Skally's front claws were hooked deep into his wrists, a double pawful of them, needle-sharp, almost strong enough to nick bone. For a second he almost thought she was going to manage to keep him from falling.
He was about fifteen pounds heavier than she was, and the surface of the walkway was slick steel. He could hear her skidding, inch by inch.
Even for a SOLDIER the ground was a very long way down.
"Barret! Can't you do something?" Tifa yelled, pleading. "Akela--"
"Not a damn thing," replied Barret, and the funny thing was, he almost sounded sorry -- for Tifa more than for him, but Cloud could respect that. Would have been weird otherwise.
"What do you want me to do, girl?" rasped Barret's falcon, beating her clipped wing. "Grab onto his hair and fly him up?"
Cloud snorted, and chanced a glance back; Tifa was hanging onto her stag's antlers, using his mass to lean over the void and reach down for him. It wasn't anywhere close to far enough.
"I'm alright," he growled, despite the wet trails of blood on his forearms, Skally's little grunts of effort. "Barret, take care of Tifa, get them out of here!"
He and Barret exchanged a hard look, and then Barret nodded. Funny how this was the first time they'd been on the same wavelength ever since they met. Nice and ironic.
Barret slipped an arm under Tifa's ribs and hauled her back over solid ground; Akela hopped off his shoulder and onto Breon's antlers, her weight tugging his head back.
Cloud felt claws grate against his forearm bones. The pain was almost blinding, and they were only delaying the inevitable. Even if he could use her hold to swing himself back up, he knew the reaction would yank Skally over the edge. She knew it, he could see it in her grim golden eyes, the cant of her ears.
He flicked her a little half-smirk. He'd rather jump on his own than watch his daemon plummet out of reach. He would never be separated from her (again).
"Cloud, Cloud, you can't die, there's so much I have to tell you--"
"I won't," he promised Tifa, his eyes still in Skally's. It was okay if he hurt, it was her claws. It made it easy to be brave. So long as she was here everything was still okay. "Barret -- go already, it's gonna blow."
"...Alright. Sorry 'bout all this."
Skally hissed, teeth bared, muscles straining and rolling under her coat. "Stop talking like this is the end! We are not dead -- we are not going to be dead!"
"You fuckin' better be right, furball," Barret snapped back, and yanked Tifa away.
The explosion made both halves of the walkway shudder. Not enough to knock Barret and Tifa over the railings, but enough to shift Skally those few crucial inches closer to the edge. Cloud's own weight did the rest. Her long tan body was yanked past the edge and the world started a slow revolution all around them -- plate and slums, and fog all around, and the walkway already so far overhead...
She didn't take her claws out at any point on the way down. He found it strangely comforting.
"Simon," she asked without turning around, "are you in my flowerbeds again?"
Simon made a thoughtful, 'hmm, I wonder' noise, and then after a suitably long pause, said "Yep." Aeris tried not to laugh, and failed.
"You know, even if you dig everything back up I still won't use the space to plant catnip."
"Aw, hon," he drawled, "that's just mean."
She put her fingers in the watering can and flicked a few drops at the ginger tomcat nosing through her flowers. He flicked them off his ear and sent her a reproachful look. "See if I show you that beetle now."
"A beetle? Ooh." Aeris put down the watering can and made her way to her daemon's side, peering through the leaves. "I wasn't expecting biodiversity yet."
Simon nosed a leaf to the side, and gave her a smug look, like he had willed the shiny green-blue insect into existence himself. "And you know, if there's one, there must be more! So..."
"So you still can't eat this one."
"I wasn't going to eat it. Just, maybe, bat at it a little b--"
Simon's paws were all planted amongst the flowers. Aeris's hand was flat on freshly overturned earth, for balance. They knew at the same time. He leaped up to her and she caught him in mid-flight and whirled around, toward the pews. Three long steps and a dodge behind the stone pillar, and then something overhead exploded in a mess of damp-eaten boards and breaking tiles. A second later there was a heavy thump back toward the altar.
When the tiles had stopped raining down in tinkling fragments, Simon squirmed out of her arms and perched on her shoulder, and they both peeked out.
A man and his daemon were sprawled in the flowerbeds. The man had landed flat on his back, his feline companion belly-down on his chest, paws stretched out. It looked a little like they were holding hands.
Aeris and Simon looked at each other, as if to make sure the other one saw what they saw; then he jumped off her shoulder and they trotted up together to explore.
Aeris recognized him at once; she might have forgotten the face, though it was pretty enough, but it was really hard to mistake the daemon -- big hunting cats were not common. The man had bought a flower from her, pretty recently.
They were out cold. Nothing seemed broken -- Aeris couldn't see much of the man's body but the daemon's spine was straight, her back limbs didn't look dislocated; there was a little blood matted on the fur of her head, but when Aeris picked up Simon so he could touch it with a cautious paw the skull seemed fine; it wasn't even swelling much.
The upper limbs were another matter.
She'd heard of daemons attacking their human, or the other way around. For a second she wondered... but there were more pressing things.
She couldn't unhook the claws on her own without touching the daemon, but she couldn't get Simon to slip between her paws and the man's arms and lift her paws up, either; they were too entangled, touching one without touching the other wasn't going to happen.
... Well then.
She was quick -- grab-tug-lift-drop. She'd draped the bottom of her skirt between her hands and the cat's paws; she expected nausea anyway, but there was nothing. Perhaps because they were unconscious, perhaps the thin cloth had been barrier enough. The man hadn't reacted either. Still, there was no time to spend pondering. She picked up the man's wrists. The back of them was pretty nicely shredded, tacky with half-dry blood, sticking to her hands.
Perhaps it was the stress of touching someone's daemon, without their consent -- perhaps it was the blood under her fingers, perhaps the closeness of her plants, that special place; she didn't know. A hazy light haloed her hands, seeped into the wounds.
Simon licked blood off a paw as wide as his head. Underneath the furrows in the big cat's flesh were already half-closed. "Huh. Good job."
Aeris watched the light go out. "He heals faster than I expected," she observed. She felt weird, strangely detached. It wasn't the first time this ... healing thing had happened -- that time she twisted her ankle a couple years ago, and a couple times for her mother's worst migraines, when Elmyra had been in such pain it made bile rise in Aeris's throat in sympathy.
Maybe one day she'd learn to control it.
There was no need to think too much about it. She got up, batted dust off her knees, and went to pick up the watering can, to clean the blood off him.
"They're moving," Simon warned, and crouched beside them with his tail flicking. Aeris hurried back. The man's face was scrunching up, the cat's ears flicking lazily.
"You alright?" she called. No reaction, like they'd fallen back asleep. "...Can you hear me?"
Nothing, and then some more nothing, and she was starting to worry again when he coughed and reached for his cat, feeling her shoulder and side like he wasn't too sure what it was.
It was such a relief she couldn't keep from clapping her hands. "Oh! He moved! Simon, he moved! Hello?"
He nudged his cat and she slid off him and onto her flank in the flowerbed, flattening a few more flowers. They blinked their eyes open together -- gold and blue, both gleaming.
"Hello, hello!" Aeris chirped, and stood to stop crowding them, for a brief instant uncomfortably aware of how close she was to the daemon. She could have touched her again much too easily...
They seemed confused, and maybe a little sore, but she saw no pain when they sat up, just a little bout of dizziness. There was no blood on the ground under the man, or on the huge sword on his back either.
"You okay?" she asked.
He made a little grunting noise, possibly a yes, and blinked at his surroundings. His daemon sneezed. Aeris kept talking, voice soothing and friendly. She'd been around a lot of old veterans, and if he had a concussion she knew those could make people hostile. Or perhaps she would look like his sister in law, one never knew with those things. "You're in a church in the Sector 5 slums. You suddenly fell on top of us. You really gave me quite a scare."
"...We came crashing down?" the man asked slowly. Aeris's friendly smile turned more real, more relieved.
"The roof and the flowerbed must have broken your fall. You're lucky."
"Lucky's a word for it," mused Simon, tail-tip curling like an interrogation point.
"Flowerbed... Is this yours?" And then he was standing up, brushing off his clothes, his cat shaking herself out. "Sorry about that," he said.
Aeris was baffled for all of five seconds. The man had fallen from the sky, through a roof -- granted, half-rotting so the wood likely was rather soft -- and right into a flowerbed, and he barely seemed bruised. Freshly turned earth or not, this was...
... something Zack would have gotten back up from, too, the same way. She couldn't help but laugh.
The glow in their eyes was familiar too, and the uniform he wore. Alright, then, perhaps she didn't need to be worried. "That's alright," she said. "The flowers are resilient here. This is a sacred place, they have no trouble blooming here."
She handed him the watering can. "Here -- perhaps you should wash your hands."
He blinked at his forearms, turned them over to look at what was left of the wounds. "Huh. Yeah, thanks," he said absently, taking the can from her. The wounds were nothing but pink, raised lines by now. His cat came up and nosed them.
"Now how the heck did that happen?"
"Landed on a stack of potions?" said Simon wryly. The big cat gave him an unimpressed gold stare.
"Huh. So where's the glass?"
Aeris laughed, and moved around him so she could start guiding stems and leaves back up. The damage wasn't even that bad. She caressed crumpled leaves and petals, smoothing them out. Beside her, on the floorboard, the blond man washed the drying blood off his arms, watching her curiously.
"We know you," said the hunting cat, and her dragon-whiskers twitched, a lone wave traveling down their length from root to end.
Aeris grinned. "Yes, you do. This is our second meeting. Thanks for buying my flowers, by the way."
"Huh." The blond man blinked at her, shook his head. "Ah, yeah, I remember now."
He sat on his haunches to watch her work, his hip against his cat's side, and she grinned a little more. Oh, mysterious stranger fallen on her lap. How intriguing. "Say, I feel like talking, and here we are meeting again. Do you want to chat?"
Oh, no no no, she thought, you're not sneaking away, mister. You made me curious, all your fault now. "Oh! We don't know each other's names, do we? I'm Aeris, and this is Simon. I sell flowers -- those he doesn't chew on, at least. Nice to meet you."
"The name's Cloud," he replied.
The big tan cat licked her paw in an elegantly uncaring way and said, "Skally."
(Oh, she thought.)
"My job..." Cloud shrugged. "I do a little bit of everything."
"Oh... A jack of all trades."
"Yeah. So long as you pay, I'm okay with anything."
He was probably aiming for cool and potentially dangerous. Aeris bit her lip to keep from giggling too loudly. Simon chortled; she batted at him before he could drawl the "Anything, huh?" she knew he was about to.
"...What's so funny?"
"Um," she replied. Simon added a falsely sober "No comment."
"No, seriously," Cloud complained, and then he was on his feet and Skally was taking a couple of entirely silent steps to stand between Aeris and the pews.
There was a redheaded man standing in the gloom at the other end of the church, by the heavy double-doors. A split-tailed cobra curled at his feet, head swinging slowly.
Aw, crap. Talk about bad timing. And Reno was a lot more likely to mean it than Tseng ever did, too.
She eyed the sword in Cloud's scabbard, thought about the glow of his eyes, the long drop and so little damage to show for it, how his own daemon had probably damaged him worse trying to keep him from falling, thought about the unthinking way he and his daemon had stepped in front of her to make a living shield.
Thought about Skally the big hunting cat, and all the questions she still wanted to ask.
"Say, Cloud. Have you ever been a bodyguard? You do do everything, right?"