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After numerous revisions, an entirely SFW section of the fic again! Amended chapter 10 (Cloud half, and first section of Aeris's), and almost completely new version of Cloud's half of chapter 11 with some tweaks to Aeris's.

Chapter 10 - Cosmo Canyon

Cloud
Aeris looked 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 top of the canyon some time later, Aeris was downcast, quiet and 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. To see even in simulation the end result of all Mako, all the Lifestream extracted from the Planet had been disturbing. They watched as the desiccated husk of their world crumbled away into dust. Despite the bleak vision the experience had also been beautiful. They had seen the graceful dance and elegant movements of the planets, standing in space, stars and comets all around them. Cloud knew Tifa loved to look at the stars, but they paled next to the images Bugenhagen had demonstrated. The swordsman glanced over to the martial artist; even now she was marveling at just how much clearer the stars were here.

His gaze strayed to the figure beside her; Aeris ignored the universe above her. Swallowing, Cloud forced himself up to walk over to her; he needed to 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 focused 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 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. It was a fleeting detail that felt irrelevant next to her discoveries. "So you're nothing like Sephiroth or Jenova?"

Aeris shook her head. "No. No, they're something... else. I... I want to talk to him, ask him how he got it wrong, what Sephiroth's mother 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. "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 to think of something more to say, and was somewhat relieved when Tifa spoke to him instead. He tried to listen, but his thoughts had become entangled 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 his return to home 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 strange;

"It feels like... like you're going far away. You... you 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 discomforting and 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 away from the situation with Aeris. But Tifa refused to say anything more after he assured her he was himself, unable to puzzle 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 would wind up in the ruins of his home town. He wondered what could 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 now sat on the site of the old. It would be uncomfortable to visit, but was more appealing than the wind-swept, barren remains in his head.

He was grateful when Bugenhagen interrupted Nanaki's bitter story about his parents. The old man told Nanaki there was something he needed to see if forgiving his father was as impossible as he claimed. The elder asked that two of his new found friends should come with him. With a certain wariness, the quadruped murmured to Aeris, asking if she would object to accompanynig him. She nodded her assent, and 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. He did not yet allow himself to believe things had improved between them. It gratified him that Aeris had no reservations about his presence to whatever end Bugenhagen had in mind. If nothing else it felt like a step forward; they hadn't been exactly avoiding each other, neither had they had much time to talk.

The floating older man lead the trio through winding tunnels away from the bustling centre of the settlement. The group walked along hidden passages to 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 for a name, though some notion of just who his grandfather spoke was sat on the tip of his tongue. It was only when they finally reached open air again that Bugenhagen named the warrior was Seto; Nanaki's father. His petrified form stood as an eternal guardian at this secretive entrance.

Bugenhagen asked Cloud and Aeris to give them 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 to make conversation somehow, but he could not just blurt out his desire to resume the arrangement. Too abrupt, too crass, too out of place. He expressed admiration for Seto's actions, even if they had lead to such a misunderstanding with his son. The thought stirred something rarely 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 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, almost not believing Aeris would respond. "I never knew my father either. My mother, my real mother, couldn't 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 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 Hojo catching them." 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. Nanaki padded up to them a short while later, and while he was sombre, it seemed as if the experience had lifted a weight from him. The relief was almost palpable when they exited those abandoned caves and found their way back to 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 with the flower girl 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. 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 fulfill. 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. 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 carry out his mudane activity. All too she looked away and began scratching Nanaki's mane once more. Yuffie prevented him even trying to strike up conversation again as she demanded 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. He turned 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 almost 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. He did not want to risk not obtaining any prophylactics tonight; anything else he failed to get he'd apologize for.

Cloud's happy state faltered as he entered the shop. The contraceptives sat on a crowded shelf behind the counter. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had to buy condoms. Could it be that bad to go up and ask for them? 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 realized there were several different brands and types on sale. He tried to remember which ones Aeris had provided, swallowing pride and nerves as his eyes flicked along the packets. He needed to do this, as much as it might embarrass him.



Aeris
Aeris sat perched on the edge of the bed enjoying the growing sense of anticipation building within her. There remained a quiet fear that things could still go wrong and she'd wind up experiencing a repeat of Gongaga. No, thinking like that was too much like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and rather then fail to have sex she wanted to sleep with Cloud.

At this point it seemed strange to have been without Cloud over the last week. Opportunities to get him away from the group had come up and she'd ignored them, mired in her worries and speculation about Zack. Nanaki had been a near constant companion during this time; he never said anything but always made an effort to stay near her. He stopped griping about her patting his nose, or stroking through his fur as though he was an over-grown house cat. She had wondered if he had figured out her situation with Cloud. There had been a day's gap before he started keeping her company, and she had seen him looking at the former SOLDIER with caution a few times. Not so much with malice or anger, just a touch of concern. She was glad all the same; he'd provided her with a comfort she needed, and one she was glad she hadn't needed to articulate.

Cloud himself had helped her get over her worries without intending to. As they stood at the end of those hidden passage-ways she found herself talking about her father and how she had no idea who he was. It was possible she was an orphan; like Cloud and like Tifa who had both lost their second parent in the fiery destruction of Nibelheim. Nanaki's howl of mourning, tribute and pride made her realize she was dwelling on the past too much. It was a thought that churned through her mind as she walked back. She was getting too hung up on the past and looking for answers that were hard if not impossible to find.

It was when she stared into the Cosmo Canyon she finally decided to let go of Zack Fair. Nothing changed with the thought; it felt too quick, too easy and almost like she was just cheating herself. She dug deeper within herself, forming a mental image of Zack based on all her memories of him, all those times they spent together. She stared into his eyes and said goodbye once more, before letting him sink into the ground to join the Lifestream. Something heavy seemed to settle onto her chest and then dispersed, leaving her feeling adrift in the world. One of the constants of her life now gone. She knew even as she finally let go that she might be wrong and she might one day run into him again. But she couldn't keep preparing for that situation nor could she ignore that he had made no effort to contact her. If she met him, she met him. If she didn't, she didn't. She would deal with either outcome as it occurred. It was time to move on.

Zack was gone. She blinked at the roaring flames of the Cosmo Candle, realizing her fingers had coiled unbidden in Nanaki's mane. Although he didn't seem to mind she loosened her grip, letting her fingers run through the thick fur. Her mind turned to Cloud. What would the two of them do now? Should she, no, could she have a relationship with Cloud? She looked across to him as he sat talking with Barret and Tifa. She enjoyed his company, she enjoyed sleeping with him. But was it enough to build a relationship? How did one even start again? How should she find out more about him?

There was no doubt in her mind about her friendship with Cloud. They were friends who had sex with each other. It felt as if they were most of the way to a relationship, or had enough of a sign it could work. Maybe, maybe not. She didn't want to risk the situation while they were travelling the world like this. Things had been awkward enough after Gongaga and the incident had been nothing like a break-up.

This was frustrating. She framed thoughts in her mind, considering them. Did she feel about Cloud in quite that way or were her thoughts turning that way because she'd enjoyed sleeping with him? Would he still be willing to be with her and to advance their situaiton into something more like a relationship? That was going to need more thought. But for now at least, thinking of Cloud and their time together reminded her of their last coupling just before Gongaga.

With a rush the desire to be with Cloud came crashing through her and she found herself horny. She wanted to touch him again, missed touching him, missed him touching her. She'd wasted enough time; there just remained the question of how to relay that to him in a subtle way. Cloud provided a suitable mechanism and she scribbled a note, smiling as she imagined his expression when he read it. There was a little edge of concern all the same, a tiny fear that he might no longer want her. She pushed the thought away, and let her imagination provide a preview of what was in store for the both of them.

Nanaki bemused her when he stated he wanted to spend the night beside the Cosmo Candle in his role as the guardian of the canyon required. The result of his decision was his room would be vacant for the night. Was that a blink or a wink as he spoke? She stared back at him and he gave an almost imperceptible 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 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 the cost of an extra room. At least out in the wilderness it was possible to just get away from the others, though it did not 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 wondered why Nanaki's room was here rather then in the observatory at the 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 a bed; whether Nanaki slept there was immaterial at present. She glanced around the room as she waited 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.

Her heart rose in her chest, nerves prickling at now being here alone with him once more. The awkward memory of their last time together still far too prominent in her mind for her liking. Cloud looked nervous too, almost distracted, and a little of her fear leeched away.


Chapter 11 - Nibelheim

Cloud
Cloud began dreaming about the night Nibelheim burned once they left Cosmo Canyon. The former SOLDIER awoke in panic each time as he saw Sephiroth. Try as he might he could never forget the sight of the murderer standing in a sea of flames; he was no longer the man he thought he knew. Cloud sat up as his fear faded, controlling his breathing as best he could, unable and unwilling to return to sleep. Each night he stumbled from his tent, the cool air outside helping disperse the clinging memories. The devastating sight of flames rushing from his home to join the pillar of smoke that surged into the night sky was still so vivid. Even as he calmed, the thought of re-entering the stuffy tent was intolerable. He had taken to relieving whoever was currently keeping watch and then sat staring into the fire as the night wore away.

Cloud had failed in every possible way five years ago; not one of his actions had lead to a saving grace. He had failed to save his town, his mother and Tifa. He'd been too late to stop the near fatal blow, only reaching her once she was bleeding on the cold metal floor of the reactor. It was not surprising he had never once entertained the thought of returning here. Now he had no choice; crossing the mountains required following the path from Nibelheim. The pursuit of Sephiroth made it unavoidable.

He wanted someone to talk to, someone to distract him from his worries; Aeris seemed a perfect choice. Their reunion in Cosmo Canyon had been amazing, and the flower girl had been taking every opportunity to get them together. It had felt so right, so good, and he once again wanted to be with her more than he currently was. But as before he had agreed to be her temporary bed-mate and no more. Maybe he should just continue to enjoy it, and hope for something more in the future. Cloud wondered if it was possible that their arrangement was only like this because of their situation. If they they not been travelling together in a group, might they have had a more normal relationship? What would happen to them after the journey? What would they do once they foiled Sephiroth's ambitions? He decided he would tell her then, accept her rejection if it came to it. If she no longer felt comfortable around him they could part ways and never see each other again.

The thought was unpleasant. He didn't want that outcome, but he had no idea how he would act if he confessed his feelings and Aeris did not return them. He frowned at the notion; did it make sense for the possibility of her rejecting him to exist when they were sleeping together? For some reason he did not feel as confident as he might have once.

Tonight when he emerged from the tent, he found Aeris beside the fire. It should not have been her turn this evening and she did not seem surprised to see him. The flower girl smiled and patted the ground beside her. He walked with slow, careful steps and joined her beside the fire.

"Nightmares again?" she asked her gaze drifting back to the flickering flames.

Cloud stared into the fire. Despite its significance in his dreams, the sight of it did not affect him, and to his surprise played no part in the foreboding.

"Yeah," he admitted after a pause.

"Is it about... tomorrow?"

He nodded. "I'm just... worried about what we're going to find."

"And so you can't sleep?" He shook his head. "Want to talk about it?"

"Do you think it'll help?"

Aeris finally turned to look at him and he found himself staring into her emerald eyes.

"I can at least try to distract you from your problems," she grinned after holding his gaze for a moment.

Cloud found himself smiling in response. "I don't think you'll have any problems."

He felt her lean against him, squirming for a moment until she found a comfortable position. She grumbled as he moved his arm, and then sighed with contentment as he slid it around her waist. They sat in silence for a few peaceful, comfortable moments before Aeris spoke again.

"You know I'm here for you tomorrow, Cloud. So is Barret, Nanaki, Yuffie and Cait Sith. We're all here for Tifa too; we'll help you both if you need us." Cloud glanced side-ways at the girl curled against him.

"I know. Thank you."

He felt her hands move and glanced to his side to see Aeris's fingers pulling at the ribbon in her hair and clutching at the tiny cargo within. The braid collapsed into waves of auburn hair that flowed over her shoulders. The flower girl brought both hands down to her lap, and laid the ribbon flat across her legs. She lifted the small sphere of materia up to her eye-line and stared at it. Cloud couldn't help but look too. It was so unusual to see materia like that. Once he might have entertained the notion that the memento was nothing more than a tinted marble. But by now he had seen his partner in combat so many times, seen her use magic to devastating effectiveness. Aeris knew how to use materia and how to use magic. She would know if what she held was not a crystallized fragment of the Lifestream. She stared at it for a moment and then dropped her hand with a sigh.

"I still can't get it to do anything," she said, a not of frustration in her voice.

"Can... can I try?" he asked almost before he knew what he was saying. He'd never dare ask before; Aeris always took great care to stow the materia somewhere safe before any of their clinches. Ever since she first mentioned her useless materia, he had wondered what it might feel like.

She turned and regarded him for a long moment before lifting her hand up. "Sure."

She kept her hand cupped and his fingers brushed her palm, feeling the warmth of her skin. He felt the almost chime like sensation as his fingers made contact with the sphere. He expected to gain a sense of greater knowledge that he might use though he knew it would vanish as soon as he let go of the materia. But there was nothing here. No spells now hung on the tip of his tongue, no motions of his hands, or mental processes came to mind as if he had always known how to achieve magic.

There was nothing within the sphere. He gripped it a little tighter, searching through his mind for a hint, an overlooked idea he hadn't known before. He did not want this sole memento of her mother to be something so frustrating and almost useful. To feel in every-way like a materia and yet contain nothing.

Perhaps this was a by-product of the crystallization process. Maybe Shinra produced thousands of similar dead spheres alongside the manufactured spell materia. They were useless and so destroyed or discarded. Somehow this one had found its way to Aeris's mother. And in the absence of knowing this detail it had seemed like it was lacking someone skilled enough to trigger the spell within. No. He did not want to believe that either. It seemed implausible that the mother of the Ancient could have made such a fundamental mistake. Nor that there could be these discards that he had never run across to date.

He handed the sphere back to her with a shake of his head. "No, I can't get anything out of it either."

Aeris nodded, cradling the materia in her hands. "I thought maybe it's not a powerful spell and that's why it's so small. And maybe the reason it never did anything before was because of Midgar. But I keep trying it everywhere we go. I figure if it didn't work in Cosmo Canyon there's not a lot of hope of it working here. I just wanted to try."

Cloud smiled. "It might have worked. I hope we figure it out one day."

"I hope so too. I also wondered if it's something like I'm not strong enough. Hojo..." She trailed off. "Hojo said something about me not being as strong. If I was like my mother, might I be able to use it?"

The former SOLDIER replied with a sense of urgency, unwilling to give any credit to the sinister scientist. "The last thing either of us should worry about is something Hojo said," Cloud replied. Even the mention of the man's name sent a chill down his back. "It's obvious that it is materia, it just doesn't seem to contain a specific spell."

Aeris hummed to herself, her gaze flitting around the campsite and settled on a small group of flowers. "Do you know much about the flowers around here?"

Cloud followed her gaze, wondering at the abrupt subject change. "Some, but I'm no expert."

She smiled. "I've been thinking about my garden back home, well, both of them. I thought how great it would be to have picked up seeds from all the places we visited."

"And add them to your gardens?"

"Mmm. Well, if I ever can go back there without Shinra grabbing me. I just wish I'd thought of it earlier and I could have been picking up seeds as we went. Even some of the swamp growths would have been fun to get growing. And the flowers in the woods where we met Yuffie, and that field just outside Costa del Sol-"

"Don't forget the cactii in Cosmo Canyon," Cloud added, his mind recalling their previous stops.

"Yes!" Aeris's voice rose in volume, her eyes wide. "Now those would be a challenge. I'd never seen anything like them before. Well, I suppose you could say that about so many things. Thanks to meeting you I've seen so much more of the world. I'm not convinced I could have gotten out of the city before."

"Well, you're out now and miles from Midgar."

She smiled. "Hey, Cloud? It feels kind of selfish and a bit crazy given who we're chasing, but I hope we wind up following Sephiroth all over the world. Just so I can see it all. Even if it's just this one time."

Cloud contemplated her words for a few moments before replying. "That is a little crazy. But I can understand why you'd think it. Though there's no reason we can't continue around the world after we've dealt with. And we can always go back to the places you missed later. Why not start collecting the seeds here for your garden?"

"I like the way you think, Mister Strife."

He smirked. "Happy to be of service Miss Gainsborough."

"So what is that flower over there?" she asked pointing.

Cloud squinted at the flower. "If I remember right it's called 'Glory-of-Nibelheim'. It forms its blossoms in the season before winter so its ready to bloom as soon as the snow recedes. Tough plant."

"I've never seen snow," Aeris remarked still staring at the flower.

"Unfortunately, or maybe not, it's the wrong time of year for snow around here. In mid-winter we used to get heavy snow; getting in or out of the town was a real chore. We should be at least a month or two off the first snowfalls."

"It would have been nice to see. Maybe if we wind up heading further North..."

She trailed off and Cloud was becoming ever conscious of the warm form pressed against him. Her presence was calming and restful. He listened to the faint sound of her breathing, just about audible over the crackling and snapping of the fire. The tune caught him off-guard at first, and he felt foolish when it took him a few moments to realize Aeris was singing.

He didn't recognize the lyrics or the tune, but there was something familiar about it. He listened as she sang in a tongue completely unknown to him and found his eyelids becoming heavy. The song was haunting, beautiful but somehow sad as well. When she finished his tongue tripped over itself as he rushed to compliment her.

"T-that was..."

She smiled, tinged with sadness. "A lullaby my mother used to sing on nights when I couldn't get to sleep. I thought maybe it might help you a little? Normal conversation wasn't exactly making you nod off."

A wave of exhaustion washed through Cloud and he forced his eyes open. He nodded, growing distracted. Had that been magic just then? He stifled a yawn.

"I'll take that as a yes," the flower girl replied. "Come on Cloud. You can't sleep out here."

He grumbled, but let her tug him to his feet and direct him towards his tent. She stopped him just outside to press her lips to his. "Sleep well tonight, and don't forget. I'm here for you."

He smiled, head full of fuzz as sleep started tugging him down. The ground would be comfortable, right? A hand on his back pushed him forwards and he pushed the tent flap open and crawled to his sleeping mat. The sound of Barret's machine-gun like snore sounded distant and unimportant. Without another thought he slipped into deep, dreamless sleep.



Aeris
Aeris had become trapped in darkness. She could not move, could not breath. The last Cetra had sunk deep inside the Planet, away from the surface, away from precious air. Here in this darkened prison not even the Lifestream could comfort her. The Planet avoided this place, ensuring its lifeblood twisted and coiled away from the location. She wanted to cry out, to call for help. Someone, anyone that could help her. But there was nothing but mile after mile of solid rock between her and the surface.

Her eyes blinked open and she sucked in stale air, pushing herself up into a sitting position as her breathing calmed. Her body relaxed as the vestiges of the dream departed, her senses adjusting to wakefulness. She could hear the whistling winds that whipped through the mountain chain behind them. Her nightmares began after they left Nibelheim and decreased in intensity as they moved down the mountain. It had now been three days since Cloud had stared at the perfect replica of his town in bewildered confusion. Three days since Cait Sith doubted Cloud's story, despite Tifa's ability to corroborate events.

There remained alarming questions. As much as the two Nibelheim residents could confirm this was the town they had seen destroyed, the sight of it unnerved them both. It was a perfect carbon copy of a lost town rather than a five-year older version of their home. No new buildings, no modifications, no signs of any kind of technological advancement. Nibelheim had been remote and slow to receive advances, but this settlement was anachronistic.

The town's unchanging nature did not extend to its inhabitants - not one member of the town recognised either Cloud or Tifa. They in turn recognized no one residing there. Defensive strangers lived in both their homes; both were single and yet lived in houses designed for families. Neither was willing to entertain talk of a fire in recent history. Despite nothing aging in five years, every single former resident was gone.

They found fragments of an explanation later, learning the lengths the Shinra company had gone to. How much effort they would exhaust to hide the fate of the mighty Sephiroth. Despite the sheer scale of the subterfuge there were two structures older than everything else. Both seemed undamaged by those tumultuous events; the Shinra mansion and the Mako reactor. Despite freeing Vincent from within the depths of the mansion, Aeris wished they had not entered the building. It was in the laboratory below the building where Cloud had once seen all semblance of sanity slip from Sephiroth's eyes. The place the silver-haired man had found his murderous purpose in life and lashed out at the townsfolk.

Two human sized containers of bubbling Mako drew Cloud's gaze in a way that seemed to both terrify and confuse him. Medical equipment littered the lab, and there was the unmistakable smell of old blood in the air. Something monstrous had once happened here, something that Vincent knew more of but refused to speak.

"Being here brings back memories, doesn't it? Are you going to take part in our Reunion?"

The voice had come from around a turn in the lab. A man with silver hair stopped perusing a nearby shelf and turned to face them. Sephiroth. He stood, immobile as they scrambled for weapons until Cloud held up a hand to halt the activity. He took a step forward.

"Reunion?" the swordsman asked.

"Yes. Jenova will be there. We will reunite with her and once more she will become the calamity from the skies."

"Is... Are you saying Jenova is from another world?"

Sephiroth stared at the former SOLDIER with hooded eyes. "I am not sure if you have the right to take part. I will go North, past Mount Nibel; if you wish to try and join with us, you should follow."

Cloud's fingers darted to his sword, but it was too late; Sephiroth was already in motion. He moved upwards with an eerie silent motion through the wooden ceiling of the lab leaving no trace that he had ever been there. In the seconds that followed, Aeris noticed Tifa's panicked breathing. She caught the martial artist's hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. They needed to get out of the town. It was now imperative; this bastard replica of what had once been their home was doing neither of the former residents any good.

Aeris took charge, eager to be out from under the ground. Even at the top of the spiraling staircase leading down into the cavernous depths of the ground was not far enough away. Aeris felt strangled in the dust and more or less innocent gloom of the manor. She needed to get out. She needed to get Cloud and Tifa out. She couldn't rest until they were out of the mansion grounds, pausing only as Vincent stumbled in the afternoon sun. The former Turk held one clawed hand up to keep the sun's rays from his face. He admitted he had not seen the sun in something approaching thirty years.

There was only the briefest debate about what to do next; anywhere else they would have made use of the town's inn. In the aftermath of the mansion there was a shared uneasiness about the place, a need to get away. The ugly truth behind the replica revealed and no one felt comfortable in a place full of Shinra employees. Even as they moved North towards Mount Nibel, Aeris wondered if following Sephiroth's route could be a good idea. Did it make sense to follow the route their quarry suggested, head North and cross the mountain? But then if it were a trap, it had no skill, no subtlety about it. It was a chance they needed to take, setting out from the town in the fading afternoon light.

Later, Aeris wasn't sure if she had made the right decision as night began to fall. Freezing winds whipped across the mountain, blasting through the fabric of the tents. They made camp in a cramped fissure in the mountainside, screened off at least a little from the chill wind. Aeris could see the bright lights of the town's Mako reactor perched on the cliff-side high above them. Even after all these years it still sucked at the lifeblood of the Planet.

There was something different about the wound this reactor had carved into the ground. There was a greater pain here than she had felt near other instances of the same technology. It felt like an older wound that the reactor's damage almost eclipsed; something ancient and secret. The Planet shied away from the scarring Mako extraction caused, but this area felt empty. No matter where they had traveled before, Aeris had still been able to hear the faint whispering of the Planet. Here there was an oppressive silence that peaked outside the sealed reactor.

Tifa mentioned Nibelheim's reactor was the first ever constructed. Perhaps the difference here was a result of the duration of the Mako drain? It made some sense, and yet somehow failed to explain the emptiness here. Even with eight Mako reactors leeching at the ground in Midgar she had never experienced anything like this. The impenetrable reactor both attracted and repelled her. She feared wandering deeper into the dead zone of the Planet and yet she wanted to know what had caused this. She was almost glad of the distraction her companions offered.

Aeris was unwilling to let either of her friends suffer alone and stuck close by them by them during the day. She also offered to keep them company in the night-time hours. Cloud had been beset by nightmares before they reached this place, and it had been enough to trigger more restless nights. Tifa might seem okay, but her silence concerned the flower girl. In crossing the mountain, in following Sephiroth they had to retraced the pursuit of the madman five years ago. But what had happened in the aftermath? What happened after Cloud's memories failed, after he challenged Sephiroth in that secret chamber? Where had Cloud gone after the conflict and what had befallen Sephiroth? How had Tifa made it to Midgar? It would have made sense that Cloud was responsible, but was it plausible for him to forget that? Why would he then abandon her without a word in a strange city and then begin his mercenary career. So many questions and so few answers. Now was not the time to pry for them either.

Aeris's thoughts dwelt on the black-cloaked figures who they had encountered throughout Nibelheim. They slurred cryptic words and didn't seem cogniscent of their surroundings. It seemed far too plausible that they were something of Hojo's creation. Too many documents made reference to both human experimentation for comfort. The thought of Hojo awoke those feelings of fear she'd last experienced in Costa del Sol.

A little detail niggled at her, something the man had done on that beach. He'd dismissed her as nothing more than a sample, never bothering to learn or remember her name. She was unimportant to him and a poor substitute for her mother, whose name he remembered well enough. Hojo also knew who Cloud was. But why? Cloud was just another operative in the Shinra army not someone like Sephiroth. But the scientist knew him by name and had asked if he would be willing to be a guinea pig. Such an implication from the man was heart-stopping for her, but Cloud reacted to what should have been a toothless taunt. What could the scientist have done to him?

No, she couldn't worry about that now; her friends needed her now. Tifa needed her. Cloud needed her. Both were shell-shocked and daunted by what they had found in the town, the past rewritten to exclude them and anyone they had known. But they persevered and Aeris could see both trying to push onwards and leave their past behind them. She did her best to comfort, lending the hand of friendship to both.

Aeris listened to the wind around the tent. She could see the fire still burning and wondered if Vincent was keeping watch again. He had volunteered every other night, muttering something about having slept for long enough. To her left was the sleeping form of Tifa, head cradled on her arms. To her right, was Cloud, curled onto his side and facing towards her. Despite knowing it might wake him, Aeris stretched out her hand to stroke through Cloud's blonde spikes.

Since they had left Nibelheim, he had shied away from any physical contact. It made things difficult; he needed other people, needed to feel someone outside of himself who was there. She wanted to let him know she was there for him, but so often she found herself unable to do much but sit close to him and talk. He couldn't shy away while he was asleep at least. Her hand settled into the soft hair, stroking through the spikes, halting as two rings of mako appeared. Cloud was awake.

Despite her worries he didn't flinch or move away. Instead he smiled and she let her hand move again enjoying the first direct contact they'd had in days. His skin was so warm. Heat flushed through her, a warm, wonderful sensation settling into her stomach. She felt her own lips curl in response to Cloud's and then the temptation was there. She wanted to curl up with him right now, shut out the night-time terrors and enjoy the dark hours in the warm comfort of his arms.

The sensation was not new; she had been finding it so hard to leave him after sex and they'd been sleeping together for some time now. But it had all been part of keeping the relationship physical. She had taught him how best to touch her and in turn discovered his body. Now she was entertaining something more like a straight-forward relationship. She didn't want to sleep away from him, didn't want to get dressed again to sneak around.

She wanted to go back to the Gold Saucer and take a holiday. She wanted to try a new relationship, wanted to admit to everyone that she found him attractive and wanted to spend time with him. She hoped that he still felt the same way about her. But she could not say anything just yet. He needed comfort and time to overcome the past few days. Tifa needed similar. Now was not the time to find out if Cloud was amenable to dating and how that would change the group's dynamic. How would things be once she admitted everything? Would she be able to sleep in the same tent as Cloud, or would the existing situation stand? Would dating Cloud change how he treated her whenever they got into conflict? Would he turn into a chivalric knight, determined to rescue her from harm when she was capable of holding her own?

She worried how Cloud would react. She still needed time over this, and Cloud at least was well placed to allow her more time to think. For now she would be the comforting friend. She needed him alone and feeling better before anything else.

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