Cloud’s alarm clock told him it was 1am when he was roused from sleep by his phone going off repeatedly. He cursed himself for forgetting to silence the thing—but who would be calling at this hour anyway? Whoever they were, they were persistent. Even after ignoring it for five whole minutes, it kept ringing.
He lurched to his bedside table and snapped it open before checking the caller ID. “What?” he hissed furiously into the receiver.
“Finally, you picked up!” it was Yuffie. Of course. She was twenty-one now, and still didn’t need to go to bed at a decent hour like her now-older party members.
Cloud willed himself not to be rude to the younger woman. He had learned to be more considerate of people’s feelings over the last few years, but he was in a sour mood as it was since his last and final breakup with Tifa the week prior. “It’s one in the morning,” he said after a few deep breaths. “On a Tuesday.”
“I know what day of the week it is, you jerk,” Yuffie replied. “I need you to come down to Seventh Heaven.”
For the love of Holy.
“Why would I do that?” he asked. Following their break-up, Tifa had packed up all of her belongings and disappeared without telling him where she went. He had to hear from Cid that she took the Highwind for a vacation to Costa Del Sol and didn’t say when she would be returning. Even so, Seventh Heaven was the last place he wanted to be.
“Aerith is here,” Yuffie said.
“What?” What was Aerith doing at Seventh Heaven?
“She’s shitfaced,” Yuffie told him. “You should come and get her. I’m a little concerned.”
If Aerith was a handful under normal circumstances, she was a roller coaster when she drank too much. Which was probably why she didn’t do it often. It was even stranger to find out she was at Seventh Heaven getting loaded on a weeknight. She’d opened her own flower shop called Language of the Flowers a few years back in sector 5 and being an avid gardener made her a habitually early riser.
Cloud sighed. He had early morning deliveries to make in Kalm. Not to mention, Aerith was the only one of their friends who hadn’t called to “talk over” his break-up with Tifa, and in a way he was happy about it. They’d broken up and gotten back together several times and it was a wonder everyone else wasn’t sick of it. Besides that, they all knew damn well he didn’t want to talk about it.
"Is she alright?” he asked.
“More or less,” Yuffie replied. “But I’d rather she didn’t go home alone. She’s making a lot of new friends.”
The crowd at Seventh Heaven could get rough, but it wasn’t as though Aerith couldn’t handle any losers that tried to follow her home. So why was he dragging himself out of bed and reaching for his clothes?
“Stay there until I arrive,” he told Yuffie before hanging up. He finished dressing in his standard dark garb and strapped on his wolf’s head harness for his swords. It was a short walk to the bar from his apartment, but he got on Fenrir anyway. It would be faster to take Aerith home that way.
When he arrived at the bar, Yuffie was waiting for him at the front by herself, her hands on her hips and a shit eating grin on her face. Like most of them, her appearance had changed with time. Her hair wasn’t as short, but still only just went past her chin. Her sharuken was nowhere to be found, but the throwing knives strapped to her thighs sent the message that she wasn’t to be trifled with.
Cloud took one of the smaller swords from Fenrir and strapped it to his hip before walking up the steps. “Where’s Aerith?” he asked her. “If this is another one of your pranks I might kill you.” It wouldn’t be the first time.
“Its not a prank, dickweed,” she told him. “But Aerith’s got loose lips tonight. How come no one ever told me she got you to cross dress? I’d have paid to see that.”
Cloud ignored that comment and stomped past her. “After you, Ms. Cloud,” she called out to him before he shut the door to the bar in her face. What else was Aerith gabbing about? He looked around and spotted her immediately. The bar wasn’t crowded—in fact it was just her and a group of older men by the dart board. Costa Del Sol’s trademarked resort music was playing on the jukebox. Aerith stood next to it while they all seemed to be competing for something—he could see the scoreboard with their names on it.
Seeing Aerith brought a fullness to his chest. He hadn’t seen her since before the break-up, and she looked as beautiful as she always did. Her hair was down and not as long as it had been when he first met her. Before it had gone past her waist, now it only reached the middle of her back. She’d kept it that way since Sephiroth had almost murdered her. Cloud had pulled her out of the way just in time—but not far enough to stop masumane from slicing off the end of her braid just as her pink ribbon fell down into the City of the Ancient’s tide pool with the activated White Materia.
It was a powerful memory even now. She’d told him later that she never put her hair back in her braid because keeping it down reminded her that someone had come for her—that he had come for her. He’d made the mistake of telling Tifa that story and it had led to the first of their many break-ups.
One of the men playing darts stood up for his turn and began throwing to shouts and jeers. “I’ll have that date with you yet Aerith!” he roared. Date? Cloud looked at Aerith. She wore the same thing she always did these days. The same leather cord tied with a flower ornament around her neck, but with a cropped denim jacket and a cream lace button up blouse neatly tucked into a knee length pink skirt. Her cheeks were flushed and her green eyes were slightly unfocused.
She finally seemed to notice Cloud when he walked up to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “Well, well well!” she said, beaming up at him with a mischievous grin. “Cloud Strife. I smell liquor on my breath. Are you drunk?”
The men behind them roared with laughter. Cloud squeezed her shoulder. “Aerith, are you really letting these losers play darts for a date with you?”
“What?” she said incredulously. “Who said that?”
“Come on Aerith, baby, I’m in the lead!” one of the patrons said behind her. “Papa bear’s gonna bring it home, and then I’ll take you out to the sand dunes around sector seven on my four wheeler.”
“Oh, that does sound like fun,” Aerith said, touching her chin thoughtfully as she swayed slightly in her spot. The dart players whooped at that and she picked up whatever fruity cocktail she was drinking and sucked on it through a straw, peering up at him innocently through long, thick eyelashes.
Cloud shook his head and took her drink from her, setting it down out of her reach. “Come on, I’m taking you home.”
The men booed at that. “Says who, fairy boy?” one of them asked him. Cloud clenched his teeth and resisted the urge to menacingly grip the handle of his sword.
Aerith scoffed at him. “Why, ‘cause you’re my bodyguard? Well, I’m not interested in your services, Cloud. These gentlemen want to take me to the sand dunes. If you want a date with me you have to play darts for it like anyone else.”
The dart players cheered again. “Hey Aerith, is this the dickhead who cross dressed for you?” one of them asked. “What color was your dress, lady-boy?”
“It was blue, with a corset,” Aerith giggled. “He looked so cute.”
Cloud’s situation worsened when Yuffie reappeared, apparently finished with whatever it was she’d been doing outside. “Hey Ms. Cloud,” she said. “If you want I can talk to your ex about starting a drag show here once a month. You could moonlight as Clara Strife and tuck your Buster sword.”
The dart players howled at that comment, several of them laughing so hard they spilled their drinks. Cloud didn’t envy whatever pitiable barmaid Tifa had on staff that night. “So as it turns out,” he said loudly. “Aerith has withdrawn from the running for the darts for a date game. You fellas are going to be playing for a date with Yuffie instead.” With that, he put his arm around Aerith’s waist, lifted her from the ground and threw her over his shoulder.
Aerith squealed and wriggled in his grip. “Put me down, Cloud!” Her ass was next to his face and he tried not to let that fact cause his head to swim as he stomped out of the bar to jeers from the dart players and promises of revenge from the Ninja.
Outside, he tried to be careful as he plopped Aerith onto the back of his motorcycle. She folder her arms and scowled at him. “I was having fun, Cloud. Why do you have to act like you have one of your swords stuck up your ass?”
“I think there have been enough innuendos about my sword for one evening,” Cloud replied as he sat in front of her on Fenrir and started the engine. As he accelerated, he relished in the feeling of Aerith wrapping her arms around his waist.
Things had been difficult with Tifa for some time. He loved her and probably always would, but they were both horrible at communicating and simply weren’t meant for one another. She had felt, and he would be remiss if he didn’t agree with her—that one reason for that was currently holding onto him as they rode towards sector 6 on his motorcycle.
Cloud had been a mess when he met Aerith, but even after he regained his memories and they stopped meteor, the connection he felt with her was undeniable. He’d wanted a chance to pursue that connection, but Zack had reappeared in their lives. And what didn’t he owe Zack Fair? His life, his sword, his legacy—all of which he’d failed miserably to live up to.
What right did he have to Zack’s girl? So he’d tried to settle down with Tifa. He’d always assumed Aerith would get back together with Zack and for a while it had seemed that way. He helped her get the Language of the Flowers started and they both worked with Reeve and Red XIII to use her Cetra abilities to find alternative sources of energy that might someday replace mako.
But she’d told him a couple of years ago that she had stopped loving Zack before he came back, that she’d moved on. Even so, she was grateful for his help and for the positive influence he’d had on her life when she was younger. “I don’t hear the planet screaming as much anymore when I sleep,” she’d told him, green eyes filled with the melancholy that brought a powerful ache to his heart.
It had been around that time that his worsening relationship with Tifa went even farther south.
Aerith interrupted his thoughts by squeezing his waist. “Cloud, take me to Evergreen Park,” she shouted over the wind.
“No, I’m taking you home,” he said behind his shoulder.
“Take me to the park or I’ll jump off of your shitty motorcycle,” she demanded childishly.
As usual, he found it impossible to deny her. Grumbling, he turned his motorcycle towards the park, but couldn’t help but feel his insides purr as he thought about the first time they’d gone there together. The first time anyone had looked at him without fear since…
They arrived and he shifted Fenrir’s gears and parked it next to the playground. Aerith immediately clambered off and started towards the slide where they had sat together all those years ago, staggering slightly.
“How many of those cocktails did you have, anyway?” Cloud asked her as he also got off his bike.
“Three,” she told him. “Or five…seven. I don’t know. I was hoping I’d see Tifa.” She started to climb the slide and Cloud walked next to it, but didn’t follow. He was worried about how much she was swaying, but her comment made him pause.
“Why?” he couldn’t help but ask.
She climbed to the top and stood, her hands on her hips, peering down at him. “Why not? I’m her best friend. No one bothered to tell me you guys broke up again until Yuffie said something earlier, and she then she told me Tifa was gone. I bet it’s because of the time she and I slept together the first time you were broken up.”
“What?” Cloud asked, flabbergasted.
“What?” Aerith replied, feigning innocence.
Cloud sighed. What did it matter anyway? “Forget it.”
“How could I?” Aerith asked. “It was wild. But I’m not much of a breast man.”
“You don’t have to fill me in on the details,” Cloud replied. He didn’t know why he didn’t feel more uncomfortable about the revelation.
“There’s no point, is there? Yuffie told me about how she cheated on you. Word on the street is, she isn’t in Costa Del Sol alone. So I guess we’re both losers. Not that we don’t deserve it.”
Cloud shook his head. Yuffie hadn’t been kidding when she said Aerith had loose lips. “You should come down from there. You’re loaded and it isn’t safe.”
Aerith pulled her phone out of her pocket. “I’m Cloud,” she said, deepening her voice in a mocking fashion. “I’m very concerned about the safety of the women in my life, whom I enjoy confusing and flabbergasting on a regular basis.”
“That’s funny,” Cloud said dryly. Aerith aimed her phone at herself and he groaned inwardly. He’d been on the receiving end of her drunk video messages more than once. He’d not soon forget the one she’d sent where she filmed herself being chased by chimeras.
“I want to record myself up here. It’s one of the places where I’ve been the happiest.”
“With who?” Cloud found himself asking. He wanted to know. Was she talking about Zack, or—
Aerith shrieked as the top of the slide caved in suddenly and she crashed through to the inside of the structure. “Aerith!” Cloud roared. Why on earth had he let her climb up on the blasted thing? It was so old and dilapidated; someone was bound to fall through it eventually.
Dust clouds floated around him as he got to his knees and moved towards the opening, where Aerith lay in a small pile of debri. “Aerith, are you ok?”
She coughed and sat up. “Yeah," she said, smiling--as though nothing of any real significance had just happened. Amazingly enough, she didn’t seem to even have a scrape or bruise. “Shame there weren’t any flowers to break my fall.”
She took the had he offered to help her up and he sighed and shook his head. “Its been five years, and you're still the weirdest girl I've ever met.”
She smiled coyly and dusted her skirt off. “That a compliment?”
“Not really,” he replied, unable to keep the small smile from forming on his face.
She giggled, clearly still drunk. “Oh, you. All right, I’ll let you take me home, Clara.”
They got back on Fenrir and this time when she put her arms around his waist, she rested her head on his shoulder too. “You might owe someone property damage for destroying that slide,” he told her behind his shoulder, trying to distract himself from the fact that her soft body was curled around is back.
“Who? Does anyone even own that park?” she called back.
A fair point. Mercifully, they arrived at the Gainsborough residence a few moments later. Cloud parked Fenrir far out of the flower field, since there wasn’t enough space in any of the walkways for the bike to fit. Figuring he’d walk her to her door, he got up and offered her his arm.
Aerith still sat on his motorcycle, staring up at him, her eyes somewhat unfocused. “I don’t want to go in yet,” she told him.
“Isn’t Elmyra asleep?” He hoped she was. Even after all these years, she still didn’t seem to trust him around her foster daughter and it made him nervous.
“Yeah she is, its just… I can’t get up.”
Cloud sighed. “Come on, yes you can.”
“No, I mean it,” Aerith shook her head. “The ground is moving. I need a ride.”
“I just gave you a ride.”
Aerith smiled up at him mischievously. “Now I need a ride on your back.”
“You’re killing me,” Cloud groaned. But nonetheless he found himself taking her arms and hoisting her on his back. She wrapped her legs around his waist as he held onto her thighs. He could feel smooth skin through the sheer fabric of her skirt and was thankful he hadn’t worn his gloves.
He didn’t want her to go inside yet either.
“Where to?” he asked.
She put her chin on his shoulder and the tips of her hair tickled his cheek. “Take me up to where you had the dream.”
Cloud hoped she didn’t feel his cheeks get warm. He’d told her a long time ago about how he’d had a dream with her in it before they rescued her from Hojo’s lab. He’d never told her exactly what she’d said to him, though.
He carried her on piggyback up the slope of one of the flower fields and let her down gently next to the street lamp she’d stood next to back then, with the lifestream shining above them.
Everyone dies eventually.
“Cloud,” she turned to look up at him, the two of them only a few feet apart, the cloudy sky reflected in her green eyes. “Do you remember what you said to me when you saved me from Sephiroth?”
A lump formed in his throat. “That I would never let you go.”
You can’t fall in love with me.
He could have lost her that day. The thought made his heart stop. What a desolate world, without Aerith in it. He did what she’d done to him all those years ago in his dreams. He brushed chestnut hair out of her eyes and put his hand on her cheek. “I won’t let you go.”
She leaned her face into his palm and he felt all of the tension leave his body and his muscles loosen—the way they always did in her presence. “No one makes me feel as safe as Cloud, or as cherished,” she said quietly.
“I know what you mean,” Cloud said. “You’re the only one who eases my nightmares.”
Aerith put both hands around his wrist and kissed his palm. “Let me ease them now,” she said quietly.
He’d imagined what it would be like to kiss her for years. He’d even imagined kissing her at this very spot. Nothing could have prepared him for the real thing. Her hands tangled in his hair and she tasted like whiskey and apples and whatever else had been in those fruity cocktails. He could smell her flower shampoo, could feel how soft and insistent her lips were.
His head swam. He gripped her waist and felt his pants tighten with arousal. “Aerith,” he mumbled against her mouth. He had to stop her but Holy help him he didn’t want to.
“Shhhhhh,” she purred. She stepped away from him and for a moment stood she stood in the moonlight, looking unfairly beautiful and ethereal, before she started to unbutton her blouse. Cloud could feel his willpower crumbling away bit by bit as lacy fabric gave way to a silky floral-patterned bra.
She took his hands and whispered, “touch me,” before placing them on her breasts. Cloud gulped in a lung full of air, willing his hands not to tear off all of her clothes as he felt the flushed, impossibly soft skin beneath his palms. He had to pull his hands away. He had to. Just one more minute and he would pull them off.
“Aerith,” he managed to say at last. He laced her hands in his and pulled them to his mouth, hoping she couldn’t feel how much hands were shaking, unable to stop himself from kissing her knuckles. “Don’t ask me to do this. I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop.”
“That’s the idea,” Aerith said coyly. “No need to be gentle.”
Cloud breathed in deeply, trying to calm himself before he cracked. He had to find the right words. His entire world depended on him not fucking this up. “Aerith, I love you,” he told her. “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone. I want to be with you… the right way.”
Deep breaths, Strife. To his relief, Aerith’s eyes softened. “Oh Cloud, I love you too.”
“Good,” he said foolishly. No one would ever accuse him of being good with words, but at least Aerith always seemed to know what he meant. He had to get her to button her blouse back up. He was certain that if Elmyra saw them like this she’d chop off his balls and feed them to the chocobos.
His hands still fumbled and shook as he helped her button her shirt and she giggled. “Such a gentlemen. But not tomorrow night. You won’t be a gentlemen then.”
"If you want to,” Cloud said, sucking in air through his teeth. He wanted to throw her to the ground and have his way with her right there in the flower beds. Instead, he brushed her hair out of her eyes again and let her hold onto his arm as he took her to her door.
She kissed him again, only lightly brushing her mouth against his before winking and disappearing behind the front double doors.
Only on his way back to sector 7 did it occur to him that she might not remember anything that happened when she woke up. His heart sunk at the thought, and when he got back to his apartment he tossed and turned for the few remaining hours he had until he had to get up and complete his deliveries.
He managed to sleep fitfully for a half an hour or so before getting up again at his usual time, and when he did he couldn’t stop himself from opening his phone and sending a text to Aerith. Do you remember everything?
It wasn’t long before he got his reply. Yes. I meant every word.
He felt himself sigh with relief as another text from her came through. My hero.
Cloud thought of all the things they would do and accomplish together as he sent his reply. Never a dull moment with you.