The church was about about as light inside as the slums were dark, entirely because of the hole in the roof, even though it was a bit smaller than he remembered from when he'd fallen through, back when the the girl he'd met had been older than him, instead of younger.
Cloud could still remember seeing Aerith - this Aerith, the little girl who looked at him with an open expression and said that his eyes were pretty and invited him for tea parties on the pews and at the altar where he could still remember placing the Buster Sword in the future - hiding when he'd first hidden in the church.
He'd only known she was there because the flowers were, and there'd been a gasp when he'd looked up at a sudden sound, probably a mouse or rat rather than a monster. She'd crept out slowly, still nervous, and said who are you?
In the present, he sat - not on one of the pews, but against the wall, behind one of the columns, the Fusion Sword in its combined state thunking against the stone as he brought his knees up to his chest.
The sounds of war echoed in his ears. Gunshots, screams, the clashing of swords against metal, the desperate shouts for someone get a doctor...
And above all, a silver-haired kid holding a long katana that he'd asked for, after Cloud had talked to him.
It wasn't Masmamune. They hadn't found that yet. Yet. It wasn't that long, or that strong, even.
If he closed his eyes, however... he could see them growing, the boy and the sword, a coat making itself visible as it fluttered in the wind and fire-
Cloud gasped, opened his eyes to the still presence of the Sector Five Church with no adult Sephiroth or fire anywhere in sight, and groaned into his hands.
"Mr. Wolf? Are you okay?"
Aerith's voice sounded different, at twelve. But it was still unmistakably her, without doubt.
No one else called him 'Mr. Wolf' like they were part of some Nibel children's game.
He looked up, blinking at her, wishing for a selfish moment that it was his Aerith, but his Aerith was left behind in the future even if he sometimes wondered if he could still hear her voice in his dreams, and she was dead, and the girl in front of him was alive.
That was important. That was something to hold onto.
He opened his mouth to say something, but the words wouldn't come out, and his hands were still shaking.
"Did... someone get hurt bad?"
The words, and the worry in her voice, made him start. At first, he shook his head, but then he stopped, eyes and head drooping to the floor - like a wilting flower, she'd probably say.
"People get hurt in war," he said instead, voice sounding distant and cold with how flat it was. "But... no one close. Not really."
Things were quiet for a time. Aerith made a noise that sounded like she understood, and he figured she did, with how he knew her father - Elmyra's husband - had died in the war.
The same war he was fighting in, and sending people to their deaths in.
"So... d'you wanna talk about it? Mom's always said it helps her, and it's helped me, too. But, you don't have to."
For a moment, he really didn't want to. After all, Aerith was twelve, she didn't know anything about Sephiroth, or Jenova, or Meteor... and if she did, then they were only stories that didn't seem real.
He looked back at her, relented, and sighed. Leaned his head back against the wall behind him.
"I... helped someone. And I don't know if I should've."
"Helping people's not bad, is it?"
"I... no." He sighed. "That's not what I meant." Tilted his eyes back towards the ceiling. "I just wish... more people didn't have to die because I didn't want someone to get hurt."
If it wasn't so quiet, if he hadn't been listening, he might not have heard her. Though, he supposed that if anyone knew that feeling, it'd be Aerith, even now. She hadn't told him yet, about her parents and that Elmyra wasn't the mother she'd grown up with first, although the few times he'd seen the woman, he thought she'd guessed he knew by now. Even if it was just because he kept an eye out for the Turks as well as the monsters, and he was sure she'd noticed.
Aerith had probably guessed he knew more about her than he was letting on, but neither of them had ever brought it up, and neither of them had pushed things, beyond Cloud letting slip that he knew what the lifestream was, and that the Planet was hurting, not long after they'd first met.
Sometimes, she said things that he didn't think she'd say to anyone else, and probably only said to him because she knew he'd never tell anyone else. They'd usually come out of the blue, like when she'd said the flowers don't really know what to make of you, sometimes they think you're going to step not them and hurt them, but they also like it when you look after them. You're confusing, but I think they like you.
And then, she'd invariably change the subject, to try and cover up that it might not be just the flowers saying these things, or that it wasn't just a little girl who liked believing in daydreams that had flowers talking to her.
Cloud didn't push that, either. It was good to have even this much.
"I don't think it's wrong." He looked back at her, startled slightly in the sudden break in the silence. "It hurts, but... if you think that person's worth protecting, then shouldn't you do what you can?"
If that person's worth protecting...
A flash of Sephiroth appeared in his mind's eye, tall and inhuman - before it was replaced by a shorter kid who definitely was human, who panicked and talked back at his commanders. Who was proud, but not growing up as arrogant as he could be. Who hated Hojo, and maybe there were seeds there of the hatred he'd get for Shinra in general, but no one had taught him to hate the world yet. A kid who, thanks to Cloud... was also learning to rely on others.
He'd seen that. In the last few skirmishes they'd been in before moving back.
"Yeah," he said. "I... guess you're right. I'm still..." Scared. Terrified. "I just want there to be an end to the fighting that I can be happy with."
Aerith nodded, and gave him a smile that - to Cloud at least - lit up the whole church.
"That sounds like a good thing to hope for. But for now - do you wanna help water the flowers? You always seem to know just how much they need."
Only because I've had so much experience, came the unbidden thought, but he couldn't help smiling back, just slightly.
He left the Fusion Sword leaning against a pew while he knelt on the floor, taking the other watering can around to the other side, and carefully tended the plants with hands that had started to stop shaking.
It wasn't over, but he wasn't quite as worried as he had been before, and the soil, instead of thick with the grit of war, felt soft and smooth and full of life between his fingers.