There is something about Aeris which brings out the child in Cloud. He lies half-naked beneath the pear tree in her garden and its leaves and branches cast dappled shadows on his skin; he doesn't know where the light is coming from — it can't be sunlight, not down here in the slums — but it is golden and warm and fills him with a longing for sleep. For a moment he forgets that he has made a promise to Tifa; he forgets about Avalanche and the Shin-Ra and the things he is obliged to do: the mysterious girl he escorted home is standing barefoot and on her tip-toes to reach the juiciest, ripest fruit; her toes twist in the dirt and the juice runs sticky-sweet down her hands and drips from her chin. He thinks he might stay here forever, watching her eat golden pears from beneath golden lashes. The smell, of pear juice and earth and chrysanthemums and woman is intoxicating: Aeris falls down beside him, spilling fruit everywhere and he can smell the sweat on her skin. Her jacket and shoes are in a pile by the tree; her dress is falling from her shoulders and her hair is falling out of her pony-tail: the strands of hair frame her face like the swirling trails left in cloud chambers. But she is warm, so warm, as she smiles at him. If he were someone else he might press her into the ground and kiss that warm mouth, sticky with fruit juice. But he is Cloud; instead he just looks at her, as if in the looking he might press her like a flower between the pages of his memory and so preserve her forever.
"Have you ever done this before," she asks, messing up his hair and smearing pear juice down his throat, and he shakes his head. "No," she says, "I didn't think you had." He closes his eyes as she inadvertently brushes her fingers over his lips; he finds that he is kissing them, gently tasting the sticky pear residue and, to his surprise, she isn't stopping him. "I like you with your eyes closed," she says softly; "you look like yourself."
There is a long pause filled with nothing but the buzzing of insects and the long, languorous sigh of the flowers around them; Aeris has fallen against Cloud now and he has let her lay her head against his clavicle, her sweet breath warming his skin. His eyes are half-closed now, and through the chink he sees red, pink, lavender: it almost seems to him, in his half-sleep, that the garden chose to bloom in those colours for this moment, that the whole course of their existence had been leading these flowers to this point in time: merely to tremble in the breeze as they overlook him and this gentle, thrumming, mysterious girl. As if in answer, a petal falls from a nearby rose and lightly brushes the skin of his arm, raising all the hairs along it. This small patch of land is teeming with more life than the rest of Midgar combined, he thinks; Aeris alone contains more life than all the rest of the people in it. Her legs are all tangled up with his, as if she wants to put down roots and anchor them to the earth together. Aeris is an oak tree, is a great queen of the forest with a coronet of leaves set upon her brow; Aeris is hot and sticky, and vibrant and sensual; ... Aeris is a lost child like him.
The light waxes and wanes, swelling and then sucking back, falling over them in waves. Aeris breathes in and out, her ribcage expanding and then contracting rhythmically, her heart beating against Cloud's chest and he thinks that he could stay here like this until the light has faded forever; he could forget the plight of the planet and the people on it, he could renege on his agreement with Tifa. He could stay here with Aeris and allow her to unfurl him, petal by petal, on golden afternoons; and, maybe, she would allow him to gently peel back her petals too — to reveal the delicate filaments in her heart. Aeris shifts against him and he knows that soon she will awake with a sigh and tell him that he needs his sleep; then she will lead him back to his bedroom by the hand and leave him there to confront the emptiness and the silence of night alone.
This woman-child, this golden oak: he decides to leave her here with her mother, where she can drink in the light in her garden with the flowers she loves so much. He feels that he will not be able to disentangle himself from the Shin-Ra, that he is about to get caught up in some violent current which will choke and stifle him and pull him out to sea — and there is nothing he wants less than for Aeris of the pear juice and the earth to be holding him when he goes under and to be pulled down with him (and yet there is nothing he wants more than for Aeris to be holding him).
- - -
Aeris insists on leaving Midgar with him on Sephiroth's trail and Cloud wishes now that he had managed to pull apart his roots from hers on that golden afternoon when they lay together in her flower bed. But it is too late; he is already unraveling — it no longer feels right, no longer feels like 'him' to tell her not to come because it is unsafe: who is he to tell her what she can and cannot do? There is great strength in Aeris — he feels it now when he puts his hand on her skin — probably more strength than there is in him (no, he knows that she is stronger than he is); and he wants her with him: he needs her strength, he needs her to protect him. They share no moments alone now, but he catches her soft, deep gaze from time to time and he feels that she sees right into him: she sees right into the space where a tulip has closed its petals around the seed and the stamen of his heart and she peels them back one by one. Then she smiles like nothing matters and the wind catches her hair, and she goes dancing, running across the fields dappled with sunlight with the team marching on behind her.
- - -
The night before they leave Cosmo Canyon Aeris comes to him; she puts her arm through his and, saying nothing, leads him out into the night. The sky is dark and so smooth he thinks he could run his fingers through it and have it flow through and around them like water; stars are scattered through it like a glittering, milky current — or like pebbles at the bottom of a stream. He could put his hands into the sky, to press them against the stars lining the sky's river-bed; they would be cool and refreshing. The red, variegated rock glimmers golden in the light from the moon and the stars and the contrast between the dark blue and the red-gold of the rock inspires a feeling which wells up deep within him: gurgling, bubbling over, and filling his chest so that he can't breathe. Aeris's face shimmers before him as she takes him into a cave carved into the rock: she is so wistful, so full of grace in form and proportion, that he thinks this might all be a dream — until she grips his arm so tight her fingers leave bruises and presses her lips to his neck: then he knows that she is real, and he thinks maybe she is trying to verify his existence too.
His eyes close, his lashes brushing gently against her cheek like the petal which had brushed against his skin on that golden afternoon, and she pushes him down into the earth. He smears red-brown dirt all down her face and her body, following the same pattern that she had on that day when she smeared sticky pear juice and dark, black earth down his face; and he presses into her, wrapping himself around her like an ivy wraps itself around and grows up an oak. There is an aching desperation in her movements: she is alone, she is all alone — and sad, and tired; she kisses his closed eyes and his mouth and somehow he feels the weight of the need to "be himself", to "be strong", fall from his shoulders.
He holds her tight afterwards; they tremble together like leaves in a slight wind. When the sun comes up, it paints the sky with lustrous pink and shining gold.
"We have to go back," he says, pressing his mouth to her ear.
"Not yet," she says, curling into him. Cloud thinks of the way she had curled away from him when she had told him that she was all alone — the last Ancient. He wonders whether he can give her the comfort she is looking for; it hurts him to realise that under her burnished-bright surface, under her glowing skin, she concealed this deep violet pool of solitude. He realises that the way she smiles when she is alone with him now is different from the way she smiles around others, the way she smiled when they first met: it is tinged with grief, deep and dark and mysterious like a lotus flower. The smile she shows to him now is softly-unfurled: not just the petals but the golden filaments too.
- - -
She comes to him in the night before they set off for the Temple of the Ancients, coaxes from him a confession that he has never been on a 'real' date; then she drops her teasing and seems sad for a moment as she looks at him again and sees — probably — the unsure, tentative Cloud of their first golden afternoon together, the frightened Cloud beneath the bravado, beneath the attempt to be more like ... to be more like the Cloud of his half-remembered dreams.
There is a strange but intoxicating scent on the air, like the scent of cowslips by the river of an evening. Cloud thinks of what they are about to undertake and he realises that in all his time spent with Aeris he has never once thought of what their dalliances ... might have meant; he has never tried to put his feelings for her into words, even in his own mind. He watches Aeris as she leans out of the window of their gondola; her brown hair spills out of its pony-tail and onto her smooth neck, collecting in the hollows of her shoulders: she is so open in some respects and so closed in others; even he notices that she flirts with him aggressively but whether any of her actions hint at a deeper feeling for him — he doesn't know.
Then Aeris says some things to him which, to his addled mind, make almost no sense; she has shifted gears from frivolous enthusiasm to deep seriousness in a way which he has become accustomed to and he sees in her eyes some sort of deep emotion which threatens to overspill. Then, "I want to meet ... you," she says to him and he presses his palm to her face as she closes her eyes.
- - -
Cloud sometimes thinks that if they can defeat Sephiroth he would like nothing more than to take Aeris back to her mother's house in Midgar and make love to her amidst the hyacinths and chrysanthemums on golden afternoons. He would trace the lines of her skin with his fingers and ask her what the planet said, and she would shake her head and say she didn't understand but tell him anyway.
"You feel it," she would say, pressing his hand to his heart, "here; it's like a sort of music: you hear it in your heart and you just understand it without needing words — you understand it with your emotions." Then he would kiss her all over and say, "Yes, I understand my emotions."
- - -
Sephiroth has him attack Aeris because, although Sephiroth tells him that he has no emotions, Sephiroth understands the one thing about Cloud that Cloud himself has failed so far to realise. Aeris comes to some agreement in communication with the planet and leaves; Cloud sees her in a dream of a singing forest and his heart aches as the sweet melody of the place fills him with deep foreboding. "Please don't leave;" he wants to say, "I need you to stay," but the words would not come and besides he knows that she would laugh, that clear and resonant laugh as of ringing bells, and just leave with the implication unsaid: you need me to defeat Sephiroth, to rescue you of having to face him — and he has seen enough of her to realise that if any of them can defeat Sephiroth it is Aeris, that great oak tree in their midst.
But he can't, he just can't let her go alone.
- - -
The Forgotten City is a mysterious and unsettling place. It looms as a huge network of glimmering trees in one of the northernmost reaches of the planet, and each of its abandoned houses is structured like a giant shell. Cloud supposes that at one point this was a vibrant and colourful place: more real than reality in the same way as Aeris; now it is faded and silent and almost immaterial: a revenant of the dwelling-place that was. He hears her voice here, a syncopation which rushes through his heart, calling to him — making each atom vibrate at her peculiar frequency — and he goes to her.
- - -
Blood blossoms from her breast, red and violent. He catches her in his arms and holds her close to him, pushes her hair back from her face with hands sticky not with pear juice but with the sap of Aeris's oak tree. How am I supposed to go on? — how am I supposed to go on in a world which no longer contains Aeris, which is just a faded shadow of itself? His heart aches, feels as if it is split in two; and in the midst of this acute sense of loss he is finally able to put a word on what Aeris is to him — but it is too late. There is no more time left in the world for what he wants to say to her, what he finally has the words for; all the colour has been leeched from golden afternoons and sun-reddened rocks and lustrous pink skies: all the flowers in the world bloom in one instant and then wither. Aeris is gone, has left him, has died — and in the same moment all the world has lost its enchantment for him: it is all petals and no heart.
- - -
(He thinks he hears her voice again, and all around him is phosphorous milkgreen water.)