A Labor of Love Chapter 6
By Meriko Robert
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.
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