Author's Note: My apologies for the delay, but this chapter was extremely difficult to write. I've been in India for three weeks and nowhere near an internet connection, let alone a computer. Now, I'm in Ireland visiting the family. It's cold. Though the thought of anyone awaiting this update with bated breath is a major stretch, I attempted to be a tad prompter than I've previously been. And I failed, unfortunately. Many thanks to those who reviewed the last chapter: mom calling, Kisdota-The Freak Gamer, sage, Milvus, vLuna, PeAceLovEr 12, zodious, and kitsune13. Really, the reviews make this worth it. Without them, I would essentially be talking to myself. And that's just sad.
Disclaimer: I own nothing but my words. The characters, world, and borrowed bits of dialogue belong to Square-Enix.
What seems like years of soft murmurs, and he turns his head into the warm throb of her palm. A dull pulse—aching and eerie—begins in the bend of his knees, the base of his skull, and the chords of his hands, and the first thing he sees is one long, soft curl just brushing the tip of his nose.
And his blood stops—halting as if it was a bated breath and flushed with a familiarity that he can't quite place—at the sight of the girl above him cooing curious hello-hellos as he begins to focus.
"You okay?" He snaps a crick in his neck, and the light filtering in from the hole above him refracts in the corners of his eyes. "This is a church…in the Sector 5 slums."
Teeth gritting over the split in his lip, he watches debris and flakes of metal trail from above, and the girl keeps her palm to his cheek, tilting her head so that a ripple of caramel gold in the sunlight runs along the braid at her back.
She laughs a soft tintinnabulation of bells not even strong enough to echo or break the silence.
"You suddenly fell on top of me," she grins. "You really gave me a scare."
He nods, and her hand recoils when she notices him watching it. She must think he's stupid, because he can't speak, can't flinch at the human contact he'd so long despised. There's no electricity; nothing shocking his systems and pushing him back. The hum by his ear—"So, you're the one that saved me?"—is only enough to whirr his mind back into motion—"No, not really. All I did was, 'Hello!'"—and give him the capacity to speak.
"…I came crashing down?" A memory flutters through his mind, one of clutching onto a sharp jut of steel in the reactor, red alert flashing overhead, grind of Barret's gun as it loaded—" Barret! Can't you do something!"—muscles straining to lift himself up—"Please, don't die!"—purple patches beginning on her collar from a mission a few days ago—"There's still so much I have to—"
"The roof and the flower bed must have broken your fall." Her voice snaps him out of his reverie, and he's surprised to see that she's looking up at the mess he's made, an odd furrow on her brow, eyes distant, and the pad of her thumb rubbing her bottom lip absentmindedly. And all he can think about is how smooth and unblemished her knuckles are, the peculiar softness of tops of her palms, and how the only rough patch that he can find are the very tips of her fingers; a sign that she's been burrowing her nails in the dirt for years.
She tucks that one shiny ringlet behind her ear, straightens, and plants her hands on her hips, a wry smile playing on her lips. "You're lucky."
Funny, he thinks, but you're the first person to say that in a long time.
"Flower bed…" he digs his heel into an already crushed flower, little pebbles caving in around the stem like a tomb. "Is this yours?" He tugs out a few petals caught in his hair.
"Sorry about that," he promises, eyes narrowed slightly to quell the hum crawling up his scalp.
She watches his mouth, smiling and clasping her hands behind her back like a school girl. "They say you can't grow grass or flowers in Midgar." She knells down and starts to pick out the flower he's buried with his boot. "But for some reason, the flowers have no problem blooming here."
His knees crook towards her, but his fingers twitch without direction. He's never been in this sector and won't be able to find his way back to the bar amongst unfamiliar grime and alleys.
"I love it here." He won't meet her eyes—"An angel?"—so he mulls over the fact that every flower he had crushed with his body when he fell is now in full bloom.
"Say," she quips, pretty teeth gleaming. "We don't even know each other's names!" There's dirt is the pores of her outstretched hand, and the just calloused fingertips scratch his wrist when she grabs it.
"My name is"—"No such luck. I'm Aerith!"—"Aerith, the flower girl. Nice to meet you."
His smile shakes, the corners of his lips twitching as he can't find the spark in her touch that the quake in his belly—the whisper now creeping along his brow—tells him to.
"The name's Cloud," he grins, a stomach churning swell of home and confidence as an oddly familiar blush colors her cheeks. The grip that she has on his hand softens to a gentle grasp swaying between them, but he can't help notice the way her eyes never meet his smile and only trail the SOLDIER standard insignia on his chest.
Reno burrows the butt of his cigarette into Aerith's flowers, and she screams. From their place running amongst the rafters, Cloud harshly pulls the flower girl along by her wrist, frustrated with how easily her focus drifts when there's Shinra recruits at their backs and bullets splitting the already unstable, aged wood at their feet.
"Aerith," he pleads. "Aerith, it's fine. We have to go, now." They're mere feet from the gaping hole in the roof of the church, and he can get her out of here, keep her safe, go back to the bar if she'll just listen and not worry about the damn flowers.
But, she's seething, and something tells him that her temper isn't as passive as the pink dress and pretty eyes made him believe. Reno lights another cigarette; the fire at the end of his mouth sparks, little red-hot flakes falling from the end. The tobacco coils up in the air—silhouetted dark and grey in the sunlight—and it dissipates just before it reaches their feet.
"Normally, people would be careful around flowers!"
A twitch runs through Cloud's veins, because her mouth was closed when he heard her say that, and the voice was too high and young to belong to her now. He blinks, grabs her waist, and lifts her out onto the roof.
It's hours later, when he's standing in her kitchen that smells like cinnamon and Elmyra is cleaning a cut on his throat with a rag, that he starts to jitter in his boots. Aerith watching him, green eyes crinkling, adrenaline in the pulse, and he can't help but feel ashamed when the heat creeping up his neck doesn't make him smile.
Elmyra leaves with a quiet question in her eyes, tracing the SOLDIER emblem with a long glance just as Aerith had before. The house smells too much like spice and oak and birch that he knows he shouldn't be able to find anywhere in the slums. He fiddles with the fastener on one leather glove.
"So, what are you going to do now?" She has a habit of staring, and her hands are clasped together like a pray. And, despite the pleasant unease he feels around her that he can't quite understand, he takes a step towards the door.
"…is…Sector 7 far from here?" God, he feels awful for thinking about how her pretty hands won't fit the lines of his palm. It's not right. It's just not right. That pulse in his skull ebbs harder and harder until it's like landmine after landmine going off in his head. He feels good near her. The twisting in his blood is good. It's—
"Tifa's bar…I want to go to Tifa's bar."
The green in her eyes darkens, and it's her turn to shake with hesitance.
"Tifa is…a girl?" He thinks about the flower patch just outside and remembers the blue bonnets and mint his mother grew in a garden by the Lockhart's fence. Aerith's face is suddenly much closer than he realized, and her strange mix of concern and interest leaves his mind staled as he leans away from her oddly accusing gaze.
"Yeah…" he mumbles. She smells like flower pollen and slum dirt, and his jaw aches in faint recognition.
She nods and hums faintly. "A girl…friend?"
His pupils dilate, and Cloud thinks of alcohol, pinball, Marlene tugging his hair, red, chapped upper lip, nightmare bumps on his neck, tremors from her touch, and the nicks, scars, and splinters on Tifa's hands.
"No, no!….no…" He shouts, louder than he meant to, and Aerith's rolling her eyes as she murmurs through a smirk.
"Hee, hee, hee…you don't have to get that upset!" She taps her chin in thought and makes a soft noise in the back of her throat. "Let's see…Sector 7? I'll show you the way!"
Vaguely, he registers that he might be saying something protective and gruff, but he likes her company. The way her neck curves into a pale cheek and the pretty hands smoothing a crease in her dress remind him of his mother and the way she used to soften the worry lines on his brow whenever he would come home, blood on his cheeks and bruise around his eye.
She surprises him, infuriates him, and distracts him from matters at hand. He can't help but call her selfish and stubborn for her own gain and pride when she follows him on his way to the Sector 7 slums. He's furious when her presence ignites the crawling and writhing pain in his neck and eyes that had slowly subsided the further he was from her.
And later—atop one of the climbing gyms of an abandoned playground, slide in front of him ending in Shinra muck, and broken swing set clanking in the metallic gusts coming from the plate above—the white noise is so deafening in his head that Cloud can barely make out her face or the movement of her mouth when she begins to ask him about his past.
"My rank?" She looks hazy even though he knows that she's right in front of him, brown hair gaining a sheen of silver and pupils slitting while a malice sinks into Cloud's stomach. He opens his mouth and he's almost certain that he'll vomit if he tries to answer.
The white noise cuts out. She smiles sadly. "Just the same as him." Cloud tilts his head and wonders if he answered her.
"Same as who?"
"My first—"I want just one thing"—boyfriend." He's having the most peculiar daydream: his knuckles are bigger, the air is back out of his chest like—"Yeah, how much is that?"—that first time he saw Tifa tugging a splinter from Marlene's thumb or—"Here me out!...there are 23 little luxuries"—the splintered memory he has of blood dripping down a blade, onto his forearms, and run through someone whose hand is scrapping the glass of a tank leaking mako and crying for a mother. She's still talking; he must be too.
"It doesn't really matter," she murmurs, rubbing her bottom lip like she's forgotten he's there. There's a grinding of metal behind them, and he turns to see a ridiculous red carriage clanking by the playground.
The electricity is back, pulsing in his fingertips, and the clicks and whirs in his mind focus on…
"Huh? Hey…"—"But, you probably won't remember."—"back there." He moves fast, Aerith's curls brushing his forearms as he stands, and calls out:
Her eyes widen and dart between his worried glare and Aerith's curious smile. He hasn't seen her in a dress in seven years, and he always liked her in blue. He jumps down from the climbing gym, Aerith at his back.
"There's only one thing"—"Tifa!"—"I want most."
Aerith's saying something, and he's pushing her back along with the white noise now roaring in his head.
He tries to widen his eyes and keep track of her, because she probably thought him to be dead, and she'll only believe that he's there if he can hold their gaze steady and see her, but the whiteness is cutting in and out until, in a blink, she's gone.
"I want to spend more time with you."
Aerith is out in front and running after the quickly disappearing carriage, and Cloud moves. He follows the flower pollen scent, and the lights turn from fluorescent to flickering neon as they enter to hub of Wall Market.
And in the red, blues, flashing signs, and grime, he just hopes they can find their way home.
For two days, he'd been dead to them.
In their tiny headquarters late at night, she had spit out every excuse she could think of to lead a mission, without her teammates if she had to, to find her friend: that Shinra would find the corpse and somehow track the death to AVALANCHE, that they couldn't leave his cadaver to mutilation and burial in one of the sewers of the city, that he was worth more than that.
Barret had sworn that she'd lost her mind, holding her with one massive arm as she'd snarled—"Let me go! We can't leave him to rot! I can't leave him one more time!"—and pleaded with him to at least let her go find the body. Jessie, hand muffling her sobbing breaths and curled up in a corner of the cellar, was too traumatized by the gravity of the situation and the reality that this was no longer a hero's story to offer any assistance. Biggs curled him arm around Wedge and held the great man as he'd cried. They had lost their first teammate; they all had.
Moreover, Tifa had managed to terrify Marlene last night when she had blackened Barret's eye as he'd wrestled her to the ground when she tried to sneak out after they'd all gone to bed.
In the end and standing under the dimming bulb hanging above the bar top—rubbing the rough, reddened, scaly skin beneath her eyes—she recognized her irrational behavior and failure. She had failed to comfort her friends when they were crying from the loss and the closing in of Shinra around their meager organization. She had failed Marlene, who, too frightened of the young woman after the outburst, had left a slightly crumpled drawing of a heart on the corner of the bar and promptly ran away before Tifa could thank her.
And she had failed Cloud, now dead for a second time. His corpse would either rot amidst the jagged metal and mutated mako beneath the reactor, or Shinra would find him and display his body as a trophy, a triumph against the terrorists of the city, a sign of Shinra's love for and protection of the people of Midgar.
Darker thoughts, too, had whispered. She'd dreamed of him skinned and hanging from meat hooks in Shinra laboratories. The odd inkling had been…disturbing, and she'd wondered where the idea could have come from.
But now he's kneeling at the back of an alley—cursing Corneo for pulling that trap door on them—and there's a broken sewer grate digging into the still healing bullet wound at her side. Her stomach clenches; she'd always hated sewers. She doesn't give a damn that he spent two, fucking days letting the team worry and letting her guilt fester and ache. His disregard is the very least of their problems.
There's hours until the reactors blow and every, single person she loves in this world is under that plate.
Cloud helps Aerith to her feet—a wet mop of curls clinging to her neck—and Tifa's throat tightens as she watches the sludge run around their feet and the street lights flickering in the distance.
"It's too late…" she murmurs, and Aerith brushes a bit of the residue from Tifa's cheek. "Marlene…Barret…the people of the slums…"
"Don't give up!" Aerith—all matted dress and pretty green eyes—quips while tugging at a strand of Tifa's hair. "Never give up hope! It's not easy to blow up a pillar, right?"
They both look to Cloud, whose clutching the base of his neck and watching Tifa rub a particularly painful blister on her palm.
The alley ways blur behind them as the trio darts through grates and broken chain link edges into the scum and grease of the underground. And when she's standing in a graveyard of twisting metal and broken train tracks, Tifa can't help but fear the paralysis wrapping up her legs like the way she braids Marlene's hair.
Everything's meshed together and strange. Stranger than the way a small fire kindling near the entrance of Sector 7 makes the scar on her chest prickle, or even the harsh luminescence practically pulsing in Cloud's eyes. People just seem to trickle out of cracks between the shanty buildings like they're bacteria just multiplying without end. Tifa calls to Aerith to keep moving, keep up, don't stop unless—
His bandana is askew and splotched at the back of his neck with little, dark patches barely noticeable to the naked eye. Cloud's there, one knee in the dirt and the other pillowing Wedge's head. Aerith looks like she can't decide whether to throw up or just cry, and Tifa realizes that she's got one gloved hand hovering out in front of her as if just stretching out a bit and placing her palm on Wedge could remedy the wound.
"Cloud…you remembered…my name…" Wedge is grinning just as wide as the day Tifa met him. "Barret's up top…help him…"
Her eyes trail over the silhouette of Wedge's body, and everything's moving out of sync. The way the crowd gathering around them twitches is too fast, too slow—like the broken record player that came with the bar when she bought it that could only repeat the chorus of one scratched up, old jazz record.
"An' Cloud…" The ex-SOLDIER braces one hand between Wedge's shoulders as if to steady his breathing. "Sorry, I wasn't any help…"
"No…" Tifa murmurs. "No, Wedge, no." She'll kill Cloud if he doesn't reassure this man who practically idolizes him that the poor guy's efforts weren't a waste.
But he doesn't, and the only flicker of emotion she sees is in the clenching of his jaw.
"I'm going up! Aerith! You watch after Wedge!" The flower girl nods—eyes widening from fear but dark with determination—and Tifa finds her voice.
"Aerith, do me a favor." The request sounds much too soft for the situation. "I have a bar called 'Seventh Heaven' in this neighborhood." She tosses a wistful glance over her shoulder down an alleyway towards home.
"There's a little girl named Marlene there…" Aerith's face softens and Tifa almost smiles knowing that the flower girl understands.
"Don't worry, I'll put her somewhere safe."
The vice on her heart loosens. She tugs her gloves tighter over her knuckles and turns towards the road to the fight.
To Whom It May Concern: I felt that the story couldn't move anywhere without giving Aerith and the Sector Seven incident the attention they deserve. Aerith's character is fascinating, and I've found that she's one of the hardest characters to write in canon with her complexity. And the Sector Seven incident had too much emotion to ignore. Unfortunately, I can't even get the incident into one chapter. Too much emotion. So, give me a little bit, and we can finally get out of Midgar!
Ideally, this read has been worth your time. If not, may a banshee from the nearby bog drive me mad or eat me or whatever it is banshees do.
Read and review, if you feel so inclined. I can take the flames, but constructive criticism is lovely too.