The Final Sacrifice Chapter 3
By Sydney Kyle
There was no gash, no wound, no blood.
Too little air.
Tifa shuddered violently. She was dead, wasn't she? She had to be dead. Aeris had been stabbed the same way, and she'd died immediately and without mercy. Why wasn't she dead yet?
She heard his voice as if it had come from an enormous distance.
"Tifa...Tifa, wake up..."
She clawed her way up from the umbra she'd been submerged in and gasped for air.
With great difficulty, she opened her eyes.
And found herself two inches away from Cloud Strife's face.
His breath caught in his throat as she stared at him, and a huge, resplendent smile appeared instantly on his lips.
"Hey, there," he said, his voice cracking a little.
Tifa shifted, noticing dimly that she was lying on his lap, his arm tucked firmly behind her back. His free hand moved restlessly against her bare shoulder. She coughed. "Cloud...how did you know where I--"
"Well, I called ahead, and they told me the City of Ancients had a reservation for one Tifa Lockheart," he joked weakly, trying to inject a bit of humor into his tone. A little embarrassed, he let his thumb stroke her cheek. "Hey, Tifa, rest. Just rest. Okay? We're here. We're all here."
Cid genuflected beside Cloud, brushing her damp bangs away from her clammy forehead. "Tifa, listen. There's something you ought to know. You know we're all here, right? Of course you do. Tifa, look. There's Barret, and Cait, and Nanaki, and Vincent, even Yuffie and--and Aeris's here, too. She's back, Tifa; she's come back to us..."
At this, a familiar form materialized beside Cid, as if from thin air.
Tifa surveyed them all, a rush of warmth coursing through her. They all looked so concerned for her, although she could tell that they were battling to remain strong and stoic in the face of her deteriorating condition. Her lungs hurt every time she inhaled--a motion that was getting ever harder to perform--but even so she felt content. Her friends were here--all of them, and they were by her side. There was nothing more she could ask for.
"Cloud." A violent cough racked her chest.
"Tifa." He lay the back of his palm against her face. "Tifa, don't talk. Please. Everything's gonna be all right, okay?"
"You heard 'im, honey," soothed Barret. "You gonna pull through. Vincent's gettin' the Restore materia. We gonna fix y'all up good, y'hear?"
Vincent hurried to the ailing girl's side with the green orb in his hands. He had barely begun to channel the materia's healing powers into her body when she suddenly waved him away.
Nanaki regarded her in amazement. "But Tifa," he argued, "we must heal you..."
"It won't work." God, her voice sounded so weak, so tiny. Nearly inaudible. "It's too late for that now, don't you see?"
There was a stunned pause, and then a look of fierceness suddenly stormed into Cloud's gaze. "No." He tightened his hold around her. "No, it's not. Don't say that, Tifa! You're supposed to be the optimistic one--and I'm the one who's supposed to say those kinds of things..."
He knew he was babbling then, but he didn't give a damn this time. Tifa wasn't serious. She couldn't be serious. She'd survived worse things than this, hadn't she? The bridge on Mt. Nibel had collapsed under her feet and she'd fallen down the chasm, but she'd lived. Sephiroth had slashed her when she was fifteen, and she'd lived. She'd been imprisoned in a gas chamber without anyone around to help her, but she'd lived. She'd fought by his side against the Diamond, Ruby, and Emerald Weapons, and she'd lived. She was one of the most resilient people he'd ever known. She couldn't die--not now. Not after everything she'd survived against. Not after everything they'd been through together...
And then, all of a sudden, it all came to him.
"You...knew this was going to happen, didn't you?" His words were quiet, collected, but underneath them Tifa could sense an underlying anger, a righteous indignation that simmered just beneath his composed surface. "You decided to exchange your soul for Aeris, didn't you? You struck some sort of deal--and decided to give up your life so that she could have hers back!"
"Cloud..." Aeris laid a hand on his shoulder. "Cloud, please..."
Cloud turned his head away from her, not wanting anyone to see his wall of calm finally crumbling down. "I can't believe you did this, Tifa," he stammered. "I can't believe you--why, Tifa?" His voice was hoarse, pleading. "Why...?"
Her voice was like roughened silk, like textured satin. "Cloud..."
He succumbed at last, and his eyes met hers--his agonized blues meeting her brown ones. She was looking at him now with an intensity that made him shiver, and a clearness that caught him off-guard.
And there it was. His answer.
It was all there in her eyes.
She loves me. The realization hit him with all the force of a bullet, wedging itself deep into his heart, causing him to reel backwards--as if mortally wounded, as if intoxicated.
She loves me. All those years of self-loathing, of doubt, of incertitude...
She loves me. All those years of pushing himself to the limits, trying to prove himself worthy to her, trying to make her understand that he was just as good, if not better, than Johnny, or Zack, or anyone else...
All those years, all rendered insignificant in the light of her silent admission.
Part of him refused to believe her. She couldn't possibly be in love with him. He was too big a risk; he had too many demons. He was bitter and lonely and self-destructive. There were plenty of other men who deserved her more than he did...
And yet, a tiny part of him desperately wanted to believe otherwise.
"Tifa..." He caressed her cheek with his knuckles, blinking rapidly to keep back the moisture that filled his eyes.
She moaned, a low, awful, rattling sound surging from deep within her throat.
"Tifa, no. Stay with me." He was rocking her like a baby in need of comfort. "I didn't mean what I said, Tifa. You know that, right? Right?"
The others watched, too numb to say anything. Aeris, in particular, sat next to Cloud, her arm touching his, and yet she might as well have been nonexistent to him. Her pale cheeks were streaked with rivulets of tears.
"I'm sorry, Tifa. You know I'm sorry. I was stupid to say that to you...that's the way I always am, you know. Stupid. That's me--a stupid little puppet."
Something was stinging the back of his eyelids.
"I never wanted to hurt you, Tifa. Honest to God, that's the last thing I ever want to do..."
Don't. Don't hurt her anymore. She's been hurt so much already...why does she still have to hurt? It isn't fair...please. Please. I'll do anything. Don't let her leave me. I can't live without her. I won't live without her...
"Don't go, Tifa. Don't go. Please. I need you with me, Tifa--do you understand? I need you with me...I..."
"You love her."
Did he really?
She was the reason he'd departed Nibelhelm to join Shin-Ra in the first place. The reason why he'd confronted Sephiroth in the Nibel reactor. The reason why he kept on fighting--no matter how tough the going got, no matter how incredible the odds were. She was the reason he kept on believing, because with her by his side, everything would be all right...
Did that count as love?
He couldn't bear to think of life without her. She knew that, didn't she? She had to know that he loved her too. He loved her in a way that he could never love Aeris. A love borne out of the innocence of childhood. Forged in the fire of hate. Strengthened in the rage of war. Yes, he did love Tifa Lockheart. Without question. With his whole body, heart and soul.
Her finger touched his lip, effectively silencing him. He gawked at her, aghast. "But Tifa, I--"
On her face was the most beautiful, radiant smile he'd ever seen. "I know, Cloud. I know."
He was shocked at his respiration, which seemed to be pacing itself at the same rate as Tifa's. A breath for a breath. A life for a life. God, it was all so simple. For the first time, Cloud could understand his heart clearer than ever before. So simple. How could he not have seen it?
Tifa stirred in his embrace, her breath growing even more ragged. Her chest heaved arduously as she fought for precious oxygen. Cloud had to swallow the terror that was rising fast inside him.
"Tifa. I forgive you for doing this, but you gotta fight back. Please. For all of us here, Tifa. For me. For us..."
She was fighting. Even though she knew it was for naught, she was fighting. In spite of himself, his heart swelled with pride. That was the way she was. His Tifa. She had never been a quitter.
And then, without warning, her muscles slackened. She tilted her head back, arching her body, baring the soft symmetrical lines of her throat. Barret started forward, but Cid detained him, shaking his head. There was nothing they could do.
Cloud rocked her harder. "No. Stay with me, Tifa. Stay with me. Stay." He chanted the words over and over, like a mantra.
But he was losing her. He could feel it as much. He could practically see the light was fading fast from her eyes.
"No, Tifa, no." Cloud buried his face in her hair, inhaling her sweet scent, committing it to memory. "Don't give up, please..."
She looked up at him, and her eyes were glazed with pain. Her breath was slowing down. He read her unspoken message, and he couldn't suppress the cry of dismay that rose to his lips.
"No! It doesn't have to be like that! I'll give up everything if you can just come back. I'll do anything to reverse this, Tifa, I swear..."
She used her final vestiges of strength to work her vocal chords one last time. "No, Cloud. If this...if this's the way it's gotta be, then so be it. Don't blame yourself for this, Cloud. It...was my own decision. Let it go, Cloud. Just let it go."
A teardrop splattered on her cheek, and he tenderly wiped it away. "I don't care," he whispered, his voice vibrating with emotion. "I won't let you go, Tifa. I'm never going to let you go..."
Her breath felt like butterfly wings against his ear. "Yes, you can. At least for a little while. But you'll see me again. In the Lifestream. When you're ready to go." Her voice was nearly inaudible. "I'll never leave you, Cloud. Never."
She released her breath in a sigh, and then she was gone.
* * * * * *
Cloud's entire frame was shaking as he continued to cocoon his body against hers, as if attempting to shield her, protect her, in a way he hadn't been able to when she was alive. The others were now at the bottom of the steps of the altar. He had insisted on carrying down her body, and there was no way in hell he would let anyone else take that last labor of love away from him--not even Barret.
He remembered telling Tifa a long time ago that there was nothing strong enough in this world to bring Aeris Gainsborough back.
He was wrong.
There had been something strong enough, and it hadn't been the love Aeris shared with him.
It was the love Tifa Lockheart had for him.
He just knelt there, unmoving, drowning in his own grief. He'd been telling the truth when he'd told her that he couldn't live without her.
His free hand strayed to his back, unnoticed by the others, where it closed over the cold handle of his Ultima Weapon. For a second he toyed with the notion of unsheathing the sword and running himself through so that he'd be put out of his misery. There was nothing left for him now.
Nothing? What about Cid, and Barret, and Yuffie, and Nanaki, and Vincent? And Aeris? You kill yourself, and Tifa's sacrifice would be in vain...
He released the handle, his vision blurring again with tears.
He would not let her down now. He would live his life to the fullest, just the way she would want him to--live his life for the two of them. He would see her again, one day, just like she promised.
Goodbye, Tifa. I wish I could come with you, but...in my own time. When I'm ready. Wait for me, Tifa...
He got to his feet, never tearing his gaze away from the precious burden in his arms. Then he lifted his head, blinking in the sudden brilliance that shone down on the altar. He looked back toward Tifa, inspecting her face. Her lips were still red and moist, her cheeks flushed, that he could almost believe that she was merely sleeping. She looked young, innocent, and more peaceful than she'd been in a long time. Maybe because she was now in a better place--one where there was no pain or suffering, where there would be no one to hurt her, ever again.
How he longed to join her...
Wait for me.
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