Cloud prided himself on being a very focused person, able to compartmentalise so that he could do his job quickly and efficiently.
Blowing up Reactor 1? No time or wish to entertain Barret’s delusions about the Planet.
Going around Sector 7 for jobs? Get it done quickly to get paid and get the hell out of there.
Blowing up Reactor 5? Same deal as the first one, with the added annoyance of being on Shinra's live feed.
A bodyguard gig for the flower girl from the church was the same. Get it done and get out.
And yet, as Aerith chattered away and led him through the junkyard, he kept almost forgetting he was supposed to be on the clock. Maybe it was the fact that she didn’t need much protecting, but he didn’t have to watch her constantly to make sure she was okay. Didn’t feel like he was working at all. Which meant that, when he found himself keeping an eye on her at all times anyway, he elected to ignore it.
Compartmentalise and move on.
Cloud couldn’t allow himself to dwell on it, couldn’t think about how Aerith didn’t feel like a charge or a burden. The strange feeling was nothing but an unwelcome distraction. It wasn’t like he had a word for it.
And, honestly, he wasn’t looking for one. He didn’t need to understand why being around her—a girl he barely knew and wouldn’t see again after she got home safely—made him distracted and unfocused.
And yet, as his only day with her stretched on into a long night and then just kept going, Cloud found himself thinking about it more and more.
Thinking about words and explanations.
Cloud didn't have a word for the way he felt around Aerith. The tension in his gut every time they entered a battle and the need to keep her safe at all costs. The reluctant smiles tugging at the corner of his lips as she talked and talked without expecting an answer out of him. The ease with which he gave in to her every demand, from putting off his return to Sector 7 to her plan to rescue Tifa from Don Corneo. The inability to take his eyes off her as she walked towards him in that stunning red dress, smiling confidently. The icy terror when he saw her behind the black-haired Turk in the video, the determination to save her, the rage at Shinra for taking her away.
The constant distraction.
He didn't have a word for any of that. At least, until she gave him one.
"You can't fall in love with me," she’d said, sadness on her face and in her voice.
Through the whirlwind of his thoughts, he found the desire, the need to fight to keep that sadness away from her as long as she'd allow him to.
It all snapped into sharp focus then, like he was a photographer finally seeing what was on the other side of the camera: Aerith, her smiles, her stubbornness, her playfulness and her strength. Aerith was the big question he was asking, and the answer was as simple as it was terrifying: it was too late and he was falling in love with her.
And, really, it was her fault for putting that in his brain.