Disclaimer: I do not own these characters. This story, however, is mine.
It was funny, Cloud thought, how wood could both amplify and muffle sound. He sat at the small kitchen table with one ear flat against the surface, one arm over his head, and stared at the glass a few inches in front of him. It contained a very strange homemade milkshake. Tifa had said he should drink it. He knew deep down that he probably should drink it. But his stomach was not quite open to the idea. His stomach was not open to anything at the moment and seemed it would be that way for quite some time. And he couldn't quite lift his head off the table. It must have grown heavier during the night.
So he was stuck half listening through the table to the strangely muted sounds of the argument his friends were having in the bedroom next door.. The words were lost, but the tone remained, gaining a mildly vibrant echo for the sharpness it had lost. The deep huffy sounds meant that Barret was mad at something. A higher pitch in a subtly wheedling yet reasonable tone was probably Tifa. Cloud stared at the glass again. A drop of water rolled down it, picking up speed as it went. He probably should drink it. Yuffie had drunk hers instantly and was her chipper self in no time at all. She had bounced all around the suite, making his headache worse until Tifa threw her out, telling her to swim it off on the beach. Cloud wondered how warm the milkshake had gotten from being out on the table. He probably should drink it. They had important things to do. Tifa and Barret did not seem to be getting anywhere. He heard light footsteps through the wood, followed by a blur of pink over the rim of the glass. He closed his eyes.
Aeris yawned and stretched. "Good morning, Cloud! What you got there?" Blue eyes opened slowly and took their time focusing.
"It's a milkshake.for..for ha..hangover," Cloud breathed out, "Teef made for me."
Aeris had come across more than a few drunks walking through the slums, some of them the ones who had just woken up in the gutter. She peered at Cloud closely with genuine concern, and a dose of wood sprite mischief. "What did you do last night?" Cloud frowned, his eyebrows taking up an eagle-like posture. He gaze seemed to turn inward, as he seemed to search inside his head for an answer. He came up blank.
"I don't know," he drawled, blue eyes innocent, "What did you do?"
Aeris jerked back, suddenly serious. No, he could not have meant that as the accusation it had felt like. He had no clue. He did not know, he had not seen.he was not thinking clearly right now. Aeris took a breath, laughing at herself a little, inside. Just her nerves getting the better of her. Cloud couldn't know where she'd been last night, what she had done, or almost done, or the one she had almost.... She forced her mind away from that train of thought. She could deal with it later. "Why don't you drink your milkshake, Cloud? Tifa made it just for you."
Cloud drew his arm over his cheek as his eyes grew pained. "I don't wanna..don't wanna drink nothin' more. Not feeling good." His reply was muffled by his arm, but the look in his eyes and the green look to what parts of his face were visible lent support to his words. Aeris tried to coax him further.
"Come on, Cloud. I'm sure it's good. She's a bartender. I'm sure she knows a thing or two about hangovers." He turned a pair of big blue puppy eyes on her. She sighed. "Oh, alright, but don't tell her you turned down her cure." She called to the thread of lifestream that was her own, opening the channel for the Planet's natural healing just a tiny bit, transforming it as only Cetra could for the situation at hand. With the power in hand, she reached out for Cloud's shoulder and let the soft glow in her mind flow where he needed it most, curing his headache first, then turning to his stomach, then to directing the toxins along the path to their destruction faster than they would have gone on their own. Blue eyes blinked owlishly up at her.
Cloud sat up. There was no pain, no nausea. And his head was back to normal. He felt as if he had just had eight solid hours of the best sleep of his life. His mouth still tasted like a dumpster but other than that he felt great. "Wow.I mean thanks, Aeris!" She stepped back to survey her work, arms crossed and a satisfied smirk on her lips.
"You're welcome!" She took his chair as he got up, presumably to try to settle the 'discussion' next door. "You have any idea what's in this?" She tilted her head towards the untouched glass.
"Um," Cloud idly scratched the back of his head as he tried to remember what Tifa had blended together without also remembering how much torture the sound of the blender had been, "Banana, and milk. And some strawberries and honey. And some vitamins, I think."
Aeris looked interested. "You want it?" Cloud shook his head.
"Nah, I've got an appointment with the business end of my toothbrush," he said, grinning sheepishly.
"Mind if I have it, then? It sounds good!"
"Go ahead. Shouldn't let it go to waste." He watched absently as Aeris reached for the glass, how her eyes brightened after the first tentative sip, then how she drank it down eagerly. Funny how some people could be so casually graceful when eating. The thought was distant, as Aeris seemed to be. He felt odd, as if he was looking at her from very far away, as if she were the light at the end of the dark tunnel he was trapped in.
"Mmm! Good breakfast!" The ringing tap the empty glass made as Aeris set it down on the table brought him back to himself. He wondered vaguely where he had gone. He did not give it much thought though, instead wandering towards the bathroom as Aeris went to the sink to wash the glass. Four vigorous, minty scrubbings and a minute-long gargle with nearly caustic mouthwash later, he joined Tifa, Barret and Red in what was supposed to have been the men's bedroom the night before.
The slender Traveler's World Atlas they had picked up in Junon lay on the bed closest to the door, open to the page showing the areas around Costa del Sol. Barret stood at the window, arms crossed and refusing to look at anyone in the room while Tifa was busily talking about saving time. Cloud looked down at Red, confused. Red gave his equivalent of a shrug, rubbing one ear on his shoulder.
"Barret doesn't want to take the path through the mountain. I don't know why." Red's one eye showed mild confusion, but he seemed calm, content enough to let the two-leggers sort themselves out no matter how long it took. Cloud was not that patient. He strode over to the map, brows furrowing as he took in the lay of the land, the closest towns, the warning marks for dangerous monster territory. It was no decision, really.
"We're going through the mountains," he stated firmly, waiting for his words to take effect. Barret turned. Tifa paused. Her expression went from puzzled to triumphant.
"See? I told you he'd say that! There's no way we could cross that river and walk all that way without somewhere to rest and restock!"
Barret huffed and turned back to the window just as Aeris walked in. She smiled, seemingly oblivious to the undercurrents of tension. "Look what the catfish dragged in!" A bathing suit clad Yuffie followed her into the room with a springy step, which was normal, and dripping wet, which was not.
"Oh man, the surf's up, the water's rolling and I had the whole beach practically to myself!" she rattled, spinning around and showering the room with salt water. "No better way to start the day!"
"Girl, get yourself a towel, dammit!" Barret snarled, inexplicably angry and looking for a target. "Didn't your momma ever tell you not to track up the house?" The effect was instantaneous. Yuffie seemed to visibly deflate, becoming, for a moment, limp and silent before her body went rigid and her eyes burned.
"She's dead," the words dropped like ice in a bucket, colder than any of them had ever heard from the young ninja. She turned sharply on one heel and stormed out, spine stiff as board. Silence blanketed the little room for an uncomfortable moment. Cloud fidgeted for a moment, unsure of what to do. Aeris quietly took a seat next to the map. Tifa glared at Barret, who had the decency to look embarrassed despite his posture, before heading towards the door.
"Don't!" Aeris stopped her midstride. "Let her be. She doesn't want pity now." Intent arrested, Tifa opted to sit on the other side of the map in silence. Aeris had that uncanny instinct for such situations. Cloud moved in, banishing silence with practicality.
"The mountain pass will take us to North Corel. We'll cross the Corel reactor on the way, but from all reports, this one doesn't have anything too dangerous hanging around it. If we had some transportation, maybe we could have cut through the river and headed straight to Cosmo Canyon." Red's ears swiveled forward and upwards, interest piqued, but Cloud continued with no further mention of the place. "But since we're not exactly platinum card holders," here he stopped, shrugging apologetically, "we're stuck doing it the hard way. Walking is longer, but remember, Sephiroth's on foot too." He reached over and closed the atlas, seating himself in the space. "We'll catch up to him. I have a feeling he's headed through the pass too."
"You seem to be feeling better, Cloud," Tifa smiled at him, her eyes gently eager and hopeful. "I told you that milkshake would work."
"Oh, I didn't need it," he replied blithely, missing Aeris' wide-eyed look of anxiety. "Aeris did some magic..Ancient thing, I guess. Worked like a charm, too." The foggy memory came back to him. Don't tell her you turned down her cure. He looked at Tifa just in time to catch her looking crestfallen and see how fast she drove the expression from her face. He shut up, swallowing the shame, but Tifa spoke up cheerily.
"Well, I'm sure something like that would work better than the regular human methods." Her words were cover enough to smother the little disappointment. Her eyes flicked nervously over at Aeris, who was squirming inside.
"It was a really good milkshake. I hope you don't mind." There was more going on here than Aeris was comfortable with. She was saved from anymore shamefaced conversation by Yuffie's reentry. The girl was solemn, dressed and dry, still toweling down her hair but showing signs of neither rage nor grief.
"Which way are we going?" her tone was oddly dry. "We should get moving. We've lost enough time as it is already."
She was walking through the mountains now, with a dreamy, far-off look in her eyes, wordlessly stepping over rock and twig, trailing close behind her friends and yet so distant from them. She did not see the blue eyes fixed upon her, could not see the green ones behind them. Where did she wander that her feet did not? Was she thinking about him? About his face? His voice? Did she long for the feel of his skin against hers? For warm breath and the feathery touch of eyelashes brushing her cheek as lids swept closed? The glow in his eyes dimmed as his consciousness turned further inward, exploring thought, feeling and recent memory.
Emerald eyes widening as bold hands stroked her from shoulder to hip. soft whimpers as teeth nipped the tender skin of her throat. a pulse quickening beneath his tongue..slender hands, graceful fingers, weaving themselves into his hair...dark hair with a life of its own entwining itself around his hands.soft curves within his grasp...a fragile body laid out for him to caress or crush at will.
He forced himself away from the deepening pool of memory, knowing that he could drown in the green depths if he waded in too far. He could not afford to take that chance. Not yet. Not until he was sure she would meet him halfway, with the same tempting memories swirling in mad rushes about her soul.
The blond clone would lead her through the reactor, along the train tracks, across the slender bridge. Her friends would protect her from all harm. They would escort her safely through the pass, across the land, and sometime, somewhere, she would be alone. They would bring her.
He would claim her.
Barret had grown increasingly quiet as the small group treaded single file across the narrow, shaky bridge. He had been unusually silent since they had left Costa del Sol. His usual smattering of complaints was non- existent. His steps were slower, lacking their usual brashness, and his shoulders wore the stoop of a man who had abandoned all pride. The change from brazen rebel leader to almost robotic look-alike should have been noticeable to anyone with half a brain. Sometimes Tifa wondered about Cloud.
The blond had not noticed a thing, barely saying a word himself. He had forged ahead single-mindedly, almost racing through the path. On the railroad it had been all the team could do to keep up with him. He had cut through monsters tirelessly, slashing and thrusting like a man possessed, only rarely sparing a steady, piercing glance for those trailing behind him. For her.
Tifa bit her lips, swallowing the rising tendrils of jealousy as she measured her footing. She had no right to it. She wasn't his girlfriend, never had been. Truthfully, she had hardly been even a friend to him as a child, when he had been so small for his age, and clear blue eyes, brilliant even without the glow of mako had so often gazed longingly up at her window. He had needed a friend and never had one, mostly because she could find it in herself to reach out to the one her parents called 'bastard'. She had not known what it meant then. None of them, her friends, had known, but they knew it was bad, and it was enough for them to keep the little blond boy as far away from them as possible.
So now, if his eyes, his heart, turned towards someone else, someone who had been nothing but kind to him from the start, who was she to complain? She had known pain and loss too late in her life to understand anything of his childhood insecurity. There was no way to change what she had done. The past was set in stone..though perhaps his was a different kind of stone all together. She could not help him. She would only make things worse. Better to leave him with what strange version of his childhood had made her a friend. Best to leave him to the flower girl who was so clearly winning him over. She had lost that fight before she had even realized it was worth fighting.
And so she contented herself with mothering the rest of the team, tempering Yuffie's exuberance with her own experience, offering Red kind words to soothe his distress at being so different and keeping an eye on the ebb and flow of Barret's usually explosive temper. Cloud was looking out for Aeris, lost as she was in her own little world of dreams. The flower girl, silently smiling into the snowy lily she had somehow found in the brush around the reactor, freshly-cut and lying on the green as if left there for her to find, needed no more help. And if Tifa dared to look, no one else truly did. They were all quite capable of fighting off the mako-twisted beasts they encountered, equipped for slaughter and prepared to heal themselves. Yuffie only grew sullen at being fussed upon, keeping up a steady grumble in Wutan, as if resenting the presence of a watchful older female. The look in Red's one eye, had he been human, would have certainly meant he thought she knew nothing of what she kept trying to talk about. She could not shake the feeling that he was silently laughing at all the two-leggers around him. And Barret didn't give a damn, sinking into a silence that even a direct hit from a vicious bird-like monster had failed to pull him from. Tifa had never felt so useless, stepping off the high rope bridge and onto solid ground in silence. There was nothing she could do but follow Cloud and try to stifle the tightness within whenever he spared a long glance backward that was not for her.
After all, she was not the only one affected by Cloud's occasional militaristic passions. The entire team was more silent, less cohesive, the blond's practical, ruthless mannerisms like a sharp wedge between them. They followed because there was no other choice. He was their leader, chosen by vote and equipped for the position, so if sometimes his posture and expression screamed that he would brook no time-wasting questions, there was nothing to do but keep up until it passed. For the most part it seemed to be nothing but a small nuisance to the rest of them. They did not seek to know what went on inside Cloud's head the way she did. They suffered through his moods with only mild wariness on their part and none of the aching worry she felt herself. Aeris alone seemed untouched by their leader's shifting moods. Tifa doubted the girl was completely oblivious to it. She possessed a fine internal radar for the tides of emotion. What did the Ancient know that let her relax? Perhaps it was the light of blue mako eyes that turned her way so often that let her walk in peace. Tifa knew that she would rest much easier if those eyes had ever once turned her way.
"Where the hell is this Corel place anyway?" Yuffie's sudden switch to the Continental tongue jolted Tifa out of her wistful musing. "We passed the reactor already! We should be there by now!" Out of the corner of her eye, Tifa saw Barret's shoulders take an unmistakable slump, though he said nothing. Red lifted his head and sniffed the air.
"We should see something soon. I smell cooking-fire and a settlement."
Tifa wondered briefly exactly what a settlement smelled like. Before she could voice the question, the path widened to a small clearing, rocky and barren, occupied only by a tents, rubble and the heavy aura of despair. The few people going about their business mirrored their surroundings, desolate and hopeless. Barret stopped at the edge, finally brought to a halt by whatever burden had slowed him, allowing the others to stumble past him and look around in shock. Yuffie was the first to recover.
"What the heck happened here?" Though Red said nothing, adopting the silent guise of a pet as he usually did in human settlements, his lone eye was lit with the same sentiment. Cloud's military stance lost it's rigidity, his face regaining the softness of expression that Tifa was more accustomed to seeing.
"It was the reactor, wasn't it?" he said quietly, to no one in particular. "I heard it had malfunctioned a while back, but I didn't know it was this bad." He studied the lay of the land intently, noting the merchants selling what little they had out in the open, the inn on the outcropping above and only after that, the hawk-eyed old woman scrutinizing the group as intently as he watched what was left of her hometown. Frail as she seemed, her eyes were murderous and dark, fixed not on Cloud, but somewhere over his shoulder, behind him. She took one step, as if seeking to verify what she had seen, then marched up with a vigor Cloud had not expected from someone so stooped and careworn. He stepped forward to address her but she walked right past him till she had clearly gotten the attention of the one she had fixated on.
"Well, lookie here! I never thought I'd see your face around here again!" A few other people, mostly the young men of the town, turned towards the scene upon hearing her words. Recognition crossed features that almost immediately became clouded by anger. Cloud's hackles rose as they stormed over to his group but they stalked past him to where Barret stood, head bowed and shoulders sloped in shame.
"Hey! They kick you out of another town or something?" One of them sneered angrily. "I wouldn't be surprised. You destroy everything you touch!"
Another joined in, hate scribed across his face, "You got a lot a balls coming back here! Look at this place! It's all your fault North Corel turned into a garbage heap!" Without warning, the redhead took a swing at Barret and was rewarded with the solid smack of his fist in the larger man's stomach. Barret grunted, but made no move to retaliate. The rest of Avalanche was too stunned to react. Why was Barret taking so much abuse? It wasn't like him at all. The rest of the townsmen continued their taunting unabated.
"Why dontcha say somethin', asshole? Or did ya forget what you did here already?"
Barret's head ducked even lower and he sighed deeply. "I'm sorry." was all he could muster. The little crowd was disappointed by the lack of response.
"Shit! He ain't even worth the effort! Don't waste your time talking to the Techno - Freak!" Barret stood still till the crowd dispersed, most of them muttering curses at him as they went. His teammates stood around, completely unsure of themselves. He sighed heavily.
"You heard them. I'm responsible for what happened here." Without another word, he turned and walked away, heading up to the deserted outcropping. Cloud let him walk, unsure as ever if there was anything that could be said in such a situation. Aeris came up behind him and gently touched his wrist to get his attention.
"He'll come back when he's ready to talk. He won't leave us."
Cloud supposed she was right. She usually was, after all. The townspeople had not paid any attention to the rest of them so he supposed they could safely restock, find a place to rest and hopefully, find out which way the man in black had gone.
Evening brought the cool winds of a mountain town to what was left of North Corel, but the breeze could not banish the hopelessness that hung over the once prosperous mining town. Aeris stood outside the small, cracked building where they had found shelter for the night, exhausted after the treacherous journey. Not many people stayed in North Corel these days. Most travelers passing through were on their way to the Ropeway Station, heading for the great amusement park, Gold Saucer. Just salt in the wound of the entire town, that they lived even worse than many slum folk of Midgar right below the largest icon to frivolous wealth on the Planet. She remembered the advertisements that she had seen at home, how she had secretly promised herself that one day, she would go there. How a dashing young SOLDIER with hair like a black bramble had once promised to take her there..
It seemed so wasteful now, so cruel. How could the visitors turn their eyes away from such poverty? How could the townsfolk stand it, being so close to wealth they could not touch? They were such tough, determined folk, these former miners, hateful of mako and the Shinra treachery it brought, distrustful of strangers and almost bereft of hope, and yet with some grim perversion of the positive to keep them going. So strong, to keep living, hanging on any way they could to the place that was their own. Very much like Barret, shaped by the same event that had seeded his own drive to rid the world of mako reactors, hurt terribly by it, but not wounded nearly so close to the heart. Barret had been the main supporter of the reactor plans. It had cost him his family, his friends and even his hometown. He had suffered more than most, and yet did more about his pain than they had. He had grasped more hope than they. Aeris quietly wondered how Marlene was doing, how satisfied her mother was with an obedient little girl in place of her willful adopted daughter.
Voices filtered through the much-mended shutters of the inn, most likely only Cloud going over the maps and the plan again. Tomorrow, she would be going to the place she had wanted to see for years, because the one they followed, who somehow followed her had gone there, or so a young man had let out in between planning his new tattoo. She wondered briefly when she would see the silver-haired one again, removing the wilted lily from behind her ear to touch the petals once more. Where did he find these things for her? Why did he find these things for her? How had he known she liked them so much. She brushed the flower against her face, imagining for a moment that its soft, smooth petals were large, elegant hands. But it lacked the callus from years of the sword and so the image faded. She bent to caress it with her mouth and could almost believe that she felt soft lips return the touch, but it was too cool.
How had he done this to her, infused her very soul with such a longing for his touch, for his voice, for all of him? She remembered the sight of him, nude and magnificent, displayed only for her eyes, the deep velvety voice that echoed with almost innocent gentleness through the fiber of her being. The burning in her blood had worsened since that night on the beach, tormenting her for denying her body's needs. Desire rushed like a river through her veins and her entire body throbbed with longing for him alone.
It frightened her, this newly waking passion. The first warm seed of it had gone almost unnoticed, masked by the cold fear she had felt at their first meeting. But it had grown since, taking root in her lifeblood and sending new shoots blazing forth at each encounter with his silver-green light. She wanted him terribly and she burned with the frustration of it. She could hardly bear to be with others, because they were not him. But alone, that was when the fiery tendrils tightened their grip, threatening to strangle her peace of mind if she would not satisfy the needs they had made her own. She craved the touch of strong callused hands, the warm embrace of those powerful arms, the weight of his body on hers.
With a mental wrench so fast it was almost painful, she drew her mind away from the temptations of memory, resolving to go inside, to rest and so submerge the longing. She could control it. She would control it. She would not let herself be dictated by her physical tension. She could not afford it. He was insane, a murderer, a cold-blooded killer, no matter how gentle he had been to her. She would remember that and reign her body in. She would uproot that treacherous desire and drown it. She would not think of silky hair glowing with reflected light, of hard muscle, of eyes that glowed with the Planet's own fire..
Too late. She was lost. She was consumed. She would burn with this vicious need until it was fully sated by his touch. If only he would come now to rid her of this tension. She waited out of sight, alone, until the sky darkened to a shade of deep blue and the wind drove needles of cold across her skin, but no one came. The townsfolk disappeared and the tents below glowed with mellow yellow light, but still, no one came. He would not come tonight. The wind had cooled her body, but not the need within. As she walked towards the inn she wondered if he suffered the distance even half as much as she did. She paused at the entrance for one last look into the darkness. Her hand trembled at the door.
Oh, Planet, please let me find him.
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