Old white columns poked out of the metal rubble like broken bones. Dunes upon dunes of trash surrounded the road from the church, presenting to Cloud and Aeris a hidden alternative to the well-traveled paths.
Cloud pushed off from a chiseled column to vault over the crest of a junk pile. Without the greatsword weighing him down, he was lighter on his feet. He felt fast.
On the down slope, a jutting sheet of metal created a flat landing that tapered off before a meter-long drop. Cloud easily leapt off the sheet of metal and onto the top of another column.
After that, he was on the incline again.
"Wait!" she shouted. "Wait I said!"
He stopped. She was taking her time jumping down off of the sheet. She braced herself twice before taking the leap. Her boots thudded as she landed.
She closed the distance at a run, and was panting by the time she got to him.
"Slow…" she said between breaths. "Down…"
"That's strange," Cloud teased. "I thought you were cut out to be in SOLDIER."
"Oh, you're terrible!" She perched on a stone stump and took a breath.
Cloud sat on the nearest heap. A hollowed television box to his right, a bent ladder to his left.
"Say," she asked. "Were you ever in SOLDIER?"
"I was." It wasn't a pleasant topic for him. "Why do you ask?"
"It's your eyes. They have a certain… glow."
Cloud nodded. "That's the sign of those who have been infused with mako. A mark of SOLDIER."
"Yeah," Aeris agreed. "They're hard to miss. What would put a SOLDIER at odds with a Turk, though? I wonder."
"Besides you?" Cloud asked.
She laughed. "Fair enough." Her hand rested on a column of white stone. "Oh," she realized. "I don't usually come this way. I like this place."
"What is it?" Cloud didn't see anything different from the last dune of garbage they'd scaled.
"These columns," she said. "They're from the world before Shinra. This was a holy place too."
"How do you know?"
She looked at him like he was dying. "Can't you feel it?"
Cloud checked the columns again. Worn old stone. "No?"
"Life is weird," she said.
Cloud shrugged. "No arguments here."
When he put his hand down, something stabbed into it. He jumped up and looked.
A cripshay was inside the television – the white rodent had made it its nest. One of its green antlers was coated in Cloud's blood.
"Are you okay?" Aeris leapt off the stump.
"It's fine." He dripped from a new hole in his glove. "They're not poisonous."
"Give me your hand." She demanded.
"Give it here. It helps to see the wound."
She grabbed his hand and tore the glove off. The wound went deep into the palm. She closed her eyes and the tissue reformed – a pale and soft chunk of his skin appeared over it.
Their faces were closer than he was used to. After the flash of a grin, Aeris took off up the hill ahead. "Hurry up, will ya?" she teased. "You're slowing the whole team down."
Cloud found himself staring at the heirloom in her bow. It looked just like a hunk of rock, as pale and useless as the columns around them.
She crested the hill, disappearing behind an armoire of Junon oak. He followed fast.
They came upon the town center suddenly. Cloud was already on top of the last dune before he realized what lay before him. It looked like it had once been a large arena or a race track. The jagged remains of a once mighty stone edifice surrounded the square like the split open ribcage of some lost emperor.
The Sector 5 Pillar stabbed into the heart of the town. Slum buildings piled up against the sides of the Pillar. Stairs made of barrels crossed over smaller rooftops on their way to the tall apartments.
A television screen as large as a house was mounted on the side of the Pillar. It played news reels, silently, while text scrolled underneath. Cloud caught helicopter footage of the causeway he fell from. The text underneath read:
…ANCHE ESCAPES AFTER SOLDIER THWARTS NEW BOMB THREAT…
The town was crowded.
Cloud and Aeris slipped down the last dune and into the crowd with very few eyes on them. People bustled past. A shuffling woman nearly ran into them, her eyes scanning the ground.
"I'm just on the other side," Aeris pointed.
They began to follow the tide of people around the promenade. Houses and shops were made from broken-down trailers and reinforced cardboard.
Cloud heard a barking noise. He whipped his head to see if it was a Shinra guard hound, but it was just a brown mutt, barking at a grashtrike. The insect scurried between a house and the dusty ground. The dog kept barking. They kept moving.
Past another shop, a merchant pushed a customer by the shoulder. "We only trade items for gil here," the shop keep scolded. "No exceptions."
Aeris stopped in front of a particularly monstrous length of pipe – three meters wide at the mouth. Cloud stopped with her.
"What's going on?" Aeris asked a woman who was standing by the mouth, as if guarding it.
The woman replied, "Nothing but nonsense from him. And no one has come to see him."
Aeris hummed. She explained to Cloud, "The guy inside is sick. He wasn't really known by anybody, but everybody helps out a little."
"Who's everybody?" Cloud asked.
"The people in town," she said. "The good ones, anyway."
Cloud imagined that couldn't be many people. "What's wrong with him?"
"I don't know," Aeris shook her head. "Wanna take a look?"
Cloud took a step back. "I'm not a doctor."
"I thought you did a little bit of everything." She cocked her head. "I'm not asking you to cut him open. Just come with me. I visit every day, if I can. It'll only be a minute."
They stepped into the pipe.
The inside had been fashioned into a one-room home. Cloud kicked aside cigarette butts as he walked in. A shelf had been drilled into the rounded aluminum wall. A cot filled the back end. Sitting on the edge of the cot – his head bobbing listlessly – was a man in a thatched suit and an old paperboy's hat.
He didn't seem to notice the intruders. He gurgled something incoherent, too quiet for Cloud to hear.
Aeris looked piteously at the sick man.
She closed her eyes, and the bauble in her staff shimmered. A magic energy seemed to surround the sick man. Cloud watched, and waited.
Aeris stopped. The crystal dulled. "It doesn't seem to work," she said. "Whatever he's got, the restore materia can't fix it."
Cloud said, "You sure that using all this magic isn't making you tired?"
"I know how to pace myself," she rolled her eyes. "You're not my mother."
Cloud frowned. "I… I know." He approached the sick man, who took no notice of the intruders, his head lolling against his chest. Cloud put a soft hand on his shoulder. Nothing. He eased the slumling back steadily until his head bobbed up and to the side. The man's eyes were far away – they had a faint glow, like Cloud's own eyes.
"How long has he been like this?"
She sighed. "It's been getting worse over the last few years. He could still recognize faces until a few weeks ago, although he hasn't vocalized anything in who knows how long. What's your opinion, doctor Cloud?"
"I've never seen this before. It's similar to mako poisoning, but if he has had slow exposure to it over five years, he should have adjusted, not gotten worse. Is he throwing up?"
"No. He eats, too, but it's like he doesn't know that someone is there giving it to him. And sometimes we have to prop him up so he doesn't fall over and hurt himself."
Cloud was stumped. He grabbed the man's wrist to check his pulse. Again, the man didn't notice him.
His pulse was normal. Cloud felt the steady rhythm of the heartbeat. Weirdly steady. The slumling continued to jerk and moan, reacting to some internal strife, but despite his distress, his heartrate didn't change one bit.
Cloud noticed a tattoo on the man's wrist. In simple black ink: II.
Cloud dropped the man's arm. "Well, it sounds like it's a crazy sick, not a physical one. I don't think it can be helped. Sorry. Sometimes, people just crack."
He had seen people crack before. It wasn't pleasant. He shook his head to snap out of it.
"We're not going to abandon him," Aeris said. "I don't care what kind of sick it is."
"I didn't say you should abandon him."
Aeris stopped. "Oh."
"But people tell you that often, I guess?"
"Yeah," she said. "Not a lot of people care anymore."
Cloud didn't quite know how to comfort her about that. The sick man moaned, oblivious.
Cloud stepped on an old soda can on his way to the wall. On the shelf, two books were stacked. Cloud saw the title The Warfare Dance, which he remembered as the prison memoirs of Emperor Kisaragi, whom Sephiroth captured in the Wutai War. Sephiroth first read the memoirs after the Emperor's execution, and wasn't seen for days. When he finally made another public appearance, he had already sold it to a book publisher.
That was before Cloud and Sephiroth had met.
Why was he thinking about the past again?
The other book was Materia: Coloration and Meaning. Cloud remembered it from his days at the Academy.
Beside the books, there was a medal. It had been tossed onto the shelf, not on display. Cloud recognized it immediately.
"This is the Star Pendant," he said. "It's awarded to Shinra infantry for valor in combat."
"Did he steal it?" Aeris asked.
Cloud looked at the books. "I don't think so." This guy wasn't the first veteran to lose it. "Let's go." His headache was getting worse.
Once they were back on the promenade, and walking briskly, Cloud's head felt better. He couldn't call it fresh air, but it was better than an old industrial pipe.
Aeris led him to the far end of the town, past what used to be the frame for some great entranceway.
They had to cross a river of sludge water that flushed down from the Plate. The bridge arced neatly. It was wood, with a beautifully carved rail.
"What?" Aeris asked him when she reached the other side.
"It's a nice bridge," he remarked. "That's all."
"I hear that a lot. Apparently, this used to be a brook." She cocked her head at the sludge. "I guess it still is."
Cloud considered the water.
"This is me," Aeris walked up a small path to her home. It was a tall two-level house with six even walls and a roof. It wasn't touching any other houses. It looked old, but there were no signs of damage anywhere on the building.
There were flowers lining the path. They weren't growing – they had been planted there, and were quickly wilting.
"Come inside," she kept her door open. "Mom!" she called into the house. "I'm home!"
Cloud stepped through the door into a quaint hexagonal hall with a round dining table and a rug made of what looked to him like Nibel wolf fur. A vase on the table held two yellow flowers from Aeris's church.
A woman came down a staircase along the far wall. Aged somewhere in her fifties, with a bun of brown hair and brown eyes, she had a face Cloud might forget, had she not fixed him with a look that would cut glass. "Welcome home, Aeris," she didn't take her eyes off of him. "Who is your… friend?"
"This is Cloud. He, er, chaperoned me home. Cloud, this is Elmyra Gainsborough. My mom."
"Chaper—" she rushed up to Aeris. "Do you mean you were followed!? Are you all right? Are you hurt?"
"I'm all right," Aeris assured her. "I had Cloud with me."
Elmyra straightened herself and looked Cloud in the eye. "Well. Thank you Cloud." Her focus darted from one of Cloud's eyes to the other, and back again. "You must stay for dinner," she smiled.
"Gladly," Cloud knew the courtesies. "Thank you."
Elmyra prepared half of a chicken, which she said came from the parent of a student she taught. The rest of the meal was filler – a store bought potato-style mash product and some broccoli flavored soup. The bird itself was gamey and malnourished, but better than anything Cloud had in recent memory.
Elmyra talked about her students. They'd spent the day in groups, creating plays out of Elmyra's assigned history stories. She talked delightedly about her star pupils.
"So Cloud," Aeris asked. "What are you going to do now?"
"I've got to find my way back to Sector 7, I suppose. Any advice on the quickest way?"
"There's the Rilfsack Highroad," Aeris said. "It's been a dump for ages, but it leads almost straight through Sector 6. I can take you."
"You gotta be kidding," Cloud said. "Why would you want to put yourself in danger again?"
"I'm used to it."
"Used to it?"
"Don't bother," Elmyra interrupted. "She never listens once she's made up her mind. It's getting late, though, why don't you go tomorrow? Cloud, you are welcome to stay the night."
It surprised Cloud. "You're very generous," he smiled as he was taught. "Thank you."
Elmyra smiled back, in that practiced fashion. "Aeris," she cooed. "Would you be a dear and clear our dishes?"
Aeris stood and grabbed the plates.
"I'll help," Cloud pushed his seat back and began to stand.
"No, no," Elmyra said. "You've done quite enough for today."
Cloud sat. Aeris disappeared into the kitchen.
Elmyra's smile dropped away and she gave Cloud an inquisitor's stare. "By now I'm sure you have plenty of questions about her."
"About the both of you," he corrected.
"If you didn't, I would be more worried."
'…More worried?' he thought. "Well, why doesn't anyone around here hurt you? I don't mean to frighten you, but you have quite a lot of land in a dangerous area."
"No one hurts the schoolteacher," she said. "Unless they want dozens of angry parents after them."
"And Aeris?" Cloud asked. "No one goes near her. It's like she doesn't need a bodyguard."
"She doesn't. She's flirting with you, and if you can't see that you're as stupid as the last one."
"The last one?"
"Are those all your questions? Quickly now, she won't tell you squat."
Cloud sat up straight. "I don't care to get involved in Aeris's trouble. I just walked her home, nothing more."
"Look. You seem nice, and there's no easy way to ask this, but would you leave tonight? Without telling Aeris?"
Cloud heard footsteps – Aeris was on her way back. "I had the same idea," he agreed.
Aeris returned from the kitchen.
"It's getting late," Elmyra said. "I am going up to bed. Aeris, please arrange for Cloud to use the guest room, and then see to it that you rest immediately. You have a long day ahead of you."
"Okay," Aeris smiled. "Goodnight mom!"
After Elmyra went upstairs, Aeris leaned in towards Cloud from across the table. "So what's your plan?"
Cloud stammered. "Sorry?"
"When you get to Sector 7. What are you going to do there? Another job?"
"Well. I'm staying at Seventh Heaven. Have you heard of it? I know Tifa, the barkeep."
"Is Tifa a girl?" Aeris asked. She raised her eyebrows on the word 'girl.'
"Yes," Cloud replied.
"A girl… friend?" she asked.
Cloud realized what she had meant. "Oh! No," he said. "No. No."
"That was two-too-many 'no's," Aeris wagged her finger at him.
"Tifa is an old friend of mine," Cloud explained. "She and some others probably think I am dead, so I should go prove them wrong… before they split my take."
"These others sound very pleasant. And after that?"
"Do you like it?" she asked. "Not knowing where your life is going to be one day to the next?"
Cloud took a moment. "Kind of. Yeah."
She smiled. "That's nice."
"It's nice to like where you are," she paused, looking into his eyes. "Well, mom's right. We should rest up if we want to survive tomorrow. I'll go make your bed."
She skipped up the stairs.
He pushed his chair into the table when he got up.
The staircase led to a short hallway with three doors. The first was closed, with a little sign hanging from a pushpin. On the sign, a child had colored the name AEЯIS with the letter R backwards.
Aeris was in the next room with the door wide open, setting sheets and blankets on a thin bed by a window.
"It's not much," she said, ushering him in. "But it'll have to do tonight."
Compared to the crates he slept on in Seventh Heaven, this was the lap of luxury. "Thanks."
"Cloud?" she stopped at the doorway with him. She smelled of sweat, but sweet as well.
"Goodnight." She disappeared around the corner.
"Oh man…" Cloud breathed. He scratched his head. What is going on with me?' His yellow hair flopped into his eyes.
He lay in the bed, and didn't get under the covers. He kept his eyes open, staring at the ceiling.
He counted the minutes. Once he reached half an hour, he would leave.
The ceiling was old, but level. A neat crack in the paint ran along the top of the wall above him.
'That's the idea,' he thought at it.
You seem pretty tired.
'Yeah, but that's only because I am.'
I haven't slept in a bed like this in a long time…
Ever since that time…