On the Tree Top
Disclaimer: I don't own Kingdom Hearts, its characters or storyline. This bit of nonsense is mine.
Who doesn't think men and babies are adorable together? I do, and thus I wrote this. I'm also trying to get more into writing Aerith, since I've shamelessly ignored her in a lot of my stories, or downplayed her to the point of cliché.
Constructive criticism is welcome and appreciated!
The baby had been crying for half an hour straight, and Aerith had absolutely no idea what to do. She had tried changing him, feeding him, playing with him, distracting him, burping him, rocking him to sleep, and nothing had helped. He wasn't crying like he was in pain or even uncomfortable. The only thing she could think would be the problem at this point was that he wanted his parents.
And that was the one problem that she couldn't solve.
The infant was one of only a handful of survivors of the latest Heartless-world-takeover. His mother had perished in the initial attack and his aunt was lying in the hospital having one of her legs amputated. The other survivors had been too traumatized and near-catatonia to take care of a baby, so Aerith had offered to watch him until things calmed down. From what she had gathered, the child had been raised so far by just his mother and aunt, so a woman's touch seemed like the logical choice to keep him comfortable.
"Shh, shh, it's okay." The phrase had become her mantra for the past ten minutes, but it was working as well as her earlier efforts.
She was normally so good with children. Yuffie had mentioned that she had that calming, motherly effect on very young children; whereas Yuffie was the one to go to when a child was old enough to need to be kept entertained. Aerith had seen Yuffie outplay and out-energy a play room full of five year olds, so that was saying something. Leon could glare the most rebellious teenager into mowing the lawn, and Cid…something about Cid just made children be quiet. But he was on patrol for the next three hours, so that wasn't going to help her any in this instance.
Cloud and Tifa were both amazing with children. For all his humming and hawing about not liking to be around people, something about little kids got Cloud to open up, relax, and even smile sometimes. Honestly, it was the most adorable thing that Aerith had ever seen, but he was stealthy enough that it was hard to catch him at it. And Tifa had that maternal quality like Aerith.
But all of that 'calming, motherly effect' was quickly being replaced by panic and irritation. Panic because she couldn't figure out why this infant was crying and shrieking. Irritation because it was like an ice pick was being continuously driven into her ears.
And she was practically alone in Merlin's house. 'Practically' because while Leon was physically there with her, he was passed out from exhaustion, facedown on the couch. Normally he slept like a cat, vertical and wide eyed at every little noise, but this particular day must have drained him because he was sleeping like a dead person. Thirty minutes of the baby's crying and she hadn't seen the man move an inch.
She had checked twice to be sure he was still breathing.
"Shh, shh, it's okay." She held the infant, bouncing slightly on her heels.
If this kept up much longer, she was going to start crying herself. That was probably why the baby was still crying: he could sense that she was getting upset.
She was tempted to wake up Leon and let him have a go at it, but he looked so exhausted that she had resisted thus far. She was beginning to consider it again when she was saved by the door opening. Yuffie walked in, flinched at the crying, and bounced over.
"Geez, is he STILL—"
"Yeah, still crying." Aerith sighed.
"No, still sleeping?" Yuffie gawked at Leon, sprawled in a mess on the couch. "Seriously, he was there last time I was here five hours ago." She raised her voice. "You aren't getting any prettier! Give up on the beauty sleep!"
Aerith hushed her. "Yuffie, cut it out. You know as well as I do that he only gets four hours on a good night. Let him be."
Yuffie puffed out her cheeks and looked at the baby. "I doubt anything less than a bucket of ice water would wake him up at this point, if he's been sleeping through this."
Aerith sighed and shifted her hold on the infant. "Could you take him? My arms are about to fall off and my ears are going to start bleeding soon."
"But—I—wait—Aer—" Yuffie stammered as she helplessly took the screaming bundle.
Aerith dropped her arms mercifully to her sides, rolling her elbows to stretch out the aches and then rubbing her biceps. Yuffie held the child at arms' length, and for a blissful second, the baby stopped crying as both infant and ninja stared at each other.
Then the illusion ended and the baby started wailing again.
"W-what do I do?" Yuffie continued to stare at it.
Aerith rubbed her temples. "I don't know…make funny faces or something. That's what you do around kids and it works for them."
"Those kids thought anything with the word 'poop' in it was funny." She tried to hand him back, but Aerith didn't give in. "Besides, his eyes are screwed shut for crying. I can't entertain this!"
Aerith rubbed her head against the growing migraine. "Do you have Tifa's number? My phone is dead and I think she's still close by."
"Last I saw, she was heading for the Great Maw to see if any other survivors might have landed around there." Yuffie said. "And I never know where Cloud is, so no dice there either."
Aerith groaned, "Cid? Merlin?"
"Patrol and Twilight Town." Yuffie replied, looking desperate. "Please, Aerith, take him. I can't handle this."
"It's been two minutes. Please, Yuffie. I need a break." She said tiredly.
But Yuffie had not been blessed by the Patience Fairy and she was already getting twitchy.
"Why don't these things come with off buttons?" She lamented.
Aerith was going to retort, but Yuffie abruptly took three strides across the room, lifted her foot since her arms were full, and looked on the verge of kicking Leon back into animation. Aerith doubted that a sleepy-Leon kicked awake would be much help against a wailing baby. But at this point, she was willing to try anything.
Before Yuffie could go through with it, however, the door opened again and Cloud poked his head in.
"Your neighbors are complaining about the noise." He said bluntly.
"Hello to you too." Yuffie puffed her cheeks, still holding the infant.
Aerith sighed, running a hand through her hair. "Get in here and help. Please." She tacked the 'please' on to make it sound like a request.
Cloud didn't appear to need the invitation, walking into Merlin's house and closing the door. He regarded the crying baby with the casual expression of someone who hadn't been listening to the child cry for half an hour.
"Who belongs to him?" He asked, walking over to them.
"You." Yuffie hastily pawned the kid off on the blond. "Congratulations."
Aerith gave a long-suffering sigh as Cloud helplessly took the infant. "Yuffie, where are you going?"
"To invest in ear plugs!" Yuffie marched over to the door. "Good luck!"
And with that, the ninja left.
Both Aerith and Cloud just stared at the door for a moment, and then exchanged a look.
"So…" He started, shifting his hands to a more natural hold on the baby.
Aerith rubbed her temples. "Recent Heartless attack. His mother is dead. His father is gone. His aunt is in the hospital…I offered to watch him, but now he won't stop crying."
"Okay…okay…" He nodded once, "Calm down."
"I am calm." Aerith snapped, but then knit her fingers together and covered her eyes with them. "I'm sorry, but I feel like my ears are about to start bleeding. I've tried everything."
Cloud didn't say anything, shifting side to side slightly. One of his eyes squinted at the proximity of a screaming toothless mouth to one of his ears, but he kept quiet. Aerith considered calling the hospital again to see if there was any news on the aunt. Or any of the child's family for that matter. It sounded like he had been raised so far by all the women in his family. The poor thing, no wonder he was screaming his heart out. He was probably traumatized by all of the horrific things that he'd experienced in the past 48 hours.
It was hard enough to go through all of that when Aerith was a teenager. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to go through it as young as this baby was…The only blessing would be that he probably wouldn't remember any of it.
The ringing in Aerith's ears interrupted her thoughts.
The shrill ringing of silence.
Aerith spun so fast she nearly wiped out. Sure enough, Cloud was standing there, calm as you please, holding the infant, who, for his part, was staring with wide, blood shot eyes directly back into Cloud's eyes. It was like some intense, too-cute-for-words staring contest.
And despite her ringing ears and throbbing headache, part of her melted at the adorableness.
"How did you do that?" She said breathlessly.
Again, Cloud didn't respond, just staring back at the kid until the baby lifted a fist to his own eyes and then started reaching curiously for the blond spikes of hair.
"What's his name?" Cloud asked, finally looking over at Aerith.
She just stared at him dumbly for a moment. "Daniel." She replied.
"Daniel." Cloud repeated, looking at him. "Is that you?"
The kid was too preoccupied with yanking on Cloud's hair to pay him any attention. Cloud snorted and looked sideways at Aerith.
"Are you okay?" He asked, "You kind of look like you're freaking out."
Aerith put her hands on her hips. "I am not. I don't 'freak out', especially around babies. I'm great with babies."
He studied her for a moment and she sighed, sinking dramatically into a seat around the wooden table. Frustration brought tears to her own eyes. Of their motley crew, Aerith had never been the heavy hitter. She could hold her own, but she wasn't a grizzled fighter like Cid or Leon. She wasn't a warrior like Tifa or Cloud. She wasn't as high energy and stealthy as Yuffie. They all had their own strengths. Hers was the ability to comfort others, to provide some kind of solace and calm and help her friends feel better during times of stress.
Now there had been a person—a tiny, screaming person—who had been in distress and she had been powerless to provide any kind of comfort. For the first time in a long time, she felt helpless. She hugged her arms to her sides and sniffed once, trying to regain herself.
Cloud frowned at that and involuntarily twitched as one of Daniel's fingers found his eye. "Ah, quit it." He remarked, and then looked to Aerith again. "It's okay."
"I don't understand." Aerith leaned against the table in her seat. "Small children have always liked me. I think this one hates me."
"No." Cloud said lightly. "He's just had a very stressful day." He looked at Daniel. "Right?"
The infant squirmed and whimpered, looking on the verge of crying again.
"What in the world are you complaining about?" Cloud looked at Daniel with wide eyes.
It had to be the eyes. That was the secret ingredient to Cloud's superpower with children. That almost unnatural blue glow that made adults wary seemed to placate kids, even mesmerize them. Aerith could understand that. Red touched her cheeks a little and she fidgeted.
"He's tired." Cloud remarked after a moment.
Aerith propped an elbow on the table. "I tried to put him down for a nap, but he wouldn't settle down."
"That's probably because you were freaking out." He teased.
She pouted. "I was not freaking out. I do not 'freak out'."
He smirked. "You were freaking out." He said matter-of-factly.
She huffed and folded her arms.
Maybe he was right.
Or maybe the baby just wanted to cry.
Or maybe Cloud's glowy eyes were like catnip to babies.
Or maybe Cloud's deeper voice had surprised Daniel into ceasing to cry, after being around high-pitched women his whole life.
Regardless of the reason, Daniel looked perfectly content in Cloud's arms, making amused noises as he continued to tug and play with Cloud's hair, only for it to revert back to the original spiky condition as soon as the locks were released. Whatever it was that Cloud had used to calm the baby—glowy eyes, charm, black magic—it was something that Aerith hadn't been able to attain in over half an hour of attempts.
And that was more frustrating than anything.
Aerith hugged her arms about herself, feeling relatively useless. Her shoulders trembled and she inexplicably started crying. Cloud leaned his scalp out of Daniel's reach—much to the kid's displeasure—and looked over to see her breaking down.
"Not you too." He muttered. "You don't get to pull my hair: even if it does make you feel better." He attempted to make her laugh.
That only made it worse and Aerith lifted both hands to cover her face…as though that would hide the evidence. She shook her head.
"I'm a horrible mother." Her voice came out squeaky.
Cloud blinked. "This isn't your son."
"Then I'm going to be a horrible mother." She reiterated, sniffling.
"You're not pregnant. You're not even married yet."
Aerith glared through her fingers at him and he took a subtle step backwards.
"Some day." She said, wiping at her eyes. "I've always been able to make people feel better, but I couldn't get him to stop crying, and you did. You're around bullets and Heartless and swords all day, and you figured him out before I did!"
She started crying in earnest, embarrassed about it but unable to stop. It was pure frustration and migraine talking, and she already felt remorse for jumping down his throat like that. After all, it was she and Yuffie who had roped him into helping in the first place. Then he had calmed the child, and she was berating him for it.
"I'm sorry." She exhaled, trying to compose herself.
Cloud stared at her for a long minute before uncomfortably looking away. Maybe he was the Baby Whisperer, but he was stereotypical man when it came to emotional women: completely wrong-footed and looking for an escape route. Daniel picked up on the discomfort and started to whine again.
"You," Cloud latched onto the distraction, lifting him up again. "just have to be the center of attention, don't you?" His gaze slipped past Daniel for a moment and finally spotted Leon, draped all over the couch, face down.
Aerith continued to dry her eyes. Her perfect record with babies now had one dark spot, but this wasn't the end of the world. The next time someone was having infant issues, she was pretty confident people would still come to her. She was overreacting…Of course she was overreacting. This situation was ridiculous. She was letting her exasperation drive her to think that she was useless because she couldn't quiet a baby.
"Is he alive?" Cloud nodded his head toward Leon, who hadn't moved.
Aerith stood, crossing over to Cloud. "Last time I checked."
Cloud snorted and relinquished Daniel as Aerith reached for him. She gently lifted the child into her own arms and held him to her. The infant squirmed at the change of hands, but didn't start bawling again. Mercifully.
"For such a little thing, you make a lot of noise." She chided softly, rocking slightly from foot to foot.
Daniel's tears were still drying on his chubby cheeks, but his eyes were wide open and taking in the room now that they weren't screwed shut with tears. Aerith looked gratefully to Cloud.
"Thank you." She said sincerely. "I know you probably came here for some serious business and got totally stuck in this…but thank you."
He looked sheepish for a moment. "Screaming people are always serious business." He mumbled, and his sudden shyness tugged a smile to her lips.
"So, uh, his family—" Cloud tried to divert attention from himself.
Aerith chuckled at him but then grew serious. "We've only been able to track down his aunt, and she's in critical condition. I don't know what—"
She was interrupted as Daniel abruptly sneezed, jerking slightly in her arms as the cough/hiccup/sneeze echoed in the house. Across the room, on the couch, Leon stirred. Both Aerith and Cloud stared.
"Half an hour of this child screaming his little lungs out…and a SNEEZE wakes him up?" Aerith gawked incredulously.
Cloud lifted a fist to his mouth to stifle a laugh.
Leon shifted, seemed to wake up, and rolled from his stomach to his side, catching sight of the trio across the room. A dry silence hung in the room as Aerith saw Leon's sleep-glazed eyes go from Aerith, to the baby, to Cloud, and then generally at all three of them standing together. He looked perplexed for a moment, one side of his face red from being pressed against the couch.
"How long was I asleep?" He grumbled, staring at the baby.
Aerith could practically hear his mental gears creaking against each other. She chuckled and shifted Daniel's weight to her other arm. "Not long enough for what you're thinking. Are you awake?"
The question wasn't so farfetched: both Leon and Yuffie had had tendencies to sleepwalk, sleeptalk, even sleepcook when they were overstressed. Leon rubbed his eyes with one hand and laboriously climbed out of the couch.
"What time is it?" He asked, looking at his wrist before apparently remembering that he didn't wear a watch.
"Still daylight." Aerith replied.
Daniel squealed, pointing at Leon and wriggling against Aerith, as though to flee.
Cloud seemed to get satisfaction from that. "Smart kid." He snickered. "Here, I'll take him."
"I've barely had any time with him when he hasn't been trying to render me deaf." Aerith pouted. "Now he's all cute again and you're trying to steal him away."
"Oh lord…" Leon rolled his eyes at them, stretching his arms over his head and rotating his shoulders.
"He doesn't like Leon, but he likes me. That makes this guy my new best friend." Cloud grinned at Daniel.
"Kid probably thinks you're a woman, Strife." Leon remarked dryly, going into the back room to get coffee.
"Shut it." Cloud jeered after the man.
Aerith surrendered Daniel to Cloud after that and went to the kitchen for her own coffee. Leon was a general grump for about half an hour after he woke up—ten years of living in close quarters with him had taught everybody on the Restoration Committee that much—so Aerith avoided his side of the kitchen as she got a mug out of the cabinet.
Walking over to where he was by the coffee machine, however, she couldn't resist reaching up and flicking one of his ears. He twitched away from her.
"Ack, Aerith, what the Hell? Quit it." He grumbled, barely coherent.
"The red peacock flies at dawn." She said, lifting an eyebrow.
He just stared at her like she was insane. "What…are you TALKING about?"
"So you can hear?" She put her hands on her hips. "I was a little worried about your ear health considering that you solidly slept through half an hour of that baby absolutely screaming."
Leon took a sip from the hot coffee, regarding her flatly. "It's called REM sleep."
"It's called hearing loss." She said, sipping at her coffee. She flinched as it burned her tongue, and retracted the mug.
Leon continued to take a long, unaffected drink from his and Aerith paused before abruptly reaching up and carefully tugging the mug away from him.
"What?" He was starting to get really irritated now.
Getting between anyone on the Restoration Committee and their coffee was likely to put you in the hospital. Aerith frowned and set the cup aside anyway.
"That coffee is scalding. You're going to burn your mouth out." She chided.
"No, I'm not—" He cut off mid sentence and choked. "Augh, dammit—" He leaned over the sink, turning on the cold water to find relief for his tongue.
Aerith eyed him as he did so. Glazed eyes. Delayed involuntary reactions. More confrontational that normal. Not to mention sleeping like a dead person. That was textbook for waking up after being duped with a Sleep Draught. She inwardly groaned. Cid or Merlin must have spiked something with it and given it to Leon. All things considered, it was probably the only way to get the man to sleep properly, but there would be Hell to pay as soon as Leon got the feeling in his tongue back.
She clucked her tongue and patted his shoulder.
"Oo's ki'ith'at?" He mumbled, his mouth still under the faucet.
"A survivor of a Heartless invasion on another world." She explained. "I'm babysitting until his family member comes out of critical care…He was crying and…Cloud helped."
Leon snorted at the last bit and Aerith shoved his arm. He turned off the water and straightened, regarding his abandoned coffee with distaste now. When he looked at Aerith again, she could see the smartass remark about Cloud simmering under the surface, and she sighed, making a two handed 'bring it' gesture.
"Go on. Say it." She put her hands on her hips.
He rubbed at the couch indentations on his face for a beat. "Somebody must have spiked his Kool Aid with estrogen." He finally remarked.
Aerith regarded him flatly. "Okay. Feel better?"
"He's two breasts short of actually being a woman." Leon went on.
"Get it out of your system." She invited, preferring that he get the after-effectual aggression over with before rejoining society outside Merlin's house.
"I'm just saying…he's very effeminate." He shrugged.
Aerith rolled her neck to glare at up him. "Don't worry, I think you're pretty too."
He grunted at that and picked up his coffee, taking a tentative sip this time before walking away. Aerith watched him go and rolled her eyes. Grown men were worse than 8 year old boys sometimes, honestly.
Taking up her own coffee again, she dressed up a bagel and wandered back into the living room. Leon had gone upstairs, but Cloud was still entertaining baby Daniel. Now that the crying had stopped and she had some caffeine, Aerith could sit down and properly and shamelessly 'aw' at the sight.
Daniel had been placed back in the baby carrier and he was smiling and clapping his hands as Cloud sat in front of him. Aerith munched on her bagel and swore to herself that if Cloud started playing Peek-A-Boo, she would have to drop something to cover up the sound of her heart pounding.
"You're like a magician." She chirped after a moment.
Cloud looked over at her and grinned as the baby let out a loud squeal of laughter. He looked back at Daniel as the infant opened his eyes wide. Cloud mimicked him, opening his mouth in an exaggerated surprised expression.
The door opened and Yuffie leaned in. "Is it safe?"
Aerith sipped at her coffee. "Yes, Yuffie." She sighed at the girl.
Yuffie slipped inside, closing the door, and looking over at Daniel and Cloud. "How do you get him to do that?"
"What?" Cloud looked at her.
"Not cry?" Yuffie looked awed.
Aerith tilted her head, "What do you need, Yuffie?"
"A Gunblade." Yuffie put her hands on her hips. "Unfortunately, Leon is all possessive about it, so I guess I need him too."
She started up the stairs, but Aerith saw her pause and look back at Cloud and Daniel. Then, with all the sneakiness of a ninja, she whipped out her phone, flipped it open, and snapped a picture of Cloud making faces at the baby. Then she pocketed her phone and skittered up the stairs to get Leon.
Aerith finished her bagel and walked over to the baby carrier. "He's cute when he's not crying." She said, setting her coffee on the table.
A beat passed and then Yuffie came back halfway down the stairs. "Did you guys move Leon or something?"
Aerith blinked, "No, why?"
"Because he's asleep."
"Take a pulse." Cloud remarked, not looking away from the infant.
Yuffie deadpanned. "Seriously? He moved twenty feet and went back to sleep?" She headed back upstairs. "That is unacceptable."
"He was given a Sleep Draught." Aerith called after her.
"Who do you think gave it to him?" Yuffie chirped rhetorically. "I'll wake him up."
Aerith cringed. Yuffie's methods of waking tended to be…violent.
"So…" She started, shifting her weight to one foot, causing one hip to pop out. "What did you mean to do when you came over?" She asked Cloud.
"Nothing urgent." He replied with a light shrug.
"Squall Leonhart, don't make me sit on you…I may not weigh a lot, but I've got a bony butt and I know how to use it!" Yuffie's voice upstairs threatened.
Before any more could happen, however, the phone rang and Aerith picked it up on the second ring. "Hello?"
"Aerith?" The woman on the other end greeted. "This is Tania at Radiant Garden General Hospital."
Anxiety trickled into Aerith's chest. "Ah, hello, Tania. Is this about Ms. Williams?"
"Yes, it is." The nurse answered. "She came out of surgery fifteen minutes ago. She's stable and is being moved from recovery to her own room."
Aerith exhaled heavily and Cloud looked at her with concern. "That's great news." She gave Cloud a thumb up. "Daniel is doing fine." She told the nurse.
"Thank you so much for keeping an eye on him, Aerith." Tania said. "Ms. Williams will probably be asking where he is as soon as she wakes up."
"I can bring him by right now." She offered.
"Oh, that would be lovely." The nurse said. "Has he been behaving? He was a little fussy when I gave him to you."
Aerith held the phone to her ear, looking over to where the baby was distracted from Cloud as Leon clomped down the stairs, looking disgruntled as Yuffie bounced after him victoriously.
"He's doing fine now." She replied honestly.
"All right, well, I'll see you in a few. Thanks, love!" Tania chimed.
Aerith hung up the phone and walked over to the table. "Looks like Daniel's aunt made it through surgery safely."
"That's good." Cloud remarked, sitting back so Aerith could pick up the baby.
"Oh, come on!" Yuffie whined after Leon. "I gave you fair warning!"
"Yuffie, I have a weapon in my hands." Leon said. "Consider that fair warning."
Yuffie shot Aerith a mischievous look as she followed the man out of Merlin's house.
"I'm going to take him to the hospital now." Aerith said, lifting Daniel in her arms.
"You want some company?" Cloud offered.
Aerith paused, looking at him in surprise. "Really?"
He smirked. "Well…sure. I mean, I came here to talk to Merlin, but if he's in Twilight Town—" He shrugged. "I need to waste a few hours."
"Oh, so you're just 'wasting' time?" Aerith jeered lightly at him.
He deadpanned and opened the door for her, following her out. "If you don't want me to walk you there, just say—"
"No, no." She shook her head. "I would love for you to walk me there."
"Well…good." He said, suddenly sheepish as he walked with her. "Besides, I kinda want to make sure the little guy gets home safely…Since he doesn't like you."
"Oh shut up." She ribbed.
"He didn't seem too fond of Leon either." Cloud remarked, looking amused at that.
"You're like a child." She moaned.
"I'm just saying, he scares little kids." Cloud shrugged. "And that amuses me."