The Subquest

By Sam Alexander

"Ahh, long have I sought this treasure", said the man, taking the Desert Rose from Cloud. He stared intently at it for a moment. He then returned his gaze to the green-eyed mercenary. "I see you have great worth as a treasure-hunter."

Cloud remained silent, crossing his arms.

"Well, in any case. I will give you a reward for this rose... yet I sense you long for something greater, something which transcends this world."

"What would you know of what I desire, old trader..." Cloud was becoming noticeably impatient with the man's speculation. "You have your rose, give up the bird."

"Yes, yes, of course..." The man was not put off by Cloud's evasive manner. "But I would offer you a once in a lifetime chance. A gamble. Double or nothing."

"..." Cloud showed little sign of interest.

"I will let you borrow the bird to hunt for another treasure. This treasure, a large piece of materia, is more desirable to me than any rose. But there is a catch. It is only a legend, and I am uncertain if it even exists. If you return emptyhanded, you will get nothing and forfeit the chocobo." The old man paused for a moment to study Cloud. As always, the spiky-haired mercenary was impossible to read. "If you return with the materia, I will teach you the secret of raising the dead."

Cloud remained silent, and turned to Barrett.

"Shit, man, I don't trust this..." Barrett started, eying the trader.

"It is up to you, treasure hunter." The man didn't even look at Barrett, his eyes pinned instead on Cloud. "I will give you the night to think it over. In the meantime the bird is yours as promised."

It did not take long for the company to get to the Chocobo ranch using the Highwind. While Cid navigated the skies, which were rent by the looming Meteor which seemed like some ominous eye, Cloud moved to Tifa.

"Tifa..." The way Cloud spoke, Tifa could tell right away he was torn. "Do you agree that we must take every possible risk to stop Sephiroth, no matter the sacrifice to ourselves?"

Tifa was curious, but did not understand fully the connotations of Cloud's query. "Cloud... you know my answer to that. Of course we must... there is no price too high. ...Cloud? What is it?"

But Cloud shook his head. Hearing Tifa's answer seemed to make him less torn, like he had made a decision inside.

The company disembarked and entered the Chocobo stable. Upon receipt of the note the man in Kalm had written, the Chocobo ranchers reluctantly gave up the gem of the ranch: the Kalm trader's golden Chocobo.

"Alright! With this thing we can divide into two and both navigate the world quickly." Barrett was excited as they tested the chocobo's abilities.

"What, don't trust my navigators?" Cid grinned.

But as everyone else was busy oohing and ahhing over the fine bird, Cloud seemed withdrawn. Tifa noticed and joined him at his side.

"Cloud... I can tell you are torn. What is it?" She took his hand and looked up into his eyes.

Cloud crossed his arms, breaking the handhold with Tifa. Then he addressed the company as one. "The Golden Chocobo could prove a great tool to our cause..." His eyes scanned the group. "But I fear perhaps it is but a stepping stone for us. We have an option before us. Keep the chocobo or gamble the chocobo for a way to bring Aeris back."

Tifa took a step backward away from Cloud, a look of bewilderment splayed across her face.

"Aww man, you can't seriously mean you believe that trader?" Barrett seemed pissed off.

"I... don't know. He said he can teach us a way. It seems risky... but maybe Aeris is our only hope of stopping Sephiroth." Cloud turned and his gaze met Tifa's. "We must be willing to put anything at all at stake in our quest, no matter how costly."

The party broke into argument for several minutes. Cid, Vincent, and Reeve were in favor of taking the gamble. Tifa, Yuffie and Barrett were against it. Finally Cloud spoke up above the din.

"It seems I am the tiebreaker. It is a very difficult decision for me to make..." Cloud looked at Tifa, who had an unexplainable betrayed look on her face. "We will forfeit this bird, in hope of bringing Aeris back."

"Man, you've got to be shitting me..." Barrett turned his back to the group and fired a few rounds into the empty field.

"I do not trust the trader's offer..." Tifa said, speaking to the group and placing a hand on Barrett's shoulder. "But we must stand behind our leader Cloud. And he is right... if there IS any way to bring Aeris back, she would turn the tables more than the Chocobo."

"It is decided." Vincent's stoic, emotionless announcement settled the matter.

The trader at Kalm was delighted to hear Cloud's decision the next day. "Take the chocobo as long as you need to hunt the Materia."

"Time is not on anyone's side, but Meteor's..." Vincent solemnly said.

"If we find you are lying..." Barrett's words were drenched in threat.

"We will return with your materia." Cloud was determined. "You'd best hold your end of the bargain when we return."

The Kalm trader gave the company a bunch of tomes of ancient Materia lore, as well as a treasure map.

"Whoah, can I keep this?" Yuffie said as she flipped through one of the tomes, a greedy grin slowly creeping over her face.

After briefly discussing the details of the quest for a few minutes, the company exited. Tifa lingered behind for a moment.

"Can you really teach us how..." she began.

"Shh." the trader put a finger to his lips and evaded the question. "Tifa... I sense you too have a desire that transcends physical possessions..."

"Cloud..." Tifa didn't even mean to speak the name aloud, and when she realized her mistake her face turned red. She turned and ran to catch up with the company.

Cid and his pilots-in-training poured over the map the trader had given them. "Amazing... that island has always been regarded as too treacherous to traverse... of COURSE a place like that, with no greedy people running around, would have Materia of unimaginable power!"

"How soon can we be there?" Cloud posited.

"Not in any of our lifetimes..." Cid said, stroking his chin. "That island is seemingly designed to thwart the Highwind."

"But not the chocobo..." Everyone turned, surprised to hear Vincent break his usual silence. "Shinra once did a study on chocobos. It seems some have the power to traverse any climate whatsoever. I believe this may be one. Shinra wanted to use chocobos to harvest Materia from secluded places like our island there, but their efforts to obtain an adequate bird were in vain and then funding was cut..."

"I do not want any of you to be put in peril. I will take the Chocobo to the island." Cloud said.

The Gold Chocobo ran like the wind, at speeds so incredible that its' agile talons gracefully skimmed the ocean water without allowing gravity time to do have its' effects. It did not take long for Cloud to reach the island. It was a place of great beauty, and solitude. Cloud was reminded of Aeris... imagining how much Aeris would like to see such a place, Cloud choked hard. "I'm not here for the scenery..." he said under his breath. Determined, he dismounted the chocobo and waded into the waist high vegetation.

It did not take him long to find the Materia. It gleamed brightly and was difficult to miss. Cloud felt relieved. The legends of this Materia were true. He took it. It was warm to the touch. Cloud turned back toward the chocobo. A voice suddenly spoke in his mind.

"Thou hast awakened thy king. Long have I slumbered. I sense the time has finally come for me to return to the lands and wreak havoc on those who would do them harm. But... thou would trade thy king for a gamble??"

The entire time the voice spoke, Cloud spun around peering every direction. He could see nothing. Carefully, glancing alertly around him, he returned to the Chocobo and mounted her. His return to the main continents was without event.

"Cloud! You're back!" Tifa ran to Cloud and threw her arms around him. "Did you..."

"I found it." Cloud produced the glimmering piece of Materia from his pocket. Yuffie was visibly jealous.

"It is a Summoning Materia!" Vincent said, as soon as he saw the precious stone. "Cloud... let us call upon this entity and ask it to advise us. Then even if the trader's promise is useless, it will not all have been in vain."

The party agreed this was a sound idea. They gathered in the meeting room on the Highwind and Tifa took the Materia and closed her eyes, summoning...

To the company's shock, the room was suddenly filled not with strange beasts, but with a host of knights of olde. They were taller than men of this day, and seemed to radiate an aura of chivalry. Their leader wore a crown of gold which gleamed brightly. At his side stood a wizard, a figure of magical power that transcended Materia, who could call upon magic with no stones whatsoever...

"Who summons me?" spoke their leader. "I am Arthur Pendragon, king of olde times which have escaped memory. These are my knights who fought in the War of Jenova."

Everyone- even Vincent- gave a gasp as they examined Arthur more closely. They could tell that he and his men were Ancients.

Cloud explained the dire events that were rending the world. Arthur grew solemn and looked very troubled.

"It was prophecied that we would be awakened when the world most direly needed us." He spake at length. "It seems to be true. Yet, I fear a great evil... we are compromised even now. Yet good may come of it... Merlin has told me these things."

The Wizard at Arthur's side peered at the seven and tugged his long beard. "You have placed us as stakes in a dangerous gamble... our Chivalry renders us powerless if you turn on your word. You have bound and gagged us!" Some members of the company turned a brief, evil eye toward Cloud. "Yet not all is lost... for this is a war that perhaps even our might cannot help win. I never foresaw things turning this way but perhaps we were meant to be ransomed thus. For I sense that that which else is at stakes... has the ability to invoke the holiest of spells."

"Aeris." Cloud said. The name was unfamiliar to Merlin and Merlin disregarded Cloud.

"Had you not gambled thus, we would be powerful allies at your side." Arthur spoke. "To fight with you now would be a mark against our chivalry, for it would be to assist you in breaking your word. Therefor you have but two choices, to keep us as useless eunuchs or to uphold your end of the bargain."

"It is time... consider our words well." Merlin offered the group a smile. "Do not fret... I sense that powers you do not comprehend are already your allies in this battle." With that the host of knights and the Wizard vanished.

"Man, I knew that damn trader's offer was bogus!" Barrett was pissed off. "Those dudes could've kicked Sephiroth's ass! Now we've lost 'em!"

Even those who originally stood with Cloud were showing some regret. "Perhaps we have erred..." Vincent intoned grimly.

"Damn, if only I'd known..." Cid tugged worriedly on a cigarette.

The next morning the company showed up at the Kalm trader's room. The air was tense enough to cut with a knife as Barrett muttered under his breath.

"We brought your materia..." Cloud said. "Now you must uphold your end of the bargain."

"Excellent!" The Kalm trader was extremely pleased. "Uphold my end! Why, I will go further than that! I will give you 100,000 gil in addition!" He paused, seeing the mention of the money had little impact on the group.

"We don't care about your gil..." Tifa said (as she said this Yuffie barely managed to keep from tackling her). "...we just want you to teach us how to bring Aeris back."

"Right, right..." said the trader. "Actually it's easy. Just take this Distilled Lifestream and pour it on her grave..."

"And if she rests beneath a lake?" Cloud interrupted.

"Right, right, just pour it in the lake, the effect will be the same." The Kalm trader produced a small green metal chest. "This contains my Distilled Lifestream. But you MUST not open it up until you are ready to use it!"

"Is it that simple?" Barrett seemed to have calmed down and was now quite amazed.

"Couldn't be simpler!" chimed the Kalm trader.

"Let us waste no more time with idle chat." Vincent said. "Meteor draws nearer every hour. We must make haste to Aeris' resting place."

As the company quickly exited the room (after turning over the Materia, and the deed to the gold Chocobo, of course), Tifa again lingered behind.

"You mentioned before..." Tifa began, but was interrupted.

"You, too, are willing to sacrifice anything for your desire." The Kalm trader nodded. His ability to read most people was uncanny.

Tifa traced figure eights with her foot nervously. "Do you have any sort of... aphrodisiacs..." She blushed even before she could finish asking the question.

The Kalm trader laughed. "Tifa, I could make quite a profit selling you some placebo. It is obvious Cloud already loves you. But he also loves Aeris... and you know what will happen when she is revived."

Tifa looked down at the floor.

"Cheer up!" said the Kalm trader. "I can still cater to your desire." He produced a small green metal chest, completely identical to the one he had given Cloud. "This contains a phoenix down. Street value, several hundred gil. Switch this with the package I gave Cloud and your romantic problems are solved."

Tifa gasped. How traitorous! How treacherous! It would destroy Cloud... but then he would be hers.

"I see you are torn. Delay them from their quest for a night. Pretend to be sick." The Kalm trader said. "I'll even give you a small antitonic to mimic the effects of the flu, at no extra charge, whatever you decide. If you choose to accept the offer, return with the Distilled Lifestream any time. If I don't see you again, I'll assume you chose against it."

Torn between reason and emotion, Tifa took the trader's advice and pretended to feel very ill.

"We'll wait until Tifa feels better before we go anywhere." Cloud said, to the dismay of Cid and his pilots-in-training. Tifa was touched by Cloud's kindness, but she could also tell he was extremely impatient.

That evening Cloud attended Tifa in her chambers, bringing her chicken noodle soup and a teddy bear. But Tifa could tell his mind was elsewhere. She could see it in his green eyes. His mind was racing frantically with thoughts about that damned flower girl. He was obsessed with her. Tifa burned with envy and jealousy. Her emotions and her reason waged a massive battle with eachother. Even though all reason screamed that it was traitorous and evil, Tifa's emotions flamed hotter and hotter. She took a deep breath. She looked at Cloud, so beautiful to her yet so obviously impatient for her to get better so he could go on... to revive his Other Love.

Tifa made her decision.

****** ENDING 1 (of 2)

"Cloud... I feel so weak... I need you to stay with me tonight." Tifa looked at him beggingly. "Stay by my bedside..."

Cloud inadvertantly sighed a sigh of impatience. His mind was elsewhere and it stung Tifa to the quick.

"Cloud... if you stay by my bedside tonight I think I will heal more quickly..." Her eyes begged him. Finally Cloud nodded. Not the typical mercenary work, for sure.

Tifa closed her eyes. Cloud admired her beauty as she pretended to sleep. He did love her... but his desire to revive Aeris was overshadowing all other thought. He did not care whether reviving Aeris was important to defeating Sephiroth... it was a non-issue.

Long into the night Cloud stayed by Tifa's bedside, occasionally applying a damp towel to her forhead, which felt feverish thanks to the Kalm trader's antitonic. His thoughts drifted more and more toward Aeris as the night drew on. At length he closed his eyes and imagined her. He was dreaming. She was with him.

"Cloud, I am always with you." In his dream Aeris seemed ethereal, she glowed like some kind of angel. She did not move her lips and yet her voice seemed to vibrate ever so subtly from every tree and shrub and rock. "Cloud, I am in the lifestream now. I protect you now more surely than I ever could protect you when I was alive. I am in all living things, I am one with them..."

Cloud was snoring. Tifa hadn't slept for an instant all night, simply laid there waiting for this. Carefully she snuck out of bed to Cloud's pack which was in the corner. She carefully took the Distilled Lifestream and replaced it with the phoenix down. The chests were identical and impossible to differentiate. She returned to her bed, after hiding the Distilled Lifestream among her own belongings, and soon drifted into a troubled sleep. In her dream, she found herself wandering in a forest. She felt a presense all around her and yet she could see no living thing. At length Aeris appeared to her. Aeris gazed at Tifa silently. Tifa fell to her knees: "Aeris, I'm so sorry... I'm so sorry..." Aeris didn't speak a word. Tifa forgot about the dream the next morning.

"I feel better!" Tifa announced the next morning. "Let me go to town and buy some supplies before we leave."

She stepped into the Kalm trader's room and shyly handed him his package. For a moment a wave of regret hit her, but as she remember Cloud's behavior the night before her envy got the better of her once more and she nodded. "The deal is done."

Cloud's hands trembled. Just being in this place filled him with grief. He was standing just feet from where Sephiroth had killed Aeris. "Give me the package."

Vincent, who had taken the chest, handed it to Cloud. Carefully, cloud opened it. Looking inside he gasped.

"What is it??" Barret demanded, pushing forward toward Cloud.

"It's... It's a damned phoenix down!" Cloud cried, taking the cheap item from the chest.

"We've been had!" Cid cried out.

"I knew it! Why that sonofa.... I'm going to kick his ass!!!" Barrett would have unleashed a volley of bullets in anger, but kept from doing so only because of the sacredness of the ground where they stood.

"We have made a terrible mistake..." Vincent intoned ominously.

Cloud was silent for a long time. His friends stood by long into the night and into the morning. Cloud wept. Seeing him so hurt, Tifa was crushed as well. "Yet who would sympathize with me?", she thought... "I'm a wretch."

At length Cloud came back to his senses. But from that day Cloud remained completely reserved. All of Tifa's attempts to seduce him were snubbed. But in these times of war and strife, what does the love of two people mean? With Meteor looming ominously in the sky who can dare make a wish on a falling star? The party pulled themselves together. They had to start back from square 1, or at least, the square before their epic battle with Ruby Weapon which started the whole mess. The entire subquest was a complete waste.

********* ENDING 2 (of 2)

When the Highwind landed outside the City of the Ancients, Tifa complained once more of feeling ill. "I'm going to stay behind... Rrgh.. don't feel well. You guys go on ahead... bring Aeris back so I can see her."

Normally Cloud would have insisted on staying with Tifa but it was clear what was on his mind. He nodded and the party set off into the city.

As Cloud wandered he became aware of a subtle presence which he could not at first identify. Suddenly he recognized it and at once his dream the night before came rushing back.

"Guys," Cloud said, stopping everyone in their tracks. "I... I don't think we should do this. I think it would mess things up if we brought Aeris back to life..."

"What in the hell??" Barrett stepped right up to Cloud. "Why you scrawny little mercenary...!"

"We paid dearly for this chance," Cid said, offering a more moderate voice. "Cloud, what in the world has gotten into you??"

"I... I realized I was not really thinking of what was best for us all... for the fight against Sephiroth, I mean..." Cloud said.

"Please explain why you are toying around like this when the fate of the world is so near." Vincent asked with a scowl.

"I... I was overcome with..." Cloud looked down. "A personal desire, to be with her again.."

Barrett rolled his eyes. "Seems our mercenary has a case of puppy love"

Cloud ignored his teasing. "Look... I saw her in my dreams last night and I think it was really her talking to me... She told me she can do more to help us while she remains part of the Lifestream."

"Look kid" Cid said, "Dreams and puppy love are all well and good but this is not the time nor the place! Now, I propose all of us vote whether to revive Aeris or turn back."

"Yeah, and I vote we paid e-damn-nough that we deserve to get Aeris back!" said Barrett.

"That was a big materia we traded for this chance." Yuffie offered. "I say to turn back now would be a huge waste!"

"I know the value of dreams..." Vincent said. "Perhaps we ought pay more value to Cloud's revelation. I cast my vote with Cloud to turn back..."

"In this polluted rotten world I don't really think Aeris would want to come back..." Reeve said. "Let her rest in peace, undisturbed by Shinra or Sephiroth."

"Well you all know where I stand." Barrett crossed his arms defiantly. "Without Aeris OR those knight guys, we don't have much chance..."

"Looks like it's a tie..." Cloud observed.

"Where's that damn dog anyway??" Barrett spat, looking around for Red13.

"Well, we're going to have to go let Tifa be the tie breaker." Cid sighed.

All the way back to the Highwind, Barrett whined and moaned up a storm.

When they burst into Tifa's chambers Tifa was fast asleep. Impatiently Barrett went to her and shook her: "Wake up, girl!" No response. "Ummmmmm.......... Cloud, come 'ere quick!"

Everyone gasped. Tifa was dead! "I knew we shouldn't have left her alone!" wailed Cait Sith.

"No!" Cloud burst. "Tifa! How could this happen?"

"Calm down... Calm down... Gotta think carefully..." Barrett muttered to himself, obviously a reck.

Everyone was freaking out except Vincent, cool and calm as always. "Well..." Vincent offered, "We DO have the Distilled Lifestream..."

"Of course!" Cid said. "Cloud, quick! Revive her!"

With trembling hands, Cloud opened the chest. Inside there was a tiny vial of clear fluid. As soon as it came in contact with the air, it began fizzing.

"Act quickly." Vincent said. "It is losing its' virtue because of the polluted air. This is why we were told not to open it prematurely."

Cloud sprinkled the tiny vial over Tifa's forhead. Nothing happened at first, then she coughed and opened her eyes. "Cloud..."

"Tifa!" Cloud said.

"I had the most terrible dream..." Tifa began but was forced to stop as Cloud assaulted her with a hug. But Tifa pushed him away.

"Cloud... I am so sorry..." Tifa said. "I couldn't bear the thought of losing you to Aeris... but I couldn't bring myself to hurt you either... So I tried to take my own life... you... used the Distilled Lifestream on me??"

From that day the spiky-haired mercenary opened up somewhat. He and Tifa developed a strong bond with eachother and soon it was clear that they were very much in love. Aeris rested peacefully, her life force continuing to watch over the company. She was a spiritual being and transcended things like envy and jealousy and so she felt only joy for Cloud and Tifa. But these were dark times filled with strife. There was little time for celebration or merriment, as our heroes were quite preoccupied with their desperate struggle to stop Sephiroth.

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