"You can't pack the soil in so tight, the bulbs can't get any air that way," Aeris said gently. Cloud rolled his eyes and finished patting down the dirt over the buried tulip bulb before getting the fourth from the bag by his side.
"Not everyone has a green thumb like you," he grumbled, digging his spade in for another hole. "You said you wanted tulips added to the garden, so I'm adding them. Besides, it's not like they can not grow." Cloud raised the spade and gestured over the pool of slightly luminous water in the middle of the church.
"That's not the point," Aeris groaned. "It's not like gardening is hard, you just have to show them some love."
"I'm trying," Cloud said indignantly, placing the bulb in the small hole and moving the dirt back to cover it. "It'd be a lot easier if I knew what I was doing though."
"That's why I'm here," Aeris smiled. Cloud's face darkened, and he was momentarily grateful the flower girl was standing behind him.
"Right," he muttered, patting the spade on the dirt.
"See, that's the way," Aeris nodded. "You have to be more gentle. You're got that sappy sentimental side Cloud, even if you think you don't, and if you showed it to the flowers a little more you'd be a great gardener."
"And that coaxing is in no way a ploy to give you something to make fun of me for?" Cloud asked dryly. "I suppose you'd like me to start talking to them too?"
"Now that is something I'd pay to see," Aeris laughed. Cloud turned his head and she came beside him and kneeled down, gazing over the flower patch. "You've done great though, they're growing good, and not just because I help them."
"Just largely because of that," Cloud snorted, brushing his dirt-covered hands off on his pant legs. "Come on Aeris, I'm no gardener."
"Well I can't do this stuff and you said you would for me, so grin and bear it." Aeris leaned over the flowers. "I wish I could smell them," she sighed. "The ones in the back there always smelt the best." She pointed to a cluster of dark red blooms on the other side of the pool. "And they were always so beautiful…"
"Well they had a good teacher," Cloud said softly, turning his head. Aeris blushed and closed her eyes.
"Cloud…you're embarrassing me," she scolded.
"Consider it revenge for wanting me to talk to a plant."
"Oh, so you only said that to make fun of my reaction?"
"You know that's not true. I meant it."
The two sat in silence looking over the flowers for a moment, and Cloud took in a breath, reaching down and silencing the small urge in the back of his mind. Not now, not while she was so happy.
"Those ones are nice too," Aeris said, pointing to a patch of bright blue flowers just in front of them. "They remind me of your eyes."
"No way," Cloud shook his head. "My eyes aren't that pretty."
"Yes they are."
Cloud looked up into glittering emeralds, and the urge that refused to be denied rose back up. He swallowed as Aeris smiled at him gently, and clenched his eyes shut. Dammit, when would he learn?
"I'm gonna go out for a ride," he muttered, standing up and walking away. Aeris let her confusion show and stood up.
"Cloud," she called. Cloud stopped but didn't turn. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing, I just need some air," Cloud lied.
"Okay…see you later then?" Aeris asked.
"Yeah…later…" Cloud nodded, leaving the church. Aeris shook her head sadly and cast a glance behind her at the blue flowers, slowly dissipating into a swirl of green energy and floating into the air.
Cloud had told the truth about one thing – he did go out for a ride. Fenrir roared across the barren wasteland surrounding the ruins of Midgar, kicking up a cloud of dust behind him. A few scavenging animals cast him a glance as he raced past them, but he was oblivious to their presence.
"Why can't I learn to stop thinking like that?" he thought, revving the handlebars. A few columns of rock raced past and he ducked and weaved through them effortlessly, even as his mind was elsewhere. "I can't, I know I can't…" Cloud turned and began looping back towards Edge. Suddenly, he needed a drink.
"Still…it doesn't change the fact…I want to."
Tifa hummed softly as she finished washing the last mug and slipped into the drying board. She reached into the sink and pulled the plug out, then fished the washcloth from the counter and lifted the glasses to dry them by hand. It had been a slow day so far, it was just before noon and everyone old enough to drink was busy. The door to the bar swung open, and Tifa turned her head.
"Cloud!" she exclaimed, smiling. "How are you?"
"Fine," Cloud replied, sitting at the bar. "Business seems slow today."
"It's a weekday, it's always like this," Tifa shrugged, putting the glass back and deciding to finish them later. "Beer?"
"Please," Cloud nodded. Tifa reached down and pulled a bottle from under the counter, sliding it to him.
"On the house as always," she smiled. Cloud nodded and flipped off the cap. "So what brings you here?" she asked. Cloud took a drink before answering.
"Fenrir," he replied.
"Come on, don't make me beat it out of you, because you know I can," Tifa threatened. Cloud rolled his eyes.
"Well…it's awkward to talk about…to you, of all people."
"If it's about that voice message Cid left for you last week, relax, I know you don't go for that sort of thing," Tifa chuckled.
"No…it's about…her." Cloud muttered. Tifa's joyful demeanor fell.
"Oh," she said softly, turning her head as Cloud took another drink. It really was selfish of her to feel this way when Aeris came up as a topic of discussion. She had entertained thoughts of maybe, just maybe, of Cloud coming to love her like she loved him in the time after the flower girl's death. It was cruel but she couldn't help it. She was happy that he still got to see her, she really was. Cloud was happy, and that was something she couldn't make him, but Aeris could. That in itself was just another depressing thought about her doomed romance with the swordsman, just another one on the pile.
"So what's up?" she asked. This was about Cloud, not her. He came to see her and talk to her, the least she could do is put aside her personal issues and help him.
"Well…I keep seeing her. You know that," Cloud started.
"Yeah, you said she was having you take care of the church garden," Tifa nodded.
"Right. And she talks to me all the time, she walks around and jokes with me and watches the flowers…it's almost like she's really back." Cloud fell silent and took another drink.
"But….?" Tifa prompted, knowing the catch was coming.
"But…whenever we really start talking, it gets…" Cloud struggled for the word that wouldn't make the conversation more horribly uncomfortable than it already was. "It gets…friendlier…and I want to…" he trailed off again. Tifa, of all people, was simultaneously the best and worst person to be talking to about this. "Kiss her," he blurted.
"Oh," Tifa said blankly.
"But I can't," Cloud scowled. "I know it's not her fault and it's not mine and it's not anyone's, but sometimes it gets so damn frustrating! I want to hold her, kiss her, but…she's not really there. I try and touch her and go right through her. I just want to actually be with her, not just talk to her and see her. The only time I've ever touched her since...well, was when we were fighting Bahamut SIN and she helped me, but she hasn't done it once since."
"Well, not to sound harsh, but she is dead, Cloud," Tifa said as softly as she could.
"Doesn't make you feel better does it?"
"Not a bit."
Cloud took a long drink of his beer, getting it nearly half empty. Tifa watched and sighed. She'd seen far too many men drown their sorrows in a bottle because they wanted to numb whatever pain they were feeling. But not Cloud, he wasn't going to end up that way. Not when he loved and was loved, not on her watch.
"Well…nothing can change that. But you have to tell her you feel this way," she advised.
"Tell her what? 'I love you but I'm pissed off that you're dead and I can't touch you'?" Cloud said dryly.
"Maybe a little nicer than that," Tifa rolled her eyes. "I mean, you can't touch her, neither of you can help that. But if you just keep it bottled up like this it'll drive you apart and I know that's not what you want. If you tell her, at least it's out in the open and you can come to terms with it properly."
"How am I supposed to tell her that?" Cloud asked.
"I don't know. But you should," Tifa repeated. Cloud took another drink of his beer and thought for a moment.
"Do you think I'm…being stupid?" he said suddenly.
"Huh?" Tifa asked.
"I love her, I do, but…we can't really be together, well, we spend time together but it's not like we can do anything else. Do you think I'm stupid for being with her knowing that?"
"No," Tifa shook her head. "Love is never stupid, it's always the right away. It's just not always the easy way."
"Tell me about it," Cloud nodded. He took a last drink and stood up. "Um, how much?"
"I told you, it's on the house," Tifa waved her hand. Cloud smiled.
"Thanks. For this," he said.
"Any time," Tifa replied. She'd be lying if she said she wasn't jealous of what the dead flower girl had, but Cloud and Aeris had a large, impossible to climb obstacle in their path. She had to at least try and help them pass it, as much as they could. Cloud walked out the door and shut it quietly behind him.
Cloud sat on his back, hands folded under his head. The flowers and soft soil beside him glowed slightly in the green bask of the Lifestream-infused water that nurtured them. He had joked with Aeris that they were just being mutated and would end up mutants like the Shin-Ra waste had done to the Midgar Zolom. He had gotten a glare for that. The stars high overhead were bright in the dark-blue sky, and Cloud remembered a time when he looked up at them and wondered if someone was staring back. Taking a breath as he felt a familiar twinge of energy, he was silent as she lay down beside him, hands over her stomach.
"You ever think there's someone up there?" Aeris asked suddenly.
"Jenova came from space. Maybe there's life out there somewhere," she clarified.
"A whole planet of Jenovas?" Cloud shivered. Considering all the havoc the alien had caused, the thought of more of them among the stars chilled him.
"Not really, just another planet with life like this one. Maybe there's a world where the Chocobos build the cities and talk and dress like we do."
"A planet of talking Chocobos?" Cloud asked, turning his head. Aeris scrunched her face up.
"I dunno, maybe. Just thinking aloud. You have a lot of time to think when you're dead. Really makes you wonder about some things," she explained. "It'd be a funny place that's for sure."
"I guess," Cloud shrugged.
"No really, think about it." Aeris lifted a finger and pointed to a star on the right. "Riiiight there, that star. There's a planet orbiting it, full of talking Chocobos. And there's a Chocobo Midgar, and a Chocobo Kalm, and a Chocobo Junon."
"Is there a Chocobo Chocobo farm?" Cloud asked.
"Of course not, don't be silly," Aeris scolded. "There's a Chocobo Human farm though." Cloud burst out into a grin and stifled his laughter. Aeris wasn't finished. "And hey, in Chocobo Midgar there's a little church, and inside there's a Chocobo Cloud and a Chocobo Aeris. And Chocobo Aeris has a pink bow in her feathers, and Chocobo Cloud…" Aeris cast a not-so-discreet glance at Cloud's hair. "Well, nevermind."
"Hey!" Cloud cried. Aeris giggled as he rolled his eyes.
"And right now Chocobo Aeris is looking up at the stars thinking 'I wonder if there's a planet where humans build the cities and walk and talk'," she continued.
"And I'll bet Chocobo Cloud is listening to her wondering what he did to end up with such a lunatic," Cloud muttered.
"He got lucky," Aeris shot back, turning her head and sticking out her tongue. Cloud turned his head as she smiled at him and giggled, and stood up with a sigh.
"What's wrong?" Aeris asked, her humor fading.
"We need to talk," Cloud said. "When I left this morning…I wasn't alright. And I haven't been for a while."
"What, what's going on?" Aeris stood up behind him.
"It's…I don't know how to say it…" Cloud struggled.
"Cloud, you can talk to me about anything," she said softly. "I love you, whatever it is we can get past it."
"It's…this!" Cloud turned and swung his hand though the air. Aeris looked down as his hand passed through her midsection without resistance. "There!" Cloud exclaimed. "That!"
"I don't understand," Aeris said, lifting her head.
"I…I want to hold you!" Cloud moaned, taking a few steps forward and putting a hand on one of the benches. "I want to take your hand and hug you and kiss you…but I can't do any of it because I wouldn't even realize you were there if you didn't talk to me!"
"You can't touch me," Aeris sighed.
"Exactly, and I want to, more than anything!" Cloud shouted. "And I know I'm shouting and I'm angry and I don't know at who or what, I just know I'm angry because it's so goddamn unfair!" He forced himself to calm down and turned to face her. Aeris' face was drawn in sadness as she bit her lip. "Even now," he whispered. "I just want to take you into my arms and kiss you…until you're happy again. But I can't. And it kills me. Do you have any idea how hard it is to want to feel someone, even just a touch on the arm, but you can't?"
"Actually, I do," Aeris said softly, stepping forward and lifting a hand. Cloud's eyes moved down as she moved to cup his cheek and her hand passed through him as his had done to her.
"It's not fair…" he shook his head. "I love you but I want to hold you. I don't want to be without that. I mean, we're never going to have sex, or get married or have a family or have a house or anything. But I knew that a long time ago, it wasn't going to be like that. And I knew I couldn't touch you. I just didn't think it'd end up being so hard."
"I know it's hard," Aeris nodded. "But we can get past this."
"No we can't, you're dead!" Cloud cried. Aeris stepped back at his outburst. "How do we get past that?" Cloud hung his head, ashamed for speaking to her in such a way. Sure, he couldn't touch her, but at least she spoke to him. Did he want to lose that too?
"Close your eyes."
Cloud lifted his head as Aeris stepped back towards him, her face blank.
"Close your eyes," Aeris repeated. "And whatever you do, don't open them, they're distracting." Cloud stared at her in confusion for a moment before obeying and shutting his eyes. Aeris vanished to him right away. No sound of breathing or footsteps, no body heat, no physical presence except for the inner knowledge she was still nearby. He waited for a moment, then a minute. Nothing happened, and he fidgeted. What was she doing?
Cloud fell silent at her order and waited. Waited. And waited. Another minute passed. He still felt her presence, but nothing had changed about it that he could tell. What was he supposed to be doing?
"What are you doing?" Cloud asked, getting annoyed. Suddenly, there was a small whoosh, and a hand came up to cover his eyes. Cloud's back straightened and he let out a small gasp, opening his eyes to see the hand, make sure it was real. He heard a floorboard creak, and felt a warm breath of air against his mouth.
Cloud trembled slightly as Aeris kissed him, soft lips pressing against his own. His hand slowly came up to where he knew her face had to be, and he almost collapsed as he felt her skin beneath his fingertips. Tears slowly leaked out from under Aeris' hand as she pressed against his mouth, and Cloud tilted her head back slightly, savoring every moment and wishing it would never, ever end. Not at long last when he had waited for years for exactly this.
Suddenly, it was gone. There was a rush of air around him, and the divine feeling of soft skin and pink lips vanished. Cloud let out a moan of protest, and slowly opened his eyes. Aeris stood right before him, blushing furiously. Cloud looked down at his hand, now cupping air, and moved it forward. It passed right through her shoulder, but the amazement of what happened was still in force full inside his head.
"How did you do that?" he whispered.
"I…I wasn't sure I could anymore," Aeris admitted. "I just focused and hoped. It was hard."
"Do you think you could do it again?" Cloud asked, excited at what it could mean.
"I hope so…but not now. That was exhausting," Aeris replied, sitting down on the floorboards and blinking as she drew her legs against her chest. Cloud sat down beside her. "That took a lot of energy out of me, tired me out…even keeping it going that long was almost painful. It's hard enough gathering the energy to just appear to you," she explained.
"But…if you rested, maybe…could you?" Cloud pleaded. Aeris forced a smile and turned to face him. He knew what she was saying, it hurt and was tiring, but if she could do it, even for just a few seconds…
"I could try," she said.
Cloud smiled back. The sadness, shock and exhaustion on her face were clear, and once again he wished he could kiss her until all those emotions vanished and she was happy and laughing again. But he couldn't.
That was alright. He could wait until tomorrow.