This is a story told in Cloud's POV, after the events of both Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus. It is the companion piece to materia, which hasn't been published yet, but is coming soon and is in Vincent's POV.

Dedicated once again to My hand held in yours.

Enjoy.


proto

Aerith is his Lucrecia, he thinks.

Her burial site is quiet and calm, and the sky is swirled in shades of gray as he stares up at it. The air has a faint scent of wet foliage from the recent rain, and even the soft grass feels damp beneath his body. Nothing has changed here: the seashell-like structure still stands in its stately grace, the spirits of the forest still string light about the trees and float in lazy circles. One of the flowers she loved so much is rotating between his fingers; he was resolved to toss it in at some point but now he can't muster the effort.

It's been years since he has been to this place.

Her presence is somehow fainter here: he knows that if he was to deep dive that he would find her remains, so this puzzles him. Still, this is not their place—the current of this world is closer to the surface here than even Mideel, with its gaping wounds of blood. Here is a holy place and her voice is lost between the murmurs of the ones within the Planet. Cloud has come to think, however, and not of her, and so he does not mind the distance.

They were quite the pair, Cloud and the shadow, and when he thinks of them together he thinks of ashes and metal. He thinks of ying and yang—Yuffie's philosophy—though the yang has been stained a red so deadly that both seem equally bleak. He thinks of this place, of battle, of falling trees and blackened water. He thinks of velvet, and a nigh invisible blush pinks the bridge of his nose.

It's something he can't help: for those moments their atoms had mingled and he could touch the other's mind. So long the blonde had played defender, had been her unflappable source of strength, that when he heard that voice—

I will not let them hurt you, be at peace...

—he came apart and loved it.

"Are sins ever forgiven?

Hmph. I've never tried."

He has obtained absolution, but he still sits during those nights where there is no moon and his sins come rushing back. It isn't enough that she has told him he is forgiven—he has failed as a guardian. No water can make his hands clean and no magic can give life to that body in the lake. That night after the final battle—when his killing face shattered into a million pieces—regret crept under his blankets and the tears had come fast. The brightness of her smile, the twinkle of her eyes, the softness of her hand...it all had been avenged. Yet even now, he feels an aching in his heart. Shouldn't the pain have faded?

Perhaps he is trying too hard. Perhaps he shouldn't try at all.

Some say that opposites attract, but Cloud would have to reject that statement. He cannot decide whether it is ironic or simply perverse that their stories are so similar, that two women—dead and dead-to-the-world—have pushed them together. Vincent had warned him, so many years ago, that this world could not take another like him. He hadn't understood then. But he does now.

It is in the way that little trigger words can remind them of the ones lost, it is in the way that the scent of rain or the glow of mako can bring back sense and sensation. But it is also in the way that they brush hands in the daytime, paranoia at its peak but needing that little bit of contact, though wary of letting the others see. Cloud can swear that Tifa has guessed, however, with her long looks of sadness when she thinks he does not know. It makes him guilty, thinking of her. She is a good woman. She deserves someonething, too.

Perhaps, at the end of the day, it is the fact that the shadow understands. Aerith was a wise, perceptive person with a perpetual glow about her, but there was something that even she had failed to comprehend: Cloud doesn't need someone to pull him from the darkness. He needs someone to walk through it with him. And maybe, just maybe—though it causes him almost sensual delight—the shadow needs him as badly. He can see it those garnet eyes, and somewhere she is smiling, telling him to seize this chance.

So, he concludes as he kneels and brushes the grass from his jacket, it is time to stop thinking. It is time to cease deliberation, time to honor the dead and let them rest in peace. Cloud doesn't deserve the opportunity that he has been given; there are simply too many costs to be counted. But what he can do is take hold of metal, crimson hands and throw open new doors to the wind.

The waiting has passed.

fin