I picked And The Wind Is Free from her many many many superb fics.
I got drawing the moment she said yes... and then I stopped. *kills self* I was digging around the mound of papers on the desk and found my unfinished work. Oh dear. So here it is in all it's messy, unfinished glory.
icor, don't kill me PLZ!! I completely butchered your wonderful fic. T__T
And The Wind is Free written by icor
(crappy) artwork by Yours Truly
By the time Aerith reaches him most of the blood has dripped from his fingers, and whatever's left is black. She throws up as soon as she sees him, smells him, and he waits until she's emptied herself to ask if she's alright.
The words are difficult to get out, and he has to swallow back the pain and whatever else left his throat. Aerith looks at him, and the only colour left on her face is dirt and bruises and blood of her own. She laughs without humour at his question, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand and steps towards him.
Her arm makes for better support than damp bark – Cloud's nails dig in the moment she places both hands around his and pulls it from the gushing wound. She brings his knuckles to graze her lips, and closing her green, green eyes he feels more than hears her murmur the incantation for cure. Each syllable whispered makes his skin feel ghostly and cold against her warm breath, and by the time her hands dance with green light the pain has stopped, along with every one of his senses.
“The cut was clean,” is the first thing Cloud remembers Aerith saying when he wakes up.
He hears her voice before the words, sees her boots scuffed in the dirt before her face. The bottom of her skirt has been torn off so that the hem runs in a jagged line just below her knees; the pink cloth has turned red around his waist. Nodding seems to knock reality back into place and makes him horribly aware of the disgusting taste in the back of his mouth. Blood and bile.
As if predicting what he is about to ask for, Aerith crouches down and hands him a flask of water. It's more potion diluted with rainwater than anything, and tastes almost as bad as his mouth does already; he swirls it in the back of his throat, tries to rinse the taste away, and spits into the tree roots.
“You'll be okay, Cloud,” she says, and brings one hand up to brush his hair from his face where sweat has matted it. How he longs for an inn, for a bath, for a bed. Reaching up, he hooks two fingers around hers and lets Aerith help him to his feet. His legs are too light, his torso too heavy, and his feet do not carry him where he wants. When she tries to support him around the waist, he tells her he's fine, picks up a stick and slowly they make their way back through the wood.
Aerith clicks the PHS, but there is nothing but the crackle of static interference and Cloud's hefty silence.
Days later, when they have found an inn in a village a hundred miles from nowhere, Cloud stands before a mirror to assess the damage. The wound is beginning to heal in raw, red lines, and they have found bandages better than Aerith's dress. His face, though – when he leans close, his skin almost looks grey, only made more sickly by the way his eyes burn so brightly he fears someone will be able to see right through him. Black marks that are not from sleep are smudged under his eyes, and though he has cleaned his teeth over and over, there is still something bitter in the back of his mouth.
He squints. Perhaps if he sleeps for a month his skin will not look so dull. Trapped in the mirror, Aerith is sitting crossed-legged on one of the beds, watching him watch himself. Cloud turns to the real thing; none of them are much better. Her skin has hollowed around her cheeks, her dress too loose, something is missing from her smile. Still – her eyes are bright, in different way to his. It does not make his skin crawl.
With a restless sigh, he sits down on the bed beside her, and smiles despite himself, despite the situation. The soft sheets, the four walls and a roof: it is the only luxury they know.
“You'll be nothing but bones soon,” he says, even though he knows there is never enough food on the road. And she laughs – really laughs – at how ridiculous his statement is, how caring he sounds; he knows she will not go home when he behests it, but he tries to look out for her in his own awkward way. And so she laughs, just like that time on the church roof.
Cloud kisses her then, because there's nothing else for it. Not just with his mouth and his lips and his tongue, but with the whole of him; and hands wrap around her waist, and he takes all he can, and does not know what she receives from him.
There are birds in the town centre pecking at the pavement, and they do not take flight even when Cloud and Aerith walk through their midst. Cloud swings his legs in long strides, and they flap their wings angrily at him but never leave the ground. With firelighters and blankets bundled into his arms, he fumbles through his pockets to throw a loose gil into the fountain, but does not wish on anything in particular.
A small child is stumbling fluidly in front of them, and Cloud cocks his head; the boy has most likely just learnt how to walk, eyes so wide that he can't possibly take in the wonder of his new found freedom all at once. He has a twig grasped tightly in his hand and gleefully shakes it at birds which must seem giant to him; the boy doesn't care whether a madman wants to destroy the world or not. For a moment, envy stirs in Cloud's stomach.
None of them truly know what's happening. Perhaps this boy will grow up without ever knowing, without experiencing what Sephiroth can do when left to his own devices.
Keeping his eyes on the boy, Cloud turns his attention to Aerith. She has stopped to stare, but does not see whatever it is he sees.
“I'm not doing this to save anyone,” he says quite bluntly, “It's about revenge.”
Aerith fumbles to rearrange the shopping bags in her arms, and looks at him skeptically; good thing she can't see his eyes, good thing she can't see right into him. And it is about revenge, he decides; the world isn't his to save, this child isn't his to protect from the future. Aerith parts her lips as if to say something of great importance, but hesitates for the briefest of moments and simple says:
“Of course not, Cloud. You're a Jack-of-all-Trades, not a knight. And besides,” she says the last part with such enthusiasm that he has to look around then, “You can leave the Planet to me.”
She taps the side of her head as she says it, and for one chilling moment Cloud wonders if someone (something) has told her to say that, if someone is reading his mind for her. Aerith smiles so warmly that he cannot continue with such thoughts without feeling guilty, and before they begin to walk again she wraps an arm around his.
“Come on, Jack,” she says cheerfully, and there is a certain fondness in her voice that he still doesn't understand.
Cloud wonders, idly, whether she would object if he kissed her for a second time. He does not have time to ponder it further before she has turned to him, and he wonders, dully, if he objects to such behaviour.
If I ask you to go home, will you?
If I ask you to come with me, would you?
Then what if I ask you to stay?
Not to leave?
Then will yo—No.
Cloud wakes with dawn, before the birds. Leaning his head back so that he stares at the cracked plaster wall between rooms, he breathes quietly lest the others hear him, and faced with pale illusions of daylight closes his eyes and lets the colours dance behind his eyelids. His thoughts are unfaithful to him, at times like these, when he pretends he could really dream of things that aren't fire and Sephiroth and blood drenched in mako.
Next to him, Aerith stirs with a contented, sleepy little noise. He can see almost all of her, light let in through cheap curtains making the whole room seem milky, like a dream. The duvet runs across the arch of her hip. Her collarbone is still riddled with his teethmarks. There is nothing in the room he would rather look at, but does so anyway until she has been ignored for so long that she is forced to wake.
Once the formalities of yawning and stretching are dealt with, she flips onto her front and props herself up by resting her jaw against palm. Her lips twitch and she wrinkles her nose as she studies him, and playfully reaches up to play with his hair.
“It looks like a nest,” she hums to herself, voice laced with sleep and idle fancy. Cloud reaches one hand up to the back of her head, and without a word pulls her against his chest. She protests, when he does not let her shift: “Tifa said we have an early start, today.”
Cloud nods, and though she neither sees it nor feels it, she relaxes against his skin, traces her fingers across the scar. The entire time Cloud does not forget the sword propped against the wall, or the strange, pulling sensation he feels whenever he thinks of Sephiroth.
“If you chase a madman for long enough, do you think you become mad yourself?” Cloud asks, and does not sound as hypothetical as he would like.
Aerith shifts so that she too is on her back, neck arched to look at him upside down.
“Only if you never stop running, I suppose.”
She moves away from him after this, throws the duvet away so that he almost feels skinless, collects her clothes in bundles. Yawning and stretching all over again in front of the sliver of daylight she is little more than a silhouette; she promises to save some hot water for him before disappearing.
Reaching over to collect his own clothes, he realises the soles of his boots are already wearing thin.
Perhaps she thinks of another when she is with him, because the way she looks at him from afar and the way she stares into him when they're together are so very different. Across the battlefield she is hesitant, almost cautious of even talking to him, but with him her hands are too confident, mouth too hot. Perhaps he resembles a ghost – but all Cloud knows is it always his name on her lips; always, always.
(And then she says, “I want to meet you,” and nothing makes sense after that.)
The Temple is empty and beautiful, ground to dust and overwhelming, and Cloud can only imagine that the dead are screaming at her in words he cannot even hear. She looks as if she wants to press her palms flat against her ears in the hope that the sound of her own blood pumping will drown out their screams; as if every word of the strange language she shouldn't understand is etched into her skin.
The stories they tell her are not fit of fairytales, and when Cloud approaches her she either scowls at him or glowers, because for a moment his expression is not so neutral.
“Cloud,” Aerith says, and has to force the words out, as if she has already forgotten her mother tongue, “I need you to tell me that – ”
Whatever she means to say does not pass her lips; suddenly she feels as if she will not be so very unfaithful to herself, and her throat has closed tightly. Perhaps it is the dead, perhaps it is the dead and the living do not come into this at all. He tilts his head in confusion, and when she cannot even form a smile, turns away.
Her fingers form tight fists, her nails make neat crescent shaped cuts in her palms, just like the ones on her arm. But how can Cloud be expected to listen when she can not even hear her own thoughts? She kicks a loose rock against a wall, and the echo seems to only set her teeth on edge.
I need you to tell me that you're real.
Aerith is dead against the alter as they fight, but Cloud knows nothing of the struggle before him. He is in two minds at once: he lifts the sword high above his head to cut flesh from bone, power he did not know he possessed moving him, yet at the same time the whole of him is shaking so very much that he can't breathe and every inch of him wants to wake up from whatever sick nightmare this is.
And, gods be damned, he might scream, he might cry. He might bring his guilty blade to Jenova's throat and try to sever every last nerve, but none of that matters; all he remembers is Aerith, dead against the alter.
The blood pours out though her heart no longer beats and spreads across the stone. They cannot avoid it, cannot move without being choked by the smell. It collects around his tattered old boots, and soon enough he can feel it between his toes, soaking him to the bone...
And he wants to throw up until there's nothing left inside him, wants to scratch at his stained skin with broken fingernails. The heat builds up behind his eyes until it's unbearable, and pushing the heels of his palms against them is all Cloud can do to keep himself whole.
They put her body in the lake, later, and the holy waters turn red until he can no longer see her, dead and drowning.
There is a crack of bone and the sickly shifting of muscle and sinew, but something is amiss: instead of pain, his body is pulling itself back together. Cloud shifts, and does not realise until that point his eyes have been closed the entire time. For a moment all he can remember is the black before him, but slowly images of mako reactors burning flash through his mind.
When he sits up, he feels the soft earth beneath his hands and crumbles the dirt betwixt his fingertips. The flowers are already dead, pressed crudely beneath him; but the whole church is otherworldly, and he didn't think that such a place could exist in dead, dying Midgar.
She leans down to him, and perhaps he is still falling; because it is all a blur, his breath is tangled in his throat, eyes still blinded by the light. He does not know her name, but her eyes are not so unfamilar, and –
“Don't you remember me?”
Yes, yes, yes.
“Yeah, I remember... you were selling flowers.”
Alas, the wind has made me wise,
Over my naked soul it blew, --
There is no peace for me on earth
Even with you.
– The Wind; Sara Teasdale