A Labor of Love Chapter 7
By Meriko Robert
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.
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.
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