The Final Sacrifice Chapter 2
By Sydney Kyle
"Yo! Yeah, you over there! Y'all seen a li'l honey come by here lately, yo?"
Cloud watched rather absently as Barret charged up to a nervous-looking old man and began bombarding him with questions. Cid, Yuffie, Nanaki, and Cait scattered throughout the little town, targeting villager after villager with a rain of inquiries. Cloud loped sluggishly after them, submerged in a fog of self-reproach.
She wasn't there. He'd known that the second he'd disembarked the Highwind. But, for some reason, he didn't have the heart to inform his friends that. Maybe because a tiny part of him still hoped that his instincts, for once, were wrong.
A brilliant light startled him, and he lifted his head. His aimless wandering had taken him to the back of Mideel, right toward the edge of the crater that glowed with the green of the Lifestream.
We both fell in here, he recalled, studying the energy-filled pit. I was incoherent, unable to tell what was real and what wasn't. I honestly thought that I'd never return from there. Guess that just goes to show how much I underestimated her. She brought me back because she believed in me. She's never let me down...
Cloud balled his hands. No. He wasn't going to let it end like this. Not after everything they'd gone through together. Not after everything they'd lost together...
"This isn't over, Tifa," he muttered aloud through gritted teeth. "Not like this. Not for us." Suddenly flooded with some fierce, inexplicable emotion, he raised his voice, hearing it drift beyond the treetops. "You hear me, Tifa? I'm never gonna give up on you! You listening to me, Tifa, huh? I'M NEVER GONNA LET YOU GO!"
"Feeling a little guilty, my friend?"
Cloud whirled around, fumbling automatically for his Ultima Weapon.
"Easy, Cloud. It's me." A red-garbed figure emerged coolly into his line of vision.
The young man relaxed his hold on the gigantic sword. "Vincent. Sorry 'bout that. I just...lost it there for a moment, that's all."
Vincent Valentine flickered his gaze over the blond youth. 'Lost it' was right, he mused, noting that Cloud's eyes were still a trifle wild.
"You look the same way I did when I lost my beloved Lucrecia to Hojo."
Cloud rammed the end of the blade into the earth and rested his arm on the handle. "And what's that supposed to mean?" he countered, more than a bit defensively.
Vincent strolled over, halting beside him at the edge of the crater. "You've lost someone dear to you."
A harsh laugh ripped from Cloud's throat. "Tell me something I don't know, Vincent."
"No, Cloud. You tell me." The older man glanced at the pit. "You felt something for Aeris. I know that. But apparently, you do feel something for Tifa as well."
"Tifa?" Cloud's voice was incredulous, as if he'd never even before considered the notion. "Tifa's my friend. Hell, she's my best friend. Of course I'm supposed to care about her. It's just that..." He sighed.
Vincent nodded. "It's Aeris you're in love with."
"I--" Cloud stopped. Was he in love with her? He'd promised to protect her always, hadn't he? He'd been feeling lost and depressed those three months after her death, hadn't he? Did that count as love?
He was on the verge of replying when he became aware of a sound coming from the crater. He turned around.
The humming that usually issued from the Lifestream was escalated into something that resembled muffled screaming. The green mist that bubbled out of the pit began to shimmer.
"What the--" Vincent murmured behind him.
Cloud stood speechless, unable to move.
The screams built into a dramatic crescendo, and a form suddenly materialized within the verdant fog.
It was a form Cloud hadn't seen for three months...
"Aeris?" he whispered, as if afraid that speaking too loud would scare her away from him.
She stepped out from the crater and walked toward him, hesitantly, tentatively, as if in a dream.
His eyes glazed over. No, he thought. It can't be...you're dead. I saw you die...I held you in my arms, but you were dead...
Vincent was obviously thinking the same thing.
God, she sounded so real. So...Aeris.
Cloud swallowed hard as she advanced toward him. Chestnut hair gathered up into a pink ribbon, long twisting ponytail, green eyes, pink button-up dress with a salmon-colored pullover...
She looked like her. She moved like her. Hell, she even smelled like her.
"Cloud, it's me," the figure breathed, reaching out toward him. Her fingers closed over his, warm and smooth and real.
Who else would it be?
"Aeris..." There was a lump in Cloud's throat, but he couldn't stop smiling. "Aeris, I..."
His words were interrupted as Aeris's hand snaked to the back of his neck, and suddenly she was kissing him.
He responded in kind, while in the background Vincent Valentine could only look on, dumbstruck.
Aeris Gainsborough had come back to Cloud Strife, and for the moment that was all that mattered.
* * * * * *
"Look." Tifa Lockheart gestured toward the glimmering image, her voice filled with childlike delight. "Look at Cloud."
The hooded figure behind her obediently raised his head. Sure enough, Cloud Strife's face filled the void above their heads. There was a wide, glorious smile on his fine features. She'd asked to have one glimpse of him, and the Lifestream had granted her that.
"He's smiling," beamed Tifa. "He's so beautiful when he smiles, isn't he?"
"Indeed. Now are you satisfied?"
"Oh, yes." A flash of pain streaked by the girl's countenance as she witnessed Aeris maneuver Cloud close for a kiss. "I wish...I wish I could make him happy like that. I'd be so glad if...if I could make him smile...I've never seen him so happy..."
There was a slight pause. The voices of the Lifestream sounded strangely sad.
"Child, it is time."
Tifa turned away reluctantly from Cloud's image, her cinnamon-hued eyes glistening. She swiped at them furtively with the heel of her hand, refusing to acknowledge them.
"All right." She straightened her shoulders. "Let's get it over with."
High above her, the Lifestream continued to hum.
* * * * * *
"Aeris..." Cloud gently pulled away from her, cheeks flushed, eyes glinting with immense relief. "Aeris...how...?"
He was cut off for the second time as Cid, Barret, Yuffie, Nanaki, and Cait Sith barreled into the scene.
"Cloud! What the hell was tha--"
Cid's cigarette fell out of his mouth as he recognized just who that was in Cloud's arms.
"Well, I'll be a goddamn mother#$@!ing son of a bitch," he murmured.
Barret came up behind him, a similar look of disbelief on his face. "Ae-Aeris?" he stammered.
A sweet, coy grin played across the woman's lips. "Nice to meet you again, Barret," she said.
It was who Cait Sith closed the gap between them. "Ohmigod!" he crowed deliriously. "She's back! It is her!"
And it was.
The next few moments were chaotic but blissful as Aeris was besieged on all sides by hugs and questions that she couldn't answer at once. Cid was scratching his head, marveling at the unpredictability of the world, while Nanaki received his customary pat on the nose and Yuffie checked the Princess Guard for any good materia. Cloud stood to the side, smiling proudly as Aeris was welcomed back to the world.
It was just too good to be true. Aeris was alive, she had demonstrated that she, indeed, returned his feelings, and everyone in their little party was now present and accounted for. Things couldn't be more perfect.
Then again, they still hadn't found Tifa.
"How did you come back?" Nanaki eagerly asked Aeris. "I mean to say, how could you have--there was no possible--"
Aeris giggled at the beast's youthful exuberance. "Oh, Nanaki, it's kind of hard to answer that. It was all a haze to me. I do remember, though, the Planet speaking to me even as I was part of the Lifestream..."
"An' what'd it say?!" demanded Yuffie, impetuous as ever.
The older woman considered this. "Well, I think it said something about coming back because...because I had to make someone happy..."
"Well, what about that?" Cid pushed back his goggles. "Even the Planet's lookin' out for your ass, kid." He elbowed Cloud, who reddened instantly.
"Y'all mean the only reason the Planet be haulin' Aeris back to the land of the livin's 'cause Cloud's got the hots for her?" Barret exclaimed incredulously.
"Barret, stop that," Cloud mumbled, somewhat mortified.
Cait Sith commenced a little jig. "Wa-hoo! I knew it! Didn't I tell ya those two were meant to be together, huh? Didn't I tell ya? Heck, even the Planet don't want them apart!"
Vincent was shaking his head. "Maybe the Planet would be kind enough give me back Lucrecia once it sees how much I'm hurting," he remarked half-jokingly. Barret shot him a glance, obviously thinking something among the same lines.
"That was why she came back?" Yuffie rolled her eyes. "That's so sweet--I think I'm gonna barf." She waved her arm dramatically. "Forget riding on the Highwind. This definitely takes the cake. Ewww."
Cloud chuckled in embarrassment. Aeris met his eyes and winked at him.
Was it true? Had the Planet given her back to him because they were truly destined to be together? Was there really something to that whole "power of love" thing?
He wanted to think so.
He'd been so busy wondering at this extraordinary turn of luck in his otherwise catastrophic life, that he almost missed hearing Aeris's next words.
"...I guess our love was the one thing in this world strong enough to bring me back..."
"What did you say?"
Aeris paused in her narrative, training her bewildered green eyes on Cloud's distressed face. The others swiveled around as well, looking equally mystified.
"I was telling them about how I got--"
Cloud waved her off. "No, not that. The last thing you said."
"I said that our love was the one thing in this world strong enough to bring me back." She glanced at him again. He was staring at her so intensely that she felt a little uneasy. "Cloud? What is it?"
"That was--that was the same thing I told her before...before she..." Cloud trailed off. Maybe it was a coincidence. It had to be.
"'She'?" Aeris stared at him. "You mean Tifa?"
He stared back at her. "Yeah. Tifa."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I..." A row of furrows appeared on Aeris's brow. "I must have integrated your words into my speech..."
"You--you were there when I said those words to her?" He was suddenly overwhelmed with shame.
Aeris blinked. "No. I don't think I was...here yet." Her gaze grew faraway at the onslaught of memories that reaffirmed themselves from the farthest corners of her mind. "But I did hear you...before I came here. You were calling out to me...saying that I was dead, and that there wasn't a thing you could do about it. It was so real, Cloud. It was like you were actually there, with me, in the City of the Ancients--"
She was a little surprised to feel Cloud's hands suddenly grip her shoulders. "The City of the Ancients?" he repeated.
"Yes, the Lifestream showed me the city before I returned. That was where I heard your voice and saw Tifa standing near the altar--"
"Tifa?" Barret cut in, sounding flabbergasted. "Ya mean y'saw Tifa in the City of Ancients?"
Aeris nodded. "The Lifestream wouldn't let me speak to her, and before I knew it, I was in Mideel." She scanned their anxious expressions, looking befuddled. "What's the matter? Is something wrong?"
Nanaki hurried to explain. "Well, you see, Tifa disappeared on us a few hours ago. We are presently undergoing an extensive search for her, and that is why we were here in Mideel in the first place."
"Yeah, Cloud had this 'feeling' 'bout her bein' in Mideel," added Cait Sith helpfully.
"But instead, we found you," seconded Yuffie. She snorted. "I guess he wasn't too far off, though. Just the wrong girl."
"I see." Aeris clapped her hands. "Well, I suppose that means that we have a rendezvous at the City of the Ancients, then."
"All right, ya lamebrains, you heard 'er," Cid declared in his trademark gruff manner. "Next stop's the City a' Ancients--wait a damn minute, what the @#$% is Cloud doin'--?!"
Cloud already running toward the Highwind. The cold night wind stung his eyes and his chest throbbed with every step he took, but he was past caring.
He didn't know how and he didn't know why, but deep inside he knew that he had to reach the City of Ancients before it was too late.
Too late...for what...?
* * * * * *
"Can't you land this thing any faster?" Cloud shouted over the howl of the wind.
"Fer cryin' out loud, kid! Those damned numbskull engineers're practically pissin' in their pants tryin' ta bring this thing down fast as they can without crashin' it!" Cid shouted back, holding on to the rail on the lower deck of the Highwind.
"Yeah, what's the hurry anyway?" demanded Cait Sith, latching his furry Mog arms onto the rail for dear life as the ship spiraled downwards.
Cloud gritted his teeth as the vessel shuddered. He couldn't answer Cait's question, mainly because he'd been asking himself the exact same thing.
Barret glanced at Aeris. "Any idea what bug crawled up his spiky ass this time?"
Aeris brushed a chunk of brown hair out of her eyes. "I--I don't know! It's like he panicked when I told him that I saw Tifa in the City of the Ancients--" She gasped as the ship gave a sickening lurch. "Did--did something happen between Cloud and Tifa?"
"Yeah, unfo'tunately." Barret winced. "See, Cloud here lost his head for a moment an' started mouthin' her off, an' then b'fore we know it, she damn split on us."
Aeris nibbled on her upper lip, looking troubled. "He...he yelled at her?"
"Somethin' like that, yeah," Barret replied. "So now that li'l pointy-haired foo's feelin' a little guilty and--"
"CLOUD! CLOUD, WHAT THE @#$% ARE YOU DOING??!"
Barret and Aeris whipped around at Cid's shriek, just in time to see Cloud clamber up the railing and jump.
"CLOUD!!" Aeris shrilled, sprinting over to peer over the edge of the deck.
Yuffie slammed her hands over her face. "I can't watch!" she screeched, parting her fingers and opening one eye.
Cid joined them at the rail, spouting a stream of choice words. "Stupid, stupid little *!@$!#&$#!$@%--"
* * * * * *
Cloud grimaced as he hit the ground on all fours. The aftershocks of his landing were still coursing through his bones when he scrambled to his feet and hastened down the tiny shelled path that snaked all the way into the Forgotten City. His nerves tingled with an urgency that could no longer be denied, and the voices of warning in his head had intensified into screams.
"...hurry, hurry, hurry..."
"Too late now, too late, too late..."
Too late for what? he yelled silently. Too late for what...?
And then he was there. The craggy formations of the Forgotten City loomed before him, still and statuesque and mysterious, divulging none of its ancient secrets.
Cloud didn't even spare them a glimpse, instead focusing on the road as it diverged into three separate paths. If he remembered correctly, the one on the left led to the Forgotten Capitol, the right led to the North Cave, and the middle one...
...the middle one led to the spot where Aeris had been killed.
It was deja vu all over again.
Cloud exhaled deeply, willing his heart to slow down its frantic beating. Every fiber and synapse in his body fizzled with anticipation, and he had no idea why.
Tifa...I feel her...she's here...
He didn't even turn as Aeris, Barret, Nanaki, Yuffie, Cait, Cid, and Vincent approached him from behind.
Aeris jogged up to his side, concern registering on her pretty face. "Cloud..." She was panting, obviously out of breath. "Cloud, what's wrong?"
"I-it's Tifa...I can feel her..."
"Tifa? Somethin' wrong with Tifa?" Cait Sith babbled, elbowing past an indignant Cid.
The muscles in Cloud's throat worked up and down. "She--she's in danger..."
"WHAT?!" bellowed Barret. Tifa had been one of his closest confidants ever since she'd joined AVALANCHE, and he was very protective of her--and sometimes, in Cloud's opinion, overly so.
"Cloud, tell ya what," Cid began. "We'll split up and search for her. In the meantime, all you gotta do is calm down and take a rest--"
"I can't!" Cloud swiveled around abruptly, nearly bowling Aeris over in the process. His eyes, Vincent noted with detached concern, held that same look he'd had when he'd been standing beside the crater, yelling for Tifa. "She needs me--I can't just sit around while she's--"
The voices came again.
"...in the City of the Ancients..."
Cloud began to run.
At his heels were Aeris, Barret, Cid, Vincent, Yuffie, Cait Sith, and Nanaki. They all refrained from calling out to him, because they all knew that Cloud could no longer hear them.
They all nearly collided into Cloud's rigid form as they poured into the odd-looking dwelling at the end of the middle path.
Cid exploded. "Kid, what the hell's the matter with--"
He stopped as Cloud gestured numbly toward the little pond that resided in the middle of the corkscrew-shaped domicile.
The huge, unmoving goldfish that barred the gateway to the City of Ancients was gone.
* * * * * *
Tifa Lockheart licked her lips.
"Are you ready, child?"
She nodded mutely. Oh, yes, she was. She had never been more ready.
A beam of pure silver light filtered down on her from high above, causing her to shut her eyes. All around, the opalescent hues of the surrounding structures gleamed and winked at her, as if reminding her of the last time she had stood here, after Aeris had been murdered by Sephiroth's blade...
No. Aeris is alive, and she's with Cloud now. She felt the familiar sting of tears behind her eyes, but she willed them away. What was there to cry about? Cloud was happy. Wasn't that the thing that mattered the most?
Oh, but she wished that he knew how much she loved him.
"Let it go, Tifa. Just...let it go."
She cracked open one eye and idly noted that a shadow had fallen across the pool of light that shimmered high above her.
"It's all over, Tifa. Let it all go..."
She could love him enough to let him go.
* * * * * *
Yup. Deja vu all over again.
Everything was the same--the pillar of light that spilled across the altar, the rainbow-hued texture of the surrounding crystal formations, the anticipatory hum in the atmosphere, the sense of helplessness that crackled like live wire amongst his friends...
Everything was the way Cloud remembered it, three long months ago, except for one essential thing.
This time it was Aeris Gainsborough who was hovering at his back, while standing there at the altar was Tifa Lockheart, her back to him, head held high, her mind a million miles away...
He knew what was going to happen. He'd seen it in his mind's eye a hundred billion times. He'd played it over and over in his head until he feared that his mind would snap. But his mouth wouldn't formulate the words.
He reached the steps to the altar.
And what happened in the next few seconds would be seared into Cloud Strife's memory for all time.
It all unfolded before his eyes like a movie running on slow motion. Tifa turned around to face him, her long hair swirling gracefully around her body like a halo. There was something descending from the void high above, hurling toward her, picking up speed as it came closer...
Cloud opened his mouth and screamed her name.
The fine, sharp blade of the Masamune sword found its mark on the small of her back.
The world screeched to a grinding halt.
He approached her slowly, his features frozen in shock.
He could hear his heart pound in his ears.
Tifa had lowered her head, gazing wonderingly at the steel tip that protruded from her belly.
"Oh, God, Tifa..."
His heart continued to pound.
She lifted her head, and her glassy mahogany eyes drilled into his disbelieving blue ones. He was astonished to see the flicker of confusion that crossed her face.
Sephiroth slid the blade out of her flesh, accomplishing the motion in a gentle, almost reverent fashion. Tifa slumped to the floor.
Cloud dashed forward, but Sephiroth tossed away his sword and caught her first.
A rush of sharp bitterness filled Cloud at the sight of Tifa in Sephiroth's arms. As if on cue, his silver-haired adversary relaxed his grip on her and held the girl out silently toward Cloud. The blond youth gathered her up, not even caring that his mortal foe was kneeling at his side, unarmed and virtually defenseless. He didn't hear his comrades clatter up the stone steps behind him, didn't bother to answer when Aeris called out to him.
All he was aware of was the girl that lay in his arms.
Behind him, Sephiroth stepped back into the shadows and melted away.
Sydney Kyle's Fanfiction