by a metaphysical yet paradoxically tangible force. She would always be with him... always. So why did he still have to come here?

Cloud buried his face in the rough skin of his palms. He missed her. It was as simple as that. It was as torturously unchangeable as that. Yes, the church did make him feel better for at least a brief enough amount of time. But it was no comparison to being near her. No comparison to having the liberty of reaching up and touching her face. Having the liberty of brushing a lock of hair away from her forehead to reveal her spirited green eyes. Having the liberty of just... holding her. Why did he have to take it for granted when he had the chance? If only he had known, everything would've been different. He wouldn't have been so slow in realizing his feelings, and he wouldn't have been shy about it either. Pulling his face away from his hands, Cloud threw himself against the back of the pew in irascibility. Why couldn't he have just told her how he felt? He wished that she was there... physically there... so he could just tell her everything.

"...Aerith," he began confessing to the walls of the empty church. "I have so much to tell you. But I... don't know how to say it all. I guess I'll try. So, Aerith... I've really missed you all these years. Dammit, that sounded stupid. Let me start over. Well, since you've been... uhh... gone, something's just been driving me crazy. Maybe it's selfish, but why did you have to summon Holy? Couldn't there have been another way? No, this is coming out wrong... You saved the planet. You saved everyone. I should be thankful for that. But did it have to be a sacrifice? I just... regret it. If you had just let me come with you... Oh, shit! I'm not blaming you! I don't know who I'm blaming, really. Fate?" Was it... fate? Cloud paused for a moment to recollect his thoughts. He didn't want to sound like a rambling fool.

"It's pretty cruel, isn't it, Aerith? Why did it have to be you? Someone so caring, so full of life, so... comforting. But even if you hadn't been the last Cetra, I guess you still wouldn't have let anyone else risk themselves that way. You were always stubborn like that. If there was another Cetra, you would've stolen the White Materia from them and run off to the Forgotten City alone. So I guess there was no alternative after all... Yeah, it is pretty cruel," Cloud trailed off in his thoughts. Saying that would only upset Aerith. He gathered up his words again and continued with the conversation.

"Hey, I was wondering, do you ever wish you could change what happened? If you had the chance, would you go back? You probably wouldn't. You're selfless enough to just think about how your life was given for the planet. You would ignore the actual loss of yourself in the eyes of what was achieved in return. Would I go back and change it? Yeah, I would... I'm not sure what I would do, but I would've done something. I guess that's why I used to blame myself so much. But I'm okay with that now. You want me to be okay with it, so I am. I have to live for you, but, in the end... I still miss you... I'm sorry. I know that you'll always be a part of me. It's just that... ya know, I miss having you around all the time. Sometimes, I feel like I'm alone even though I know that you're with me. Where ever you are right now, I want to be there. I don't care if that's in the Promised Land, the Lifestream, or hell. I want to be with you." Suddenly realizing what he was saying, Cloud stopped. Aerith wanted him to be okay. She didn't want him to be brooding like this.

"...I'm sorry. You probably don't like me talking like this. You're a part of me now. I won't let myself forget that. Every day I feel like you're not around, I'll remind myself that you're with me no matter what. No matter what. I know I can't feel your presence like I may want to, but at least we'll always be together in some way. Right...? I can't take that for granted. But I still need these breaks from everything every once in a while. Back at Seventh Heaven, I have my family and my friends. But I still need these times... to be alone with you. That's okay, isn't it? Thanks... Aerith." Still sitting in the pew, Cloud lay down on it, one of his legs hanging off the side. Was Aerith with him right now? Of course she was. Maybe she didn't hear him, but they were bound to each other. He hoped that she knew what he was feeling. Looking up at the ceiling, he smiled as his eyes met a large hole in the roof. As he blissfully remembered that day, Cloud fell fast asleep.

He remembered...

Everything was dark, and it all sounded like muted echos as if he were underwater. He groaned in pain.

"Hellooooooo, you okay?" a voice that sounded very far away seemed to whisper. Was it his imagination? He was feeling dizzy. He didn't even know where he was. The last thing he remembered was falling from the Sector plate. A battle. AVALANCHE.

Opening his eyes, the brightness of the room felt as though it were blinding. His hearing returned as the water that had seemingly clogged his ears drained away.

"Pretty bad fall you had there," the voice from before remarked.

"Ohhh, my head." Cloud grimaced against the poignancy as he pulled himself up. He turned to address the voice, but he found himself slightly stunned. Kneeling there next to him was a girl around his age. A halo of beauty radiating down on her and a veil of light thrown over her, she looked like an angel. Her long pink skirt folded at her knees and cascaded down her calves, unbuttoned enough to show just a bit of thigh. In a way, it was almost an ironic portrayal of innocence. Here was this girl with pink ribbons in her double helix braid and a long pink skirt that reached to her ankles. At the same time, she wore that skirt unbuttoned to a provokingly high length up her long legs with a pair of, to say the least, not-quite-feminine boots. She was definitely not what he had expected to see. Suddenly struck with the fact that he was staring at her, Cloud looked away, masking a slight blush.

"You okay? I think my flowers broke your fall," the girl said in a voice that displayed concern while disguising a laugh. Not really yet able to grasp every word she was saying but instead the tone of her voice, Cloud wondered why she might need to cover up a laugh in the first place.

"Did I do something funny?" The girl's eyes widened with wonderment before they melted into a smile.

"Oh, no. It's just that before you fell on my flowers you fell on top of me," she said, preceding a restrained strain of laughter. Cloud chewed the sentence over in his head before finally understanding what she was saying. ...before you fell on my flowers...Suddenly realizing that he was killing her flowers, Cloud jumped up and out of the flower bed.

"I'm so sorry! For landing on your flowers and ... on top of you," he apologized.

"That's okay. I don't normally blame unconscious people for where they land," she said. The girl crawled over to where Cloud had landed. Some of the flowers were crushed while others were lucky enough to have escaped with a couple of broken petals. She did all she could to mend them before standing up to Cloud's level. She studied his face for a moment, analyzing every crease. Cloud wasn't very used to it, but he didn't really mind it either. The girl clasped her hands behind her back, and leaned her front half towards him just a little bit.

"Remember me?" With that simple statement, Cloud's memory suddenly rushed back to him. Yes, he had seen her before. She was the girl who sold him a flower.

"Yeah, you're the flower girl."

"That's right! I'm so glad you remembered. I've been selling flowers for a few years now, but it never seems to pay off much. I guess it doesn't matter. I love it here. They say you can't grow anything in the slums, but the flowers grow in this church easily enough." The girl turned away from Cloud, and looked down lovingly at the flowers she had been able to yield from the ashen earth of Midgar. It had been many years since Cloud had seen a flowerbed. He wasn't even sure he remembered how long it had been. "My name's Aerith, by the way," she stated as she turned back to look him in the eye.

"Cloud," he replied with counterfeit nonchalance.

"So, do you fall through church roofs often, Cloud?"

"I'm a mercenary, and I got in the wrong place at the wrong time. I fell from the Sector plate," he explained.

"A mercenary? What kind of things do you do?"

"Anything, really. If it pays."

"Jack of all trades. I see," Aerith commented. She paused for a moment as her eyebrows twisted into something slightly pensive. "Hey, Cloud. Have you ever been a bodyguard?"