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Cloud understood now, the kind of life he’d been living. Cold and grey, stark and unfeeling, a blur like the never-ending black halls of Shinra HQ. It was the kind of life where you had to keep your distance from reality in case you realized how empty it was.

 

Barret, too, he understood better now. The man’s passion about the planet. His undaunted conviction that he could hear the planet’s cries. After the plate had dropped, the way the man had lumbered towards the hope of Marlene, frantic to the bone. A man that wore his heart on his sleeve, that made every moment count.

 

Before, Cloud couldn’t have understood it. Contrary to popular belief, he had feelings. He knew the sting of disappointed hopes, the pangs of being ostracized, the hunger for something better. He was human, despite the glow of his eyes. But he had never felt the unbearable burn of desperation before. Of having something that was ripped away from you. Of wanting—needing—something that was just out of reach. It was as visceral as a blow to the chest, stealing his breath from his lungs.

 

When he saw Aerith’s face, panicked and sooty, on screen before the plate drop, he felt it. And again, when he stood in her house with Barret and Tifa and Elmyra and still felt alone because she wasn’t there. By the time he awoke from his dream, that dream where Aerith had warned him not to fall in love with her—he knew it. Knew it like he knew his name. Knew it like the weight of his buster sword.

 

Now he understood.

 

It surprised him, of course. He had only known her for two days. It didn’t make sense. And yet throughout those two days, he had had the strangest sense of déjà vu. Like he’d spent a lifetime with her. He was no romantic—never had been, never had much opportunity to be—but there was no mistaking the feeling.

 

And now, sitting across the campfire from her, he realized that the decision to go after her had never been a decision at all.

 

Aerith’s green eyes were radiant in the flickering flames. They were all sunburned, sweaty and sore from the journey—but she managed to still exude serenity. They were two-thirds of the way to Kalm, camped at the base of the cliffs overlooking the churning ocean. They had found a sheltered alcove that shielded them from any watchful eyes that might still be following them from Midgar. They had had to ditch the truck and bike after the gasoline ran out. Crossing the plains on foot had been grueling between the sun exposure and the lack of supplies—they hadn’t exactly been planning a multi-day journey when they had set out to Shinra HQ, after all—but with Kalm only a day away, the group seemed to rally.

 

Of course, it helped that the camp site was breath-taking. The jutting rock of the cliff soared above him, glowing red in the blazing sunset. It was hot but the ocean winds were a constant relief, as was the soothing churn of the waves beating against the rocky beach.

 

On the first night after their escape from Midgar, making camp had been utter chaos—too much adrenaline from the fight, too much to process, too little time to rest. Even Cloud, used to dozing while standing even, had trouble sleeping that first night. Now they were much more organized. Red XIII hunted for food, Tifa and Barret set up the fire and shelter, and Aerith foraged. Meanwhile, Cloud had become the unspoken leader and assisted where he was needed. Most times, he ended up scouting ahead for the next day’s journey or ensuring they had an escape route if they were raided during the night. And yet…as smooth as it had become, something gnawed at him.

 

Aerith was avoiding him.

 

It was subtle, the way she made sure she was never alone with him, and all too easy with the way the others seemed to gravitate towards her. A part of him understood it—their worlds had been rocked by the battle with Sephiroth and the Whispers—hers more than anyone else. But it made him restless. He wanted her eyes on him, her laughter all around. He wanted…

 

Well, he wanted answers, and she was the only one who could give them to him.

 

It was after dinner and as the conversation petered out, Barret left first, knees creaking, as he muttered, “My bones are too old for this hiking shit.”

 

Not long after, when Aerith rose and retreated towards the shelter, he followed her. “Aerith. Can we talk?” Cloud asked. He had made it to the edge of the circle around the fire when he spoke. The back of his neck prickled at the others’ stares but he didn’t take his eyes off her.

 

She froze, turned to him, and nodded. “Of course.” As he approached, she seemed to keep her distance from him, her bangles clinking as she moved.

 

With nothing but the flickering fire behind them to light their way, they meandered across the rocky beach to the ocean’s edge.  The water was black and calm, the waves rocking gently against the shore. He was faintly aware of the sounds of the night—croaking amphibians, clicking insects—but his thoughts whirled in his mind. Of course, now that he had time with her, alone, he couldn’t think of a damn thing to say.

 

“I didn’t know there were so many stars in the sky,” Aerith sighed amid the echoing clink of rocks beneath their feet. “I can almost trick myself into thinking it’s the plate.”

 

“Does it scare you? To be so far away from home?”

 

His eyes adjusted to the dark quickly and he could make out her little smile. “Yes and no. The sky is more beautiful than I ever imagined. You almost want to reach out to touch it.” Her shadowed hand moved as if to pluck one out of the sky like a jewel. “And yet…I miss Midgar. Even though it was all artificial light, it was home.”

 

He cleared his throat before replying, “We’ll go back, one day. When this is all over.”

 

“We will?” She smiled at him and he nodded in return.

 

“We will.” Suddenly, it reminded him of another starry night that he’d spent with her, the sky aglow with mako, or something like it. It had been a dream—or had it? She had seemed so real.

 

He stopped when they were solidly out of earshot from the others but could still make each other out in the faint glow from the fire. They settled just out of the water’s reach, where the air was cold and damp. He sat with his legs bent before him and she joined him close enough that her hair tickled his forearm. Somehow, caked with dirt and sweat, she still smelled of flowers.

 

Lovers used to give these when they were reunited...

 

“You’ve been avoiding me.”

 

Aerith ducked her head with a wince. “I’m sorry. It’s not you. I just needed time to get my head on straight.”

 

Cloud cocked his head, not sure how to interpret it. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

 

She leaned back onto her elbows so she could stare at the sky, wiggling her feet playfully. “This—” She gestured at the view before them, “—helps. Having the team here helps. And…you’re here—that’s more than enough.”

 

“I don’t want you to avoid me,” he admitted. “I want you around.”

 

This gave her pause. “I know.”

 

“Aerith. I have questions. There’s still so much we don’t know.”

 

She stilled, holding her breath.

 

He continued, “When we fought the Whispers, we all had visions of the other future. I saw things that I—I can’t make sense of.”

 

“Cloud—” She began warningly.

 

“But you can. You know,” he said firmly. “I know you’ve seen it all. Somehow—however this stuff works.”

 

“I’ve seen some,” Aerith admitted, rising off her elbows and hugging her knees. “But the Whispers stopped me before. I couldn’t change anything even if I wanted to.”

 

“The Whispers are gone now.”

 

“I know,” she said, her voice trembling.

 

He stared out into the abyss of stars. They spanned from horizon to horizon.

 

“You’re awfully quiet,” he pointed out. “Usually you’re chattering away.”

 

“Rude.”

 

“I don’t mean it that way. I…want you to talk to me.”

 

“I don’t know what to say, Cloud. I don’t know how much to say.”

 

Cloud frowned. “What do you mean?”

 

She sighed, sounding weary. “Maybe things weren’t meant to be changed.”

 

“But what if we can change it for the better?”

 

“But what’s better? Better for us… but if we undo the good that happened to others, isn’t that selfish?”

 

“The only thing we can control is our own fate. We can’t control anyone else’s,” he insisted.

 

She shook her head. “There are some things you can’t take back. What if this is one of them? What if it changes things but for the worst?”

 

“It can’t be any worse,” Cloud snapped, like something cracking inside him.

 

Aerith startled at the firmness in his tone, turning towards him. “How do you know?”

 

“I didn’t mean—I’m sorry.” He methodically began to strip off his gloves and gauntlet, tossing them down onto the shore. The ritual calmed him, and he needed every scrap of composure for this. He rubbed his forehead in frustration. “The visions I had…I barely remember the images. But I remember the feelings. And I just know I lose something. Something precious,” he croaked, a fresh wave of emotion rising in his throat. He could feel it burn the back of his eyes even at the thought of it. “If I can stop it, I have to try.”

 

She was stunned, tears welling in her eyes. He met her gaze, unwavering, and for the first time he noticed the depth of her pain. From the moment she offered him her flower, Aerith was vibrant and playful, a firecracker in the night sky, the kind that seared into your memory long after you closed your eyes. She made him feel smart, and witty, and strong—the way he always wanted to be. She made him believe he was a hero. Maybe that’s why it had taken him so long to notice the weight she hid from the world.

 

We can do it, together,” he said. “You don’t have to do this alone anymore. Being the last ancient, having the hopes of the world on your shoulders, making these big decisions…I’ll be here with you.”

 

She brushed an errant tear away, staring down at her knees. “Cloud…”

 

“Hey,” he whispered, tilting his head to catch her gaze. “We’re a team now. Remember?” And then he lifted his hand up, palm towards her.

 

It was a bittersweet smile that she gave him, but he still wished he could bottle it. When she completed the high-five, he threaded his fingers through hers before she could pull away. Her hand was soft against his and so small. Why had he waited so long to do this?

 

“It’s going to be okay,” he said, squeezing her hand gently, not wanting to hurt her.

 

She stiffened and then suddenly the words flowed out of her, like a breaking dam. “The sacrifice. To save the world. It’s me.” Her eyes shone with tears again as she clutched her fist to her chest, almost protectively, to shield herself from the truth. “Sephiroth kills me. But it allows me to use my materia and I save the world. Everyone lives. Marlene and Barret have a home. Tifa rebuilds her bar. Red XIII has a family. A happy ending. Because I die. How can I rob them of that?”

 

In that moment, he felt the truth of her words. The visions he had—her walking away from him in the forest, the materia bouncing down the steps—it was her. It suddenly became clear, like the last piece of the puzzle falling into place, he could see the complete vision now. He was carrying her, her lifeless bleeding body, as gently as his trembling arms would allow. He lowered Aerith into the water, her pink dress darkening as it took her into its depths. The vision—the memory—was painful. Not the migraine like it used to be, but in his chest. Like something being torn from him.   

 

In the-future-that-was, he never got to say goodbye.

 

Tears streamed down her face, glistening in the starlight. He touched her cheek with his fingertips. Softer than flower petals.

 

“Do you understand now?” She asked, pleadingly.

 

“I do.”

 

“I have to die. I don’t want to. But having hope only to have it happen anyway would be worse. Or—or someone dying in my place. Or the world suffering because of it.” He wanted to speak—he could feel the frustration building inside him—but there was an itch in the back of his head, something that wouldn’t let him go. “I can’t do it. How can I live with that? Maybe I’m better off doomed. Just like my mom and dad and every other Ancient before them. Everyone wants something from me—maybe the planet does too. Maybe we should’ve left well enough alone. Maybe it’s just easier to let—”

 

“What happens to me?” He asked, so quiet that she stopped speaking.

 

“What?”

 

“What happens to me? In the other future, after you die?” The words were ash on his tongue.

 

A different kind of pain flashed across her face. She turned away to hide but it was too late. “I never saw that far ahead.”

 

“You saw enough.”

 

He knew. Somehow, he knew that the other Cloud had fallen to pieces. He knew that he would’ve done anything to see her again. When she met his eyes, they were wide globes, brimming with fear.

 

“But what if we fail? What if we work so hard and nothing changes?”

 

“We already did. When I let you die, before. What do we have to lose now?”

 

Her stare, so understanding and—grateful?—pierced him. “How are you so calm and…steady?”

 

“I’m good at pretending,” he admitted, surprising even himself. “I’m not calm now. I’m…” He felt himself shaking. “I don’t care about the others, the world—any of it,” he said fiercely, the words pouring out now. “I didn’t break into HQ for them. I didn’t pick flowers for them.” His voice wavered. “I don’t dream about them.”

 

He met her shocked eyes, adrenaline pumping through him as if he were in the middle of a battle. “Aerith, you said it yourself. We can make things right. And as long as we’re together, we will.”

 

She nodded, the fear in her eyes fading into relief. She brushed away the tears from her cheeks and then, finally, she grinned. “Together,” she said, as if she were testing out the words, “…I’d like that.” It gave him chills to hear her say it and mean it. There were no games with her. No second-guessing. He knew what he had to do.

 

He caressed her cheek with his other hand, damp as they were. Her eyelashes fluttered in shock. He was mesmerized by how she leaned into his touch, how her full lips parted for him, spurring him on. His fingers roamed across her neck, so soft, and then slid into her hair, at the base of her braid.

 

“Cloud,” she breathed, drawing closer until she was all he could see.

 

When they kissed, it was an awakening. Her lips were as soft and sweet as they looked and fit perfectly in his. He shivered, wanting more of her. The way her nose brushed against his cheek and how she pulled him close, tracing the muscles in his arm, until she was practically sitting in his lap. He explored her curves hungrily, engulfing her tiny waist with his hands, his head spinning from her touch.

 

He had stuffed away his feelings for so long, tried to be numb to cope with his past, and it came flooding back with a vengeance. He must not have been very good at it, since all it took was a flower girl to coax it out of him.

 

When she pulled away, he growled in protest, but she only laughed, a tinkling thing. He didn’t think he would ever tire of it.

 

“Did they teach you that in SOLDIER training?” She teased, taking his face in her delicate hands. Her cheeks were tinged pink in the fading embers of the fire.

 

A chuckle rose in the back of his throat. “I, uh, take my bodyguard work very seriously.”

 

“I can tell.” There was an easiness in the way she fit into his arms.

 

He leaned in to kiss her again, but she stopped him with her finger against his lips, gently but reverently tracing them. It astonished him how she could stare at him so—like he was a treasure worth keeping.

 

“Thank you,” she said at last. “Thank you for coming for me. Thank you for listening.”

 

“Always,” he said. And he meant it.

 

He wasn’t sure what lay ahead—what the next chapter would hold. The one thing he was certain of?

 

They would chart their own course, together.

 

He wasn’t going to say goodbye this time.