Cloud looked into the flames dancing in front of him, for once not ones of battle, but of comfort, a campfire made to keep the group warm as they rested for the evening under a rock overhang, the driest place they could find after the downpour soaked the dirt plains outside of Midgar. Now, late into the night, the others slept a short distance away, and the fire only had a little while longer before it would go out. Above, dark clouds moved lazily across the night sky and the scent of rain hung heavily in the air.
Cloud thought of what had recently transpired, thought of the battle with the Whispers, Red XIII’s words, Sephiroth, fate itself. He wondered if he had any choice leading up to this moment, or if it was all predetermined. They had strayed from destiny’s course, but how long could they run before it caught up to them again?
A glimpse of tomorrow if we fail here today.
He blinked a few times and looked down into the palm of his hand when he realized it was trembling, just like that moment with Sephiroth. That draw, that inexplicable pull towards a road he knew he could never—would never—walk. So why was it there at all? Where did the urge come from to reach out and take the hand offered to him, why did his hand shake with the brief want to say yes?
He clenched his hand into a tight fist to quell the tremors and shook his head. He would never join Sephiroth’s side; even if it was what he was destined for, he had fought against his fate once and he would do so as long as he could, even if he died trying.
He tilted his head back and took a deep breath. The air here was fresh, crisp from cool rain that met with earth, unobstructed by man. When was the last time he had seen rain, felt it run down his skin to wash everything away? Perhaps… When he was a child? No, that seemed too long ago. He was sure he had experienced it more recently. Maybe it was when he was training, or on an assignment.
Or maybe, back when he—
Static filled his mind and a sharp ringing pierced his ears, blinding and deafening his thoughts. He put a hand to his head and tried to shake the feeling away, swayed where he sat, but he couldn’t escape it. His skull ached like it was about to be split open as images flashed, too quick to piece together, too jumbled to make any sense out of.
Rain, falling over his eyes, down his cheeks—was it rain?—something warm on his face—blood, maybe—a strong hand on the back of his neck, and—
Cloud’s eyes opened wide and he looked to his right, a noise of surprise escaping when he saw Aerith knelt beside him, leaning in so close he could see light green flecks scattered across her eyes. She frowned when she saw his face, those eyes losing a bit of their brightness as if Cloud had saddened her somehow.
“Cloud?” She asked quietly, tentatively. Her hand reached out to him, and as soft as her voice, he felt the whisper of fingertips against his cheek. “Is something wrong?”
Cloud turned away from that touch and shook his head, scooting away from her just a fraction. “I'm fine.” He cleared his throat and jerked his head in her direction. “What are you doing awake? You should be resting. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
“I could say the same to you, mister,” Was her answer as she leaned forward a bit to get a better look at his face. Just to get her to stop leaning like that before she tumbled into the fire, he turned his head to look at her properly, a brow raised as if to ask, are you happy now? and immediately, the light returned to her eyes. She smiled and tilted her head, waiting for his response.
“Someone has to keep watch,” He told her. “Never know what we might find out here.”
“Then I’ll keep you company!” Aerith said in her bright, bubbly voice, hushed just a bit so as to not wake the others.
Cloud frowned and narrowed his eyes at her. “No,” He said sternly. “I already told you, you should rest. I’ll be fine on my own, I was trained to do this sort of stuff.”
“Hmm… But I’m not tired…” Aerith bemoaned, hanging her head. In an instant she perked up, raising her head to grin at Cloud and pointing one finger towards the sky like she had just had a great epiphany. “So, I’ll keep watch, and you can keep me company!”
“What? No, you—” Cloud tried to say, but Aerith was already having her own way.
She smoothed her dress under herself and sat down beside him, making sure to close the small distance he had put between them while she was at it, so close he could feel her warmth more than the fire's. She looked at him once she was settled and smiled, held up two fingers to her cheek. “Two is always better than one, right?” She asked.
Cloud looked at her in disbelief, lips slightly parted as he regarded her. It was becoming an all too familiar feeling at this point. He never seemed to know what to expect from this girl, yet he supposed that by now, this is exactly what he should expect. Aerith would do what she wanted, and Cloud seemed helpless to her demands. It surprised him how quickly he had grown so soft towards her, yet he didn't seem to have it in him to change.
“Whatever,” Cloud finally said with a shrug. “Your call. Just don’t complain to me if you’re tired tomorrow.”
“I’m not worried!” Aerith said happily with a thumbs up, followed by a pat on Cloud's arm. “I know my loyal bodyguard will carry me if I get too exhausted!”
“I’m not—!” Cloud began, but was stopped abruptly when he saw the way she was looking at him. Smiling, head tilted, eyes shimmering with a look that clearly expressed that this was exactly the way she wanted him to react. She did love teasing him. Cloud frowned, then turned back to face the fire with a small huff.
The worst part was that he knew she was only teasing, but if she did ask... he probably would carry her.
Aerith laughed beside him, covering her mouth with her hand to stifle the noise. Cloud glanced at her from the corner of his eye and at the sound, felt something heavy within himself begin to lighten, like her voice itself was healing. Still, it couldn’t relieve the worry that was settling in his gut. If anything, sitting beside her like this only made it worse, the concern for what destiny had in store for them, for her, and the fear that, even now, he might not be able to stop it.
Cloud tried to force the thoughts from his mind. Like Aerith herself had said, they need to cherish every moment. He didn’t want any second spent with her to be wasted on thoughts of fear.
“Also,” Aerith said, once her laughter had subsided. “I wanted to talk to you. Everything happened so quickly, we never got a moment alone.”
Cloud looked back into the fire. His stomach felt strange, nervousness settling in deep for a reason he wasn’t quite sure of. “Okay. What d’you wanna talk to me about?”
“Well… I wanted to thank you,” Aerith said softly. Cloud turned his head slightly, not enough to look at her properly, just enough to spare her a glance, to let her know he was listening. She smiled at him. “You came for me.”
Cloud looked straight again, lifted his chin, took a deep breath in and said, “I told you I would, didn’t I?”
Aerith laughed quietly and nodded. “Yes, you did. And… I knew you would. I really didn’t have any doubt, knowing you. But still, I wanted to thank you properly. Seeing you there might have been… One of the happiest moments of my life.”
Cloud blinked and slowly turned to glance at her again, but she wasn’t looking at him. She was looking up at the sky, where the clouds had moved along and made way for stars that glittered in her eyes like emeralds reflecting light.
Cloud averted his gaze towards the ground, brows furrowed as he thought. One of the happiest moments of her life… Just to see him?
Aerith took a deep breath and released a long sigh, drawing Cloud’s eyes back to her. “If you had asked me a while ago if I ever thought I’d end up being here, doing all of this,” She said with an almost amused smile. “I don’t know if I would have believed you. But now that I’m here, it feels like something I somehow always knew I would be a part of… You know?”
She looked at Cloud, waiting, and Cloud shrugged and looked up at the sky. “Not sure I do,” He said. “I didn’t exactly expect a normal life after joining SOLDIER but… Can’t say I ever thought I’d be part of something like this.”
“What did you expect then?” Aerith asked, pulling her knees to her chest, curling up against the night chill. “Fight in a great war, then retire to become a mercenary? Or… A bodyguard, perhaps?”
Cloud made a noise that may have been a short laugh, the corner of his lips turning up just so, and nodded. “Sure,” He said. “Something like that.”
Aerith smiled and draped her arms over her knees, looked into the fading flames of the fire. “Still, it all feels so… crazy. Everything with Sephiroth, I mean. Ending up here…”
“It’s all thanks to you that we can go after him,” Cloud said, nodding at her. “You’re the reason we’re gonna stop him.”
Aerith looked at him and lifted her arm like she was showing off her muscles, grinning. “Happy I can help!” She laughed quietly to herself and lowered her arm, shaking her head. “But... I can’t say it doesn’t feel a little scary, right? After what we saw while fighting the Whispers, what could have happened… But, the future isn’t set in stone. We made sure of that.”
The fear within Cloud grew, even as he tried to stifle it, a black hole opening within his heart to swallow him whole. She was looking at him, waiting for a response, and he opened his mouth to answer—
The static returned. Cloud put his hand against his temple and shook his head, trying to clear his senses. It felt like a knife was being driven through his skull, and he groaned from the pain of it. He heard Aerith’s voice, muffled under the ringing in his ears, possibly calling his name but he couldn’t be sure. He couldn’t even see her any more, his vision blocked by flashes of images he had seen before but could barely string together, ones that had been plaguing him even before the battle with the Whispers, visions he was now scared of seeing again.
Slender hands clasped together in prayer, an orb of Materia falling away from a person that could no longer use it into a pool of crystalline water, light reflecting so clearly, it was almost blinding. He felt dizzy, pained, the visions splicing through and overlapping one another, but he caught the briefest glimpse of something he could make shape of.
Himself, standing in that pool of water, someone held tenderly in his arms, the hem of a pink dress floating undisturbed as he lowered the body down and he wanted to scream at himself to stop, don’t let go, don’t let her go—
Cloud gasped shakily and his eyes snapped open, and he felt something cool slip down the slope of his cheek. Then, he felt a warmth there, so surprising it drew a noise out of him. A soft hand against his skin, grounding him in that spot, in that moment, and he felt air rattle in his lungs, trembling as he breathed in slowly. The hand on his cheek turned his head, and the first thing he saw was green, the green of Aerith’s eyes looking at him with concern. The next thing he saw were her lips, pulled into a frown, something he hated to see, and slowly the rest of the scene around them built itself back into place.
“Cloud,” Aerith said slowly. “Are you—?”
“Y-Yeah,” Cloud said quickly with a sharp nod. “Fine.”
He tried to pull away from her, but her hand followed him, keeping the warmth of her touch against his skin. Her thumb swiped against his cheek. “Cloud… You’re crying.”
Cloud let out a sharp breath, a soft noise he couldn’t help, one of embarrassment or shame, or possibly even anger at himself. He averted his eyes from hers. “I’m not,” He said sternly. “I’m just—” He cut himself off, unable to continue like it was physically impossible to lie to her. He swallowed, his throat constricted, and kept his eyes down.
Aerith regarded him for a moment, her brows furrowing and turning down at the end in a frown, even as her lips smiled. She was always trying to keep a smile on her face, and Cloud wasn't sure if it was for her own sake or his. “Don’t you remember what I told you before?” She asked quietly.
Cloud raised his eyes to her again, shook his head minutely. “You've... told me a lot of things.”
“When we met that night, in the flower garden,” Aerith said, and Cloud’s eyes grew wide. He opened his mouth to say something, not wanting to hear the words on her lips again, but she was quicker.
“You can’t fall in love with me.”
Cloud looked away again, exhaling a pained breath that hissed through clenched teeth. He swallowed and forced himself to look back at her. “You never answered my question back then,” He said slowly, carefully. “Do I get any say in this?”
Aerith smiled serenely at him and said, “Everybody dies, eventually.”
“Eventually,” Cloud repeated with a hard tone. Unspoken words lingered between them. Not now, they said, and not soon.
Aerith lowered her gaze and shook her head, like she was exasperated with him. Her hand slipped from Cloud’s cheek, but he grasped her wrist to stop her. This time she didn’t slip away from him but stayed there, solid and whole by his side, and raised her eyes to look at him again.
“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Cloud said, his voice stern, determined.
Aerith blinked and tilted her head slightly, questioning him. “And what if something does happen?” She asked.
“It won’t,” Cloud said quickly. “Isn’t that the reason we’re here? To fight our destiny? You said it yourself, the future isn’t set in stone.”
“That’s right,” Aerith said with a nod. “But if something happens, no matter what it is… Promise me you won’t blame yourself.”
Cloud flinched back like he had been burned and his eyes went wide again, the hardness within them diminishing as he absorbed her words. Her gaze remained steady and resolved and as kind as ever as Cloud worked through his thoughts. His brows pinched together as he tried to say something, but there was so much he wanted to say to her, too much. If he let something, anything, happen to her, if he wasn't strong enough to protect her, if she fell because of him... what else could he do but blame himself? Just the thought itself had his heart twisting with guilt, made his mouth dry and his eyes burn.
“What?” Was all he managed to say, a quiet breath of a word.
“There are things you just can’t control, Cloud,” Aerith said to him, speaking like a kind mother giving sage advice. “We’ll do our best. But sometimes, no matter how strong you are or how hard you fight, things that you don’t want to happen will happen, and it isn’t your fault if it does.”
Cloud shook his head. “I won’t,” He said in a clipped, broken voice. “You won’t—” He cut himself off with a short, defeated sigh and lowered his eyes. He supposed he knew, deep down, that she was right, even if he couldn’t admit it. He took a long breath, then said, "You still didn't answer. If I get a say."
"Well..." Aerith said quietly, spoken only to be heard in the space between them. "I suppose no matter what I say, I can't stop you from doing what you want."
Aerith pulled her wrist from Cloud’s loosened grasp, and as her hand slid over his, she wrapped her fingers around his and squeezed. Cloud’s eyes widened and he tightened his hold to keep her there, but her hand slipped away, the moment coming and going so quickly Cloud wondered if he had just imagined it.
He looked down at his empty hand, then at Aerith, who was now standing and smoothing her hands down the front of her dress. “You’re…” He said quietly.
Aerith smiled at him and nodded. “I know,” She said. She looked out towards the empty expanse of land in front of them, towards the horizon. “Looks like it’ll be morning soon.”
Cloud looked towards the edge of the sky, where purple was bleeding into black as the sun began to rise. He nodded without looking at her, pulling one knee up to rest his arm over it. “You should try to get some rest before we have to move tomorrow,” He said quietly.
Aerith held her hand against her head in a salute and nodded. “Yes, sir!” She bent over at the waist to put herself in Cloud’s direct line of vision, startling him by her closeness. She poked the tip of his nose. “You try to get some rest too, okay?” She said gently. “Can’t have my bodyguard falling asleep on me.”
She gave one last smile, then stood up straight and walked towards where the others were sleeping. Cloud turned to watch her walk away, frowning. “Aerith…” He mumbled to himself as she went.
He waited until he saw her lie down, then hesitantly touched the tip of his nose and turned back around. He lowered his hand, the one that had held onto her, the one she had grasped so briefly, and found that it was trembling, just as before. He narrowed his eyes and clenched his hand into a fist, and turned his attention to the dying embers of the fire to wait until morning.