Being around him was a lot like casting her mind outside of herself--it was being lost and watching herself react in ways that she shouldn't because she ought to know better, having been around Zack, but the truth of it all was that he still managed to evoke those kinds of feelings from her, even though he wasn't who everyone thought he was.
Gaia only knew, she didn't know who he was. She had thought one thing but he had proved himself to be another entirely, and even that other thing was as slippery and changing as a shadow.
She knew what light cast him, though. By that time, all of Avalanche had figured some of it out, though none had said anything about it aloud, and none really knew how to broach the subject. It was one occasionally whispered when he was away; it was one discussed only when everyone else was asleep; it was one thought about when the tents were closed and the fire burning too low to give warmth.
Their leader, their Cloud Strife, was not at all the same as the Cloud Strife probably on file somewhere in the Shinra, or the Cloud Strife Tifa remembered, or the Cloud Strife Aerith herself thought he might have been.
Despite that, despite his unknown quantities of self, despite his own shadows, she felt drawn to him. He made her smile. He made her laugh. And, gods, every now and then she could get him to smile, too.
He was beautiful.
He could rip her to shreds.
But he was also younger than any of them, even Yuffie. She wasn't sure if he saw it himself, or if he only had an inkling, but there were ways he still looked at things, did things, was puzzled by things, that said he was younger than he always appeared. Granted, he appeared young, his face caught in that pivot between the final traces of teenage youth and the more matured lines of a young man. His eyes had always spoken of age, though, of walls and glass and smoke and mirrors, keeping everything out.
So why was it that he seemed to have that kind of knowledge, even when it didn't seem possible he could be that old? She couldn't figure it out.
It bothered her, and it bothered Tifa. They had been talking about it a lot lately, when the others weren't around, when Yuffie was asleep. They combed each others' hair; Tifa sometimes braided hers for her, though she could do it herself. It was always nice to have someone else help out. And though she knew Tifa felt drawn to Cloud much like herself, she knew that Cloud had built his walls and seemed confused that either of the two young women were interested in breaking them down, or scaling over them, or just trying to get him to open the damned door. He didn't seem to understand.
Zack was never so dense, Aerith thought one night, brow furrowed. But then, Zack had always welcomed any attempt by a pretty young thing to get in past his walls. He let his doors open frequently. Really, he had been something of a lady's man. Zack was an emotional person, anyway, and he had a hard time hiding his feelings. Then again, he rarely needed to hide them. Everyone was a friend of Zack's, even a few of the Turks. Few were enemies, and those that were, Zack had never spoken to her about. She thought he hadn't even considered Wutai's people enemies, though the Shinra had been willing to cram that lie down anyone's throat, stuff it in anyone's ears.
Still, that was Zack.
And Cloud Strife, even if he walked like Zack, even if sometimes he talked like Zack--he was not Zack.
Aerith leaned with her back against the tree, fingers feeling the rough bark and looking out the vantage point their current camp, in the foothills of the island's mountains, gave them--a clear view of the Ancient Temple. They'd go there tomorrow. The spirits in the air hissed around her, and she shut them out as well as she could. They all said the same things.
That he was a traitor. That he was going to kill her. That he should not be allowed into a place of such mirrors. Mirrors magnify lights, they had cried; stronger lights cast stronger shadows.
She looked back at the camp, where the others were finishing off Tifa's stew. Cloud sat by himself, everything about him downcast, and she knew she could see what the voices told her. He wasn't safe. He wouldn't protect her.
But one of the others called to him and she saw it--wondered who else saw it--the way he winced at the sound of his name. He was hurting, and he was wounded, and she wished more than ever that she could help--help him sleep, without nightmares--help him heal, without the pain his scars left him. He never did remove the bandage around his left arm around the others. Even when he pulled off his gloves, his left hand remained wound in white cloth. Even Vincent seemed curious, and the ex-Turk let about as much emotion show as Cloud did, if not less.
She sighed, dropped her own gaze. It was hot. She wondered if Tifa and Yuffie would go with her to that spring nearby--they could clean up for the first time in a while there, before getting into their tent and falling asleep.
Since the Ancient Temple was coming up, Cloud had all wanted them nearby when the small team went in. So they were all camping together. Tifa, Aerith, and Yuffie stayed in one tent. The others, Vincent, Cid, Barret, Red XIII, Cait Sith--they all fit into another, since Cait Sith and Red didn't require sleeping rolls. Cloud got a tent to himself. They had all of them, during their travels, found him a hard person to sleep in the same room with.
It was mostly because he didn't sleep, or when he did, he didn't sleep well. But no one said anything about it, and he seemed willing to pretend that it didn't happen.
It started to rain that night. They all ran into the tents, a few of them laughing, calling out good nights to one another. Aerith was about to close the tent flap when she saw Cloud just standing out in the rain, amusement at them all fading into something else, something unreadable, before he disappeared inside his tent. Then the rain started coming down harder, and she quickly closed the tent flap before anything could get inside.
It was long after the others had fallen asleep. The rain had gone from the harsh lashing of before to a steady drizzle--it tapped against the canvas of the tent. She lay awake with her hair loosely bound in Yuffie's messy braiding, staring up at the curved surface of the canvas, one hand resting against her brow, the other hand still clutching the sleeping roll's material over her chest.
She sat up. She went to the tent's flap, and opened it just enough to see outside.
A figure slipped into Cloud's tent. She saw it slide, smooth as shadow, through the opening. There was no light within the tent, there was no light outside the tent, only what her naked eyes could tell her, and that was that a darkness went inside Cloud's tent. She swallowed, grabbed a jacket, pulled it around her shoulders and lifted the hood over her head. It didn't protect her from all the wetness still falling outside, mostly from the tree leaves rather than the sky itself, but it was something.
She checked on the others before she slipped out, made sure they were asleep. Yes, even Tifa, eyes closed and breathing regular. Asleep. She nodded and wished them good dreams before she stepped out.
She took slow, cautious steps toward the tent. If Vincent was asleep, she might not wake him; if he was awake, he was sure to hear her, even if he hadn't heard the thing that had entered Cloud's tent. Red might also hear her, and she'd really rather avoid running into the others. She thought she knew--
She paused outside of Cloud's tent, listening. There was no sound of anything, just the wetness falling to the canvas, hitting heavily against her jacket. There was no door to knock on. She would have to whisper instead.
"Cloud?" It was as quiet as she dared. No answer, at least not immediately. She held her breath, waited, and then whispered again, no louder, no quieter.
The tent flap opened; Cloud held it brushed aside like one would a Wutanese door hanging. His eyes were brightly blue, like they had been beneath the plate in Midgar--she did not quite freeze when they struck her own gaze straight on, but it did take her breath away. His face was expressionless.
"...Aerith?" It was a quiet question, little else.
"I couldn't sleep," she said, and she noticed, could see from something glowing behind him, that his hair hung more limply about his face, could see a droplet of water running down his cheek. "Neither could you?"
"Mm." He stepped aside. "You can come in. If you want."
She nodded, tried not to hunch her own shoulders as she came in. The voices were curiously absent; was it her held breath she felt in her pulse or theirs? Then she lowered the hood of her jacket, shuddered and couldn't decide if she wanted to take it off entirely. Cloud only secured the flap, and went to his sleeping roll; one of the materia in the Buster Sword, lying beside the sleeping roll, let out a stronger blue-ish glow. It was channeling something, though what, she didn't know. He knew a lot about materia, and getting them to work in ways that she hadn't thought possible.
He sat down, began pulling off his boots.
"You went for a walk," she said, and he nodded.
"A short one."
She didn't say what she thought, though she thought too that it was probably true. His short walk had lasted much longer than an hour. He was coming back from somewhere, something, or someone. She wondered at her own lack of fear, if it was what she thought it was. She could see nothing else. He certainly wasn't going to the Shinra.
Then he looked up at her, genuine curiosity in his own gaze. "Need something?" he asked. "I have--I filled up my canteen. The water from that spring is good."
"Just a sip." And she pulled off her jacket after all, and sat beside him on his sleeping roll, while he reached across the Buster Sword for his canteen. She took it, thanked him, sipped once or twice, then gave it back to him. He swallowed several times before restoppering it, setting it back into its place nearby his pack.
"Are you scared?"
She looked at him, saw the curiosity still there. She rested her chin on her knees. "Yes."
"You don't act afraid," Cloud murmured, leaning back on his hands before settling on his back, hands behind his head.
"I don't need to," she said. "They already know."
"You don't have to go in, you know."
That caused her to turn, and she looked to see him watching her, eyes heavy-lidded, though the earnestness in them was anything but sleepy. "But that would be running away, wouldn't it?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "We could make do. We're a pretty mixed bunch. I'm sure if it came down to it, we'd figure it out."
She smiled. "But what about you?"
"What about me?"
"The temple will be fine with or without Avalanche," she said, and wasn't sure why she said it, not like that. "It's you I worry about."
"Me?" Cloud frowned.
"I've not been running away," he said, but the undertone was one of--she wasn't certain. He didn't sound mad, or quite hurt, and even with the materia's glow it was hard to make out the lines of his face, which was already so smooth to begin with.
Then another thought occurred to her, and she nodded. "You're right. You've been running forward, head-first. You've never let yourself stop to breathe, have you?"
Cloud shifted, looking away and messing with something among his supplies. "You say these things, Aerith. About wanting to meet me, but I'm right here. Or that I'm running forward, when I'm right here. Then this. But I'm not running away. I don't run from things. I fight them. Ask Tifa--"
"I didn't mean it like that."
"But--I never know what you mean--" He turned and looked at her and there was hurt in his eyes, this time, real frustration. "Makes it pretty damn hard to talk to you, sometimes. When you're not--you're not--" He cut himself off, wrapped his arms around his knees and sat hunched, curled, and he looked little more than a child. "They're going to be there, at the Temple. The Shinra. Sephiroth, too. He's always... one step ahead of us."
Aerith said nothing, only watched him. Finally, something in him seemed to break; his shoulders began to relax. He looked at her, and said, "I'm scared. But I'm not running away. Not from him."
"He's the one thing you're running toward, I think," Aerith murmured, and his brows knit. "Even if you are afraid."
"Of course I'm afraid. I don't even know why I'm alive, unless he let me live."
"Maybe that's the reason you're so afraid." She looked to the Buster Sword, the one materia in its slots gleaming. "Maybe it's because you don't understand him at all anymore. He's not like the Shinra. Their methods are pretty simple. Burn whatever you don't want or need anymore, and keep everything else to yourself. But Sephiroth didn't kill you, and you seem to think he would have done that then. You don't even consider the possibility that maybe you defeated him?"
"No one was that good. I tried, but there's no way--I can't even compare--" He shook his head, and Aerith continued.
"Then you think he should have killed you."
"Yes. He was--insane. He seemed ready to kill everyone, everything, so I don't understand why he would let me go."
"You think killing him now would answer your questions?" Aerith asked, and Cloud bit his lower lip, gaze turning away.
"I have to. Even if he won't answer me."
"Would you trust what he told you?"
Nothing, and Aerith sighed, started to stand up, one hand reaching for her jacket. "I'm sorry to have bothered you. I shouldn't even have--I don't always have a good sense of timing--Cloud?" One of his hands had reached up to take one of her own, and now he looked up at her, face, eyes, all unreadable.
"Please. Not yet."
She nodded, sitting down beside him again. His hand released hers, but she took his this time, held onto it. His own fingers flexed awkwardly around hers, and she watched, the whiteness of the bandaged hand even paler than her own skin. She looked up at him, then, and smiled, a different smile from her usual smile.
"It's all right, you know. It will turn out all right."
He looked down at their hands, too, but his voice was quiet. "You say it like you know it will happen. I wish I could believe that. But I'm messed up. I know I am."
"That's all right, too," Aerith said.
"Not if it means we won't make it."
"You don't know that. And I can't say any of us aren't messed up. It's all right, you know? To be human. You can't be everyone's hero all the time." He said nothing in reply; she gripped his hand more tightly. Cloud was slipping away--from all of them, from her, from Tifa, from Avalanche. Maybe he wasn't running away, but he was running ahead faster than any of them, and Aerith could feel it even through her fingers holding onto his hand. He was slipping away. Before long, there wouldn't be any of him left, and he would be out of their sight. She wasn't sure how she knew all this, how she could just feel him looking constantly ahead of them even when he sat like this, his head down, his eyes closed. It would have frightened her that she knew these things if she could think about it alone, but he was slipping away and she didn't have the time to think about it. She needed a way to ground him, to keep him with them, with Avalanche, with her. So she said his name, and held his hand tightly, while lifting her other hand to touch his cheek. Gentle pressure guided his face, turned him toward her as easily as a doll's. It was frightening, too, to know this kind of control over anyone, anything, but she pushed it down and told herself it was just like coaxing the flowers to grow, to bloom, when all else around them was darkness.
The voices were curiously absent, as she leaned forward and touched his lips with her own. He murmured something but did not pull away, and so she kissed him again. It was not at all like kissing Zack; kissing Zack had been--well, at first, it had been nothing short of awkward, because she had never done anything like it at all before--but he had always been willing to be the leader. With Cloud...
With Cloud, his eyes growing heavy-lidded, not quite closed but, Gaia help her, the glow was smoldering in intensity--with Cloud, it was more of a game of give and take, providing him just enough to coax him out, so he tried the same with her. When they separated, they looked to one another, just as the rain started again. He said nothing, but shook his head, raised the hand grasped by her own to his chest. She couldn't resist looking at the tent flap, making sure it was all secure, listening for any sign of the others--but Cloud whispered her name.
It felt like trespassing. She wasn't certain why--he didn't belong to anyone, not even Avalanche, not even Tifa--but even as she ran her hands up his sides, lifting the top of his uniform up and up as she went, some part of her felt as though she was daring too much. He started to pull the uniform the rest of the way off before she ran her fingers over the scar on his chest--the movement caused his entire body to shudder, the uniform gathered in a bunch around his wrists. She halted, worried, but he put the top aside and looked to her, both hands cupping her face and tilting her up to kiss her.
It pulled her closer to him, and they shifted, awkwardly, too engrossed in the motion of their mouths to pay much attention. The sleeping roll was unzipped and spread out; she settled on her knees between his legs, which he drew up. One hand went to clasp his shoulder and another lay flat against his chest. When she leaned forward, he leaned back to the sleeping roll, going down as softly as a falling leaf. One of his own hands had gone into her loosely bound hair, stroking the brown strands, while his other cautiously drifted from her own shoulder to over her heart, and then, slowly, cupped one breast. She murmured, told him it was all right, and sat back on her heels. He watched her from where he lay, quiet, as her hands began unbuttoning the front of her dress.
She was nervous. Her hands shook. Then he sat up, told her to wait, and set to work on them himself. She couldn't just sit there as he went lower and lower; her hands grasped his hair for the comfort of having something to hold on to, and she noticed with some surprise a scar on his back, mirroring the one on his chest in shape and placement. But then Cloud was done and straightened, looking up to her. He looked younger, then, for a moment, and she brushed the hair from his forehead and smiled.
He touched her cheek, and smiled timidly back.
In the end, they lay side-by-side, though there had been plenty of shifting as they had gone. He had tasted her--something Zack had never done--and she had guided him. Give and take. He was so quiet. She brushed a finger over his lower lip--it still bled from where he had bit down on it when he had come, stifling a low keen that could have been--
She didn't think of that. What had mattered was that he had opened his eyes and seen her, in the end, that he seemed content to rest his head against her and lay with an arm around her, and his other hand stroking her skin. What mattered was that he had been happy. What mattered was that he had heard her ask for him, and he had responded.
She slept for once without dreams, and woke hearing the last of the rain dripping against the canvas of the tent. Cloud lay beside her still, his eyes open, watching her as though not fully awake himself. He glanced toward the tent's entrance, and when he looked back to her his lips thinned, worried. She kissed him, nodded, and sat up with a sigh, running a hand through her hair. The morning air was cold compared to the heat of the day; the rain had brought with it a chill. It touched her bare skin and caused her to shiver, and she reached with a hand for her dress, for her panties. When she stood up and pulled her dress around her, he slid from the sleeping roll and helped to button it up again, carefully making sure he didn't miss a button, set the dress askew. When he was finished, he looked up and swallowed.
But he said nothing. She didn't expect anything more, and only stepped closer, embraced him one more time. He was so slender.
Then she stepped to the tent flap, and looked back at him. He stood, pale and naked, watching her just as quietly, and finally looked down to his sleeping roll as she pushed apart the tent flap. She made sure it was all back in place before she went back to the tent she shared with Tifa and Yuffie. It would be morning soon, she knew; the sky was lightening so the clouds, from what she could see through the trees, were not so dark a blue, but a shade closer to Cloud's own eyes. She went inside the tent, her eyes checking first Yuffie, then Tifa. Satisfied, she slid into her sleeping roll, and shifted to become more comfortable. She was still very sensitive, between her legs. There was still wetness there.
There was a muffled cry from outside. It was stifled but she knew what would follow, but couldn't bring herself to go back to his tent and--
She covered her face with her hands. The voices stirred in the air again. She ignored their insults, ignored their accusations, and tried to fight back the wetness in her own eyes.
He had known, as well as she did. For him, it would all come down to the mirrors, and the lights, and the shadows. She wasn't to be a part of that world. Not as she was now.
Gods. She was so afraid.