It's funny how stories can take on lives of their own. This started as an idea for a short oneshot based on a song called "The Little Match Girl", and grew into a longer oneshot, and now a small mini-fic. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Cloud
"They're only a gil," Aerith whispered, holding a small, slightly frostbitten blossom. The man in the brown coat ignored her in the bustle of the street and kept walking, talking into his cell phone and not even sparing her a glance. Aerith sighed and took back her hand, placing the small flower back into the basket on her arm. She had worked hard to take care of these flowers, protecting them from the cold in the hopes the sight of a somewhat fresh flower would sell better than a flower covered in frost. Apparently, she was wrong.
"Please, just one, they're a gil each," Aerith called out hoarsely, trying to catch the attention of anyone who would listen. Someone bumped her hip, and Aerith cried out as she fell, sending her basket and flowers scattering in the snow. Aerith winced and reached out for the basket. A boot came out of nowhere, kicked it and kept walking. The flower girl watched as the wind blew the basket into the street, and a car zoomed by and reduced it to a series of wicker fibers. Aerith groaned and turned back to see her flowers trampled into the snow by the crowd. She stood and clutched her one-size too small red jacket closer around herself, shivering violently in the air of the night. It was late, and the crowds had been thinning for the last few hours.
Reaching down to gather the few flowers that hadn't been destroyed, Aerith clutched them to her chest and brushed the snow from them. She tucked them in the pocket of her tattered, dirty blue jeans and stood. Blowing on her hands to warm them, Aerith made her way down the street and ducked into an alley. The true outlaws and criminals came out at this time, and she had no desire to be out when they came around. She wandered down to a dumpster, and leaned up on tiptoe to peek inside. Nothing. Another night without a meal. Not that what she scrounged up could be considered meals anyway…
With a small whimper, Aerith sat down beside the dumpster, shivering again. She slid a hand into the pocket of her jeans and withdrew a small, worn photo of a woman in a red sweater holding a child with light brown hair. She pressed quivering lips to the picture.
"Good night, mama."
Aerith placed the photograph back and curled up, leaning against the side of the dumpster. She fell asleep to the inconsistent lullaby of her own chattering teeth and shaky breaths of dry air.
"As you can see, the foliage in the area was damaged long before Shinra came and set up our drilling plant in the forest," Rufus Shinra lectured, waving a hand at the photographs on the table that Cloud was fairly sure had been doctored. All the same, he made a show of picking up one and examining it.
"So these allegations of environmental harm are false," he said carefully, lifting blue eyes to watch Rufus. He knew they were true, everyone knew that Shinra's drilling plants caused heavy environmental damage wherever they were built. But it wasn't his place to prove who was guilty, if he had wanted that Cloud would have become a prosecutor. No, his job was a defense attorney. Cloud had pursued the career under the impression he could help the innocent avoid false accusations. Now it seemed he helped the unlawful avoid rightful justice.
"Completely false, Shinra has made every attempt to preserve the Nibel Forest as best we can, these extremists are irrational fools," Rufus agreed. "But I'm sure an attorney of your caliber can see this."
"Yeah," Cloud muttered. "Well, Mr. Shinra, your case seems valid and winnable. Of course, you understand I'll have to discuss it with my colleagues before we take it, nothing personal, but that's how we operate."
"Yes yes, please discuss it," Rufus nodded, rising. "Here is my card, call me if there's anything you wish to ask me." Rufus pulled a small business card from his pocket and held it out. Cloud extended his hand, and Rufus patted the card into his palm. "Call when you are satisfied and we can discuss your fee, hm?" Rufus drew his hand back, and Cloud looked down at the business card, turning his hand to look at the thousand gil note that the vice president had folded up under it.
"I do not take bribes, Mr. Shinra," Cloud said, glaring slightly. "I assure you I am aware of Shinra's profit margins."
"Then you know what type of fee we would be willing to pay," Rufus smiled. "As for that, consider it…a mere charitable donation. Good evening, Mr. Strife."
Cloud nodded and dropped the card and the note into his pocket, turning and walking out of the boardroom. He stopped to grab his jacket from the chair in the waiting room and stepped briskly to the elevators, sliding the sleeves over his dark purple dress shirt and black tie. He pushed the button for the elevator and waited as the car came up to the floor. He had been reluctant to work this late on a Saturday, but Sephiroth had been busy with another client and Tifa was out of town for the weekend. It had fallen to him to see Rufus.
The elevator opened on the ground floor, and Cloud walked out of the Shinra building and out into the lightly falling snow. Shivering slightly, he began walking down the street to the parking lot where he had parked three hours ago. Brushing a blond bang from his eyes, he pulled Rufus' business card from his pocket and looked at it as he walked. He wasn't comfortable with handling the Shinra, but the firm hadn't been doing that well the last few months and the Shinra company had money, even if it was acquired through less than moral means.
A gust of wind came up, and Cloud gasped as the card whipped out of his hands and blew down an alleyway. Grumbling, he turned and walked after it. Another gust kicked it further down the alley, and Cloud cried out, running. He stepped down on the card and picked it up, brushing it off. A clicking sound caught his ear, and Cloud lifted his eyes to search for the source. He stepped forward to a dumpster, wrinkling his nose at the stench, and looked around the side.
A young woman lay curled up asleep against the wall, her teeth chattering and her lips quivering. Cloud's mouth fell open. The woman was wearing a red jacket that was way too small for her, over a dirty blouse that may have once been pink, and torn and ripped blue jeans. He kneeled down, shocked that such a woman could be sleeping in such intense cold with such improper clothing for the weather.
"Excuse me, miss?" he said softly, shaking the woman's knee. She didn't respond. Cloud peered closer at her. Had she not been in such a sad state, the woman would actually have been quite pretty, borderline beautiful even. She had a heart-shaped face and pale skin, although that was likely due to the cold. Her hair was light brown and matted with snow and dirt, and hung down her back to an extent Cloud couldn't see. Cloud blushed at the realization he was thinking such a way about this woman in her current state, and shook her a little harder. Still no response.
Cloud stood and thought for a moment. He couldn't leave her here, she was freezing and for all he knew she wouldn't wake up. He couldn't wake her up either and ask if she was okay, she wasn't responsive, and it would be horribly improper to press a bill into her hand or to call an ambulance, or to search her pockets for some next of kin identification. Cloud frowned as he weighed his options. One thing was clear – he couldn't just walk away and leave her here to possibly freeze to death.
Looking back years later, Cloud couldn't quite figure out what possessed him to do what he did. A much more practical and sensible thing to do would have been to wake her up and help her find shelter for the night. But in the end, he did what he did nonetheless. Cloud knelt down and slid an arm under the woman's knees, and the other behind her back. Making sure he had a good grip, Cloud stood up, lifting her off the asphalt. The woman's head fell to his shoulder and her arms hung loose. Cloud looked down at her, waiting for her to awaken. She didn't.
Sighing, Cloud looked around and began walking back to the parking lot.
Aerith groaned and turned her head over away from the sunlight on her face, whimpering at the realization she had woken up to another day of no food and no sales. Sighing, she snuggled closer under the covers, hoping to fall back asle-
Aerith opened her eyes wide as she realized she was neither outside or cold, two reliefs that were just that, and confusing as well. She sat up and jumped out of the bed, looking around in terror. The bed was large enough for one person, with dark red pillows and a black velvet comforter. The small indentation in the mattress beckoned her back, but Aerith ignored it and looked around.
She was in a small bedroom, well-furnished and painted in soft creams and browns. A large dresser lay against the wall with a small TV and a pile of books and folders on it. Another book with a bottle of painkillers and a remote for the TV lay on the table by the bed. Aerith took in the modest luxury with quiet wonder. The bed alone probably cost more than she had earned in her entire life. Aerith looked down and slipped her brown boots over her bare feet, registering someone had taken them off before putting her in the bed.
The door to the bedroom creaked open, and Aerith padded into the hall. Whoever had brought her here had to be around, or at least some clue to their identity had to been here. The hall presented three doors to her, and opened into a larger room at the end. Aerith peered down it but couldn't see much. She pushed open the closest door. A small white and blue washroom. Aerith had to go, but it could wait. She looked at the sink and put an arm through the door to lift and examine a bottle. Shaving gel. Aerith looked up and saw an electric razor on a stand nearby. A man's apartment, then.
Putting the bottle back, Aerith closed the door and opened the next one down the hall. A large study. Two small bookshelves crammed with books that she could see. The ones with the larger print on their spines she could read from where she stood; "Law Through the Ages", and "Common Defenses of the Scoundrel" were two of the titles. A computer with a printer and fax machine lay in the middle of the room on a large wooden desk. Aerith clicked the door shut again, and opened the final door. A linen closet with towels and extra bed sheets. She closed it. Aerith looked down the hall at the front room and walked to the end of the hall.
The hall opened into a spacious living room with two large light brown sofas. One was covered with a light blue blanket, a low snore coming from under it. Aerith stared at it, watching a section of the sheet rise and fall in time with the snores. Perhaps her mysterious benefactor? She resolved to wait before she investigated that, and looked at the room, feeling more nervous and out of place than ever. The entire room spoke of money, practicality and intelligence.
A large entertainment unit held a stack of DVDs and several Blue-Ray disks with a large TV and two disk players on a shelf above. Several framed pictures were on top of the unit some small figurines and other trinkets. There was a glass coffee table with black legs, and a large archway that seemed to connect to the dining room. The room was spacious and well-furnished, and Aerith hugged herself, feeling oddly small in such a place. She turned and noticed something else hanging on the wall.
It was a portrait, three portraits, actually. Three people in dark blue suits stood together in a classical painting. Aerith couldn't identify the style, but the background was a deep brown and black and the three people faded from the torso down. One man had sharp, angular green eyes with long silver bangs and a thin nose and lips. He looked handsome enough, but his expression was hard and cold. Beside him on his left was a young woman with long black hair with dark brown highlights. Her eyes were dark red, and round. She was rather pretty, and was the only person in the picture smiling.
Behind them and between the two people was a young man. He had light blond hair styled into small spikes, lying loose but not messy. His cheeks and chin were chiseled and strong, and he had bright blue eyes. Aerith peered closer. His lips were set in a neutral tone, and he wasn't smiling or frowning. But his eyes…beyond the eyes was something…something Aerith couldn't decipher. Like an inner glow, but with an inner darkness too… She stepped back to get a better look.
Aerith cried out as she stepped on something – a shoe – and stumbled back. Her leg hit the arm of the sofa behind her, and she fell backwards onto the blue sheet. With twin screams of surprise, the two tumbled off the sofa onto the floor. Aerith hit the carpet and grunted indignantly.
"Yuffie, I told you not to do that anymore, I'm going to end up breaking something like that!"
Aerith opened her eyes at the muffled voice coming from underneath the blue sheet beside her. She reached out a small hand to lift the sheet up. Underneath the sheet, a young man rubbed his forehead, his eyes clenched shut. He pushed himself and turned to look at her, and his eyes widened. Aerith stared, unable to help herself. The portrait had come to life.
"Oh…hey," he whispered.
"You…brought me here," Aerith stated, not needing to ask. The man nodded.
"Yeah, this is my place. I'm Cloud." The man held out his hand, and Aerith hesitantly took it.