"Well, I've dropped off everyone else. You two are the only one's left. So where are you headed?"
Cid dropped the remains of his cigarette to the floor and extinguished it under his heel, then eyed the two young people that still remained aboard the Highwind. Tifa lowered her head for a moment. She gave a little shake of her head and spoke softly.
"We don't have anyplace to go."
She lifted her head again, her gaze falling on Cloud. He didn't reply for a moment, just stood there, leaning against the railing, arms folded in front of him, staring off into space, a somber look in his eyes. He had been like that since the lifestream had welled up and destroyed meteor. They had won. Sephiroth and meteor had both been destroyed, but there had been no celebration. What they had gained had been tempered by what they had lost, and that seemed especially so for Cloud.
After the silence had stretched beyond his tolerance, Cid tapped his foot impatiently on the ground.
"Well?" he said, the question directed straight at Cloud this time, since Tifa seemed to have made it obvious their destinations would coincide.
Cloud lifted his head slowly, a far away look in his smoky blue eyes. When he spoke it was even more softly than Tifa. Cid had to strain to hear him.
"Mideel. Take me to Mideel."
Cid shrugged and turned back to the controls. Tifa continued to look at Cloud, a worried expression on her face.
Mideel. The place where the lifestream had welled up and swallowed them once. Was that where he meant, when he said he could meet her there?
Tifa turned away and stared out the window at the ground rushing by below them. It was over, but had anything really been resolved? Somehow she felt empty inside, but there was also a sense of forbodding. She felt, in fact, many conflicting feelings. In spite of how Cloud was obviously attracted to Aeris, Tifa had thought of her as a friend. What did Cloud expect to find in Mideel? She had gone along, had told him she'd like to meet Aeris too, but she hadn't really understood what Cloud meant. No matter what they found in Mideel, she had a feeling Cloud was bound to be disappointed. Was she upset about that, or the fact that Aeris was dead, or the possibility that they might somehow, beyond all reason, find her alive again?
She honestly couldn't say.
The land passed by below, unconcerned. No one spoke. Cid had his eyes on the controls in front of him. Cloud just stared off into space. Tifa would have given a million gil to know what he was thinking, but she said not a word.
Eventually Mideel loomed into view, or what was left of it. The town had been almost utterly destroyed, but Tifa could see that reconstruction had already started, mostly in the southwestern part of town that had been the least affected by the lifestream. Cid set the Highwind down on the beach not far from the entrance to the town.
Cloud walked off the ship with barely a nod as a goodbye. Tifa shrugged apologetically, then gave Cid a hug. They exchanged goodbyes, and she followed Cloud off the aircraft. Soon the Highwind was fading from view off in the western sky.
She turned and she and Cloud entered the town proper. Most of it was still wreckage. Tifa followed Cloud silently as he picked his way through it, wondering exactly what he was looking for. He didn't look in the mood to talk, and she had a feeling if she questioned him he would just get angry at her.
Eventually they made their way to the extreme northern end of the town. This was where the lifestream had first erupted from the ground, and where the most damage had been done. Nothing was standing. The remains of buildings and other structures were scattered everywhere, obscuring any clear path.
Finally Cloud stopped, a hint of green glow in front of him. Tifa came up beside him and saw a large open pool of lifestream standing before him. For a long time they just stood there staring at the clear green waterlike substance.
Cloud pushed some boards aside to reveal some crushed brown grass, then sat down, his eyes still on the pool. Tifa stood there for some time, her gaze shifting between him and the pool, wondering why they were there, and what was going to happen. For a long time nothing did. Tifa wasn't sure how much time passed, but it seemed like hours. The pool was mirror calm, not even a breeze disturbing it's surface. Occasionally a few bubbles would well up from below, but that was all that happened. What was he waiting for?
She sat down beside him. He didn't look at her, his eyes still on the pool. Was he going to wait here forever? The silence felt like it was slowly choking her. She felt as if she didn't say something soon, she'd go crazy.
"Cloud," she finally spoke, slowly, tentatively. "What exactly are we waiting for?"
He didn't look at her. She didn't think he would respond at all, but then, after a long pause.
"I think you know."
Tifa shifted uncomfortably. The grass was dead, and the ground underneath unyielding. She didn't know what he was talking about. But no, that wasn't true, was it? That wasn't true at all. She'd know all along exactly why they were here, whether she liked it or not.
"Cloud," she tried again. "Aeris...Aeris is dead. I'm sorry, but it's true. I know you...cared about her a great deal. We all did. I'm just as sorry to see her gone as you are, but nothing we can do can bring her back."
Cloud just continued staring at the water.
Tifa felt frustration welling up inside her, but with an effort she calmed herself. She wasn't sure what she had said was true. Cloud seemed much more upset by the loss of Aeris than any of the others, including, she had to admit, herself. She certainly hadn't wanted Aeris to die, but she could put it behind her. Now she was beginning to wonder if Cloud ever could.
"Cloud," she said again.
"It's here," he said suddenly, surprising her with the suddenness of his response. "It's here that I'll meet her. She'll be here."
Tifa just stared at him for a moment, then sighed. They had already been here for hours. The sun was sinking low on the horizon. Soon it would be dark. How long was he going to stay here before he realized this was a fools errand?
She looked out over the pool again. Resigned to her fate, she curled her arms around her knees and rested her head on her chin. If he wanted to sit here all night that was fine with her. It wasn't like she had anyplace else to go, now was it?
The sun had just passed below the horizon when they heard her voice.
Tifa's eyes widened at the sound of the Cetra's voice. She looked around wildly, but there was no one to be seen. She turned her gaze toward the pool in front of them, half expecting to see Aeris rising out of it, but the surface was unbroken. There was no sign of their friend.
At the sound of her voice Cloud jumped to his feet.
"Aeris! Where are you?" he questioned, looking around.
"In the lifestream, of course." The voice was so clear, it sounded as if Aeris were standing right beside them.
"But, we can't see you," Cloud exclaimed.
"Nevertheless, I am here, though I cannot stay long."
This just seemed to make Cloud even more upset.
"Aeris, you can't go. I want you back!"
Tifa was still staring at the pool in front of them. It was so strange to hear Aeris' voice so clearly and yet not see any sign of her, not an image, not even a shadow. But the voice was unmistakably that of their friend.
"Do you really Cloud?" Aeris said softly.
"Of course!" Cloud exclaimed. "I haven't been able to think of anything but you since you were killed. When we were after Sephiroth, revenge kept me going. Revenge for what he did to you. Now that I've attained that, I find it hollow. All the revenge in the world doesn't replace your loss. Ever since you're been gone, I've felt nothing inside, as if everything I ever was disappeared at your death. Aeris, please, you have to come back to us!"
Tifa felt strangely intimidated by Aeris voice, yet she still managed to speak.
"We'd all like you back Aeris, if there was any way."
For a moment there was silence.
"Aeris?" Cloud almost shouted.
"There may be a way."
Tifa could almost here the sudden intake of Cloud's breath.
"How?" he demanded. "I'll do anything. I've missed you so much. I didn't want to admit it, I didn't want to admit it even to myself, but I...I love you, Aeris."
Tifa felt a shudder run through her. She stared at Cloud, but he wasn't looking at her. Had in fact, appeared to have forgotten she was even there. She opened her mouth, but no words came out.
She suddenly turned away. She'd know it. She'd known it all along. She'd seen the way they looked at each other, the smiles they'd exchanged, the way they always wanted to be near one another. It had been obvious.
And it was just as obvious that Cloud didn't feel the same way about her.
She felt tears start to well in her eyes, but she took a deep breath and got a hold of herself. No matter how she felt, now was not the time. With more self control than she ever thought she possessed she turned to face Cloud again.
She realized she had missed some of the conversation, for Aeris was now talking.
"...only possible way. A life for a life."
For the first time since they had heard Aeris voice, Cloud suddenly seemed to realize Tifa was there.
"Did you hear that?" he said. "We can bring her back!"
Tifa just stared at him. Had she heard what she thought she had heard?
"A life for a life," she repeated. "Does that mean someone has to die to bring her back?"
"I'm afraid it's the only way," Aeris replied. "My hold on the real world is tenuous. The longer I remain in the lifestream, the more I lose touch with reality. Soon it will be too late, I'll be gone, with no chance of return. This has to be done very soon or it will be too late."
Tifa didn't know what to say. To bring Aeris back, to right that wrong. It was something she truly wanted, but who would pay that kind of price?
Suddenly, fearfully, she thought she knew the answer.
"What has to be done?" Cloud stated.
"The lifestream," Aeris said. "The person has to dive in and swim down. I'll be there. I'll be there waiting. They just have to touch my hand."
Tifa felt her throat go suddenly dry.
"Cloud," she said.
He didn't reply, just walked up to the edge of the pool and gazed down into it.
"Cloud," she repeated. She wanted Aeris back as much as anyone, but not at that price. Maybe Cloud did love Aeris, but she still couldn't help how she felt. The still didn't want to lose Cloud. "Cloud please don't. I know you...love Aeris, but there are people here who care about you too, who might even...love you too."
Cloud turned to look at her. She couldn't read the expression on his face, but at least she'd got his attention.
"What are you saying Tifa, that you love me?" he questioned.
Tifa blushed and lowered her eyes. She wanted to tell him she didn't. After all these years of being tongue tied, after Cloud had openly proclaimed his love for Aeris, now she was telling him the truth?
But somehow she couldn't bring herself to deny it.
"Yes," she said softly.
She looked up at him again. It was out now. She couldn't take it back. For a moment she saw a flicker in his eyes. Could it be that it wasn't too late after all?
"Even though I said I loved Aeris?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied again. "I can't help it Cloud. I just can't. I know you love Aeris, I know you want to be with her. But I care about you too, and I don't want you to die, even if it is to save Aeris. I know that sounds selfish, but that's how I feel!"
She closed her mouth, a knot in her stomach. She kept telling herself he couldn't be serious about this, but she couldn't seem to convince herself. Ever since she had met Cloud everything had seemed to go wrong. She had thought that once they had beaten Sephiroth it was over. Was this what it would all come to? Had she found Cloud again just to lose him?
But that was foolish. He had said he loved Aeris. Had she ever really had him in the first place?
Cloud stood there, appearing to ponder her words. She wanted to run to him. To tackle him and drag him from the edge of the pond, but he stood only a step away from it, and she was afraid to move.
Finally he looked at her again.
"Do you really love me?" he asked.
For a moment she didn't reply. Why did he keep asking her that?
"Yes!" she shouted.
It did not seem to phase him at all.
"But I love Aeris," he said. Again. How many times was he going to say it, Tifa thought. "I love her with all my heart Tifa. I'll never be happy without her. Do you understand? I'll never be happy unless we are together."
Tifa stopped, feeling the knot grow tighter in her stomach, though she was not sure exactly why. There was something in the way he was looking at her, the way he had emphasized the word together. She suddenly realized that if he gave his life for Aeris, they still wouldn't be together.
For a long time no one said anything. Cloud just stood there staring at her, and his look made her very uncomfortable.
"Just what are you trying to say?" she finally questioned.
Cloud paused for a moment before responding. When he did, his words seemed carefully measured.
"You told me you loved me," he said. "If you do, you'll want me to be happy. The only way I'll be happy is if I have Aeris back."
Tifa suddenly felt nauseous. This couldn't be real. She couldn't have heard what she thought she had heard. He couldn't be implying what she thought he was implying.
"What are you trying to say?" she repeated.
"I think you know," Cloud replied.
"No I don't!" she snapped, suddenly anger welling up inside her. He had told her he loved Aeris, and now this? She had known him for years, they were childhood friends, had grown up together. She knew him better than anyone, or thought she had. He may not love her but they were still friends. Was he really willing to just throw her away like that? If he was, he was going to have to say it right to her face. "I don't know what you mean. Spell it out for me Cloud. What do you want me to do?"
For a moment he hesitated, and for that split second she thought he might not be able to say it.
"I want you to sacrifice yourself," he finally said.
"Tifa," Aeris voice spoke up. "I was your friend too. You were like a sister to me, for the short time I knew you. I sacrificed myself to save the planet. Don't you think a sacrifice like that deserves to be rewarded?"
Tifa felt almost too shell shocked to respond. This couldn't be happening!
"Rewarded?" she finally managed to say. "Sure, but at someone else's expense? Is that really what you want?"
"Of course not," Aeris replied. "But I love Cloud as well, and I want to be with him."
"If was a very noble thing Aeris did," Cloud cut in. "And now we're asking you to do something noble for her."
Tifa felt overwhelmed. This was crazy! How could either of them ask such a thing from her?
"Noble?" she shouted. "Nobody asked Aeris to be noble! She didn't have to run off by herself. It was her choice, Cloud. Her choice! I'm as sorry as anyone that she's dead, but that doesn't mean I'm willing to sacrifice my own life. Let's face it, I hardly knew her, and neither did you. We only met her a couple of months ago. She was a wonderful person Cloud, she really was. But she's gone, and I'm not ready to give up my own life to bring her back, no matter what you say, or how I may feel about you!"
"I know this is hard Tifa, but you want Cloud to be happy, don't you?"
"Not at that price!" she exclaimed.
"Tifa, I know this is asking a lot of you, but it's not anymore than was asked of Aeris."
"No one asked anything of Aeris!" Tifa responded.
"Tifa, please!" Cloud said.
"I'm begging you!"
"Yes Tifa, please," Aeris spoke up. "Do it for your friends."
Tifa looked down at her hands to see they were trembling. She didn't know what to think any more. She loved Cloud, or thought she did, but she couldn't believe he would ask her, no, expect her, to do this! She looked at the pool of lifestream again. She didn't consider herself a coward, and she always considered herself both brave and noble, but this was asking too much.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I really am. Maybe I'm not brave, maybe I'm just a weakling. If it were anything else I'd do it for Aeris in a heartbeat, but I don't want to die!"
Cloud shook his head.
"You said you loved me, but I guess now the truth comes out," he responded suddenly. "Don't you see what this is doing to me? It's tearing me apart! I love her Tifa, I can't live without her. You have an opportunity to correct that, for me, and yet you won't do it!"
Tifa clenched her hands. Her head was spinning. She couldn't believe the words she was hearing.
"I can't believe you'd accuse me of not loving you just because I don't want to die!" she said. "I'd do almost anything for both of you, but you're asking me to kill myself! How can you say I don't love you because I don't want to give up my own life? What about me? You may not love me but do you care about me at all? How can you ask your best friend to kill herself and still call yourself my friend?"
"Tifa please listen to reason," Aeris said.
"No, I won't listen to this!" Tifa cut her off. "This isn't reason, this is madness! Cloud, Aeris is dead! She sacrificed her life. It was her choice, it was a noble thing to do, and it's over! Move on!"
"I can't!" Cloud shouted. "I can't Tifa!"
"You have no choice!" she shot back. "People die Cloud. That's the way life works. We mourn them, and then we move on. They may be gone, but they live on in our memory. That's how we honor them Cloud, that's what gives their deaths some meaning. We don't do this, we don't sacrifice others to bring them back. This is wrong Cloud. It's just plain wrong!"
"So that's it then?" Cloud said, his voice suddenly becoming harsh. "You're just going to abandon her? You have the opportunity to bring her back and you're just going to pass it up?"
"What other choice is there?" Tifa said, feeling tears beginning to streak her cheeks. "Frankly, I find it hard to believe that either of you would ask this of me. Would ask it of anyone."
"Tifa, I understand your reluctance," Aeris said. "Yes, I died, but that wasn't my fault, now was it? I didn't know Sephiroth would find me. I was trying to save the world, Tifa. I know this is a hard thing to ask of you, but when you really..."
"No!" Tifa exclaimed. "I won't listen to either of you anymore! I can't believe either one of you would ask this of me! You don't ask a friend to die for you! I can't take this anymore! I have to get out of here!"
And with that she spun around and started to walk away.
Cloud ran up beside her and grabbed her arm.
"You can't do this!" he said, his voice filled with desperation. "We love each other Tifa. This is our only chance! Please!"
Tifa pulled her arm away.
"Don't touch me!" she shouted. "I thought I loved you, but I was wrong. I see now you're not my friend at all. You want Aeris, fine! There's the pit, why don't you show your love for her and throw yourself into it!"
She turned away and started walking again.
"Tifa!" Cloud shouted. "How can you just abandon her? How can you? I thought you were my friend, I thought you were noble and brave. But you're not Tifa, you're just a coward!"
She turned back toward him again. By now she was too far away for him to see the tears in her eyes.
"I never want to see you again!" she shouted.
Then she turned and ran.
"Tifa!" Cloud shouted. "Tifa, come back! Tifa please! I'm sorry. I'm sorry Tifa!"
But it was too late. She was gone.
Cloud stood there for a long time, his head bowed in despair, until a voice broke the silence.
"It's still not too late."
Cloud lifted his head.
"You're right Aeris. I'll find the others. Surely one of them will be willing."
"No," she replied. "There's no time for that Cloud. My time is rapidly approaching. I can feel reality slipping away. Very soon I will no longer be able to communicate with you. Very soon I'll be so far gone that no one can bring me back. There's no time to get the others."
He stared down into the green pool, and realized for the first time that there were tears in his eyes as well.
"I can't believe it," he said bitterly. He had almost given up hope. He hadn't really thought their might be a way to bring her back. It had seemed a miracle when she had spoken to him, had told him that there really was a way. And now this, now that the possibility of bringing her back was within his grasp? It was almost too much to take to come so close and end in failure.
"I'm sorry Aeris," he said. "I've failed you again."
"No, not yet," she replied kindly.
"What do you mean?" he questioned.
"You still have a chance Cloud. You can still right Sephiroth's wrong. You can still bring me back."
Slowly it seemed to dawn on him what she was saying.
"But...but we won't be together," he said slowly.
"I realize that," Aeris replied. "I want to be with you forever, but it seems fate has decreed that cannot be. I love you Cloud. I love you more than anything, but I realize I can't ask you to do this. You have to decide for yourself."
Cloud fell silent, staring down at the pool just a step in front of him. Just one step. That's all it would take. Just one step and he could redeem himself, could make up for not protecting her, for not stopping Sephiroth until it was too late. Just one step and he might feel her touch on his hand just one more time.
It was dark now. The sun was long gone. He had no idea how long he had been here, how long he hovered at the edge of that pool. It could have been hours, it could have been days. Time seemed to have lost all meaning for him. He felt poised, poised on the edge of both time and space, and all his hopes and dreams seemed to rest upon this one moment.
Slowly, almost of it's own will, he felt himself take a step away from the pool.
"Cloud, what are you doing?"
He didn't speak. He took another step back.
He turned away from the pool, his face blank. Slowly one foot stepped in front of the other, mindlessly, as if of their own accord.
"Cloud! Cloud please! Come back! You can't leave me! You can't leave me like this! You love me Cloud! You told me you did!"
One foot in front of the other, he continued. Not looking back, not even looking forward. Not trying to think at all.
"Cloud! How can you do this? How can you leave me? You promised to protect me! You let Sephiroth kill me Cloud! You were right there, you could have stopped him, but you didn't! I died, and it was your fault Cloud! It was your fault!"
Her voice was no longer as loud as it had been.
"Come back! Come back and help me! It's cold, it's so cold here! There's no one here, no real people. It's just voices Cloud. Just voices. There's no one to see, no one to touch! I hate it here Cloud! I don't want to be dead. I didn't know it would be like this! It was a mistake. I didn't want to die! I didn't want to die!"
He walked on, not pausing once until the voice behind him was lost in the wind through the trees.