Disclaimer: Verdantly not mine.
A/N: Written while listening to Yiruma and trying to write prize fics for people. Me, blocked and procrastinating? Whatever gave you that idea?
Flowers We Are
© Scribbler, June 2009.
A flower's appeal is in its contradictions – so delicate in form, yet strong in fragrance; so small in size, yet big in beauty; so short in life, yet long on effect. -- Adabella Radici
Once upon a time there was a flower girl who lived in a city of darkness and fear.
She wasn't always a flower girl. Before, she was just a girl who felt frightened all the time, and sometimes heard voices in her head. She arrived in the city on a train where death was a fellow passenger, and from that day on it seemed to follow her wherever she went, like a puppy that couldn't be kicked away.
The city killed its own and ate them alive. Growing up, she saw muggings gone wrong, passed addicts who'd gone too far while escaping reality, and knew those who disappeared without warning because they ticked off the wrong people. She felt the Planet moan in pain and spent much of her childhood smiling by day, reassuring a mother who remembered that first pair of deaths, and then covering her head with her pillow at night trying to block out the noises that were only in her head. She wanted nothing more than to be a normal girl, probably because she knew it would never happen and it's the nature of humanity to want what it can't have. In a way that was a comfort in itself. At least it meant she was human.
"It's just me and my daughter here," said the woman from the train station, whom from that day forward she'd call mother. "I don't know anything about any 'Ancients' or whatever. The only thing ancient around here is my stove, and I doubt you want that."
The man in the doorway wore a black suit and tie, a pressed white shirt, and dark glasses even though it was gloomy under the Plate. His shirt-cuffs were pristine and there was no grime on his neck or collar. He radiated sophisticated menace. "You sure about that, ma'am?"
"You mean you do want my stove?"
"Thank you," she said to the woman, who had turned and slid down the closed door after the man was gone.
"As if I'd let a brute like that get hold of you. I promised I'd take care of you, and I mean to keep my promises." The woman reached out tentatively, hesitating as the thought of her husband's death notice obviously popped into her head. Then she drew her into a hug so tight it was a wonder either of them could breathe. "Those Turks. You stay away from them, you hear me? If you see a man or a woman dressed like that, you just turn and walk the other way. I don't care if they're bleeding on the ground, you keep away from them, don't even let them see you if you can help it, and don't ever let them get you alone."
"You're hurting me -"
"Promise me, Aerith."
The promise was meant well, but it made the seeds of fear inside her blossom and grow, winding down her arms and legs, and up into her brain, like some choking vine. She became a teenager, learned the tricks of surviving in that ruthless world, but the fear remained inside her always.
Then, against all odds, she found a special place where she didn't feel frightened anymore. The air there tasted different; not so rank with dread and despair. She found friends there who didn't ask her for anything she wasn't prepared to give, who listened unequivocally when she talked, and didn't judge her for what she could feel through the soles of her feet and the sole of her mind. It didn't even matter that they weren't human. In that dreary city, any splash of colour was welcome.
"You're looking much happier these days," her mother said with surprise.
"Yes. Is there … something I should know about?"
But she remembered the look on her mother's face the day she learned her husband wasn't coming home; that particular flavour of horror in a face already prematurely lined by fear.
"No. Nothing important."
"There's nobody you want to tell me about?"
"Um … Mr. Zwarta's rheumatism was so bad today that he couldn't even get out of bed?"
"That's not what I meant. Although that's pretty bad. If those nasty kids from his neighbourhood figure out he'd bed-bound, who knows what they'll get up to. But Aerith, what I meant was … uh … well, you're getting older now. You're turning into a young woman, and your body will be going through certain changes that make men … that is to say … if you ever wanted to bring home a boy, I'd be delighted to meet him, as long as you were careful to always … er …"
She blushed nearly as hard as her mother. "This is the birds and the bees talk, isn't it?"
"Did I already do this part?"
"You started once or twice. Then we both got embarrassed and pretended you already finished."
Actually, it wasn't that the topic itself that mortified her, the way it did other teenagers. It was more that the idea of sex conjured images of young women she'd seen canting their hips on street corners, eyeing her unpleasantly, like she was competition – or worse, the girl she'd once seen stumbling home with her skirt ripped, make-up smeared like war paint; and the other who'd lain so still in the gutter while the last scream, loosed hours earlier, echoed in her head.
Later, talking to her new friends, she said of her mother, "She wouldn't understand. Or … maybe she would, but not the part about coming here. This is a bad area. It's the bad part of a bad area, too. She'd think I was being foolish, coming all this way for something so small. I think it's stupid, and I'm the one who keeps coming back to see you all."
The flowers nodded as if they agreed.
They made her feel connected with the Planet in a different way than she had before. When she dug into the soil, crumbled it between her fingers and moistened it with water from her flask, she felt like she was doing things on her own terms. Suddenly it wasn't just her hearing things; voices and feelings entering her whether she wanted them to or not. She was reaching out – making her own choices for once, not just waiting for things to happen to her. She felt safer surrounded by the flowers than she did surrounded by the walls of her own house.
She tended them every day, and proved you can do anything desperately, including gardening. She hoped they'd bring light to her world, and for a while they did, but she couldn't help the darkness swallowing them at the end of each day, just like it did everything else under the Plate. The flowers vanished, and she was once again left in shadows that seemed hungrier than stray dogs she passed on her way home. The dogs chewed things she didn't like to look at, but which made her shiver, and her veins tingle as the Planet cried for what its children had become.
"Aerith?" her mother asked as she ran upstairs. "What's wrong?"
"It doesn't' sound like noth-"
"I'd rather not talk about it." Mostly because she had trouble explaining it even to herself. A fifteen year old wasn't supposed to be scared of the dark. Not in a city like this, anyway, where you grew up in the dark like fungus, and natural light was rarer than diamonds.
Eventually she brought candles, bartered her precious blooms for LEDs and batteries, and tried to stave off the darkness that way. She wasn't sure why, but she felt a deep and powerful need to keep the frail, sickly little plants free from the filth and gloom that had characterised her life up to that point. She wanted them to get stronger. She wanted them not just to live, but to thrive, the way she somehow knew plants used to, before humans decided to live in cities and bury them in concrete.
As if to say thank you, her flowers brought her a different kind of light to illuminate her world. He didn't grow in the middle of them, but dropped down from above, like a sunbeam – if sunbeams carried swords that weighed more than her whole body. Her flowers offered him up, some of them giving their lives to break his fall. After she returned from her outing with him, she tended their poor broken little bodies and thanked them for their gift. They swayed in the faint breeze of her passing as if acknowledging her words.
She told her flowers each time he was coming to visit. It seemed polite. Once or twice he walked in before the allotted time and heard her.
"You talk to plants?" he said, raising an eyebrow the colour of shadows but not nearly as intimidating.
"Of course," she replied. "It's the only way I can be sure of intelligent conversation."
"Present company excepted, of course."
"When did I say that?"
She was always cheekier around him. Something about him just seemed to invite poking fun, and she'd gone so long without this simple pleasure that she made the most of his company. In time, spending more time with him became the thing she wanted most in the world.
Being around the ones most precious to her made her feel brave and lush and new. She was still frightened, but not all the time anymore. She no longer dreaded hearing the voices. When she was with her flowers she felt like she was part of something bigger than herself, and when she was with him she knew she was safe from the city and what lived in it. They both protected her in different ways, and her personality uncurled, like a tightly clenched bud finally reaching for the light.
"You're singing," her mother said with undisguised surprise when she woke one morning to find breakfast already prepared. It was too salty, and the edges were burned, but neither of them commented on that. "I haven't heard you sing in years."
"I just felt like singing."
"Mm-hm. Right. So, do I get to know his name?"
She liked this new person, this flower girl. People started calling her by the name and she didn't mind, even though it was dangerous to stand out in this city – for her especially. The people in dark suits hadn't gone away, after all, though they didn't try to grab her in the street anymore. She felt comfortable starting up her own little business and standing, bold as brass, where she could be seen, as if she was challenging the world to try something so she could prove she had a protector now.
"Hey, Flower Girl," said her customers. "What do you got today?"
"Daffodils," she would smile. Or sometimes she'd murmur, "Tulips," or "Chrysanthemums," or "Carnations."
"You know all their names," he said in wonder on the days he came to help her sell things from her cart – the bright little cart he built for her. Out of love? She felt filled with light to think it; glowing, bursting at the seams, like a seed pod ready to pop. "Half the people in Midgar have never even seen one flower in their whole lives, but you know them all by name."
"They introduce themselves."
"Now you're just messing with me."
She gave one of her brand new teasing smirks, but didn't correct him.
Sometimes he showed off for her. He showed her moves with his sword, making it zing through the air like it weighed nothing at all. For someone in combat boots and armour, he moved surprisingly gracefully. When she said this, he told her it was how he'd been trained.
"No point in galumphing about like a grunt if you're a First Class."
"What made you want to be a SOLDIER?"
"The promise of all the beautiful available girls I'd meet in Midgar."
She giggled. "Was it a calling? Or did Shin-Ra's advertising get to you?"
"I don't think it was a calling. I don't really remember. I've just always wanted to be a SOLDIER. I wanted to be the best, and I wanted to be able to defend people. I wanted the honour, too, if I'm being honest. I wanted to be counted as worth something. Preserving that honour is what keeps me going now. Well, that and your own lovely self."
"Charmer – not. I've never heard such a tired old line." She pillowed her head on her arms and nestled against his side, stretched out in the middle of her garden where the smell was heady and intoxicating. "It must be nice."
"What must be nice?"
"Having that sense of purpose. Knowing what you want to do with your life. I don't know what I want to do with mine."
"Survive to adulthood sounds like a good idea."
"Mmm. But just surviving isn't a real life, is it?"
"Don't worry," he assured her. "It'll come to you. Maybe you won't stay in Midgar. Maybe you'll have some flash of inspiration someday and realise you want to be a … a chocobo breeder, or gold prospector, or something. You'll bolt from this city and never look back, except to blow it a raspberry, since you're too classy to flip it the bird."
"You think I'm classy?"
"Classier than me. I'm a rough diamond."
He laughed and pulled her against him, so she could hear his heartbeat and smell his distinct scent.
The day he told her he loved her was the day he went away forever. She went to her flowers that day, walked right into the centre of them to spin around with delight, and unexpectedly shivered. Usually she felt good when she was surrounded by their colours, but now she felt cold from the inside out. She cupped her elbows, not knowing why she felt so dreadful when she should feel so happy.
"You're my girl, right?" he'd said.
"I'm nobody's girl but my own," she'd replied, teasingly, but actually only half teasing. She still remembered being pricked with needles in her fat baby arm, and holding the hand of a dying woman on a train platform.
"Yeah, but … seriously. You are my girl."
"You're laying claim to me? What am I, a plot of land? Are you going to stick a flag in my head or something?"
"It's not like that."
And then he'd told her he loved her; the three words most girls spent their lives waiting to hear. They needed the confirmation, but she didn't. By that time she already knew how he felt, because it was how she felt too. She could see it reflected in the neon blue of his eyes (blue like lobelia, like forget-me-nots, like bluebells and irises and delphiniums). He was her light and her colour and her safe place, so when he didn't return immediately she instinctively went where she'd found those things before and waited for him.
Except that he didn't come back. Not ever.
"He will, though," she told the flowers. She went every day, but instead of tending them like she had before, she just sat and stared at the door where he used to come in, or at the hole in the roof, or that place where he nailed boards over the gap in the wall so nobody could wander in and sneak up on her when she was alone. He was always doing things like that for her. He wanted her safe when he wasn't around. Nobody like that would break his promise. "He said he'd come back."
He still didn't, though.
Eventually the shadows started creeping in again. She huddled in the middle of her flowers like an oasis, hoping they'd protect her the way they used to. Yet after the bitter-bright brilliance of his eyes the bluebells seemed washed out, the lobelia wilted, and the irises just plain sad, as if they'd given up trying to compete with him in her affections. She barely noticed to begin with, so focused was she on the thought that he was coming back – as if it would only happen if she believed it hard enough, and getting distracted for even a second would doom him to something unknown and terrible.
"You come home so late these days. I worry about you," her mother said, chewing her lower lip with concern.
"And you're not eating properly. You've lost weight. Your eyes are starting to look positively sunken."
"I'm fine," she snapped, the way she never did. "Sorry," she apologised immediately, and meant it. "I've just … had a lot on my mind lately."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
" … I don't think that would help."
"Is it about that boy?"
"You're not pregnant are you?"
"Sorry, sorry, but it's a natural assumption … I just had to ask, all right. To reassure myself I didn't actually think you'd be so stupid and thoughtless."
"He's not something stupid."
"I never said he was. Is? Are we talking past or present tense about your relationship?"
"Is. Definitely is."
"All right. Then is it … can you feel … um …" Her mother always had such problems talking about the Planet and her special connection with it. "Is it … you know …"
"Oh." The woman bunched her hands in her apron, then looked up with a forcibly bright smile and said, "I'll make dumplings. You always liked dumplings when you were little. You need to fatten up a bit. You're all skin and bone. You can't give up and let yourself run to seed just because of some boy."
Run to seed …
The phrase stayed in her head when she next went to visit her garden. For the first time in what felt like forever she actually looked at her flowers. They were still there, still swaying in the breeze of her passing, but they'd faded. Their colours didn't seem quite so vivid, their petals slightly brown and curled.
"I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry. You can't give up," she murmured, stroking one that was suffering from stem rot. How had she not noticed that before? She'd been so wrapped up in herself and her own worries that she'd forgotten her responsibilities. The flowers had given him to her in the first place, and she'd replaced them with him in her heart. Her heart ached now that she could've been so selfish. "I'm sorry, but you can't."
She threw herself into bringing them back from the edge. It felt good to reconnect with them, going home with dirt under her nails and a curious optimism in her heart. People were surprised to see her out with her cart again.
"Flower Girl! Long time no see."
"Yes," she replied. "Too long. I've … not been well."
"We done thought you was dead, girl."
"No, I'm still alive."
She smiled. It wasn't the teasing smile – that was reserved for him – but it was a genuine one. "Getting there."
She encouraged her flowers to try their hardest. She needed them now, more than ever. As the air filled with even more smog and filth, they needed her too. She made a bargain with them: if they tried, so would she. They'd survive together. They wouldn't give up, not ever. Gradually the peonies plumped up, the freesias blossomed, and hyacinths filled the air with their powerful fragrance. Roses curled around her ankles, while asters flourished bigger and brighter than any year previously.
They each kept up their side of the bargain for five years, until the day she felt him die and her flowers caught and cosseted her as she collapsed and broke their deal for a while.
You can't give up, they seemed to whisper, ghosting their leaves and petals over her skin. We're sorry, but you can't. We're still trying. You have to as well.
But he was gone, she argued. The knowledge thrummed through her, insistent and lurid. She'd felt it – felt him – felt the absolute certainty of it scour through her like she'd swallowed sandpaper. Now she felt only hollowness, as if someone had dug her up and left her roots exposed. She was vulnerable, hurting, and wanted nothing more than to sink into the earth, like dead flowers that became compost so they could do good even after they died. She wanted to start over and come back as something new that didn't ache so much.
You have to get up, her flowers insisted. You're the Flower Girl. You have to go out. You have to keep living. For us. For him.
You have to. The Planet needs its Flower Girl.
Finally she listened. She got up. She trudged out. She walked through the streets with her wares, barely registering her surroundings as her old fears crept in at the edges. She was in danger now, without even the promise of his return to protect her. She'd been using that as a cushion when things got toughest. There were others who watched her – men and women in suits and glasses black as smog – but where before they'd been strangely reassuring, now they were only more potential threats.
She sold everything quickly, with the intent of running back to her garden where she felt safest and didn't have to explain or justify herself just for the right to exist. There had been murmurings lately, even before she felt him die. The Planet was always in pain, but, like her, now it felt worse than ever.
And then she saw him. Not him, but another – someone else who with neon blue eyes, who felt like light and colour and protection against the darkness. He was there and gone far too quickly, but she knew he was real. He'd taken one of her flowers.
As ever, her flowers took care of her. They rewarded her courage in going out even though she was frightened and miserable
"You're going to have no roof left if you keep dropping men into my lap like this," she said, once she'd checked to make sure the fall hadn't killed him. But no, he was special as well – full of mako, the Planet's lifeblood. He practically glowed with it.
You're the Flower Girl, they seemed to whisper back, as if this was the answer to every question ever asked. You have to get up and keep going, otherwise what will become of us? There's no room for our kind in the world without you. The Planet will die without you.
"Without people like me," she corrected.
There's nobody else like you. The Planet will die without you. That's what it's been trying to tell you all along. That's what it tells everyone it's connected to, but only a few can hear it, so it shouts loud enough to deafen them just trying to get through to the rest. That's why it talks to you through us. We have smaller voices.
"But what can I do?"
You can keep up your end of our bargain. You can be who you are, and do what feels right.
So she got up, she dusted herself off, and she kept going no matter what. She made her smile as bright as a foxglove in full bloom, moved her hands like falling cherry blossoms, and never talked about giving up again. The man who loved her had gone back to the Planet, the way flowers went back into the earth, and he had nourished a new generation. She couldn't help thinking he'd sent this new man to her, to tend like one of her flowers. It was the kind of comic quirk of fate he'd appreciate.
The new man only ever saw her being cheerful. She laughed for him. She used her teasing smirk on him. She learned he wasn't as strong as he made out, so she peered into his overbright blue eyes and told him not to worry, she'd take of everything, just like she told her flowers each day. She was the protector now, and that thought gave her strength like dark hair and a too-big sword used to. This new man was one of her flowers – yellow petals, blue stigma, and pale leaf-skin like clouds with a hint of storm in them. She grew as fond of him as she had of the one who had died, although he was a different kind of light in her life. His light was tentative, like the sun peeking through the slats of the city and finally drip-drip-dripping its way into her sanctuary. His personality uncurled around her, like a tightly clenched bud finally reaching for the light, and she realised how someone so strong could also be delicate as the first snowdrop of Spring.
Being around him made her feel courageous and luxuriant and fresh. She was still frightened – would probably always be frightened, she now realised – but as time passed she was more frightened for what would become of the people in her life than for her own future. That feeling, of being part of something bigger than herself, pervaded everything when she was around the new man and his friends. The Planet was still talking to her, but thanks to her flowers she'd learned to listen better. She wanted to keep him safe, the way she'd been kept safe so she could learn how to cope and turn into the person she was meant to be – the Flower Girl. She wanted to give him the same opportunity, and to watch him to see what he turned into when he finally opened his petals.
So she apologised to her garden, knowing her plants would understand, and went with him when he left. She wasn't about to lose someone else by not being there for him.
When he needed her, she was there. When he didn't know he needed her, she took it upon herself to leave him, and go find the danger and fight it herself for once. She wasn't the same frightened little girl who tumbled off the train into the city, and who didn't understand a thing about how she fitted into the grand scheme of things. She had a role, a life, loved ones past and present, and a reason for being now.
The hollowness inside her was gone, filled with something else. Sudden urgency. Affection. Need, and the knowledge that she was needed. Purpose, she guessed. She'd never understood before how powerful it was, or how large. She hadn't fully comprehended the way purpose could find all the grooves and furrows inside you.
So she went out into a forest of the kind she'd only dreamed about when she was tending her flowers in the bowels of the city. She felt connected to them there, as if somehow, with their roots in the same soil, the huge trees around her could transport a message to her garden. The Planet was all connected, she'd learned, so it was possible.
"Tell my mother I love her, will you?" She didn't know what prompted her to ask that of the ancient silver tree at the edge of the lake. "Maybe she'll understand."
Her belief in the power of the Planet, coupled with the strength of her purpose, was what compelled her to go inside the temple, kneel on the dais, and pray so hard she could forgive the attempt on her life. It wasn't the blond man's fault, she reasoned. She had to protect him now, from himself as well as the dangers lurking in the shadows. She was the Flower Girl, and he was one of her planets. It was up other to make sure he got a chance to grow and blossom into the person he was supposed to be.
She was so busy praying on his behalf, the way she used to pray to see that familiar someone walk back into her life, that she never even noticed the smog-black shadow descending from above.
Once upon a time there was a flower girl who became the Flower Girl.
And then, suddenly, there wasn't.
A flower's appeal is in its contradictions – so delicate in form, yet strong in fragrance; so small in size, yet big in beauty; so short in life, yet long on effect. -- Adabella Radici