A Labor of Love Chapter 1

Taking up the Cause

By Meriko Robert

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 - the new adventure - 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!"


Chapter 2

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