Cloud swerved Fenrir around, slowing to a stop. He turned off the motorcycle and fished his keys from the side. Standing up, he turned and looked up at the old church looming before him. Smiling, he lowered his eyes and walked inside, his boots echoing on the floorboards.
He really wanted to talk to Reeve, see if he couldn't convince the man to spring for a couple workers to come by and fix the damage that Kadaj and his brothers had done to the church. Granted, the church had always been in a state of disrepair, but now the stone pillars were crumbling, the pews were overturned and in pieces. Fortunately, the most important part of the church lay undisturbed at the front.
Cloud stopped by the edge of what had once been a flower bed and knelt down. The flowers still grew on the water's edge, and had even begun to sprout between the cracks of the floorboards. The pool of water had no source, of course, but it never diminished or overflowed. Cloud wasn't surprised.
He reached out a hand and dipped it into the cool water, lifting a few droplets in his palm and sipping them. The water tasted as it always had – crisp, clean and delicious. It was slightly luminous if one came here at night, but Cloud knew better than to think the green glow was any malicious or harmful. He waited for a moment, staring at the water's surface silently, before he saw her approach behind him.
"You're back," Aerith said softly.
"Of course," Cloud replied, reaching over to pluck a pale yellow flower bloom. He twirled the stem between his fingertips as he spoke. "I talked to Reeve a bit. He said he might send someone by in a couple days to check the church out."
"Oh? What for?"
"I was thinking maybe he could fix it up a bit. I mean, Loz and Kadaj did a number on this place," Cloud gestured to the rubble behind him.
"Hm," Aerith mused, looking up. Cloud turned to her, letting the flower fall from his grasp into the water.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Well I understand why you'd do that, I do. This place does need repairs. All the same, it's our place."
"If you don't want them to," Cloud said quickly.
"No, it's alright," Aerith insisted, lowering her gaze back to him. "So how are you doing?"
"Better. I mean, I'm not jumping for glee, glad to be breathing," Cloud began, "but I'm doing okay. I started up the delivery service again. It's easier now that I don't have Geostigma forcing me to make stops all the time to rest. Tifa's running the bar again, she's doing more business since Denzel doesn't need care all the time…"
"Cloud, you didn't come here to talk about that stuff," Aerith interrupted softly. Cloud lowered his head. As usual she saw right through him. Some things never changed.
"I just wanted to see you again," he admitted. "I missed you." Aerith smiled and leaned over, laying her head on his shoulder.
"I missed you too," she replied. "You know I'm always here for you, you just have to come. You make things way too hard on yourself Cloud."
"I do not," he defended sharply. "I just…I just want peace is all, and when I come here…is that wrong?"
"Of course not. But you have peace now," Aerith said. "You just have to accept that." Cloud opened his mouth to reply, and froze. A single black feather floated from the air, drifting back and forth and finally landing in the water. Cloud stared down at the feather, then lifted his head and looked up.
The sun above shined in his eyes as a black wing extended into the air among silver and white tendrils. A cry echoed into the air, and Cloud jumped back, the light blinding him. His arm snapped back to grab the handle of the sword strapped to his back and he drew it, holding the blade out. The black wing retracted and Cloud panted for breath as he stared up at the ceiling.
The raven perched in the ceiling rafters turned its head to the side and stared at the blonde, then opened its beak and cawed at him again. Cloud glared at it as it screeched and fluttered its wings, another black feather falling to the water. He sheathed the sword with a sigh.
"You see? You see a single black feather and you leap into action," Aerith said behind him.
"I'm just being careful."
"You're being paranoid. Cloud…you don't have to be afraid anymore. The fight is over, hm?"
"Is it?" Cloud muttered darkly. "Let's see, I leave my village when I'm a kid, I join a company conquering the world, they conduct a bunch of genetic experiments on me and I spend the next few years thinking I'm someone else, then I have to fight him, twice. I think I have the right to be on edge. If Sephiroth comes back…"
"I'd hope for his sake he's learned his lesson," Aerith said with a small smirk. Cloud turned around. "You've beaten him three, four times now? Sephiroth isn't a fool Cloud, if I were him and I came back I'd stay far away from you."
"Sure," Cloud said, smiling against his will.
"Besides, he's still in the Lifestream," Aerith clasped her hands behind her back and tilted her head back. "I've been keeping an eye on him…well, not literally, but you know what I mean. He tries anything, I'll know."
"So what, now you're my bodyguard?" Cloud said coyly.
"Yup. I got your back," Aerith grinned. "You don't have to be afraid anymore Cloud. I mean it when I say I'm watching over you. And I'm not the only one."
"What do you mean?" Cloud asked, confused. Aerith stepped back and pointed. Cloud turned to look at the circular stained-glass window over the doors of the church. It depicted a woman with long brown hair and white armor wielding a sword and a shield. A pair of shining white wings extended from her back and a golden crown covered her head.
"Back when he was with SOLDIER, I had Zack track down a little bit of info on the church. It was built a long time before Midgar was built, back when the sectors were individual cities. It was a shrine to the Goddess Minerva."
"Who?" Cloud said.
"Minerva. She's the Goddess of the planet, the avatar of the will of the Lifestream itself. It's said that anyone who fights to defend the planet, receives her divine protection. Anyone who stands against the destruction of the Lifestream, is in her holy graces." Aerith turned and lifted a hand, tapping Cloud on the nose. "And that, Mr. Strife, makes you a platinum member of Club Minerva. Trust me when I say she and I aren't letting you go anywhere for a long time." Cloud chuckled.
"You're insane, you know that?"
"You're the one talking to a dead girl."
Cloud and Aerith stared at each other for a moment before she broke down laughing. Cloud shook his head at her.
"Thanks. For…you know," Cloud said.
"No problem," Aerith said. "Now it's late, get outta here and have a good meal."
"Sure. See you tomorrow?" Cloud asked.
"I'll have to check my schedule," Aerith sighed, cocking her head and thinking. Cloud smiled as she slowly dispersed in a series of glowing green and white tendrils of energy. Taking a last look at the water, he turned and walked toward the church door. There was a cry, and Cloud looked over his shoulder as the raven on the church rafters flapped its wings and took out, swooping down over his head and out the door of the church. Cloud turned his head to watch it go, and resumed his walk.
There was a creak, and Cloud froze. The creak grew louder, and there was a loud, audible crack. Cloud gasped and spun. One of the stone pillars supporting the ceiling cracked along a large missing portion of the lower part of the pillar, and the stone collapsed. Cloud watched as the pillar fell, tearing the rafters apart. Stone and wood collapsed, and Cloud finally turned and began to run. He made it a foot when a rafter fell in front of him, and Cloud skidded to a halt. He looked back up as the pillar came down, and raised his arm.
- - - - - - - - - -
Cloud winced and slowly opened his eyes to see a large man staring down at him. Cloud gasped and sat up, and the man jumped back. Cloud looked around. Somehow, he was lying down on one of the intact pews in the church. He felt something on his forehead, and raised a hand. He drew it back to find blood on his fingertips.
"What happened?" he asked. The man waved his hand behind him, and Cloud noticed the stone pillar lying on the floor, rubble lying around it. A new hole had been torn in the church roof where it had once stood.
"The WRO sent me to take a look at the place, I found ya sleeping in the pew here," the man fell. Cloud blinked.
"But…the pillar fell," he protested. "I couldn't get out of the way in time…"
"What?" the man laughed. "No way pal. If that thing fell on ya, you'd be long dead!"
"Well I wasn't cut like this when I got here," Cloud said, irritated, pointing to the cut on his head.
"Heh, well maybe ya got a guardian angel or something, who knows?"
"Yeah…I guess," Cloud said.
"Come on, I got a kit, let's get ya patched up," the man said, turning to the first aid kit on the pew behind him. Cloud looked up at the hole in the roof above the flowers. The sun had apparently set, and the moon was high in the sky. Tifa and Marlene were probably worried. Something caught Cloud's eye, and he focused in on the object floating down from the rafters of the church. He slowly put up a hand and caught it in his palm.
It was a small, downy white feather.
Cloud looked at it for a moment, then looked up over his head. In the rafters overhead, Aerith sat on one of them, smiling down at him. Cloud smiled at her, and looked down at the feather in his hand.
"I guess I do have a guardian angel," he whispered.