In which the final seven days pass, and only the nights matter.
By that time their wounds were in proportion with their earnings. A few extra scars on their bodies-thrashing claws and whirls of magic until only the intoxication of a Phoenix Down could keep their eyes open-left them with a few hundred extra gil scattered across the battlefield, until finally they left the confines of tight, enclosed bedsits (nine to a room, when they were lucky) to even smaller, comfortable rooms of their own.
Comfortable rooms where the springs didn't dig out of the lifeless mattresses; where the only shower in the building wasn't so cold that it made them shiver and all the sick feelings rose to their throats again. Comfortable rooms where the beds were covered in soft cotton, instead of stretched, wiry yarn, little better than floor boards.
Rooms so comfortable that after months of sleeping on the scorched red earth of dusty canyons, months of waking soaked in morning dew from bitter fields, where the only protection was the sky, fierce with wind and rain, and with skin so worn down and dirtied, that comfort didn't mean a damn thing to any of them.
But they took the rooms anyway, outwardly grateful for the hasty peace, and silently never admitting that just maybe they would have preferred to be cramped together.
Cloud was always the last to go to bed, always the last to finish his dinner. The leader needed to be alone with his thoughts, to take time with his food until his silver tongue was stronger. And so he sat there, chewing on dry meat and stale bread-a luxury compared to the rations and potions they downed-before making his way to the bar on heavy feet, eyes desperate for the hard drink he could so rarely afford.
It was dark when he made his way up the stairs, and the only noises from the inn were the creaky stairs and whispers of the barmaid/waitress/manager as the last of her guests finally retreated to his room.
Having a room to himself was a long lost pleasure that he didn't have the honour of becoming acquainted with again. There in his bed, hidden under soft cotton, lay Aerith; already asleep under the hum of the bedroom lamp.
Cloud counted the possibilities. She had perhaps forgotten which room along the corridor was hers, either purely by accident or after one too many drinks with Tifa. It was likely that she had waited up to talk to him, as she was wont to do, and merely given into a thick slumber when midnight came and went, and all there was to do was to curl up under the sheets.
It didn't matter which; Aerith was asleep, and all that Cloud could think to do was to pace the room, back and forth, back and forth, until he grew tired of sighing and retired to the hard floorboards and cracked plaster wall.
He rose before dawn and she was still there as if the night had never passed, and when the others asked him just why he looked so tired neither of them said a word.
It happened again on the second day, only this time as she slept her back was no longer to him. This time he realised it wasn't an accident; she was wrapped in over sized tattered pajamas, with no pink dress in sight. It was probably folded at the end of some empty bed down the corridor.
He pulled his own pajamas out of his traveling bag, too tired to wake the girl and question her, and bunched them up as a makeshift pillow against the wall.
They moved onwards on the third day, resting in a bigger village to the north.
He expected her to be in his room when he crept in during the dead of night so much that he almost thought his bed might be empty this time. Whether the thought comforted or worried him he wasn't sure, but Cloud took extra care when pushing the door open, just in case.
The room was a reflection of the past two nights; Aerith laying lost in dreams, and Cloud pacing the room, not sure why she was there, but never bringing it up during the daylight either. He sat down on the edge of the bed this time, half hoping to wake her, and wholly too irritated with the senseless chase of a madman to care about things trivial like a warm bed.
He unlaced his boots as he did so, and Aerith twisted as the duvet brushed over her.
Aerith never did have particularly strong hands, he realised. They were small and soft, unscathed; certainly not fit to throw punches or protect the world. She had been locked away for seven years, hidden from those things that tempted a child to dirty themselves; toys to play with, others to fight with, and things from the outside world-sticks and stones-that they could fashion into dolls and cars, whatever would feed that imagination of theirs that parents hated so much.
Aerith never did have particularly strong hands, but as she clung onto the bedsheets so tightly with such a blissful, subtle smile, Cloud realised that sleep was they only true happiness they knew these days.
That night Cloud let her sleep peacefully, rearranged her covers, and did not complain when his head rested against the hard wall.
She said that morning, as they crowed around a creaky table not fit for nine people, "You're welcome to sleep in the bed, Cloud," as if she was inviting him into something that was hers in the first place.
Cloud merely nodded, not taking her offer to heart, and avoiding the questioning glances of those who sat around them.
The next night brought them to a town, but it wasn't the grainy food, or drink that relaxed every part of his body but his mind, that kept him up. And he certainly wasn't the last one up either; he staggered in with Vincent and Cid by his side, all three bruised from a battle with monsters-Cloud especially.
Vincent tried his best to apply potions to to the gash across Cloud's stomach-thick with blood but not fatal-and had grown tired when he complained that they weren't helping at all. So Cid, tired and irritated, had done all he could the old fashioned way: wet cloths and sterile wipes, and tightly wrapped bandages to lace around his waist.
He was sick and weary-half-carried, half-pushed up the stairs by Cid and Vincent after they couldn't convince him to join them for a drink-as he wandered into his room which was slowly becoming their room.
The room was hazy and exciting, colours leaping from usually dull walls, the floor sinking beneath his feet with every step he took; and with Aerith in the centre, as ever. The lamp was still on, of course, illuminating thick red stains through bandages, and somewhere in the back of his mind he vaguely wondered how much it was going to bother her.
Cloud didn't need her kind permission to collapse onto his bed, not quite making it to the pillow.
Aerith awoke with the sun. She realised that Cloud had joined her at some point during her sleep, but was surprised by his closeness once her eyes adjusted to the light. He lay curled up like a child, his head resting against her stomach, and feet hanging ever-so slightly off the edge of the bed.
She shifted a little so as not to wake him, pulled up his shirt and the pathetic handy work of whoever had wrapped the bandages around his wound so badly. Laying back, one arm supporting his shoulders, she let her fingers drape across the bloody mess as warm healing painted its way across him.
He woke up that morning alone and well.
The fifth day brought another temporary home.
Cid remarked how grateful Cloud should be for him doing such an outstanding job on his wound, and Vincent smiled at him curiously. At the dinner table Cloud looked up at Aerith as she left with Barret and Red, almost saying/ see you later/ to her.
It was the same worn routine: Cloud made his way to the room, spirits pounding in the back of his head but never enough to mess with his mind, turned the door handle so slowly to avoid that horrible clunk noise, and walked into a room flooded by lamplight, eyes on Aerith.
He sat on the edge of the bed, throwing his boots off and silent for a moment.
"Why are you always here?" he asked. There was no answer. Once, twice, three times more, until he felt Aerith shift behind him.
"I don't like my room." Sleep clung to her voice, and it barely broke a whisper.
"But we have stay at a different inn nearly every night," he said, confused.
"I don't like my room."
"Why not just switch with someone?"
"That's why I moved here."
She shifted again so that she was sitting up, back propped against the pillows, and although Cloud could not see her, he could hear the weariness in her heavy breathing, and knew that her hardened green eyes were glazed over.
Cloud brushed the hair out of his eyes.
"Do you want me to move into your room then, Aerith?"
Aerith always had such a way with words; short, blunt sentences, barely strung together when she spoke of her past, so void of emotion that Cloud wondered just what horrors she had felt; yet riddles sung in her voice when she wanted you to understand.
It made his head hurt. She stayed so close to him, always by his side-he was her bodyguard, after all-and shut him out from her truths at the same time. Wanted to meet him, she said, when she herself sometimes couldn't bear to stand face-to-face with him through that cheery smile.
"If you left, then I still wouldn't like my room."
With the confession Cloud understood a little better. The journey wasn't easy for any of them, but they could never speak about the fear life was throwing them-not even in whispers, for they all felt the same. Why would the girl with bright eyes be any different?
The only harm Aerith's being there had caused thus far was a few sleep deprived nights, complete with an aching back and neck, and that was balanced out by her soft healing anyway. She could stay. It was no problem, (indeed, Cloud expected it now) but-
"Why is the lamp always on?"
Aerith sunk back into the cotton.
"Keeps me safe," she said bluntly. "I'm not scared of the dark, but I was back then. Keeping the lights on all night was a waste in a lab, they always said."
Cloud nodded, hoping she saw, and drew back the hand that was reaching for the lamp switch as she spoke. He wouldn't question her further.
"You should sleep," she said, closing the conversation.
And he did. Giving up he crawled into the tiny bed, Aerith against the wall and Cloud so close to the edge he would have fallen out with even the slightest twist or turn in his sleep. He truly had never been so uncomfortable-he lay on his back, too painfully aware that Aerith lay next to him as he stared at the ceiling to let himself relax; and when sleep finally took over, when his eyes closed and he managed to forget about her, the nudge of his elbow would hit against her arm/side/back and tear reality back and deny him a blissful sleep.
In the end, he crawled out of the bed and slumped against the bedroom wall.
Aerith did not complain. Aerith was only ever smiles and comfort during the day.
But on the sixth day, he watched her pass out on the battlefield three times too many. He watched as Yuffie forced the last of the Phoenix Downs down her throat because she couldn't even swallow, and he saw Cid carry her away when the fight was finally over.
When she smiled at Cloud it was dull, worn away by trails of blood which dripped from her mouth and the new scars that danced on her skin. Blood and hurt drenched them all, everywhere-except for her weak little hands, wrapped hopelessly around a pathetic piece of white materia.
It was the first time in the months that they had been together that Cloud did not spend what seemed like an eternity at the dinner table and bar. As ever he was the last to leave, but as soon as Tifa managed to drag a drunk Cid off to bed, he made his way up quietly.
She was awake, and it was new to Cloud. She didn't need to argue with him to convince him to share the bed-as ever he kicked off heavy boots, and didn't bother to change into pajamas as dirtied as his clothes.
He laid beside her for sometime-hours, probably-waiting for the sounds of her breathing pattern to change gently, to let him know that she was finally sleeping and he himself could finally exhale and move.
It never came-his eyes were too much of a burden to keep open, and he closed them, too aware of the light prickling behind them to fall asleep. He twisted and turned this way and that, trying not to steal all of the covers, with Aerith unmoving by his side, facing the wall the whole time.
Cloud settled for turning on his side, facing the same way as Aerith.
"You can turn the lamp off, if you want," she murmured into the pillow.
"Will you be alright?" Cloud asked, hoping for a yes and reached over for the switch.
Aerith nodded. "I've never been afraid of the dark. Just... lost in it."
The darkness that filled the room blinded Cloud and made him achingly aware of everything between. Aerith smelt all too natural in the pitch black; it was her hair, Cloud realised; and it smelt like wildflowers and the earth, of sea-salt and dirt, and the blood that entwined with it. The horrifying imagery of their journey relaxed him, and he breathed deeper.
She lent closer in the dark, and almost as if awkward uncertainties disappeared with the light, his arms found their way around her, awkwardly at first, but eventually content to rest around her waist.
"You're cold," he whispered as his fingers brushed against her arms. The rush of potions and Phoenix Downs had probably sent her body into mild shock.
She said nothing.
"Don't worry," he said, not sure of himself. "Tomorrow will be easier."
"You won't disappear again, like this morning?" Aerith asked hazily.
He said nothing.
As he moved just that little bit closer towards her, as his lips brushed against the back of her neck and his head rested against her shoulder, he listened. He heard sleep capture her and he smiled.
And in the morning when she woke, he closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
The seventh day was different.
No one spoke at the table, and no one made friendly jokes, asking where Aerith had spent last night-no one could. There was no chorus of laughter to help rid them of the day's torments, and no one wore a mask to hide how they really felt. It didn't matter that their beds were made of soft cotton.
The room was empty, and the lamp was off-his bedsheets lay draped perfectly across his bed, not a single crease visible;/ she/ was not there, but Cloud did not realise.
Aerith visited everyone's rooms. Cloud's was last. How soft and pure her hands had looked when he couldn't feel them-they danced gently across his unconscious face, tracing visible lines to make smiles, and wiping tears away.
He didn't remember it when he woke up, but he felt it none the less; they were rough and scarred, and although they weren't bloodstained, the lines were there. She'd had a hard life, and she wrote her secrets across his skin with a single touch.
He wouldn't remember it. He couldn't. It was the easiest way to say goodbye before she wandered from the little village of Gongaga; this time Cloud slept and Aerith watched over him.
And when Cloud woke in the morning, as his eyes adjusted to the bright of the flooding sun, he glanced wearily at the bedsheets which creased next to him, as if someone had been sleeping there.
With a sad smile he rid himself of dreams of her; of the forest, and her harsh touches, and in a gentle whisper murmured "Good morning," to no one at all.