THE CRAVE GAMING CHANNEL
V'lanna
 

"A Labor of Love"

Meriko M. Robèrt

TheRoBears@aol.com

Prologue

She remembered the lifestream answering her plea for help, whirling coils and spirals of the misty green energy rising up from all over the planet to aid Holy in its battle against Meteor. One ultimate magic against the other, raging in a titanic deadlock above Midgar, and the very soul of the planet racing in to decide the battle.

Her last task...her last duty. Protect the planet, and then find the Promised Land once your tasks were completed. Her last task...her last duty. Completed...

...no...

?

...not complete, my Guardian...not complete...

Jenova has been destroyed. All those who schemed against the planet are dead. Holy was called. Meteor was banished. It is finished. Her last task...her last duty. Finished...

...one more task...one more duty...one last labor of love...

Labor?

...awaken, my Guardian...

...of love?

...my Daughter...

Awareness gradually seeped back into a shell long abandoned...the weight of flesh and bone settled upon her, chill and damp made themselves known along the length of her body. Her limbs thrashed feebly, but she found no floor to rise from, nor walls to strike. She was floating. Eyes were forced open with great effort and then shut immediately against a blinding radiance. Squinting, she gradually was able to focus on the crystalline walls of a cavern, light from above glittering across the gentle surface of the tiny lake she floated in. Rolling heavily in the water, she laboriously made her way towards the closest shore with awkward strokes.

The sandy shore rose gradually, or she would have not been able to find strength enough to pull herself out of the water. Palms flat on the shore, elbows locked against their trembling, she half-sat, half-lay on the sand, trying to catch her breath. Dress, jacket, and hair all seemed saturated with the weight of an entire ocean, pulling her constantly down towards the sand. Exhausted, her elbows buckled and she collapsed into the gritty embrace of the ground, welcoming the darkness that swept over her mind's eye.

Taking up the Cause

Cloud held up a hand, ticking off fingers as he verbally went down the list, "Barret's rebuilding Corel, Cid's building a new rocket, Nanaki's studying at Cosmo Canyon, Yuffie's still training to take over for her dad, and Vincent's God only knows where." He gave slightly questioning looks to the man seated to the left of him at the bar, and the stunning brunette on his right. "Looks like it's just us three, then, to take over for the Cetra."

Reeve smiled in his quiet way, and replied, "Since Shinra does not seem to be equipped to offer me better employment at the time, I accept." Laughing, Tifa ordered three drinks to toast their new team. Giving Cloud a look that just barely toed the line between friendly and tender, she said decidedly, "You couldn't possibly keep me away."

Raising a glass, Cloud announced, "Well then, here's to the team!"

"To the new Guardians of the Planet," Reeve toasted. Clinking glasses with her friends, Tifa added cheerfully, "To us!"

"To Aeris·" Cloud finished, and just as suddenly, the impromptu festivities took on a more somber tone. Tifa buried her face into her glass after one quick glance at Cloud, and Reeve fell silent as well, haunted by his involvement with the company that had caused the Ancient so much pain and loss. After tossing down his own drink, the blonde mercenary toyed with the glass, distracted for the moment by the underlying reason for this new organization.

With Aeris' death, the last of the Cetra had disappeared from the planet, leaving the human race with no way to communicate with their home, and precious little of the Ancient knowledge so necessary to help renew their planet's resources. With the defeat of Sephiroth and destruction of Meteor, the eight remaining champions of the planet had finally been able to resume their 'normal' lives. However, Cloud, Tifa, and Reeve had found themselves without a hometown to return to. Midgar had been reduced to rubble, and the reconstructed Nibelheim could never be 'home' to the two young people who had watched it burn to the ground so many years ago. And so these three had gathered at Kalm to re-group.

They had talked away the first few nights by the inn's fireplace, each trying to adjust to this new and uneventful lifestyle with difficulty. They had traveled for so long, each day fraught with adventure and tension, that to simply sit around after dinner and while away the time seemed almost excruciatingly unnatural. While talking about what was now most important in their lives, an already awkward topic for Tifa, she had blurted out the idea that the planet needed new caretakers. She had only hoped to turn the conversation, but instead found herself holding out to the others the new mission ö the new adventure ö that they had secretly been longing for.

Having decided now not to pull any of their other companions from equally important tasks, Cloud, Tifa, and Reeve settled down to put a more definite shape to their goals.

"Well," began Reeve, "what I know of the Cetra is just what I could glean from Hojo's notes." Catching a quirked eyebrow from Tifa, he explained, "I used to sneak in to his labs while he was elsewhere, to see if there was anything I could find out that might be useful to my plans. After the Sector 7 plate was collapsed, I also visited Aeris whenever I could·bring her potions, make sure she was a comfortable as she could be·" Reeve trailed off, lost for a brief moment in memory.

"Anyway," he continued briskly, with a quick shake of his head, "at the most simplistic level, you could say that the Cetra were interplanetary gardeners, going from planet to planet, cultivating as much natural, healthy life as they could before moving on. They didn't just plant seeds and breed chocobos, though. They used their link with the planet to aid in healing wounds and eradicating diseases. In addition to being able to call on lifestream, they also had some inherent powers within their bodies - mostly healing or purifying magic. There were some Cetra who also had catalyst magic, such as the ability to increase the growth rate of plants, or cause birds to lay more eggs than usual."

Cloud thought the information over, and then asked, "Is that all Hojo had? I mean, do we have any information on specific tasks they had, or how they lived day to day? We don't have the magical resources that they did, after all. We'll need to improvise, but only if we know where to start."

Reeve shook his head, dark hair brushing past his temples. "No, unfortunately, Hojo wasn't interested in how the Cetra helped the planet. He was only interested in how to use their powers for his own gain. There were some little notebooks in the library, though. One of Hojo's underlings did a short study on the Ancients a long time ago. Apparently, the more natural life such as plants and animals there are, the healthier the planet is, since it has more resources from which to draw. And although monsters are also lifestream creatures as we all are, they unbalance the system of predator and prey that the planet originally created. Humans are part of the natural scheme of things, but not most of the technologies we've created recently. Midgar was the biggest threat, with its trains and reactors polluting the area."

Tifa pursed her lips, considering Reeve's words. "So, we make sure all the reactors get fully shut down, kill as many monsters as we can, cultivate plant life, and raise baby animals?" The ex-Shinra executive smiled at her simplistic plan. "Well, that's pretty basic, but yes...we nurture the planet the best we can. First, though, I'd like to visit the Forgotten Capital. That is the only surviving Cetra city, after all. Who's to say there aren't clues left behind?"

Seeing Cloud's expression darken at the suggestion, Reeve quietly added, "I'll go alone, of course. It'll only take one person to snoop around. You two could start visiting the old reactors and perhaps destroy all the control mechanisms to ensure that they never get used again."

Cloud nodded, grateful for the excuse to avoid the place where they had lost Aeris...where he had almost killed her himself. He cringed inwardly as the now familiar pain welled up within his heart. Would he ever be free of this guilt, this hurt? Would he ever sleep through the night without bolting awake at least once, sweat drenching the sheets and the chilling sound of Sephiroth's laughter ringing through his mind?

Tifa looked towards Cloud from under lowered lids, heavy lashes shadowing the longing in her eyes. Her hand twitched towards him, wanting to comfort. She wanted so much to be able to regain the intimacy of their time in the lifestream, to open up to him and receive his heart in kind, but how could she open her arms to him when she knew who he grieved for? Pushing her empty glass aside, she got up and said with feigned cheer, "Well, let's get going, then!"

Visiting a Grave

Reeve reined in his chocobo outside of Bone Village, examining the evening sky critically. Rain clouds gathered overhead, pregnant with the promise of a deluge. Grimacing at the thought of camping in the valley with naught but a small canvas tent for shelter, he guided his golden bird into the excavation camp.

After a surprisingly good meal of stew and steamed vegetables that the archeologists had generously shared with him, he curled up in a corner, his sleeping roll protecting him from the cold plank floor beneath. Staring into the smoldering fireplace across the room, Reeve's mind, like an unruly child, would not go to sleep. His thoughts whirled with plans and promises, and his heart was full of a strange mix of anticipation and fear. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would go to the Forgotten Capital. Tomorrow he could visit the cavern that sheltered her watery grave.

He laid one protective hand over the knapsack at his side, thinking of the delicate flowers he'd had made. Formed out of a lightweight poly with a plastic coating to keep moisture at bay, these flowers would float over her for longer than he expected to survive. He'd borrowed two gold chocobos from Cloud and shamelessly plundered what remained of Shinra headquarters from top to bottom, loading saddlebag after saddlebag with materia, small electronics, and costly ornaments left behind in executive suites. Rifles, swords, and other unwieldy weapons were pilfered from the storage bays and strapped onto the chocobos' backs. On his way back to the gate, he had stopped by Elmyra's now untidy cottage and taken as many pictures of the garden as he could with all of the cameras he'd found in Hojo's laboratories.

Stopping often to rest the birds, Reeve had covertly made his way across mountains, valleys, and sea to Wutai, where the stolen goods had been traded for a considerable amount of gil and the complete cooperation of Wutai's three finest artisans for a full month. From the pictures Reeve had taken, faithful replicas of Aeris' beloved flowers had been produced. Flowers, buds, leaves, and vines were all wrapped in layers of soft paper and resting comfortably beside him now, awaiting the moment when they would be set adrift across the lake as a final tribute to the Flower Girl of Midgar.

One hand still resting on the leather bag, Reeve sighed and closed his eyes.

The next afternoon, he carefully trod up the gravelly slope to the cavern entrance, mentally praising himself for trading in his suit and loafers for the more appropriate traveling attire of shirts, pants, and boots. Afraid that his rather weighty chocobo might have difficulties with the slippery gravel, he had left the bird near the entrance to the city. There was no fear of it wandering off, for Reeve had spent some time training the bird in such things as he thought might come in handy some day. His choco now knew to stay within a certain range when left alone, and how to respond to both voice and hand signals in case Reeve was injured or somehow rendered immobile.

With the awkward weight of his knapsack, this ever-shifting terrain had already slipped him up twice in the few hours it had taken him to hike here through Coral Valley and the winding paths through the capital. The flowers had escaped destruction, primarily due to the fact that he'd sacrificed his elbows and head in order to keep the knapsack from crashing to the ground. Rubbing his left temple with an aggrieved air - although he wasn't really sure whom he was seeking sympathy from, since he was traveling alone - he stopped for a breather as he finally attained the entrance to the cavern.

And dropped the knapsack.

The sharp cracking of plastic went completely unnoticed as Reeve scrambled and slipped down the rocky path to the lake, struggling to draw breath with suddenly paralyzed lungs. He skidded and then crashed to his knees next to the limp form lying halfway out of the shallows, unable to believe what his eyes revealed to him. With trembling hands, he brushed back the tangled mass of chestnut hair to find the angelic face that so often haunted his dreams. All of the air rushed from his body as if he'd just been gut-punched by a dragon.

Aeris.

He automatically checked her neck for a pulse as his mind reeled back from the shock of finding her body lifted from its grave. Her skin was cold, but a steady pulse beat underneath his questing fingers. Dark brown eyes roved her body, checking for injuries or signs of returning consciousness, and his mind was dealt another blow. Through the jagged tear in her dress just below her heart, a thin line of scar tissue was visible, a tiny reminder of the blade that had ended her life.

·ended her life?

Reeve sat back limply, just now realizing what it was that he was seeing. Mind numb with denial yet heart daring to soar with an almost painful joy, he slowly gathered her into his arms. After checking and re-checking to confirm that she was indeed breathing, that her pulse was still strong, he held her close and gave into the miracle. "You're alive," he whispered in amazement, "you're alive. Aeris·oh, thank God, you're alive·" He let her settle back into his elbow as he freed one hand to brush her damp hair from her face, and to brush off grains of sand with tender fingers. The realization that she was sopping wet and dangerously chilled slowly insinuated itself into his mind, and he jumped into frantic action just as suddenly as he had raced to examine her.

Holding her carefully in his arms, he hurried back to the outer trail that branched and snaked its way through the capital and whistled for his chocobo. Tilting its feathered head at the piercing, three-note shrill, the gold-feathered bird grabbed its trailing reins in its beak and galloped up to Reeve, a useful trick learned during the trek to this lonely place. Reeve walked up to the bird's side and said firmly, "Sit." The chocobo immediately nestled down into the sand, allowing Reeve access to the saddle without endangering his precious burden. Settled into the saddle, he chirruped once and guided his mount with simple pressures of his ankles, carefully walking them over to the largest of the shell houses still accessible on choco-back.

An hour later, placing the back of his hand to her cheek, Reeve frowned to find her not much warmer than when he had first found her. After a brief but fierce struggle between embarrassment and necessity, he had slipped off her jacket, tugged a shirt over her head, slacks up her legs, and then went about unbuttoning her dress under cover of the borrowed clothes. Although not very large himself, Aeris' delicate frame had seemed lost in his shirt and pants, emphasizing her current fragile state. After tugging some socks on her feet ö they reached her knees ö he had laid her in one of the beds and stripped all of the other beds of their blankets, layering her in them until she was nothing more than a shapeless woolen lump with a head. A real fire had been out of the question in their narrow, wood-floored shelter, so he'd carefully warmed the air in the room with a few strategically placed fire spells·but to no avail. She was still chilled to the bone.

Reeve paced along the curved hallway nervously. She still showed no signs of awakening anytime soon, which negated the possibility of warming her up with soup or tea. He toyed with the idea of riding out to the plains to find a suitable campsite, but any good that a fire might do would likely be counteracted by the wind-swept ride and the drizzling rain that had been falling intermittently since morning. Two more circuits of the spiraling shell-house, and then he stopped before the bed, raking his teeth across his lower lip at her pallor.

Without giving himself any time to think it over, he shrugged off his jacket and crept into the narrow bed alongside her. Gathering her into his arms, he cradled her entire length with his own body, tangling legs and praying that this would work, for he was certainly out of options. Nestling his face into the crook of her neck and pulling the blankets snugly around them, he fell asleep with her pulse beating faintly against his cheek, and her cool fingers clasped tightly in his own.

Awakening

She drifted slowly to the surface of consciousness, gradually becoming aware of a sense of peace and comfort. How long since she'd been so warm? How long since she'd felt so comfortable·no, comforted. Held, and loved·had Ifalna held her like this in that far-off snowy cabin? She could almost feel those gentle arms wrapped around her now, mother and daughter snuggled down against the cold in one bed·

·actually, she could feel arms around her, but it was a sure bet that they weren't Ifalna's·

Curiosity overcame the urge to simply revel in the feeling of comfort, and she lazily opened her eyes. Finding herself facing the familiar curved walls and glowing orbs of one of the Forgotten Capital's shell houses suddenly brought her most recent memories crashing back to her. Midgar, Meteor, and calling the lifestream·the voice of the Planet, and·and crawling out of the lake that·that she'd been sleeping·no, that she'd been buried in!

Uncertainty and shock flooded into her mind, making her breath come in sharp, short gasps and her heart pound furiously. She unconsciously clutched the hands twined with her own to her chest, cringing slightly as if trying to escape the notice of Fate by making herself smaller. She had died. She could remember Cloud's expression turn to one of horrified denial at the same time that the fiery spark of pain had flashed through her body just before the darkness claimed her. She had died. Died, and been suspended in the lifestream instead of completely returning to the embrace of the Planet. Died, and then placed in limbo so that she might yet accomplish one last task in her life-long duty to aid her home.

...one more task...

A memory of the Planet's voice surfaced, bringing with it the final realization that tilted her back towards sanity instead of a screaming panic. Died...and then brought back by the Planet to accomplish a task. The last Cetra, not allowed to sleep until the obligations of her race were fulfilled. Died...and now lived once more. Her heartbeat slowed slightly, the stark fear slowly receding and being replaced instead by wonder and awe.

I'm not dead. I'm not dead anymore. The Planet brought me back...I fainted, I guess, and now...

Finally noticing once more the hands she clasped and the arms that encircled her, she squirmed around underneath what seemed like a foot of blankets to find herself brushing noses with none other than Reeve. Her movements woke him, and as she watched in stunned incomprehension, he sighed, rubbed his face into their shared pillow for a moment, and then blearily blinked open his eyes. Pulling his face back slightly as he tried to focus on her face, he smiled softly and reached up one hand to brush at her cheek...and then realized he wasn't dreaming.

"Holy..." he shouted - and Aeris assumed he wasn't trying to call upon the white materia - then jerked back violently as if he'd woken up to find a snake in the bed. Struggling to wade out of the woolen nest he'd created for them, he stammered out an incoherent explanation.

"I'm sorry! I didn't...I mean, you were cold, and I couldn't...I found you all wet, and cold...this was the only way I could think of...I mean, I thought of other stuff, but nothing worked, and I...you...uh..." With one leg still tangled in the bedding, Reeve finally threw himself off of the bed in something close to desperation. Jarring his knees on the unforgiving floor, he winced and cut off his monologue before he bit off his tongue. Absently rubbing his knees, he stared up at the wide-eyed angel and continued rather helplessly, "...I had to get you warm somehow. You were so cold...so cold..." His hand reached up towards her face once more, and this time made contact. Running careful fingertips over her cheek, he found himself overwhelmed with gratitude to find that the deathly chill and pallor were gone.

Aeris continued to stare at him in amazement for a moment, her shock at finding herself alive once more now competing with a new shock at having been found by Reeve, and the way he was now acting towards her. Always before in the labs, he'd been excruciatingly polite - chillingly so, in fact. She'd never been sure if his proper behavior perhaps had hidden as twisted a heart as most Shinra executives seemed to have. And later, when Cait Sith's ultimate identity had been revealed, his admirable loyalty to the people he cared for had been overshadowed by the kidnapping of Marlene to ensure their cooperation. He'd never tried to contact them in person; never tried to establish a relationship with them as friends...content, it seemed, only to do his part - using them as needed - in saving what was important to himself.

But now, there were actually tears standing in his eyes, and the hand that so gently caressed her cheek trembled. Searching his dark eyes with her own green gaze, she laid one slender hand over his and said his name quietly, "Reeve?" He bit his lip at hearing his name from her lips, and shook his head in surrender to the emotions welling up within him. "...so glad you're alive," he whispered. Emerald eyes widened a bit more, and she nodded slowly, unsure of what to say. "Um...thanks. Me too," she replied rather lamely. Her words struck her as strangely hilarious, and she giggled despite herself. Reeve's face lit up in an answering smile, and for a brief, suspended moment in time, they simply smiled at one another, resting in the reassuring expression of the face across from them.

"So," Aeris began, "what am I doing here? And what are you doing here?" Reeve explained about Cloud, Tifa, and his situation after filling her in on everyone else's lives, and then went on to detail the events leading to his journey here. "Oh, I totally forgot...I brought you flowers!" he exclaimed, remembering the knapsack still lying in the cavern entrance. "Flowers?" she responded eagerly, quickly looking around the bare room. Reeve studiously kept his eyes trained on the blankets he was folding, and explained, "They're not real; I had replicas of the flowers in your garden made from synthetic materials so that they'd never fade or die...I was going to float them across the lake for you."

Aeris turned to watch him as he continued to tuck and fold, his eyes still nailed to the blankets. He'd brought flowers. He'd brought flowers to her grave. She shook her head...this was going to take some getting used to. She wasn't sure if she meant her resurrection, or her incorrect evaluation of Reeve's character, but...walking over a few steps, she laid a hand on his shoulder and said simply, "Thank you."

He finally stopped smoothing out blankets and looked up at her. Still clad in his rumpled clothes, her hair a wild tangle of brown locks, she was somehow even more beautiful than he remembered. Perhaps even because of her disheveled appearance, which made her seem more human and less an ethereal being, Reeve felt the familiar stirring in his heart awaken into a new realization. He'd fallen in love with her.

Shaken by the revelation, Reeve stood up and turned away from her piercing green eyes, speaking casually, "Your dress seems to have dried overnight. I'll go and repack the chocobo. Why don't you get changed? I'll be waiting outside." So saying, he disappeared down the ladder into the entryway.

The Second Reunion

Cloud sat back in his chair, pushing away his empty plate and sighing in contentment. Tifa smiled over the table at him and said teasingly, "Looks like destroying all that equipment gave you quite an appetite."

"Yeah," Cloud laughed, "Good thing Gongaga's reactor has been shut down so long...I'd have fainted away from hunger if there'd been any monsters still hanging around." Squinting into the afternoon sunlight that poured in from the open doorway of the inn, he pondered their next course of action. "I guess now that we've taken care of all the reactors, we should go see if Reeve's found anything interesting. It's strange that we haven't heard from him yet."

Pursing her lips thoughtfully, Tifa supplied, "That could mean he's totally caught up in something interesting that he's found..." She grimaced, and then continued, "...of course, it could also mean he hasn't found anything to call us about." Across from her, Cloud grinned and lifted his water glass to his lips.

As she secretly admired the way the sunlight put golden glints into his blue eyes, she saw the grin slowly slip off his face like water sheeting off a window. The glass slipped from his fingers, crashing to the floor and sending sparkling shards of glass and water in all directions. Slivers crunched underneath his boots as he rose from the table and walked towards the door, slowly at first, and then breaking into a run.

Automatically tracking his movement, Tifa turned to face into the sunlight and saw Reeve ushering a young woman into the restaurant. Long brown hair backlit into gold, brilliant green eyes, and a long, pink dress. She only took one step into the room before she was caught up into a fierce embrace by a tall blonde man who hugged her to him as if he'd never let her go. After a space of a few heartbeats, he cupped her face in his hands and looked searchingly into her face. Their lips moved as if they were talking, but Tifa couldn't hear anything because of the strange roaring sound in her ears. All in all, a tender, beautiful moment, but for the fact that the tall blonde man was Cloud, and the girl? Well, the girl in his arms was Aeris Gainsborough.

"Aeris, how...?"

"I'm not sure...the Planet still has things for me to do, apparently."

"I just found her there, lying near the lake."

"This has to be a dream."

"No, it's real. I'm real. So, Reeve tells me you three are putting me out of a job?"

"No, no...how could we have accomplished anything without you?"

"It's as if the Planet knew that we wanted to help, and brought her back."

The conversation lasted through the night and well into the early hours of the next day. Cloud asked questions, Aeris answered as best she could, and Reeve put in his two cents whenever there was the slightest pause. Tifa sat - rather appropriately, she thought miserably - in Aeris' shadow on the couch, not taking part in the conversation, and apparently not being missed, either. The opportunity to rejoice in Aeris' return upstaged by Cloud, her joy at seeing her friend alive overshadowed by the familiar pang of jealousy, and the need to ask questions also rendered unnecessary, she simply sat quietly and tried to make sense of the miracle and her resulting heartache.

Why can't I be happier? She's alive...thank God she's alive; we need her so much, and her death was so tragic. What's wrong with me? She's just as much a part of our group as Reeve, probably even more so. I should be crying with joy or hugging her to death or something. I am glad she's alive. I just...I guess I'm just jealous?

A week ago, the three of us were going to care for the planet. Now, she's back and Cloud says that we would have failed without her? When it was just the two of us, he paid so much attention to me, but now I could turn into Jenova and he probably wouldn't notice. Oh, stop being an idiot, Lockheart. Of course he's glad to see her. Of course he's amazed. She was dead, after all, and he felt so guilty for not being able to save her. It's just...

She sighed softly to herself, suddenly feeling the weight of their day's work and lack of sleep weigh down upon her heavily.

Buck up, Lockheart. This isn't like you. You're just a little tired, that's all. You've done this before. Love your friends, keep on loving him, and keep smiling. It'll be all right in the end. It'll be all right...

Confidences, Confession and Confusion

He tossed and turned, fell in and out of formless dreams, and finally got up just before the sun. Wandering out of his room, he caught sight of a slender figure seated at one of the downstairs tables, and walked over with a small smile. "Couldn't sleep much?" he asked.

Aeris smiled up at him, shaking her head. "No, not really. I still have a hard time sleeping for long periods of time. Except for that first night after I came back, I haven't slept for more than a few hours at a time. It's too frightening for me; to fall into unconsciousness and wake up who knows how long afterwards. It...reminds me."

Cloud felt a pang of guilt stab through him as he seated himself next to her. He had done that to her. He had let her die, and now she couldn't even find refuge in sleep. He nervously rasped his fingers together on the tabletop. "Aeris, I...I want to tell you how sorry I am. That...I want to say I'm sorry for letting you die. If only..."

"Cloud, stop," she interrupted, laying one hand on his, stilling the restless motion of his fingers. "It's not your fault that I died. There's nothing you could have done to prevent it. Besides, if I hadn't died, then I wouldn't have been able to call up the lifestream that ended up saving this planet. It had to happen that way, I think. And besides, everything turned out all right. I'm here, after all." She smiled at him reassuringly, wanting to absolve him of the guilt he insisted on carrying around with him.

He let himself rest in her compassionate eyes, thankful beyond measure that he'd been given this chance to be forgiven. Gratitude welled up within him accompanied by a protectiveness and promise to himself never to let anything else harm this woman before him. Yes, she was here...with him. The last Cetra, given back to him by the planet to protect? This new idea, once sprouted, seemed to root itself in his mind rather firmly. That must be it. She was his to watch over now; his chance to make up for his past mistakes and his failures as her bodyguard. Whatever her task was that the planet wanted her to complete, he must make sure she succeeded. Cloud took hold of the idea with a lighter heart, not realizing that he still hadn't forgiven himself; not realizing that he was actually now using the Ancient as a means of trying to repay his sins, rather than accepting her forgiveness in full.

Next to him, Aeris was also treading lightly along the edge of self-deceit. Ancient though she might be, with the ability to communicate with the planet, but her heart was yet that of a young girl's. The echoes of Zack found in his appearance, as well as the nurturing instinct of the Cetra touched by Cloud's need for her forgiveness stirred within her a warmth beyond that of the friendship she held in her heart for him. Still with one hand laid over his, she smiled into his eyes and wondered yearningly if this was the same tenderness that Ghast had shared with Ifalna in the few precious years they had been able to have together. The love that they had shared in their snowy cabin, the infant girl who had been the visible symbol of their union...did such happiness await her as well? The last task set for her by the planet...could it be to pass on her Cetra heritage to a daughter or son? Surely that qualified as a labor of love. Could the man before her now be the one with whom she would share that future? To set off to the capital and rediscover bits and pieces of her past, her heritage...with Cloud at her side. To pass on that past, to pass on the abilities and powers of the Cetra, that they might not be lost forever.

The two sat for a while, each lost in their individual fancies, neither actually focused on the one they dreamed of.

Homesick

Tifa yawned and rolled out of bed, rubbing her eyes. A quick look out the window revealed a new sun climbing its way well over the horizon.

A few minutes later, she peeped out into the hallway, listening for any sound that might tell her if she was the first up. All was silent from the other bedrooms, but two familiar voices could be heard floating up from the dining area downstairs. Them. Cloud and Aeris. How long had they been up now?

Creeping to the stairs, she peered over the railing to see them chatting over untouched cups of tea and coffee. No steam arose from the beverages...some time, then, Tifa mused. When was the last time she and Cloud had a chance to sit down and just talk, for no other reason than the pleasure of each other's company? Her heart lurched in her breast as she saw Aeris laugh and lay a hand on Cloud's arm...so easily, so naturally. And the tender look he returned...

"Going down?" asked a quiet voice, making her jump. She turned to find Reeve standing in a shadowy corner behind her.

"Oh, hi Reeve," she said awkwardly. Had he seen her spying on their friends? "Did you just get up?" He shook his head in the negative, replying, "No. I got up around dawn, but didn't feel like entering the conversation. I'll join you for breakfast if you like."

Tifa nodded and headed down the stairs in front of him. At dawn...so they've been talking together for at least...wait. She almost missed a step as an incongruous thought intruded into her mind. Had Reeve also been watching Cloud and Aeris? Was it for the same reason as herself?

Mind your own business, Lockheart. You're already making a fine mess of your own love life. Leave Reeve's alone.

Aeris spotted them and waved them over, excitement sparkling in her emerald eyes. "Cloud and I were just talking, and we think we should go back to the Forgotten Capital, since Mr. Reeve here forgot to fulfill his earlier mission of information hunting," she said teasingly. Reeve smiled apologetically and replied blandly, "I completely forgot. You'll have to excuse me, I had something on my mind." The Cetra laughed lightly, and the conversation turned to supplies for the trip, and other topics. It had apparently been decided already, then, that they would make this trip.

Decided without asking her input. Well, that was fine, because she wasn't going.

"I won't be going." The words were out of her mouth before she knew it. All three of her friends turned to her in amazement, but it was Cloud who frowned and spoke first. "Why not?" Avoiding the six eyes that were fixed on her, she calmly replied, "I'm going back to Nibelheim. I'm homesick, and besides, you guys don't need me."

"Tifa, of course we need..." began Reeve, but was cut off by Cloud's brusque rejoinder, "What do you mean, 'back to Nibelheim?' You can't go home there, Tifa, it's not our Nibelheim anymore." The uneasy heartache turned a darker shade into a flash of anger. "I know that, Cloud," she shot back. "I saw it burned to the ground too, you know. I'm not going to Nibelheim so I can live in the past; I'm going to start the new life that I should have begun a month ago. Everything changed for me after Meteor was destroyed...I just didn't realize it until now."

Their mission over, there had no longer been a need to be constantly at his side, cheering him on and being a support for him to lean on when Sephiroth threatened to push him over the edge. No longer facing danger and death every day, there had been no further need for that close camaraderie that was necessary for a fighting unit to survive. She was no longer needed as his traveling companion, to fight by his side and watch his back, to add her wits to their quest, to help save the world. The only thing required of her now by Cloud was friendship, and that she could give long distance, where it wouldn't hurt so much. The one thing she needed and could not have from Cloud was love, and that was a hurt she wanted to heal from a distance, where there wouldn't be constant reminders.

Her decision made, she repeated, "I won't be going. I'll leave for Nibelheim tomorrow morning when you all leave." Cloud continued to frown at her, while Aeris toyed with her teacup, and Reeve gazed at her with strangely empathetic eyes that almost stirred tears from her eyes. Forcing a smile, she added, "Be sure to visit and tell me how you're all doing, okay?" and then left the table hurriedly, walking out the door to clear her muddled mind with a brisk walk, not even noticing the tears down her cheeks until she stumbled over a large root. Falling to her knees, she curled up underneath the sheltering tree and wept for the love she'd nurtured for so long, only to come to the decision to bury it after all these years.

She awoke with a start, surprised to find that herself in that eerie velvet gray between afternoon and evening. The sun had just set, but only a handful of stars had appeared, leaving the world in a dusky dream world. Tifa sighed, propping herself into a sitting position and leaning her aching head back against the trunk of the tree she had slumbered under. The mourning color of the sky was appropriate, and she appreciated nature's seeming sympathy for her. He loved Aeris. The little moments they'd had together had happened simply because Aeris had been removed from the scene for a short time. She had been second pick. So, she would bury the hopeless love she'd carried with her for so long. She'd done her weeping and would pick up her life where she'd left off. Go back to Nibelheim and slowly rebuild. Give herself a little healing time. She was strong; she'd make it.

Brushing a few leaves and dust patches from her body, she made her way back to the inn, which seemed quiet and still, hoping to carefully creep in without waking anyone. But someone was waiting for her outside the door.

Bright green eyes caught her gaze, and then were hidden for a moment beneath long lashes. Lifting her head once more, Aeris asked softly, "Can we talk?"

Tifa was tempted for a moment to shake her head and simply walk past, but she quickly dismissed the notion as selfish and unworthy of her friend. She nodded and then waited with downcast eyes for her friend and rival to speak.

"You're going back to Nibelheim because of me, right? Because of me...and because of Cloud?" When Tifa remained silent, Aeris pleaded gently, "Tifa, please...I don't want this to hurt our friendship."

Tifa's innate warmth and kindness could not help but respond to such a plea, and she finally lifted her head, finding similar yet vastly different shades of pain and longing in her friend's eyes. Heart aching for the both of them, she said, "Neither do I...but I'm sorry, I'm still leaving for Nibelheim tomorrow. Maybe someday..." she trailed off. Maybe someday, after she'd forgotten, after she'd finally laid her love to rest...

Aeris nodded. "I...I'm not sure why I'm telling you this, but..." she made a helpless gesture with one hand, not sure of what she was saying, much less of what she was feeling. "...maybe because you'd understand - maybe because I want you to know that I know how you feel. I think...I think maybe I love him."

The brunette head turned sharply towards her, starry eyes narrowing into a piercing gaze. Aeris found herself involuntarily taking one step back from those diamond-hard eyes. "Yes...I would understand, I suppose. But you wouldn't," Tifa replied. Catching Aeris' confused look, she went on, her voice breaking a bit over the shards in her heart. "I understand what it's like to fall in love with someone...to wonder if he's the one for you; to be swept away by the emotions that wash over you whenever you see him. But you wouldn't understand what it is to truly love that same man. To grow past the emotions and sensations of being in love, to the commitment of truly loving that person." Tifa gestured impatiently with her hands, wanting Aeris to truly understand, needing now, after so long, to pour out her heart to someone - even Aeris.

"I'm in love with him. My heart beats faster when he's near, I love gazing into his eyes, and I dream about holding him and being held back. But I also love him. Even when he makes me mad, I know deep in my heart the bond I have to him will never break. Even if he'd gone completely insane from Sephiroth's mind control, and there was absolutely no chance of him ever returning my feelings or even then my friendship, I wouldn't be able to stop loving him. What I feel for Cloud isn't just the passions of the heart; it's a passion of the soul. People get married because they're in love. And those same people get divorced because they didn't actually love each other; they were just 'in love.' Being in love isn't a constant. People fight, people have bad days, and people fall in and out of love all the time. But loving someone; that can't die. There's a difference, and that's the difference between you and me...and him."

"But," Aeris faltered, "if you love him so deeply...how can you bear to leave him?"

"Because I love him, silly," smiled Tifa wearily. "You still don't get it. I'm not going to hide in Nibelheim and try to stop loving him. That would be impossible. I'll love him until the day I die; that's how much he's a part of me. I'm going to Nibelheim to keep on living and loving, but without making him the center of my life. I'm not going to waste my whole life and heart on someone who won't return that gift. I deserve better than that." She sighed, and turned to walk into the inn.

A slender hand touched her arm and stopped her, and Tifa was surprised to find Aeris giving her a fierce hug. Even more surprising, she found herself returning the embrace, with no trace of animosity...Aeris hadn't done anything with the intent to hurt her, after all, she thought to herself. With a few last pats on the back, they stepped back from each other and smiled. If not the best of friends, at least they would part with a deeper understanding of each other. The two young women turned and crept through the darkened restaurant to climb the stairs, and outside, above the entryway, a bedroom window slowly slid shut.

Turning Point

She stepped lightly past the holographic image of the clown fish, patting him whimsically on the head as she began her descent down the spiraling crystal staircase. A full month had already gone by; where did the time go? They'd found so many more shell houses once they'd been able to clear away the debris blocking the old, winding streets. Some had been completely destroyed by time and the elements, but many were still suitable for living in, and a few even contained remnants of the daily life lived by her people so long ago.

The real treasure had been the rectangular building to the west of the shell houses, though. Hidden panels in the floor revealed storage rooms with shelves upon shelves of books, maps, and scrolls. Nanaki and several elders had journeyed from Cosmo Canyon, settling themselves into various shell houses and emerging only when they'd managed to translate a scrap of text. Reeve's past as Head of City Management made itself known as he'd efficiently organized meals, housing, and supplies without even being asked. Cid had been wrangled into dropping off supplies on a monthly basis, with short excursions for miscellaneous items made on chocobo by Reeve or Cloud. A few refugees from Midgar whom he'd known were recruited as cooks, record keepers, and general assistance staff. One multi-talented woman even moonlighted as their barber when necessary.

Aeris herself studied much with the elders and worked on developing her abilities. She found that with enough concentration, she could still call on the lifestream - although on a much smaller scale from Midgar. Concentrated spikes of lifestream could be used to augment magic as well as accelerate plant growth, it seemed. And she'd added a skill since her resurrection. Her Great Gospel had been modified so that it could be used outside of battle, and on life other than human. Who knew? Perhaps her human half would not be an impediment to acquiring her full Cetra heritage. Perhaps she only needed some time.

And Cloud...Cloud was the self-appointed Slayer of Monsters that Came too Near, and had also reinstated himself as her bodyguard, making sure the she didn't injure herself while training, and generally staying by her side. She found the constant attendance reassuring. Perhaps their relationship wasn't quite as deep and significant as Tifa's feelings for the blonde swordsman, but surely with time...

She halted on the steps, catching sight of a familiar, spiky blonde head. Think of the devil, she thought with a smile. She padded down the rest of the steps quickly, long chestnut hair flying loose behind her. Jumping from pillar to pillar, she made her way to the altar where he stood silently.

"Cloud?" she said, coming up behind him to stand at his side, "what are you doing?"

He turned to her with a thoughtful, somber expression. "Just thinking...about this place...about what happened." A shudder swept through her frame as her eyes fell upon the exact spot where she'd died. She took the three steps necessary to reach it, and looked up at the vaulting ceiling from where Death had fallen. A vague feeling of deja vu swept over her as she caught Cloud's gaze, but too many things were different for the sensation to linger for long. She wasn't kneeling; Cloud wasn't drawing his sword...and they weren't fighting to save the planet anymore...just learning to nurture it.

Cloud seemed to have followed a similar train of thought, for as he caught her eyes, he grinned crookedly and said, "Don't worry; I left my sword upstairs." Aeris returned the smile as her mind drifted back to her inner conversation from the stairs. With time...who's to say Cloud wasn't the one for her? She pondered Tifa's words for a moment. Well, how was she supposed to know what true love was, and the differences in being in love and loving someone? She had no experiences to draw from. The casual romance she'd had with Zack hadn't had time to develop, either. She found herself walking towards the man whose appearance recalled so many memories of her first boyfriend, stepping closer until there was only a handbreadth between them, and smiled up at him.

"Cloud..." He tilted his head down to meet her eyes. Her heart raced, and excitement tingled through her veins, but before she could speak, he took the words right out of her mouth.

"...you think you love me?" he asked gently, his expression unreadable. Her eyes flew wide in surprise, and he bit his lip, turning and taking one step away from her. "I'm sorry...I overheard you and Tifa talking. My bedroom was right above the restaurant door." He glanced back at her, rather shamefaced. She blushed to recall the conversation, and then gamely went on, "Yes, I think I love you. Surprise," she added, with a faint attempt at humor.

Cloud averted his eyes once more, and then looked upwards at the light streaming down from above. "I was thinking I loved you too," he said quietly. "But then I came here, and now..."

Her heart quietly thrumming, she watched as Cloud neared and took her chilled fingers in his own. "I failed you as your bodyguard. I almost killed you twice. I watched you die in front of my very eyes. Aeris, you came to know me pretty well before...you told me to stop thinking so much...well, this time, I didn't think things through enough. I took all the guilt and protectiveness that I felt, added it to our friendship, and made it something it wasn't. I love you, Aeris, I really do...but not the way I thought. Not the way..." he faded off for a moment, trying to express his new realizations, and ended, "I'm sorry."

Aeris felt a strange pang inside, and tried to stammer out, "But...it doesn't have to...I'm not asking you to love me perfectly right now. People need time, sometimes, to really fall in love..." She pressed her lips shut, her arguments sounding flat and ridiculous. The blue eyes that captured hers closed as he shook his head.

"I have had time, and I have fallen in love...I just didn't realize it until now."

She understood now. "Tifa," she whispered. He nodded confirmation. "When I saw you in the doorway, I just jumped up and left her at the table. All the time I spent with her, I still thought of you sometimes, and when you came back, I thought it might be...might be that I loved you. I let her go back to Nibelheim alone because I thought I needed to be with you. But now, this past month...I've realized that I'm still trying to make up for the past. I'm trying to love you and protect you to make up for my mistakes, and I can't make you happy that way."

Words struggled up her throat and clamored to get out...reasons, both sensible and ridiculous...anything to keep him here. But she swallowed them back down, realizing the truth of his words. It wasn't truly love, and it wouldn't bring them true happiness. She nodded, then, and placed one hand on his chest as if to push him back. But not quite...not quite.

"Goodbye, Cloud."

He took her hand in his own and bent to press a kiss to her forehead. With one last squeeze of her fingers, he turned and walked away.

She sat on the altar for a long while, expressionless and numbed.

I'm not even crying. When your heart is broken, don't you cry? Does that mean it wasn't, then? We both fooled ourselves, I guess. My task...what is it? Does it have room for love, or am I just the Cetra, duty bound and doomed to be alone?

She sighed and got up, eyes downcast as she made her way back to the foot of the great spiral staircase. It was useless to mourn over a danger averted. Had they forced themselves into a relationship, it likely would have ended in greater heartbreak and bitterness later on. Cloud's place was not in this quiet place of the past. It was not by her side. He needed to go back to Nibelheim as well...to his home...to Tifa. What she would do now was regain her Ancient heritage here in her ancestors' home, and perhaps further enlightenment would come later about what her task was.

She looked up the steps to find Reeve sitting down about halfway up the stairway. As she neared, he stood up and reached out his hand. She took it automatically, thinking over this other companion of hers, and his place here. With Cloud constantly hovering attendance, he had kept his distance, but seemed always to appear when she needed him, whether for an insignificant errand or simply someone with an analytical mind to bounce ideas off of. And he'd always taken care of the little details Cloud seemed to overlook. He bullied her into taking regular meals, and didn't allow her to get out of bed until she'd gotten what he deemed an appropriate amount of rest. Aside from food, clothing, and writing supplies, he also coerced Cid into bringing letters from their friends for her to read, and made small shopping expeditions to bring her little trinkets. But was he happy here? Could she be unselfish enough to give up another of her friends to their own life? Could she carry on her mission alone?

"Reeve..." He raised his eyebrows inquiringly. "Yes, my Cetra?" She smiled at the teasing nickname he'd adopted, and continued. "Cloud's going back to Nibelheim...that's where his place is. You don't have to stay here, either, you know. This is the duty I have to the planet as an Ancient...you don't have to stay here with me...you can have your life back."

Reeve gave her a searching look, and then sighed. Tugging her up the stairs, he spoke over his shoulder rather nonchalantly. "My Cetra, you are half human, half Ancient, and 100% silly goose. I'll chalk up my superior wisdom and insight to the fact that I'm a good ten years older than you are. Someday I'll tell you about the task I've set for myself, but for now, suffice to say that my place - and life - is here."

His task? Silly goose??? Taken aback at his somewhat flippant reply to her serious statement, she repeated blankly, "Here?"

He stopped, turned, and nodded. Pointing down at his feet for emphasis, he repeated, "Here." Her eyes automatically fell to where he was pointing. At his feet. On the same step as her. At her side.

She shook her head at her romantic idiocies, smiling to herself. Reeve? No...she was a bit overwrought to have conjured up that thought from out of nowhere. She pushed certain memories aside, ignoring them for the moment, and gave him a thankful smile. They continued up the stairs together as she began chatting.

"Good, because I'll need your help. The elders are brilliant translators, but they're awfully unorganized. What they discover, I have to learn and apply. And there's so much! To spread that knowledge to the world so that it's not just a handful of people nurturing the planet...it's going to take forever!"

Reeve nodded absently, thrilling to the sensation of her tiny fingers clasped in his hand. "To dedicate one's life to the preservation of the planet," he mused, "what a labor of love that is." Aeris whipped her head around at his words. A labor of love...not just a task to complete and then be done with, but a lifetime dedicated to the planet she loved. And now, Reeve's life dedicated to that same task? His task, for the sake of love? The love of...what? whom?

Seeing her reaction from the corner of his eyes, he glanced down at her. She asked curiously, "A labor of love...for?" He smiled once more. "Is it me, or does my Cetra seem a little older and wiser than ten seconds ago?" he asked the staircase. "You might think that it's foolish of me to dedicate the rest of my life to what you consider your personal, private cause, but really, it matters very little to me whether you think it's right or not. Like when I gave the keystone to Shinra. You all considered me a traitor, but I did it to save Marlene's life, and I was sure that we could catch up to the Turks in any case. I knew it was right, and so I did it, regardless of what anyone thought. This is right for me; to give my life to the planet, to spend all my days by your side."

Secure in his decisions, regardless of what any specific results might be, Reeve decided to enlighten her one step more. "I plan on asking your permission for a more personal dedication of my life later on, but that won't be for years, yet. I'd hate to be called a cradle-robber, after all." As Aeris gaped at him, he added quietly, "I'm dead serious, by the way. But this is only something to keep in the back of your mind for the next few years. We'll go on as before, and if you find that you have a place in your heart for me, good. If not, well...I'll still be here as your friend."

To spread the mission around the world...to pass on her knowledge. And with Reeve at her side. To someday pass on her abilities and heritage. A lifetime of laboring for the sake of love, and the task that would be handed down to her children...the mission that would outlive her...

She gripped his hand tighter, her heart lightening within. "Okay," she agreed.

By the Well

She leaned back, resting her aching heart in the velvety silence and the glittering brilliance of the stars above. How long ago since she'd stargazed with Cloud those many years ago?

"It's been nine years, hasn't it?"

Heart frantically trying to jump out of her throat, she twisted around to find him standing there as if conjured up by her thoughts. Wearing the same determined and too-old expression as he had almost a decade ago, he sat down on the wooden platform to her left, and the sense of deja vu was overwhelming.

He apparently felt the same sense of reliving the past, for his next comment was, "I'm going to join Solider."

She blinked, still struggling with the shock of seeing him suddenly appear before her. After a quick glance her way, Cloud continued, "It'll be hard, but...

And instead of continuing the well remembered dialogue...

"...but I'll do my best, because I want to impress you. I'm going to join Soldier because I want to be strong and brave. I want to be a man you'll look up to and be able to rely on. I want to be worthy of you." Blue eyes glowed a soft aquamarine in the star-shine as he turned to lock gazes with her. "I watched you all those years we grew up together. I wished that it had been me instead of you who'd been hurt when the bridge collapsed. I joined Soldier to try and impress you. Seeing you bleeding to death up in the reactor hurt me more than being run through by Sephiroth's blade. You couldn't be more a part of my heart now than if we'd spent an entire year together in the lifestream. And I came here tonight because," he paused, and then sighed, "...because I couldn't stay away anymore."

"What about Aeris?" she asked, unable to immediately believe what she was hearing after all the years of hoping and hurting, of silent longing and equally silent despair. Cloud considered for a moment, and then replied simply, "I love her; very much." Tifa felt her heart give a painful wrench at the words. This had to be some kind of strange, sick nightmare...

"I love Yuffie, I love Nanaki, and God help me, I love Barret, too," Cloud continued. "You, Aeris, Cid...all of you are family to me now. We've traveled all over the world in our crazy quest, fought every kind of monster - human or otherwise, and saved the world together; how could I not love you all? But there's only one person I need by my side for the rest of my life, and I've finally realized that it's you, Tifa." As Tifa slowly absorbed his words, he hopped down from the platform and stood facing her, glittering blue eyes looking directly into her own.

Taking her hands in his, he continued, "You're the only one, Tifa. The only one I absolutely can't do without. The only one I count on to be there for me, who I trust to never desert me, who I could ask to sacrifice anything for my sake. And it's not because I'm so confident of your loyalty and your giving heart, even though you are the most loyal and generous person I know, but because I'm sure now of how much I love you. You hear me?" he asked, gripping her hands tight, "I love you, Tifa. I love you."

She nodded her head, tears shimmering down her cheeks as she did. "I heard you," she whispered, heart soaring - daring to believe. Cloud freed one hand to brush away her tears, caressing her cheek softly. "Tell me," he pleaded with her, "say that you love me, too." Smiling up at him, she swallowed her tears and replied with her heart on her lips, "You can always count on me to be here for you, and I'll never leave you, and I'd give up anything for your sake...but not because you love me. Because I love you. I love you," she repeated, joy indefinable in her heart at being able to say the words, "I've always loved you."

He smiled at her, the last piece of his heart finally clicking into place. Taking her face in his hands, he lightly touched his lips to hers, still a bit hesitant. A handful of soft, tickling kisses were exchanged, which slowly grew into a long, lingering kiss. Her arms wrapped around his neck, pulling him even closer to her, and he circled her waist with one arm, running his other hand along her back. Lips now firmly pressed together, they remained in that one lingering embrace for the sweetest minute of their lives.

Lifting his head from hers, Cloud smiled. "I was wrong; I can come home to Nibelheim. Because home is where the heart is; and you're in Nibelheim right now." Tifa laughed and pulled his face towards her once more. Lips brushing against his, she whispered, "Welcome home, Cloud."

The End

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