by Thyme In Her Eyes
Author's Notes: First, a disclaimer – I don't own these characters. Anyway, after a short break, I'm back to writing entries for the CloudxAerith Forum's 100 Themes Contest, and this time round the theme is "Skin". And the weirdness of prose is back too! Enjoy!
-- UNTOUCHED --
Do you remember the way you touched me before,
All the trembling sweetness I loved and adored...
– Natalie Merchant ('My Skin').
The mind can play tricks, and memories and perceptions aren't as certain and concrete as he'd always assumed. He learned that the hard way, and learns to trust his mind in different ways, taking less for granted when he looks back on those times. But when he thinks of her, and imagines the pressure of that dainty hand on his troubled brow, his flesh tingles, almost as if calling her, and everything about her that was strange and hard to get used to, back to him. As if it misses her as much as the rest of him does.
His skin will always remember her.
Her touch is feather-light, barely there. A tentative hand against his forehead, withdrawn hastily when he groans and moved. He turns his head groggily, and finds his face pressed into a fresh flower. Already he's close to forgetting the violent world he fell from, until her hand reaches out for him again, this time touching at his arm and giving it a careful shake.
"Hello! Hello!" Her voice is fresh, dispelling the darkness.
She meets a man who carries death inside him. It keeps him heavy and fragile, though he can't see it like she does, and the impulse to reach out to him takes over. He's so strange, she can't quite believe he's real. He carries his burdens and secrets slowly and with great care, staggering under the fullness of their weight. Aeris winces inwardly to see it, compassion and curiosity blooming inside her, and wants to put her arm under him and prop him up as he walks.
So much of him looks hard and cold, like sculpted ice. Like nothing could get through to him or diminish him, but already Aeris suspects that it's far from the truth. A winter atmosphere so often surrounds him, keeping him locked in his own bizarre and unnatural little environment, and she longs to break through and find him. There are a few rare moments when she imagines that she can see the real him, frozen and trapped miles underneath the surface, like an unlucky skater, and she wants nothing more than to thaw him out, wrap him in a blanket, and hand him a mug of hot chocolate. The image makes her giggle, and she wonders what he thinks of her.
Her hands feel hot and clumsy in comparison to his cold and steady ones, and they long to sift through him in search of a weak spot. Somewhere that just might be ticklish.
There's a smear of blood on her face and she wipes it off with the back of her hand, before she turns her attention to her dress. There's an air of experience to her now as she pushes stray strands of hair back and cleans her face of beast's blood, but she's every bit as girlish and fussy as she always was when she worries over her clothes, her hands shaking, brows frowning, and mouth pouting over every stain she finds. He feels bad for finding her funny, especially when her hands are on her hips and annoyance is plain to see in her face.
Her actions all have so much emphasis to them, and they fascinate him. He wonders how her every movement can be so sure, so confident and his own seem so false and practiced when he thinks of her.
She's more than angry, she's fuming and her words scorch. She can't believe he could be such a jerk; to listen to the Fort's story, to hear how much they needed support, and then choose to do nothing and save his blasted money –
Her hands fumble, but her words are sharp and honest. Her skin is flushed with outrage and she screws her hands together tightly, restraining them and holding them over her heart. They itch to slap him, and she wonders what is it about him that upsets her so much when he doesn't do the right thing. Her skin rebels, but she settles for plain speaking her mind and venting instead.
He shuffles away guiltily, wanting to hide his face from her. His expression betrays him, and he can't figure out why he should be bothered by what she thinks of him, or why her anger and disappointment should make him feel so sore.
Her anger is quick, but so is her forgiveness, and the affection tucked underneath both is lasting. By the evening, things are back to normal and she's chatting with him as if nothing happened. She's thought through everything, and been with her annoyance as far as it could take her, and then decided to let it go. He's never known anyone like her.
"Forgiven. Forgotten," she says. "It's the same for you, right?"
His skin colours, but night is falling and maybe she can't see it. He doesn't like the effect she has on him, positively hates how disarmed she makes him feel, but he always comes back to her for more. She makes him feel foolish and a hero at the same time, and his body tenses nervously whenever she draws too near.
When she smiles and touches him, instead of making things worse, somehow he relaxes and everything is a little easier.
Normally blind to such details, Cloud eventually notices that her hands are small and slender. Caring, healing hands. Encouraging hands. Her fingers are short – "stubby", she calls them and her self-deprecating tone never fails to tease a tight grin out of him. His skin loosens and emotions peer out from the cracks when she's there, her hands on her hips. She doesn't have Tifa's piano fingers or deadly fists, but her hands heal and encourage flowers to blossom. Are they softer, or the petals?
He finds himself thinking about those hands too much, and bites his lip.
She sees and takes in more than she can fully understand when she's around him, and yearns to know him better.
He turns and walks, so sure and determined, the strain of cold focus clear to see in the tension , and she watches, interest forever piqued. His back is always turned to her at moments like this, and he always avoids looking at her. He's always turning away, but she always resolves to catch up and tease and prod at him till the next moment when he lets her in arrives.
His shoulders and back express such courage, such resilience. He's still shouldering a burden she can't quite understand, though she grasps it a better now, but he isn't staggering under it anymore. More often than not, he rises to it though his confidence is far removed from Zack's cocky stride. What Cloud has is a certainty that holds him together and keeps him strong, and always pushes him forwards in pursuit of Sephiroth's shadow. He walks straight and determined, and very quickly, and Aeris wonders what would happen if that carefully-constructed certainty were taken away. Will he crumble, or rebuild himself solely on his own strength?
She worries, but something about that distant focus and unselfconscious bravery instills great faith in her. Something so tense in his attractive frame makes her trust him, and want to stay near him.
He's pushing himself too hard and she wishes she could just step up behind him, quiet and gentle as one of her healing breezes, press softly against his back, and wrap her arms around his middle.
Once, the night was humid and the inside of their tents stifling. He turns over, and over again, restless and sleepless, hot air choking him. The tent seems smaller than ever, and closes in on him. He leaves first, always more afraid of being left alone with his thoughts than of any monsters lurking in the night, so he picks up his sleeping bag and lays it down on the grass. The cool air is a relief as it sighs against him, and he feels peace descend on him as he stares up at the stars.
The others – the ones still awake, anyway – all look tempted by the idea of sleeping in cooler air, but they all dismiss the idea. Tifa asks him more than once if he's sure he wants to sleep outside, whilst Barret resigns himself and chuckles softly, saying that if he wants to be a fool then who is he to put a stop to it. Cloud shrugs, and stays out in the open air nonetheless.
A soft noise disturbs him, and he lifts his head, and sees Aeris. Her sleeping-bag is rolled under arm and her smile dares him to try and advise her to sleep inside her safe tent. He can smell the sweat on her body, and tastes it on the air as she settles her bag next to his, crushing the dry grass underneath her..
Her eyes hold so much trust of him in them. Her eyes are precious then, and the impulse to cradle her face in his hands passes over him and then drifts away into the night.
They fall asleep, few words passing between them before they nod off, and in the night their hands reach out for each other. When dawn arrives, the sunlight finds a pair of sleeping bodies lying close, their arms lazily outstretched towards each other, the backs of their hands barely touching, fingertips grazing each other.
The soft does its work, and her skin is rendered fresh rosy again instead of a hard, dead grey. As always with de-petrification, her thoughts are fogged and muddled as she tries to catch up with all that's happened in the battle as she waits for the feeling to find its way back to her poor and dizzy limbs.
Tifa shouts to her, and Aeris turns just in time to see the one remaining dragon charging at her. Remembering she's used up her offensive spells, Aeris curses under her breath and runs for it towards Tifa and a ready Bolt spell that's already crackling the air, but her legs are still weak and stiff from the petrification and she stumbles and falls sprawling into the long grass. The dragon is practically on top of her, fangs bared as it closes in, and Aeris raises her staff above her and chants a Barrier incantation, hoping frantically that it'll hold against the monster. At the last second, she braces herself and squeezes her eyes shut.
But the moment of truth never comes because Cloud, quick as lightning, is at her side. The clash stops her heart for a second as his blade is caught in the dragon's and Cloud's strength is tested against the beast's. His mouth tautens with tension and his blue eyes burn as he stares the monster down, and pits his strength against his weight, and Aeris realizes suddenly that she's never felt safer or appreciated how good the feeling could be. Her arms move around him, loose enough to give him freedom of movement should he need it, just to let him know that the best way she knows how to at this time.
It's only at the last moment when Aeris realizes that only one of Cloud's hands is on his sword-hilt and pushing against the grinding teeth of the dragon – his left arm is wrapped around her and pulls her close to him as he tries to shield as much of her as he can. Unconsciously, she shrinks closer towards him as the dragon pushes forwards and instead of taking his cue from her and placing both hands and all his strength onto his hilt, his arm only grips her tighter and hold her steadier. His thumb brushes her arm lightly, maybe unconsciously or maybe in reassurance, before his sword-arm thrusts forward through the dragon's jaw, deep into its mouth, and out the back of its throat. As the monster shrieks, spasms and finally lets its heavy body go limp, its blood trickles and runs down Cloud's right arm, and eventually drips down onto Aeris, still nestled safety under that arm and against Cloud's body.
Aeris disentangles herself from her saviour and then offers to help him yank his sword out of the dead animal. That done, the pair are left with nothing left to do except stare at each other. The blood on their clothes and skin binds them, as well as the fact that both struggle to hide their flushed faces, suddenly realizing that this is the closest they've ever been.
Aeris is surprised at how shy she is, how robbed of words. Within their relationship, it's usually her who takes charge and she delights in enticing the awkward and strange little goof living inside him to come out and join her in the sunshine, but now she sees that there's even more to him than that. He may fight like that, but Zack's eyes never burned quite like that for her, and never made her feel quite like that, as if the Planet stopped turning and nothing existed but the two of them. Disconcerting or not, this part of Cloud is real too, and strangely all his own, and Aeris quickly figures that he's more a hero than he realizes.
On top of all that, she's never liked being labeled as helpless or treated too delicately, but having someone come through for her is a totally different experience. And more than once, it's been Cloud who made her feel this, and his place in her heart grows even more. The thought makes her skin come alive, and she feels strangely embarrassed.
"Thank you," she says, smiling now, and feeling a different kind of shame start to creep through her system. "And sorry I was so useless back there."
"Don't say that; it could've happened to anyone," he answers as if it really was nothing, before meeting her eyes and softening his approach. "And I'm your bodyguard, right? Couldn't let anything happen to you."
Aeris smiles at him, her arm still prickling slightly where his thumb touched it with such small and strange gentleness.
"What's wrong?" Aeris strides over to him, sensing pain.
He's not usually one to get injured in fights, and Red is always such a stickler for using the Cure Materia even for minor injuries, so Cloud's pain shames him. He should be tougher than this, he should be cool and strong enough to take it without complaint. He looks again at Aeris and notes the concern in her eyes, and especially doesn't want to seem pathetic in front of her, and tries to continue walking without a limp and also without looking too ridiculous in the process.
"Come on," she pushes, testing him. "You can tell me."
He crosses his arms and shakes his head, to cool to acknowledge the pain stinging at him. "No, it's fine. It's nothing."
"Look, I can tell you're in pain," she insists, somewhere between laughter and frustration as she fixes her hands firmly on his shoulders and stops him in his tracks, sure to look him right in the eye. "Now stop being a baby and let me fix you up."
He realizes then that she doesn't like to see him in pain, but not knowing how to play things, he scratches at his head and tries to shrug it off casually. "There's no need to bother – it's really nothing. I've had plenty worse than this and we can just wait till we reach the next inn to mend it. There's no problem; I can manage."
Aeris still refuses to let him walk past her and fixes another penetrating gaze onto him, speaking in gentler and more persuasive tones this time. Cloud awkwardly tries to brush her off, but there's something so compelling about the green of her eyes, and something deep inside them touches him and makes a part of him feel too exposed and frantic to hide itself from her.
"Cloud, what I need to know is where you're hurt; not whether you're brave or not," she says, and gives him a soft, secretive smile. "I know the answer to that already."
What he really wants to ask her then is if she means what she just said, but he settles for grudgingly giving her the answer she's been looking for. "...My leg."
"Okay," Aeris says, nodding affirmatively. "Can I see?"
Cloud sits down rather haphazardly on a rock and rolls up his right trouser leg as Aeris kneels down among the grass and wildflowers and examines his wound, a bloody tear right up his calf. The blood oozes, and Cloud wishes she didn't have to see it.
"Ouch..." she hisses, wincing in sympathy.
"It's nothing," Cloud repeats, still awkward about acknowledging his pain and need for help, but at the same time, appreciative of her in a way he doesn't quite understand. Something about her is comforting without ever being humiliating, and so startlingly easy to get used to. He's physically remote and doesn't much like being touched, but everything about her presence is soothing and inviting and raises his comfort levels.
The feel of her slender hands on him smashes the cool reserve he's been trying to rebuild, as does the how much he welcomes the sensation of being tended to by her. These moments are strange – when they come, he wants them to linger, but once they're over, he doesn't like to dwell on them. It's too tempting as it is trying to figure her out and understand her moods and impulses, but getting worked up about the softness of her skin and the delicate feel of her breath so close to his flesh is just too much. Everything about makes him want to simultaneously step closer and run away, so confusing and dizzying she is.
"It's not serious..." he repeats again, unsure of what else there is to say.
She gives a small nod, all professionalism now and unfazed by the cruel gash. "I know, but just let me help you out, okay? It'll make me smile."
Her small hands rest on the red wound and her eyes drift shut languidly as she summons a cool blue breeze. It surrounds him and lifts the pain from his body, and his own eyes close for a moment from sheer relief. Soon, the chiming music on the air fades as Aeris' magic settles fully over him, and he feels the wound bind itself without any discomfort, and seal shut, the strength and energy returning in full to the worn limb.
Experimentally, he swings his leg and nearly kicks her. He turns red as a summon materia instantly and splutters stupid apologies, but she simply shrieks with laughter once, and them smothers more bubbling giggles with her hands.
"Sorry, Aeris," he repeats, her laughter starting to catch on as he smiles sheepishly. "Thanks..."
"No problem," she answers. "Besides, just because you're my bodyguard doesn't mean I can't watch out for you once in a while."
Aeris reaches out again and, with her thumb, wipes a remaining smudge of blood from his leg over where his wound had closed. She doesn't move her hand away directly after, but instead strokes his skin once again with her thumb, giving him a quick caress.
"Cloud," she says, looking up at him with earnest eyes. "You don't have to be a hero all the time."
Dusk lies heavy in the valley, and her spirits are weighed down by knowledge. The atmosphere of this village is so cozy and peaceful, and normally she'd relish spending time here, but tonight she feels blue, subdued and alone, and the warmth of the Cosmo Candle seems very far away. Loneliness makes her sink into thought, and the lazy flames of the Candle break her down slowly.
He sits down next to her, shoulder-to-shoulder, noting how her eyes never leave the fire. He's never seen her so subdued, so sad, and he wants to protect her from even that and make it all go away. This is awkward, he's got no clue how to give comfort or what it'll take to make her feel better, but he has to try. Her loneliness makes him ache in a way he doesn't understand and for the first time, he wants to touch her. He wants to close the distance and tell her he cares, and that he's there for her. His right prickles and tingles with the need to drape it over those small shoulders and show her that she can't really be alone, but it turns heavy at the thought and lies useless at his side, weighed down by so many complications and doubts.
Things are too quiet, everyone lost in separate worlds of introspection. These worlds never connect, and silence and stillness settles and over everyone, and Cloud only watches and gathers his own thoughts. He trips over something important, and bites his tongue.
Aeris is still close to him, and in a word it all nearly opens out.
Hundreds of eyes are on him, but the stage-lights blind him to them. Unfortunately, his ears aren't so lucky and hear everything acutely – the shuffling and shifting of bodies in their seats, the rustling and crumpling of paper, that one person who always coughs, and more than anything the silence of expectation. The lights on the stage are glaring and hot, and the moment is an uncomfortable one.
He's on his knees and her hand is in his, and the embarrassment begins to evaporate when he realizes that she's nervous and on edge too, more than she'd like to admit. Seeing her like that, not as ease as he'd always come to expect of her, and as though she'd like nothing better than the people around them to disappear too, it makes everything alright somehow. He cradles her small hand in his, hips his head reverentially, closes his eyes briefly and touches his lips to her skin softly.
She usually has all the answers, flirtations quick and warm on her lips, but this time she only blushes and catches her breath. Her blush deepens when she says his name by mistake and can't play it off, the blood rushing to her cheeks has already betrayed her. So she goes with the flow and doesn't pull her hand away when she ought to. Instead, she lets him rise and slowly, carefully interlaces her fingers with his before they dance off the stage together as the curtain falls, and so many soft promises lie in that tiny gesture.
Flowers don't bloom at night, but their scent surrounds him now, and holds him close. The wet scents of the earth gather around the two of them, the mystery of his sleeping mind deepening. It's night, and this could be a dream, or more. If it's in his mind or hers, real or not, her doing or his, it's for no-one else to know. All Cloud knows is how it can't possibly be real, although it feels like the most real thing he's ever known.
They're entwined together, naked and separated by nothing, their legs, hips and hearts touching. Her skin is hotter than he ever could've imagined, and he's filled with joy and terror. Her hands flow all over him, he peppers her mouth with light butterfly-kisses, and feels the laugh that bubbles in her throat. It breaks all over him, and fills his world with colour and heat, and he's never wanted more in all his life. He touches her, inhales every scent and sigh, and breathes her in. There are no words spoken, and the silence is a part of both of them, and curious fingertips say everything that ever needed to be said. He tastes her lips and her heart's pulse, and never wants to forget the trust he sees in her eyes.
He's new to this, but if she minds, she never shows it as she puts his hands on her and gasps, savoring everything. She's the more aggressive one at first, she delights in this and knows what she's doing, and she takes her time exploring and giggling over details like his coarse heels and big toes. As usual, she's both compelling delicate and refreshingly – sometimes brutally – direct. But as her hands wander over him, over his thin frame, his tight mouth, under his armpits, over his small shoulders, the old wound on his chest, and his scarred knees, she begins to shake and her shoulders heave, as if she's finally seen something she'd always known was true, and begins to cry. He sits upright and wraps his arms around her and holds her as she sobs quietly, confused by her relief. He stills her and kisses her, kisses her forehead, her closed eyes, her tears, and finally her mouth, and wants nothing more than to be tender with her. He nuzzles her, braver than he thought could be as he lays her down and covers all of her. He's simple and direct, not an experimental one, and only wants to treat her with gentleness. Eventually, she smiles again through her tears, and kisses him fiercely, pulling him down on her.
She says strange and fond things to him now, whispering things about his touch, his scent, his taste. She runs her fingers through his hair, plants open-mouthed kisses on his shoulders, laughs softly, and tells him his mouth his full of summer rain. He doesn't understand her, but grows confident that one day he will. He chuckles quietly and blushes, and kisses her once more, harder this time, letting her taste the rain again.
There's a strawberry-coloured birthmark on her stomach he doesn't remember ever seeing before, even when she wore a bikini at Costa del Sol, and it perplexes him, but because it's a part of her, he learns to love it. Afterwards, he rests his head on her belly, cheek pressed against that strange blemish, his breath still shuddering out of him. Her touch tells him he's not alone, that he has a shelter here. Her heartbeat drowns him as his solitude stretches and bursts, and she floods into him.
It doesn't matter if it's not real, if it'll vanish at sunrise. What matters is touching her again, and finding a way to draw a smile on her face and coax one of those beautiful moans from her throat.
He understands nothing and feels so outside of himself here, but feels no fear and no shame. They're more like children at play than anything else. Nonetheless, he is so careful not to hurt her, or himself.
Once, she reacted to him by wanting to put her arms around him and prop him up, eager to help him reach wherever or whatever it was he was stumbling towards. Now, she knows that's there's so much more to him, and she wants more too. Things are different, and not as simple as she once thought. Helping him won't be as easy as supporting him with her own body's strength, but Aeris is willing to do whatever it takes. After all, he's saved her so many times. Seeing him break would shatter her, but she has to believe it'll be all right in the end.
This time, Aeris wants to take Cloud's face in her hands, and gently guide his eyes to the light. His knees are wobbling and his mind is shattering, and it breaks her heart too much to stand by and watch. But everything is going to be all right, the power in her body and mind, the paradise she's been reaching towards for so long, is stronger than everything. It can change him, heal him, heal her, and close every wound. She'll kiss all their mended wounds and faded scars one day, and the Planet will rejoice. One day she'll touch him with eyes wide open.
She wants a kiss she can never have, too. But as she settles down on her knees and prays, it never crosses her mind that she won't someday win it at last.
Some touches were charged with energy and hot electricity, others were so casual and natural that he could imagine nothing more right and normal than dissolving into her arms, into her skin. In retrospect, they didn't touch enough. His mind was filled with other things, problems more pressing than the dream of her body, her smile, her love.
One hand is fixed at her shoulder, holding her up, cradling her. He wants to be gentle and careful with her – he's her bodyguard, after all – but instead, he's clumsy and desperate. He holds too tight, too fierce. If she was still alive, her skin would show five bruises tomorrow, where his fingers clutched at her. His free hand is pressed against her stomach, against torn cotton and torn flesh, trying to stop the blood from flowing. It's an instinctive reaction to try and stop the bleeding; his body thinks he can save her, not knowing she's already long gone.
Eventually, his mind catches up and her draws his hand away. She's gone, left him, taken, and his hands are shaking in denial. Maybe it's only his body crying, maybe it's only the shock that's causing the tears to flow, but Cloud knows it's more.
He stretches his hand towards her one more time, and misses her by scant inches before the real world collapses on top of him. This time, the loss doesn't come and doesn't break him open. There's someone else falling towards Cloud now, and this time he can catch her and keep his promise.
Years later, he'll remember Aeris' skin and hear her voice as he sits in an open field, free at last. All is forgiven, and settled. The future lies ahead, more glorious than the gold of the flower-field. The wind billows through wildflowers, and he remembers her smile, and imagines that everything is possible.
The world is young again, and very unsure of itself, but he knows they're all being watched over. Her body is gone, but she's still here. It's her light that makes the flowers grow. And it's her flowers that prompt couples to lay down and make love among their beds, and the future rises to meet everyone with welcoming hands.
Cloud lies on his back on the earth, her new skin now and forever, drawing up calm and peace in his thoughts. Every blade of grass shivers with love.
-- FIN --