Counter Crisis
by White Mage Koorii & Dragoon-Sama


Chapter 12 – Crisis of Coordination
[ μ ] – εуλ 0002 (February 7th)


Cloud stepped off the train into the stale air of the slums. The breeze from the train letting off steam washed over him, and he reached up to absently brush his bangs out of his eyes. Another person bumped him rudely from behind in their hurry to get off the train themselves and that finally propelled him into motion. He strode forward, winding his way through the crowd of people milling around as they waited to either board the train for the plate, or greet a passenger just disembarking.

The past few weeks had been much busier than before. After their first disastrous attempt at fighting the simulation of Sephiroth, he and Zack had worked hard to improve their coordination. Most of that was done on their own, with further sparring matches in the Training Room—which had been repaired in record time, thanks to the impatient pressure many of the SOLDIERs put on the technicians—or the fields. But whenever they could make the time, they would sneak in after hours to battle the program. There hadn't been too many chances to do so, since they wanted to keep the knowledge that they were deliberately training against Sephiroth away from inquisitive eyes. That, and it had taken Cloud an immense amount of self control to stop reacting to fighting against the simulation, and start thinking first. Even so, it unnerved Cloud to have to face down those lifeless, green eyes.

Other than that, they'd filled their days with as many missions as Lazard could find to keep them occupied. Cloud thought Zack might be distracting himself from his gloomy thoughts, especially at first. Even though his friend had bounced back to his normal cheerful self, Cloud could still see the lingering sadness in Zack's face occasionally. It hadn't, it should be noted, stopped Zack from giving out Cloud's new phone number to anyone who asked.

Every time the cheery jingle announced there was a new message, Cloud had flinched in annoyance. On top of that Zack seemed to take infinite glee in forwarding his mail from the Silver Elite to Cloud. Sephiroth's fanclub seemed taken with speculating on who he was and what his relation to their hero was. It ranged everywhere from secret romantic liaisons, to Sephiroth having a fatherly side, or taking on a student. Cloud found all of it laughable, in a distressing kind of way. He'd tried to take Zack's phone away in revenge, but a call from Aerith had alerted Zack to the whereabouts of it. Aerith had laughed when she heard and asked for Cloud's number as well.

Aerith, who was the reason he now found himself walking through the slums with no idea how Zack had managed to convince him to go on this insane 'mission'. A mission which turned out to be Cloud playing distraction while Zack ran around preparing a surprise he'd 'promised her a long time ago' for Aerith's birthday.

"Hey! Hey, pretty cat! You're here without your guard dog?" A childish, female voice floated over the murmuring of the crowd and Cloud twisted his head to catch sight of the speaker. A group of girls hailed him from across the street, some scattered items at their feet indicating their previous activity. The red-head waved enthusiastically, pulling up her dark-haired friend and dragging her over to meet up with him. The third girl trailed a few steps behind.

"Poppy," Cloud greeted the redhead as she came to a beaming stop in front of him. He'd run into the girl and more of her friends on his various trips down to the slums. Despite her flirtatious behavior in their initial meeting, Poppy and her dark-haired friend, Violet, were actually quite young, though like many girls their age believed themselves to be adults already. Cloud found all they'd really wanted was a playmate for a while. Occasionally he complied with their wishes in memory of the Denzel and Marlene he'd left behind.

"Violet, Annabelle," he continued, nodding to the two other girls. "I don't have time to stay today." Already he was walking off, though as he expected the trio followed at his heels.

"Aww…" Poppy pouted, skipping ahead a few steps before turning to look up in his face sulkily. "You never have time! But that's okay!" She grinned, before spinning around again, only to collide with Annabelle. The pair staggered, giggling. "We'll keep you company for a while."

"Are you going to the church again?" Annabelle asked, shoving her friend away. At his nod, she clapped her hands happily. Violet, silent as ever, had come up to his side to hold his hand while the other girls chattered enthusiastically. Though still baffled at their apparent fascination with him, Cloud smiled slightly at their antics. It was easy to forget, sometimes, that these children were slum dwellers.

He listened patiently to a rather off-key rendition of a skipping song, always keeping his senses trained against the dangers the slums presented but not worried overmuch. The people were becoming used to seeing him with his eye-catching hair, usually accompanying Zack who many of them knew as well. Between sectors, where the monsters still liked to prey on the incautious, all the girls huddled close to his side exchanging excited whispers at the danger of it.

When the doors to the church finally came into view, all three girls raced ahead of him, announcing his arrival in merry cat calls. A moment later, Aerith's white-clad figure appeared, framed in the open leaf of the double doors with a welcoming smile on her face. "Hello, Cloud," she said warmly. "No Zack today?" Cloud didn't need to say anything in response to Aerith's greeting, content that his presence spoke for itself. Though he was afraid to try to make any excuse for Zack not being there in case he slipped up and ruined the surprise for Aerith. She smiled up at him as he approached. "Thank you for coming to visit." Despite his apprehension, Cloud was glad he'd come down here alone. He hadn't yet taken Aerith up on her offer to visit whenever he wanted, only coming when Zack brought them both down.

She slid her arm through his and let him escort her back toward her flowers over which the girls were cooing, crouched at the edges of the little garden. Aerith smiled fondly, made happy by their happiness. The church was as serene as always, still with that touch of something raw and beautiful that Cloud was sure was the source of the flower's ability to grow so well, and could only have come from Aerith. Seeing the three girls by the flowers sent a pang of nostalgia through Cloud. Here, he could recall much easier Denzel's earnest smiles and Marlene's happy laughter. When he'd woken up in the church surrounded by the children, it had seemed for a while that the spark that had been lost with Aerith's absence had returned.

Now at least the children only enhanced the warm glow of happiness from Aerith. No matter how long he was here, Cloud knew he would never get tired of how alive Aerith was, how real she felt. Every time he saw her, a little bit of the hurt her sudden death had caused eased inside him, making it easier to return her smiles. While he knew this wasn't the same Aerith he'd lost, it was easier to remember that the one he had known didn't blame him for his mistake when this Aerith was so happy with his company.

"Miss Aerith," Annabelle called, her voice slightly muffled by the fact that she was chewing on her thumb in thought. "Why're you cutting some of the flowers?"

Poppy made a loud shushing noise. "She's gonna sell them, silly. Isn't that right, Miss Aerith?"

Aerith let go of Cloud and moved to crouch among the girls. "Not these ones," she said softly. "My mom asked me to bring her some today."

Cloud frowned as he realized their presence might be a hindrance in his effort to keep Aerith distracted. Well, it hardly mattered at this point. "Would you like some help?" he asked with an abortive gesture at the flowers. "I'm sure the girls would take them over to your mother's."

"Yeah! But only if we can keep one!" Poppy said as she leapt to her feet and threw her hands in the air. "And one for the pretty cat too!"

"Oh please, Miss Aerith?" Annabelle added her own appeal, clasping her hands together in a fashion reminiscent of Zack.

"But only if you have extras," Violet added quietly, her eyes still fixed on the bobbing heads of the flowers.

Cloud raised an eyebrow at Aerith, the hint of an amused smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Minus the one for me, we'd be happy to lend you a hand."

Aerith gave a soft hmm, and put on a show of consideration. Then she brightened, and said, "It's a deal. But, we'll all take them to mom together. That way I don't have to take more than one trip." She gave another thoughtful sound, then looked up at Cloud. "Cloud can help me cut them, and you three can hold onto them for us, okay?"

While Annabelle nodded in vigorous, eager agreement, Poppy gave a little shout. "We'll be careful with them, Miss Aerith."

"Yeah," Violet said. "We won't crush'em or drop'em or anything."

Aerith gave a soft laugh and stood up to offer Cloud one of the little knives she kept on hand for cutting the flowers. "I'm sure you won't."

Taking the knife, Cloud nodded in agreement to the arrangement. Whatever Elmyra was planning for her daughter, she obviously didn't mind if Aerith visited the house. He made his way into the flowers, careful not to crush any of the delicate plants under his boots, and knelt to cut a few of the blossoms. Handing them off to Violet, who was closest, he asked quietly, "How many do you need?"

"Hey, do you think someday, if we're real careful, we'll be able to help you cut the flowers too?" Poppy interrupted, squatting down with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands as she watched Cloud and Aerith work.

"Only grownups are allowed to help," Annabelle protested, reaching out eagerly to take the flowers from Aerith. She placed them carefully, one by one, into the pile already laid out on the wooden floor.

"That's not true," Cloud murmured, giving Aerith an amused look. "You still won't let Zack touch them."

"That's because he's a boy," Poppy scoffed, turning her nose up and closing her eyes in distaste "And boys don't understand things like flowers and stuff."

"Except for Cloud," came the quiet injection from Violet. Poppy paused, opening an eye to squint sideways at him.

"Yeah…alright. Except Cloud. He's special," she conceded.

"He's cooler than Zack, anyway," Annabelle said. "Why don't you go out with Cloud instead, Miss Aerith?"

Pausing in the act of reaching for another flower, Cloud shook his head slightly at the girls' impudence. It always turned out something like this, whenever Cloud was with them. Poppy was the oldest at thirteen, and had her head full of romance right out of storybooks. The other girls tended to follow the vivacious red-head's lead. Cloud thought they did it to see how quickly they could fluster him.

"It's more fun to watch him pout," Aerith whispered to Cloud conspiratorially, then more loudly said, "Zack asked me out first, of course. I didn't even know Cloud then." She stood up and moved to a different patch of flowers. As she passed off a few more she gave Poppy an amused look and asked, "Why is Cloud cooler?"

"'Cause his hair is like gold, and it's really pretty," Poppy replied promptly.

"And he's more polite, like a real gentleman," Annabelle added.

"He's strong," was Violet's contribution.

"Yeah! Did you know he took out a monster last time we were here? Zack was there too, but he just stood there and watched," Poppy sniped, giving Cloud a broad grin.

"There was only one. I was just closer at the time," Cloud protested mildly, his hands continuing to work industriously as he moved through the flowers.

"Doesn't matter," Poppy said, waving off Cloud's words.

"You got to see him fight?" Annabelle asked in awe. The flowers lay forgotten in her limp hands as she stared up at the older girl. "Lucky!"

"It was cool," Violet said, her normally quiet voice raised in mild excitement.

"That's right," Poppy bragged. "It was this creepy purple thing, with teeth everywhere! But Cloud just took out his sword and BAM! It was dead just like that!"

"A Whole Eater," Cloud said absently. He'd just reacted when Poppy had let out an ear piercing scream of fright at the sight of the monster, and the next thing he knew the creature was dead and the girls were hanging off his waist in tears. Zack had tried to look sympathetic at his plight, but hadn't been able to wipe the grin off his face.

Straightening, Cloud stepped back up onto the wooden floor, the last few flowers held carefully in his hand. He approached the trio of girls and dropped to one knee in front of them. Reaching out, he carefully tucked one of the flowers in each girl's hair. "Your hair is also very pretty, Poppy," he said. The girl's face flushed bright red, though her mouth was stretched into a delighted smile. He turned to Annabelle next. "Thank you for the compliment. Just remember not to confuse politeness with kindness." She nodded readily, her hands clasped in front of her as she gave a playful curtsy. "Remember that your friends are your greatest strength," he said to Violet, letting his hand rest on top of her head for just a moment. He was rewarded with one of her shy smiles, which he returned as he straightened.

Turning to Aerith, he reached out and placed the last blossom in her hair. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there sooner," he said quietly. Cloud knew the girls would assume it was in response to her earlier comment. He also knew Aerith wouldn't really understand the meaning behind them, but Cloud had wanted to say that to her, to Aerith's kind smile he'd missed for so long.

Aerith caught his hand in hers, and gave him a soft smile. Her voice was warm as she said, "You're here now, and that's all that matters." Squeezing Aerith's hand gently in gratitude, Cloud reflected on how she always seemed to know what to say. Possibly it was because of her connection to the Planet, which gave her wisdom unlike other people, but Cloud always believed it was just Aerith's kind nature shining through.

The moment was broken as Poppy piped up from behind them, "Are you sure you aren't going out with Cloud?" Letting out a sigh, Cloud let his hand drop back to his side as he turned back to the giggling girls.

Aerith gave a delighted laugh, and when she turned her eyes back on Cloud they were full of mischief. "Well, if I didn't have Zack, maybe I would." She crouched down beside the flowers and began to split them up into careful, manageable bouquets. "You know, Zack saved me from three monsters when we first met. And Cloud has protected me from monsters as well. I think they're both cool."

Cloud reached out a hand to tug on a lock of Poppy's hair in mild reprimand for the tease, before he knelt on the wooden floor to help the three girls finish gathering the flowers together. Whatever else, Cloud knew his chance with Aerith had long since passed. He didn't regret it; it had been born from two lonely people finding comfort in the shadow of a familiar memory.

With only the minimum of bickering between the girls, Cloud managed to divide up the flowers between them for the journey back to Aerith's house. Poppy as the eldest had claimed rights to carrying the basket, with Violet and Annabelle carefully cradling their armfuls of bouquets. Straightening up from his position on the floor, Cloud caught Aerith's eye and gave a rueful shrug. He'd had some practice dealing with little girls because of Marlene, and it wasn't hard to translate that behavior with these three.

His boots tapped quietly on the wooden floor as Cloud silently led the way to the doors. The three girls trailed after him in a line, while Aerith brought up the rear. One gloved hand pushed open a leaf of the door and Cloud stopped cold at the sight that greeted him. Zack stood on the pathway in front of the church in hurried conversation with one of the street kids. His friend's head snapped up comically, eyes wide and a sheepish expression on his face at the sight of Cloud framed in the doorway. There was a light bump at his back as Poppy ran into Cloud, unprepared for the sudden halt in movement, and Cloud glanced back over his shoulder. Aerith was far enough back as to not have seen Zack yet, but the girls were craning their necks to see what had caused Cloud to stop.

Stupid…if Zack didn't want Aerith to see him, why had he come to the one spot she was guaranteed to be at? Before Cloud could think of a distraction, Zack solved the dilemma for him by grabbing the kid and literally diving behind the piles of debris that littered the area. Cloud winced at the rattling clang.

"Hey, wasn't that—" Annabelle began.

"A dog," Cloud interrupted. It was hardly the most creative of excuses, but Cloud couldn't be bothered to think up a better one. It was Zack's fault, anyway. Cloud stifled a grin at the quiet exclamation the comment provoked from the hidden SOLDIER.

"A dog?" Poppy asked, skepticism on her face as she leaned around Cloud. She slipped one hand into his belt to keep her balance as she exaggerated the move, the basket of flowers swinging from her free arm.

"Mmm," Cloud hummed noncommittally. He was sure he heard a light titter from Violet, but when he looked over his shoulder again the girl's face was as impassive as ever.

"That's right!" Annabelle said brightly, her voice overly loud. "It was a big black dog! I wonder if it's lost?" Cloud let out a breath of a laugh at the unconvincing tone and started forward again.

"What, seriously?" Poppy hopped forward as Cloud moved. She released his belt to walk on her own again. "That's so boring. I thought it was a monster or something. Hey Cloud, you'll come save me if I get attacked, won't you?"

He winced at the wording that echoed Tifa's question from so long ago. It surprised him how much that still hurt, how much he still felt he was unable to save those who were counting on him. What could he say to the girl's innocent query? Cloud wasn't able to lie, but he also wasn't able to promise such a thing. Not again. Maybe never again.

He was saved from replying as Annabelle kicked at Poppy's calves, while being careful of the flowers she still held. "Stupid. Why would Cloud come save a skinny twit like you?" The insult wasn't serious, just a joke among good friends.

"He certainly wouldn't save an immature little kid like you," was the quick retort. Poppy turned around to skip backward a few steps as she stuck her tongue out at her friend.

"Cloud is too busy with his important stuff to worry about that," Violet murmured, her quiet interjection breaking up the imminent fight.

The girls kept up their banter all through the Sector 5 market area, sometimes breaking off to examine a curiosity more closely, but always trailing back to Cloud's side before too long. Aerith had fallen in beside him and Cloud was glad of her company. It was nice, he reflected, just to be with Aerith without Zack's boundless energy around them. Cloud always felt like an intruder in his friend's time together despite Zack's reassurances.

So while he had the chance, Cloud enjoyed his time together with Aerith. It helped distract him from the issue that had been looming over his mind for the past few weeks, like a toothache that hurt every time it was involuntarily prodded. Sephiroth's actions on the Condor mission still brought up a riot of emotions in Cloud, ones that he didn't like to think about. While he'd reluctantly shared with Zack the basics of what had happened, Cloud had not been able to admit the shameful feeling of enjoyment that he'd experienced in the exhilarating fight. Every time he thought about it, the memory burned white-hot in his mind, of Sephiroth's calculating, sane expression, of Cloud pitting his strength against the hero he'd once longed to be like.

He was still wary, still couldn't forgive or forget what he'd been through at the hands of that madman, but after his realization at Zack's expense, Cloud had made a conscious effort to separate the people from his past life from their incarnation of his present. That also meant separating the dark feelings of hatred from the silver-haired man, and what was left behind scared Cloud more than he wanted to admit. The sparring match with Zack had opened up other avenues for his mind to wander down, the inevitable conclusions always leaving Cloud feeling conflicted and mentally worn.

Ahead of them the three girls had picked up their pace as they started onto the path that lead toward Aerith's home. Beside him, Aerith slowed her steps before she stopped completely. "Uhm, Cloud...I..." As quickly as the words started, she shook her head and gave him a fast smile. "No, never mind. It's nothing," she said almost breathlessly. Aerith spun away from him, and darted over to join the three girls as they headed for her mother. Cloud could only frown after her.

"Welcome back, dear," Elmyra greeted her warmly. "I see you've got some helpers today."

"Cloud brought them along," Aerith replied.

"He has good taste," Elmyra praised. She looked down at the eagerly grinning trio, her hands propped on her hips then nodded thoughtfully. "Aerith, we're running low on the cloth we use to make ribbons. Why don't you take Cloud and get some more from the market. These three can help me get started on the arrangements."

"Oh, could we?"

"Please?"

"I've never...done something like that."

Aerith gave a bright laugh at the trio's pleading and nodded as she accepted a handful of gil from her mother. "Okay, Mama. You three have fun, and we'll be back soon." Aerith hurried back to Cloud's side, and gave him a faint, shy smile. "Shall we go, then?"

"Bye Cloud!" Poppy and Annabelle chorused, waving energetically from the steps.

"Come back soon." Violet's voice barely reached Cloud's ears over her friends' boisterous cheer.

Raising a hand to acknowledge the girls' chorus of farewells, Cloud inclined his head in agreement to Aerith's suggestion. He was curious what had prevented her question earlier. It sounded like something was bothering her, but not necessarily something bad. Was he unconsciously making her uncomfortable? It was easy to forget that she didn't know him that well, since he had 'known' Aerith for years. While he didn't know this Aerith as well as his other Aerith, at the heart of it she was still the kind woman he'd met in another life.

Uncertainty filled Cloud as they made their way down the path, the road between Aerith's house and the market surprisingly clear of people at this time of day. He was….bad at starting conversations. Most of the time he just let Zack fill the silence, which his friend was happy to do. Cloud wanted to talk to Aerith, wanted to assure her that she could trust him, wanted to confide in her some of the worries that he could tell no one else. Back in the other life, Tifa had opened herself to him for that position. Cloud hadn't been able to overcome his guilt enough to take her up on the offer.

Cloud regarded Aerith quietly for a moment, as he remembered his promise to Zack. Even if he could find the words, he wouldn't be able to confide in her. Not without breaking his word and putting Aerith, and his secrets, in danger. Cloud respected Zack's decision to keep Aerith as safe as possible while they still had the time. He wouldn't be the one to jeopardize that until his friend thought it was time.

Their progress had taken them close enough that Cloud could hear the buzz of raised voices from the busy marketplace. He glanced surreptitiously at Aerith. She seemed to be lost in thought, her fingers touched lightly at her lower lip, brows creased, and face downward turned. Cloud was content to let her be despite his wish to converse. When she noticed he was watching her, Aerith flushed slightly and offered an embarrassed smile. She absently clasped her fingers together, the gil her mother had given her caught between her fingers. "You're...very patient," she said.

Cloud blinked, the only show of his surprise at her comment. "They're good kids," he replied as he turned his attention back to their progress. Ahead of them, the market stalls were now in view, and people bustled to and fro while the shop owners hawked their wares. "It's…nice, to watch over them." Not all the children of the slums were as carefree as Poppy and her friends. In fact, a majority of them were hellions who adopted the slum's gritty way of life with enthusiasm as they tried to prove they were the toughest.

He hadn't really thought about it before, but to an outsider it might seem like he was patient. Mostly because even now he was still adjusting to the time shift and he'd yet to spend much time with anyone who got on his nerves. The Reno of the other life could attest to Cloud's lack of patience when it came to certain people. It was much easier to be patient with children who'd yet to learn the conscious cruelty that adults seemed to cultivate with ease.

With a dismissive shake of his head, Cloud gave Aerith a slightly awkward shrug. "People overlook children too often." Like when they are sick and dying on the streets, with no hope and no one to comfort them.

Even Cloud hadn't been able to offer anything to those stricken by the geostigma. Every young face that turned in his direction had aggravated the guilt that dug at his heart. Until Denzel, all Cloud had been able to do was watch and suffer silently with them. Cloud had thought Denzel a gift from Aerith at the time, a way to seek forgiveness, but as he grew closer to the boy he'd come to care for him as more than that. When the geostigma had taken a turn for the worse, in both Cloud and Denzel, Cloud had begun distancing himself from Tifa's home. If he were to die from the disease, if he were unable to find a cure for Denzel, at least he would already have been gone by the time it was too late.

It had been a selfish act. Denzel and Marlene had enjoyed his company, which slowly turned into visits, which became less and less frequent over time. In a way, Cloud had failed them too, by not being there for their suffering. It was one more regret atop the mountain of others that Cloud had lived through. Denzel had been alone in the world, and had put so much of his trust and love into Cloud. Cloud never felt like he deserved it, but had guiltily coveted the boy's attention anyway. As he brought his attention back to Aerith, Cloud comforted himself with the thought that he'd make sure this world would be better for Denzel in the future.

"Not just them," Aerith said. The pair had come to a stop just at the end of the path where it merged with the more traveled area of the market. The shop they were heading toward was just ahead of them, and a little off to the right. A fond smile colored her expression. "You're patient with Zack, too... and me." Aerith looked down, her attention on her fingers. She couldn't seem to look up at Cloud as she bashfully admitted, "You look at me like you see a strong person, and that gives me courage to do things."

Cloud stood for a moment as he considered Aerith's words. He hadn't realized just how unsure of herself Aerith was. The woman he'd met had been a driving force, and coupled with her other-worldly knowledge had easily seemed to be both competently confident, yet open and warm at the same time. Even now, Cloud could easily see how Aerith would grow into that woman. In a way she had been right; he did treat her as if she was a strong person. But that was because she was, now and in the future.

"You're my friends," he said earnestly, and reveled in the warm feeling that he could say it with confidence. There was no doubt now, no false memories to play with his insecurities. "And I know you are strong, Aerith." It wasn't a matter of time; Aerith as she was now was a shining presence in his life, and more especially in Zack's. She gave her mother strength and spread her warmth around without prejudice or hesitation. Maybe she'd become a better fighter, or gain more confidence, or become better traveled, but those were merely ornaments to her personality.

Unlike him… Cloud looked away from Aerith, and fought against the familiar feeling of guilt. She had forgiven him, in that future, and here and now there was nothing for him to feel ashamed of. He tried to remind himself of that, and block out the memory of her surprised look of pain as the Masamune struck home. There were times when Cloud wished he could push the memories of that gone future into the same black hole corner of his mind, yet even as they hurt him, they helped remind Cloud of why he was trying so hard, why he'd been given another chance to set things right.

"You and Zack are good people," Cloud surprised himself by continuing. He hadn't meant to say it, as it skirted too close to secrets he was supposed to keep from Aerith, but now that he had, the words forced themselves out. "You're always trying to help…everyone. Even when they…don't…deserve it." And that only brought forth the memory of heated green eyes, and the ringing of sword against sword as Cloud fought a man he'd thought irredeemable. If it was possible for even Sephiroth to be saved, what did that mean for Cloud? What did that make him, who'd only been able to kill the madman instead of finding a way….

Cloud ran a hand through his hair, aware it was one of those nervous twitches he'd picked up from his false Zack persona. His thoughts were getting dangerously dark, and he snorted in morbid humor as he realized he was sounding more like Vincent on one of his bad days. The former Turk was possibly the only person quieter and more reclusive than Cloud. Is that where Cloud was headed, by pushing his friends away like he had? He didn't dislike Vincent, and understood where the man's pessimistic attitude stemmed from. But it was a sad, lonely life.

He turned his gaze back to Aerith, aware he'd gone silent as his mind wandered. "I like you and Zack," he said quietly, and shrugged a shoulder as he was unable to put to words how much that meant.

Aerith gave a puff of a laugh. "Thank you," she said softly. "At first I wasn't very sure but..." She paused, and shook her head. "I'm glad we're friends. You know, I don't think Zack or I think of it that way. I think everyone is deserving of help. There are no points or ways to show who's deserving and who isn't. It would be helpful if people just asked for help, but I think a lot of them don't know how." She moved closer to him, and hesitantly she reached out to lay her hand on his arm.

"You're a good person too, Cloud. You help people without them even asking. I've seen it. You've helped me, and Zack, and those three girls. I'm sure you've helped many more people as well. It's why we like you. You have a big heart." She smiled at him, eyes crinkling slightly, then laughed. "Well, I'm sure Zack would say there was more to it than that, and probably say something embarrassing but he's not here right now." Shaking her head faintly she turned back toward the Market. "Come on, let's go talk to Mr. Hawkins. If we're too gloomy Zack will show up and be forced to make you smile, and you know how persistent he is."

It must be nice, Cloud reflected, to be able to believe so strongly in people. Cloud had trouble believing in himself, even with so many others reassuring him. 'It wasn't his fault', 'he'd done his best', 'there was nothing he could have done'.… If he was really that good, then why did they have to make excuses for him? Cloud bit back a sigh. Sometimes having a good heart wasn't enough. Zack and Aerith had been the best of people, and still they had…. But that wouldn't happen here. Cloud had promised himself that one way or another he'd make sure the tragedies he'd suffered through wouldn't happen again. Doubt flitted across the back of his mind; since when had it mattered what a failure promised?

With a physical shake of his head, Cloud dismissed the pessimistic thoughts that continued to plague him. He was supposed to be enjoying his time with Aerith right now. Alright, technically he was supposed to be keeping her busy while Zack ran around doing who knew what, but in the end it amounted to the same thing. Taking a few quick steps to bring himself to Aerith's side as they entered the market proper, he offered her a small smile for her words. They'd been offered freely, and Cloud appreciated how much Aerith could trust in him, despite how little she really knew about him. Which only drove in the point she'd been making. It really didn't matter to her what a person was like, so long as there was something in them still worth saving.

(And is he worth saving?)

The thought twisted through his mind like poison, despite his effort to stop it. He didn't want to think about Sephiroth right now, or the riot of emotions surrounding that problem. But it seemed he couldn't stop, the weight of their last encounter burned like embers in his memories, ready to spark into flame at the barest prod. It would be better, smarter to talk with Zack again, and come clean about everything that had happened while his friend was away.

How could he, though? The only thing wrong was Cloud's own twisted perceptions and emotions, feelings he couldn't seem to put aside for fear of what was left behind. The images of Zack's slumped and defeated form, the pain in his expression when he'd confronted Cloud, were still stark in his mind. Even if Zack had forgiven Cloud's twisted view of him, what did that mean for the...others Cloud had dishonored in his selfish ignorance?

"What…if you knew someone would hurt you?" Again, the words tumbled from his mouth before he could stop them. But Cloud needed an answer, needed Aerith's calm guidance now more than ever, since he couldn't bring himself to trouble Zack.

If Tifa had been there, Cloud could have turned to her for a ready ear. Tifa wouldn't judge him, regardless of her own feelings for the madman. Despite her blind emotional reactions when she was younger, Tifa had been forced to mature to deal with Cloud's own brand of insanity. She had chosen to become Cloud's support, when she could have continued on to live a happy life without him. Perhaps the dip in the Lifestream had also changed her in ways that no one had yet realized. But Tifa wasn't here now, wouldn't ever be the same kind and understanding woman Cloud had known, not exactly.

"What if…you didn't think you could stop them?"

(What if you were afraid you wouldn't be able to save them?)

Ahead of him, Aerith paused, lingering and thoughtful. "I think," she said slowly, "that you can't really know if anyone will ever hurt you. You can guess, and you can worry, but in the end it's their choice whether or not they do, and so many things can lead to that choice." She turned to him, her fingers twined shyly into her dress, and a quiet little smile marking her expression. "Before I met Zack, I thought all SOLDIERs were nothing but monsters who craved battle," she said, her voice barely carrying over the hubbub around them. "They...frightened me. But, I'm so glad I met Zack. He's..." She shrugged self-conscious, and the smile she gave Cloud now was slightly tremulous, but it held up.

"It's..." She paused and she laughed softly, her face lighting with an expression of epiphany. "It's like tending a garden. We all sow the seeds, and have to deal with what grows out of them, but if they're growing poorly that doesn't mean we can't move them to a more sunny part of the garden, or to a bigger pot." Aerith touched a finger to her chin thoughtfully. "In gardening you sometimes get certain kinds of plants that will overrun the rest of the garden, so you have to be careful with them. A vine in the wrong place will choke a tree, or a certain type of flower will push everything else out of the flowerbed. You see? You just have to nurture the seeds right and make sure they grow properly."

A gust of breath left him, the shake in it so slight Cloud was probably the only one to pick it up, as Aerith's words washed over him. He felt the knot of worry loosen, both his mind and body relaxing despite the near-nonsensical comparison she was making. That was like her, though; both unaware of the true meaning behind Cloud's words, yet able to understand what was being asked.

He'd heard Zack say over and over that they would change things, that it would be different this time since they were together and prepared, but deep down Cloud had been afraid. Afraid he'd fail his friend again, afraid Zack would die again, afraid they wouldn't be able to stop Sephiroth's fall into madness… Zack didn't know what they were facing, not the way Cloud did. But hearing reassurance from Aerith, however roundabout, filled Cloud with the warm glow of confidence.

It brought a new perspective to his fight with Sephiroth, too. Maybe the seeds he was sowing would be enough to change the ill fated path they were heading down. If Sephiroth was interested in Cloud, then he wasn't taking the time to find out more about Jenova or the Ancients. That could be enough of an anchor, until the threat of Jenova and Hojo could be eliminated for good. The thought was both terrifying and thrilling. Cloud wasn't sure he wanted to be the center of focus in Sephiroth's world, but couldn't deny how much it shook him up when he wasn't.

Cloud had spent enough time worrying about Sephiroth today. Any further, and he'd come too close to breaking his promise to Zack. He was curious, however, as to why Aerith had been so frightened of SOLDIERs before Zack. ShinRa, or even the Turks was understandable, but she had specifically mentioned SOLDIERs.

"In Nibelheim…we only heard a few rumors about SOLDIER." Cloud wasn't sure why he was sharing this, except that he didn't want to be left to his own thoughts again. Aerith chased away the shadows. He stepped in close to her as they broke into the mild crowd that populated the Sector 5 market place, both to provide her with some protection from other pedestrians and to ensure she could hear him without him having to raise his voice over much. "Mostly it was about…the General. All of it was ShinRa propaganda. Many of the adults didn't approve, but the children dreamed of traveling to Midgar, to become like…to become a SOLDIER.

"I think…I was one of the only ones to actually leave, though," he added, brow furrowing as he tried to sort through his hazy memories. As big as the other children had talked, they'd been the types to remain safely at home when real danger lurked. Cloud had left, proud and scared to be the first, to become a SOLDIER and come back to show them all how much better, how much braver than them he was. "My mother…" He paused as an amalgam of confusion, grief, and uncertainty at the thought of the strong, blonde woman passed through him. "Probably didn't want me to go, but she didn't stop me, either."

Cloud fell silent, aware he'd been talking more freely now than he'd done in a while. It was a strange sensation, but not unpleasant when it was Aerith he was talking to. He stopped walking as she did, glancing over to a stall with many different colors of ribbons on display. Their time was almost over, and Cloud found himself loathed to let it end. As if in answer to his dilemma, Cloud looked up to see a familiar dark figure in deep conversation with another man further up the road, alongside a pile of lumber. When he caught sight of Cloud, Zack quickly put a finger to his lips in a shushing motion, before mouthing 'distract her' at him. Then he turned back to the man who was already looking impatient at the SOLDIER's presence. At Cloud's side, Aerith wasn't looking in that direction, and so had not seen Zack yet.

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes at his friend's audacity, Cloud tilted his head down to Aerith, turning her gently back up the road. "Let's go to Wall Market instead." She gave him a quick, amiable—if not baffled—smile and a nod.

"You hear a lot of things about SOLDIER here," she said quietly, picking up the thread of their conversation. "About how fierce they are...about how they...have something done to them to...make them the way they are. Something worse than the mako. But, I don't believe that makes them monsters anymore. Zack isn't a monster, and...and neither are many of the others."

Cloud looked at Aerith out of the corner of his eye. He was aware, vaguely, of what she hadn't said. Aerith was sensitive to the Planet, had been even before their adventures. He could remember Elmyra recounting the story of how she'd found Aerith at the train station, and later how Aerith had informed her of her husband's passing. It wasn't surprising that Aerith was uncomfortable around enhanced people, then. Did that mean she could sense a difference in him as well?

They were passing through the mess of the broken highway now, and Cloud kept his senses alert for the monsters he knew liked to lurk there. He hopped up onto a ledge where the concrete road had split, the earth itself having shifted at some point to raise the section of road a few feet above the other. Bits of gravel crunched under his boots as he reached down, Aerith's slim hand sliding into his gloved one as he pulled her up after him. When she was standing next to him, he didn't immediately let go of her hand. There was no sensation of warmth through the thick leather, just a feeling of pressure that reassured him of Aerith's presence.

"…Sometimes, it's those who appear normal that are the real monsters," he murmured. Cloud knew what made a real monster, how far a human would stoop to fulfill their ambitions. Hojo was the best and worst example of this, but there were others. Heidegger, Scarlet, and Palmer. President Shinra. It was not surprising that they all were associated with ShinRa. The company provided wealth and power, and anonymity for darker ambitions.

His hand gave a convulsive squeeze on Aerith's, before he released her and started walking again. ShinRa, even under Rufus' dubious management, would never hold anything better than contempt in Cloud's mind. They had done too much to the world, destroyed too much that Cloud held dear.

"Don't worry so much, silly. Sometimes things don't have to be complicated. Besides," Aerith said cheerfully. "It's so much better to smile, isn't it?" Her words trailed off abruptly at the sight of a monster's mangled body, the legs still twitching, just ahead of them. Looking further ahead there lay a scraggly dog's body splayed out in the middle of the cracked concrete, right over the yellow lines that marked where the center of the road had been. The pitted concrete was spattered with blood, and around it a small host of Whole Eaters were scrabbling and clicking as they tore into the body.

Aerith gave a strangled little sound and backed up a few paces, her hand immediately flying to her mouth. One of the slim, worm like monster backed away on its four thin legs and turned toward them, hissing through its gaping, tooth ringed mouth. It wobbled back and forth, multifaceted eyes glowing eerily in the under-plate gloom. It hissed, mock charged, then backed away again. Sword already in hand, Cloud automatically reached out and gripped Aerith's arm, and dragged her back further until she was behind him. Another of the monsters swarmed up over the dead dog's body. A moment later it seemed he wouldn't need the blade at all. With another hiss and crackle of moving legs the little beasts scuttled away over the broken rubble to disappear into the wide cracks in it.

Cloud kept his sword at the ready as he reached for Aerith's arm again, pulling her down the road and keeping himself between her and the bloody mess until they reached Sector 6's playground.

"Can we...take a break?" Aerith asked softly.

Cloud pushed the irritation the sudden interruption had caused back, then gave Aerith what he hoped was a reassuring nod. Aerith's obvious fear and horror didn't set well with Cloud, but there hadn't been anything he could do to lessen the gory scene they'd walked in on. Some part of his anger must have bled out, and sent the Whole Eaters scattering. Part of Cloud was glad they had, to spare Aerith more distress, but the other part wished they'd given him an excuse to indulge in the mindless violence the fight would have provided.

The slide of his sword scraping against its sheath as he re-holstered it seemed over loud in the deserted playground. The only other sound was Aerith's soft footfalls crunching lightly across loose gravel as she made her way to the small play structure that was the centerpiece of the park. She sat tentatively on the bottom of the slide, her arms still around her middle and her gaze focused on the ground at her feet. Cloud trailed after, uncertain what sort of comfort he should offer.

Monster attacks weren't uncommon, and were something that Cloud had become numb to over the years. It was surprising that Aerith was still so sensitive to them, yet somehow Cloud wished that innocence would never leave her. Unfortunately the monsters of the world had different ideas. It would have been nice if they had chosen a different day to eat their meal in the middle of the road. At least the corpse of the dead dog would be long gone by the time Aerith and he came back this way. Likely the monsters would return to finish their meal, but there was always the possibility of a desperate slum dweller making off with it for a meal or a quick profit.

His sword sheath pressed into his back as Cloud leaned against the side of the slide above Aerith. A noise made him glance around, and he spotted a man scuttling quickly for Wall Market. Otherwise the area was completely deserted. It reminded him of his other future, when he and that Aerith had spent a moment here as well. He couldn't remember now, what they had discussed. The sight of Tifa on the back of the Don's wagon had distracted them both, and the conversation was lost to the mists of memory. Not one of Cloud's strong points, to be sure.

Cloud glanced down at Aerith's bowed head again. If he'd been Zack—and he tried not to let the irony of that thought shake him—he'd have said something to lighten the situation and draw Aerith out of her dampened mood. Instead, Cloud hesitantly reached out a hand. He paused an inch from her hair, before he completed the move and ran his hand through her hair gently. He was careful not to snag his gloves on her ribbon, and for a moment saw the winking shine of the materia Aerith kept tied carefully there. Holy, he realized numbly. Why had he forgotten she had it, had always had that precious materia?

The urge to tell Aerith everything welled up inside him; surely she'd understand, and it would be such a relief to have his Aerith back again. The moment passed quickly leaving Cloud feeling mildly ill as guilt swirled in his chest. This was not, and would never be the Aerith he'd left behind. His promise to Zack, and the knowledge that Cloud was once again trying to push his own feelings on his friends kept his jaw clenched tight against the desire to speak.

Aerith silently leaned back into Cloud's touch and took the comfort that he offered. After a long moment during which Cloud could see her visibly relax, she said, "I'm sorry. It's...silly, but I can't help but feel so...sad when I see that sort of thing." Even more quietly, as if only to herself she murmured, "Though, I'm a little happy too."

Cloud stared off across the playground, his eyes unfocused as he warred within himself. The empty silence of the park gave the world a muffled quality, a quiet susurration from the distant Wall Market bustle that was barely on the edge of hearing the only noise. Without Zack's boundless energy to constantly pull Cloud out of his thoughts, and with Aerith just on the edge of sight, it felt like one of his waking dreams of her. Perhaps that was why he allowed his tongue to be looser than was wise.

"Do you think…everyone can be happy, when they return to the Lifestream?" There had been a time, twice, three times that Sephiroth had returned to the Lifestream. The first time he showed up after his death had been unexpected, even more-so once they realized that it wasn't that Sephiroth had survived his fall into the mako, but that he had returned from it. The more they learned about the life's blood of the Planet in their travels—from Bugenhagen, from Aerith and the Ancients—the more terrifying the realization became. They had fought, and they had won, and sent Sephiroth back into the green eternity.

But that hadn't stopped Sephiroth from calling Cloud to him for one final duel. The fight itself had been as surreal as Cloud's waking visions, and ironically had probably been one of the first he'd experienced. Unlike his visions of Aerith and Zack, however, Cloud had looked full on into the eyes of the madman who demanded they pit swords against each other, that one of them would be destroyed utterly.

It should have been over. They had saved the Planet, which had risen to its own defense against the burning blight that had been Meteor. For a while the peace had seemed too good to be true, until at last it proved false as the geostigma hit. The encroaching decay sucked the life out of the people, sending the world toward destruction as effectively as Meteor had. And Sephiroth had returned again, with a promise and a threat.

I will never be just a memory.

There was a jerk of movement suddenly stilled out of the corner of his eye, as Aerith froze stiffly on her seat. After a pause of several seconds she asked, "You...know about the Lifestream?"

Cloud nodded absently, mind still lost in green-tinted memories. "I...visited Cosmo Canyon. There was...it was confusing, but it was explained that all creatures return to the Lifestream." Nanaki's grandfather had done his best to explain it in as simple of terms as he could. Cloud knew he'd never understand the flow of life the way he had, or the way Aerith had. Sephiroth seemed to defy their explanations, as well. Swallowing against a lump in his throat, Cloud asked quietly, "But...what if someone refuses to rest?"

Aerith stood up suddenly and took a few steps away from him. He stared at her, eyes slightly wide in surprise at her sudden move. Her fingers fiddled with her skirt, and she refused to look at him. "I'm... not sure I know what you're talking about." There was an odd tremor to her voice that couldn't be disguised no matter how hard she tried.

Abruptly Cloud realized he had slipped again, had forgotten how much of his knowledge wasn't common in this time and place. His promise to Zack rang accusingly in his ears as he mumbled, "...Ah, sorry. It was just...a foolish thought." He had become too relaxed with Zack's open and knowing presence. Making such a mistake with Aerith was regrettable, but not the disaster it could have been if Cloud had slipped in front of Sephiroth, or one of the Turks.

She gathered herself and turned, a smile on her face that didn't quite meet her eyes. "No, it's not. A lot of people wonder about things like that. What happens after death...after we...lose someone." She glanced away, almost as if afraid to meet his eyes. Her fingers were still caught in the white material of her dress. "There's no reason to be sorry for that."

Pushing himself upright, Cloud took a hesitant step toward Aerith. He hadn't meant to stir up her own sorrows and dark memories. For a few heartbeats, the silence stretched between them, tense but not unpleasant. There was something in her posture that indicated upset though she was, Aerith hadn't shut out his fumbled attempts to express the heavy weight of guilty and conflicting feelings he'd been carrying since the mission with Sephiroth. Would it be more harmful now to let it drop, to pretend that he hadn't upset and confused her? Was his own confusion worth alienating their tentative connection over? Cloud couldn't bring himself to leave things as they were. He needed to at least try to explain; he owed her that much.

"I was told, once, that...that they would never be just... There's no way to stop someone, if they refuse to stay in your memories," he said hoarsely. For most people, it would have merely been bravado as they went down with a snarl instead of a scream, but Sephiroth was different; it was a promise that he would keep.

Aerith's eyes took on a determined glint, and she stepped closer, sat back down, and caught hold of his hand. She kept her gaze on their linked hands, and absently plucked at his glove as if to distract herself. Cloud held still as her voice rang softly in calm, melancholic tones, "Memories...good or bad, I think, can sometimes be more hurtful than the real thing."

"...You can't escape them..." he said, and tried to keep the haunted pain out of his voice. Cloud had tried, oh how he'd tried to escape his memories, his failures, his pain. It had left him so broken that he often lost sight of who he was, where he'd come from, what he was fighting for. Even now it was hard to keep the horrors at bay, and to keep himself moving forward at all.

"You never can," she agreed, giving his hand a gentle squeeze. Her eyes turned up to catch his, and he could see her earnest belief shining in their green depths. (Not the same color, but just as striking.) "But that doesn't mean you can't come to terms with them."

There was a lump in his throat, and Cloud could feel the weight of Aerith's understanding acceptance boring into him. She didn't know what he'd done, how he'd failed to save so many people. He'd failed her, even if it no longer was her at all. He'd failed Zack, and Tifa, and betrayed his friends. Most confusing of all, Cloud now felt he'd also failed Sephiroth, that he hadn't been able to see past the monster he'd presented to the world to find the man who'd been lost. Cloud could see it now, the quiet, competent man, who was still full of arrogance though it wasn't unearned. There was no madness, no hatred, only a thrill of discovery as new facets were unearthed with each interaction.

"When memories are full of regrets…" he paused, closing his eyes to block out Aerith's unwavering look. "When all that's left is hate…. How are you supposed to feel when…when even that is gone?"

"I don't think anyone can tell you how to feel, Cloud but...I think that's your heart's way of letting you know you've moved on."

Cloud hadn't realized he'd sunk to his knees, until the hard press of gravel dug into him through his pants. He pressed their joined hands to his forehead for a moment as he let her words sink into his mind. (Is that all? Is it as simple as that?) To be able to let go of the hatred, and all of the horrible memories, to just live in the moment and find anew what sort of people his friends were…it was moving on past the dark, cloying memories that he'd allowed to hold him back for too long.

Cloud remembered feeling like this, in the church immediately after he'd banished the Other the final time. He had thought then too that something had changed, that the world seemed brighter. He'd lost that feeling when he'd been thrust into his own private nightmare, lined with broken dreams. Those broken dreams were mending under Zack's brilliant care, Aerith's understanding love, and even Sephiroth's fascinating enigma.

Aerith's free hand ran through his hair in a soothing rhythm, echoing his early attempt to comfort her. He knelt there for a few minutes longer, and wondered if this was what it was like to be at peace.

"So that's what changed." She smiled at him when he looked up at her, confused. "It's only that you seemed... happier... lately. So I'd wondered." Aerith shook her head fondly, and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. "It's a good thing. It means you can start smiling more."

Cloud sighed as he released Aerith hand and rose to his feet. He felt…odd. Not in a bad way, but somehow he didn't feel real at the moment. Like he was in a dream and about to wake up to face the harshness of reality. He knew that it wasn't going to become suddenly easy from now on. There was still a great deal of uncertainty and wariness he had for Sephiroth, as well as the knowledge that while the man hadn't yet done the cruel and horrific crimes, there was still a large possibility he would. Still, when he looked into Aerith's clear green eyes, the tight feeling of relief hummed through him regardless. The realization had been gradual, though Cloud had made the process more difficult by tying himself into guilty knots. Zack kept telling him he thought too much. His gloves tangled in his hair slightly as he ran a hand through it, still able to feel the ghost of Aerith's caresses. With a slight shake, he offered her a wan smile, and held out a hand invitingly.

"We should hurry, before your mother misses us too much." There was no need to remark further on what transpired there. Everything that needed to be said at this time had been, and Cloud knew Aerith would understand that. He paused for a moment as her hand slid into his, and shook his head again. "Then again, maybe not, with three kids to watch over."

He pulled her upright, careful as always not to be too rough in the movement. Casting an eye around the playground, Cloud noted that they were still alone. His sword shifted against his back as he rolled his shoulders to loosen them from the knots of tension they'd been wound up with. With an offhand gesture, Cloud indicated Aerith to start walking, and he dropped into step beside her as they exited the playground. There were a few hangers on loitering on the road that lead up to Wall Market. A few of the men followed Cloud and Aerith's progress with suspicious eyes, but made no other hostile move, so Cloud dismissed them. As the gaudy neon lights of Wall Market lit up the air in the under-plate gloom, the wave of noise from the busy commerce washed over the pair.

Aerith shifted to walk a little closer to Cloud as the crowds closed in around them. "Do...you have some place in mind?" she asked quietly. Looking downward thoughtfully, she mused, "I think there was a dress shop up that way a little. Do you think they would be willing to sell us some of their leftover fabric?"

Cloud was sure he let out an undignified sound at the mention of the dress shop. Why had he imagined bringing Aerith to Wall Market would end up any other way? He avoided looking down at her, and kept his gaze focused stonily ahead of them as he replied, "…Probably." The owner had been an easily bored egocentric when Cloud had met him the first time, and he couldn't imagine that had changed much. Cloud tried to repress the memory of what exactly had pulled the owner out of his funk last time.

Giving in to the inevitable, Cloud began moving them down the street in the direction of the little shop. The press of people ebbed and flowed around the pair as they slowly made their way deeper into the heart of the market. Aerith stayed close to his side, and Cloud felt a prickling of unease himself. Somewhere, someone was paying them just a bit too much attention. A moment later, Cloud found out who it was as a voice calling his name made him turn and scan the crowd.

"Hey, Cloud!" Pushing through a few slow-moving shoppers, Gibbs raised a hand in greeting as he approached them. "I thought that was you. Of course, with that hair of yours…." The Third grinned, setting his hands on his hips as he looked Cloud up and down. "Still in that damn uniform? I swear, either you have a fetish for playing a subordinate, or you need a girlfriend to sort you out with some new clothes." His eyes slid to Aerith standing at Cloud's side, and the grin turned into a playful smirk. "Or do you have one already? Stealing Fair's girl while he's away?"

"Gibbs," Cloud said warningly, frowning as the Third waved a dismissive hand in his direction.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist." Gibbs turned to Aerith, his smile sliding into something more welcoming as he nodded at her. "Hi there. We didn't get to talk much last time. The name's Gibbs, if you missed it."

Aerith smiled warmly back, and gave a little bow of greeting. "Near the ShinRa Lights Festival tree, in the Sector 8 plaza, right? You brought those delicious buns!"

"Ah, those would be thanks to my Jen," Gibbs said, his dark eyes glinting fondly. "She'll be delighted to hear you enjoyed them so much."

Something of Gibbs' good humor must have been infectious, because the next moment Cloud found his arm captured in Aerith's as she tugged him close. "And what do you mean 'steal'? Zack and I are sharing Cloud, of course!"

"Aerith!" Cloud's protest was louder this time, and he could feel his face flush under her merry eyes as Gibbs let out a harsh bark of laughter.

"Like the kid needs any more rumors floating around about his sordid love life," the Third chortled, and Cloud gave in to the urge to drop his face into his free hand. He had almost, almost managed to forget about that.

"What are you doing down here, anyway?" Cloud asked, dropping his hand to his side wearily.

"Visiting the folks," Gibbs replied with a shrug. "I'm a Midgar kid. ShinRa offered more opportunity than winding up as gutter trash, so I joined as soon as I was old enough to pass the inspection." Running a hand through his dark hair, Gibbs fixed them both with a wry look. "Didn't really want to make it all the way to SOLDIER, but the pay's better. I've been thinking of moving my family plateside as soon as I've saved enough." The man looked a little embarrassed at his chatter, and cleared his throat abruptly. "Anyway, I was heading for the station to meet Jen. There's a new bakery down here that has some good rumors about it, and she wanted to check it out in person when she got off shift."

"Well, we shouldn't keep you any longer," Aerith said agreeably. Cloud kept the thought to himself that it had been Gibbs who'd distracted himself in the first place.

"Nice meeting you. Tell Fair I said hi," Gibbs said in parting, giving a wave as he took off at a jog. Cloud stared after the departing figure for a moment, before turning his gaze back down to Aerith.

"…Sharing?" he asked, trying to keep the plaintive tone from his voice. Zack and Aerith's teasing aside, Cloud did worry that the rumors circulating about him would harm his friend's relationship. Neither seemed concerned about it at the moment, though.

"It's what Zack would have said," she said playfully, as she wound her arm through his again. "I thought I'd try being a little more forward."

"Zack's not..." Cloud started, then cut off abruptly with a sound that was something between exasperated and a reluctant sigh. "Zack...is a bad influence on you." She laughed, quick and bright, and unable to stop for several seconds. Cloud could only watch her, unsure whether he should laugh as well or not.

"Maybe he is," Aerith said after a moment to compose herself, "but he's right when he said you're funny when you get flustered. Besides, I wasn't lying. You stay with Zack most of the time, and every now and then he brings you down here to visit." She came to a pause outside of the dress shop and gave him a prim, yet somehow impish look. "It's not my fault you two took my words like that."

Shaking his head slightly at Aerith's teasing, Cloud ducked his chin behind his scarf to hide his reluctant grin. It seemed more in character for the Aerith he'd known to be so audacious, yet he couldn't help but be amused at her happiness. Zack was a big impact in her life, and that was shining through even now. Oddly, it made him feel a little better about his own usurpation of Zack's life; his friend changed people for the better, and knowing that Aerith also leaned on Zack's personality to give her strength was calming. He wasn't sure he could ever completely let go of the guilt of forgetting Zack's sacrifice, but it was getting easier to believe that that Zack had given it up freely.

When they stepped over the threshold of the shop's entrance, they were immediately enveloped in the dimmer gloom from inside. The contrast of the outside neon lighting and the interior's warmer glow was palpable, and Cloud blinked as his eyes adjusted quickly. He was greeted by the familiar sight of the racks of dresses against the walls. There were no other customers in the shop despite the bustle outside. The owner looked up from a magazine he'd been perusing at the counter, and Cloud fought off a wince of recollection. It was the same face as he remembered, less lined perhaps, but still holding the pinched petulance of someone who didn't care about others' opinions. It smoothed into a more businesslike expression as he straightened up, nodding at them in greeting.

"Welcome," the owner said brusquely, wiping one hand on his shirt distractedly. "Anything I can help you folks with?"

Aerith's hand clutched at Cloud's arm from where they were still linked before she released him to address the owner. "Well, I was wondering if you'd be willing to part with some of your leftover fabric. Not much, but..." she said politely, threading her fingers together behind her back. Cloud turned his head away as echoes of his previous encounter in this shop rang through his mind. He took comfort in the knowledge that at least this time he wouldn't be forced to wear the cloth.

For a moment the owner regarded her in silence, seeming to be considering her request. His eyes flicked to Cloud and back, before abruptly he nodded sharply. "Sure, I have some stuff laying around that I can't use for much anymore. Just let me go get it." Cloud blinked as the man disappeared through the door to the back room, uncertain if he was reading too much into the sudden accord.

"That wasn't so bad," Aerith said, releasing a sigh as she closed her eyes. Opening them again, she brought her hands back to her side and smiled up at him. "I hope we can get something the girls will like."

Shifting to rest his weight on one leg, Cloud shrugged negligently. "I'm sure it will be fine." He wasn't sure why Aerith was worried. Cloth was just cloth, wasn't it? He quickly pushed back the knowledge that silky was better than velvety, and wished his patchy memory would kindly kick in.

Aerith rocked back on her heels, humming in agreement. "I'm sure you're right." Her attention was drawn to the racks of clothing for a moment, and Cloud shifted again at her intense interest. Her eyes tracked back to him, and she gave him a sympathetic smile. "You look a bit uncomfortable. Don't like to shop?"

Cloud ran a hand through his hair, and forced himself to relax. While it had been embarrassing, there was no reason to get worked up over something that had no reason to occur now. "It's not that…" he mumbled, but didn't elaborate. The shop owner had returned anyway, and cleared his throat to get Aerith's attention. She turned, and stepped up to the counter where he'd laid several lengths of cloth across it.

"These are just the cut-offs. Can't use 'em for more than rags, really," the owner explained. Cloud stepped forward, casting an eye over the variety of colors. Some of the cloth was hardly more than scraps, but there were plenty of longer strips to choose from. "If you want better, I'd have to charge you."

"Oh, I don't mind paying for them," Aerith protested mildly, her fingers nimbly testing the feel of the cloth. "But these are perfect, really."

"What are you using them for?" the man asked, his brow furrowing in curiosity. The man had been interested in the unusual.

"Ribbons," Aerith replied softly, her attention still on the strips of cloth.

"We have spools of actual ribbon if you'd like." The owner's expression took on a slightly disinterested cast as he said this, obviously only mentioning it more in hopes of a profit than any real interest.

Aerith shook her head, and gifted the man with a faint smile. "It's more fun like this, and it costs a little less. Besides they're only for flowers."

The owner nodded in satisfaction at her answer, then gave her an appraising look. "You're that flower girl, I take it?"

Cloud's attention focused on the man at the query, and even Aerith's smile faded a bit at the sudden interest. It wasn't necessarily a good thing to be well known in the slums, after all. "Words gotten around that fast?" she asked, flushing and ducking her head.

"It's an unusual occupation here, and my daughter's friends have been talking about it," he explained, eyes taking on a spark of inspiration that Cloud recognized. "Next time you have some why don't you stop by? I'd like to buy a few."

Aerith gave a nod of agreement. "I'll see when I can come by again, then." She turned and beckoned Cloud closer. "Come here, for a second would you, Cloud?" He couldn't help but give her a wary look, and she let out a mirthful laugh. "It's okay, silly. I'm not going to bite." He stepped up to her side without further protest, and raised a questioning eyebrow at her. Aerith held up the bunched fabric in her hand and pressed it against his temple. The cloth was cool against his skin, the slight pressure from her hand keeping it in place. The wild locks of his blond hair fell around it, and she leaned in closer with a bright smile. "Your hair is about the same color as my yellow flowers," she said, laughter in her voice. "White will go with anything, but not yellow, so I need a comparison."

Cloud endured the comparison stoically, aware of the owner's not so subtle stare. The man had brought out a number of samples, so it took Aerith a while of humming and re-examining the different cloths as Cloud waited. Finally, it seemed the man's patience ran out.

"You're that guy that tangled with Corneo's men, aren't you?" he asked gruffly, eying Cloud up and down again. His gaze lingered on Aerith's hand where it was holding up a blue strip of cloth to Cloud's hair, before he looked back into Cloud's eyes. "Yeah," he continued. "Sent the General after them and everything." There was a belligerent expression on his face, as if he was daring Cloud to do the same to him.

Fixing the man with an unamused stare, Cloud's mouth twitched into a frown. "I didn't send the General to them." The effect of the statement was lost when Aerith held up a luridly pink cloth covered in bright pastel flowers. By her grin, she knew it looked as horrid as he thought, and he scrunched his nose in mild protest.

"There's rumors they're looking for a bit of revenge," the owner continued, and he flashed Cloud a smile that was more teeth than mirth. "You might want to watch your back out there. Your lady, too. We don't need you ShinRa stirring things up around here."

"Cloud didn't stir anything," Aerith said in a matter of fact voice. "They were being very rude." Which, while true, didn't mean much to people like them. Cloud frowned to himself. The Turks should be watching out for Aerith at least, though it grated on him to rely on them to keep her safe. "Besides," she added, turning away from Cloud at last. "If they did try anything, then Cloud would protect me. Right, Cloud?"

He nodded a bit numbly, though with her back to him she probably hadn't noticed. It was depressing how often people asked that of him, when all he seemed to do was fail at it. Cloud was always a step too late, always forced to pick up the pieces after disaster had already struck. The owner snorted skeptically. "You're a bit of a fool, then." His tone wasn't cruel, but the words were still cutting.

Aerith shifted back slightly as if it had been a physical blow, and looked momentarily self conscious. "...Maybe I am." Then she glanced at Cloud, and summoned her smile back. "But I trust in my protectors." Cloud stared back silently, and wished that it was as simple as that. He understood what the shopkeeper had meant, even if the delivery had set Cloud's teeth on edge.

"Let's hope you don't regret that trust," the owner said gruffly, as if suddenly aware he'd been less than kind to his customers. Cloud's glower probably didn't help either. "I still need my flowers, after all."

Aerith gave him a polite smile, and gestured to a small pile of cloth she'd carefully separated out. "I'll take these, if it's not too much trouble." It wasn't too much trouble, the owner even scrounging up a sheet of paper to wrap the cloth in. He handed the package over, and Aerith carefully tucked it under one arm securely. When she laid a few gil on the counter, however, he tried to protest.

"I said those were just scraps. I can't charge you for that."

"No, I insist," Aerith said. She hesitated, then offered him a delicate smile. "If for nothing else, maybe it can be for your advice."

He regarded her for a moment, then abruptly strode out into the store proper. Cloud straightened, tracking the owner's progress as he approached a rack of spools of ribbon. He selected one, then turned and proffered the roll to Aerith. "Take this, then. And no arguments, miss. I do what I want, and charge what I want." Aerith approached, reaching out an arm to pluck the ribbon gently from his grasp. It was a vibrant, sky-blue color. Her smile was warmer as she stepped back to Cloud's side, and they left the shop without further incident.

"…We should probably get back," Cloud murmured, voice just loud enough to be heard over the crowd's bustle. He hadn't intended the side trip to Wall Market to be so eventful, but even with the memory of the shop keeper's warning, Cloud found he didn't regret it.

"Yes, let's," Aerith agreed happily, her good cheer returned. She followed after him as they wound their way back along Wall Market in mutual silence, Aerith's attention focused mostly on the swirling people who went by them, and the stands they edged past. They were about half way along when Aerith came to a sudden halt. Cloud stopped a few steps ahead of her and turned back. She gave him a slight smile. "Do you smell that? Come on, let's go see!"

Cloud followed bemusedly behind Aerith as she diverted their path. Like Zack, she was easily distracted by new and interesting things. But where Zack's was more due to a short attention span, Aerith tended to treat everything like a small adventure. It reminded him of the abortive 'date' he'd been on with her at the Gold Saucer. Since there was nothing pressing at the moment, Cloud was content to follow her deeper into Wall Market's bustle.

She ducked and wound her way through the crowd, then stepped into the quiet that edged the shop fronts and stores. An old woman had set up a little cart-like stall wedged between two shops festooned with advertisement signs. It was decorated with faded pennants, and offered no other call to passers-by than the smell of the sticky, sweet treats she was selling.

"Hello, dears," the old woman greeted them. "Can I do anything for you two?"

Aerith glanced over her shoulder at Cloud. "What do you think, Cloud? I've got some gil left. Do you think we should take some back as a thank you for our helpers?"

The sweet smelling buns held no particular interest to Cloud, but at Aerith's question, he nodded slightly. The girls would enjoy the treat, and Aerith seemed delighted by the idea of spoiling them a little. It was unusual to see such an elderly person still active in the cutthroat marketplace, but the old lady hardly seemed enfeebled or slow of wit. Not by the way her shrewd dark eyes regarded them, carefully taking in Cloud's ShinRa uniform. Her smile didn't falter, however, so Cloud paid the extra attention no mind.

Aerith's smile brightened a bit at Cloud's agreement, and she turned back to the old woman. "Three, please," she said.

The woman's smile widened, the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth deepening as she reached out to select a few of the treats with steady, age spotted hands, and a piece of thin, waxy paper. She slid the three buns into a small, white paper bag. In the slums it wasn't often that such a small stand could afford such accessories. Aerith took the offered bag, and commented, "These smell delicious, do they sell well?"

The old woman shrugged slightly. "Well enough. My family thinks I need to stop coming over here and setting up shop. 'Just mind the bakery if you still want to work, mother', he says," she scoffed slightly. "It's much more interesting out among the people, and at my age you learn to enjoy what you can get."

"I was taught similar," Aerith replied softly.

"More young people need good heads on their shoulders," the woman said primly.

Aerith flushed slightly, but offered a shy smile, then asked, "How much for these?"

"Hmm, how about fifteen gil for the lot? I'll give you a bit of a discount since you know my grandson." Aerith blinked, startled, and the old woman laughed. It was a full and rich laugh, that proved the lines on her face were more laugh lines than stress. "I saw the pair of you talking to him earlier. He's a good kid, much better than his fussy father, at least."

"I wouldn't feel right..." Aerith began, but it was obvious the woman wouldn't be budged. Aerith sent Cloud a sudden glance before reaching up and pulling free the flower he'd tucked in her hair earlier. She examined the blossom a moment then offered, "Well, only on the condition you accept one of my flowers. That way it'll be an even trade."

The woman– Gibbs' grandmother–laughed again. "Alright girlie, it's a deal."

Smiling brightly, Aerith picked out the gil necessary and handed it over, along with the single flower. Looking to Cloud she gave him a pleased smile. "Okay, let's get back."

Nodding again in agreement to Aerith's suggestion, Cloud quickly fell into step with her as they walked away from the stand. While startled at the old woman's admission of her relation to Gibbs, he could see a bit of the Third in her dark eyes and stubborn attitude. He glanced over his shoulder once as he and Aerith moved back into Wall Market's crowd, and saw her carefully tucking the flower into the collar of her dress. A crinkle of paper beside him cause him to turn his attention back to Aerith, who had also been looking back at the seller.

"You seem to be thinking hard," she said, smiling up at him. Cloud considered the statement, and realized even as he did so, he was doing exactly that. Aerith's laugh was infectious, and he gave a slightly self-deprecating chuckle of his own.

"Sorry…Zack tells me I think too much." He reached out to pluck both packages from Aerith's arms, being careful not to crush the pastries.

She gave a soft, amused hum. "He does too. He just doesn't act like it."

Stepping carefully out of the way of a man pulling a cart piled high with several bulging, worn sacks, Cloud shook his head in bemusement. Zack was impulsive and easily distracted on occasion, but like Aerith said, his friend tended to over think things when left to himself. His anxiety over the dinner at Aerith's house over a month ago had been a prime example of that. But more often, Zack would keep his thoughts to himself. For someone who wore their heart on their sleeve, Cloud often had a hard time figuring out what his friend was thinking. It was both ironic, and made sense. Cloud had taken the little slice of Zack he'd known to create his mask, when his friend was a much more complex person than his outward appearance.

The glow of the neon lights faded behind Cloud and Aerith as they exited Wall Market. They proceeded at a relaxed pace along the dirt road, which was deserted of even the few stragglers that had been there earlier. The air was filled with only a faint susurration of distant noises, and the soft scuffing of Aerith's shoes and Cloud's boots in the dirt. With the uneventfulness of their trip so far, Cloud had relaxed his attention, which was probably why they suddenly found themselves facing a handful of angry, tough looking men.

Cloud blinked, and assessed the situation quickly. Most of the men were large, heavily muscled, and armed in some way. One man began swinging a length of chain menacingly, the metallic rattle echoing loudly around the empty road. A scuffing sound behind them made Cloud turn slightly, taking in the toughs approaching from behind as well. Beyond them, Wall Market's glow was still visible on the unusually deserted road. An ambush, then, and one the locals possibly knew was coming.

Gently pressing the packages back into Aerith's arms, Cloud drew his sword slowly from its sheath. He allowed it to scrape the side in a menacing, drawn out sound. These men were full of bluster in an attempt to be intimidating, and Cloud knew how to play that game. The heavy feeling in his stomach was more because Aerith had been dragged into his mess. He hoped she would forgive the scare, but he would make sure she was not harmed. A cheery little jingle went off in Cloud's pocket; he recognized the tone Zack had put on his phone for incoming mail. The incongruity of the light hearted sound caused a few mirthless chuckles from the men. With all his senses trained for the first attack, Cloud looked from face to face, watching the eyes especially to see who would break first. As he caught the dark gaze of one man, however, the tough frowned suddenly.

One of the men in front of them made a move as if he would charge, but stopped as the dark eyed man let out a word of protest. "Wait."

"What's up?" the eager tough complained, the knife in his hands glinting as he jabbed it in front of him in a nervous twitch. "Boss said to teach the punk a lesson he won't forget!"

The other man ignored him, and turned to address a third man next to him. "You told me he was just a trooper." The inflection in the man's voice was flat; he was obviously not happy. The man addressed was familiar, and Cloud recognized him as the disgruntled handler from the chocobo stables.

"He is! Lookit the uniform!" the handler said with a wild gesture at Cloud. His voice was high pitched with stress; clearly the man hadn't expected to have to face Cloud after ratting him out to his boss.

"Idiot," the dark haired man spat in disgust, and turned to face Cloud again. His frown had not lessened. Still addressing his companions, he continued, "Don't you know anything about ShinRa? No trooper has eyes like that." There was a ripple of unhappy murmurs from the other men, and Cloud shifted as their stances changed from the swaggering menace of before into more serious bearing. The handler was left gaping at the dark eyed man's back as he stepped forward and carefully eyed Cloud up and down.

This wasn't good. There were too many of them for Cloud to be confident in his capability to keep Aerith completely from harm, if they were prepared for his enhanced abilities. It would help if she'd brought her staff, but even now she tended to leave the weapon behind if Zack and he were with her. He contemplated the situation for a moment, his gloves creaking slightly as he tightened his grip on the sword, before he straightened suddenly and slashed his sword down to his side. The tip just brushed the dirt, raising a small cloud, and conveniently imposing the blade between Aerith and the toughs in front of them. Nothing he could do about the ones in the rear yet, though he kept his senses straining to hear any move from them.

Raising his chin to fix the dark eyed man with a bland look, Cloud gestured around the circle with his free hand. "You are Corneo's men?" he asked quietly.

The man grunted. "That's right. The Don didn't appreciate your threatening his people." Cloud's distraction seemed to have worked, as no one made a move yet to attack while they were talking. Unknown to the toughs, Cloud began gathering himself, and focused some of his life force into his blade. He would be able to distract the group in front with the surprise attack, for a little bit, at least. It would hopefully give him enough time to get Aerith to safety. After that Cloud didn't much care what they did.

"I did not threaten them." Which was mostly true. It really wasn't Cloud's fault Sephiroth had actually gone to them to ensure Viri's supplies. Not that it would matter to these men. They had been given their orders.

"Well well well," a familiar voice drawled. The handler and several of the toughs whirled around, though the dark eyed man kept his gaze on Cloud for a few moments longer. Cloud ignored him, and glanced over their shoulders at the approaching form of Gibbs. At his side, a slightly plump woman hurried to keep up, her face pinched with worry as she observed the gathering. Gibbs put a hand on her shoulder to halt her forward movement, and continued up the path on his own. His tan face split into a dark smirk as he looked from the toughs to Cloud. He let out a low whistle. "Damn, Cloud, you don't do things by halves, do you?"

"If you know what's good for you, you'll beat it and forget you saw us here," the dark eyed man growled in warning to Gibbs. Gibbs focused his smirk on him, and Cloud could see the moment the man realized Gibbs too had the telltale glow in his eyes.

"Now, why would I do a thing like that?" the Third crooned.

"Gibbs," Cloud warned. Aerith aside, he really didn't want to drag the SOLDIER into this either. That small encounter from back then was already turning into a bigger headache than Cloud had anticipated.

"Even if you and your buddy are able to take us all on, do you really think you can keep your woman safe? You won't be around all the time," one of the toughs sneered in a fit of bravado.

Cloud tilted his head slightly, and considered the threat. "No," he said finally, the blandness of his tone unsettling the thugs. "But if you try, you will be dead before you have the chance to harm her." The Turks would ensure Aerith's safety on the quiet. If Cloud hadn't been there, they probably would have already killed these men from the shadows. This way, at least, there wouldn't be any loss of life. If Gibbs could be trusted to hold his punches.

The final taunt seemed to send most of the men into a rage. Cloud heard the scrape of boots behind him, heard Aerith's frightened gasp, saw Gibbs move. It all blurred together as he lunged, twisting around Aerith to meet the first of the thugs behind him with the flat of his blade. He trusted Gibbs to take care of the others. Killing these men now would raise even more problems than he was already facing. Cloud was careful not to leave more than nicks and scratches on the men in between ear-ringing blows from the flat of his blade, his sword knocking them down hard.

A thug appeared in front of Aerith, her startled scream alerting Cloud to the danger. In a heartbeat the man was sent flying as Cloud was suddenly there at her side, leg still outstretched from the kick. Another man howled when Cloud brought his boot down on his foot. Cloud could feel a crunch through the relatively thin boots the man wore. He punched out, the pommel of the sword cracking into the man's chin, and he went down without another sound.

Cloud spared a moment to catch Aerith's eyes, since he was once again in front of her. He could see the spark of fear in her expression, but her mouth was set in a stubborn line as she stood unmoving where he'd left her. In the brief exchange, he noted her white knuckled grip on the packages clutched to her chest, and felt a spark of ire light in him. It wasn't fair that what was supposed to have been a pleasant trip had turned into this. The next thug went tumbling across the dirt path with a satisfying spin, as Cloud used his sword like a bludgeon.

Out of the corner of his eye, Cloud was aware of Gibbs working his way through his own attackers, his fists up in some sort of boxing position. It was rather crude compared to the graceful form Tifa used, but Cloud could admit that the men who went down under the Third's fists did not get back up. Within a few minutes all of Corneo's men were down, some groaning, some unconscious. Cloud straightened, and pulled a cloth out of his pocket. He ran the cloth along the sword to wipe off the small amounts of blood he'd drawn, and sheathed it in a quick, efficient move.

Gibbs shook out his fists absently, and took in the downed bodies around them. The woman he'd arrived with approached him now that the danger was gone, making a tutting sound as she grabbed one of his hands. His knuckles were bleeding a bit from where they'd split, and Cloud could see a red score across the Third's arm where a blade had nicked him. Otherwise he appeared unharmed.

"It's never boring around you, that's for sure," Gibbs commented wryly. Cloud ignored the Third, and turned a worried look on Aerith.

"Are you okay?" He was confident she hadn't been touched by any of the men, but that didn't mean she was unharmed. Shifting uncomfortably on his feet, Cloud had a moment to think wryly that the thugs wouldn't have approached him if Zack had been there. If he ever found out who was responsible for his bad karma, Cloud would take great pleasure in repaying in kind.

"Mhmm," Aerith hummed in answer. "I'm fine, Cloud. Thanks to you."

A reminder beep from his pocket interrupted, and with a brief look to make sure she wasn't bothered, Cloud pulled his phone out of his pocket. There was indeed a waiting text message, and he was a bit baffled to see it was from Zack's friend Kunsel.

Word is the underground is humming with activity, thanks to

an incident with a blond trooper a while back. I'm guessing that was you.

It's not surprising that a protégé of Zack's would cause a ruckus.

Anyway, I thought you should know that some of the gangs

in the slums have been wanting to get at you.

Cloud stared at the message for a moment longer, exasperation thick in his mind. While it would have been helpful a few minutes earlier, the timing was too ironic.

"Cloud?" Aerith called, attracting his attention. "Hold these for me?" She held out the packages she was carrying expectantly. Once he'd taken them from her, slightly baffled, Aerith walked toward the Gibbs and the woman with him, chin held high and stepping lightly around the occasionally groaning thug. Cloud followed in her wake. She smiled as Gibbs looked up at their approach and said, "Thank you for helping us. Are you hurt badly?"

Gibbs shook his head, mouth quirked in a crooked grin. "Nah, it's nothing that won't heal given a bit of time."

"He thinks that just because he's a SOLDIER now, means he's tough," the woman said, tone scolding.

"It does mean that, Jen..."

Jen sent Aerith a sidelong, weary look, and Aerith covered a laugh. "Still," Aerith said after she'd gotten her expression under control. "Let me heal them for you? At least for the practice?" She let a hopeful look slide into place, even as she reached up to fumble with her ribbon. "Zack's been teaching me, you see." When Aerith pulled the materia out of her hair, Cloud stepped forward quickly, a bit alarmed that she would bring out Holy at a time like this. A second glance told him, however, that she'd pulled out a different materia.

Gibbs caved to her hopeful expression and gave a nod. "Alright, miss," he said gruffly.

Aerith gave him a beaming smile, and took one of his hands in one of hers. The green shine of the sphere reflected off Aerith's hands, and he watched the magic dance around Gibbs' wounds at her direction. The pale glow of the Cure magic knit flesh, and washed away the bruising in a few seconds, and Gibbs gave a faint murmur of surprise even as Aerith reached for his other hand, then moved on to the gash in his arm.

"There!" she cheered quietly, as the gash finished sealing.

Gibbs gave a slight whistle as he examined her handy work. "You're doing pretty good for a newbie..."

She flushed faintly, rolling the little sphere in her fingers. "I've...had a good teacher?"

When she finished, Cloud touched her arm to prevent her from putting the materia away again. "Can I see it?" As Aerith had cast the spell, Cloud had sensed something a bit different about it than the materia he and Zack used. Tucking the packages under one arm, Cloud used his teeth to pull his glove off his other hand. He gently took the materia out of Aerith's hand, and rolled it curiously across his palm. From its depths he could feel the familiar pulse of the Planet's memory. It didn't feel matured yet, and Cloud wondered at the difference he felt between it and the materia Zack had given him. Those had a strange taint that he couldn't really explain. He'd only noticed that the materia he had felt different, and had thought it just another side effect of his time travel.

"Hey, that's a natural materia, isn't it?" Gibbs asked Aerith. Cloud shot him a curious look. Natural? Wasn't that how all materia were formed? He could remember Sephiroth—the other Sephiroth—saying something about that, when they'd run across the natural materia spring in the Nibel mountains. "Not one of the ShinRa stock," the Third continued as he noticed Cloud's confusion. He waved a hand in the general direction of the pillar that held the plates up. "They produce the materia the SOLDIERs use, but if you find a natural one, you're lucky. Those actually grow stronger. The scientists haven't figured out how to duplicate that effect yet."

Rolling the materia once more in his palm, Cloud handed it back to Aerith. She took it, and gave it a fond smile before she tucked it back in her hair. "It was…a present. From Zack," she explained. Cloud nodded as he took his glove out of his mouth, being careful not to drop the packages as he slipped it back on. Aerith came to his rescue, and took them back with an exasperated tsk.

"Wasn't he complaining about not having a Cura or something?" Gibbs snorted. "Well, I can't say I blame him. You've got a talent for magic." He flexed his hands to demonstrate the seamless mending. "I don't think I've seen such a neat job since I was a trooper. Guy nearly took my ear off with his sword, and the Drill Sergeant managed to heal it up nice and neat. Only have this scar here." He traced the scar near the back of his jaw with a finger.

"And marred your good looks forever, I'm sure," Jen said, and tugged his arm back down.

"Ah Jen, you know I didn't mean it like that," Gibbs said with a woe-be-gone look at her.

"Yet you can't help but bring that story up every chance you get," she admonished.

An over loud groan from one of the toughs still strewn out on the road brought all their attention back to their predicament. Cloud glanced around to make sure none of the gang was trying to get up, before turning back to Gibbs and his lady.

"We need to go." He nodded at Gibbs, silently thanking the Third again for his assistance. "Will you be okay…?"

"Go on," Jen said authoritatively, and shoved Gibbs a few steps up the road. "We've got enough family here to be safe, and I have a big strong SOLDIER at my disposal. You should get back home before their friends come looking."

"What she said," Gibbs added with a 'what can you do?' shrug of his shoulders. "Try to keep out of trouble for a while, eh Cloud?" He allowed himself to be marched up the road, until Jen stepped to his side and they hurried toward Wall Market's welcoming glow.

Ignoring the taunt, Cloud turned the other way, and he and Aerith quickly made their way toward the park. They didn't slow their steps until they were at the entrance to the broken highway that separated them from Sector 5, and Cloud was sure that Corneo's men wouldn't follow this far. He brought a hand up to scratch the back of his head in minor exasperation, and sent a wry look at Aerith. "Maybe…that wasn't such a good idea." He wasn't sure if he meant the trip to Wall Market, the result of the fight with Corneo's men, or leaving Gibbs behind in the middle of the Don's territory.

Aerith readjusted the packages in her grip carefully for a moment, a thoughtful look on her face. When at last she turned to Cloud she was smiling again. "Well...you can't say it wasn't an adventure," she said slowly. "I had fun, and I think you did too, so that's all that really matters, right? Just a little bit of joy, even if there were bad parts?" She shook her head and started off again. Just as Cloud had expected, the torn dog carcass was gone, though Aerith didn't seem keen on looking at the space too closely.

"An adventure, huh?" Cloud murmured, mostly to himself. He'd had plenty of those in his life, and couldn't quite find the appreciation in them that Aerith did. He supposed that was part of what made her so pleasant to be with. Her bright and optimistic attitude never seemed to falter, even when the world looked its darkest. Cloud had…missed that.

Aerith gave an affirmative nod, that was quickly followed by a faint, chagrined smile as she admitted, "Though I do feel a bit bad for leaving those men like that."

He gave an amused scoff at Aerith's worry. "They're street toughs. A beating isn't going to keep them down that long." The worst injuries Cloud had inflicted had been broken bones, which took awhile to heal, but weren't necessarily life threatening. If they did succumb to their wounds, however, it didn't bother Cloud too much. They certainly weren't the kind of men who'd suddenly mend their ways just because there was a bigger bully around.

"But," she said out of the blue, "I don't think we should let my mom know about this. She...worries."

Cloud nodded acceptance to Aerith's request, but added mildly, "Zack will want to know…." He agreed with Aerith about keeping their adventure from Elmyra. With the Turks still watching her, none of the Don's men would be allowed to get near Aerith's house. Since it was unlikely she would venture out without Zack and him anyway, it was safe enough. But Zack would find out one way or another about today's altercation, and Cloud didn't want it to be second hand. The last time that had happened, after all, Zack had made it a loud production in front of a whole crowd of people.

"He's going to hover again." She gave Cloud a mournful look, and tapped his nearest hand with a finger. "Like that time you got bitten by a Kalm Fang that had its pups in Sector 6, and he brought you to the church for a break, and to cure you."

He winced in embarrassed recollection. Cloud had been climbing up some of the scrap heaps that took up much of the space in between sectors, full of concrete and metal poles from the highway and waste from the plate above. He hadn't even known the monsters were there until the mother had her teeth in his hand. Zack had overreacted when Cloud had let out a startled cry of pain, and had taken care of the minor monster infestation. It was unfortunate that even the pups had to be killed, but they couldn't be allowed to gain a foothold within the city walls. The subsequent barrage of questions had Cloud mildly baffled, but apparently Zack had been thrown by Cloud's uncharacteristic vocalization. He hadn't believed Cloud's assurances that it had been a minor injury until he'd agreed to go see Aerith immediately.

"…You tell him," Cloud said, trying not to let the petulance he felt into his voice, and knew he failed miserably. The unexpected childishness of that made him flush slightly, and he wondered for a moment if Zack was rubbing off on him too much, or if it was his own fluctuating mood.

She snickered. "...Are you scared of Zack?"

"I'm…cautious, of his enthusiasm," Cloud mumbled.

Before Aerith could respond in any way, Cloud held up a hand to silence her. From around a slab of broken highway, he heard the tell tale chittering of a Whole Eater. They were apparently still hanging around after their canine meal. Waving idly at her to stay behind, he silently drew his sword and hopped on top of the slab. It was no challenge at all to dispatch the two monsters that had been loitering there, and he toed their corpses to the side before he returned around the concrete to rejoin Aerith. Keeping himself between her and the half-hidden bodies, he hurried them through the area. Ahead of them, the entryway to the Sector 5 market place could be seen.

"Your mother…will she be very worried, do you think?" he asked as they passed into the bustle of the market. Cloud remembered how in the future, Elmyra had begged him to leave Aerith behind when he returned to the 7th Heaven bar. Aerith had followed anyway, but Cloud could still remember her mother's tired, pleading expression. Perhaps she had known then that her daughter would never return if she left.

"She might," Aerith said slowly, her eyes directed upward. Above them the underside of the plate hovered, hiding away the sky. "I think she'll wonder what took so long, but...she doesn't have a reason to worry if we don't give her one, you know?" Aerith turned her gaze on Cloud and smiled softly at him. "And she doesn't have a reason to worry, does she? Neither of us was hurt, and it wasn't even that scary."

Aerith lead the way as they cut across the market and made their way up the path toward her home. The front door was open, inviting, and upon reaching it Aerith peeked inside. "Mom?" she called. Just before she was about to call again Elmyra appeared from upstairs, drying her hands on a hand towel. Despite Aerith's optimism, Cloud wasn't surprised when Elmyra greeted them with a pinched mouth and worried brow. He hung back, allowing Aerith to reassure her mother that they were safe and there was nothing to worry about, and just watched.

"What took you so long?" Elmyra asked. "I sent the girls down to the market but they said you weren't there. Then they offered to go check the church."

"We got a little side tracked," Aerith said sheepishly, "and decided to visit Wall Market."

Elmyra's frown deepened for a moment before she sighed and smoothed it away with a smile. "You didn't run into any monsters?" she asked shrewdly.

"There were a few on the way, but they weren't a problem for Cloud," Aerith reported happily as she stepped inside. "I got the material, and he gave us this," she paused to hold up the ribbon, "as well. Oh! And I got some treats for the girls. They've been so helpful..." She looked at her mother and frowned slightly. "You said they went back to the church?"

"Yes."

Aerith bit her lip, then glanced back at Cloud where he hovered in the doorway. "We should go make sure they're okay." Cloud gave a sharp nod of agreement. While it wasn't often that monsters appeared there it did happen. "Oh! Wait a moment will you, Cloud?"

She turned sharply on her heel and darted upstairs. Something had changed in his friend, something familiar in the determined glint in Aerith's eye. It was both baffling and inspiring to realize that Aerith had obviously taken something away after her fright, and forged it into a strength to carry her forward. Cloud felt a swell of pride and happiness when she returned down the stairs with her staff, and nodded slightly in approval. He would definitely feel better of future encounters if she had her staff with her, even among the lawless rabble of the slums.

He caught Elmyra's eye briefly over Aerith's head, and saw that pride echoed in her gaze as well. But there was also worry there, which Cloud knew would never completely leave her. She loved Aerith as her own daughter, and indeed there really was no difference in the feeling for the pair. Cloud wasn't sure if his presence was reassuring or causing Elmyra more concern, but he hoped it was the former. This wasn't the same downcast woman he'd met in the other life, who'd lost too much already and feared losing her last light of happiness. One that Cloud had stolen from her anyway.

"This time," Aerith said softly, words meant only for him. "I can fight too. If we have to." She gave Cloud a sharp, stubborn look, as if daring him to tell her she couldn't. Aerith's challenge fell on deaf ears, as Cloud didn't bother to acknowledge it. He knew quite well how stubborn she could be. It was another parallel to his other Aerith, he couldn't help but note with a pang of guilt, of when she had insisted she accompany him to Sector 7. Even when he'd managed to sneak out without her, she'd somehow known to come find him. It was part of her charm and frustration.

Cloud let Aerith pass by him, before falling into step beside her. The girls probably shouldn't be running around by themselves. This wasn't their home territory, and most slum dwellers were extremely territorial. Sector 5 was one of the more reputable parts of the slums, but that didn't mean there weren't other dangers.

The walk through the marketplace was quick, as they cut through to the more direct route this time. Tilting his head up, Cloud regarded the distant form of the plates above for a moment, as he judged the amount of time their outing had taken up from the dim light that filtered down. There were still a few hours before dark at this time of the year, so as long as nothing untoward had happened to the girls, there was nothing to worry about. They'd probably been distracted by the flowers in the church again, and had lost track of time as children were wont to do.

Silence stretched between the two, but Cloud didn't think it was an uncomfortable one. Zack always felt the need to fill the air with chatter, which was nice in its own way, but Aerith was content to leave things be when there was nothing important to be said. Soon enough, their progress through the twisting slum paths brought them to their destination, as the bulk of the church rose up before them.

Aerith's steps tapped quietly against the wide stone steps of the church as she hurried up them, fingers tight around the midsection of her staff. One leaf of the heavy wooden doors stood open, fully. Cloud had his suspicions on what they would find in the church, and knew his hunch was correct when he saw Aerith's shoulders relax minutely as she entered through the double doors. He stepped in after her, taking in the sight of Zack and the girls huddled in the center of the church. In the middle of them a wooden cart sat, a bright riot of colors and pictures decorating its sides. Was this what Zack had been so secretive about? Trailing after Aerith as she moved down the aisles of pews, he paused at the last row and just watched his friends for a minute.

"Looks like we've got company," Zack said, straightening. An explosion of excited giggles greeted his words. His harness and shoulder armor were gone, and there was a smear of white paint across the bridge of his nose and fine spatters of sunshine yellow all down one side of his dark shirt.

"Zack," Aerith said, voice laced with amusement and surprise. He winked at her and waved his hand to beckon her forward. Aerith didn't hesitate. She hurried forward, pausing only to deposit her staff alongside Buster Sword, and went to join him, her package clutched to her chest. The three girls were sprawled on the floor between open pails of paint, their faces even more splattered than Zack's. "You've been busy," she noted brightly. "You finally made my wagon."

Zack gently took hold of Aerith's upper arms and pulled her to stand in front of him. He leaned over her shoulder. "It's not quite done yet," he said. "I spent more time running around getting supplies and figuring out how to make it than I did working on it, but, hey, not bad for a first try right? The girls insisted they get to decorate it, so don't blame the paint job on me."

"Hey!" Poppy yelped, indignant but apparently too busy flicking paint at Violet to really retaliate. Then all three looked up with a bright grins and Poppy asked, "Well? Do you like it, Miss Aerith?"

"Yeah, Miss Aerith," Zack teased. "Do you like it?"

Aerith bit her lip, trying to look serious, trying to give the question due study, but it was impossible. "I do," she said at last, voice trembling on the edge of laughter, and proper graciousness. "Thank you all."

"Hey, I promised," Zack said. "And this seemed like the perfect opportunity. Happy Birthday."

Cloud knew he had a soft smile on his face at their antics as he just enjoyed his friends' contentment. That was something he was coming to accept and appreciate, now that he had the time and chance to do so.

Aerith blinked in surprise and finally looked back at Zack. "How did you...?"

"Your mom. I asked, and then I plotted. I'm not too bad at this plotting thing, right Cloud?" Aerith glanced at him and Cloud rolled his eyes and crossed his arms at Zack's antics.

"Oh, you two!" she hissed, fondly exasperated, and automatically she smacked Zack with the only thing she had available: the package in her arms. Zack blinked down at it in surprise then raised his gaze back to her.

"That smells good. What'd you bring me?"

Aerith stuck her nose in the air and moved away from him. "Nothing for you," she said primly, and handed the package off to Violet. "It's for the girls. You should get back to work. After all, you said it wasn't finished yet!"

"Aw, Aerith," Zack whined. He gave her a hang dog look, shoulders slumping. "That's just mean. Cloud, a little help here?"

Stepping forward at Zack's plea, Cloud uncrossed his arms and gave him a sardonic look. "I gave you enough time. And you had plenty of help already." He nodded at the trio of girls. Poppy and Annabelle were engrossed in continuing to decorate the cart, but Violet looked up at Cloud with a wide smile. That was downright ecstatic for the shy girl. Taking in the colorful cart, Cloud couldn't help but shake his head and look back at Zack's pouting face. "Is this what you've been working on?"

Like a switch had been flipped, Zack went from moping disconsolately at Aerith's unfair demands, to ridiculously happy again. He closed the distance between them in an enthusiastic bound, and Cloud only had a second to brace for the arm that was thrown across his shoulders. "Yeah, come take a closer look. You too!" he added, using his other arm to tug Aerith forward as well. The three girls shuffled over as Zack forced both Cloud and Aerith to sit down in front of the cart. Cloud only just managed to avoid sitting awkwardly on his sword, and wished he'd thought to leave it with Aerith and Zack's weapons. A moment later, a paintbrush was shoved into Cloud's hand, as Zack took advantage of his compliance to coerce him into working.

Slightly stunned at how fast his friend moved, Cloud looked over at Aerith as Zack leaned forward and fumbled through the paint supplies. She let out a light laugh, brandishing her own paintbrush, before turning to the cart and beginning to draw on a spot of plain wood. Cloud let out a sigh that ruffled his bangs, and wasn't above elbowing Zack's unprotected side as he leaned forward to dip his brush into the paint. He had no idea what would be appropriate, but he could fill in empty space with color.

"Look at this, Miss Aerith! I drew this one right here!" Poppy said, pointing at something on the side of the cart Cloud couldn't see. Aerith dutifully leaned around to see, and gave an exclamation of pleasure at what the girl had drawn. For someone who'd been trying to keep his actions a secret, Zack seemed content to let Cloud and Aerith help put the finishing touches on the cart.

Cloud glanced sideways at Zack. "Why were you running around so much?" That they'd nearly run into Zack more than once indicated to Cloud that his friend had been going about his task with his normal single minded determination. Cloud could admit some curiosity at what exactly Zack had gone through to create the little cart. There was a pile of discarded bits of timber and wood shavings off to the side, along with a hammer and nails, and other paraphernalia Zack had used in his project.

Zack scratched the back of his head, giving Cloud a sheepish look. "When you saw me in the market I was trying to get that guy to give me some of the wood he's got." He gave a snort of disgust to indicate how easy a task that had been. "Apparently he's building a bar in Sector 7, but needed a name for it for inspiration or something. I don't know. Artists," he said airily as he waved his hand dismissively. Cloud had to duck to avoid getting a blue streak of paint in his hair from the brush still clutched in Zack's hand. "Anyway," he continued, grinning at Cloud's huff of complaint at the near miss, "he asked me for a name so I gave him one. 7th Heaven is a good name for a bar, right? He seemed to think so at least. It was kind of funny; he was all 'and maybe a secret basement for ShinRa rebels!', and went all pale when I told him I'm with ShinRa."

He wasn't the only one. Cloud could feel his own face drain of color as he stared in shock at Zack. Zack, who didn't seem to notice that he'd completely stunned Cloud with those words. The 7th Heaven, Tifa's bar, AVALANCHE's bar…the bar that Zack had apparently named. Swallowing around a lump, Cloud turned unseeing eyes back on the cart as he tried to wrap his mind around that. The irony, that Zack's memory was so widespread even in Cloud's own time, and that Cloud never knew, could never had known…. What else had Cloud missed that was an echo of his friend's influence?

Aerith had drawn Zack's attention again, so Cloud was able to stand up without his friend paying any attention. The paint job was nearly done, so it wasn't as if they really needed his help. He caught Violet's eyes as the girl looked up to follow his movement, and tilted his head toward Poppy. The girl still had the bag of pastries that Aerith had given her, but it was lying forgotten in her lap as she and Annabelle alternated between showing Aerith their paint jobs. Violet caught on to Cloud's suggestion, and quickly stood up. She tugged on Annabelle's sleeve, as the girl was closest, and ushered her friends to stand up and retreat to the pews to enjoy their treat.

When Aerith looked up at him with a worried frown, Cloud gave her a reassuring nod. He wasn't upset, exactly, at the discovery that Zack had named the bar. It just made him feel slightly…restless. She was reassured, and turned her attention back to Zack, who was still explaining his adventurous day without seeming to pause for breath. Taking in the peaceful scene, Cloud let the contentment from earlier banish the lingering unease his revelation had caused. The future was sure to bring further complications, but here and now, with his friends' voices mingling with the higher tones of the children's voices, Cloud could pretend that there was only happiness ahead.

Cloud's peaceful thoughts were ruptured by the sound of tearing and crackling paper. He glanced over warily as the three girls divided up the sticky-sweet pastries. Through a mouthful, Poppy said, "I still like Cloud better, but I guess Mister Zack is okay."

"I think it's romantic," Violet said softly, eyes lowered. "Promises and gifts and stuff."

"That's why he's okay," Poppy sniffed primly. It was ruined by the way she was licking frosting off her finger. "And I know all about romance."

Cloud shook his head and looked back toward his friends, to where Zack was helping Aerith to her feet. She stumbled slightly as she tried to find her footing among the paint and brushes, and Zack steadied her with a hand under her elbow. Aerith leaned up to press a kiss to the corner of Zack's mouth, and it wasn't hard to see the way his entire expression lit with the simple gesture.

"Happy now?" Cloud heard Aerith ask in amusement.

"Yeah," Zack drawled, "I think I got the better gift." As Aerith's tinkling laughter reached him, Cloud turned toward the door and was momentarily surprised when a heavy arm fell across his shoulders. Zack grinned down at him. "C'mon, Elmyra invited us all over for supper again. Grab my sword would you?"

Sometimes, Cloud reflected, there was no need to pretend at all.


Next time on Counter Crisis it's a Crisis of Comburent!

A/N: Whoops, this is a few days later than we'd planned for it to be. Things got unexpectedly busy, but here it is. I hope you all had a very happy holidays, and this is our present from us to you.