THE CRAVE GAMING CHANNEL
V'lanna
 

SPOILER WARNING: This's set after Meteor and Aeris is alive. Don't ask me how; she just is. If you want details, go peruse the Net for one of those 'resurrection stories'. Or pretend it goes like the Japanese version of the game. You can check out the story's supplement "The Fortune" at my site address at the bottom of this page, along with some notes.

Eleusus's Choice

by Sydney Kyle

Celenas77@aol.com


Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?

--Robert Browning


        The deluge of rain buffeted his back like thousands of tiny shards from a shattered mirror.

        He tightened his hold on the cloak that fluttered above his head. It offered meager protection against the elements--already he felt saturated, and his blond hair hung wet and dripping. The wind was moderately strong, but already teetering on the edge of turbulent. It plastered his wet SOLDIER uniform to his chest and stomach and battered against the scabbard of the Ultima Weapon he had strapped to his back.

        He hated the rain.

        Brushing the back of his palm against his forehead, he studied the turbid road before him. This trail was one he knew by heart. It was one he'd taken countless times before, one that led to a little cottage situated on the outskirts of the city. It was there that his friends were waiting for him, no doubt wondering why he was late for their gathering.

        For the fifth time that night he cursed himself for taking the tram--he should have known it would be delayed in this squall, but he was in a hurry. He was always in a hurry when it came to her. She who was sitting now in that little cottage tucked safely away in that little glade, away from the hum and bustle of the resurrecting Midgar...

        The lightning raked its silver fingers across the sky, illuminating his path for but a fraction of a second, and he saw something that made him stop in his tracks.

        It was a statue. A statue with graceful, tapering alabaster limbs and hair that flowed like liquid chocolate even as she stood watchful and quiescent at the edge of the glade.

        The statue's eyes closed in a blink, and he understood.

        He cast a wistful look at the warmly-lit cottage at his left, burrowed deep in the surrounding greenery and curtained from the gale. And then he glanced again at the living statue, observed how the water trickled down her bare arms and legs and dripped from the dolphin-tail tip of her hair, and he began walking again.

        Ignoring the sting of the raindrops, he withdrew the cloak from his head and offered it to the drenched girl with nary a word.

        She blinked, as if his action had caused her to emerge from whatever trance she had fallen under. Her gaze fell on the protective garment that dangled from his sopping wet grip, and she shook her head no.

        He balked at this. Was she sure?

        She shrugged. "I'm not cold, thanks."

        Even as she spoke, clouds of mist issued forth from her lips, dissolving into the rainy night like snowflakes in summer. He shook his head stubbornly.

        "You'll catch the flu," he told her, though to his ears it was a piteous excuse. Everyone else got the flu, and she was not like everyone else. He knew that firsthand, and he was grateful.

        "No." She sensed his discomfort and dragged her white teeth guiltily across her lower lip. "You go on ahead inside, Cloud."

        "What about you?"

        "I...I just want to stay out here a little longer."

        He shot her a dubious glimpse, but she did not notice it. Her chin was lifted once more to the heavens, her eyes raking across the tempestuous canvas that was the sky, which was now visible since there was no more upper-city plate to block it. She was far away from him now, so very far away...

        Every chilled fiber in his body begged for him to turn tail and trudge to the warmth of the cottage, but for some reason, he refused to budge. And so he stood there beside her, soaked to the skin, following her gaze upwards. There were no stars out tonight. There was nothing but smog-colored clouds and rainfall, stinging his eyes like a billion tiny diamonds.

        He had not seen her for a month. The others had kept in close contact with him, and even Aeris had stayed with her mother Elmyra, in this comfy little alcove in the woods. But she had gone away from him, a sprite winking out of his existence, taking her radiance away from him, away with her. She reassured them all that it was only for a little while--she had to gather her thoughts, rearrange her priorities. But she came back tonight.

        He did not want her to leave like that again.

        "Why're you standing out here?" he blurted out.

        "I love the rain."

        He stared at her, grasping at this piece of knowledge like a jewel he had uncovered on a dusty tray. "You do?"

        "Yeah. I...um, I used to run outside and play whenever it was showering. It always drove my parents crazy." Her face softened as she reminisced. "And even when there were storms, whenever there was lightning and thunder, I still wanted to go out and play. I must've been a pretty strange sight."

        The blond youth smiled at the image that materialized in his head: that of an ethereal fairie-child, clad in a dress that flared the blue of a robin's egg, spinning around, arms outstretched, laughing in delight, long cinnamon-kissed hair swirling about her in damp strands.

        But then the image shimmered, shook, and then it was no longer one he had conjured--it was his image, a memory, something that had been filched from that cobwebby padlocked chest in the furthest recesses of his mind, where he had carefully stored away all remembrances of his childhood years.

        He remembered her laughter, the way it had rippled with the inflection of silver bells, pulsing richly through his young ears as he watched her from his bedroom window on the second floor. And down below the little girl clad in blue continued to frolic in the downpour, her feet white and small and bare and barely scraping the cobblestones, and he wondered where those boys were--those boys who hovered about her all the time like bees over precious honey, the same boys who pointed and jeered at him because he was different; because he was the worst kind of loner, a belligerent outcast who harbored no qualms about fighting. But when he saw her skipping along the puddles, it did not matter to him anymore, because they would never be able to see her indulge in this wondrous revelry. And if he pretended hard enough, he could imagine that she was doing this for him, this beautiful little nymph-child dancing her dance for this lonely, isolated little boy; he would watch her and inspect the fog that gathered at the frosty windowpane as he recited his baby-rhyme through half-parted lips. Rain, rain, won't you stay, Tifa's dancing again today...

        "She must be especially sad tonight," she observed out loud, jarring him out of his thoughts.

        Feeling a bit shaky, he brushed the damp hair out of his forehead, his brow crinkling in slight confusion. "Huh?"

        Had he missed something?

        Her reply was a smile, a melancholy curving of her moist mouth, and she looked up again. "I'm sorry; I was just thinking out loud. About something my father told me...a long time ago."

        "Yeah?"

        "It was a bedtime story, actually. When I was really young, I didn't like the rain at all. I was terrified of storms. I think all kids go through the same thing, one time or another. Weren't you scared of them once?"

        "No," he answered. He had stopped fearing them that tumultuous night he had seen her outside. If a storm could make her feel like that, how could it possibly be a bad thing?

        "Yeah, well, one night it was raining worse than usual, and I couldn't sleep. My dad decided that it was time to rid me of my fear once and for all, so he told me a story about how rain got started. It was about this goddess--" Her narrative trailed off abruptly as she shook her head in vehemence--and a little bit of embarassment--and her long hair slapped wetly against her thighs. "Never mind. It's nothing--I don't even know why I'm telling you this..."

        "Wait. Please." He was smiling faintly. "I want to hear this."

        "Cloud...it's just a fairy tale. A fairy tale about rain, and princes, and goddesses..."

        "Ah, so it gets better." His smile was lopsided now. "Look, Tifa, right now I'm not too fond of this sort of weather. If your little fairy tale helped you enough to make you start dancing in the rain, then maybe I could learn to love it myself."

        "Not likely," she shot back, but she was smiling as well when he looked at her. Her shirt was the color of milk, he thought offhandedly. Or jasmine petals silky with dew.

        "Oh, all right," she said at last. "Just to humor you."

        He bent his head a little to conceal his grin. All of a sudden, hearing this fairy tale was the most important thing in the world to him. It was a treasured trinket of her life that he did not know yet, a little scrap of her that he scrabbled at with the hands of a blind man.

        "Well, uhm...a long time ago, there was a young goddess named Rhianna. She scoffed at humans and thought them weak because they allowed themselves to fall in love with others. She was convinced that if humans didn't let their emotions rule them like that, there was less chance of them getting hurt in the end."

        The youth shifted his weight, and the waterlogged earth sucked eagerly at the soles of his boots.

        "Because of this, she spent her time torturing young lovers, toying with their feelings and treating them like her playthings, until they were finally torn apart. When the other gods and goddesses found this out, they punished her by banishing her to earth, stripped of her powers. Luckily, a childless couple found her and took her in as their own. It was decreed that she would remain there until she found herself a young man she could love and who would love her in return. For Rhianna, it was the bitterest kind of punishment."

        "I can imagine," said the blond-haired youth, not meeting her eyes.

        "A few years passed, and Rhianna was in her eleventh human year when she was sent to the court as a servant for the royal family. There she met a boy her age named Eleusus."

        "The prince."

        "Exactly. As his servant girl, she spent most of her time with him, and they became very close. As the years passed and she became a maiden, she realized to her horror that she had fallen in love with Eleusus despite her belief that she would never give in to such an emotion. And so she tried to suppress it, hiding it deep inside her, where she thought it would just go away. But it didn't."

        She didn't speak for a while, so he studied her out of the corner of his eye. In the span of a lightning burst, she seemed flushed, her cheekbones tinged a subtle shade of pink. The light died away, and then she was cool and composed once more. Just a hallucination, he thought, brought on by his fevered mind.

        "It ate away at Rhianna," she went on, and her tone was hollow, like a reed plucked from a mountain stream. "But she continued to stand by the prince. Suddenly the country was hurled into war, and Eleusus had to join the fighting. Of course, Rhianna came with him although she knew that she could be killed in her human form, and she even took up arms so that she could be at his side. When the battle was over and they had won, she and Eleusus traveled to the country they had conquered, where they were met with a beautiful princess."

        "Is there any other kind?" the boy wondered, and the girl promptly dealt him an elbow to the ribs.

        "Anyway, the princess fell in love with Eleusus, and he with her. When he told Rhianna that he was in love with the princess, she was crushed. She remembered the gods' decree that she would not return to heaven unless she found someone to love her back the way she loved him, and it didn't look like it was going to happen. The night before Eleusus was to be married, the gods sent a messenger to Rhianna, telling her that they were willing to let her return home since she had learned her lesson. But she refused, because she wanted to stay on earth to be with Eleusus, although he would never know that she loved him. So the gods took pity on her and decided to give her a fair chance. They gave her a resplendent jewel, trimmed with red and gold markings, to give to the prince later that night. This was to spur Eleusus into making a decision from his heart. The deal was that if Eleusus was willing to put her before his wedding to return it to her, she would be allowed to stay with him. If he didn't return it to her before the marriage, Rhianna would return to heaven, and they would no longer be able to see each other again. So Eleusus promised Rhianna that he would return it before his wedding."

        A dull rumble sounded over their heads, and the blond-haired youth was only mildly surprised to realize that he wasn't quite as cold anymore.

        But beside him the dark-haired girl did not say anything.

        "Then what happened?" he prompted, almost inaudibly.

        "He didn't keep his promise."

        The boy looked down and there was a strange sibilant humming in his ears, a ghostly symphony that wailed of lost chances, of risks untaken.

        "He knew he was supposed to meet her before he was married," the girl said softly. "But he decided that it wouldn't hurt for her to wait a little longer, and after all, it was his wedding day. When it was over, Eleusus went off to return the jewel to his faithful Rhianna. But no matter how high and low he searched, he couldn't find her. It was like..." She paused. "...like she disappeared off the face of the earth."

        "She left him?" he asked, and his tongue stuck maddeningly to the roof of his throat like cotton.

        "Because of Eleusus's broken promise, the gods forced her to hold up to her end of the bargain. And in spite of her pleas for them to reconsider, they took Rhianna back to heaven, where she became a goddess once more. But she could not be with her beloved Eleusus ever again."

        "And what about Eleusus?" he wanted to know. "What happened to him?"

        "Well...some say he went mad after he discovered that Rhianna was gone--he just left the princess and his kingdom to search for her. Others say that he remained married to the princess, but the marriage was a miserable one because he never stopped thinking about Rhianna. And so it's said that Eleusus still wanders the earth, jewel in hand, looking for his goddess."

        A shiver worked its way up his spine as he heard a sob reverberate about him. But it was just the wind weeping, singing its voiceless lament for a repentant goddess and her reckless prince.

        "And to this day, the tears from Rhianna's eyes fall from the sky as rain, to nurture and cleanse the humans she once hated so much, because she still misses the prince who broke his promise to her."

        "Is that the end of the story?" This came out a whisper, lest she evanesce before him like so many of his dreams.

        "Yeah, that's basically it."

        "That's a sad story, Tifa." He kicked at a pebble, listening to it squelch in the mud.

        "I guess. Not everything has a happy ending."

        "But...how could that have possibly made you feel better? About the rain, I mean."

        "Actually, I cried when my father finished telling it to me. But he was quick to tell me that Rhianna's grief was her gift to us. Her tears were like balm to the earth: it helped the trees grow, refilled rivers, and washed away the sorrows of suffering humans. It's also her way of reminding us humans to never make the same mistake she did." She combed her fingers through her damp bangs, and she was smiling. "After that, every time there was rain, I went out to play in it, to show Rhianna that I understood her sacrifice, and that I appreciated that she was willing to give us this gift. That's why I danced. And I've loved the rain ever since."

        He hazarded a glimpse of her, and he was unprepared for the onslaught of memories that escaped the perimeters that he had set up in his mind, so long ago. Snatches of memories, one after the other: her sepulchral laughter amidst the unrelenting downpour; their likenesses sitting side by side in the brackish well-water, and when he tried to taste it was sweet because he had seen the both of them reflected there...

        "I still don't understand something," he said at last. "What mistake did Rhianna make that she didn't want us humans to repeat?"

        His gaze was fixed on her as she stretched out her arms. They glowed pearlescent in the feeble shafts of light that penetrated the darkness. "She never told him she loved him."

        She was avoiding his eyes.

        The boy decided to test the waters, treading discreetly, experimentally. "Maybe she was afraid."

        "Yeah, maybe."

        He let out the breath he did not know he was holding. "I mean, rejection can be a harsh thing. She probably thought that--I don't know--maybe he someday it would dawn on him."

        "She waited too long, Cloud."

        Her words, curt and spoken through lips drawn tight, sliced through him not unlike a hot knife through wax. "Wh-what do you mean?"

        "I mean, she was a fool for waiting for him. It didn't occur to her that--that maybe he would never know that she loved him; that maybe she it was better for her to leave him while she still could, before he had a chance to break her heart completely."

        His gut felt like a brushfire had been set alight inside it, and he swallowed. "Do you really think that?"

        "Think what?"

        "That...she should've left him. Before he had a chance to even know how she felt."

        "Cloud, no one can wait forever."

        Somehow that one statement resonated like a death-knell, empty and vacuous and poignantly final.

        "Not even if he didn't even know how he felt?" he persisted, suddenly desperate to change her mind.

        "No. Cloud, don't you see? If Rhianna had spent her whole human life waiting for him to make up his mind, she would've ended up old and lonely and unhappy because she'd counted on him one time too many."

        "But she didn't," the boy insisted.

        "She was strong enough to leave him, Cloud."

        But you are, he thought, and he tensed. Where had that come from? He had to change the topic, divert her attention from it, before the subject became revelation. And so he uttered the first words that arrived to him.

        "I think he was the fool, Tifa."

        She sounded nonplussed. "What do you mean?"

        "Eleusus. It was his fault for being so blind to what he had...for taking Rhianna for granted...not seeing what was in front of him all along..."

        "Maybe he didn't come to a decision because he was afraid, too. You said so yourself, Cloud: rejection's a bitter pill to swallow." She closed her eyes wearily and tipped up her chin, and suddenly she reminded him of an otherwordly being, a celestial body stranded on Earth, walking amongst mere mortals even as she yearned to go back to her Elysium.

        "I know that. But he did love Rhianna. He just didn't know how to deal with it." He sighed, a shuddery sigh, and tried to gauge her reaction.

        "Uh-huh." Her eyes remained shut.

        "He made a mistake, Tifa. He...he was scared that if he slipped, if he let Rhianna know, then she'd laugh in his face, throw it back at him..."

        "Cloud...I don't think she would've done that."

        "But he didn't think so. That's why he settled for falling in love with the princess. Rhianna mattered too much to him. He would rather have her stay by his side than lose her because he said something stupid like 'I love you'."

        She tilted her head to face him. Her eyes were the hue of fine wine--a rich, burnished, bittersweet shade. "So what're you saying?"

        "I'm saying that the only reason he chose the princess was because he thought he couldn't have the goddess."

        All of a sudden, he realized that he was no longer discussing a fairy tale.

        Far from it.

        He knew he was making the same mistake as Eleusus. He had contented himself with looking into eyes that were the color of emeralds instead of garnets and rubies, combing his hands through hair that shone chestnut instead of mahogany, kissing lips that were coral instead of cerise. What his eyes saw his brain altered accordingly, and he had thought himself satisfied with this pretense.

        But it was not enough.

        He had already seen his constellation, admired its perfection, its timelessness, but he had refrained from taking it because he thought he could never have something quite as pure and unsullied and utterly out of his grasp. So he had compromised--he had settled for a snatch of stardust that sifted through his fingers like glittering sand, blithely catering to his every whim, and he thought he was content because it was the most he could ever have.

        And yet, he could not help but long for his constellation, unreachable as it was.

        He lifted his eyes to her.

        Unreachable indeed.

        But how he liked to watch her still, unworthy vagrant that he was.

        "I guess they were both to blame," the girl said. "Both he and Rhianna. It was their mistake."

        "Yeah." Idly he noted the way the water dripped off her lashes and rolled down her cheek, collecting at the hollow of her slender throat. He licked his already-dampened lips, feeling suddenly parched.

        "Taste it, Cloud," she urged him, and her voice was that of an eager child's.

        His gaze riveted on her face, momentarily panicked. Had she read his thoughts? "Uhm, what?"

        "The rain. Taste it. It's Rhianna's tears."

        His frame sagged in blessed relief. "Tifa, it's just--"

        "Just taste it. Look." Without further ado, she flicked out her tongue out in the torrents and snared a raindrop. An elfish grin seized her mouth as she assessed the flavor, and there was a playful challenge in her eyes.

        Her delight was infectious, so he stuck his own tongue out to try it. He closed his eyes as the water trickled down like nectar from honeysuckle, cooling his throat with its sweet decadence, and he smacked his lips.

        "It tastes...weird," he remarked with some amazement. "Bitter."

        "Salty?"

        "Yeah, that too."

        "Like tears?"

        "Like tears."

        "Told you." Her nonchalant tone was draped with triumphant syntax.

        He craned his neck, looking askance at the waterlogged heavens above him. "But that's--rain isn't supposed to taste like--"

        "Shhh." She laid a finger to his lips, instantly silencing him. "You think too much."

        "Yeah? How so?" He could not resist the desire to feel her jade-smooth fingertips skim over his moving mouth.

        She let her finger drop back to her side, and he stifled his disappointment.

        "Some things aren't meant to be explained, Cloud. You just go with them."

        He racked his brain for a rejoinder to her enigmatic reply and came up dry. So he just nodded.

        Satisfied with his response, she turned away to steal a glimpse at the sky before speaking again.

        "You know," she admitted, "I never believed in fairy tales myself...until that first night I came out in the storm and danced."

        He watched her wordlessly.

        "I don't know why...but somehow it made me feel so happy," she went on. "It felt like, I don't know, like Eleusus and Rhianna knew what I was doing, and that they were glad that I remembered them. From then on, I promised myself I would stay out a little while and show them that I remembered, that I hadn't forgotten them, but..."

        "But...?"

        "But...well, I just...don't feel like dancing anymore."

        Somehow that made him infinitely sad, and a surge of his dredged-up memories assailed him yet again without fail.

        The nymph-child twirling around so giddily outside his bedroom window. That same child, a little older, a dryad, standing at Nibelhelm's wrought-iron gates, waiting, always waiting. That same child, now a lass of fifteen, her body stretched at the bottom of the stairs inside that Midgar reactor, stretched out like a broken porcelain angel, her right hand half-cupped as if in divine supplication. And when he saw her like that, he felt broken too, broken worse than she, for there was no pain that went through her that did not go by him as well.

        Odd, then, that she should be the one to heal him, to fix him up as best as she could. She had laced mortar over the cracks that riddled his façade, smoothed the flaking plaster that came off at his mask, so that he was more or less whole. But deep down they both knew that it was a patchwork job at best--something was still missing there, something abstract and indefinable.

        They never discussed it, though. The implications were far too frightening, far too ludicrous to even consider.

        But tonight he was feeling irrationally bold. Tonight he was going to aim for that something.

        "Dance with me," he said.

        She turned toward him, slowly, tentatively. "What?"

        "I said, dance with me. I wanna show Eleusus and Rhianna that I remember them, too, but I'd feel pretty stupid doing this alone. Besides, I wanna do this with you."

        He reached out to her.

        "Dance with me, Tifa."

        She looked at him, then at the sky, then back at him. Somewhere out there, Eleusus was still roaming the earth, steadfastly holding on to that cherished last keepsake of Rhianna's and lamenting his ill-made choice.

        "Okay," she said.

        Her hand found his easily. Without warning, his free arm circled around her small waist, trapping the length of her hair with it, and drew her emphatically against him. This elicited a small gasp from her, and he loosened his hold a little, suddenly uncertain.

        "You okay?" he wanted to know.

        "Yeah." She looked up at him with a smile that told him that she was not going to reprimand him for his newfound brazenness. "But Cloud...I haven't danced for so long..."

        "Me neither." He tightened his fingers around hers, only subconsciously aware of her palm resting unfettered on his shoulder. "I guess that means we learn together."

        "Don't we always?"

        The youth sent her a toothy grin. "Always."

        So they danced.

        And around them the rain poured down on them in relentless sheets, reducing the earth beneath their boots into muck, hitting their sodden clothes and skin like fine spray. They made a ethereal picture, the two of them, a golden-haired boy with the happy glowing-Mako eyes and a dark-haired girl with the carved-marble features, twisting and turning amidst the despondent storm, laughing in spite of everything, in spite of the weather, in spite of themselves.

        The earth squelched affably under their boots as they spun to a music that had no tune, swayed to a rhythm that had no beat. But it was a rhythm familiar to them, and a dance familiar to them: they had danced this dance many times, perfecting it over the course of the many storms that had passed over their sleepy little Nibelhelm, replaying it in their minds until they blended together seamlessly: a tapestry of sorts, woven with skillful hands.

        And the goddess's tears continued to fall.

        He maneuvered her close for a dip, still laughing. But then he froze in mid-action and the laughter died on his lips as he stared at her face just a hairsbreadth below his.

        She arced her neck to look up at him, her eyes dusky, her lips slightly parted, curious, flushed, taut. His own breath came out in shallow gasps, feathering the skin at the corner of the mouth, and his pupils dilated, not unlike smoldering coals, as he gazed with unabashed fascination at a raindrop that drizzled down her cheek and traced the curves of her ruby-tinted lips.

        And the gossamer threads of tension that stretched between them constricted and thrummed, flirting, on the verge of snapping.

        She blinked, and then the tethers broke.

        "Cloud, I--I think we should head back in."

        Her words came out breathless, and he bit his lip, glancing away. "Um. Right. The others."

        With exquisite slowness, he loosened his slippery arms about her and straightened up, helping her back to her feet. His flesh felt hot under his drenched clothes. Burning.

        "Yeah, they're gonna be wondering where we are." She rubbed her rain-slicked arms, then chuckled unexpectedly. "Cloud, look at us. We're a mess."

        "I dunno about that." He scratched the back of his head, a sheepish gesture. "I feel pretty good."

        "Yeah?"

        "Yeah."

        "So do I," she admitted, laughing, and the sound was a welcome one. "But you know, Cloud..."

        "Hmm?" He struggled to maintain the flippant tone of his voice, though his heart thumped hysterically in his chest like a crazed kettle drum.

        Her arms rocked restlessly back and forth against her sides as she hesitated. "I, ah, just wanted to say...thanks. For the dance, I mean."

        Her beatific smile was akin to elixir, slaking his unappeasable thirst, and he drank it in greedily.

        "The pleasure's all mine," he replied, his voice thick.

        And it was the truth.

        Her right hand met and coiled about his, and impulsively he brushed his thumb against her knuckles. He slid it a little higher, stilling abruptly as it came into contact with cool, unyielding steel.

        "I didn't know you had a ring," he commented. The remark rolled off his tongue with false lightness even as he felt the proverbial butterflies flutter valiantly inside him, ineffectually beating their diaphanous wings against his stomach walls.

        "Oh, this?" She lifted her hand, letting the simple gold band wink contemptuously at him in the semi-darkness, a flaxen clown's sneer.

        He did not want to look at it. "Yeah."

        "I found this when I was away last week, searching among my old stuff. It was my dad's."

        This he did not expect. "Your dad's?"

        The girl nodded, her expression wistful. "He always told me that he was going to give it to me...when I was old enough. Well...I guess I am, now."

        Shame welled up inside him, chastising him for his earlier selfishness, and he was contrite. "Oh. Sorry. I, uh--"

        She shrugged. "No biggie. C'mon, let's get inside before we turn into prunes."

        They traded shy grins, suddenly self-conscious, and began to trudge toward the cottage, fingers firmly entwined together.

        He almost stumbled over a near-nonexistent bump on the soggy ground and quickly attributed his newfound clumsiness to his present lightheaded state. He felt pleasantly drunken, intoxicated, a cork bobbing deliriously in an untamed sea of burgundy wine.

        It had to be the water, he mused dazedly. The rain was still going...too much water, he felt like drowning...

        But he needed to know something first, before he was forcibly yanked out of that sea, torn out like a baby from the haven of its mother's shelter.

        "Uhm, can I ask you something?" he began, and the words came out scratchy, like dead leaves scraping each other at the depths of a withered well.

        "Fire away, Cloud."

        "Do...do you think Rhianna loved him? Really loved him?"

        "Cloud..." She looked amused. "I already told you in the story--"

        "No, I...I want to know what you think. Your opinion."

        "Me?"

        "Yeah. Do you think she loves him that much, even though he was blind and stupid?"

        There was a pause. "Yeah," she whispered. "Yeah, she loves him even then."

        "She does?"

        "Definitely."

        He decided he was mishearing her. "She does?"

        "No doubt about it."

        She does...?

        "Now lemme ask you a question," she said.

        "Sure." He drew in a gulp of dank air, feeling a tug of anxiousness.

        "Do you think Eleusus really loved Rhianna although he married the princess?"

        When he exhaled it was less than steady, but he never wavered in his reply. "Yes, I think he loves her."

        "You do?"

        "Yeah. He'd fall apart without her."

        "He would?" Now it was her turn to stare at him.

        This time he made sure to level his gaze with hers, cerulean-blue to burgundy-red. "Yeah. And he's waiting for her to give him another chance. Because, even though he didn't realize it at first, she's the one he's been in love with...all this time."

        Apparently the weighty seriousness in his tone unnerved her somewhat, and she looked away. This did not last, however, because the next second she was smiling at him, her irises strikingly effulgent.

        That was when he became aware of a melting sensation closing in his heart--that same heart he thought he'd camouflaged under the countless protective layers he'd swathed so methodically around it, shrouding it carefully so that not a glimmer of it showed through the bindings.

        Yes, the Cetra had managed to coax it out of its sheathe, letting it peek through its suffocating sheathe, slyly inviting her in to dissect it, to uncover its mysteries, because it was flattered that she was interested in him, although it was mostly Zachary she saw.

        But this girl, this nymph-child, the one who stood beside him now, had the ability to make that sheathe disintegrate, like firewood into ashes, without even trying. Her nearness--her mere presence, in fact--was enough to thaw the trappings about his heart until it was exposed to her, every last minute detail laid bare for her inspection and approval.

        And he did not mind at all.

        Because he knew full well that his heart was already hers. And what she intended to do with it did not frighten him because he knew that she did not love him as Zachary.

        That, and her smile told him that it would be pointless to worry about it, because everything would turn out fine in the end. As long as she was with him.

        They walked on, their boots squishing buoyantly on the spongy earth.

        "Y'know, about that fairy tale..." he began as they neared the bungalow entrance.

        "What about it?" the girl asked.

        "I guess...I kind of hoped...that it would have a happy ending."

        "So did I, Cloud. So did I."

        And through the gauzy, dreamy, rose-tinted film that dropped before his vision, he thought he could see a glint of crimson amidst the downpour.

        "Maybe it's not too late," he murmured out loud.

        "What are you..."

        Still holding her hand fast in his, he bent over and snatched the object up from its turbid niche, rolling it thoughtfully in the ball of his hand as he straightened back up. Then he cupped her right hand--the one he had been holding--and turned it face up, pressing a cool, sleek object onto its center.

        She glanced down, a trifle confused, and saw what was nestled against her fingers. It was the size of a copper gil-coin, oval in shape, so smooth that the raindrops slid easily off of its surface, which was buffed and polished to a haunting blood-red sheen.

        "Cloud...it's beautiful," she breathed.

        "It's yours."

        What an odd gift, she thought. And yet, as she gazed at it in her creamy palm, she could not help but sense something inside her finally click into place, like the last piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle, and she was complete.

        "Thanks." It seemed like such a little word, such an insignificant utterance, a drop of gratitude at the bottom of a well-quaffed goblet.

        It was enough for him, though, and he grinned. "You're welcome, Tifa."

        The girl rapped her knuckles smartly against the saturated wood of the cottage door. There was a rasp of metal as the latch gave way, and then the blazing firelight from within the abode pooled into the night, cutting a saffron swath through the rain.

        A healthy chatter sprung up from within the dwelling, and she was briskly ushered into the warmth of its confines.

        The blond-haired youth lingered outside a little bit longer, however, his mind still reeling from the image of that small slab of rock gleaming at him from its spot next to that ochroid band round her ring finger, and there were patterns of gold on it, interwoven with the scarlet...

        He raised his head and peered intently at the heavens. Was it just him, or did the deluge suddenly seem not as strong, the raindrops not as sharp as they impacted against his upturned face? Had Rhianna found a reason to stop crying? Surely it was just his overactive imagination: it was a fairy tale, after all, nothing more...

        Her words came to him then, unbidden.

        "Some things aren't meant to be explained, Cloud. You just go with them."

        In that single instant, a blanket of content settled over him, welcoming him into its downy womb, and he felt whole and more at peace than he had been for what seemed like an eternity...

        He loved the rain.

        His friends were calling out his name, and so he turned around to step inside the cottage, shutting the door resolutely behind him.

        And outside, the thunder halted its crackling and lightning ceased its flashing, and the rain stopped pouring at an angle and began to fall in arrow-straight beads, and the torrent became a spring shower, dotting the grass and ground with a fine precipitation. And the rain continued to slacken, soften; the raindrops thinned into driblets, then sequined needles, and then nothing.

        And Eleusus--blind, stumbling, penitent Eleusus--had refuted his choice, and was with his Rhianna at last.

F I N I S


AUTHOR'S NOTES: Just to remind you if you're interested, there's a companion piece to this one called 'The Fortune'. It's a prequel of sorts, and you can check it out at my site at http://move.to/fanart.

Well, it took me three months or so to come up with this premise, and eleven days to type it down. I guess you could say it turned out a bit different than how I first envisioned it--my storytelling style, if it can be called that, seems to have deviated from my usual cut-and-dry writing. But nowadays, after pumping out an FFVII vignette crammed full of odd metaphors and similes right after a Xenogears psychobabble session, my writing style seems anything but consistent.

And just so you know, there is a fairy tale such as the one Tifa tells Cloud--I first read it in a Lit 2 textbook after a certain picture caught my eye. It was a tapestry, I think, of the goddess and the prince, and interestingly, the goddess had bangs and long dark hair that ended in a 'fishtail'. This was only the first parallel I took notice of, and when I read the fairy tale I discovered even more Tifa/Cloud parallels. The original tale is basically the same, albeit with different names for the prince and the goddess.

In closing, this story is dedicated to all those great folks who wrote in to me saying that I should write something FFVII-oriented that's not depressing for a change. :) But most of all, this's dedicated to my most fervent FFVII beta reader Zelda, who inspired me to continue this long after I turned the FFVII CDs over to my cousins. I must apologize for the severe tardiness of this piece, but thank you nonetheless for your continued patience with me, and thanks to everyone who insisted that I write something happy to make up for the trauma they experienced after they read 'TFS'. You guys rule, and this fic's for you. :)

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