5 years later...
The mountain guide raised her voice above the howling wind to ask: "Which way?"
Aeris struggled forward against the frigid gale. A flurry of thick white snowflakes blew back into her face and stung what little skin wasn't covered by knitted wool or chocobo down. By this point, the snow felt more like shards of ice. She squinted into the whiteout, past where the guide stood. There were two paths ahead of them, one that led upward and one downward. For all that she could see, both directions went nowhere except further into the storm - but her eyes couldn't lead them to what they were seeking. She squeezed them shut and breathed in the cold air, shivering.
"It's... below us?" she concluded with a frown. It was a stab in the dark. She tried to divine the answer the "right" way first, the way that everyone wanted her to, by stilling herself, opening her heart, waiting for a sign or a voice or a beacon to follow. She pleaded for an answer. Nothing came. More often than not, nothing did. All that was left was simple intuition. It wasn’t very satisfying, but it wasn’t as though anyone could question her methods either. Besides, no one in the expedition party wanted to stand around being buried in the snow. At least heading down the cliffside would take them leeward of the bitter wind.
The SOLDIER in lead motioned to Aeris and the rest of their company. He began the descent easily, despite the uncertain terrain, while the others lagged behind. At the fork, the guide waited. Tifa, she'd said her name was, if Aeris was remembering it right. The wind caught her dark hair and whipped it against her back as she kept diligent watch over the rest of the travellers.
"Be careful," she warned.
"Don't worry," chirped Aeris, “I’ve done this plenty of times.” The path narrowed in front of her and the snow at her feet was already piled higher than the tops of her boots. Underneath it, she could feel thick ice covering the face of the rock. Careful was the only option, and she undertook it with both arms outstretched for balance.
“Hurry up,” grumbled one of the guardsmen at her back.
“Hey, don’t rush me, it’s rude t— whoa!”
As she brought her foot down, Aeris felt her heel slip out from under her. Her arms pinwheeled as she skidded forward through the snow, toward the ledge — but Tifa had waited, braced against the rock, for exactly this reason. She caught Aeris by the forearm, stopping her short of disaster. As much as it hurt to crack her knees against the ice, Aeris could only imagine the crunch her bones might have made if she had gone careening over the precipice instead. She peered cautiously over it to watch a drift of snow fall over the edge into nothingness. Slowly, she scrabbled backwards.
“You okay?" The concern on Tifa’s face was obvious. "You really have to take it slow out here.”
“Y-yeah, thank you.”
Behind the knit of her scarf, Aeris smiled sheepishly. She had already been glad for Tifa’s presence, and now with smarting knees and renewed awareness of the precariousness of the trail, her appreciation went double. Much of the surrounding area had yet to be charted, and Tifa seemed one of the more adaptable guides, well-suited to treacherous terrain and terrible weather. Besides her skill, it was kind of nice getting to spend the day with a girl her own age. Almost like having a friend.
“Hey!” The SOLDIER doubled back up the path, and the lamp-like glow of his eyes made the aggravation in his face obvious even through the haze of snow. “What were the orders?”
“To protect the Ancient, sir!”
“Yeah, so maybe stay sharp enough to keep her from breaking her neck. You alright, Tifa?”
“We’re good up here, Cloud,” she answered. “Here, help me - we’ll set up some rope.”
The guardsmen shuffled obediently forward. They pulled Aeris up between them and she brushed the snow from her front, watching Cloud as he bounded effortlessly back down the decline, rope in hand. Despite how often they were together in the labs, this was the first time he’d been assigned to one of her expeditions. The exception proved stranger than the rule. Wasn’t the Zero-SOLDIER a little overqualified for this job?
“Okay, everybody grab on - Aeris, stay in the middle, please - and we’ll be down there in a flash.”
It took more than a flash, but with Tifa’s guidance and encouragement, they made it to level ground without further incident. Aeris’ knees throbbed the whole while. Tseng always wanted to stick to flyovers, but sometimes the site or the weather just wouldn’t permit it. She typically enjoyed her little adventures, but even away from the worst of the wind’s bite, Aeris wished this hadn’t been one of those times.
“There’s a cave up ahead,” announced Cloud, squinting across the field.
“This way?” Aeris trudged forward and held a magenta mitten up to her brow. She couldn’t make out anything more than distant rocks, but she didn’t have SOLDIER eyes to rely on. If he said there was a cave, then there was. It sounded promising. Shelter sounded even better. She summoned cheer and confidence into her voice. “Yep, that's definitely it.”
“Take it slow, everyone,” instructed Tifa. “The ground might not be as even as it looks.”
When they reached the mouth of the cave, all of them knew immediately that it was worth the trip. The light they cast into the chasm reflected in deep blues and greens off its sloping, crystalline walls. Even if they didn’t find any interesting materia for the SOLDIER stockpiles, there was definitely a Mako deposit here substantial enough to make the energy division happy. Aeris smiled to herself. It was still surprising to her how often her wild guesses at what felt right bore fruit, but she supposed that was why she was here in the first place.
“Finally,” sighed one of the guardsmen. The lower half of his face, the part not covered by his helmet, had a round and childish look. He had a voice to match. “I was getting worried we’d be wandering around in that blizzard ‘til dark.”
“What d'you think is inside?” said the other, leaning in to get a closer look.
“Mentioned you’re into materia, didn’t you Piette?” Cloud cut in. He stepped further into the cave, holding a Light materia aloft, his other hand planted on his hip, all casual cool.
“Er — I didn’t think you’d remember that, sir, but yes.”
“Cool. We’ll be back in a bit with something that’ll blow your mind.” Cloud cracked a cocksure smile as he looked back over his shoulder. Piette started with excitement — at the materia, or the acknowledgement from the Zero-SOLDIER, or both — but Cloud’s gaze had moved on to Tifa, who was coiling the climbing rope with practiced hands and watching Cloud with fond amusement. Aeris studied the two of them. They certainly seemed familiar with one another. Maybe that was why Cloud was here.
“You two keep watch here," Cloud continued. "We don’t want any nasties sneaking up on us while we’re in there.”
“Right,” nodded the babyface, striking a clumsy salute as Piette struck another to match. With a nod, Cloud waited for Tifa and Aeris to cast their own Light materia and the three of them pressed further into the dark of the tunnel.
Spelunking could be dangerous, but the caves were always spectacular, and each of them a little different. The walls of this one were mostly dark turquoise shot through with purple, all of it glimmering and iridescent like beetles’ wings. Aeris pulled off her gloves and let her fingertips skate across the surface of the rock as they walked, privately delighting in the change of scenery. All three of them drank in the peculiar sight as they pressed forward through the darkness. Unlike most of her missions, they didn’t do so in silence.
“Kind of reminds me of home,” said Tifa, a smile in her voice. “I wonder if it would have looked like this eventually, if they hadn’t built the reactor.”
“It might’ve. You miss Nibelheim yet?”
“After how long it took to leave? Nope!” Tifa laughed. Cloud joined her.
“So you do know each other,” interjected Aeris, leaning forward between them with her hands clasped behind her back. It was strange. Before today, she had no idea Cloud could be so amicable.
“It’s none of your business,” grumbled Cloud, looking and sounding suddenly much more like himself as he fixed Aeris with a surly expression.
“Come on, you don't have to be a grouch about it,” scolded Tifa, countering Cloud's moody face with a friendly one. “It’s funny you didn’t know, though. Everybody seems to talk about it. Cloud’s the one that got me this job."
“You got it yourself, Tif, I just recommended you.”
“Well, I know that, but I still get asked if I’m ‘your girlfriend or something’ constantly.”
“Oh?” asked Aeris, suddenly greatly interested. How delightful. She hadn’t counted on cave gossip. “Why’s that?”
“We’re old friends, and I guess it shows. It's hard to believe, but before I came here, we’d only spoken in letters for years!” Tifa laughed.
“I see, I see…” Aeris tapped a finger thoughtfully against her chin and considered them both. None of it seemed to phase Tifa, but Cloud’s shoulders were in bunches as he listened to the two of them. Apparently, he wasn’t having as much fun as she was; she had to admit, that made it even better. The dim light hid her impish grin as she pressed again. “What kind of letters?”
“Okay, that’s enough. We nearly there, Cetra?” Cloud snapped.
“Um — Wait,” Tifa looked uncertainly between the two of them. “Your name is Aeris, I thought?”
“He knows it is,” Aeris answered quietly.
She couldn’t tell them how much farther, but felt they were drawing closer, and this time she could rely on her eyes to guide her. The path ahead broadened and curved out of sight, the glow of something luminous reflecting off the walls in vibrant streaks of violet. They rounded the bend carefully in case of danger, but there was none. Waiting there for them was a crystalline pillar of Mako, stretching from floor to ceiling, each strand of the structure as thin and delicate as spun glass. Suspended in its centre was a piece of materia, shining bright and red.
“Beautiful,” Tifa breathed.
Cloud admired it as well for a moment, but pragmatism quickly overtook his sense of wonder. He readied his sword and stepped forward, scanning the column for the best point to break it.
“Hold on,” said Aeris, “I can reach it.”
The two of them watched as she slipped her hand carefully into a gap in the structure. It was lucky they were small. With a bit of effort, the ends of her fingers grazed the materia, tugged it closer, then closed around it.
In a flood of memory and borrowed emotion, it told her its name and a piece of its story. It wasn't a happy one, but then, they never were. Afterimage swam in her mind's eye as some foreign mourning overtook her heart. Always, it was the memories of pain that seemed to survived the ages, preserved in crystal. Bowing her head, she thanked it privately for entrusting her with its power and carefully pulled the materia free of its crystal cage.
“Sylph,” she repeated its name for the group as she pressed it into Cloud’s waiting hand.
“What’s it do?” he asked, holding it up for examination, as though he might find instructions.
“Wind magic. It’ll heal your friends, hurt your enemies.”
“It’s amazing that you knew it was here. How do you do it?” asked Tifa. Her eyes were round with interest, and her smile bright and easy. Cloud looked askance. Tifa asked with such levity, it was clear she had no idea how many times someone had demanded that Aeris answer some permutation of the same question.
Aeris considered her response. Even if she did want to talk about it, what would she say? She lived with her hands submerged in an ocean no one else could see or feel. Cloud, Tifa, Tseng, wild chocobos and wood lice and everyone she’d ever sold a flower to in Midgar — all of them moved through life unconscious of the ripples and wakes they created. All the little waves waxed and waned and washed at her, auguring nothing until suddenly they did. And when they did, it was impossible to miss.
At least, she thought it was like that. Despite having crossed it, she’d never actually seen the ocean, much less put her hands into it.
“Oh, you know. Just Ancient stuff,” Aeris said with a shrug.
“Right, right,” said Tifa, a little embarrassed now for asking. “Sorry, I really didn’t know anything about Ancients before today! And you don’t seem any different from a regular person to me."
Aeris’ chest swelled as shame and joy battled over whether to take that statement as a compliment.
“Talk on the way,” said Cloud, replacing his sword on his back. “We don’t want to leave the guys out in the cold.”
They took him up on that until partway through the cave. Cloud heard it first - the staccato echo of gunfire. With a grave look back to both of them, he sped onward. The scream that came soon after made Aeris' stomach twist; the silence that followed was worse. She broke into a run after him.
By the time they reached the mouth of the cave, Piette and his babyfaced friend lay dead in the snow, scarlet seeping out from under them. Tifa rushed to the side of one soldier, groping for a pulse. Just from looking at the deep gashes through his middle, she must have known she wouldn’t find one. Cloud knelt next to Piette, but his eye was elsewhere, turned out into the storm as though he had spotted something. Aeris followed his line of sight. Just barely, she could make out a flicker of black as something ominous disappeared into the white.
"They're gone," said Tifa, her voice breaking a little.
Aeris stared down at the bodies, sprawled in the snow. They were - had been - as young as she was. Caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. A memory stirred, different young bodies crumpled on Midgar cobbles, the scent of gunpowder from Turk pistols stinging her nostrils—
"Tifa," he said. Her eyes stayed on the soldier's corpse as she rose to her feet, at least until Cloud reached out to grip her shoulders. She looked up. "Take Aeris and get back to the chopper. Fast as you can, okay?"
“Okay,” she said. He let go of her shoulders when she started nodding. Her voice grew steadier, and she repeated it to herself with growing determination, the beginnings of a boxer’s bounce in her step. “Okay, I can do that. Leave it to me.”
He nodded decisively to her, then turned to face the storm, his hand at the hilt of his blade.
He’d barely taken a step before Aeris called out after him.
“If you're sending us back alone, give me that materia!"
Cloud faced her. Aeris set her face with resolve and readied her arguments. If he was the best Shinra had, and the situation seemed that serious to him, she should at least have some way to defend herself. She’d remind him of what he already knew, that she was more capable with magic than nearly anyone. None of it needed to be said. After only a moment’s hesitation, he stepped forward, prying materia out of his armlet.
"I'm granting you temporary authorization for the use of SOLDIER-grade materia." He placed two into her waiting hands. Fire - from the feel of it, nearly mastered - and Sylph. "Engage only as a last resort and surrender it at base." He looked away and seemed to wrestle with something through a pause while Aeris slotted both into her empty bangle. When he lifted his eyes again, they were filled with unusual sincerity as much as gravity. "... And I’m counting on you, Aeris. Keep the both of you safe."
It had clearly been hard for him to say and it took her aback to hear it. For as long as they’d known each other now, she’d never had his trust before, and she took it closely to heart.
“I will,” she promised.
“We’ll report this position when we’re back at the helicopter,” added Tifa. “Please take care, Cloud.”
“Alright. You too.”
With steel in his gaze and his sword at the ready, Cloud turned his back to the both of them and set out to hunt the monster in the storm.