Characters and concepts of Final Fantasy 7 belong to Square Enix, Tetsuya Nomura, and various other legal/corporate entities. This story was written for fun, not for profit, and no challenge to copyright is intended.
A/N: Disregards Crisis Core and fudges a small bit of Before Crisis. If you're an OGC only fan, I hope there will be nothing here to offend you. Enjoy.

Late Bloom
by Jacynthe Demorae

Aeris trudged around the corner, too tired to keep her step light. It hadn't been a good day for flower-selling. She'd left the church with less than two dozen in her basket. A dozen flowers still lay in the basket, beginning to wilt. If she sold every last one, she'd have made thrity-six gil. Pretty dismal.

Her feet throbbed in her heavy shoes and a thorny knot had tied itself around the spine of her lower back. The smell of car exhaust, garbage, and the ever-present metallic dust sifting down from the Plate swirled in with too many people and not enough soap and water. Aeris wanted to go home, soak her feet in a basin of warm water, sit in the brightest patch of her garden and have tea.

But she couldn't quit yet. One more block around, she promised herself. One more usually did it. She set her foot on the cracked paving-and froze. Her body tingled, little prickles of unease racing over her skin. What is this? she thought, trying to look everywhere at once. What's happening? Aeris stepped to the side, out of pedestrian traffic, and set her back firmly against the wall. She pressed a hand to her chest, feeling her heart pounding so hard the ends of her choker-ribbon trembled

She felt far too exposed out here, but with the shrill warning pinned her place. Aeris let her eyes half-close, her vision slip out of focus. A haze of green bled over everything, pulsing out from the heedless people around her. The oldest shone the brightest, their lives rich with memories. In the back of her mind, a murmur like a distant waterfall rose in pitch and clarity.

Be ready, they said. Soon.

Be ready for what? she wondered. What was soon? She'd prefer no warnings at all to these half-coherent fragments, but she could only listen, never reply in kind.

She opened her eyes wide and blinked away the blurriness. No-one appeared to have noticed her tranced-out state, but she'd best move on from here. She adjusted the basket on her arm and started off again. All she could do was stay alert and keep a low profile. Fortunately, paranoia made for good camouflage here in the slums.

She threaded her way through the crowd, making for the train station. She kept her pace slow, making her pitch with a pretty smile and a cheerful voice. For all that, she sold only three more flowers. At this rate, she'd have to sell some of the vegetables from the garden just to make her monthly expenses. Food always sold better than flowers.

If she could just have a booth, even a once-a-week spot in the Wall Market, she'd do better. Then Elmyra could take a day off once in a while, maybe even get out of the City for a little while. She'd mentioned once she'd relatives in Kalm...

Aeris shook her head firmly. No sense in idle dreaming. No matter how much money it might bring in, the price of being pinned down in one spot, or even holding a predictable route, camed far too high a price. Too many Turks showing up in her life, lately.

The train station loomed up ahead, squat and ugly, just like every Shinra-made building in Midgar. She squinted at the tall clock, mentally subtracted seven minutes. Plenty of time for the last train, she decided. Now, should she go inside, or-

Her ears popped and she stumbled in a sudden wash of vertigo. For a moment, a green, shimmering veil seemed to spread over the Sector. Aeris thought she could make out shadowy figures in that green glow, twisting and writhing in search of escape. The ground rolled underfoot, and a dozen poorly-fit doors and windows rattled in their frames. The lights flared yellow-white and burst in a series of loud pops.

People screamed and began to run for cover. Aeris stood frozen in place, mesmerized by the shimmering figures floating up, breaking away. The emergency lights came up, tubes of sickly yellow-green that made everyone look like corpses. Turning her head, Aeris could see the lights for the support pillar, still shining clear and bright.

Aeris breathed a sigh of relief. Midgar really wasn't known for earthquakes, but with all the reactors... things could happen.

Sirens began to wail, their hollow notes bouncing off the underside of the Plate until they created a teeth-grinding feedback. Aeris pushed forward. With the lights out and the rest of the power so chancy, she wanted solid walls around her and a sturdy roof overhead. The presence of Security wouldn't be too bad, either. Turks weren't the only danger in the slums at night.

Someone jostled her and she stumbled. Someone else plowed into her, sending her tumbling to her knees. She winced as the gritty pavement scraped at her hands. Her basket thumped onto its side, half the flowers spilling out. Without thinking, she reached out, hoping to gather them back up before someone trod on them.


A dark-gloved hand appeared in her field of vision. She saw the uniform first: the deep indigo of a SOLDIER, with scarred shoulder armor and one of those table-sized swords. Her heart seized, even as her ears told her this voice was all wrong. This man had a mellow tenor and- She raised her eyes.

Bouncing Kjata.

The bright hair stood every which way, so like his she wanted to yank his head down and check his roots. The eyes had the same bright glow, the same concern. As if in a trance, she took his hand.

His fingers closed over hers, strong and sure. With his help, she got to her feet, her basket dangling from her wrist. She couldn't stop staring. She knew she shouldn't let another Shinra get such a good look at her, but still...

"What happened?" she blurted out, unsure if she was asking this blond stranger- or Zack.

"Nothing. Hey, listen..." The SOLDIER glanced back along the way he'd come, then turned to her. His gaze fell on her basket. "Hm. Don't see too may flowers in Midgar."

He sounded so wistful. He had an odd accent twisting through his words. Not like Zack's reeling Gongagan drawl, this was softer. Unfamiliar, but not... unappealing.

"Do you like them? At this hour, they're only a gil each."

A faint smile pinched one corner of his mouth. Nothing like Zack's broad grins, she thought. Zack would grin at a Hell House. This SOLDIER didn't look like he smiled much, but not by choice. Pity, Aeris thought. She wondered how a real smile would transform that solemn face.

"Sure," he said. "Why not?"

He produced a single gil. She selected a yellow bellflower-almost the same color as his hair, she thought, fighting the urge to giggle.

"Enjoy!" she said.

He nodded, the slight smile still in place. "Probably a good idea to head home," he said. "The excitement's not over."

I thought you said it was nothing? But the waterfall-murmur in her mind agreed with him. Time to get somewhere safe. Aeris turned her steps towards home.

Of course, the next day, the reactor bombing dominated the news. AVALANCHE's bomb had melted the containment shield around the core of Reactor One. The late-night skeleton crew had been vaporized when the Mako escaped. Hundreds had gotten sick from the Mako vapor. Rescue workers had died tried to claw their way through the raw stuff in the search for survivors.

Secondary explosions had caused fires and damaged buildings for blocks. Dozens had been hurt in the blackout. The property damage and economic losses were calculated in the millions. Mayor Domino assured the people that the water system had not been affected, and food supplies would resume to the damaged sector in a few days. Meanwhile, anyone with heavy duty construction and/or medical skills were being asked to come help out in the damaged sector.

President Shinra made a TV appearance denouncing AVALANCHE's actions. He promised swift retaliation and offered a substantial reward-supposedly out of his own pocket-for any info that led to their capture.

Elmyra didn't want her going out, but insisted on going to work herself. Street patrols had doubled, even in this sector. There had been fighting in the streets-they'd heard gunfire into the gray hours of morning.

Aeris could not keep still. She had no love for Shinra. But every day, people who worked for Shinra bought flowers from her. Not the executives or-until last night-Security-but every day people. Maintenance workers, file clerks, cafeteria workers. People who'd worked to support themselves and their families, and who now would never come home.

She felt a mad desire to take flowers to Sector One. Crazy, of course. Security and the Turks would be all over the place. If she showed her face, even in Sector Two or Three, she'd be caught. Her memories of Hojo's lab were dim. The professor had been more interested in her full Cetra mother. Aeris had been the hostage for Ifalna's good behavior.

But now... I'm the last.

Aeris tried to burn off her anxiety with activity. She cleaned the kitchen and the bathroom. Upstairs, she made her own bed, then changed the sheets in the guest room, and dusted. All the while, the air buzzed as if filled with angry static.

Aeris put the kettle on. Nothing made sense. The reactors were like vampires, sucking the life out of the Planet. AVALANCHE was right on one point: Mako didn't last forever. But this...?

The Planet itself fed on the Lifestream, so was it really so far-fetched that humans should try and tap into it? Aeris fought down the squirmy feeling in her stomach. It felt so wrong even to think that. Mako came from the Lifestream, and the Lifestream... People, plants, animals, insects, they all consumed things to live. There could be no life otherwise, only the empty potential of Spirit Energy. She watched the pale glow of the stove burner. The electricity in this house came from the city's Mako reactors-but would it be any better for the Planet for humans to boil water over a fire kindled from hewn wood, or to wrench and process coal from the mountains? It seemed that humans could do nothing to live without hurting the Planet, but humans were part of the Planet, too.

Had the Cetra known the answer? She certainly didn't. Just because she could-sometimes, in particular places-touch and hear the Planet didn't mean she understood it. It was all so big, so complicated. The Planet was covered in layers of life, and she had no idea how it all fit together.

Not that Shinra or those AVALANCHE people seemed to grasp that. She was an 'Ancient'-oh, how she hated that word! She was twenty-three! As an 'Ancient' she therefore know everything her ancestors did. Really, she thought, turning off the burner, how many of them knew what their grandparents knew, much less any further back than that?

One of the morning news shows had decided to take callers.

"What is the mayor doing?" a woman caller demanded. "I call the numbers they give, but I can't get through. I go to the offices, and no-one has time to see me. They're working on it, they say. What about me? I have a son whose father is never coming home! There isn't even a body!"

Aeris snapped off the burner and left the cold kettle on the stove. Suddenly, she didn't think anything would stay down. She pulled on her red denim jacket-it didn't really go with pink, but in the slums people literally couldn't afford to be choosy-and went out into the garden. Planting her hands on her hips, she surveyed her domain.

She'd never asked how Elmyra and her husband had happened to own such a large house on so much land. Her foster-mother hated talking about the past. All she knew about the man who would've been her foster-father was that he'd been a soldier, gone to fight in Wutai. Whatever he'd been before, Elmyra never spoke of it.

Aeris reached out, brushed her fingers against the petals of a flower. Many things bound a mother and daughter, but losing the men they loved to Shinra's army didn't usually number among them. Elmyra had locked away every picture of her husband, except one, which she kept on her bedside table. Aeris didn't even have that much of Zack.

It was the not-knowing. Elmyra understood. That had been the reason the older woman had faithfully gone to the train station every day. But the spirit of Elmyra's husband had been trying to come home, to say good-bye. He just hadn't been strong enough to resist the pull of the Lifestream for very long.

Zack was strong. Zack would've made it back to her, if he'd died. Was he a prisoner someplace, or had he just gone mad, the way they said SOLDIERs sometimes-

Abruptly, Aeris turned on her heel and stalked towards the little potting shed. Enough. Time and past enough! She'd waited five years. She'd take her questions to the Planet itself.

Inside the shed were bags of mulch, stacks of empty pots, and a metal staff. She hefted it, frowning a bit. She'd really prefer something sturdier, with better balance, but this would have to do until she had more gil. She ducked back into the house to leave a note for Elmyra, then set out.

The church always conjured mixed feelings in Aeris. On one hand, it was the sole place in Midgar she could hear the Planet's voice without distortion. On the other... she didn't exactly know what it was. She could feel the sanctity of the place well enough, but nothing explained it. She wasn't even sure what 'church' meant. No other town or city on all of the Planet had one. Its significance had been lost with the names of the original towns of Midgar.

She pushed open the door, peering inside cautiously. Coming here might not rank among her brightest of ideas. That AVALANCHE girl, Elfe, had found her here, and the Turks had found them both. With things so unstable, how long before Shinra used her presence in the same place as an AVALANCHE member as cause to arrest her?

If only she could leave Midgar! But that would mean leaving the one place she could touch the Planet. It must be her human blood, she decided sadly, setting her staff aside. A real Cetra would probably leap at the chance to journey.

She turned to face the flower bed. It should look strange, this patch of green surrounded by planks of splintered wood. To her, it looked far more real than any part of Midgar outside her own garden.

Aeris settled on her knees beside the flowers. Her fingers actually ached if a few days passed without getting fresh dirt under her nails. Spindly weeds marred the lush growth. In a place where natural greenery was so rare, it seemed a shame to pull weeds-but she made her living selling flowers, not weeds.

As she dug and tugged and tamped, she let her thoughts drift. Zack. He'd been so wonderful, so full of life and humor and fun. She'd had few friends in her childhood, at first too overwhelmed by the fear of the lab and grief for her mother. Later, it just seemed smarter to avoid people. Everyone knew the Flower GIrl. Almost no-one knew Aeris.

He had, though. Zack acted like he'd known everything about her. Aeris sat back on her heels. No, that wasn't quite right. He'd acted like whatever she was, it didn't matter. She was Aeris and he thought that meant all kinds of wonderful.

The colorful flowers blurred in her sight, tears spilling over. Zack was wonderful-but five years gone. She dug her fingers into the earth again, closing her eyes. Unheeded, a few tears fell among the flowers. She sent her question deep into the earth, imagining it spidering down like a flower's roots. Down further still, where earth turned to mud, mud to water, water to stone. Then, somehow, impossibly, she touched something.

She felt it quiver, almost drawing away from her. Well, perhaps this action of hers broke some taboo. Maybe the Cetra didn't look to the Planet for guidance on such small things. But she could hardly hunt up a Summons and ask it, and conversations with her real mother had become decidedly one-sided.

"Please tell me," she asked of that Presence. "Should I hold on, or let go? I be of use. I know one day I will leave Midgar. I thought I'd go with him. I thought-"

Aeris hung her head, her words dissolving into formless thoughts and feelings. 'Please' tumbled through her mind. Please don't leave me alone. Please don't shut me out forever. Please come back. Please be real. Please, please, please-

The sound of splintering wood jolted Aeris out of her trance. She jerked her hands back, looking for her staff. A dark object plummeted from the ceiling-no, from the roof, she realized.

The object landed hard in the flowerbed. Aerith stared, seeing Shinra blue, waiting for blood. She leaned a little closer. Thanks to her abrupt return to 'reality' things tended to fade in and out as she tried to focus on them. A pale haze seemed to shroud the fallen man. In the back of her mind, she felt/heard a hum of satisfied contentment.

But he had to be dead, this man. He'd fallen through the roof, which meant he'd fallen from the Plate. No-one could survive that.

Except she saw no blood, no bones jabbed through his skin. He looked, for all the world, as if he'd just fallen out of his bed and kept on sleeping. Why, it's that soldier from last night! The SOLDIER, in fact, who was not dead and reminded her of Zack. Zack could survive a fall from the Plate, but she didn't know about this one.

Aeris clasped her hands. Her healing power only worked when she was under some kind of stress, but she was already in resonance with the Planet, maybe she could skip that part and-

His arm moved.

She gasped, still a little amazed, a little afraid after all this time, of what a SOLDIER could survive. "He moved...!"

Better help him then, a soft, laughing voice murmured from the air. He's come a long way, after all. She blinked, looking around, but seeing no-one else. Even for her, this was strange.

"Hello?" She leaned a little closer, wary of his startle reflex. "Hello? Can you hear me?"

A frown pinched the pale face. Behind his closed lids, his eyes moved, as if trying to track the sound of her voice.

"Are you all right?"

The fallen man opened his eyes a crack, enough for her to see the shimmer of Mako. His lips parted, the pale pink of his tongue tip showing briefly. Aeris wished she had some water to offer him. She'd forgotten to bring some from home, and she didn't trust what passed for the local water cleaning methods to look elsewhere.

He coughed, began to sit up, and winced. He half-rolled onto his side-facing the door she noticed. She moved back, rising to her feet. He rubbed the back of his neck, then squinted up at her. "Where... am I?"

"My-the Sector Five Church," she said. The bright gaze rested on her, expectant, and the warm, bubbly feeling inside rose. "Are you hurt anywhere? That was quite a fall."

He stood up, flexed his arms,did a couple of half-twists, not showy, just testing. "Seems okay." He paused, looked down at the tangled flowers. "Oh, man... sorry about that."

She clasped her hands. "It's all right. Flowers are quite resilient, actually." What are you doing? her common sense shrilled at her. This is a SOLDIER! He fell from the Plate! People could be chasing him!

Well, if he had people chasing him, they'd probably have to take the train like everyone else. Besides, she felt safe, not just because of the sacred place. This man, this familiar stranger, he made her feel safe.

"Where I'm from, there's this valley with nothing but flowers, red and pink ones."

"Sounds wonderful," she said, trying to picture it. Flowers that grew so far and wide, with no-one and nothing the Planet's own sunlight and water to sustain them? If that wasn't the Promised Land, it must be the gate to it. "Maybe you can show me, one day,"

He blinked at her, and she nearly bit her tongue. Still half in tune with the Planet, its energies made her feel drunk. "I mean..."

"I remember you," he said suddenly. "You're the flower girl."

She nodded, but the slight frown remained between his brows, as if the answer wasn't complete. "I- have to check the flowers," she said abruptly, turning away.

Away from those eyes, so knowing and yet so lost. Aeris drew in a deep breath, pressed her hands to the earth. She'd offered her heart's question to the Planet, and the Planet had delivered this man. Bit by bit, she drew back the part of herself she'd sunk into the Planet. She heard him shift his weight.

"Just a little longer," she said, almost 'home'.

At last, she sat back on her heels dusting off her hands. "Well. Here we are, our second meeting, and we don't even know each other's names."

He gave that tiny smile again. "M' name's Cloud. Cloud Strife."

The warm, bubbly feeling spread all through her. She held out her hand. "I'm Aeris."