MANDATORY COPYRIGHT STUFF: The characters featured therein belong to Square. Or Squaresoft. Whatever. I have them to thank for creating this great and highly addicting game. But most of all, I have 'em to thank for creating these unforgettable characters, especially Tifa Lockheart. A true RPG queen.
WARNING: Spoilers galore. Don't read any further if you haven't finished the game (but then again, I think everyone's finished it already...). Also, if you needed major dosages of Demerol to handle Aeris's death, then this tale isn't recommended for you. You've been warned.
The Final Sacrifice Chapter One
By Sydney Kyle
He loves Aeris.
Rays from the setting sun seeped into her long mahogany hair, making it glow a vivid red-gold. High above her, the sky was a canvas of mauve and crimson, with fleeces of golden clouds strung across for added effect.
He loves Aeris, not me.
Down below, Cosmo Canyon quieted down as the shadows began to lengthen, chasing away the golden pools of retreating daylight as the sun descended over the faraway peaks of Mount Nibel.
She started at the sound of soft warbling coming from Lance, the golden chocobo she'd tied to a nearby tree.
With tired legs, she scrambled up from the rocky precipice she'd been perched on and brushed absently at the back of her short black skirt. Trudging over to her faithful steed, she allowed herself once more to mull over this latest--and most painful--revelation.
She'd never seen it coming, really. It was just one of those out-of-nowhere discoveries--the kind that laid low for a while and then without warning smacked you in the face when you least expected it.
It had happened earlier that afternoon, after she'd locked up her new Seventh Heaven in Midgar. Cid, Vincent, Yuffie, Reeve--in his Cait Sith body--and Red 13 had dropped by for a sort-of reunion. Together with Barret, the seven of them had made their way toward Cloud's summer villa in Costa Del Sol, like they'd planned to do after three months apart rebuilding their lives.
Everything had gone smoothly, until they reached the outskirts of Costa Del Sol. From the Highwind, Cid had pinpointed a blond dot down on the terrain some miles away from the resort town. They'd landed the Highwind in a matter of minutes, determined to investigate.
They found Cloud, all right--in a depressed state, mechanically hacking at rocks with his Ultima Weapon, seemingly oblivious to everything but his train of thought.
They'd been concerned for him, of course. Barret, who was already accustomed to Cloud's random bouts of melancholy the first month after their Planet-saving mission, had suggested to the group that it was best to leave him alone and come back when he was ready.
She, of course, had disagreed. While she had been with him as well during those first few months, she'd assumed that this little display wasn't serious--after all, it _had_ been three months already, and the whole gang was here to celebrate the fact that the Planet was alive and that they were all alive as well--right? Right?
She'd gone up to him, touched him on the shoulder, and told him exactly that, in the gentlest way she could.
He didn't react the way she expected him to.
He had recoiled from her, as if her touch were the vilest thing he'd known. To add insult to injury, he'd literally shouted at her--shouted at her words that would forever sear themselves in her heart.
"Alive? What's the point of being alive?! If you could stop bein' so damn optimistic and cheerful all the time, you'd notice the fact that one of us ISN'T alive, Tifa! Aeris is DEAD! And you know what? There isn't a damn thing I can do about it! She's dead--and there's nothing strong enough in this world that can bring her back!!"
Aeris. So that had been the thing weighing down on his mind, all those months ago. Restless nights and fevered days--his entire existence, eaten up with his thoughts of her and how she'd died.
Aeris Gainsborough, the woman who had saved the planet--and paid her life for it.
How could Tifa Lockheart possibly top that?
Sure, she'd fought as well. She'd hung in there the entire time, without complaint, without protest. She'd lost her sense of innocence along the way, learning how to kill, how to destroy, with nary a thought. She'd faced up against a past she would rather have remainedburied, confronted truths that she'd wished were lies, and stood by what she believed in throughout it all.
And what she believed in was Cloud Strife.
Apparently, it wasn't enough.
She could give her all, give up everything she had, offer her entire world and all there was in it, and it wouldn't be enough. Nothing would ever be enough.
Because Cloud would never love her.
Aeris had won. It was terrible to contemplate it that way, but she'd won, and Tifa had lost.
She brushed away the tears on her cheek, an impatient gesture, and mounted her gold chocobo.
Where would she go now? She certainly couldn't go back to Costa del Sol and face Cloud again--she was sure she would break down if she did. And she couldn't go to Midgar either--no doubt Barret and the others would go there looking for her--and she was in no hurry to confront them either. Not when they'd heard the words Cloud had flung at her loud and clear.
Where could she go?
She urged her steed into a light gallop and rested her face on its soft feathery neck, not caring where they were going.
Just as long as it was far, far away...
* * * * * *
"Did you find her?" Cloud Strife asked anxiously.
Barret Wallace and Vincent Valentine exchanged glances, while Cid Highwind morosely stubbed out his cigarette on a nearby ashcan. Beside him, Cait Sith delicately cleared his throat before speaking.
"Naw," he said. "We checked everywhere 'round Costa Del Sol an' Corel. No sign of her."
"We even hauled our asses all the way back t'Midgar," Cid added, his gaze fixed on the bar counter. "Nearly turned the damn town over lookin' for her."
Cloud's countenance paled visibly, and he slid off the barstool as he leveled with his comrades. "Are you sure you looked everywhere? Anywhere she might be? What 'bout Mideel? Or Junon? Gongaga, even?"
Try as he might, he could no longer conceal the growing worry in his tone.
"Whoa, whoa. Take it easy, Cloud," Cait Sith admonished, raising his hands in a placating gesture. "We'll find her. Hell, maybe she's headed home right this minute. I'm sure she's all right."
A flash of guilt wafted by Cloud's Mako-blue eyes. A brief, awkward silence descended on the party as they sat in the near-emptiness of the Costa del Sol bar.
"Ya know, Cloud," Cid spoke up quietly, shattering the stillness, "that was a pretty damn stupid thing you did to her this afternoon."
Cloud didn't even bother defending his actions. He had been rather harsh with his childhood friend, but then again...
"I know," he replied, running a hand through his spiky blond hair. "And I'm not saying that it was the right thing to do, but...I--I'm still having a hard time 'bout this. Yeah, I know it's been three months and all, but...sometimes, it still...it just gets to me, you know...?" He trailed off, realizing that he was probably babbling.
"Y'been thinkin' 'bout Aeris, haven'cha?" Cait Sith prompted him bluntly.
Barret waggled his thick eyebrows up and down at this, but otherwise he refrained from saying anything. Vincent looked up a little, and there was something odd in his dark eyes.
"Aeris?" Cloud repeated, his voice faraway.
"Aeris," echoed the little cat, rolling his eyes. "Ya know, Aeris Gainsborough? The one whose star matched yours perfectly? The one who died savin' the Planet?"
Cloud deigned to make a reply.
Barret couldn't withhold himself any longer, and he let out a derisive snort. "And whatta 'bout Tifa, Cloud? Huh? You jes' gonna leave her now? Whassup wit'chu, huh?"
"Leave her?" Cloud stared at Barret, his face genuinely confused. "Of course not! I'm not gonna leave Tifa--I just don't understand how she could've overreacted like that! She oughta know that I didn't mean it that way. Aeris meant a lot to me, and I thought she knew that, too. I guess I can understand why she got upset, but still, she should know that already..."
The rest of the contingent shook their heads in exasperation. For all Cloud's sharp reasoning and strategic thinking, he could not seem to fathom the fact that Tifa Lockheart was head-over-heels in love with him. But as much as they were all tempted to just hit him on the head with that revelation, they all knew that it wasn't their call.
Barret was about to deliver a follow-up to his opening when suddenly Yuffie and Red 13--or more accurately, Nanaki--burst through the doors of the Costa del Sol bar. They were disheveled in appearance and out of breath, as if they'd been running.
"Yuffie! Nanaki! Did you guys find her?" Cloud queried hopefully.
The red-furred beast known alternately as Nanaki turned his unscarred eye onto the ninja Materia thief who came by the name of Yuffie Kusaragi.
"Sorry, Cloud," Yuffie offered apologetically. "But no luck. Me and Red looked all over, but we couldn't find her either."
"We did discover something, though," Nanaki volunteered. "When we conducted a search within the Highwind, the cargo man informed us that Tifa's chocobo disappeared shortly after she did, when he and the rest of the crew were out checking the Highwind's engine."
Cloud felt his chest constrict. When he and Tifa had raised chocobos over at Choco Billy's ranch, he'd jokingly promised her that if they ever managed to breed a golden one, he'd give it to her. So when the black one and the dashing one had given birth to a beautiful golden hatchling, he'd presented it to a delighted Tifa, who'd promptly named him Lance.
"Then that means that she could be anywhere," Cloud realized, the gears whirring frantically in his head. "She's got a whole planet to hide in..."
Cid straightened up suddenly, flinging his pilot's scarf over his shoulder. "Then what the hell're we waiting for?" he demanded. "Get off your sorry asses and keep on searchin'! Ya wanna wait 'till it's dark? Let's go, let's go, LET'S GO!"
The group got to their feet, momentarily revitalized by Cid's gruff announcement, and one by one they filed out the bar doors. Yuffie was muttering something about being always in a hurry, while Barret continued to berate Cloud for his behavior toward Tifa even as he exited.
Cloud was still deep in rumination when Cid caught him by the arm. "Cloud. Ya got an idea where the hell she might be?"
The younger man closed his eyes briefly, and then opened them. "Let's try Mideel," he answered, his jaw set. "That was where she helped me...find myself..."
Cid pinned him with a gaze that was sympathetic and patronizing at the same time. "You better hope so, boy," he said, and his tone was dark. "There's somethin' between you two, and if you keep up this kind of shit, then you're never gonna find out what the hell it is until it's too late."
The pilot was gone before Cloud could ask him what that was supposed to mean. So instead, he marched after him, his heart heavy, his brain whirling.
Mideel, he thought through the haze of fog that had penetrated his mind. She's got to be in Mideel...after all, where else would she be...?
* * * * * *
The Forgotten City...
The girl slowly dismounted her feathery steed, her dark ruby eyes wide with awe as she took in her surroundings.
She really hadn't been paying attention to where she was going. Why should she, when she was past caring about anything anymore? If she fell off the face of the earth, who cared? Cloud certainly didn't.
A wave of shame washed over her as she reviewed that last statement. It was unfair of her to conclude that he didn't care about her just because she realized that Aeris was the one he loved. Cloud did care about her--just not the same way she cared about him.
The same way he cared for Aeris.
Tifa had never hated Aeris. They didn't always agree on certain things, and of course, there was always that matter of winning Cloud's affections, but they were never enemies. And if Tifa was going to lose Cloud, then it might as well be to someone she knew and trusted--like Aeris--rather than a stranger.
Still, acknowledging that didn't make it any easier knowing that she'd lost Cloud to a dead woman.
Tifa heaved a weary sigh, squeezing her eyes shut. She was tired. Tired of running away, tired of being despondent, tired of everything in general. Tired of feeling...
She stood silently for some minutes just outside the Forgotten Capitol, investigating the rocky structures looming around her. Inwardly, she was grateful for the change in scenery. The tranquility of the Forgotten City was refreshing--a stark contrast to the turmoil that raged within her.
Any special reason you decided to take me here, Lance? she mentally asked the chocobo, who simply warked. Suddenly sentimental, she pressed her face into the animal's velvety side, and she felt Lance's head burrow into the crown of her hair.
Tifa pulled away, her eyes shining with unshed tears. This was the chocobo she and Cloud had raised together, and over time it had become very dear to her.
"Always there for me, Lance, huh?" she mused aloud, stroking the chocobo's golden beak.
The animal cheeped in reply.
With a tiny smile, Tifa let go of his reins and made her way up the shell path toward the large edifice to the left of the Capitol--the building where they'd seen a last image of Aeris on the face of a waterfall.
Lance watched her go, warbling softly.
* * * * * *
"Alive? What's the point of being alive??"
Tifa gasped and stumbled to her knees. The sound of rushing water roared in her ears as it streamed down around her in a liquid curtain.
"If you could stop bein' so damn optimistic and cheerful all the time, you'd notice the fact that one of us ISN'T alive, Tifa!"
Her breath came out in ragged gusts, and she put a hand on her chest, curling up in a fetal position on the cold, hard floor of the projection platform.
"Aeris is DEAD! And you know what? There isn't a damn thing I can do about it!"
Tifa clamped her hands over her ears. This was Cloud's voice--only it this time it wasn't Cloud was flinging them at her.
"Aeris is dead--and there's nothing strong enough in this world that can bring her back!!"
"Shut up," she whispered. An eerie feeling of deja vu threatened to overwhelm her. All of a sudden, she was submerged again in the Lifestream, searching frantically for Cloud, lost in a plethora of disembodied voices calling out to her...
There were voices.
Calling out to her...
"Nothing strong enough in this world..."
"...that can bring her back..."
"Aeris is dead and there isn't a damn thing I can do about it..."
"...but I would do anything...everything..."
"Why did _you_ have to live...while she had to die...?"
Tifa reeled back as if she'd been slapped. The voice was Cloud's, but the words that spilled forth from everywhere around her weren't his. They were taking shards of his sentences and twisting them into something else--something hurtful and perverse.
"SHUT UP! I DON'T BELIEVE YOU! THAT'S NOT WHAT HE THINKS OF ME!"
Her voice echoed back at her from the unyielding stone walls, taunting her, reminding her that all she had for weapons were empty words and helpless rage.
"He doesn't seem to return your feelings, does he, child?"
"...you were always second best to her..."
"Just a little fool to believe..."
Tifa squeezed her eyes shut. "L-leave me alone. Just...leave me alone..." Her voice was barely audible over the gush of water. "Who are you? Why are you doing this to me...?"
The din finally died down, and finally a single, soothing voice wafted into her ears.
The young girl stiffened visibly, drawing up her long legs closer to her torso. God, she hated feeling this way. Helpless and afraid. Exhausted and beaten.
When she opened her mouth to speak, her voice was clear and steady. "You know my name. Who are you?"
"The same ones who spoke to you when you were in Mideel. The ones who screamed when we were hurting. The ones who congregated at Midgar before Meteor was about to strike. The ones you and your party were trying to save. In essence, we are the spirit voices of the Planet itself--the Lifestream."
She was still for a moment, digesting this new bit of information. "The Lifestream? You are...the Lifestream?"
Tifa rubbed her hands up and down her arms. "Then...what do you want from me?"
"We were with you when you found that boy--Cloud Strife, I believe--and healed his mind. You cared very much for him, didn't you?"
The girl stared at the structure, studying the spectrum of color that was refracted from the water pouring down all around her. She thought she was beginning to grow numb from the pain.
"We can help you, Tifa. If you want us to."
"H-help me?" She looked up incredulously. "H-how?"
"Do you love him, child?"
She closed her eyes. She'd risked her life for Cloud Strife. She'd stood by him even as he descended into madness, and she'd stood by him to help him out of it. She would come with him to hell and back and move heaven and earth for him. Did that count as love?
"Yes," she admitted at last, her voice soft and throaty and heartrendingly honest. "Yes, I do love him. I love him so much I..." Her voice trailed off, and she let it go. There were no words to describe how she felt. There would never be any words.
"Good. Now we must know. Are you willing to give up everything you have to make him happy?"
Tifa clenched her gloved hands tightly into fists. What kind of question was that? What was it with the third degree? What was it they wanted to hear? The truth, she decided. Nothing but the truth. "Yes. I want him to be happy. I don't care what happens to me, just as long...as long as Cloud's happy, then...I--I don't mind."
"Very good, child. And what is the one thing that you think can make him happy?"
There was only one thing that sprang to her mind. "Aeris," she replied, and a white-hot pain tore through her heart--what was left of it, anyway. "Aeris Gainsborough."
"Then you will help him have her."
Tifa was only vaguely surprised to feel the sting of tears behind her eyes. She'd been certain that she had no more tears left to cry. "But Aeris...Aeris is dead..."
"Not for long."
For a tense, fleeting second, Tifa felt a tug of doubt. And then, all at once, realization dawned on her. Her muscles sagged in relief. Her body relaxed. The tight coil in her belly dissipated into nothing.
How could she have not seen it before? It was all so clear now--so perfect.
"Very well, then. You know what you have to do."
Tifa nodded as she languidly got to her feet, her usually animated face now devoid of expression. There was no longer any fire in her eyes.
What fire she'd once before possessed, she'd given to Cloud.
Just like everything else.
Sydney Kyle's Fanfiction
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