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A re-arranged/rewritten Cloud half and some alterations to Aeris's:

Chapter 10: Cosmo Canyon

Cloud

Aeris was elated when they finally arrived in Cosmo Canyon; here at last were people outside of Shinra who knew something of the Cetra, people who could tell her more about herself. She'd split off from the others shortly after arrival to learn all she could from the canyon elders. When Nanaki bid his friends join him at the very top of the canyon some time later, Aeris was downcast, quiet and oddly subdued. Cloud wanted to ask what was wrong, but they reached Bugenhagen's observatory before he had a chance.

The observatory had been both astonishing and horrifying. It had always been one thing to hear Barret insist that Shinra's actions were leading to the Planet's death; it was quite another to see it happen, even if it was just a simulation. To see the end result of all Mako, all the Lifestream extracted from the Planet had been disturbing; they watched as the dessicated husk of their world crumbled away into dust. Despite the bleak vision the experience had been beautiful; to see the graceful dance and elegant movements of the planets, to stand in space, witnessing the stars and comets all around them. Cloud knew Tifa loved to look at the stars, but from the ground they paled in significance next to the three-dimensional environment Bugenhagen had demonstrated. The swordsman glanced over to the martial artist; even now she was staring upwards, marvelling at just how much clearer and brighter the stars were here.

His gaze strayed to the figure beside her; Aeris ignored the universe above her, preferring to stare into the dancing flames. Swallowing, Cloud forced himself up and talked over to her; he needed to stop stalling and try to reopen the lines of communication between them.

"Hey," he said in a soft tone as he sat beside her, tensing himself for a bad reaction. "How are you?"

"I learned a lot," she replied, not looking at him yet, keeping her eyes focussed on the fire. "I'm the last Cetra. There's no one else like me out there. No one can help me with what I'm feeling, or tell me if it's supposed to be like this. I just thought, that maybe, somewhere out there..." Her eyes flicked away from the Cosmo Candle and to the rock below.

"There's still one possibility though. There was a scientist who used to live here. He devoted his life to studying the Cetra. He..." she swallowed, her voice dropping in volume. "He originally found Jenova. He dug her up and let something terrible happen. He never told anyone what he did, but the last time anyone saw Professor Gast he said he'd misclassified Jenova; she's not a Cetra."

The name Gast had rung a bell in Cloud's head and it took him a while to place it; one of the last coherent things he had heard Sephiroth say in the days before Nibelheim's destruction. It was a fleeting detail that felt simply irrelevant next to her discoveries. "So you're nothing like Sephiroth or Jenova?"

Aeris shook her head quickly. "No. No, they're something... else. I... I want to talk to him, ask him how he got it wrong, what Sephiroth's mother really is. And... about me."

"Does anyone know where Gast is now?"

She shook her head again. "It's been decades since he left, and all he wanted to do was get as far away as possible. If we could find him, then maybe I could talk to him, but otherwise..." She lapsed into silence for a moment. "I'm... alone."

The flickering light made Aeris look mournful and Cloud started speaking before he knew what he was saying. "But I'm-," he swallowed hastily. "We're here for you right?"

She turned to look at him. "I know. I know, but I'm the only... the only Cetra."

"Does that mean we can't help?" Cloud asked, trying to find anything to comfort her.

"I don't know," was all Aeris would say, letting her gaze drift back to the Cosmo Candle. He tried desperately to think of something more to say, and was somewhat relieved when Tifa spoke to him instead. He tried to listen, but his thoughts were tangled with concern for the flower girl. As much as he tried to listen to his friend, he just couldn't concentrate. Tifa was talking about remembering things and mentioned his return to Nibelheim, just days before its destruction. The martial artist paused, halting her awkward speech and now looked troubled. She insisted it was nothing when he queried it, and then said something really strange;

"It feels like... like you're going far away. You... you really are... you. Aren't you?"

Her words had confused him, and he was unable to ignore the strange effect they had inside him. There was something discomfortingly familiar about her words, something that he'd forgotten, and needed to remember. He'd turned her speech over and over in his head, the mystery drawing his attention momentarily away from the situation with Aeris. But Tifa refused to say anything more after he uncertainly assured her he was indeed himself, and he was unable to make any head-way in puzzling out what she'd just tried to confess. He picked through his memories, thinking back. Before they met in Midgar, they'd last seen each other in Nibelheim; just days before the inferno that had destroyed the town.

The thought lead to an uncomfortable reminder. If they carried on in the same direction they'd eventually wind up in the ruins of his home town. He wondered what could possibly have survived the fire; was anything left there, or would there be little but broken, rain-swollen timbers and barren land? He would find out sooner than he wanted. It was at least possible a new settlement had been built on the site of the old. It would be uncomfortable to visit, but felt more pleasant than finding nothing but the wind-swept, barren remains his mind insisted on conjecturing.

He was grateful for the distraction a short while later when Bugenhagen interrupted Nanaki's bitter story about his parents and his own status as the last of his kind. The old man told Nanaki there was something he needed to see if forgiving his father was as impossible as he claimed and that two of his new found friends should accompany him. With a certain wariness, the quadruped murmured to Aeris, asking if she would object to accompanynig him. She nodded her assent, and unexpectedly Nanaki then asked if she minded Cloud joining them. The flower girl glanced up to meet the swordsman's eyes and smiled; his heart skipped a beat.

The former SOLDIER tried to dismiss the stirrings of excitement the smile elicited, not yet allowing himself to believe things had improved between them. He was gratified that Aeris had no reservations about his presence to whatever end Bugenhagen had in mind. If nothing else, it felt like a step forward for them both; while they hadn't been exactly avoiding each other, neither had they had much time, if any, to talk.

The floating older man lead the trio through winding tunnels away from the bustling centre of the settlement and into a sealed off network of tunnels. The group walked along the hidden passages that snaked through the red rock of the canyon, passing through deserted caverns still bearing the scars of combat. As they walked, the canyon elder related the tale of a brave warrior whose actions long ago saved the settlement from the Gi tribe. Nanaki pressed continually for a name, though some notion of just who his grandfather spoke was seemingly sat on the tip of his tongue. It was only when they finally reached open air again that the warrior was named Seto; Nanaki's father. His petrified form stood as an eternal guardian at this secretive entrance.

Bugenhagen asked Cloud and Aeris to give him and Nanki a few moments alone; they agreed and back-tracked to the tunnel entrance. Now alone together again, Cloud felt nervous. He needed to say something, anything to make conversation somehow, but he couldn't just blurt out about how he felt, or ask if their arrangement was to be renewed. Too abrupt, too crass, too out of place. He tried to make awkward small-talk, expressing his admiration for Seto's actions, even if it had lead to such a misunderstanding with his son. The thought stirred something not often remembered at the back of his mind.

"I don't remember my father," he found himself admitting with regret in his voice. "He died when I was very young and my Mom raised me on her own. I wish I could have talked to her more about him, but... now she's gone too."

"It's the same with me." Cloud looked up sharply, almost not believing Aeris would respond. "I never knew my father either. My mother, my real mother, couldn't really talk to me while we were in Hojo's 'care'. And Mom told you about her..." She trailed off, staring towards the rocky ground. "There was so much I didn't know when Elmyra took me in. I'd spent my whole life in that lab; I didn't know anything about living outside."

She fidgeted for a moment and looked up at Cloud. "I'm glad I got away, but... There was a moment in those first few days when I kind of missed it. I could hear my mother's voice insisting I stay away from Shinra, but it was so different outside. I missed things. Like the technicians; they were never meant to respond, but I talked to them all the time. Some of them were almost nice too. I missed them, I missed the routine and the food. I couldn't sleep properly that first night in Mom's house. Everything was just so different, the sounds, the sights... just everything."

Cloud stayed silent as she continued. "But then Tseng came to ask me to return, and that was when I knew I couldn't. I refused. If he'd come a few days earlier I might have accepted. But I'd learnt far too much by then, I'd seen the world was so much bigger than anything I'd seen before. I saw the sky, I saw the ground; I could hear the Planet. And no one insisted on taking yet another blood sample. Mom was so good to me; she never talked down to me, always talked to me like I was anyone else. She was so much easier to talk to then anyone in the labs; they were always afraid of being caught by Hojo." She sighed. "I hope she's okay. I hope she got out of the city with Marlene."

Cloud opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything they heard the mournful howl of Nanaki behind them. Bugenhagen appeared a few moments later asking that they continue to wait a little longer while Nanaki came to terms with his past. Seto's son quietly padded up to them a short while later, and while he was sombre, it seemed as if a weight had been lifted from him. The relief was almost palpable when they exitted those abandoned caves and found their way back to their friends seated around the Cosmo Candle.

Cloud felt a pang of jealousy when he saw Nanaki stick close to Aeris and curl up at her side; his friend could spend time so easily with Aeris in a way he had been unable to before, and seemed impossible now. He dismissed the thought. The quadruped's presence seemed to make her happier, and he could not begrudge that outcome. He watched Aeris trail fingers through his fur as she stared into the flames once more. He found himself fidgeting by the fire, needing to do something, anything, to pass the time before they turned in for the night. Eventually he hit on the idea of restocking their supplies; it might not be quite involved enough, but it would at least pass the time. With any luck he'd get several different requests necessitating a hike around most of the canyon to fulfil. That would also tire him out which should at least make sleeping easier.

Cloud went around the group asking what each member wanted. As he reached Aeris he tensed himself for the hollow feeling he anticipated, the one that just made him miss their times together, and crave a renewed physical closeness. But when Aeris looked up at him, something had changed since they last spoke. She looked less haunted, less lost; now there was a touch of mischief in her eyes again, and the hint of a smile on her lips.

"I had a few things I needed, so I wrote you a list," she said with a warm smile. He found himself smiling back, now reluctant to actually carry out his mudane activity, though all too quickly she looked away and began scratching Nanaki's mane once more. Yuffie prevented him even trying to strike up conversation again as she began demanding some more unusual items. Cloud fought the urge to sigh and wondered why everyone couldn't just write shopping lists like Aeris. He started scrawling the orders on the back of Aeris's note just to ensure he wouldn't forget anything.

He read over the list as he left the circle of friends, mentally checking off what each person wanted, and trying to combine overlapping orders together, before turning the note over to see what Aeris had asked for. The flower girl's neat hand-writing listed five items: '3 x potion, a new pillow (if they have any), painkillers, condoms (I think we're running out!), you! (once everyone's asleep)'

Cloud nearly stumbled, feeling blood rise to his cheeks as his body responded in anticipation. He glanced around, checking no one had noticed and then tried to calm himself down. He'd given up. He'd had to. Obsessing over Aeris was not going to do him any good; he'd concluded she currently needed a friend more than a lover. But at some uncertain point in the evening, Aeris had changed her mind completely. She wanted to have sex again.

Cloud tried to fight back a grin as he wandered towards the pharmacy, completely disregarding the more efficient route he'd been calculating. There was no way that he wanted to risk not obtaining any prophylactics tonight; anything else he failed to get he'd apologise for or try to get in the morning.

Cloud's bright, happy state faltered as he entered the shop, realizing that the contraceptives were ensconsed behind the counter. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had to buy condoms. Could it really be that bad to go up and ask for them? Surely it should be more of a boastful thing; after all buying them allowed him to have sex. But his confidence dissipated as he approached the counter and tried to sort out in his head just what he was going to say. Worse still he realised there were several different brands and types on sale. Frantically he tried to remember which ones Aeris had provided, swallowing pride and nerves as his eyes flicked along the packets, trying to quickly decide which he should get. He needed to do this, as much as it might embarass him.



Aeris

She'd been bemused when Nanaki told her very carefully that he wanted to spend the night beside the Cosmo Candle in his role as the guardian of the canyon required; as a result his room would be vacant for the night. Was that a blink or a wink as he spoke? She stared back at him curiously and he gave a barely perceptible nod. Ah. It seemed he knew exactly what the situation was, willing to both stay quiet and help out. It was only after she slipped out of the inn that she paused to wonder if Nanaki's room actually had a bed. And was it weird to use his room for sex? Too late now, she'd made the arrangements and slipped a second note with the location to Cloud on his return from his errands. Getting another room at this late hour was going to be difficult and she wasn't sure she could keep justifying or hiding the cost of an additional room. At least out in the wilderness it was possible to just get away from the others, though it didn't compare to the comfort of having an actual bed.

Aeris wound her way through the canyon's passage-ways to the room set mid-way into the cliff-side. She briefly wondered why Nanaki's room was here rather then in the observatory at the very top; maybe it was part of her friend's insistence at maturity and his living alone was his proof. She was somewhat relieved to find there was indeed a bed when she pushed the door open; whether Nanaki really slept there was something she wasn't going to waste too much time thinking about. She glanced around the room as she waited; a few hangings painted with similar motifs found elsewhere in the settlement hung from the walls and from the window she could see down into the main canyon. She was contemplating whether she should tell Cloud just whose room they were in when she heard the door open behind her. She turned from the view to find a flushed Cloud pushing the door closed behind him.

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