Aerith pushes the door to the church open and scans the cathedral. At first glance it seems to be empty and she almost turns back to leave, but then she spots it; a spike of gold hair camouflaged amongst the yellow flowers.
“Cloud!” She calls in an almost scolding tone. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Have you been ignoring your phone?”
The flowers shift as Cloud moves, probably searching his pockets for said phone, but then he throws a hand up in the air in a mock shrug. “Left it at home, I think,” He answers her nonchalantly.
Aerith shakes her head and steps into the church. She walks over the flowerbed and finds him lying on his back there, hands behind his head, splayed out in the sun pouring in from the hole he fell through all that time ago. She squats beside the flowers and just watches him for a moment with her arms wrapped around her knees, then reaches out and pokes his cheek. He peeks one eye open to look at her.
“You look cat napping in the sun,” She tells him.
“It’s comfortable,” He responds.
Aerith laughs quietly to herself and Cloud shuts his eye again to continue his rest. Aerith goes back to simply watching him; the sunlight looks beautiful on Cloud’s skin, reflects like spun gold in his hair. “Cloud…” Aerith says, her quiet voice echoing around the old church. “Are you feeling alright today?”
Cloud releases a long breath and opens his shining eyes to look up at the blue sky through the hole in the roof. “Yeah,” He answers in an equally quiet tone. “I’m okay.”
Aerith smiles at him, and he moves one hand from behind his head and holds it out to her in an offer. Aerith takes it and lies down beside him, curls up next to him with her head on his shoulder. “I don’t think the flowers like getting squished,” Aerith tells him.
“The flowers are fine,” Cloud responds. “They told me so.”
“Really,” Aerith asks in a teasingly disbelieving tone. “The flowers told you that?”
Cloud sits up halfway and turns so he’s hovering over her, so close their noses are almost touching. “Yep,” He says with the smallest of smiles on his lips. “They did.”
Then he leans down and kisses her. Aerith laughs against his lips, holds his face in her hands and revels in the feeling of his weight over her. She sighs when he pulls back eventually, and he flops back down next to her. She cuddles up close, rests her head on his chest as his arm wraps around her shoulders.
It’s been a few years now since their journey ended. There were many casualties along the way to stopping Sephiroth, but by working together, they were able to fight their fate and create a new future. Aerith thinks it’s a bit selfish to feel this way, but it’s times like this that make it all seem worth it. Destroying their own destinies and facing the tribulations that stood before them, it was all worth it just for these small moments—for this life—with Cloud.
It all feels perfect. Except…
Aerith turns her head to hide half of her face in Cloud’s chest like it will protect her from her own thoughts. “Shouldn’t you be working with Tifa?” She asks quietly.
“No deliveries today,” Cloud tells her. “She let me off the hook.”
“Then…” Aerith puts her hand on Cloud’s chest and lifts herself a bit to look down at him. “Do you want to help me instead?”
Cloud opens his eyes to regard her. “With what?”
“I have some flower deliveries,” Aerith says. “And I promised I’d help out at the Leaf House later so Ms. Folia can have the evening off.”
“That was nice of you,” Cloud says.
“Nah, she deserves it,” Aerith says while shaking her head. “And I do love spending time with the kids. And I know they love spending time with you too! So, what do you say?”
Cloud shrugs and nods. “Sure, why not.” Then, quieter, “I have some moves I could teach some of them… Denzel had asked me about something, too...”
“Cloud!” Aerith says with a soft slap to his chest. “No teaching the kids sword moves!”
“I’m only teaching them how to protect themselves,” He says. He lightly pinches her waist in a way that makes her squeal. “Do we have to go soon?”
Aerith shakes her head. “We have a bit of time.”
“‘Kay.” Cloud puts his hand on her head and pushes her back down so she’s lying against him again. “Then let’s just rest here a little more. I don’t wanna move yet.”
Aerith laughs softly and nods against him. They lie like that for about ten minutes, and Aerith feels like she could meditate to the sound of Cloud’s heartbeat and the rhythm of his slow, even breaths. She taps her fingers against Cloud’s chest in time with his heart and feels her own breath line up with his without meaning to.
She gives them five more minutes. “Should we get going, Cloud?” She asks into the quietness of the church.
Cloud doesn’t answer, and despite having been listening to his heartbeat the whole time, Aerith sits up in fear to look down at him. He’s just sleeping though, his lips slightly parted and his face relaxed in a way that makes him look young, like he didn’t once have the weight of the world resting on his shoulders. Aerith breathes out a sigh of relief.
“Cloud…?” She asks as she pats his chest to wake him.
Cloud stirs and when he opens his eyes, the mako glow of his eyes shines brighter than usual. When he blinks, his eyes return to their usual luster, and Aerith has to wonder if she only imagined it. “Huh? What?” He asks groggily.
“You fell asleep,” Aerith says with a small smile that feels weak around the edges.
“Oh.” Cloud rubs one of his eyes and shakes his head. “Guess I was more tired than I thought.”
He waits thirty more seconds before finally sitting up with a groan. Aerith frowns at him and puts a hand on his shoulder. “If you feel too tired, you can stay here,” She tells him. “Or rest at home. I’ll pick up dinner for the two of us on my way back from the House.”
Cloud shakes his head and stands. “Nope. I’m fine.” He offers her his hand to help her stand and she takes it. He pulls her up, pats away some of the flower petals stuck to her dress, then turns to walk over to the gear he has sitting nearby.
He gets three steps away from the flowerbed when he doubles over—his shoulders hunch and he grabs his left arm with a pained noise. He takes stumbling steps like he is about to fall over.
“Cloud!” Aerith cries as she runs over to him. She puts her arms around him to keep him upright and he leans heavily on her. “Cloud! Cloud, are you okay? Can you hear me?”
“Ugh… Ah, ngh…” He just groans in pain, his eyes twisted shut and his jaw clenched.
“Come on, this way,” Aerith leads Cloud towards one of the pews and sits him down. She puts a hand over his chest and feels magic flow through her fingertips, a green glow settling over and sinking into his chest. It won’t help long term, but it can at least offer some reprieve.
Accelerated cellular degradation.
That’s what Cloud had told her. A side effect of joining SOLDIER, of the mako and Jenova cells that they were subjected to. Of course, Cloud hadn’t actually joined SOLDIER, he had no choice in the matter when Hojo decided to experiment on him. Still, the effects did not discriminate—Cloud’s body would suffer the same consequences as any other SOLDIER.
To almost anyone else, Cloud probably still seems perfectly healthy. He can still fight, can still run his delivery business with Tifa, can still do everything he needs to do. But Aerith spends everyday with him, and she sees the effects growing. He may be fine most of the time now, but she can see the way his own body is beginning to fight against him, and she knows it is only a short matter of time until things turn towards the worst.
Cloud slumps against her as the green glow of the planet fades away. It takes him a moment, but he eventually sits up from her and puts a hand to his head, which hangs forward. He lifts his eyes to glance at her, and she can’t be sure what her eyes are saying, but it has him looking away from her again almost immediately.
“Don’t look at me like that,” He murmurs quietly.
“Cloud…” Aerith whispers while leaning towards him.
“I’m okay,” He says. He puts a hand to his chest. “And… Thanks.”
“Cloud, let’s go home,” She says. “I’ll call the Leaf House, they’ll understand if I don’t—”
Cloud shakes his head. “No, we made a promise, didn’t we?”
“You didn’t…” Aerith begins, but Cloud stands.
“I made a promise to you,” He says. His back faces her for a moment, and then he turns, lets her in, and holds a hand out to her. “I’m okay now. Really.”
Aerith takes his hand and lets him pull her up and close to him. He puts his other hand against the back of her neck. “I don’t want you to overwork yourself,” Aerith says softly into the space between them.
“I’m not,” Cloud tells her. “I napped all afternoon.”
“But…” Aerith says. Cloud cuts her off with a kiss. She kisses him back—she can’t stop herself—but pouts at him when he pulls back. “Cloud…”
“We need to embrace this moment. Right?” Cloud asks.
Aerith can’t help but smile and nod. “That’s right.” She wraps her arms around him just to feel him.
“Then let's go embrace it,” Cloud says. He leans forward and kisses her forehead gently and whispers against her skin, “I still got a lot of time left.”
He steps back, away from her touch, and goes over to his things. Aerith watches him, her heart twisting in her chest.
She doesn’t know how much time they have left, and that was what terrified her the most. Witnessing Cloud’s decline makes her fear for the day he would one day succumb, and for the bleak future she would have to endure without him by her side.
And she knows what death entails. She knows that he will return to the planet, that he’ll always be by her side, waiting until she eventually joins him there. But… Even knowing that, the pain in her heart won’t subside. He is slowly dying, and there is nothing she can do to stop it.
Still, she knows she has to be strong. For him. She knows he sees her worry, knows how her own concerns eat away at him. She won’t make things any worse for him, so she resolves herself to instead be the support he can lean on. If that is the only thing she can do to help him, then she'll put aside her own pain and do it.
She walks over to him as he finishes getting ready. His sword is at his back again, his goggles sitting over his forehead for the bike ride they’ll take shortly. “Ready to mosey?” He asks her.
Aerith offers a weary smile and nods. “Sure. Let’s go.”
Cloud nods at her and takes her hand in his, a comfortable, familiar warmth, and then leads her out the church doors and into the bright sunlight.