Aerith Gainsborough tries to glue back everything, including the man broken past all holy repair. One-shot and sisterfic to "The Lion In The Meadow".
when the day is done and the sun goes down
and the moonlight's shining through:
(then like a sinner before
the gates of heaven, I'll
come crawlin' on
meatloaf, "bat out of hell"
These days his hands shake. Every so often Aerith will set down her knitting, every stray thread of the wool and her hair luminescent-on-fire in the Hollow Bastion sunset, and take her fingers in his own. His left hand is hard to grasp; what is calloused pads and gnawed fingernails on the one is shiny brass clawtips on the other. Aerith often thumbs these, gentle lest he cut her, as he tries to sink his face into the rubbed patches of the mouldering red velvet he wears at his throat. Cloud both loathes and longs for her touch these days, she knows, pressing forward even as his body wants to jerk back; so she touches him as much as he can, because when he stops letting her touch him he is gone unto the night and nothing her hands can weave will stop that descent.
And he's filled with silence; sometimes she searches his eyes for Vincent, in that silence, looking to see if the two men absorbed each other through something monstrous and unkind, but there is only mako expanses of blue and a kind of numb suffering-horror that makes her bury her face in his hair and weep for him. There is no Vincent Valentine, but there is hate enough to make him shake and see long-haired things in the darkness with black trenchcoats and long hard swords. Their secret deep down that nobody knows is that only some of that hate is for Sephiroth.
When she buries her face in his hair he will unbutton her dress to the waist without proprietry or permission; the hand with fingerless gloves will trace the gaping scar at her belly, puckered pink against the cream of her skin, press flat until she can feel the sweat of his palm. He plays chicken with his self-loathing, caressing the calling-card of Masamune that stretches from rib to hip, until he gives a sort of low agonized squall into her shoulder and she buttons her dress back up.
They neither come to each other as they once were. She carries the mark of a sword's fatal kiss and the emerald Lifestream lapping behind her eyelashes, and he blooms jagged black feathers from one shoulderblade like the world's most crippled blackbird. That's new; in the beginning it was all she saw of him as he turned from her, ashamed, running from the whisper of her name but desperately hungry for the sound of her footstep all at the same time. He can never meet her eyes and say her name; he can soundlessly look or blindly speak, but to do both is an exquisite pain he cannot manage or dare himself to do. Sound is nowadays so seldom that it is all looking, devouring her whole with a glance, eyes flickering nervously to her middle as if she will explode in blood and gore again and make the night come all over. Talking to her seems sacrilege and he the world's eldest sinner, and it is ridiculous and tragic and oh, oh, when did she become his holy book and writ?
She wanted to meet him, all that time ago, silly juvenile words from a younger girl when he had been standing right there in front of her to take. She should have grasped him in her hands like the rosebriar he was, ready to puncture her skin to the quick, but she slipped away; now he is even more thorny-broken than before and dissolving like sugar and ready to splinter her to death, but she will hold steadfast and not let go.
Here in Hollow Bastion, she cannot have her flowers; she is waiting for warmer winds to bear the seeds of Leon's shrouded world to her hands, for planter boxes in Ansem's laboratories already prepped for roses and larkspur and delphiniums and geraniums. Until then, Cloud is her crumbling, sickening thing to plant within the soil and loam of her waiting arms. He must not, will not, bear rotting fruit.
All too often he stares into nothing, for too long at a time, insidious things welling up in his brain and his gaze unflinching-unblinking into midair. Right now he has a book in his lap in the thinnest of pretendings to read, not even open, furtively sort of watching her as she goes back to correct three dropped stitches in the soft blue worsted wool. She notices him noticing, and he notices her noticing him noticing, and he averts his gaze before it creeps back again and fixes it squarely on the clack of her knitting-needles.
"Socks," she says cheerfully, to the question he never asked, holding up the growing and capacious tube of fabric for his perusal. "For Cid. I swear he puts his feet in every pair he has and his big toe pokes a /hole/. To be fair, Yuffie doing the washing doesn't help."
Aerith laughs at her own joke and leans back in her rocking-chair - a guilty pleasure that Leon has found somewhere and dragged out of a forgotten nook for her - and arches her bare feet up to place in his lap while she works. (It makes her feel like a grandma but is soothing her all the same; Elmyra used to knit in a rocking chair, fingers flying on the purl and the garter, and sitting like this she can pray for some of her foster-mother's grace.) He looks at them carefully, as if her small pink toes might bite him, but does not contradict.
"I'd knit you and Leon both sweaters, if you'd wear them." She wriggles forward so that the position is more comfortable on her stretched calves, making the rocking-chair lilt with the movement and making him grasp her feet so that it stops. "Blue for him and green for you, if I could have my druthers, but it's hopeless. As it is Yuffie will be getting a new scarf and a coat for her birthday. Keep that safe and secret, Mr. Strife."
As if that is hard. He can't even smile, let alone squeal her secrets; though sometimes his mouth does something very soft and quick and fleeting, too taken up in an instant for her to be able to say if it was really there. His right hand caresses the instep of one of her feet, massaging slow and careful, and oh that feels desperately /good/.
"I'll have to talk to Leon and see what he's getting her, he's got a horrible memory and she'll be unbearable if he forgets." Never mind that Leon forgets Yuffie's birthday every year of her life with them, possibly on purpose, and makes it up a month later with the kind of sidling nonchalance that suggests this way is better. "And if Cid gets her a packet of cigarettes again I will not be giving him any cake."
She straightens her knitting. "What kind of cake should we have this year? Of course, we'll be celebrating your birthday, too, soon enoguh. Do bodyguards like, say, banana?"
"Aerith." It's barely a whisper; his eyes are on the floor and his throat sounds like talking is difficulty, it always does. She picks up three dropped stitches.
"I'm not your bodyguard." The end is a kind of sigh, as if that was all the air his lungs could expel.
"If you think I was going to pay you with one measly date at the Gold Saucer where we didn't even get to buy cotton candy or hot chestnuts and get sick on the ferris wheel, you have another thing coming."
But no more answer is forthcoming; Cloud's head is hanging low, deep into the shiny patches of the velvet around his neck, and she sets her knitting down and squeezes half-on the arm of his chair and pushes his hair away from his face.
"You didn't fail, sweetheart. I made my choice. We all make our own choices and if we girls waited around for you to protect us we'd have a bad time of it."
"I couldn't be anybody's bodyguard," and his voice is like coffin-nails. "... not for a damn promise, and not for a damn payment."
She cups his forehead in her hands as if that will heal him, warming herself on his body temperature, the Mako in his veins firing him in a low-level burn that keeps him warm as toast. Sometimes it is a comfort, in the Bastion where nothing is warm; at other times she wants to suck the fever out of him like a poison and keep him cool. "Sometimes there are bullets you can't take, Cloud. Not for us. Not for me and her. If you're talking about children, yes, you can shield them hard as you can, but she was a /fighter/."
Aerith doesn't need to say the name. It rings as loud as a scream between Cloud's ears, all day long, tifa tifa tifa in an unbearable crescendo of unkept promises and broken legs. Tifa died fighting, like a warrior queen, proud and beautiful and bloodied in the unforgiving dark. (/It is good for women to die ferocious,/ the lifegreen would have told her, and kissed her swollen lips.) If Tifa Lockheart could not save herself, then there is no way in heaven or hell that Cloud Strife could have saved her, but he stews himself solid in the notion of thirteen-year-old chivalry and stacks it up over and over again next to the memory where he could not stop a falling sword.
"We left her behind," he says, his throat his own guillotine, sent off again into the sticky nightmare cobwebs of his brain. "We let her go."
"Yes, darling," - because lies just hurt worse, nothing will touch his skin except the razor bite of what actually happened - "you left her behind, and it's all she ever would have wanted."
"She was still moving. We left her behind."
Legs still flashing, knuckles broken on teeming Heartless, or spasming in helpless death-throes as her brain apologized for squatting electrified in her body? It could have been anything. She can't even bring herself to ask; not Yuffie, who hangs by her own threads, not Cid, who is getting roly-poly on her cooking, not this wreck of a human being all taped up lest he fall apart in steaming chunks of Cloud-meat. She takes her hands in his and clasps them, knotting them up, heads close together so she can breathe the frankincense of his hair. He smells like a church.
"What are you doing?" he eventually whispers, and his voice is hot acid and rasps.
"Praying." And Cloud shudders at that, almost-convulsive, as if to be part of a prayer wounds him. "Some for her, and a bit for you. She's all safe in a place where nothing can hurt her any more, but you - oh, my sweet, you burn like someone dipped you in petrol and set you alight."
"Fire," he says. "Aerith, I can't get warm."
"I'm surprised, what with all your layers." She rubs the worn and motheaten velvet between her fingers, willing it to all fall away into ash. This is his hair shirt, the whip upon his back, his self-scourging. "You should take these things off, you know. It makes Yuffie sick to see you coming around dark corners."
He hardly hears her. She can bear the force of Leon's fury-pain, the shiver of his shoulders when she takes his head and he sobs like a child who never cried enough as an adult; can handle Cid drunk, can handle Yuffie's tears all hot in her hair, but the blankness of Cloud is almost too much to bear. Aerith touches the soft feverish heat behind his ear, traces her fingers over his eyebrows, the bridge of his nose down the bump from an old and obvious break. Her thumb traces the knife-edge of his lips; the harbour of his chin, the sheer sharp cliff of his jawbone as the red cloth falls momentarily from his face. He thinks he's dead; but there's simmering energy underneath the surface, sea-boiling, radioactive. The outgoing tide of it is sucked into the black hole of hunger in his chest, the one that howls when she touches him, the one that's howling now. He doesn't know what he's hungry for; all he knows that if he eats, he'll devour and devour and devour until there's nothing left.
"What do you want for dinner?" she says. "You can choose - "
The earthquake shakes. "How can you pretend nothing's wrong? How can you pretend there's nothing wrong with me? I came to find you and I didn't want to find you and oh, God, Aerith - "
"He's not here," she says, unruffled, soft. "He's not in the Hollow Bastion, Cloud."
"He doesn't have to be. He's here in my /head/."
"You destroyed him, sweet love, he's gone from you. He can't die because part of him never lived. We're all just part of the dance - you die and become part of the Planet, the Planet dies and becomes part of the Lifestream - and him and I, we skip out of turn with the steps. He can hurt you, but he can't conquer you. There are so many greater forces at work than Sephiroth, baby."
Almost laughably many. Sephiroth's promised land turned out to be a fetid coliseum covered in gaudy gilt tat, one of the champion cockfighters in a circus filled with the universe's most prized horrors. A fighter on show, an actor on a stage, a wrestler in a ring; fighting for money, or just fighting because - like Cloud - there was nothing left. Aerith wonders how anyone could be touched by anything but deep pity at it.
"So everything we fought for was a lie," he hisses. "Everything we did is fruitless."
"Barret would holler if he heard you saying that."
"And one with the Planet. Is being dead the worst thing to be?"
(Being dead, being properly dead, sounds to her like rather fun. She walked hand-in-hand with the Lifestream and Holy while she abided with it, swallowed by the fringes, a force rather than a resting-place. There was no Promised Land for her. In Heaven, there are a lot of people she'd really like to meet; she wants to comb out Tifa's heavy dark hair while Rinoa makes the coffee, while Selphie Tilmitt swings her thin legs on a stool and talks with her hands and Seifer Almasy and Rufus Shinra make sarcastic comments by the water-cooler. She's seen it all. She's felt it.)
He thinks that over, dead-eyed. If Vincent were here, he would have told Cloud that life was his penance, rather than death; he has too much of Vincent's guilt for breathing round his shoulders with the cloak, and she moves her hands down and pulls it away. This time he jerks; but her hands are quick and deft and there are none of Vincent's rusted-shut snaps, all ripped off from the red, and thank the Planet but he doesn't wear his heavy boiled-metal shoulderguard indoors; she pushes the cloth away from his mouth, away from his shoulders, to the simple SOLDIER vest that used to always be his wont. His wing flaps and swerves uselessly, all black spikes, trying to hide - but she grasps him tight. If she does not touch him now he will never let her come near him again, he will never be held, he won't come back. She has to dig her anchor in or he'll be washed out to sea. There's real fear in his eyes now; her fingers are merciless and cruel, and she - the flower of his every mistake - is the only one who can truly make him afraid.
There are mangled scars at his neck, peeking out from the high collar of the vest. She peels it down, ignoring his half-snarl of warning: it's old worn material and breaks away in her hands. Aerith rips him open like a wrapped gift; his chest, the mass of irregular waxy scars, the puckered pink skin cross-worn over one nipple. His body is iron-hard practicality, beaten-in from endless battles, desperately unpretty. She presses her hand over his heart - he is stripped - and for a moment his face is all ugly hate. No more Valentine. Only Strife, and for some reason, he's deeply ashamed and trembling at the last mask stripped away. She's never seen him shake so. "Goddamn it, Aerith!"
"As if I haven't seen your chest before," she says. "Tifa and I always thought you made a gloriously lovely girl." And unexpectedly - naked and defenceless to her - he bursts into angry tears.
So she kisses them away. (She's good at kissing them away.) This time it's no confirmation that she's not some flesh-born puppet; no masochistic retracing of death-steps, no loathing, no holding on to the last lifeline. They are on their knees on the library carpets, woman to man, suddenly and arrestingly mouth to mouth, the first-last glorious uninterrupted-by-fireworks kiss. She's almost a little overwhelmed, because - because she never thought it would be like this, and she used to think about it an awful lot when she was young, - and somehow his lips are all strange dignity, wet with salt, a little bit more waking up from a strange and endless nightmare. It's teeth and tongue, punctuated with sobs that suddenly come from the both of them, hands and too much heat and the lost hopeful promise of something they had as romance-shy twentysomethings still capable of listing that they have had a First Boyfriend. He's clumsy, ferocious, infinitely tender; to girl rather than goddess, man rather than bodyguard, Aerith rather than Lifestream. He pulls away; she fingers one of the soft spikes of gold behind his ear, and something in his gaze is so solemnly Cloud that her heart breaks.
"It'll never be all right again," he says, and it is not a question.
"No, sweetheart," she replies; "but you have me and I have you and one day we'll be truly dead for ever," and he is satisfied with that.
He thinks she burns the cloak out on one of the Hollow Bastion's balconies, all in a neatly-wrapped pile with the clickety-clackety brass claws blackening on top before she tips the whole mess down to the misty nothingness over the side - but she salts it with lavender, to take away the blood-smell, and gives it to Yuffie. Cloud finds a way to pull his wing over his shoulder, black leather covering his mouth like a living security blanket. She approves, and she'll approve more once he learns to do it without upsetting breakfast things when he sits at table. (It makes Leon raise his eyebrows and Yuffie wipe marmalade off the polished wood to lick it off her fingers, to a general chorus of male nauseated horror, though considering that the ex-SeeD and the ex-SOLDIER both drink milk straight out the bottle they have no room for comment.)
Cloud's words still come slowly, torn from him like strips of skin. He still pauses in a room and his brain and eyes are miles in the past, seeing things that are unstoppingly not there. His hands still shake. Who cares? Sometimes their hands all still shake. They all wake up and scream. They always will.
And it's not green; the sweatervest she knits him is dark and rich like blueberries, part-mourning, high-necked again like he likes it to cover the stark white at his jugular. He holds it for a long time in his hands, thinking too hard like he always does, before struggling to put it over his chest - oh, Planet, he has beautiful arms, she'd forgotten - and pull his head through the hole. "Navy's standard Shinra issue," he comments obliquely, and he gives Aerith Gainsborough the first ghost of a smile.